The summer after freshman year of college was, I learned, supposed to be Very Important. I went to a “highly selective college” (the college’s words, oh God, not mine), so its students were doing highly selective sorts of things: jetsetting across the world to study sustainable agricultural practices in rural India, buying new suits for prestigious internships at investment banking firms. As the spring semester wound down, I received a flurry of mass emails asking me to “follow my blog of my summer adventures!” I accompanied friends to Target to pick out new luggage. I stayed up late surveying piles of clothes, picking out the perfect outfits to fill those new suitcases.
On the last day of exams, I helped carry bags to waiting cars and hugged goodbye to my airport-bound friends. Then I packed up the last of my boxes, hauled them to the waiting minivan, and drove home quietly with my dad. When we arrived, I gave cursory hugs to my family, then crawled into bed, where I remained for approximately four straight days.
I didn’t know it then, but this was a well-bottom moment. That year, I had hurled myself at college with frightening force. I’d arrived feeling overwhelmed and scared. I had known myself as a daughter, a sister, a peacemaker. I had always stitched the boundaries of my identity using my family drama as a sewing pattern. With no pattern in sight, I was devastatingly lost.
So, I decided I was going to be the Best At College. I took extra classes and spent weeks “sleeping” in increments that barely qualified as catnaps. I gravitated toward the loud, flashy girls in my dorm that looked like they had college figured out, and I immersed myself in their drama. I joined a sorority, which was so utterly un-me that I might as well have gotten a biker tattoo. Along the way, I also acquired a massive case of performance anxiety and, during spring semester, a chronic cough and sinus infection that left me sounding like Joan Rivers. These were, of course, completely unrelated coincidences.
I was so busy being the Best At College, however, I missed the memo that the other Best At College kids had been nailing down glamorous summer plans. By the time the semester ended, all the deadlines had long passed. Also, I was so ill by this point that even I could no longer ignore it; I could barely walk up the steps without wheezing and coughing up horrible green sludge. I retreated home, ashamed and defeated, where I slept, wandered around in my pajamas, slept, looked longingly at the blogs of my jet-setting friends, slept, took heavy-duty rounds of prescribed antibiotics, and slept. After about a week of this – and after blanching at the state of bank account – I set out to get a job. Following dozens of rejections, I was hired on the spot as a waitress at a desperately understaffed diner.
Oh, the humanity! When my friends asked what I’d ended up doing for the summer, I laughed it off wittily. By which I mean, I was an ass. I’m learning how to talk Southern to get more tips! I’m clogging people’s arteries with deep-fried butter, dipped in grease! (For the record, I am madly in love with Southern accents, and that diner served mind-blowingly delicious food. Am I alone in wanting to go back in time and – gently and lovingly – punch my teenage self in the face?)
In truth, like so many bitterly sarcastic people, I was shielding some serious shame. Every evening, I’d come home, take off my grease-stained apron, and sit down in front of the computer, where I’d stare for hours at Facebook albums of European landmarks and college website articles about my peers’ summer accomplishments. I am a failure, I’d think. Why am I even going to college? I’m not doing anything worth writing about.
Time passed, like it always does. Gradually, the endless Facebook photos got less interesting. I regained a regular pattern of sleep and remembered what it was like to breathe without wheezing. And the more I rediscovered my health (and the less attention I paid to Facebook), the more attention I could give to my job. In many ways, I was a truly awful waitress. I was clumsy and always forgot the scripted speech of the night’s specials. But in other ways, I was astonished to see, I was actually… good at this.
The restaurant was located right off the interstate, so we served hordes of road-weary travelers, lonely truck drivers, and some locals too. I began to realize that I loved to welcome people. I loved to read the drooping, exhausted faces of the folks who wandered in to see what they needed at that exact moment. The frazzled parents on a family road trip just needed someone else to coo over their kids’ needs for a bit while they regained a piece of sanity. The local widower who tottered in every morning to sit over a cup of coffee needed a familiar face to ask about his day, a surrogate family to share breakfast with. I’ll never forget the young, professionally-dressed woman whose collapsed into tears when I asked her how she was. “I’m on my way to visit my sister after her chemotherapy. I just need some mashed potatoes.”
That summer, I rediscovered my health, my sanity, and my authenticity. Even more importantly, I began to find my place in the world. I am a people reader. I see the wounds – the bone-deep exhaustion, the fear masked as anger – and a place deep within me, a place that I don’t fully understand, responds. I know that I cannot fix the wounds, but that place within me knows, somehow, what that soul needs to take the next, very small step.
I am still figuring this out. I will probably always be figuring this out. For instance, I don’t know how to do this professionally without facing debilitating burnout (see the very reason my well ran dry in the first place). But I know this, the same as I know I have curly hair and oddly-shaped toes. And I needed to be there, in that diner, that summer, to learn it. I could not have been anywhere else.
Years later, I would find the words for what I experienced that summer in a book by Po Bronson called What Should I Do With My Life? I don’t normally like books like this. Generally, I think that the answer to What You Should Do With Your Life is not going to be found in a book; it’s going to be found in a series of maddeningly small revelations that result from good, hard soul-searching. But sometimes you want a book to answer it for you. So you go to the Barnes & Noble Self-Improvement section, which is where I found the words stopped me in my tracks.
“Stop looking for acclaim and feeding off the performance high. You can make such a difference in the world, if only you could stop trying to impress others, stop trying to prove yourself.” Bronson was interviewing a young professional named Leela, who had performed exceptionally well at a series of top-notch schools, but was feeling lost in her mid-twenties. Leela had “imprinted on the roar of a packed opera house,” but she couldn’t find the stimulation of a performance high in any of her prestigious jobs.
To find your passion, the place you really plug in, Bronson writes, you have to “get off the tour bus. That means going without applause for a little while.”
Holy smokes. That’s what I had done when I had first felt truly authentic, when I’d first felt the tugs of my calling. However unwillingly, I had gotten off the tour bus. I had gone without applause for the first time in my life. It felt pretty crappy at that particular point in time, as the bus left me in a cloud dust, on its way to New York internships and London study-abroad programs. But those few months brought more self-realization than years of high-wire tricks in front of an audience. I lost the “acclaim.” But I began to find myself.
Today, I filled the well by writing this. This story has been clunking around my head for years, refusing to stop making noise until I wrote it down. It’s not my most profound, life-changing experience. It’s not THE DEFINING MOMENT of my life (for the record, I don’t know that single DEFINING MOMENTS exist). It’s a story that grabbed hold of me and would not let me go until I processed it.
Sometimes, I think we get paralyzed by sensationalism. There are so many memoirs out there about the craziest things – the saddest, most heartwrenching trials, and unbelievable feats of accomplishment. I think we feel like we can’t tell a story unless it is the MOST impressive, unless we’ve struggled MORE than anyone else. But we have to get off that tour bus of applause-seeking. Tell the story you need to tell. Who cares how “impressive” it is? Who cares if it would sell a million copies. Tell that story that won’t leave you alone. Tell that story that’s standing between you and your healing. You can write it, you can paint it, you can tell a friend about it. Just tell it. And watch your well fill.