The Stories We Tell: Part 01 of Many

One thing I will always rail against is the societal insistence of asking children what they want to be when they grow up and then forcing them to stick with whatever answer they say. I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but to recap for anyone who might not know, when I was asked this question as a child, I never had the same answer. I wanted to be an architect, an astronaut, a firefighter, a veterinarian, a zoologist or zookeeper, a farmer, a writer, a teacher. My most common answer was author,” but as soon as I reached the age where my dreams had to somehow become realistic–it feels like that hits around age 11 or so–that answer wasn’t enough for a lot of adults, and every time I changed my answer, I was asked didn’t you want to be [something else]?” That begs the question: why were they even asking?

The truth was that I did want to have those careers, all of them! I couldn’t choose. Or if I learned that I’d have to do an aspect I couldn’t stomach, I’d back off; this is why I never returned to the idea of being a vet. This has been a constant theme in my life; I’ve always wanted to do everything (or some approximation of it).

In high school (ages 13-18 for me), I had a mean writing habit; I was writing novels by hand in my notebooks when I should have been listening to my teachers. I was taking all sorts of electives–pottery, home economics, creative writing, two languages (French & Spanish)–playing every sport I could–soccer/football, basketball, softball, ultimate frisbee–and working hard on the robotics team. I took AP Environmental Science my freshman year and every other science class I could get my hands on. I raced through Mathematics levels, wrote a poem for the Literary Magazine, took two semesters of architecture courses. The one thing I refused to do was to move from the general education track to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) program at my school. I didn’t want to be forced to be one thing, and it seemed like that program was trying to turn out engineers with no liberal arts backgrounds.

Despite my best efforts, the robotics team started to take over my life. It was intense competitive club, and during the competition season, we were in the metal shop every single day, often for hours on the weekend, building a robot designed to throw basketballs or race through obstacle courses. By my junior year, I was heading up the drive team, planning out chassis and wheel configurations, and helping assemble the gearing for any other mechanisms. My parents kept telling me This could be a great career for you! You can always sell a novel while working a full-time job!”

While true, while supportive, those conversations always left me feeling as though I wouldn’t have their support if I did want to go to school for creative writing, or anything that wasn’t a STEM career. Even though I’d written my first books in Kindergarten, even though I’d finished my first novel in the fourth grade–it was terrible, but I’d finished it–I felt as though they didn’t think I could do it. So I stopped bringing it up.

When I was 16, I took a computer science class because everything interested me still, and it was one elective I hadn’t yet taken. It came naturally, probably because I had been playing with Lego Mindstorms since I was 10, and with computers in general since I was tall enough to stand on a chair to see the screen. I took the AP Computer Science course the next year, and it was still coming naturally, but part of me was screaming, I’m not sure I want any of this.

The truth was that I hadn’t had time to write or even think about writing since my freshman year had ended. I was running on fumes every day of my life at that point. I was staying up until 3 am to finish all of my homework, hiding in my closet so my parents didn’t know. I was counting the seconds until I graduated, until I could leave home. I chose schools far away, but I end up choosing mostly tech schools, like MIT and Rochester Institute of Technology. In a fit of rebellion, I applied to Arizona State, thinking that if I could just get Tempe, maybe I’d slide into the pop-punk scene that had blossomed there. My best friend convinced me to apply to one liberal arts school in New York, just one, and I did.

I’m glad she coerced me, because I got a full-ride. It was a small school with hundreds of majors, and I thought, finally. In the US, parents aren’t allowed to see your university records unless you give them permission, and mine weren’t paying for it. I had been accepted as a mechanical engineering major but I never took a single engineering course. Instead, I went full throttle into the humanities. I took creative writing, archaeology, Ancient Greek, medieval history, and an honors literature course that delved into books I’d never even heard of.

Every time I went home for break, though, my parents were still saying What are you going to do when you leave school? You’ll need a job, you’ll need money.”

They weren’t wrong of course, I would need to live. I still had no idea, though.

The summer between my first and second year, I resolve myself to choose. I decide on computer science because it had once come naturally. I thought that meant I’d find it easy to balance it and hobbies. I went all-in, hoping that if I just decided it’d be easier to stick with one thing. I completed a five-year program in three, not wanting to stay in school longer than I had to.

I met my partner, fell in love, graduated.

I left school already burnt out, already having lived through five or six quarter-life crises before my 25th birthday. It was around then that I looked up and realized I hadn’t written even part of a novel since high school, hadn’t finished one since I was fourteen years old. I had stopped falling down research rabbit holes, I had stopped doing crafts, or baking, or sports. My life had begun to revolve around work: I was either at work or thinking about work.

I job hunt, I switch companies, and it continues. I dive into the productivity space hoping I can find a way to fit my hobbies in around my work and still enjoy evenings with my partner. All the while, I can feel the life being sucked out of me. I keep thinking it’s the company, the job, the work, but how do I change careers? I have no idea.

I am burning myself out to fit hobbies in around work tasks, I am reckoning with learning that I’ve been struggling with ADHD all of my life and not knowing, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, I know that if I keep pushing, I will make it out, but it will be a long, long time.

I dread every time I sit down at my computer to write code. I procrastinate on work tasks because I can’t stand to write one more data access function for a poorly constructed business enterprise solution used by five people and that creates no value in the grand scheme.

Then… fate. Or kismet. I am granted the opportunity to not need to work at a day job for a little over three months. Three months of freedom to just be me, to try to do what I want, to make something of my dreams. I barely missed a step.

Two weeks in, and I find myself opening Visual Studio Code to work on a widget for the books I’m reading. On a whim. I thought I’d never want to touch code again, but I lose myself for 4 hours in the logic. I create something from nothing, sit back, and wonder.

The stories we are told, the stories we tell ourselves, they’re very powerful. I spent my entire life being told I had to do one thing. I had to work a job. I had to make money. I couldn’t do what I loved every day. I would hate my job, my career, and I would work to live, work to put money in the bank and food on the table.

What if those stories were wrong?

25 July 2022 personal-life mental-health stories

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