When Personal Growth Isn’t A Myth

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A week ago last Thursday, I found myself sitting, waiting for a job interview, in a call centre in Bridgeton, and wishing I was anywhere else in the world. I’d had to skip my English Lit lecture to go there (which was the one redeeming feature of the whole experience), and I’d braved the notoriously unreliable train service across the city to the East End. I walked from Bridgeton station to the call centre, down quiet streets strewn with litter, uncomfortable in my ill-fitting black dress. I stood out like a sore thumb, in my purple coat and bright pink lipstick, the epitome of the “west end wanker”. I was 40 minutes early for my interview, and I had to spend a lot of time standing outside on a sketchy-looking street.

My intuition was already tapping me on the shoulder, whispering worries into my ear, reminding me that I didn’t actually want this job. But I’ve gotten very good at ignoring my intuition lately, so I paid little attention to my apprehension. Once inside the building, I convinced myself that my intuition was wrong. This would be fine, maybe I would even get the job, all would be well. Then the interviewer led me through the room where I would potentially work… It was airless, filled with the chatter of tens of people reading off the same script. A bad smell permeated the air. My head throbbed. I knew that there was no way in hell I wanted to work there. The interviewer led me to an office in a side room, where I waited for the interview to commence. My headache worsened, and I could feel my anxiety building. I was zoning out, getting lost in my thoughts so as to escape my surroundings.

As the interview began, I searched my mind for excuses, for some reason to leave. My go-to excuse is to say that I’m ill. It wouldn’t have been that much of a lie, given how my head ached. But my anxiety was so bad that I couldn’t force the words from my mouth. I hate lying. I only lie when my anxiety really calls for it, and even that is too often for my liking. As my fight-or-flight instinct threatened to consume me, I did something that surprised myself.

I turned to the interviewer, and said “I’m sorry, I don’t think I’m the right person for this job”, and I left. No lies, no half-hearted excuses, no explanations, just the simple truth. It is so rare for me to say exactly what I want to say at the time that I need to say it, and to do so was empowering. In that moment, I felt like something had shifted within me, that I was a tiny bit closer to becoming the person I want to be.

Tomorrow it will be two weeks since I turned 20, and these two weeks have been scattered with many surprising moments, moments where I’ve said or done things that brought me closer to my “real” self. I’m changing, and that change has become palpable. There was a time last week where it felt like more happened to me in four days than in the past four months. And I’m not scared of these changes. If anything, I find it reassuring. I spent so much time feeling like I was stuck in place, and suddenly I’m moving forward again. It’s not necessarily that I’m even doing anything. Even when I sit back and do nothing, life keeps happening to me, keeps surprising me.

Last Sunday, I heard from someone that I’d been wanting to hear from for a long time. By “a long time” I mean precisely 19 weeks and 2 days. Because yes, I’m petty enough to count. I’d anticipated their message for, well, the entirety of those 19 weeks and 2 days. I’d imagined what they would say, how what they said would impact me. Even when it seemed unlikely I’d hear from them at all, there was a part of me that never doubted it. That said, I almost had a heart attack when I saw I had a message from them. I read it with trepidation, barely taking the words in. But once I’d recovered from my initial shock, my first thought was “ugh, I can’t deal with you right now”. I had a presentation to write for my class the next morning, and for possibly the first time in a year, dealing with Pretty Eastern European Guys was the last thing on my mind.

The next morning I was overcome with a dreadful case of flu. I had a terrible headache, a slight fever, bouts of dizziness every time I stood up. As a result of this, I didn’t have time to over-think about the message I’d received the previous night. By Wednesday, when I was on the road to recovery, I’d gone so long without overthinking that I couldn’t bring myself to slip back into that frame of mind. Everything I know about myself tells me that, upon hearing from a person I had feelings for for a very long time, after they’d ignored my message for 4.5 months, I should be overthinking the hell out of it. I should be analysing every word of that delightfully long message, searching for hidden meanings in the punctuation, or whatever I normally do. But every time I tried to think about it, to think about him, my brain came up with this error message “Error 101: can’t deal with this right now”, and I’d stop thinking about it.

I realised today that this is probably the closest I’ll ever get to the Buddhist ideal of detachment. For a chronic overthinker like me, putting this distance between myself and my usual worries is nothing short of a miracle. I am at peace, I’m living more in the present moment than in the past or the future. I’m accepting life as it is, rather than projecting my own desires onto every situation.

I’m used to living with unanswered questions. I hold Closure up on a pedestal as if it’s the one thing that can save me. But lately I’ve learned that closure doesn’t come from other people. Even if it does, those other people don’t tend to be the ones who created the wound in the first place. When I received that message last week, I’d already gotten my closure. I got it last month when I talked about the situation with a mutual friend. So when I got the answers I’d searched for, straight from the horse’s mouth, I didn’t know how to process that information. He wasn’t giving me the mythical ideal that is Closure, because I had that already. He wasn’t reopening old wounds, because they hadn’t quite healed yet. He gave me answers to questions I’d stopped asking, that was all. It was what I’d wanted for so long, but it also didn’t change anything. Maybe the only thing that really came out of him replying is that I have to change the ending of one of my poems.

The whole situation made me realise just how far I’ve come in the past 4.5 months. Back in September, my self-esteem was really low. It had taken a hit while I was travelling, and never quite recovered. My view of myself was incredibly negative, which was made worse by my anxiety. I couldn’t see all the good parts of myself. I still have times like that. A few weeks ago my anxiety was dreadful and I felt like I could never escape from it. I still make self-deprecating jokes far more often than I should. I still doubt myself. But overall, I’ve improved hugely.

One of the things that struck me about The Message, was that it contained a lot of compliments as to my nature. I don’t know how many were meant as genuine observations about me, and how many were just part of the “it’s not you, it’s me” speech. But either way, my initial reaction was “holy shit, that’s so sweet!!!”. But by Wednesday, when my illness had subsided enough for me to think critically, I was reading The Message for about the 7th (and final) time, and I had this little voice in my head like “I already know that, this isn’t news to me.” And I realised that all the nice things this person was saying to me, were things I knew already. I know I’m a nice/kind/caring person, I know I’m talented and exuberant, and any of the other nice things he said about me.

Whilst it did feel lovely to have my good qualities validated by someone whose opinion once mattered a lot to me, I realised that his opinion wasn’t the be-all-and-end-all of my self-worth. I’ve reached the point where it doesn’t matter that he thinks I’m a good person. It’s nice that he thinks that, and it makes me happy, but I’m also self-assured enough that it wouldn’t matter to me if he thought the opposite. It once would have made me the happiest girl alive to know that someone I thought very highly of could even slightly see the good parts of me. But now I’m wise enough to know that it’s just rejection in pretty packaging, and that nice words don’t actually change anything, and that I’m a Strong Independent Woman whose worth is not defined by Pretty Eastern European Guys.

Maybe it’s simply that I’m over the whole situation. But it feels like more than that. Something has changed in me: I’ve grown, and I can see myself – and other people – clearer than I used to. I can see all the good in my life, I can see I have friends who love me and that’s where my focus belongs. Because of that, I can also see where I shouldn’t invest my time. There’s no point wasting my energy on someone who lives in another country and takes 4.5 months to reply to a message. There’s no point waiting for a future that’s never going to happen. I know what I want out of life, and I know where I’m going, and anything that’s not conducive to my growth doesn’t belong on my path. I’m tired of trying to give myself to people who don’t want me, and this week I’ve realised that I can literally stop doing that. I can choose to not think about people who probably aren’t thinking about me.

I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know if some people will randomly re-enter my life at some future point. If they do, I’m open to that, maybe I even want that. But I’m not going to spend my life waiting around. For the first time in a long time, I’m not attached to a particular outcome, and there is a beauty in that. I like not overthinking, I like letting life surprise me. And I don’t know how long that will last. I know that mental health is a slippery thing, and my overthinking could come back at any moment. But for now I’m going to enjoy this respite. I’m going to focus on the things that make me happy, and give my love to the people who are in my life, rather than those who are absent. I have so much love to give, and I may as well start by giving it where it’s wanted.

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