29 - The Year I Decided to Be Myself
I stood in my white cap and gown after my high school graduation, posing for the photos. I’d focused all my energy on getting to this day, and I could finally take a breath. Nine schools in twelve years. Three high schools. Each year navigating a new social hierarchy and academic plan. It was all I could do to focus each year on surviving, and I’d made it.
But as I stood there smiling, I felt panicky in my gut. Everyone else seemed to know exactly what they wanted to do with their lives, what school they were going to, what degree they wanted. I’d spent so much time trying to fit in, not get bullied and get good grades, that I didn’t even know who I was, much less what I wanted.
My head was swirling. I felt like I was behind and lost. How did all my friends know what they wanted? Deciding my entire career at 18 felt ominous. Like one wrong step and my whole future would slide into eternal failure and damnation.
I had no clue what to do. I felt naked and totally unprepared to make such a huge decision. So I followed the rules and did what I thought was expected of me.
Went into debt, got a degree, became a classical singer and moved to New York City.
It might have looked like I followed my dream. I sang at Lincoln Center, Carnegie, and on all the big stages. I was in the chorus regularly with the NY Philharmonic and got to work with famous conductors. I did my own show, I had a nice apartment, nice clothes, ate out, went to shows and parties. I probably even said I was following my dream. Hell, I might have even believed it at the time… because this is what you’re supposed to be doing, right?
But a sharp eye could have spotted my terror. Terror of being trapped in this life forever and the exhaustion of holding up a shiny facade. Not to mention what I call the steep “unhappiness tax” I paid. The things I bought and did to cope with feelings that felt too big to face, each purchase promising inner peace and fulfillment. But the relief never lasted.
The truth was, Professional Singer was just a job title to me. A job I hated.
At the time, I didn’t see the point of it or how it made the world any better. I know: “But music!” I know. But I needed something more tangible, like ending hunger or solving the environmental crisis. As beautiful as the work was, it felt self-serving and shallow to me. If you have to drag yourself to practice at Carnegie Hall, you know something’s wrong.
Whenever I mentioned not liking my work, someone would swiftly scold me about how grateful I should be to even have a job, especially as a singer. “So many people would kill to be in your shoes”. Under my breath, I’d mutter, great, they’re a size 6½ women’s, who should I mail them to? But I didn’t really say anything out loud. I bit my tongue and went back to feeling dead, living out that Stephen Sondheim lyric, “every day a little death.”
I’d leave the conversation convinced that something was wrong with me. Did I want too much? Was I really that selfish and entitled? Why wasn’t I content with what I had?
As the years piled up, so did my desperation. I felt like a corpse clawing her way out of a sinking coffin.
One night, alone in my apartment just after 11:00, I broke.
I was about to turn 30 and the weight of the next 75 years squeezed like a hydraulic press on my lungs. I grabbed a journal to catch my breath and my mind.
My fingers pressed the words into the pages until I cut the tear-stained paper with the tip of my pen. As if the pressure of my hand would force someone to finally hear my pain. Every stroke screamed my declaration of discontent to everyone—and to no one. A declaration I would never send. There was no one to send it to anyway, and even if there had been, I didn’t have that kind of courage.
In reality, it was a declaration to myself.
As I wrote the P.S.—“You’ve had the first 30 years, I’m taking the rest”— I realized the chapter of pretending to be the person I thought I should be, was closing. As the ink dried, it clicked. I was “starting over” at 30 because I’d trusted someone else’s rules for my life.
In that moment, piles of university philosophy came crashing down. To find the life I wanted, I had to forge my own path. But how?!? I had followed all of the rules and that didn’t work and now I’m supposed to be myself? Where the fuck is the handbook for that?
Every time I heard “you need to be yourself” or “follow your dreams,” I’d swing between pure outrage at trying so hard to “be myself” only to fail again or I’d collapse into complete emotional numbness just trying to handle the pain of facing another hopeless dead end.
What I didn’t know was I had all the elements of the life I wanted swimming around in my psyche that night, but I didn’t know how to get my desires out of the ether and into a clear vision. It was like grasping at a mosquito in the night. I knew it was there, maddeningly close, but never within my grasp.
I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I couldn’t go back. So I started by promising myself that I wouldn’t sing again unless it was fun. Then, just after midnight, I said screw it, and decided to figure out what I was supposed to be doing on this planet. I decided to start with a childhood dream and moved to Alaska—sight unseen. I figured an interesting life was better than this dead feeling inside. At least maybe I’d have an entertaining story when I was old. And this is where my journey to you began.
I took the only advice I knew at the time, which was trial and error. So try and err I did. And while this was a grand adventure for sure, I can’t recommend it. These were also the longest, most frightening, expensive and heartbreaking years of my life. I can’t say I wasn’t always my best self during this phase either, but I was desperately trying to be. Like a butterfly trying to fight her way out of a too-tight cocoon.
Even as I try to remember the details and write this down, I’m overwhelmed with how painful those years of uncertainty were. Far more painful than I realized deep in the middle of it.
I don’t think I could have appreciated what it would feel like to have peace about my career. I couldn’t know what it was like to finally rest. To finally get enough space to recover from all the flailing and grasping and despair. I’ll be glad to have this written down. I’d actually forgotten how heavy my chest used to feel, how I didn’t breathe, how hypervigilant I was, how often I felt numb, and how totally exhausted I was all the time.
Deep down, I wanted adventure. I wanted a life in Alaska near the wilderness of Denali, and I also wanted work that mattered. (Exactly the life I have now.)
There isn’t a day that I don’t wake up and thank my former self for doing the courageous inner work and creating a new path.
These days, it’s easy to tell when I’m on the right track because of the peace I feel, the joy I have in my work, and how easily I can get back to center when the natural storms of life pass through. Every time I see Denali, I’m in awe. The Northern Lights are still pure magic. And not only do I love where I live, I love the work I do. I get to make a real difference in people’s lives.
The silver lining of stumbling through the hard way is that it taught me what works and what doesn’t. Like the advice to “get an education.” It’s not wrong, but it’s incomplete.
My journey taught me this:
nothing is wrong with you, it is totally okay to want more, finding work you love is not a pipedream, and you aren’t as alone as you feel.
I don't want anyone to relive my story. Trapped in a job and life they hate, knowing they have more potential and more to give back. I still think about how many years of misery and how much money I would have saved if I’d had someone helping me develop a clear picture of what I really wanted to do, and someone to stand by me and encourage me to actually do it. If I can help anyone do that, I’ll have done my part.
This long way around path of real world experience, study and research helped me come up with the kind of guide I was looking for way back then.
My work, by design, isn’t a blueprint or formula. It’s a framework. You don’t need more rules or another expert. You need a place to start and someone who is compassionate, to help you see your own truth. You need a way to cut through the overwhelm and confusion of external advice (even my own). A way to organize yourself and get support so you can keep going when the path seems too hard.
I know most career paths don’t lead to a stage under hot spotlights. But what may ring familiar is the nauseous pit of failure in your gut knowing the years are slipping by. The fear that you can’t have what you want, even if you do unearth it some day. Or the paralyzing sense of hopelessness of being miserable in a job and not being able to see the way out. I’ve lived years in these places and I get it. I can tell you from the other side, there is a way forward for you, even if you can’t see it right now.
Whatever you do, do not give up hope. It’s difficult to describe how profoundly different your life will become once you find work you love. I promise it’s worth the struggle.
Updated April 18, 2023