The Worst & Best Year of My Life: A Comeback Story

The Worst & Best Year of My Life: A Comeback Story

Photo by Emily Alleman

Photo by Emily Alleman

A few weeks ago, I stood on a sidewalk in New York City at 3 AM, smoking a cigarette.

I watched the glowing ember and smiled.

Sometimes, after long stretches of a remarkably steady life, I forget this part of myself. The part that tastes like gin and dances so very close to complete strangers. The part that lets her hair spill over her shoulders and sways to the rhythm of twenty-three. The part that gets her phone stolen and--when offered a cigarette to cope--laughs. Says yes for the first time.

This part is hard to recognize. She’s as real as daughter and sister and friend, but she never fails to surprise me. I’ll wash my hands and look into the mirror, catch a glimpse of a wild-eyed girl with glowing cheeks and kissed lips. I’ll feel the music humming in my blood, and there’s something so imperfect in this moment. The way I meet his eyes through the shadows and reach for a friend’s hand in the thick of it. How I’ll dance harder than anyone but will inevitably wander outside to drink the night air and remind myself to breathe.

Soak it in.

Revel in the now.

***

A very particular season of my life is occurring, even as I type this.

My heart is full of fire. I’ve never been so free.

I’m no longer dancing to forget. I’m no longer writing to heal what’s broken. And I’m no longer wandering to run.

I’m dancing and writing and wandering for the beauty. For a life well-lived. For the hell of it.

***

I’ve made no secret about my postgraduate experience being rather difficult. At times, downright awful. I came out a little bruised, perhaps even a little shaken.

I learned too many lessons the hard way. Sat at my mother’s kitchen table one afternoon, gripping a steaming mug of tea, hot tears rolling down my face.

What’s wrong? she asked. Honey, my goodness, what’s wrong?

There was so much everything and nothing tied together with the same ribbon that I could barely breathe.

And I unraveled.

I am forever indebted to her and to countless others who held me and wrote to me and read my material and looked at me plainly and insisted I was worth more than that period of heartbreak and confusion.

It took far too long to feel it again--that flood of goodness, of light.

But it’s here now.

And I’m not saying things are perfect, because Lord knows they never will be. I’m not even saying that anything has drastically changed.

I’m simply saying that along the way, I discovered what I’m made of--and for the first time in months, it felt like enough.

Enough to make the little choices that ultimately led me back to myself.

Wonder or write.

Sit or dance.

Doubt my dream or submit my work.

Stay home or book the flight.

Look away or smile back.

And ever so slowly, the wounds healed. The rumbling thunder of fear was drowned out by a small voice. My voice. And maybe the invisible scars are still within me, but I happen to quite adore them. They remind me of my strength.

I’ve learned to bask in the imperfections. The not-yets and the hell-no's, the almosts and the on-my-ways.

***

So I stood outside smoking a cigarette. A thousand miles from home, still uncertain about my future and what it might look like. Unsure about so many things. But I could hear my friends laughing and I felt the ache in my legs from dancing all night. I watched taxis pass beneath streetlights and tasted the tonic of freedom on my tongue.

And I felt at once utterly insignificant and impossibly powerful. Like a tiny speck on this spinning rock in a vast and ancient universe.

But I felt like a speck that has value. A speck that might--in spite of everything--be just fine.

***

After college, everyone is going to tell you that life is hard. The real world can be tough. To just have faith. That you’re worth more than your mindless desk job or your asshole ex-boyfriend or your student debt. And all of that is true. So, so true. Listen to those people.

But what they won't tell you is that when the joy of graduation has worn away, when you're loosed upon this crazy world, you might gaze into the rest of eternity and wonder what the hell you're supposed to do now. You might be scared to death. And you might have to wait a while to really feel worth a damn again. It may take a month, six months, two years, five.

You’ll have to endure the time in between. As they say, the best way out is through. Question everything. Make the mistakes. You won’t know it’s the wrong choice until you’ve made it. There is no crystal ball, which is the most infuriating and beautiful truth to swallow. Drink the second glass of wine with your girlfriends. Work hard, but know--at the end of the day--you. are. not. your. job. Kiss the guy who will change his mind. Hell, accidentally fall in love with him. Spend what little money you have on travel, not things. Read poetry. Read everything. Take the long way home and have a good cry, because there will be shit that happens. The only way to truly learn how to navigate pain and doubt and disappointment is to experience pain and doubt and disappointment. No longer are you sheltered by the sweet cocoon of academia, of structure, of finite semesters and goals written in stone. The rest of your life is one long semester and the first year will feel like an exam for a class you've never taken.

The redeeming part is, you'll be stronger for the journey. You’ll like the new version of yourself. The one that survived it and can tell a damn good story when it’s over. The one who says she can do anything and then does it. Someone who is a thousand times more prepared for this bizarre, lovely thing called life.

Eventually, I promise you’re going to stand beneath the proverbial lamppost on a gritty sidewalk in the dead of night. And you’ll know.

You’ll feel it in your belly, in the marrow of your bones. You’re meant for something greater--whatever that might be.

And though you don’t believe me now, everything really is going to be okay.


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