I ran into a girl I went to high school with at work yesterday.
“Are you still writing?” she asked me. I didn’t know her very well back then, and I was surprised she remembered me at all, let alone that she knew me as a writer.
“Yes, I am,” I told her. “I write a blog about mental health and I’m working on a poetry collection… Your total is $47.98.”
Chance, my boyfriend, also happened to be working at that time. I turned to him and said, “That was so embarrassing.”
“What? Why? She said you’re a great writer!” he said.
“Yeah, and she’s working a ‘real job,’ and she graduated from a ‘real college,’ and here I am at the same job I’ve been working since I was seventeen!” I snapped.
Chance just sort of looked at me as if to say, “Really?” and then walked away to take care of the customer at his register.
This is the sort of glass-half-empty thinking to which I fall victim to time and time again. It is also the kind of thinking that takes people out of this world prematurely. Ned Vizzini, author of It’s Kind of a Funny Story and Be More Chill, committed suicide several years ago. He wrote YA literature about teens with mental health issues such as depression, based on his own experiences with psychiatric hospitals, medication, and mental illness.
I remember being shocked by his death. He had one book adapted for a Broadway musical, another turned into a movie starring Emma Roberts. How could someone so successful be unhappy enough to end his life? What more could he have wanted besides being published and positively received by critics and the public?
As a writer, publication is the ultimate goal. I sincerely feel that there are teen girls out there who need to read the coming-of-age story that I penned at nineteen. However, other writings such as my shelf full of personal journals, need never to be shared. These notebooks chronicle the roots of my eating disorder, my decline into psychosis, my reaction to the scores of medications I’ve been prescribed, countless stays in hospitals and treatment centers, the evolution of my poetry, the discovery of my sexuality, and even my views on religion. I plan to have them burned after I die.
Today at work, I ran into a few more high school classmates. A homeless man came in to buy single packets of ramen noodles and was a few pennies short of the $0.25 needed to cover it. I took a penny off of the register, bade him farewell, addressed him as “sir,” and waited until he was out of sight to use hand sanitizer because the pennies and his hands were caked with dirt. “We treat every customer with dignity and respect,” echoed the voice of our former manager in my mind.
The truth is, I don’t know if the people in my checkout line are happy. When I see people from high school and ask them what they’ve been up to, they hit the highlights quickly while I scan their items, “Yeah, I just graduated from UCF, now I’m working at such-and-such . Oh, and I got engaged last June. I’m probably going to go backpacking through Europe in a few months and then move to California. What about you?”
What these people may or may not be saying is, “I spent my last semester of college blackout drunk every weekend, and I cried in my dorm a lot because I failed Molecular Chemistry. My roommate and I fought nonstop and my parents cut me off because I got a third parking ticket. I barely graduated, and now I’m not even using my degree that I went into debt to obtain.”
I am the master of beating myself up. I tell myself I’ll never publish my novel, that I’ll never go back to college, that I’ll be a cashier for the rest of my life. Every few therapy sessions, I have a meltdown and cry, saying I hate myself.
Thinking back to Vizzini, despite all his success, he was still unhappy–miserable enough to take his own life. The point I am trying to make is this: until I am okay with who I am, I will never feel satisfied with my life. It is not necessarily the major life events that will determine my happiness. The day I graduated college, after nearly four years working towards a two-year degree, I had healing self-inflicted cuts on my leg. When I look at my graduation photos, all I see is a fat face. I have been published in two different magazines, and I tell myself it “doesn’t count” because they were publications intended for high school students. I have the same job I had when I was seventeen, and I’m about to turn twenty-four.
Why do I consider these things failures? I graduated college, regardless of how long it took. In my graduation photos, I’m smiling bigger and brighter than I ever have. I was a talented enough writer at sixteen to be published. And how many twenty-somethings can say they’ve held a job for six and a half years?
I consistently tell myself that I cannot be happy until I am “successful.” But what does success look like? Is it really obtaining another college degree, getting a different job? I have done so much inner healing and work this year. As the saying goes, “Everywhere I go, there I am.” No matter what I do with my life, whether it’s becoming an author, a teacher, a counselor, or even cashiering for the next ten or twenty years, it is not the major accomplishments that define me. Rather, it is making meaning out of the small things: taking a particularly excellent photo, going to a rock concert, writing a line of verse that has value to me, simply existing and being happy to be alive.