The freedom to dream (again)

I have 10,000 blog posts in my heart about leaving New York. Wait, you didn't know I'm leaving New York? I wrote a newsletter explaining why. So now this post can jump right into an unintended positive consequence: I feel free again, free to dream big and paint futures for myself in the sky.

IMG_2900Recently, I've been feeling so...stuck. Stagnant. Like I'm treading quicksand, just waiting to disappear. Except I'm not sinking, but I also can't get out.

I've always been a big dreamer. I never really boxed myself into an "ideal" future, because I was constantly painting a new one. I was constantly believing that what was to come would be better than what was.

Not in the sense that I was unhappy; just in the sense that I truly believed things would continue to improve.

As a child, my dreams took the shape of how I would grow into someone so pretty, how all the boys would love me, how I would be famous and rich and successful and happy. I had this one dream, when I was around 11 or so, that by age 14 (incidentally, the age at which I knew I would return to America) I would be tall, slim, with long red hair that my nimble fingers could form into a braid.

When that didn't turn out, I simply turned to a new dream. That's how I was. That's how I am. Dreaming is part of the fabric of my brain. I have this innate sense of how things can and will be ever better.

I've lost that over the past year. Oh, I think I had it, some, for my first year in New York. That was the year that I was in school and working part-time, the year that I spent a lot of time with my friends and did a lot of cool New York things.

The second year, things dwindled. I worked, and that's about it. I worked, watched TV, read books, and slept. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

I stopped dreaming. Recently, I've been telling everyone how I feel stuck. I thought the solution was to get a new job, or perhaps win a novel contest, or maybe break into a new publication. I thought the solution was to work harder.

And then, a week ago, everything changed. In quick succession, I quit my job, decided to move away from New York, planned a three-month reset visit to Italy followed by looking for jobs. And I decided that I wouldn't give myself a city, state or even general geographic vicinity in which to look. I wouldn't box myself in. I would pull up my computer and just look for any writing job, anywhere.

The dreams came back. Suddenly I was visualizing myself driving through Seattle; living on the beach in California; writing for a newspaper in Hawaii; dating a country music singer in Nashville; I was able to see myself in all these places, and even better, I was able to imagine myself happy.

I think the trap I fell into over the past year is that I decided I wouldn't be happy if I was anywhere other than New York. But I wasn't happy in New York, mostly because I wasn't really doing anything other than work food service jobs that didn't have any personal fulfillment. It's one thing to not be satisfied in your job but have a social life that fills you with joy. But to have neither? I was so exhausted I couldn't do anything other than work. But I wasn't happy at work. So I just...wasn't happy.

But I was convinced that I wouldn't be happy leaving New York.

Obviously, I haven't left yet, so I don't know if I will be happy anywhere else. I believe I will, though, and that's half the battle.

The thing about dreams is that they really do influence reality. If I allow myself the liberty of believing I could be happy anywhere else, the chances are much higher that I really will be.

So I'm letting my imagination loose. I'm visualizing myself anywhere and everywhere all at once, living a life of adventure like I've always dreamed. I had no idea it would take giving up on one dream to learn to dream again.

It's heartbreaking that I have to leave New York. It feels like I'm betraying not just the city but myself from two years ago. It feels like I've failed; I tried to hack it in New York but wasn't strong enough, couldn't do it.

Those feelings come and choke me and threaten to take away my ability to dream. In those moments, I allow myself to mourn. I let myself be sad about what I'm losing, what I never had. But I'm not going to let them take over.

So what if I failed at living in New York? That's not a real measure of success anyone other than two-years-ago-Karis uses.

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I let myself mourn, and then I start to dream. I dream about the adventures I'll have in Italy for three months. I dream about all the jobs that I can apply for now that I'm not limiting myself to one metro area. I dream about all the cool places I could live, the beautiful furniture I could buy, the kitten and puppy I could adopt. I dream about the new friends I'll make and the boys I'll meet and the life I'll build.

And it's good.

It's so good.

New York — it's amazing. But it's not everything. And I think I needed to lose it in order to see that.

It's about thriving, not surviving: reflections from a hospital

Let's start off by getting the white elephant out of the room: last week, I spent not one, not two, but seven nights (and six days) at NYU Langone Medical Center. More precisely, I lived in HCC-10: the psychiatric ward. That's right. After a gruesome experience on a psych unit nearly three years ago in Kentucky, I went back for round two.

Round two kicked round one's butt, if I'm being honest ... which I almost always try to be. Hence the purpose of this post.

I didn't want to go to the hospital. In fact I argued (valiantly, I like to think) with the psychiatrist who suggested sending me there. It was the cost, you see. The seclusion. The falling behind in school. Most importantly, it was the fear that people would swoop in like mama eagles and gather me away, pull me out of school, empty my apartment and drag me away from the life I've dreamed of living for the past three years.

The psychiatrist countered all my arguments simply and effectively by asking whether all of that was worth my life. Whether my parents would value saving money over having me with them. Whether I was willing to permanently give up my dreams in order to keep living them temporarily.

In the end the answer to all of those questions was no. No, my fears were not worth my life.

So I went to the hospital. Shaking, heart palpitating, chewing my lips and worrying about insurance, I went to the hospital. Begrudgingly, I voluntarily checked myself in.

You meet the best, most interesting people in a hospital. Because being thrown together in a unit like HCC-10 strips away the performance, the acting, the lies.

There's no need to pretend you didn't feel suicidal last night, because the people you're with understand. There's no need to try and explain exactly how debilitating your depression can be, how paralyzing, because they've been there too. And there's no need to worry that you'll overwhelm them with your pain and drive them away because they've felt it too.

In the hospital, we were ourselves. We made friends. We played games - well, they played endless games of Scrabble, and I joined in when they turned to Catchphrase. We ate decently disgusting food, watched old movies on VHS and gathered at the nurses' station to take our meds. We commiserated over how hot, and then cold, the unit was, over sleepless nights, over worried futures. We all hugged when someone left and said not to cry — things on the outside are scary, but it's the only way to live a life.

That's what I learned from the hospital.

I learned that living in an enclosed unit with nurses and doctors constantly fluttering can feel like a warm cocoon. It feels safe. You don't have to worry about shaving your legs or putting on makeup or anything else; you don't even have to worry about putting up a facade.

But after a while, safe becomes claustrophobic. Sure, there's something so simple about only having to choose between hanging out in the bedroom or the day room. But eventually simple becomes mind-numbing and infuriating, honestly. Sure, it was super exciting when I found out that there were menus and I could choose what I wanted to eat. But after a few days my choices felt limited and, yes, claustrophobic. And sure, it was great that I could actually catch a glimpse of the skyline out the window. But after long enough, I wanted to be a part of the skyline. I wanted to walk the streets, feel wind on my face, complain about how hot the sun was and breathe in that not-so-fresh air.

What the hospital taught me is that you can't live life between four white walls. You can't rely on a bunch of doctors to make your decisions for you. You can't hide from the scary things — from the crowds, insecurity, loneliness and stress that are the makeup of life. Because those very things that terrify you are the ones that energize you.

Life is about more than just surviving, sliding from Wednesday to Thursday to Friday.

It's about thriving, about making the most of every experience and grasping at every opportunity for joy, about submerging yourself fully in Wednesday, leaping to Thursday, crashing into Friday.

Joy = being released from the hospital and feeling like there is hope to life.

I felt joy in the hospital for the first time in several weeks. I felt like I could joke and not be covering up a scar, like I could laugh and not want to cry, like I could say "I'm fine" and actually mean it.

But I had to let that joy take me out of the hospital. I had to let it set me free — metaphorically, from the overwhelming depression, and literally, from the locked doors of HCC-10.

So I left. Scared, wondering what would come next, I left. Worried about not having the strength to forge a future for myself, I left.

And I am ever so glad I did.