My Gap Year at 30!
“What? That’s so cool. But…why?”
Every time someone has asked me “why?” over the last two months, I’ve had some really great answers. Answers that were honest, but also very specificto the needs of each person that asked me – what they value, what they understand, how they think – because that’s something I’m good at. I’m great at editing my life to make it more palatable for those around me. Less great at making it palatable for myself.
And so I think, to start, it’s important to know the real and unedited version of how I came to be on a plane over the Pacific Ocean at this very moment, with a seat partner who has very kind eyes but very smelly feet that he has insisted on keeping shoeless for the past 8 hours, hurtling toward what I hope will be the first of many a great adventure in the Life and Times of Laura Miller.
In 2012, I found myself in the midst of a personally devastating divorce. I was 25 and felt 100 years old. I was in a cascading waterfall of heartbreak, and I was spending every day alone with just my dog and my spiral of shame and embarrassment for having failed so spectacularly at something so hugely important at such an young age.
I was alone because, in my fraught attempts to save a marriage in its infancy, I had allowed myself to become isolated. Very few knew my marriage was in pieces during its short 12-month lifespan, so when it ended it felt sudden to everyone but me. And they didn’t know how to handle it. Who does? Having a conversation with a person mid-divorce is like eating a chili dog before going on the Silly Silo at Adventureland – you know it’s not going to go well, and no matter how much you’ve prepared since the last time you did it, there’s still going to be puke. Or something like that. That’s a very specific analogy that only a small group from Western Hills Elementary that went on a field trip together two decades ago will truly understand, and it still fell off at the end.
I had a few friends who tried to get me to rejoin the living. They were relentless about it, actually. One of those few was my dear, lifelong friend, Emily. Lifelong as in, I don’t actually remember ever not being friends with her (minus that pesky senior year of high school disaster, but still we could only make that last a year).
Emily tried her hardest to get me to do something… anything to remind me that there were so very many reasons to embrace my life and the people in it. Emily was always the most filled with life of all of us, and yet she was so patient with all of my dramatic attempts to resist anything that resembled living. She texted, she called, she sent Facebook messages…and despite my constant refusals to get out of bed and even try living, even for a minute, she kept trying. And then she succeeded.
On December 26, 2012 Emily called me, and undeterred by my pushing her off (yet again) with complaints of a migraine, she allowed me to end the call and later sent me a Facebook message. For the millionth time, she was pushing me to rejoin humanity. This time, she wanted me to come to a New Year’s Eve party at her place. And she caught me in the right headspace at the right time. I was so damn tired of being terrified that people would find out that I was *gasp* twenty-six and divorcing, and so jealous of how alive Emily always seemed. I wanted to be just 10% of how alive she was. So I said yes to the invite and when I went to bed that night (meaning I dragged myself to bed from the horizontal position I’d been moping in on my couch for about 5 hours), I did it actually excited about something for the first time that I could remember in over a year. I was going to try this whole life, Emily-style, thing. At least for one night. Baby steps.
Early the next day, I even told my mom about it. She did a great job of holding back her surprise that I was excited about… well, anything. But I could immediately tell that she was relieved.
Early the next day, something else happened. Emily was gone. The day after she had finally succeeded in pulling my head out of where it had been so firmly placed (you know that exact location, I’m sure).
I won’t go into the sudden and devastating nature of her death. That’s too much and too unkind to myself and those who loved her. And mostly because she’d fucking hate that I’m still dwelling on it. So Em, I’m done with that part of the narrative. Stop rolling your eyes at me.
When Em died, though, I gave up. On everything. My marriage was over, my heart was broken, and I’d never see Emily again. I drank more than I should most days so that I could eventually fall into a dreamless, unsatisfying sleep. I made several bad decisions, under the guise of “living life to its fullest!” and “making up for lost time!”. FYI – both of these phrases, when used as excuses for bad behavior, are the mantras of shitty people. I was a shitty person. I eventually dated a guy who loved me, and who I loved. But of course I couldn’t handle opening myself up to feeling that specific emotion about anyone anymore, so I mucked that one up too.
It was all bullshit. I wasn’t living. I wasn’t even really existing. I was in survival mode. Every day was the same. Drag self out of bed, drag self to work, drag self home, open bottle of wine. Cry. Fall asleep on couch. Move to bed at 2 am. Rinse, wash, repeat.
This didn’t last forever. There was that guy I mentioned dating – I got some of my shit a little more together for him. At least on the surface. Underneath it all, I was still white-knuckling from one minute to the next. I think he knew I was still a mess, even if just subconsciously. We had a good time, until we didn’t. And since there was so much left unsaid between us, it crumbled and I honestly was relieved. No one deserved the kind of baggage I carried everywhere with me at that time.
And then I started to get better. Little by little, I was less heartbroken over both of my losses. I cried once a day instead of five times. And then none at all. I upgraded from behaving like a shitty person to behaving like a kinda sorta okay person. Professionally, I started succeeding. I found my work ethic and drive again. I was promoted. And then promoted again. I won departmental awards for my work. I was chosen for special projects and put in charge of big, important things. I worked 60, 70, sometimes 80 hour weeks and was proud of it. I would tell anyone who listened, “I’m sorry, I just can’t. I worked 70 hours this week and I’m beat” with a smile on my face.
I still wasn’t living. I was just in a different kind of survival mode. I’d replaced angst and booze with numbness and work.
Then I got a call from a new company that wanted me to come work for them. A smaller company – a tech startup, actually. One that promoted things like “culture” and “work-life balance”. This intrigued me. I understood that a positive company culture and having time for a personal life were things that I was missing, but surely a simple job switch wouldn’t make my life easier to actually live, right? But I still went for it. I knew I needed a change in attitude but was too much of a coward to try and do it on my own. Turns out I have a flair for dramatic, life-changing decisions that are actually 100% correct, often in very mysterious ways.
That job was an actual, bonafide life saver in so many ways. Not because it elevated me professionally – I’m ashamed to admit that in my year there, my quality of work and drive suffered from time to time in favor of my figuring out how to be an actual person. I’m still calling the year a win.
It was a win because, after 2 months of asking “what else can I do?” at 5 every day and often meeting blank stares, I started just leaving at 5. And I realized I didn’t know how to have a personal life. After spending the previous 4 years either crying into a glass of wine or working late in an office, working 40 hours a week was confusing. So, I studied the people around me and started imitating them and their lives until I wasn’t imitating anyone anymore. I was just living my life.
And in living, really living, my life for the first time in my adulthood, I realized I didn’t want what I had. Any of it. The job, the stuff, the recognition, the feeling I had when I knew I was better at something than someone else – none of that was actually part of living my life.
So I quit my job.
I sold my stuff.
I started doing yoga again and stopped caring about doing things I could “win” at.
And I booked a one-way ticket to Sydney.
I’m finally living. Enjoying the people I love and the experiences I have and figuring out what makes me feel full. After so many years of masking a deep, unending emptiness, I’m not hiding anything from the people around me. More importantly, I’m not hiding those things from myself.
So, again, why am I dropping everything to pursue the unknown? While all of the answers I gave each of you were honest and real and gave hints of the full story, now you’ve got (almost?) everything. Hey, sharing is a new thing for me – it’s a learning process!
I’m excited and happy and sad and confused and certain and everything else all at once. It’s absolutely freaking amazing. Who needs drugs when you can just implode your life, sell all of your shit, and take off to the other side of the world with a limited number of real plans? This is already the best high I’ve ever had.
Living. This is what it feels like, for me…at least at the moment. And I hope like hell this feeling is what Em got to experience during her short time here, because she was better at being truly alive than anyone else I’ve ever known.
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