My White Flag

The turning point in the process of growing up is when you discover the core of strength within you that survives all hurt.
-Max Lerner

 

I know what you’re thinking: you thought I stopped writing, didnt you? I’ll be honest, I kind of did, too. I’ll spare you the apology for my delay. It’s the same old thing–time, work, (di)stress, school. It all got in the way for a while. It clogged my time, but it also clogged my brain. Sometimes, there’s so much to say that I find myself unable to say anything at all. That’s where I’ve been, but recently, some space has cleared within the messiness. And here I am.

I have to note what probably every blogger/writer in the world is noting right now: it’s almost 2018. The new year. Where did the time go? How did we get from there to here, or from here to there, so quickly? As the moment draws nearer–the one marking the end of what once was and the beginning of what will be–I can’t help but reflect upon this year, as so many people do. It was a big one for me, but I guess I didn’t really realize that until recently.

For one thing, the universe resurrected an old dream of mine this year. When I was in high school and beginning to think about where I wanted to go to college, there was one Ivy League university that planted itself firmly at the top of my list: Yale. Beginning at the end of my sophomore year, after talking to a Yalie with whom my dad put me into contact, I fell in love. Hearing about all of the opportunities Yale offered students, about all of the amazing things this Yalie did in her four years there, all of it captured me. I’d never dared to dream about going somewhere like Yale for college, but after talking to her, I allowed myself to start.

I’d always worked hard in school, but my newfound dream pushed me even further. Junior year, I worked myself into the ground, trying to pump up my resume, trying to distinguish myself, trying to do something that would distinguish me from 92.5% of other applicants. To say the odds were “stacked against” me is, statistically, an understatement. I mean…the odds buried me. I knew that. But, like I had always done, I tried. And I tried. And I tried. I took the standardized test again and again, until I couldn’t take it anymore. I took only Advanced Placement classes. I ran for leadership positions in different organizations at school. I spent more time studying than sleeping.

When the rejection letter came, near the end of my senior year, I cried for a little bit. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was disappointing nevertheless. My parents don’t have college degrees. They always taught me to dream big, though. From the time I was a little girl, my dad told me that I could have anything I wanted if I just worked hard for it. With that mantra ingrained into my being, I truly always believed that anything was possible. So, maybe a portion of my tears were devoted to that part of me that, for the first time ever, doubted whether or not it was.

Time went on, and I accepted my rejection. I went to college, as some of you may know from my other posts, and I’m now a second-year law student. I’m really happy with where I ended up, even though the journey here was certainly not always easy, nor was it always happy. In time, I let go of Yale, realizing–with the assistance of hindsight–that the what I wanted to do with my life was more important than the where I did it. As we do, I moved on. I moved forward.

In life, we don’t always get second chances. So, this past January, when I received an e-mail informing me that Yale was looking for summer fellows to staff one of its legal clinics during the summer, I forced myself to apply. At first, I wasn’t going to. I had gotten my grades back and had been sourly disappointed by my performance, and I didn’t think I had any chance whatsoever. This was Yale. The Yale. The best law school in the country. They had already rejected me once, and back in January, I didn’t know how much more disappointment I could take. It shouldn’t be this way, but grades–or at least grades in law school–have a way of re-configuring one’s perception. I viewed each one less as a measure of my performance in that class, and more as a reflection of my capacity to learn and know The Law, of my intelligence, of my value to a potential employer or client. Because law school had been my entire life, because it had consumed nearly all of my time and energy, it had come to define me as a whole. If I wasn’t of value to an employer, or if I knew less than my peers, what purpose did I serve? What did I have to offer to those around me, or to employers, or to anybody in the world I stepped into in the fall of 2016? The answer, to me, seemed obvious.

But I forced myself to do it. This is what I have to offer you, I thought to myself, feigning defiance as I reviewed my application materials. I prayed that their reader would be able to see all of the other words on the pages, the ones I faintly recalled surrounded the three digits and decimal point that had come to define my worth. School had clouded my vision, had made me unable to see the other words anymore. But before I submitted, for just a fleeting moment, I remembered that they were there. That I had written them once, that they had meant something to me at some time. That maybe they could mean something to somebody else, too. This is what I have to offer you…

…and this is what I am.

Send.

I literally jumped up and down in my apartment the day Yale called me and told me I had gotten the job, that I would be spending the summer in New Haven learning at the best law school in the country. That I would have the chance to realize a dream I had both allowed myself to have, and that I had allowed myself to let go. I hadn’t seen this coming, hadn’t known I would ever have the chance again.

In no time at all, the semester ended and I began working. I learned a lot, and seeing what could have been gave me so much appreciation for what had been, for what was. I didn’t expect that. But the summer was also challenging. It was hard being away from St. Louis, a place I had quickly grown to love, a place that had quickly become home to me. I wasn’t as busy at Yale as I would have liked to have been, so it was hard hearing about some of my friends working elsewhere, learning the law and really doing it. It was hard adjusting to a new place, trying to get comfortable without getting too comfortable, knowing that–as had become customary for me–my time there was only temporary.

Yale came and went, and before I knew it, I was back in St. Louis for year two. The people say that the second year of law school is when students are worked to death, and I can tell you from personal experience that that is, in fact, true. Every morning, including on weekends, I was up at 6:30 or 7:00am to begin working. I didn’t stop until 10:00pm, when I would go to bed with nothing but the prospect of doing it all over again the next day to lull me back to sleep when I woke up in a panic in the middle of the night. Every day was like that. After a while, I started finding my rhythm–that is to say, I started becoming so busy that I didn’t have time to think about how busy I was, or to feel lonely, or to miss having a life. But I knew the semester was hard, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I would crash and burn.

Somewhat unexpectedly, I ended up meeting somebody midway through the semester. Our school has a Halloween party every year, and this year, I had been absolutely dreading going. I didn’t have a costume, there were a couple of guys who would be there that I just wasn’t emotionally ready to see again, I was exhausted. I was dreading the party so much, in fact, that I almost didn’t go. I almost called my friend to tell her to go without me, almost stayed in and watched Dateline with a big glass of wine, which had become my Friday night ritual.

But I went, and it was awful. I saw the guys I wasn’t ready to see because of some of the pain they had caused. At one point, I left the dance floor, found a deserted alcove of the venue, and stood against a wall by myself. I stared up at the ceiling, hiding from my peers, hiding from the sights and the sounds, wondering if it was possible for me to somehow just disappear. But I couldn’t. I had to return to the jungle, had to go find my friend to tell her we needed to leave. And as I returned to the dance floor, pulled out my phone and began to text her, I looked up to see the face of one of my classmates standing in front of me. He smiled at me and began to talk, and that was it.

It all happened so fast. One moment I was single, not looking for anybody, and the next, he and I were making plans together. I liked him…a lot. We went out on dates and had a ton of fun. We sang in the car together. We cooked together. We talked about things–real things–and we discovered that we had a lot in common. There was never a moment when he wasn’t holding my hand. I got to get dressed up on the weekends, had a reason to feel beautiful.

For the first time in my adult life, I wasn’t doing everything alone. I felt a degree of support and comfort from having a companion. I finally had something to look forward to, something that gave me comfort rather than anxiety. But, as I had known deep down about the sustainability of my work schedule, I knew that this, too, was going to crash and burn. The signs were there from the beginning–the ones telling me that he wasn’t right for me, that maybe I was falling in love with an idea rather than a person. I couldn’t bear the thought of hurting him, even though he had said and done many things without seeming to consider whether or not they would hurt me, but I knew I had to end it. I knew I had to say goodbye to him and the comfort he gave me. And even though we had only been together a month, the thought was unbearable. This was made even more true by the fact that he isn’t an American citizen and was leaving the country for good shortly after the semester ended. So, saying goodbye to him like this almost certainly meant I would never, ever see him again. We don’t always get second chances, and I didn’t think I would ever get another chance to see if, even if he wasn’t right for me now, maybe someday he could be.

Unbearable.

I finally did it at the end of November, knowing the pain and loneliness and regret and emotional chaos that awaited me after it was over. And there it all was. Right in time for exams, too. I cried for days, and I stopped eating. I stopped sleeping. I took a train home because I couldn’t bear to be in my apartment–where he had been. Where we had talked. Where he had held my hand. Where we had, in some small ways, begun to merge parts of our lives. Where I had–after years of taking care of myself, of working myself into the ground, of forcing myself to keep going even when I wanted to stop, of making the plans and rearranging when they went wrong, of rejoicing when they went right–finally gotten a glimpse of how amazing it feels to not do this alone.

I crashed, and I burned.

It was fitting that the semester would end this way–hell, that the year would end this way. It was quite a year.  I’m not feeling sorry for myself, I’m really not. But the year was exhausting. It was exhausting because of all of the work, and, even more than that, it was exhausting because of all of the feelings. The highs and the lows of school, of my dreams, of the relationships I formed, of the relationships I lost, of my own perception of myself…it all caught up with me in the end. I cried, and I cried, and I cried. I cried because of how tired I am. I cried because of how much I don’t know–how much I don’t know about who I am, about why I still feel so alone, about why I can’t find somebody to love me, about why things have happened the way they have, about where I’m supposed to go and how I’m supposed to get there.

I cried because I couldn’t accept that this is all there is. I couldn’t accept that what I had had was what love is, I couldn’t accept that I’m worth as little as some people have made me feel like I am, I couldn’t accept that life consists only of waking up early in the morning and studying all day–of chasing a milestone or an accolade or three digits and a decimal point. I cried because I had believed, for so long, that there is more, and I cried because I was starting to believe I’d been wrong.

On the train ride home, I received an unexpected message from one of the guys I worked with over the summer. His name is Adam, and we had briefly started talking a couple of weeks before he left New Haven. I remember that I really enjoyed talking to him–he’s really smart, and he’s quirky. It was fun engaging in witty banter with him. But after he left, he kind of fell off of my radar. We didn’t talk anymore, we weren’t connected on social media (which I rarely use, anyway). That’s why I was shocked to see his name reappear on my phone after several months of being away from New Haven. We chatted briefly, but I wasn’t having it. He admitted that he hadn’t even saved my phone number that summer, which is why he was contacting me via a messaging app. I wasn’t enthused. I was done. So done, in fact, that I eventually stopped responding that night and didn’t make any effort to talk to him afterward.

I returned to St. Louis after a few days, and I took my first exam. As soon as I finished it, having eaten approximately 200 calories in the preceding two days and having gotten very little sleep, I called my mom. I was shaking and crying, hysterical. The exam had been tough, and I had two more to go. And I was exhausted. But I was also…broken. Something had snapped inside of me as soon as I stepped outside of the law school and began the journey back toward my empty apartment. Will I ever not feel this way, I begged my mother through my sobs. Why did he have to treat me like that, Mom? Why did I have to feel that way for him? Why does this keep happening? Why am I alone? When will things finally feel ok?

She tried to comfort me, but we had been doing this every day for about two weeks at that point. She didn’t know what to say anymore–I could hear it on the phone. I knew she wanted to help me, but we both knew she couldn’t. She told me to go home and sleep, to just get some sleep. I agreed, and I hung the phone, knowing we would probably do this all over again in just a few hours.

I ended our call, but I noticed that I had received a text message while on the phone. I opened it up and stared, dumbfounded, at its contents. It read:

I know you hate me, and I know this is the worst time of year for us law students, but I hope you have a GREAT day.

Adam had texted me while I was on the phone with my mom. I don’t know why he did it when he did, or, frankly, why he did it at all. But he did it. I hadn’t heard from him in a week, hadn’t thought about him, hadn’t even responded to his last text message. I think it’s been about four years since a man has texted me to tell me to have a good day.

Just take me, please, I had implored the universe only moments before, as the flames enveloped me.

No, it whispered in response.

I still have some things waiting for you.

The fire has burned out a little bit as the moment gets closer–the one marking the end of what once was and the beginning of what will be. My exams have ended, I have a break, I’ve temporarily left St. Louis. The smoke has cleared, in some ways. But some embers remain. I’m still sad. I’m still scared. I’m still lonely.

I’m not a big New Year’s person, and I never really have been. I don’t like the idea of waiting an entire year to make the changes we want or need to make–I feel like every day we have, we should use to better ourselves, to take a look in the mirror and do the thing that needs to be done, whatever that may be. None of us know how much time we have, so how can we justify wasting any of it waiting? I’ve kept a journal for a long time, so I’d like to think I’ve always been pretty introspective. But, in some ways, I feel like I got lost this year. Somewhere along the way, I started caring more about what others think of me than about what I think of me. I started accepting an unacceptable level of treatment by others. I started convincing myself that it was enough for me, that I didn’t need or want or deserve any more, any better. I spent so much time thinking about men who didn’t care about me, crying about them, trying to be whatever I thought would make me enough for them and never, ever succeeding.

Someone asked me recently what I wanted to do when I finished law school, and I was shocked when, for the first time in my life, I didn’t have an answer. Here I am, at the final stage of what has truly been a lifelong journey, and I’m at a complete loss as to what the hell I’m actually doing. When I was younger, I wanted to change the world. I wanted to help people, wanted to make a difference. This is what I wanted when I was holed up in my room studying day in and day out through middle school, high school and college. I had never lost sight of it–that’s how I made it through, I think. Why, then, couldn’t I answer his question? At what point did the answer escape me?

Somewhere along the way, I got lost. I got distracted by the illusion of love–over and over again. I hardly dated in high school, and I spent most of college grieving the loss of my only serious, long-term boyfriend. I’m not quite sure why, but law school has been different. I’ve dated more in law school than I ever have. Maybe it’s the stress, or the loneliness, or the fact that absolutely anything is better than sitting at home alone reading my law textbooks, sometimes. Or, maybe it’s because I finally feel ready for it. As unstable as law school inherently is, my life feels more stable now than it ever has. I feel more stable than I ever have. I feel ready to find him, and I want to find him.

But, in my quest, I got lost. I lost myself by chasing the prospect of love, chasing a distraction, chasing a few fleeting moments of what looked like partnership, of what I convinced myself was the solution to my loneliness. And for every moment I chased it, for every moment I spent running toward men who were indifferent, at best, I ran farther and farther away from my dreams. The ones I had formed on my own, the ones I had cherished, the ones I had clung to steadfastly for so long, and the ones that none of these men knew of or cared to discover. I ran from my dreams of my career, of my purpose, of what I know real love can be. I ran from the girl sitting alone in her room, writing in her journal. The one who wasn’t afraid of the loneliness, but who gave herself to it. The one who knew that she had something to offer to this world and who dedicated everything she had, everything she was, to figuring out what that was. The one who knew that there was so much more to be gained by waiting, patiently, for the right things to fall into place rather than forcing the wrong ones. Even when waiting was lonely.

As I reflect upon this year, upon myself, it’s difficult to find the right words to characterize how I feel. I think it’s because I don’t feel like I have much left–so much of it burned down. So here I am, evaluating the damage, inspecting the remnants, looking for survivors. Objectively, not subjectively. Not through a lens clouded by feelings–the same feelings that started the fire in the first place. And when I think about that, about how I might characterize what I feel as “nothing,” I also think about the last time I felt nothing. It was the summer of 2014, when I went to a therapist and was told I was severely depressed. But I don’t feel the same as I did then–I don’t feel depressed. It almost feels like acceptance–it almost feels like I’ve bypassed all the other stages of grief. I don’t feel sad, or angry, or happy, or any feeling that I’ve ever really known.

But I feel something.

I feel something that feels like hope. I feel something that feels like strength–kind of like the strength of the studs that survive the fire, the ones that are still standing even when everything around them has turned to ash. I feel something that feels like being ready for what is next, whatever that is. I feel something that feels like surrender–like trust that the universe knows, and like maybe I’m not supposed to yet. I feel something that feels familiar–something that feels like myself. Something that feels like what I was, what I am, and what I’m supposed to be.

I feel something that feels like, regardless of the trials that may await after the moment finally arrives, the universe is still on my side.

 

 

 

 

 

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