Every child, no matter what age, gets asked the same question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Maybe when they’re three, they say “firefighter!” Then it evolves to “teacher!” or “singer!” or “President of the United States!” Or if you’re me, you feel like you’ve discovered the most original answer at the age of 12 and say, “I want to be happy,” and refuse to waver from that answer for years.
Embedded in my answer is an all-too-popular myth that thrives in societies disguised as meritocracies: that happiness can be achieved. Once you buy that car or get that dream job or date that boy or sign that contract or win that award, then and only then will you be happy. Romantic comedies strategically end when the couple gets together. We don’t see what happens after the credits roll. If finding a human to marry truly equals eternal happiness, I’m not sure divorce rates would be so high. If fame equals happiness, we would not see countless headlines about celebrities and their continued mental health battles.
Apart from the implication that happiness is tangible, one could deduce that tween-aged Sara’s repeated statement means that she was not happy then. However, despite a lot of undiagnosed anxiety and typical puberty happenings, I lived an incredibly comfortable childhood. I have an enormous amount of privilege and even with the challenges I’ve had, I feel grateful to look back fondly at growing up and be able to assign blanket statements to aspects of my childhood, like “comfortable” or “good” or “special.”
Merriam Webster defines happiness as a state of well-being and contentment: joy; a pleasurable or satisfying experience. State, experience, feeling. These all imply impermanence. A brilliant acting teacher of mine once told my peers that the only way to not prolong negative emotions is to feel them. The faster you let yourself experience the emotion, the sooner it leaves your body and makes room for something else. The reality is that happiness, like all emotions, will come and go in waves.
I had loosely planned six weeks of escape this summer. One chapter of healing had closed. My trial run of living in a place I was once intimidated by was coming to a close. Everything in my recent history felt as though it was moving toward this extravagant solo adventure that I knew would allow me to grow immensely. Even though this trip was guaranteed to have its challenges, I had already imagined the outcome for myself. I’d come home feeling older, happier, and ready to face everything I had been avoiding. I’d have life-changing experiences under my belt, people I would have met and never seen again, and the answers to all my questions about my future would appear without me having to think about them. Now you might be thinking, “Sara. Overdramatic much?” Yeah, I’m an Enneagram 4, what else would you expect? No but really. I fell in love with this idea, made loose plans, and told people about it. Because if other people knew, that meant it had to happen, right? Somewhere in the back of my mind, I became a little worried my trip would remain all talk. As if some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, circumstances changed. I was devastated, but quickly I realized the universe kept placing mirrors in front of me every step of the way, forcing me to face myself. So I gave in.
Until 2020, I had rarely embraced major change. I gripped onto stagnation every chance I got and avoided making any choice that made me anxious. Then the pandemic hit and we were all forced into a new level of discomfort. Understatement of the century. But honestly looking back, in so many ways, 2020 marked the start of a new depth of my life. I already couldn’t control much, so I thought, why not give up all control? I drove across the country with my parents, I let go of a friendship that I so desperately wanted to last, and I placed my heart in the hands of another person for the first time. I developed new fears, new habits, new dreams. My friends noticed. My acting teachers noticed. I thought, “it’s working.” This is the happiness I was always talking about. Now I just needed to figure out how to make it last. Living in the moment wasn’t enough. Because what if it ended?
I spent so long clouded by the distorted reflection of myself in other people that I wasn’t realizing just how bad my anxiety was getting. My needs were not being met, but I was afraid to voice them for fear of rejection because everything seemed great on paper. Through that time, I unknowingly shrank myself. I was not living up to my full potential. I was lying. I let the depth of new emotions take over my brain constantly because I had to hold onto those feelings, right? I thought I was doing everything I could, when in reality, the life I was living was not sustainable or healthy for me. I thought that getting out of school would automatically mean that my behaviors, thoughts, and actions would change. For the first time in my life, I was about to have no circumstantial obstacles. I could try the scary thing of moving to LA, exploring the film industry. I wouldn’t need to be long distance with the person I was in a relationship with. Everything was aligning; this was how I could hold on. Right?
When everything came crashing down and, for lack of a better description, my heart was shattered on the floor, I immediately knew this was my chance to rewire everything. Reconfigure how I looked at life. At myself. Everything big and scary did not feel that way anymore, I thought, because nothing could feel worse than getting dumped by the first person I ever loved.
So, I went for it. I was determined to heal in the “scary place” of Los Angeles, California, arriving under very different circumstances than I had initially hoped. And I can safely say, it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. A decision I made completely for myself, my heart, my dreams.
The understandably chaotic journey of Taylor Swift’s ultimate heartbreak album, Red, leads to a song I never thought I would relate to as soon as I did. In “Begin Again,” Swift writes, “I’ve been spending the last eight months thinking all love ever does is break and burn and end. But on a Wednesday, in a café, I watched it begin again.” I spent a long time mourning the girl I was when I first fell in love. Her innocence. Her optimism. I worried that I’d be too jaded now. How beautiful that we as humans continue to give and embrace love again and again, despite the potential of deep, deep pain. Everyone always speaks of first loves, but the depth of being vulnerable again alongside the magic of new experiences is wonderfully indescribable.
I was by no means actively searching for a relationship. I was first searching for any sign that one day I would be able to open my heart again. Luckily for me, I ended up meeting one of the kindest, most caring, and deeply honest humans I’ve ever met. I discovered over the next few months that not only was spending time with this person simply so much fun, but I could also safely be every facet of myself with him. He welcomed vulnerability and communication on the most beautiful levels. Sometimes I’d be taken aback by multiple compliments or moments of understanding because I was being treated in ways I didn’t even realize I deserved. I only hope I’ve been able to do the same for him.
In April, a best friend of mine was updating me on their blossoming relationship and described their emotional journey by saying, “This feels like the opposite of falling. I feel like I was elevated to a new place.” Which is when a lot started to click for me. I thought I had guarded my heart this whole time, but instead a lot of love was filtering through and pouring out. Loving someone does not have to be as scary as I had believed it to be. I continued to be honest, but as the summer approached, I also continued to hide behind circumstances and logical reasoning.
I wanted to run away this summer. Postpone facing my adulthood, facing my feelings, facing messes I’ve made and consequently slipped in. Writing this post from my childhood home instead of writing about marvelous European adventures is not how I imagined my summer panning out. I felt like a failure for a bit, but I quickly decided to seize the opportunity to relax and take stock of where I’m at. I’ve consulted myself and I’ve been doing the work to discover what it is that I want. If those desires have actionable steps, I’ve started to figure those out too. I’ve created routines. I’ve spent time with loved ones. I’ve been able to listen to myself away from the noise. I realized that I’m used to viewing everything as temporary; four years of college and a pandemic have taught me that. Through that lens, I’ve historically rarely been able to adequately set myself up for success. My brain gets ahead of itself. I let past experiences dictate why something I haven’t even tried will not work at all. I would let circumstantial obstacles be explanations for things falling through or not being able to fully go after what I want. I didn’t realize it, but I’ve been making excuses for myself for a long, long time. I do not want to do that anymore.
I’m about to arrive at another precipice. But this time, instead of avoiding life to chase a fantasy, I’ve chosen to set myself up for healthy growth. All I can do is continue to cultivate a foundation for my life to grow in whichever direction it pleases.
I like the little life I’ve created for myself in a city that I never thought I would be brave enough to live in. I’m grateful for the community I am a part of, particularly the love and respect we have for each other. To be in such a supportive, non-toxic community is eye-opening.
A natural conclusion to this would be to re-answer the question that I was always asked as a kid, replacing the word “happy” with something else relatively simplistic that sounds catchy, smart, and somewhat attainable, without reducing my life to a specific career path. I spent a chunk of time brainstorming this, only to realize what I want is so much more complicated. I strive for a full life, I suppose. And peace. I admit, sometimes I wish someone would ask me what I want to be when I grow up. Because although I’m fully 23 now, I still feel like I’m growing up. And I wonder if that will ever disappear. I’m not sure I want it to.
That solo trip will still happen someday. Maybe this time I’ll be a little more sure of the life I will be returning to.
UPDATE: I wrote a majority of this piece a few weeks ago. Since then, I’ve signed a lease and moved back down to LA, reunited with dear friends, and started preparing for the next few months. The view from this precipice has been pretty nice so far. I’m feeling deeply grateful and excited.