By Christina Ausley
In some very strange way, I found myself with everything and nothing the first few months of my college senior year.
Why? At 21 years old, in the eccentric city of Seattle, my anxiety absolutely consumed me.
After receiving a 6-month job offer in May of 2018, I had two weeks to pack my life into my little Honda Accord and say goodbye to my family and friends. I then drove over 2,300 miles from Kentucky to Washington in a grand total of three days.
I had never fallen in love with something or someone as fast as I fell in love with Seattle. The landscape offered an environmentally sound yet city-centered work atmosphere, and simultaneously provided miles upon miles of rugged terrain for outdoor escapades. An environment of rainy Sundays on city streets, top-shelf espresso, and a prolific music scene quickly embodied something of my post-grad dream.
Among it all, I fell in love with the surrounding mountainscapes strewn with pines, lakeside reading in the park as seaplanes soared overhead and trains bellowed from afar, catching glimpses of orcas as I ferried through the Puget Sound, the tucked away Thai kitchen with the best massaman curry I’ve had in my entire life, the family of ducklings I passed every day in Volunteer Park as they grew into adulthood, rooftop wine nights and evening chats with friends illuminated by the city skyline.
In the end, leaving the city was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.
Therefore it’d be easy to say these six months of my life were nothing but wonderful, though my time across the country was also accompanied by a significant amount of change, adjustment, uncertainty, and incessant yet necessary maturity.
To be entirely transparent, this was a time of both losing myself and finding myself. Both facets proved of entirely equal importance.
I was living by myself for the very first time in a new city where I knew absolutely no one. With all of this time to think and write, I began to question whether or not I was a good enough writer, whether or not I loved what I did, whether or not I was moving in the right direction with the right means. I questioned all of my relationships, whether or not they were stable, whether or not they were reliable. These questions began to consume more and more of my day, and things quickly spiraled out of control. My insecurity pushed people away, and I hated myself for it. Everything was an issue, and if something wasn’t, it was about to be.
I told myself I lacked talent, I thought too much, I cared too much, relationships wouldn’t last, everything was a toss-up, and nothing was dependable.
Because of this, I’d get somewhere around four or five hours of intermittent sleep in the midst of 60-hour workweeks for quite some time. At two in the morning, I’d stare at the ceiling and wonder how I’d be able to write articles the next day.
I couldn’t explain myself to people, I didn’t know how to. And even if I did? I loathed the idea of appearing weak or becoming a burden to someone else with problems that were my own.
It wasn’t until a few stern yet honest words from my mother finally resonated:
“You call me and you say all of the right things. You say what needs to change, where you need to improve, but you are not acting on these. Nobody but yourself can make you do this. Your happiness is your own, do not put that on anyone else. Now pull it together, or I’m pulling you home.”
And this stuck. Perhaps because these words finally gave me a very clear purpose: to simply take hold of myself. I was my own project. Failure was not an option, or I’d be forced to leave my friends and my life in the city I had fallen in love with.
I don’t think I really realized how small I had become until I was arguing over the phone with someone I cared about around this same time. Somewhere amid our back and forth, I blatantly stated “you don’t understand, my life revolves around other people.” And he lost it, and I was confused.
And then I took a second to actually process what had come out of my mouth, and came to terms with what I had been telling myself for years without actually vocalizing it until now.
If my life revolved around other people, then in essence, my happiness depended upon other people. That’s when I realized why I wasn’t entirely happy most of the time, why there was this tiny void that never made me feel fully complete. That space was meant to be filled with what made me, and me alone, happy.
It was very difficult for me to unearth this and make myself a priority for a very long time. I felt guilty if I turned down plans when I desperately just needed time by myself. I had no voice and I was a pushover. People upset me and they hurt me, but when they needed help I was always there and I was always willing to forgive. I constantly wanted to ensure the people around me were happy with me and happy with themselves. When people were upset with me, it was torturous.
Obviously it’s healthy and important to take care of the people around you, but without any sense of self-care, will throw everything out of balance as it did for me.
So I slowly coached myself back into a sustainable balance. This was a full-time job.
I spent time working on my thoughts, and sifted through the clutter. I began to unearth what made me happy. I started writing more, running a few miles every morning, traveling on the weekends, finishing the books that had stacked up in the corner of my apartment, singing at church, learning how to cook, practicing piano at the public library, grabbing happy hour with friends. Hell, I even taught myself Italian.
Slowly but surely, the fog drifted out and I resurfaced. This took an extremely long time, and a constant summonance of effort and energy.
I did not fully understand what happiness was until I understood what happiness was not.
I’m no psychologist. I can’t tell you what techniques or mentalities or medications will and will not work for you. What I do know, is how it feels to be barraged with infinite queries and constant uncertainty as an adulting college woman. What I can tell you, is what worked for me.
I came to realize throughout my time in Seattle that we must eventually establish a balance between the excitement and the unsteadiness of our ever-changing lives. This is a remarkably difficult thing to do.
But if you can’t, your emotions will use you.
People, places, and experiences constantly shift and change in this world. Our relationship with ourselves is the longest relationship we’ll ever encounter. Among the chaos, we must truly learn how to love ourselves because, quite frankly, nothing else comes with complete certainty.
Our doubts, our uncertainties and our anxieties like to convince us that we’re alone, so we naturally isolate ourselves. They like to convince us we’re the only ones that think this way, that feel this way, perhaps that hurt this way. This is not the case.
I had to become very real and very honest with myself. I removed the “woe is me,” “nobody understands” mantra, and accepted the simple fact that we are not alone in our anxieties. If we can accept this, we can both give and receive universal support.
So this is your life, and you are going to be both moved and confused by it.
On unstable ground, I’ve found the most effective antidote is being truly and deeply honest with ourselves. After this, we must accept the fact that we alone have the permission, capacity and responsibility to allow ourselves to be deeply happy. Other people, places and things can indeed contribute to our happiness, but we alone are responsible for it.
It’s not only a careful balance of logic and emotion, but also a careful balance of selflessness and self-care. It’s a balance of finding time for yourself without ever feeling alone. It’s a balance of caring for others while sustaining yourself. It’s a balance of self-awareness with the belief that the people and places around you do matter.
For me, the formula became quite simple: place more energy in the people and things that make you happy, and less energy in the people and things that do not.
I woke up, I got up, and I pursued the people, places and things that brought me more joy than not. I had to find a balance of self-care with the simple joys and influences of the people and things around me. I had to work with the world. In return, it worked with me.
I’m still finding these balances, and I’d encourage you to do the same. Allow your mind to believe in the optimism of uncertainty, accept the support from those around you, believe there are others like you, and suddenly, the instability will become the greatest adventure of your life.
People sit around in traffic with tense shoulders and white knuckles like it’s the worst thing in the world to be still. People complain about the rain and forget that’s exactly what nurtured the flowers on the kitchen table. People scream and yell and argue about politics and religion like there’s only one right way of thinking, like a population with monotonous thought would be a good thing. In reality, creativity and individuality are exactly what has led to many, if not all, of our world’s most influential inventions and discoveries.
Seattle was easily the very best and the very worst times of my life, yet I have never been happier. Though I’ve since completed my work in Seattle and returned to school to graduate in the spring of 2019, I do hope to return to the city soon.
I could thank my family and friends for a lot, but most of all, I really just want to thank you all for your patience with me, and your unwavering support as you encouraged me to find myself. Let’s all be honest, I know it was remarkably frustrating to watch from afar.
I could name so many people. But Michael, Mom, Dad, Sophia, Lucas, Amber, Jenna, Madison, Timmy–you’ve been everything to me. I love you all more than you’ll ever know.
You’ve taught me happiness is letting go of what you think your life is supposed to look like, and celebrating it for everything that it is.
I’d encourage you to surround yourself with nothing less than those who make you feel the same.