A week before my college graduation, I got the stomach flu. It came on very fast. One minute I was taking the last final of my undergraduate career, and an hour later, I was vomiting into a trash can. I slept in the bathroom all that week. I couldn’t keep any food down, so I didn’t have the strength to drag myself to the bathroom in the middle of the night when I felt sick.
Maybe on a gut level, I knew what was coming.
I went to college in Southern California, but after graduation, I planned to spend the summer at home and then move to Chicago with my best friend. We’d even visited Chicago a few months earlier, and talked to some friends we knew who lived out there. We were going to get a tiny apartment together and decorate it ourselves, and scrimp and save and be actresses in a big city. As the weeks of undergrad wound down, I was looking through apartment guides and job listings feverishly. But about a month after we graduated, she called me to let me know she’d changed her mind. She wasn’t moving to Chicago. She was going to move to LA, a city we’d both agreed before we never wanted to live in. She’d been second guessing Chicago for a while. I was blindsided.
And I was sick to my stomach for the rest of the summer.
Without the move, I had no plan. Everyone else from our class had found roommates already. I couldn’t afford to move alone. She asked me if I wanted to move to LA with her, but I couldn’t. That hadn’t been the plan. I couldn’t handle the plan just changing. This wasn’t what I had prepared for. I didn’t know what to do.
I had spent my whole life planning everything – what AP classes I needed to take in high school to get into the college I dreamed about, far away from home, what courses to take in college, what study abroad program to attend, what actions I needed to take to propel myself as far away from where I was as possible. And it had fallen through. All the years of planning, all the years of work, and it felt like I’d accomplished nothing, gotten nowhere. I was back at home, right where I’d started, with an arts degree and no job prospects. So what had been the point? I’d failed. I had always taken comfort in moving forward, based my value on it as a reliable measure of growth. Throughout my school career, I’d always been told I was going places. I was the girl who was going to move to a big city, and be successful (whatever that even is). I was deeply uncomfortable with staying still. Now I was going nowhere, doing nothing. I wasn’t the girl I’d imagined myself to be. So who was I? I was adrift.
I spent months sitting all day in my childhood bedroom, watching Netflix in between reading emails telling me my application to Burlington Coat Factory had been denied. I had always loved being busy. Not having anything to do, or any tasks to complete, was agonizing.
One day, I was unpacking all the boxes I’d packed up from my college apartment. I came across a graduation gift my dad had given me: a leather-bound journal. “I want you to keep writing,” he had said when he gave it to me. It was a nice gesture, but I had stacks of journals laying around. It hadn’t seemed like something I would use. Now though, with nothing else to do and no other occupation to occupy my time, seemed like as good a time as any to start writing. It was like a homework assignment I could give myself. Just something to do. It started innocuously – “I guess I’m going to start journaling?” I wrote on the first page. “Life kinda sucks right now?”
I documented the mundanities of living unemployed at home: “today I woke up at 2 in the afternoon with a strawberry pop tart stuck to my face.” But in time, weightier concerns started filtering out, thoughts I’d never consciously realized I had. “I think I’ve always felt like if I don’t do something big and extraordinary with my life then maybe I don’t have value as a person? I guess that’s a lot of pressure to put on myself.” On paper somehow, these thoughts seemed to have less weight. I could look at them more rationally, and see how damaging they were. In the pages of my journal I started working through my feelings of inadequacy and failure and I metabolized all the hurt I’d spent so many years storing in my heart. With the benefit of a clearer head, I finally really talked to my best friend about what had happened, and felt like I understood her better. I’d been so in my own head before, I hadn’t noticed her hesitations and her anxieties. Where I’d been desperate to get away from everything I’d known, she was protective of her roots. I hadn’t stopped to notice that before, or to think about how her viewpoint might be different than mine. I’d expected her to be the same as I was. Maybe I’d been unfair to her too.
Now, almost three years later, I can see how much I would have lost if I’d moved to Chicago back then. There’s new friends I never would have met, and greater depth to old relationships I never would have found. I’d never have met my boyfriend. I’d never have met my therapist. I don’t know if I would have started writing. Working through all those feelings of failure and betrayal made me stronger and more self-assured. It taught me so much about myself and my best friend. I have to believe that our friendship is stronger, more loving, and more empathetic because we decided that our friendship mattered enough to fight for. And I know I have a more loving relationship with myself because I learned that I was strong enough to do difficult emotional work for myself.
My post-college experience was an absolute disaster, but it’s a disaster to which I owe myself.