I called my mom for the third time that week in tears. I had nothing to say other than what had already been said. She told me she was worried about me. I told her that if she was really worried she would help me come home. I just wanted to be home. I hung up and took off my shoes. I was never barefoot in my room; I could feel the dirt stick to my feet when I stepped on the stained linoleum, and I hated feeling dirty. Everything in that building was coated in a fine layer of dust. Everything in that city was coated in a fine layer of dust. I stood up. If I could just make it to my closet without conceding to the harrowing nail polish chips and split ends embedding in between my toes, maybe I could make it in the city. After walking four steps across the room, I sat on my bed and brushed the bottoms of my feet off. I hated all of my antics like this. I hated that I couldn’t fall asleep at night unless every item of clothing I owned was immaculately rolled up and fastidiously placed in its drawer. I hated that I couldn’t bring myself to start a single assignment until my bed was perfectly made. I hated that if I had a single red bump on my face, I refused to focus on anything else for hours except getting it out of my skin.
It was my 19th birthday, but my routine was no different than every other day I’d had since I arrived in the city, bright-eyed and ambitious. It took me at least an hour to muster up an incentive to start my day, another two to pick out an outfit glamorous enough to get me featured on a “Humans of New York” social media account, and one more that was reserved for my morning imposter syndrome-fueled panic attack. My mom’s gift to me was an ear-piercing appointment in SoHo, the first thing I had looked forward to a month into my self-worth experiment of living in Manhattan. I was turned off of the subway at the time – a week prior, I had taken it home from the Upper West Side at midnight by myself – so I attempted a little bit of exposure therapy to the piercing eyes of the NYU student body and walked.
I slipped out of my dorm suite while my roommates were distracted to avoid the half-assed birthday wishes from the strangers I’d been forced to quarantine with for a month upon first meeting. They were sweet, and the only form of company I had access to, but the whole situation made me wildly uncomfortable. We congregated once a day when our watermelon chicken salads (it’s true) showed up at the front door of our prison cell, talking briefly about the plotlines of the shows we had spent the last month rotting in front of, which was then followed by 20 minutes of silence. On the few-and-far-between days when we woke up in good moods, we would attempt to trade bags of chips with our downstairs neighbors by cracking our window as far as it would open, meandering the skinniest wrist of the group through, and dropping the cargo into the open hand of a stranger two floors down. We mainly avoided each other at all costs, though, because no one could reconcile the feeling of friendship being shoved down our throats like the raw tofu dining hall salads that we choked down every night.
An hour and a half later, I stepped out onto 14th with newly-pierced doubles feeling like Rachel Berry on her first day at NYADA, as I did every time something made me feel remotely excited to live in the city. I queued up my Spotify playlist titled “GROWTH.” (ironic) and started back home, when it immediately started pouring rain. The timing of it all was so comically perfect that there was really no other explanation for it other than divine intervention or a Truman show situation. I thought it couldn’t get any worse than that.
When I got home, dripping wet and defeated, my roommates had lit 19 candles on the MilkBar Confetti Cake that my mom DoorDashed to my dorm room, hung up banners that read “Happy 9th Birthday” with a wobbly 1 scribbled in Sharpie between the first two words, and were blasting some generic walk-up song that they stole from The Office. It was the nicest thing that anyone who could count all the facts they know about me on one hand had ever done for me. That evening, we strolled around The Met and then went out for dinner and drinks a few blocks from our dorm. We ended the night back in our shared living room, belting the best of 5 Seconds of Summer’s discography. I felt the most myself that I had since move-in day.
I realized, then, that my problem wasn’t with New York. There was even something a bit delusionally romantic about being one of the tortured souls of the city. I loved New York, always had, but it was a mirrorball. Spinning incessantly around me, it exposed every angle I had been desperately sheltering from myself. Every homeless person who cursed me out on the street, every Fashion Institute of Technology student who looked me up and down in disapproval, every professor who gave me a B on assignment and every student who scored higher was another voice in my head telling me I wasn’t pretty, or interesting, or smart, or special enough to live in New York.
So I called my mom the next morning and told her that I couldn’t wait anymore, that it was my decision to make, and I had decided to leave. Not in submission, but an effort to heal my inner monologue. I knew that if I remained in a place where I was enveloped by thoughts like these, I would never be able to hold my head above water long enough to take a breath. Three weeks later, I packed my whole life back into two extra-large suitcases, exchanged pleasantries with two girls I was sure I’d never see again, and hailed a taxi to JFK.
Believe it or not, it took a lot more than a home-cooked meal and my high school bedroom to piece me back together again. The first few months back in my hometown were arguably worse than those in New York; I could barely leave my bed, and when I did, I could only find the energy to buy a cup of coffee and drive around aimlessly for a few hours. Every Zoom class that I attended was just a reminder of how bruised I was, so I stopped showing up. The worse my mental state got, the more I resented NYU, until I was so exhausted by the mere thought of it that I submitted a request for withdrawal. It was almost unconscious, like a clinically depressed robot had taken over my lifeless body. I felt numb.
It seemed impossible not to convince myself that I had given up. Just a year before, I had been the type of person to keep a 10-year spreadsheet of all the successes I planned for my life including bullet points that read “get published in the New Yorker” and “Nobel Prize?” Now, my greatest accomplishment was perfecting my at-home iced latte recipe. It took me weeks to work up the courage to tell my mom I had dropped out, and when I finally did it was only because she forced it out of me with a series of pointed questions. I could tell she was disappointed, but her words were supportive and accepting. She jumped straight to solutions, which ended up with me studying music at a local college for about a month until I failed at that, too. In my head, I had been a lost cause since the second I landed in San Francisco, but as I noticed everyone else’s expectations for me starting to slowly deteriorate, shame consumed me. When it rains it’s a goddamn torrential downpour, and this year had been kicked off by a hurricane.
When my sister applied to colleges four years before, a family friend gifted her a book titled “Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be.” It sat on my bookshelf for those six months, taunting me. I honestly found it comical to feed freshly graduated, impressionable teenagers blatant lies like that – to fire off cliches like “your life is in your own hands, now” and “you finally have the freedom to become who you want to be” with the confidence of a Republican at a congressional hearing. And what a load of bullshit. No one who has ever said that knows what freedom feels like, and lord knows not a single person believes that their life is entirely in their own hands. And what do you mean when you say that where you go is not who you will become? What else is there to life other than where you live, what you do, and who you surround yourself with? Making that choice was a conviction that paralyzed me.
After months of free-floating through life on the back of a past version of myself who was buried with my high school diploma, I swallowed my pride and read the first chapter. It wasn’t littered with platitudes about finding your own community and creating your own future like I expected, but stories of ivy-league dreamers who had been slapped in the face by rejection letters, only to end up more successful than their Yale-graduate counterparts after four years at Indiana University. It was inspiring and all, but I still had a bone to pick with the author. Congratulations to Peter Hart for getting to tell his old classmates to suck it, but that wasn’t what I wanted. And for the first time, I felt like I knew what that meant.
Two years and three state lines later, I still don’t know exactly what I want. I do, however, know what makes me feel like who I want to become. When I chose this life, I chose to read, to jump in a body of cold water every day, to go to church services of every religion and spiritual tradition. Over everything, I chose myself. I stopped listening to the insatiable voices that told me I was settling for mediocrity because I knew that so long as I woke up every morning feeling loved, fulfilled, and self-actualized, my life was not mediocre. My goals reconfigured themselves into a circle that starts and ends with a deeper understanding of who I am, and I learned that taking a few wrong turns does not mean that you will never make it home – even if it adds a couple extra minutes to your route, at least you get to avoid the traffic.