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What if I stayed?

Every life choice helps us be ourselves.

I recently moved back home to New Jersey. It never held much weight until it wasn’t home anymore.

When I moved away to Boston in 2006, it was for a job and all the new opportunity that presented. New friends. New environments. New sights and sounds and that was about all I could imagine at that point.

I had no idea what would happen from living there for ten years. I didn’t even intend on staying that long, I actually had no attachment whatsoever beyond getting my stuff in a U-Haul and arriving in one piece.

Upon returning 12 years later, I’m faced with the reality of re-integrating back into a place that is both changed and the same as I left it. And I’m so profoundly changed, both inside and out, that the assimilation proves challenging. How to integrate a past and present self?

As I drive around familiar streets and meet up with old friends and acquaintances, reflection borne of self-awareness asks the question, “what if I stayed?”

As I cook myself food and face my reflection, I see myself at 16, blowing out candles on a cake I’d never eat. In the throes of an eating disorder that claimed 30 pounds in a couple of months and my mental health along with it, I battled through the fog to build an impressive portfolio that demonstrated natural artistic ability. Acceptance to an excellent college on terms that terrified me helped provide just enough hope to find more handholds up and out of a mindset that forever changed my relationship to food and my own self-worth. Without medication or hospitalization, I stubbornly abandoned a path that promised death. I chose life, however challenging it would be.

What if I stayed within an existence of self-starvation and deprivation?

I had three destinations to choose from: Ireland, England and South Africa.

“What made you choose those?” asked my interviewer.

“I’ve dreamed of going to South Africa for about 10 years, but it’s more expensive.”

“The cost is the only thing standing in your way?”

“Well, I’m paying for it all myself. So the first two would be more practical.”

My acceptance letter to the elite student teaching experience abroad arrived weeks later with the letters SOUTH AFRICA printed boldly in the center. I had mere months to make the money I needed to make my dream become my reality so I worked any extra shift I could find at a family-owned pub that summer. I became part of that Irish family and funded my way to South Africa.

When I sat on the rocks of a foreign continent a year later, surrounded by children, 88 to a classroom and most in hand-me-downs from older siblings, I felt the flood of feeling pride in my own self-efficacy and empowerment.

No credit cards from parents in my pocket like my peers. Just me standing there among these beautiful faces by the fruit my own hard work.

What if I stayed behind, limited by the cost to pursue my dream?

Walking among classrooms in school buildings, I remember sliding my resignation letter across the small round table to my middle school principal. “You’re not leaving, DiGiovanni,” he said, disappointed. I was three months shy of tenure but terrified to be a queer teacher in 2003 among homophobic colleagues. So I lied about a boy I met that summer and said, “I’m moving to Washington State.” 

I never moved to Washington and didn’t live with that boy but instead reunited with my first love, a girl. It lasted until it didn’t but long enough so that I didn’t stay in that school and because I quit and then came out to be a queer youth advisor in a safer work environment, ten years later several of my former 8th graders from that middle school found me on Facebook and said, “I’m gay, too!”

What if I stayed closeted?

In 2006, I was offered a job which meant moving to Boston and I happily shook the dirt off the town where I felt stagnant and frustrated to embrace my new identity of city dweller. I took rather easily to my daily commute downtown on the T to my 9-5, frequenting the pubs and clubs of the scene at the time.

And among the new sounds and colors was the vast variety of gender expressions and identities, with handkerchiefs in pockets and fauxhawk haircuts and people telling me I was “hot” for the first time in my young adult life. And when I lost my long hair via the razor of a South End stylist, it was the start of the end of holding onto an identity that had always felt just this side of happy.

Little did I know that happiness, embodied, isn’t held for long. It’s fleeting if you’re lucky enough to every really feel it. But you know it’s real when you finally do.

I snapped selfies of the short ‘do when I got home and felt the reckoning within.

“Your name isn’t that. I can’t call you that,” my new girlfriend said. Her words felt foreign but penetrated to a place that felt seen and known for the first time. We parted ways but not before she’d planted a seed that sprouted in her absence.

With a mutual separation from that job that brought me to Boston and a new career as health coach in a now-familiar city, my process of exploration from encounters with more and more people as they pulled me into new orbits of seemingly endless self-awareness and self-expression.

What I stayed in the safe suburban town and state where I’d been for years?

An awareness.

An intuition.

An adventure. The adventure of a lifetime. One of my own choosing.

After months spent deliberating in therapy and with selected friends, I flipped a coin and decided to end my life as I’d known it.

When I chose to embody a new identity in the world, a transmale-perceived person who I thought would be the old me with a new body and voice. But the socio-cultural process of transition transforms the mind as much as the body, if one’s willing and able to be molded and marred by the matrix that is our society.

Being vulnerable with my body as an offering was often more than I could bear. The visible process of change meant exposure to physical, mental and emotional assault in more ways than I was prepared for. As my body bore the brunt of the process, my spirit learned to surrender in order to survive.

Blending my training as a coach, personal psychotherapy sessions, embracing Buddhist philosophy and graduate school research that matched the pace of my biochemical maturation, my brain grasped the singularity of human existence–no matter the form we find ourselves in.

It’s all made up. All of it. The norms and patterns and rules and laws and concepts and constructs are images we reflect back to one another as an endless hall of mirrors. We exist in a morass of messages and misconceptions that we interpret as truth and inflict on each other. Projections and stereotypes and assumptions and conditions and manipulations and distortions based on missed opportunities at birth and media and marketing that preys on our basic human (ego-based) need to be liked.

None of “it” is real and there is nothing to hold or have that makes the striving significant, really. All we ever have is the love we leave behind when we’re gone.

What if I stayed in that former body with the mind that matched from the only lens I ever knew to view life through?

I’m on a stage delivering a TEDx talk. For the second time.

I’m comforting a client through a divorce. The death of a child. Coming out at work. Eating broccoli. Moving to a new city. Embracing change. Sleeping more. Exercising.

My mother drinks more water every day.

I try to imagine how the bills will be paid this month. I stop doubting and trust myself. It’s been nine years and I’ve figured out the necessary balance after all these years. I know what to do and how to make it all come together, I’ve done it many times before. Working for myself has been the most challenging and life-giving experience that I never could have learned or achieved sitting behind the desk of a job that felt like being in a padded cell.

But it took the shameful experience of being asked to leave and told, “you’re unqualified and never should have been hired,” to actually let it go and learn how to leap.

It doesn’t matter that years later the HR director apologized. The words still rattle around in my brain. It’s possible I was completely unqualified for that role. It’s possible I didn’t care enough to excel in it. It’s possible I had more maturing to do. It’s possible my natural abilities lie elsewhere and my weaknesses still impact my progress.

But I’m a great coach. Lives change from my involvement in them. People heal from my mere presence. My skills and talents help souls breathe easier on this planet.

I’m healthy and happy. And many grey hairs make it hard to hide the age of a body that’s never felt better.

My mother listens to me, and calls me her son, because I’ve learned to be a better person from walking my own talk as a coach.

What if I stayed at that job and never fulfilled my calling?

Packing and unpacking from six major moves since 2014. Boxes opened and closed. Things donated, bought and sold. My sense of ground and security rocked with the reckoning that the person I loved wasn’t meant to join me moving forward in life.

People fill our lives for a reason, season or a lifetime. What if that person fulfills all three, even in his or her absence?

Summoning the courage to leave the home we’d built took more determination to accept what I found unacceptable than the actual logistics of leaving. But leave, I did.

And learned to live alone again and in the process to love myself more fully and completely than ever would have been possible as one part of an unhappy, ill-equipped pair.

In four years of solitude I’ve learned how to let go of attachment to almost everything I once imagined to be important. It’s a daily process moving among imperfect humans like me, as we bump up against each other, fumbling as we learn how to love and be loved.

Learning to be alone, to adore the serenity of solitude and lean into the ache of loneliness when it lingers.

What if I stayed and lost out on the lessons of love only found from leaving?

I’m leaving my beloved barn in Vermont. The unplanned 8-month retreat that restored me back from the brink of spiritual burnout and helped heal my suppressed trauma.

I’m leaving Boston upon realizing my time there is over. The decade did its duty. My beloved therapist of 10 years auspiciously died the day after seeing him for the first time in many months. Our last session provided all the closure I needed to self-actualize in his absence.

I’m leaving Denver and Wisconsin and the Jersey Shore, short stops on my path as I summon my courage to face what it means to be Dillan where another person I was once lived. I’m terrified and totally sure this is what full circle means for me to move forward.

I’m leaving behind leaving, for now. I’m seeing what there is to learn from staying.

Amidst orienting and integrating my past and present selves, it’s tempting to wonder what might have been or who I could have become if I stayed, but I relish in knowing how wonderful my life has become because I never settled on merely wondering being enough.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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