I’m never on Facebook anymore. Their dirty data shenanigans and contribution to the state of politics today, coupled with a personally diminishing need to see Kardashian memes posted by people I went to high school with, has meant that I usually only hop on once a month or so, to keep track of birthdays, first days of school and major life announcements. Today when I visited, I saw a notification from my Facebook memories. Usually a reminder of a nice holiday or a terrible period of vague-booking I indulged in when I first joined, but today actually meant something. Ten years ago today was when I boarded the plane from Atlanta, bound for Belfast, on a journey that would mean — honestly — just about everything to who I am today.
When I climbed aboard, I had a couple of suitcases, my dog, the money from a pawned engagement ring, and that was about it. It had been a rough few years and the notion of travelling light both physically and psychically seemed sensible.
When I adopted my dog the year prior, my family were a bit dubious. I was pretty fragile and barely taking care of myself, so I think they figured this was a step too far. ‘Maybe start with a few plants?’, they suggested. But the sign in the animal shelter read, ‘Heal your heart, adopt a pet,’ and so that’s how Josephine came into my life. Named for Saint Joseph, the healer, she gave me something to focus on outside of myself, and in time, slowly, I was finding the mental clarity to plan my departure. Soon after, I had the (perhaps misguided) courage to quit my job before I had any place to go next, knowing if I didn’t, I would never leave. And then somehow, it all fell into place. A job, a placement at Queens University, and that little sparkly rock that had meant so much, and then meant so little, and then meant everything.
I hadn’t the energy to fight harder for money in my divorce, so I was pretty well skint. I remember when I brought my ring to the jeweller and he gave me the appraisal. The money I’d make was almost precisely what I needed for the plane tickets (mine cost significantly less than the dog’s!) I took it as a sign. And when the saw cut through the platinum setting to release the diamond — well, I’ll never forget the sound. It was like a saw cutting through bone and wire and caged pain. A whirling squeal that was fear and fury and freedom all tuned to the same high pitch. And then the rock tumbled out and the sound stopped and there was my ticket. My ticket to Belfast and my ticket out.
I always sort of assumed I’d be back at some point. I kept my car parked in my mom’s driveway; some random bits stored in her basement. Frankly, I wasn’t entirely sure I wouldn’t just fall apart all over again and figured I would need to tumble down to the safety net of well-off parents and a warm bed in suburbia when this high-wire experiment failed spectacularly. And then something wild happened. It didn’t fail. My new life blossomed and took root, and ‘home’ slowly morphed from ‘back there’ to ‘over here.’
New home, new degree, new love, new business, new friends, new nationality, all in the span of a decade.
This all means something, I guess, as I was beating myself up last night. Some arbitrary business metric I had been focussed on wasn’t where I wanted it to be. Not bad, just not ‘good enough.’ I was running the same script I always do — I should be working harder, keep my eye on the prize, sleep when I’m dead. And then I woke to this reminder and remembered where I’ve come from. I was dead and reborn and reformed my life in the span of two prime minster’s terms.
I don’t often give myself a pat on the back. I’m always focussed on what I want to achieve next, which means I tend to be looking at the next step I’m building, rather than the staircase I’m standing on that got me here. So today was a good reminder. Made up milestones do not deserve angst. We can always set a new one.
So why am I sharing this? In part, to remind myself that I have come so far, and the milestones I have set for myself are just those, mine. If I make them or not, they are mine to achieve or discard, and those I’ve accomplished, like those you’ve accomplished, deserve to be honoured. The other reason is because, in my work, I see so many people miserable in their lives and I just want to shake them ever so gently from their torpor and say, ‘There is a way out, but only you can find it. Oh, and it will probably be scary as hell.’
I know not everyone has the safety net I had, but almost everyone has more choices than they think they do. It’s not too late. You’re not too old. You haven’t made too many mistakes. It isn’t beyond repair. It is still worth it. The toughest bit? Not the doing of it, but the realisation that you’re the only one who can.
So, when you feel you’ve reached the end of the road, chart another path. Take the leap. Sell the ring. Pack up the critters. Board that plane.