A Year Ago, I Felt Hopeless. Today, I Couldn't Be More Hopeful

Throughout my teenage years, I often heard my parents say that they wished the family could load up in an RV and take a big trip out west. They wanted us to all get to see the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park– for us to get to see some of the wonders of the natural world, and to get to enjoy the journey together. 

That family trip never came to fruition. At least, not in the way that they had always discussed.

It wasn't as a child or a teenager that I got to see the Grand Canyon with my parents. It wasn't on a relaxing family vacation either. 

It was as a full-grown adult, and it was during my parents' rescue mission to get me home to Kentucky from California. 

As I wrote last year, I moved out to California in 2017 with the highest of hopes, but my reality certainly did not measure up to my expectations. Now that I've had a year to process all of the emotions and pain points that came with that transition, I can see that there was a full range of hurdles that got in my way– some I could have handled differently, and others that were well beyond the scope of what I could control.

But, this is not a post to reflect on why living in California didn't work out for me. It's an opportunity to delve into the healing process. It's about my experience coming back into my own body and soul after having retreated away from reality as a survival tactic, and it all started when I arrived at the Grand Canyon with my parents. 

You see, when I announced that I was ready– that I needed– to come home to Kentucky, my parents were overjoyed. Before I could discuss the details of where I would sell or donate all of my belongings that wouldn't fit into my Camry, my parents were booking hotels and getting their oil changed. They were going to come pick me up no matter what I said, and I knew it. As much as I wanted to assure them (and myself) of my independence and competence, I wanted them to come just as much if not more so. 

Yes, I would have made it home on my own just fine. I had made the 3,000-mile drive once already and I knew I could do it again. But I also knew that in the weeks leading up to my decision to return home, I had more than once found myself imagining a car careening off the street and into the sidewalk as I walked to and from the store, and the thought of being killed in a freak accident had a strangely calming effect on me. In spite of all of the effort that I put into self-care and being cognizant of what's going on with my mental health, I found that it was necessary for me to wear headphones and blast upbeat music while going out for walks in order to drown out the thoughts that perhaps there was an easy, permanent way out of what I was experiencing. 

I didn't just want my parents. I needed them. I needed to let someone else take the wheel for just a moment and take the decision of what to do out of my hands. 

The Road Home

From the metropolis of Los Angeles to the two-stoplight town of Stanford, the most direct route requires staying on the interstate for around 3,200 miles. When I drove it in the opposite direction, I did so without veering off the most direct path, and without lingering too long any time I stopped for food or rest. I made the drive in just over two days. 

With my dad driving his truck and hauling my furniture and me following him in my car with my mom and smaller belongings, the drive was less of a mission. We'd stop as we wanted, and ventured miles off course just to make the drive more enjoyable. 

During one such trek off the beaten path, we ended up at the Grand Canyon. 

I walked up to the edge of the guard rail to peer down into the canyon. Like so many in the United States, I had seen dozens and dozens of photographs of the canyon in my life, but nothing really compared to seeing it in person. Even if a high-end camera could capture the stratification and colors of the canyon, they couldn't capture how high the walls of the canyon rose, how the wind seemed to come to a standstill and hold its breath in anticipation of the drop into the canyon, or how the river roared silently from such a great distance that it was nearly indistinguishable from the clouds drifting so far above it. 

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Only twice in my life have I been truly awestruck. The first was at the Tate Modern Museum in London. I stood in front of a Van Gogh and found myself unable to move with tears in my eyes. The second time was on the edge of the canyon. I felt like I was floating– like the canyon was holding me in place, cradling me. For the first time in a long time, I didn't feel nauseous. My thoughts weren't racing. My brow wasn't furrowed. My neck wasn't tight. I wasn't anxious. 

I was just there. I was present, and in that moment I could smell the wind and feel the sunlight. That's all that there was and all that mattered. I was happy with who and where I was. It was foreign and it was grand.

If I could, I would still be standing right there in the viewing area. Unfortunately, human needs dictated getting lunch and eventually getting back on the road to continue home. Somewhere in Eastern Arizona, my mother remarked that I had light in my eyes for the first time since living in Los Angeles. 

Taking a Step Back

Upon arriving back in Kentucky, I was in a situation where I was still legally obligated to pay for my apartment in California that I was no longer using and certainly could not afford another place of my own on top of that. Once again, my parents went above and beyond and reminded me that my childhood bedroom was still my bedroom. 

After several years of living on my own and being self-sufficient, moving back in with my parents proved to be a unique challenge but also a great opportunity. It was an odd dynamic, to be certain, but I also saved a lot of money and got back into a gym routine. Perhaps most importantly, I didn't have to rely entirely upon myself. It gave me the spiritual space to continue to just be. I still had my job duties that required my attention for most of the day, but outside of my career I no longer felt like I was alone or drowning. 

This meant that I could experience my emotions authentically. Like so much of my homecoming process, it was for the first time in a long time that that was the case. 

I took a long, hard look at myself and got honest about some things I'd much rather have kept repressed. To say that I leaned into discomfort would be an understatement. I did a cannonball into a pool of discomfort, and rather wearing floaties, I was wearing a weight vest. It was confessedly difficult, but I've found that in life the discomfort of growth is nothing like the discomfort of anxiety. I might have had to sink through discomfort for a while to grow, but I knew that the other side would arrive quickly enough. In the deep end of anxiety, I hadn't been able to see the other side. I tried to touch the bottom, but my toes couldn't find it. I had resigned myself to drowning. 

Throughout the process of figuring out how to grow from my experiences, I

  • started taking daily antidepressants
  • got a big ol' tattoo on my chest (that I'm still working on getting filled in)
  • adopted a dog
  • gained twenty-five pounds
  • lost twenty pounds
  • went through three journals, each of which I filled from cover to cover
  • ended a three-year relationship
  • bought a house
  • accepted a new job with my company

This list could go on. There could be several entries about late night wine and conversations with my mom, a couple about panicking about how much money I was spending during the home buying process, and probably a handful about my new affinity for eating almost nothing except for black beans and slow-cooker chicken. 

What I Actually Learned from All of This

Throughout each bullet point on my to-do list of coming back to myself, everything stemmed from a single idea: I never want to go back. 

This declaration of non-return had nothing to do with California or Los Angeles. In fact, I'd absolutely adore a weekend in Laguna or some fried fish from Neptune's Net along the One, just outside of Malibu. Instead, I was refusing to return to where I was emotionally and spiritually. 

I had gotten to a point where I was completely empty. I was devoid of peace, and utterly lacking in a sincere form of home.

To never return to that point, I had to sever all mental ties to the things that buoyed me within that state. I had to do an inventory of what made me happy. I had to be authentic with myself about what my priorities were without bullshitting myself with the priorities that I knew others expected me to have. I had to remember to take my medication daily. I had to learn to trust and believe in myself again. 

At one point, I closed my eyes and asked myself what peace meant to me. Thankfully, my gut had a definition even when my mind did not. Though I didn't have the words to describe it, I knew that peace was the feeling of going for a long hike on a Summer's day, when your clothes are drenched with sweat but you don't care because you and your best friend have been reminiscing about the glory days of your childhood for the last mile. It was the feeling of reading the last chapter of My Ántonia and being able to see the long, Nebraska road through Jim Burden's eyes. It was the feeling of knowing that my parents were willing to quite literally drive from one end of the country to the other for me, and the knowledge that they'd do it for me again in a heartbeat (though, perhaps if it happens a second time it will include a "maybe don't do this again" conversation and a "don't you have better music you can play" prompt). 

I suppose that the lessons I learned could be summed up, in a nutshell, by saying that I learned that it's not selfish to try to live a life that takes my own peace into consideration. When I'm not frayed to the point of crumbling, I'm a much better son, brother, coworker, and friend. When I'm seeking and cultivating peace, taking care of myself and being attentive to myself is about more than lip service rooted in a dry, academic understanding of mental illness; it's about affirming the fact that I matter and that my existence is significant and valid. 

Unlike the last deeply personal post that I wrote, my outlook as I'm ending this one is one of deep hopefulness and optimism. I no longer just feel like life is on the up-and-up; it's already high, and only getting higher.