So, You Found Yourself—But How Do You Hold on to the New You?
Finding Myself? Sorry, That's Already Handled
Up until the last year, I'd never given much thought to "finding myself." By the time I started college, I already had pretty clear personal goals and values that I intended to live by:
I wanted to write novels.
I wanted a job that had meaning.
I wanted to live in a vibrant city.
I wanted to be kind to the people I loved.
I didn't want to be consumed with a job, unable to make time for the things and people that mattered most.
Simple, right? And for many years it seemed to be enough. But, in what is now a common refrain in these posts, chronic illness had other ideas.
Chronic Illness and Identity
A few months ago, I heard someone describe their bout with COVID-19 as both cruddy (being sick) and also a massive time suck. For this otherwise healthy and able-bodied person, being unable to DO anything was almost as draining as being physically unwell. They were forced to lie around and rest for a week while their head pounded, their body ached, and their brain worked at half capacity.
I held my tongue. Because this describes much of my life.
Chronic illness robs you of time. Often, the harder you push through it, the worse it gets. Chronic illness doesn't appreciate brute force. Each flare takes the time it takes to recover. You can do things to ease that recovery along, but you can't will it away (despite Facebook ads claiming otherwise).
My main life goals were to write, have meaningful work, and spend time with the people I love—but none of that accounted for the time my chronic illness demanded. I was always shortchanging something. So I put work first. That's what I thought I was supposed to do.
I spent less time writing. I spent less time with loved ones. I spent more time sick. It was a tradeoff I didn't question.
Then, two years ago, I injured my right hip. After a misdiagnosis and some knock-on tendon injuries, I had surgery. My recovery was long and difficult. I'm still not back to where I was before, but I'm inching there. At the same time, my chronic migraines went through a 12-month near-constant flare. I also experienced a serious and frightening bout with depression.
I was not okay. And I couldn't hide from that anymore.
Something had to give. And the most obvious (work) was the scariest of all. I had been at my job for 8.5 years. I loved the work and the people. Every day, I was contributing to creating meaningful change in the world. But I had also let my job become a huge part of my identity.
Who would I be if I let that professional identity go?
I was scared. Terrified really, to let go. But I'd long ago decided that being scared wasn't a good enough reason not to take a big leap.
Marco and I calculated how long we could go without my income. I figured out how to get affordable health insurance. I made backup plans for access to the expensive medications that help keep me functioning, just in case insurance denied them.
So I did it. I left my job.
And then I got on a plane to Italy.
Running Away from Something or Running Toward Something?
I had this idea in my head that I would spend my summer of unemployment resting and writing in Sicily. I imagined myself finishing edits on my manuscript that's more than ready to query. I imagined writing a whole new novel.
I imagined writing fiction, like I had been for many years.
But what I found wasn't fiction. Not even close.
In Sicily, I found a better version of myself. I found the self I had always wanted to be.
I started writing two blogs just because I felt like it. I wrote and published essays in outlets I admired. I stumbled into freelance work with an online language company I adored (and that I'm still using to learn Italian). I edited the latest memoir of a writer whose first book I loved. I decided to start a business (more of that to come, as I'm in the early stages still). I rested when I had migraines.
I met more of Marco's cousins than I could count. I mastered the local bus schedules in our small village. Waiting for those buses, I learned the art of stillness, of letting my thoughts wander. I had so many ideas, and so much I wanted to write about. I ate kilos of peaches. I made new friends. I let myself be happy. So so happy.
I said yes to anything that interested me. And I discovered I had far more interests than I even knew.
As our return flight approached, an unexpected anxiety crept in. I was scared again. But this time, I was scared of going back to the person I'd been in NYC. I was afraid I would fall back into my old habits: overworking, ignoring pain, relying on distraction instead of creating space for new ideas.
How would I hold onto the Camellia I'd been in Sicily, when I wasn't in Sicily anymore? Did she only exist there?
Holding Onto Myself
I still don't have the answer to that question.
I've been back in NYC for a week now. The first few days I had a brutal migraine from the flight, so I rested a lot. I've started fighting my way back into a routine this week, but it's been hard. I miss Sicily.
But I'm trying my best to teach my favorite version of Camellia to travel.
So far, that's meant selling furniture on Craigslist (yay summer cleaning) and updating my personal values:
I want to write essays and articles, short stories and novels.
I want to contribute to change, whether through work or writing or something else.
I want to be kind to the people I love.
I want to honor my perfectly imperfect body.
I want to be comfortable with stillness and patience, because that's when I can hear the voice of my favorite self.