The Decade That Was

A few days ago, I had a breakdown, the kind of breakdown in which you can’t stop crying for hours, your body trembles, and when you’re finally calm, your eyes are so puffy that they are nearly closed shut. At the end of 2018, I had asked God, the universe, any magical entity that would listen to give me two specific things, and a few days from the year running out, the realization that I wasn’t any closer to have those wishes, I collapsed. When I could stand again, I turned to my Spotify, for musical relief, and found a newly cultivated list for me: Best of the Decade.

It wasn’t just the end of another 365 days, but 10 sets of them. And because I am a sucker for reminiscing, I couldn’t let but look back at the decade that was and how all those little and big events lined up to put me where I am today.

When I say 2010, it doesn’t seem that long ago, but I’ve shoved a lot of life into the last 10 years. The end of 2009 was challenging. I had gone out on a limb to start my own creative venture, and it was falling short of expectations. To do this, I went part-time at my job, and it stung my bank account. I had strong feelings for someone who did not return them. Come New Year’s Eve, as we moved forward into a new decade, I prayed that the next year, or at least the next 10, would give me what I longed for the most—love, adventure, success, happiness.

Six months later, I received a big blue envelope in the mail that changed my life. It was, of course, my invitation to serve in the Peace Corps. By the end of 2010, I rang in the New Year at a bar in Zinder, Niger, that was playing club music on the inside and “The Devil Wears Prada” on the outside. I couldn’t have been happier.

If you know my story, you know then that just weeks later Peace Corps suspended its program, and I was forced to return home to South Dakota. I wallowed a bit, still lonely and unsure of my place in the world, but by the end of that year, I was again in Africa, this time in Lesotho.

Shortly before 2013 dwindled out, I returned home to start anew. The last two and half years had been amazing and had busted my perceptions of the world wide open, but it was time to get back to the real world. As soon as January 1 hit, I knew I would have to start applying for jobs and rebuild my life. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to be next, but I wanted to finally fulfill a life-long desire of living in a big city. Also, that place should also be where I find my future husband.

It wasn’t long into the new year before I packed my bags and moved again to Washington, D.C. It was the first place to offer me a job, so I took it, thinking I could be happy in our nation’s capital. D.C. was fine but not exhilarating. I would just need to get used to it, I thought, but before I could, another life-changing invitation came my way, again on Peace Corps letterhead. This one was to encourage me to apply to a communications and writing position at the regional office in Chicago. It was a lengthy process, which is true to Peace Corps, and while I tried to make a life in Washington, including dating, I couldn’t settle in. Turns out, I wasn’t supposed to, because just a few months after moving, right at the moment my lease in D.C. was up, I was offered the job in Chicago. My belongings were shoved into boxes once again, and the first night in Chicago felt more comfortable than any in D.C. ever did. This was the big city home I always wanted and needed.

It’s incredible to think that I have lived in Chicago for more than half of this decade, especially given all the moving around I did in the other four and half years, but the Windy City has been my longest home outside of Pierre. Those first few months were fantastically lonely, spending more nights than I should drinking red wine and watching Netflix. Eventually, I formed social circles, mostly with people that had some kind of Peace Corps connection, whether I served with them, met them through the alumni network, or worked with them at the regional office. Honestly, if it wasn’t for Peace Corps, I wouldn’t have had many friends the last five years.

The move to Chicago was meant to jumpstart my career, refill my bank account, and most of all, lead me to love. I hadn’t been in relationship since I graduate college, or since Obama took office. After striking out trying to meet men in the real world, I went to the apps, which was disastrous. I once went on five dates in five days, with no luck in finding a guy that I liked and one that liked me back. Each rejection allowed me more room to criticize myself and point to my faults. Both of my younger brothers married before me, and at the wedding of my youngest, in 2015, I vowed to give it all up. I had a date lined up that week, but after that, I was done.

As you probably might have predicted, that date was with the man who is now my husband. We met almost a year after I moved to Chicago, on June 2, 2015. Three years to the day, we married in a small ceremony on his parents’ land in rural Tennessee. Sometimes it bothers me that I had to wait so long to find my love, but when I look at all the trials and tribulations life has handed us in our short marriage, I am thankful that I’ve had the maturity and life experience to look into his brown eyes, grab his hand, and continue to walk through the storm. Had we met as previous versions of ourselves, I can’t guarantee we would have had the same perseverance.

Professionally, in the last decade, I’ve struggled to find my purpose. My job at Peace Corps was a fine one, but after two years, I realized I had gone as far as I could go in Chicago and began looking for better, higher-paying opportunities. I wanted to continue to write and work in the non-profit sector, and I found another job fairly easily. Again, it was fine, but I wasn’t in love. I was promoted and allowed to do more creative work, but by then, I knew it was time to try something else.

In the meantime, I wrote a book and pitched it, along with other stories, in an effort to spread my name across the country. Just like my dating attempts a few years early, I was met with a lot of rejection, and even more silence. Only one agent wanted to see my book (and she eventually passed) while no editors grabbed the ideas I pitched. Even so, I wrote. I joined writing groups, submitted stories, and found relief in blank Word docs. At one time, I had hoped to build a freelance career, but all the effort and anxiety around that didn’t feel worth it. Maybe I could still write on my own but find another career worth pursuing, I decided.

While talking to an old friend one day in 2017, he asked me if I had a mission statement for my career. I had never thought of it before, but I blurted out, “To help people feel less alone.” And, in that second, I finally had an answer to all the wondering and pondering about my next career move. When I knew what to do next, it wasn’t long before all the pieces fell into place, and within five months, I was enrolled at Roosevelt University to begin a master’s program in clinical mental health counseling.

At 33, when I started graduate school, most of my friends already had their advanced degrees, and now as they are making big moves in their careers, I often feel behind and ridicule myself for waiting years do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. But, just like the timing of meeting my husband, I needed all that time behind me. Graduate school is very hard, and I can now count on multiple breakdowns in the middle and at the end of the semester, but I have no doubts about being on this path. My favorite is when we are role playing, practicing our counseling skills, and I am listening to the client before me. The world around me screams “Yes! This! This is what you are meant to do!” I gave up a lot to be in graduate school, but I would have had life-long regret had I chosen to play it safe and not follow this path.

In reliving this decade, I went back through old Facebook photos, trying to remember the nights that seemed mundane but were actually magical now that they are long gone. It broke my heart to see so many faces in those photos who I am no longer in touch with. A heartbreaking fact is that we continue living and our relationships change with time and distance, and sometimes relationships just run their course. When I was younger, I thought of friendships as currency and the more you had the richer you were. However, in the last few years, I realized I can no longer pour energy into those relationships that are not fulfilling, and I’ve had to step away from friendships that were one-sided or were more exhausting than rewarding. It still hurts to remember people whom I once loved furiously are no longer in my life, for whatever reason, but letting go comes with its own gift of self-love.

On the flipside, though, I’ve learned to nurture those relationships that add to my life, and in the last decade, I’ve had many of those. From friends who I can write with to those who are willing to wake up at 5 a.m. to run with me to those who I don’t see often but can pick back up with in a matter of seconds to those who will talk me through the breakdowns to those who I just want to be around because they carry a light that I want to bask in. I have less friends at the end of this decade, but they mean more.

2019 was a trying year at times, and this spring my mental health went to a scary and dark place, but I worked myself out of it. I went to therapy, I ran more miles than I ever have, talked to new and old friends, and relied on my husband. But the one thing that pulled me out the most was remembering that while not everything in my current life is perfect, that at one point, I pined for everything I have now. I ended so many years wanting a new life in a big city with a career I am passionate and a husband to share it with. So, yes, I didn’t get the two specific things I wanted, and I held some temporary sadness for that fact, but there is much, much more to celebrate.

Sometimes we don’t come as far as we want in a year, but it’s only a single year. For me, big things take time, and as I look toward not just to the next year but the following nine, I know life will bring me heartbreak and joy and love and triumph and challenges and miracles. The last decade was monumental, and I have no doubt that the next one will be as well. The things I want now will come, and if not, something better will. My responsibility in the next decade is to look around at what I do have and cherish it. If I could, I would go back to that girl in 2009, wanting life to be so different, and tell her to be grateful for the people she is with and that time because they won’t always be there. I would tell her to see that what she currently holds is leading her to the next thing and that she will get what she wants, so be patient and find the joy in now.

My life is not perfect, and things are at times hard, but it’s part of my journey. I can’t wait to see where it brings me in the next year and the next decade. For now, my goal is to enjoy all that I have, remember how hard I worked to get here, and keeping moving forward with gratitude and optimism that it will all be OK.

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