In some very strange way, I simultaneously found myself with both everything and nothing the first few months of my college senior year.
Why? At 21 years old, in the far-off, shimmering city of Seattle, my anxiety absolutely consumed me.
For this to make any sense, we’ll need to back up to my junior year. The spring of 2018, when I worked as Mosaic’s Editor-in-Chief.
One of these final spring days, I found myself nonchalantly leaned back in the mahogany armchair of my advisor’s office, as most college juniors do during the exhilarating and invigorating season we call course registration. We sit back as exams pass by, skimming through the registrar for courses like rock climbing and wine tasting, in preparation for a very casual and enjoyable senior year.
I had done it. I had earned this. I had worked long and hard for three years. Now, I had a full year left to kick back, wrap up the last few credits for my degrees, enjoy late nights with friends, and take my time applying for jobs every other weekend.
Until my advisor dropped the bomb:
“Alright, you’re all set to graduate this December!” She noted with enthusiasm, as I simultaneously choked on a mint.
I wasn’t cool with this, for many reasons. First, I wanted time to apply for jobs. I had spent the last three years scheduling my workweeks almost hour by hour after I switched to journalism and psychology from my original pre-med route. I took the maximum 18 credit hours every semester, and when I wasn’t in class, I was editing, working a magazine internship, interviewing, or writing articles for the school paper. If I wasn’t doing one of the latter, I was at an organizational meeting or studying over a baked oatmeal at Heritage House. When summer rolled around? I worked 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, for two travel magazines in London.
I ran myself completely dry, and I wanted my year. I wanted to graduate with my friends, to pop champagne and toss confetti with my roommates. I wanted to enjoy the fall season of football, free of job applications and cover letters until the new year rolled around. I wanted at least one college year, finally, to let myself relax and enjoy the one thing I apparently no longer had: time.
I had already spent a few months in Europe, so study abroad was out of the question. An additional major or minor only meant more hours of class and studying, which I desperately sought a break from. Though all hope seemed lost and an impending graduation grew near, the silver lining came rising out of a cloud like the rapture, rainbows and doves and an angelic symphony and all: The University of Alabama professional practice program.
*Spirited applause ensued*
In short, this meant I could spend a semester working for any magazine that liked my resume and writing. Better yet, I’d get class credit for it.
Seattle, for me, had always been a dream. Like, one of those dream cities you spend hours on hours looking up YouTube videos and compiling restaurant reviews for. I couldn’t totally explain my love for the city, that is, unless you had a few hours to chat or skim through my color-coded city guide.
But fresh oysters with lemon, endless mountain views and camping trips, rainy Sundays on city streets, top-shelf espresso, a prolific music scene, and the opportunity to explore and write about farmer’s markets and renowned bars or restaurants for Seattle Met, the city’s lifestyle magazine, seemed reason enough for me.
This, and a semester working in Seattle meant I could push my graduation to May of 2019.
So less than three weeks later, I packed my car and drove over 2,300 miles from my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, to the pine-scattered city of Seattle in a grand total of three days.
And I had never fallen in love with anything so quickly.
I immediately identified with just about every aspect of the city. The landscape offered a bustling city-centered work atmosphere, and simultaneously provided miles and miles of rugged terrain for backpacking, or a nearby lake for 4th of July tubing and fireworks with friends.
I had a solid internship, a cozy Pinterest-worthy apartment, and what resembled something of my post-grad dream. And those first few weeks, as I sipped almond milk lattes and spent lunch breaks perusing the produce and underground shops of Pike Place Market, I felt like I was living it, to a tee.
Yet, within a month of living by myself, in a place and a job that I initially sculpted as everything I wanted, I questioned every aspect of both my life and my identity.
And this is when my anxiety crept in like the Seattle fog.
It slipped in bit by bit, and at first I really didn’t even notice it. They were only questions, after all. They weren’t influencing my emotions or my mentality, were they? I was just being rational, covering my bases.
I loved my job, but I questioned whether or not it would financially support me after graduating in May, if I even had a job by then. I questioned whether or not I was a good enough writer, whether or not I loved what I did, whether or not I could spend a lifetime pursuing this career, whether or not everything I had worked for was worth it.
I questioned my relationships, both near and far. I watched as my friends in Alabama went out for drinks and dinner, questioning whether or not I was missing out and had made the right decision to work from afar for a few months.
I questioned my family, if they were all doing alright and when I would get to see them. I watched my older sister travel to South America with her long-term boyfriend, and questioned whether or not I should be traveling too, if I should be dating in Seattle or not, or what dating in the city even looked like.
And honestly, these questions barely scratch the surface of what ran through my head every hour of every day. I was worrying, questioning, spiraling out of control as I pondered what I was doing and who I was holistically. It pushed people away, and I hated myself for it. Everything was an issue, and if something wasn’t, it was about to be.
Because of this, I found myself getting somewhere around four or five hours of intermittent sleep for weeks. At two in the morning, I’d stare at the ceiling and wonder how I’d be able to write articles the next day. I’d show up to work, and spend my lunch break on the phone with my parents on the brink of tears, wondering what was wrong with me, questioning everything.
I told myself journalism wouldn’t work out, I wasn’t good enough, I thought too much, I cared too much, relationships wouldn’t last, everything was a toss-up, and nothing was dependable.
It wasn’t until I found myself curled up on my apartment floor in Seattle, calling my mother in tears for the millionth time, as she threatened to fly out and drag me back home, when I finally realized something wasn’t right, and something had to change. Despite the chaos, I did not want to leave Seattle.
So I slowly coached myself back into reality, and this was a full-time job. I realized I was asking myself a lot of the questions many students ask themselves after graduation. These questions were valid, they were just blown out of proportion, controlled far too much of my mindset, took me out of my present-day dream in Seattle, and tossed me into a toxic vortex of future plans, many of which I had very little control over.
I was honest with my friends and my family about my struggles, I gave up some of my own control and depended on them. I spent time working on my thoughts, and sifted through the clutter. I started writing more, running a few miles every morning, traveling on the weekends, finishing the books that had stacked up in the corner of my apartment, singing at church, learning how to cook, practicing piano at the public library, grabbing happy hour with friends. Hell, I even taught myself some Italian.
Slowly but surely, the fog drifted out and I resurfaced. This took an extremely long time, and a ridiculous amount of effort and energy.
And I think as college seniors, or really just people in general, we find ourselves in environments or seasons of life like this. Maybe we aren’t literally in a new place, but among a broad expanse of change or shifting of self.
I’m no psychologist. I’m no expert when it comes to mental illness. I can’t tell you what techniques or mentalities or medications will and will not work for you. What I do know, is how it feels to be 21 years old with every question conceivable when it comes to the universe, and a backpack full of uncertainty when it comes to just about everything. What I can tell you, is what worked for me.
I came to realize throughout my time in Seattle that we must eventually establish a balance of emotions and logic between the excitement and the unsteadiness of our ever-changing lives as we prepare for things like graduation, moving to a new city, or getting a new job.
But I’ve found what’s most important to remember while establishing this balance, is the fact that it really isn’t an easy thing to do, though we sometimes convince ourselves it should be. We’re told “you’ll make friends,” “it’ll be a great fit,” “you’re going to be happy there,” and “it’ll all be alright.” But when you’re in this new place in your life, either literally or figuratively (or in my case both) and things get rocky, it’s easy to doubt your own confidence.
You doubt your own confidence because there is no sense of consistency. Things are constantly shifting, changing, new people, new places and new experiences. Thus, as times, places, people and things shift throughout our lives, it’s only necessary we establish a dependence on ourselves and a true confidence in our own abilities.
This is what I’m finally learning at 21 years old as I work to manage and overcome my anxiety, and what I hope I can explain to others who feel similar emotions or think similar thoughts.
Our relationship with ourselves is the longest relationship we’ll ever encounter, and among the chaos, we can only truly learn how to love ourselves when nothing else is with complete certainty. So when it came time to get ahold of my anxiety, the first step was simply learning how to love myself properly.
And I speak a lot about self-sufficiency and self-love and self-dependence, but it also really helps to know that we’re never really in it solo, though we sometimes like to pretend we are.
Maybe you’re like me and you’re lucky enough to have a family and friends who repeatedly check in to ensure you’re happy and healthy when life throws some new places, people or experiences your way. But even if you don’t, you still have millions and millions of people on your side, because in one way or another, just about everyone is experiencing some kind of newness or challenge in their lives.
This universal challenge, a challenge which is not merely our own, is what guides the reassurance that we are capable, because we are not alone in our thinking. Our doubts, our uncertainties and our anxieties like to convince us that we’re alone. They like to convince us we’re the only ones that think this way, that feel this way, perhaps that hurt this way. This is not the case.
I quickly came to realize we are surrounded by individuals who, at the end of the day, also walk through a sense of instability in their lives, and remain dependent upon themselves as they do it.
A friend once advised I turn my uncertainty into faith, and that’s all I can really advise anyone to do, including myself whenever things get rocky. When I feel a bit overwhelmed, a bit unsteady, a bit uncertain, I have faith in myself. I have confidence in my abilities, in my independence and my strength. After all, I’ve made it this far, and so have many others.
What’s really crazy is this, though: while we all encounter the same universal instability, we all have the same ability to believe, and I mean really, really believe in ourselves. If you can believe, as I have come to find, that we’re all capable of a similar sense of strength under similarly unsteady circumstances, I think things get just a little more intimate with those we know and those we don’t.
In the end, it’s really just accepting the fact that we’re not alone in our anxiety, or our depression, or whatever it is we’re dealing with or working through. This universal intimacy is both reassuring and supportive.
And so I walk through the city, and while many are physically unfamiliar, the emotional and mental equality of both acceptance and perseverance that lies beneath those I pass on the street is comforting.
Let’s be honest, none of us really know what we’re doing. Whether we’re eight years old in oversized t-shirts absentmindedly eating a toaster strudel, 21 years old in a new city, or 60 years old on a porch swing with a mason jar of sweet tea, we’re all just winging it.
So this is your life, and you are going to be both moved and confused by it. But when it comes down to it, I think if any of us are going to make it, we simply just have to believe.
Absurdly cheesy and cliché, right? Yet, we genuinely have to believe in the power of both ourselves and the small things—in the comfort of a spiced chai at two in the morning when we’re sleepless, the melted hues of a sunset in the midst of traffic, in hearing our mother’s voice on the other end of the phone after a long day.
We have to believe, in the midst of unstable ground, that we have the permission and capacity to allow ourselves to be truly and deeply honest with ourselves. In this, we discover the pursuit of happiness.
We have to believe that we are meant to be here, wherever here is. Do not take a backseat to your fear, flaws or anxieties. Understand, there is so much more to life than simply surviving it. In this most chaotic world, let your love of yourself stand as the one constant truth of your life. If you can learn to do so, you will wake up, you will eat your toast and drink your tea, and life will no longer be any kind of black and white routine of pushing past some kind of pain or confusion. Allow your mind to believe in the optimism of uncertainty, accept the support from those around you, believe there are others like you, and suddenly, the instability will become the greatest adventure of your life.
I can tell you with great certainty this one thing, it did for me.