For most of my life, I lacked what I now call an emotional navigation system. I either didn’t have the tools to express the anxiety I felt, or didn’t feel I could do so without being punished for it in some way. So I just avoided pain. Or, I tried to avoid pain. I was obsessed with figuring out what I was meant to do, or being able to determine who I was meant to be with. I thought that if I only did what I was “meant” to, I could never be wrong, I could never get hurt, and I could never lose anything. Growing up, I would sit for hours looking up college course catalogs, making lists of things I could become. On the outside, it looked like ambition, on the inside, it just hurt.
I was a binge thinker. I would identify a problem, and craft a solution. This was how I got by, this is what propelled me. I thought I could calculate success, or make a formula for happiness. My subconscious mantra was “I will be happy when.” If only I could fix this thing about myself, I would feel better. If I only had this much money, or had this relationship, or wore this pant size, it would feel better. But it never felt better. There was perpetually one step between me and feeling okay.
My every move revolved around “purpose.” I thought that if I could figure out what I was here to do, everything would feel better. Everything would be worth it. The truth is that I didn’t have the capability to recognize what was preventing me from feeling happy in the first place. I didn’t understand that the same part of the brain that governs rumination also controls problem-solving, and creativity. The more depressed I was, the more successful I became.
Until that became too much.
What’s interesting about tracing the story back is that along the way, the elusive “signs” of the purpose I spent my life looking for were right in front of me. I was a professional writing major in college, but I never took a creative writing class, because I was too shy to share my thoughts and feelings with peers. In my relationships, as soon as things inched past the point of intimacy that I was comfortable with, I relied on asking myself “Is this right?” rather than “Do I feel this is right?”
I didn’t actually want to be successful, I just wanted to feel better, and I didn’t understand any other way to do that other than to change my life. My greatest success didn’t come from being successful, but who I had to become along the way.
In 2012, I read an article by the writer Ryan O’Connell for the first time – a friend pulled it up for me in the newspaper office in which we worked. I was heartbroken and reeling and heavily medicated and barely getting by. But when I read that article, a weight lifted (literally, physically).
For the first time, someone had articulated exactly what I was going through. I had never read anything like it before. I didn’t know that it was what I wanted to do, I only knew that it made me feel better. So I started doing it, too.
I was first published nearly by accident (I thought it would look good on a résumé). And then, something happened. Something I couldn’t have planned for, something I couldn’t have chosen, yet something that every single thing was leading me to. People started reading. And I kept writing. And then people started reading by the millions. And then tens of millions. The deeper I looked into my own problems, the more thoroughly I analyzed them and expressed them and shared them, the more I could understand other people, and the more rapidly they would respond. The more intimate my confessions, the more people would click and share.
Every little part of my life meant something, I just didn’t know it at the time. Every moment – however unbearable – was crucial. My only purpose was to just be here, and that was it. It would add up on its own. My life would calculate itself; it didn’t need me to judge whatever it came out to. I do believe in purpose, but I don’t believe that you need to know what it is to live it.
I know now that being afraid of things going wrong is not the way to make them go right. Releasing that fear is knowing there’s no “right” way for things to go. It’s a presupposition, one that will hurt you more than it will ever help.
The truth is that everything is hard. It’s hard to be in pain, it’s hard to get out of that pain. It’s hard to follow your dreams, it’s hard to not follow your dreams. It’s hard to be in the wrong relationship, it’s hard to be in the right one. Doing something I love every day doesn’t make my life easier, but I never found happiness by just choosing what would hurt the least. On the other side of my pain, was purpose.