Five months ago, when I quit the career I had spent nearly fifteen years building, I had a very clear picture in my head of what my new life would look like.
On the days I was home in Los Angeles, I would wake early, well rested and stress-free. I would take a yoga class, then head to a nearby café to write—either brilliant articles that I would sell to glossy women’s publications, or the novel that I would surely publish by the end of the year. Evenings would be spent on cozy dinners with close friends, or on all of the dates that would instantly and effortlessly materialize just as soon as I wasn’t preoccupied with the intensity of a corporate job.
Or if I was traveling, as I planned to do as much as possible as the new Katie, I would fall in love with every place I visited, and have life-changing experiences in all of them. I might even fall in love while traveling! All of the people I expected to meet on these adventures would enrich my life and open my eyes to the world around me, leaving me both content and grateful.
Okay, so it’s possible that I had unrealistic expectations of post-corporate life, but having never had more than a few days off in between jobs in my working career, I equated this free time with utopia, and I was not willing to compromise my vision.
I set off for Europe, certain of my decision and ready for my dreams to come true. A few days into the trip, I realized I wasn’t having the “time of my life” journey I had anticipated. A few weeks into the trip, I was exhausted, and ready to go home. I was underwhelmed, unfulfilled, and unsure of why I felt this way.
The feelings only compounded back at home, with the addition of stress about my rapidly dwindling bank account, and a feeling of isolation from being gone so much. Life in Los Angeles had continued in my absence, seemingly without even missing me, and I was unsure how to drop back into it.
Layered over all of these emotions was the extreme guilt I had for feeling this way. Are you even allowed to lament the results of an extreme choice you’ve made, when most people would be thrilled to have the same opportunity? Some reminded me, repeatedly, how lucky I was to be able to take time off, which only served to make me feel even worse for not being ecstatic about every moment. Instead of admitting I was struggling, I tried to just smile and avoid answering when people asked if I was soooo happy. How dare I not be?
What do you do when the life you’ve chosen doesn’t live up to your expectations?
@katiejdevine (Click to Tweet!)
There wasn’t anything wrong with my new life. I just couldn’t accept that it looked so unlike what I had pictured that I could not enjoy it.
So I tried to push through it, determined to will my life into submission and make it look more like that original picture I had painted. I booked a trip I was too tired to take to Argentina, and convinced myself that I was still in control of what happened. Each day in Buenos Aires I wrestled with myself, and with the city, determined to have a life-changing trip there no matter what it took. It worked about as well as anything you have to force does.
Then, on the day I flew back to Los Angeles, still fighting to capture the picturesque life I’d dreamed of, my younger sister unexpectedly died. And with that, my world turned upside down, sideways, and inside out all at once. Suddenly, so many of the roles of my present and future that I hadn’t even realized I had plotted out were gone: sister, friend, maid of honor, aunt. Evaoporated in an instant. My pictured life was forever altered, and there was nothing I could do to get it back.
In the blur of the weeks that followed, I could only focus on making it through each day intact. Gone were thoughts about what my life was supposed to look like, replaced by the need to help my parents survive. I couldn’t make sense of anything, and certainly didn’t have the energy or imagination to put my pictured life back together.
The only option, in these unforeseen days, was to begin attempting to accept whatever this new life would bring.
I hated it.
I hated it those first weeks, and I still very often hate it. It’s so hard, and it’s contrary to everything I know and have ever done. I feel untethered, my brain scrambling to reassemble one of those pictures that made sense to me. But it refuses.
However, an unusual thing happens once I finally stop struggling and surrender to the exhaustion, allowing things to just unfold before me without expectation. I start finding little things that surprise and delight me, that ground me in the given moment.
I notice the delicate smell of gardenias on a walk in Australia. I feel the movement of breath, in and out, in a yoga class in Los Angeles. I relax in the familiar comfort of being on a plane, reading a book. I bask in the simple beauty of hugs and kisses from children in Guatemala. I am moved to tears by the sight of the sun setting over the water.
I start finding the things and places and people that make me happy without having to force anything. The guilt fades, the feelings of unease retreat, and I find that I have started enjoying this new life without even realizing it.
Letting go of the pictures in my head is an ongoing struggle, but it is infinitely easier than continuing to fight to conform my life to some antiquated vision. It’s an infinitely more satisfying journey as well. When it’s working, when I can detach from those old images, there is peace, there is joy, there is beauty. There is happiness.
Katie Devine is a writer who left the corporate world behind to feed her wanderlust and chronicles her travels on her blog, Confessions of An Imperfect Life. Her writing has appeared on sites including Huffington Post, Role Reboot, XOJane, Thought Catalog, Medium and The Manifest-Station, as well as in Allure Magazine. When she’s not on a plane, you can find Katie taking endless pictures of sunsets at home in Santa Monica, CA. Connect with her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.