you learn to survive, then you learn to come back alive

mississippi river

I started my adolescence with all this fire and verve. All these goals and plans and dreams, and oh my god, I laughed at adults who told me “I hope you make it.”

Hope? I would.

I memorized New York City street maps, because someday, I’d leave Minnesota. I told adults who asked me if I wanted to be a mother that I only wanted to “after I was old and done living,” because I was too greedy for the world to imagine tethering myself. I installed a computer with only one working program (a word processor) and typed 250 pages about a girl who wanted to lead. I carried notebooks with me, and asked for books on writing for my thirteenth birthday. I registered for classes that I was technically too young for, and just didn’t tell anyone my age (until my classmates asked me join them for a post-class drink, and I had to say catch you in five years). I was going to be a writer someday. I knew this is how I’d get there.

I’ve written so much about the something that happened. Depression and anxiety caught up with me, and carved me from the inside out. Even after I got the help you get (meds, talk therapy, coping mechanisms, etc.), I wasn’t quite unstuck. Like silt in a river, I drifted and settled beneath the current. I stayed like this for years.

Movies and memoirs tell us there’s one big moment for us to change ourselves, but I have a theory that we’ll all do this many times over the course of our lives. Rise from a waking sleep, and realize that this life is partially, if not wholly, our own.

I spoke with a woman who is reaching the end of her career, and still preparing for her next act. She told me that she’s never regretted her choice to pursue what she was passionate about, not even when the money didn’t follow, not even when the dream jobs became untenable. When I told her I was still trying to figure out how I will pursue, she said, “If I could give you two pieces of advice, you need enough drive to understand your passion and how to follow it. And don’t ever, ever, ever delay your goals for a man.”

Elsewhere, I read an essay by a brilliant writer I admire, “I used to be a woman who did things. I was a doer, a maker, a builder.” I read that, and remembered the younger version of myself who assumed, at twenty five, that that’s who I’d be by now.

This isn’t about regret (although, to sing Sinatra, I’ve had a few) or some misplaced “I thought I’d have done x, y, and z by twenty-five” (we’re not expected to deliver in our first act), but rather about what happens when you start to feel the weight of time slowly building.

When I was a teenager, my favorite song was Bruce Springsteen’s “The River.” A beautiful, and terrifying song. I rolled one lyric over and over, trying to make sense of it. “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse.” He’s said that this album was his first attempt to hold both life and death in the palm of one hand. When you listened to this album at fourteen, you can’t understand all that pain. I held that line so close to me, because even though I knew (they way you only can when you’re fourteen, sixteen, eighteen) I’d never lose sight of my dreams, it haunted me.

About eighteen months ago, I laughed out loud when someone asked me what my dreams were. We’re really still asking those questions like they matter? We haven’t all given up and given in to the grind? Then someone else asked me the same question, a guy in a bar who I’ll never see again, and I felt the way you feel when you drink champagne on an empty stomach — all fizz and light and warmth in your fingers and your cheeks. Now, my boyfriend and I talk about dreams like they’re worth holding on to. He talks about mine like they’re worth fight for, and what’s even crazier to me, is I’m starting to believe it again.

I’ve been coming out of the fog for well over a year now. Survival is only one part of recovery. Reclaiming hope, reclaiming possibility, reclaiming not just the ability to, but the courage to dream, reclaiming my right to want something out of my life. That’s what comes after learning how to survive.

It’s like driving through the night. The earth starts to roll towards the sun again, and there, where there was only black, is the horizon. All clean and endless and there again.