I had the right idea as a kid. "I want to be happy!", I said, to my fourth grade teacher upon being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. "That's great!", she said, "But what I mean is what do you want to be? A doctor? Astronaut? Teacher? Scientist? You can be whatever you want, whatever makes you happy."
I didn't know the answer to that question. I didn't know that in order to be a happy grown-up, I was going to have to figure out what to "be", first. And I didn't know that grown-ups like my teacher, didn't actually have all of life's answers.
Just like that, a core idea began to develop in my head. The idea that just doing "whatever" - exploring life, while being happy - wasn't an acceptable life path. Success in school always came easily for me. Top of my class, every year, from the start. It is my belief that because of that, adults continued to push this idea to me for my entire young life. "You're special." "You are so amazing." "YOU can do ANYTHING." "You could be president one day. All you have to do is try." Perhaps they were not trying to push me, and were only trying to be supportive and open my eyes to possibilities.
The thing is, my already big, little analytical brain, saw that as a responsibility. I'm special, I have potential, I have to do great things. If I do not, I will be selling myself short. I will let down my family. I will not be happy. They will not be happy. Good grades come so easy, I bet they're right, I'll just pick something big, it'll be easy, I'll be successful, everyone will be happy. I just have to pick a thing that will make us all happy.
Little did I know how ridiculous I would eventually realize that all was.
I tried to gently rebel after high school. Toward the end of high school, it had already started. I was still getting straight A's, but, I had an attitude about it. I was rejecting the idea of homework, I would get in trouble for talking in class instead of listening, and while others were joining key club and doing their senior projects on big ideas that were in line with a career path or goal, I did mine on Vincent Van Gogh. I studied his pained and beautiful life, and his exquisite art. For the final product, rather than enacting some civil change or building a bridge or sustainable pond like some of my peers, I painted an oil painting. I tried to paint movement, like Vincent did. I was no Van Gogh, but it's still one of my favorite paintings I ever did. It now hangs in my office at work. It wasn't "the best" senior project completed, but it was mine and I cared about it. Still I felt guilty that it was not more important.
As high school came to an end, I wanted time off. To figure out a direction, because I knew I had none. I was supposed to know what to do - to have a path planned out in front of me, like some road map to happiness. College... check. High-paying job... check. Marriage... check. Kids... check. Lifelong success and riches... check. That's how it was supposed to go, and I knew didn't know how to do any of that. I was still a dreamy kid inside, and I had no idea where to start. I didn't want to start. I wanted to explore, and do my own thing. I hadn't figured out a path I wanted to take yet.
I was urged not to take this break. I was told that in doing so, the likelihood I'd ever stop the break and get myself into college was very low. Perhaps that was the truth, but I will never know, because I did what I was supposed to do and went to college. I figured, let's go big. Pre-med. Check. Right? Don't get me wrong, going to college (go Gauchos) was one of the greatest times of my entire life. But that's because I used it to do what I wanted. I explored. I did drugs, danced topless on rooftops, surfed, snorkeled, hiked, cliff jumped, went to parties, smoked weed atop my o-chem book which was atop the sand at the beach, fell in love with people, and wound up with some of the greatest friends I believe a person could ever have.
I did enjoy the learning as well, but I still didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. About half way through year 4, actually more like one final quarter short of finishing, I quit. Threw it away. I had begun to see my friends and peers wrap up their degrees, some getting married, some moving away. THEY were doing the thing. I was still here lost in wonder, unsure what I wanted the rest of my life to look like. So yes, I quit pre-med. I didn't fail out, I just stopped going.
Subsequently, the reality of needing better income kicked in. So I also quit my bookkeeping job and got a corporate accounting job. Because math, for me, piece of cake. And I can work hard. That's really all there was to it.
Flat on my Face
Now that the formative years are out of the way, I'm going to wrap up a fairly narrowly-themed but very long period of my life into a short explanation. For the next FIFTEEN years, I climbed the corporate accounting & finance ladder. I was very good at it. I was promoted frequently, I was paid well, I enjoyed learning and I enjoyed feeling like I was a success. The work didn't thrill me, but that's ok, I can still party and stuff, right? And next should be marriage and kids. Yeah... that was a nope.
There's nobody left to party wild and free with when everyone else is getting married or just plain acting grown-up. I tried to have relationships and make them be the one. That's right, make them be the one. That was a bad, very bad thing for me to do. Because I'm me, and I can't fake things. I can't settle for less than real love, honesty and respect. So to sum it up, I spent a couple of decades working really really hard to do things that I thought I was supposed to do. To have successes in other peoples' eyes. And as in doing so I failed to give myself my own success - happiness. I drank, eventually alone, heavily. Not to party and have fun, but to drown out the lack of fun.
This all came to a head when my drinking got so bad that I was physically unable to stop it on my own. I was physically addicted, I wanted to stop, but I couldn't. When I tried, I actually thought I was going to die. To once again truncate - therapy, AA, ER, ER, ER, ER, ER, psych ward, ER, rehab, ER rehab - then FREEDOM. And yes, one of those ER visits was when I had a BAC of 0.53 and had broken the right side of my face in 7 places on some icy cement steps. Could have easily died there on those cold Pittsburgh steps, had a neighbor not found me and called 911. So I quit my high-paying job, gave my house back to the bank, filed bankruptcy, started completely over. I got sober and stayed that way, and most importantly, I learned how to be happy again without expectations. Happy with nothing. Happy with me. This was absolutely the hardest, most painful thing I've ever done. Childbirth? Can't even cast a shadow of the pain of kicking addition and the depression that lies beneath. Yes, fellow moms, we are warriors - but it's true. Physical pain can't compete with soul-crushing existential pain. Sober addicts are a different kind of warrior.
My Happy Never-Ending
The soul-searching that ensued, there's no way I can explain here as it would take a very long time. Perhaps when I finally write a book, I will get it all out. But the end result of the soul searching, which by the way is a requirement if a person wants to stay sober, is that - I was right all along when I was a kid. What you have to be, for yourself, is happy. You can't scrape away at life, finding external things and telling yourself that they'll make you happy. You must BE HAPPY, and things - I swear to god - fall in place around you. I'm not saying being happy makes your world perfect, or makes you an astronaut all of a sudden - it does not. But what it does do, is allow you to just be. To JUST BE. And to be happy doing it, whatever it is. So here I am, no longer in finance, doing a job I'd never have dreamed of as a kid, working with great people, being a single mom, doing my art, in my own home, and writing, just because I want to. I feel empowered, I feel joy, and I love myself. I now know that I am still, and always will be, that same kid inside who wants to just be happy and ponder such things as the life of Vincent.