Exhausted after flying from Dublin to London to Nairobi in the span of 12 hours on the heels of a multi-week work trip, I sighed and settled back into the cab. For a minute, I allowed myself to relax. I made it, I’m in Africa! “Look!” the driver said. I searched for where he was pointing, but it was dark. I didn’t see anything.
Then I did. Zebras! Right outside of the airport, right in front of our dusty cab. I laughed and rejoiced. I’m in Kenya! I’m getting paid for this. I get to see zebras hanging out on the side of the road outside the airport, like they are here to pick up family flying in.
This isn’t a story about zebras, though that would be fun. This is a story about letting go of the life you once dreamed of in order to create something new. This is a story about listening to your body and your soul when it is telling you something isn’t right even as your mind logically argues that everything is.
There are times in our life that define an ending, mark a new beginning. Befores and afters. We all have them. Some of us have more than others, but we all have defining moments in our lives that change us. The older I get, the more of them I can point to. Before and after wholly encompassing, breathtaking loves — and subsequent heartbreaks. Before and after my mom got life-shatteringly sick. Before and after my father died from a sudden heart attack. Before and after more excruciating heartbreak. Before and after I got sober.
This story isn’t about any of those things, though they all play a role. These life-changing events all happened over the course of a dream career that took me to Kenya. They all brought me to this defining moment — before and after I saw zebras hanging out outside the Nairobi airport. I didn’t know it then but this was a pinnacle moment — another before and after. Before and after the last time I remember my life at the time making sense.
This moment, even as inconsequential as it may seem, was in the middle of a long work trip I was on. Almost a month long, this journey included three countries, seven cities, eight hotel rooms. I was tired and jetlagged, but so pumped! This is exactly what I’ve worked for for almost a decade. This is what I went to graduate school and racked up student loan debt for. This is what I’ve wanted. I yearned to fill my passport and dot the map as I did what I then thought could change the world: advocating for equal and free access to information and technology around the world. And now I was really doing it.
That same year also brought other defining moments: tremendous heartbreak as my boyfriend — who made me finally believe in love again — and I broke up. I also finally quit drinking and got sober after years of self-medicating with alcohol.
You see, as I was building my career, my very foundations were being chipped away, one by one. Right from the start of my job, life got really sh*tty for me. The man I thought I was going to marry left me; he broke me… not just my heart but my confidence, my security, my sense of self. At the same time, my seemingly invincible grandpa got lung cancer. I lost my mom as I knew her. She got so sick, her brain damaged by toxic exposure at work. She changed before my very eyes in every imaginable way. At times she didn’t even remember my name. I had to come to terms with the fact that my mom was no longer really my mom — that I was more like the parent now. I was terrified she was going to die — and she almost did numerous times.
As I prepared myself for her impending death, I was dealt another blow. One day, I had plans to go to a Mariners game with my dad. After not being able to get in touch with him all day, I knew something was wrong. Instead of watching the game that night, I drove to Tacoma to check on him. I found him on his couch — saw him dead from a heart attack. The trauma of the sudden and unexpected death of my father, of finding him, of seeing the firefighters break down the door, still haunts me to this day. I still have nightmares about it. Exactly a year later I was dealt another sudden loss of my beloved cat Oscar from a rare stroke.
All of these traumas began to add up and take their toll, and I wasn’t dealing with them very well — at least on the inside. Maybe it appeared I was ok on the outside. But instead of asking for help and taking time to grieve and heal, I drank. A lot. I drank to numb the pain. I drank to forget. I drank to pretend I was ok. I drank to keep going even though I was racked with PTSD, anxiety, and depression — and never feeling like I was doing enough. Eventually, I was drinking three bottles of wine a day.
Finally, in 2016, I knew I had to stop. I had to quit drinking. It had started to affect my career, and that’s all I felt I really had left. I had to save my job. So I quit drinking. It was hard as hell but I did it. And save my career I did — just a month sober and I was up for a significant promotion at work, going on trip after trip after trip. Racking up miles, spearheading new initiatives, exploring new places, embracing new faces. Making it farther in my career, a job that I had loved almost more than I loved myself would finally bring me some stability, peace, contentment, and a real sense of accomplishment. Or so I thought.
Then something else happened. While I was in Kenya, another defining moment took place. Not just for me, but for the world. It was November. Of 2016. A dozen time zones ahead of home, I went to bed optimistic, assured Hillary would be elected and all would be right in the world when I woke up. The opposite happened. I woke up giddy and nervous, reached for my phone and the remote. I turned on CNN International and opened up Facebook to the news. The seemingly impossible happened. Him. How could he be elected? This can’t be right. This can’t be happening.
A week after the election, I arrived back in Seattle… exhausted. I came back to a depressed, forlorn city. Oh, so it really did happen. Even as my jet lag faded, I was left exhausted and apathetic through the holidays. This exhaustion continued into the new year. It was all I could do to go to work and scroll through the evidence of our democracy being torn to shreds.
I didn’t know it then, but I was in the middle of an existential crisis. At the time, I thought I was just tired, maybe a little depressed. Over the course of the next couple of months, everything I thought I knew seemed to now ring untrue. Nothing seemed important anymore. Not my job. Not what I did. I mean, it was important for sure, but not when our basic human rights were at stake. Not when we were headed towards setting back our social justice clock by at least five decades. How could this happen? And how could I just go about my life like it didn’t? The answer? I couldn’t. I just didn’t know it at the time.
For months, I was consumed with utter exhaustion and chronic stress, this existential angst gnawing at my attention. This is it? This is what I fought so hard over the past several years for? This is what I clawed myself out of grief, PTSD, consuming anxiety, crippling depression, heartbreak, and alcoholism for? When I wasn’t working my seeming dream job, I was lying on my couch. Or stuck in my bed. And definitely stuck in my head. I asked myself, What is wrong with me? Am I lazy? Can I not handle the new responsibilities at work? What the f*ck is wrong with me? I’m in the middle of a promotion, for goodness sake! I was getting everything I thought I wanted. I should be thrilled. But I wasn’t. It took everything I had to even pry my eyes open in the morning, let alone get out of bed. No part of me seemed to be able to move. I felt done. Completely and utterly done. I tried and tried and tried to keep going. I crawled along, all the while beating myself up for not being able to sprint as I once had.
Then the pain started. Now I wasn’t just tired and drained to the bone and hating myself, I was in physical agony. I could barely breathe sometimes the pain in my core was so bad. One day — the pain becoming unbearable — I finally dragged myself to the ER. The nurse took me back, started my vitals and before I knew it, a team of what seemed like three dozen doctors and nurses descended on me, hooking me up to machines and starting IVs. Confused and delirious from the pain, I wondered what was happening. Through the commotion, I heard something about a cardiac team. Then I realized: They thought I was having a heart attack. Whoa, I thought, I was done. But I was in too much pain and too exhausted to care.
Turns out I wasn’t, my 9 out of 10 pain, my racing pulse, and my sky high blood pressure was not from a heart attack but from something I wouldn’t realize yet for a few more months: neglect. My own neglect of myself, neglect of caring for myself. With dangerously low levels of potassium, iron, and electrolytes, I almost died from basic neglect — that I inflicted on myself. Busy working, working, working for years, focusing on external achievements rather than healing internal bereavements. Busy ignoring the deep emotional pain from early childhood sexual trauma. Busy burying my grief and devastation from years of loss after loss after loss. I never really dealt with any of those things, never really cared enough for myself to allow myself time to heal. I was too busy trying to accomplish to ever rest, to ever heal.
I hadn’t been caring for myself for years. I did what I could to get through crisis after crisis after crisis in my life — all while trying to build a career and appear “fine.” After years of drinking away the voice screaming inside me that I am not all right, I am not fine, I finally got sober. I thought I solved the problem. But drinking wasn’t the problem, it was only a symptom. A symptom of not listening to myself, of not healing my pain. Because after I stopped drinking, I found I still wasn’t healed. I still didn’t want to listen to the voice that told me that either. It was too painful. So I used work to push that voice away. I traveled that voice away. I ate that voice away. I Netflix binged that voice away. I did anything I could to keep that voice at bay. Because it was telling me that while I may be sober, I still was not alright.
Finally, since I wasn’t going to listen any other way, my body forced me to. Through almost shutting down, my body amplified my soul and let my inner voice scream through. By almost dying, I was able to be reborn. After years of pretending I could do it all through it all, I had to stop. I had to listen. And my body, my soul, my inner voice — all told me I had to leave. I had to leave my job, the perfect career that I’d worked so hard to build. Because even as I healed physically, I still found it hard to do my job. I found it hard to care about the things I had cared so deeply about for years. As each new day brought news of creeping fascism, deathly racism, and rampant sexism, I no longer believed I was making a difference.
I didn’t know it then but I would soon choose to end the career I started building the day after Obama was first elected. The world was a much different place now, I was a much different person now. I wasn’t the same person who jumped up and down — full of hope and squealing with delight over the election of Obama. Over the course of Obama’s amazing two terms — which also happened to be the course of this career — I had experienced the toughest years of my life. I suffered unimaginable loss and devastation. How could I possibly be the same person? How could I want the same things that I did the night we so hopefully elected our first black president? I realized that I didn’t. I no longer dreamed the same dreams.
What once brought me joy and a sense of purpose and worth no longer did. Somewhere along the way, someplace along the immeasurable losses I’d experienced, I also lost myself. By continuing to do the same thing even though almost everything in my world — and the world around me — had changed, my soul was slowly dying, my inner voice screaming that I was done. And I didn’t want to be done, done, as in dead. So I quit.
Even though I had no idea what was next, I decided to leave my job. I was too spent to look for a new job — and I had no idea what I wanted to do. So I cashed in my meager retirement savings, left my job, and took the largest leap of faith of my life. I couldn’t fully explain it at the time — I still can’t. I just knew I needed to take some time off to heal and figure out what was next. I thought that meant eating better and working out. Ha! It has meant dealing with all of the pain and hurt and trauma I drank away for years. I had no idea then what was in store for me in my healing journey. Almost a year later, I still don’t fully know.
But I do know this: I needed to slow down. I needed to listen. To my body, to my soul. I needed to quiet my busy mind so I could nurture my long neglected heart and soul. Instead of going, going, going trying to do all of the things all of the time for everyone but myself, I needed to stop. Instead of pretending everything was ok, that I was fine, great, life is good, I needed to live authentically — something I hadn’t done for years. I needed to be able to say, “I’m broken. I’m hurt. I haven’t healed. I don’t have it all figured out. I’m not ok.” Instead of running from all of the pain I’d experienced, I needed to turn around and face it. Embrace it. And use it. For good. To not only heal myself, but to help others. I’ve done a lot of work over the past year — to heal and to grow. In ways I never would have imagined. I had to heal parts of myself I didn’t even know were broken. Because I was always too busy to listen.
I still don’t have all of the answers, I doubt I ever will. But I do know I can use my experience to help others heal, help heal our country that is so broken, so full of hurt for so many people in so many ways. Help others to realize it’s ok to not be ok. It’s ok to slow down. It’s ok to need to call timeout. It’s ok to say enough, I need a break. It’s ok to do something new. It’s ok to change your mind, change your career. Leave relationships, and change behaviors. Because just as the world around us changes, so do we. And sometimes we have to give up the very things that once defined us to find our way back to ourselves — our real authentic selves — and to listen to our inner voice. To listen to it when it says I’m not ok. But now? Now I know that I will be.