Empire State of Self.

Being happy in New York City is the best thing ever. The old cliché about stepping out into infinite possibility is true. You wake up on a Tuesday and put on, oh, I don’t know, a hot pink cropped blouse with four tiers of neck ruffles that makes you look like Flamenco Barbie. You contemplate fixing your usual coffee and oats, then decide to throw caution and financial solvency to the wind and head to your favorite espresso bar instead.

When you arrive, you see a new offering on the menu: iced blueberry lemon loaf. It looks mouthwatering. You see someone eating it, so you ask if it’s worth choosing over the famous olive oil cake. Before you know it, you’re clinking espressos and splitting olive oil cake and blueberry lemon loaf with a fellow patron, debating the relative merits of each.

You become so enthralled by good food and the kindness of strangers that you have to sprint to catch the bus, leading its goateed driver to ask if he saw you in the Olympics. “Actually, yes. I’m cross-training right now,” you reply. You beam at your fellow commuters, leading them to instinctively smile back in surprise and mild alarm. Hot damn, everyone loves me, you think to yourself. I am so good at New York!  You gaze out at the hulking skyline that has inspired so many movie montages, Jay-Z’s skittish chuckle echoing in your ears. As you hop off the bus, ruffles flapping in your wake, the driver yells, “Keep running, girl!” This is all before you start your workday at 9am.

Being depressed in New York City is the worst thing ever. If you’re sad or self-conscious or otherwise down on your luck, this city is a great place to circle the drain. You wake up on a Tuesday and find that nothing fits because you fell asleep eating your feelings again, so you put on a forgiving sundress that does little to hide your swollen eyes or greasy hair. You feel unattractive. Insufficient. Stuck. You hate everything, but you hate your wimpy attitude most of all. You decide that you’ll take a step back from the world to right yourself, just until you can be the person you want to be again—the person who deserves to live in New York City. Maybe you spend a month burying yourself in work or workouts or the covers of your queen-sized bed.

The first half of this summer was tough for me. I alluded a few times to the fact that I was struggling, but I largely tried to keep my emotions under wraps. I didn’t think I could write with enough distance to produce something that was more than just whiney, and furthermore, I didn’t really understand what was going on. On a surface level, nothing was wrong. I had a job, an apartment, friends and family who were as baffled and frustrated by my unhappiness as I was. It wasn’t that I had unrealistic expectations of what living in New York would look like—I’ve long made peace with my logistical constraints. But even within those, I felt like I was failing at being young and broke. I wasn’t having enough fun to justify the fact that I was barely scraping by.

In retrospect, I can see that my big mistake was trying to build an exact replica of my Chicago life in NYC. Since I graduated nine months late, most of my friends were in different places during my final year – geographically, metaphorically, or both – so I had social opportunity but little social obligation. I knew exactly which temptations were and weren’t “worth it,” and my heavy courseload was more than enough to occupy any remaining mental space. I graduated with a reasonable but rigid balance in effect.

When everything from the structure of my day to the nature of my friendships changed, the same habits that had kept me afloat in college began to drag me down. I felt like I was constantly falling short of my own high expectations, and I found myself resenting the experiences and relationships that stood in my way. I struggled to maintain balance in the only way I knew how: by devoting a questionable amount of mental energy to “health.”

New York City, with its raging nightlife and general domestic apathy, was an easy scapegoat. Most people here spend the occasional night in, and some even know how to cook, but neither activity is particularly New York. If you want to be a homebody, you can do it far more comfortably elsewhere—so where did that leave me? Suddenly, even the frenetic speed upon which the city’s reputation is built – the blind ambition, the conspicuous consumption, the tendency toward stimulation over self-reflection – seemed at odds with a post-recovery me. I understood my needs and my triggers well enough to know that my systems were non-negotiable, and changing myself for a city seemed as irrational as changing myself for a man. Maybe we need to spend some time apart, I thought. I love New York, but I think I hate living there.

It was a freeing revelation, but a frightening one. Losing New York felt like losing part of my central identity. Having planned for aspirations in theatre and journalism, it had literally never occurred to me that I could live anywhere else. I became briefly enamored with the idea of nannying abroad, then announced that I was moving to Portland—a city, but a smaller one, with a gentler pace and a more health-conscious culture. Having never so much as set foot in the state of Oregon, I became convinced that the West Coast held the answers, scouting Craigslist for apartments and plotting the purchases I would make with my new, roomier budget. I was so busy fantasizing about my nonexistent life in Portland that I neglected the more important issue: fixing my real life in NYC.

Fortunately, a combination of old and new faces helped jog me out of my mind vice. People will save us, man. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s this. I realized that even if I did eventually decide to relocate, I had to figure out how to exist in the interim, and I had to accept that what I was doing simply was not working. It was time to let some of my trusty systems go. Balance could still be a priority – it would have to be – but it would have to look different, and I would base this new version on what made me feel good rather than what I believed to be “right.” In short, I had to find my Empire State of Self.

And I have. Well, I am. I’m inching ever closer. I consider myself to be happy, but even on days when I can’t quite get there, I can almost always bring myself to be grateful. I have a job and a lease and a life here. I have a strong, active body and a mind that’s the quietest it’s been in quite some time. Now is not the time for heady self-reflection—not this week, anyway. Now is the time for dicking around and seeing what sticks. For me, maybe “health” means more drinks and less sleep; more leaning and less planning. Moderation is a broad spectrum, after all, and the stakes of exploring it are fairly low. Existing in the gray area is harder, but more rewarding than either black or white.

Today is September 11, 2012, and I am a proud resident of New York City—eleven years out of a tragedy and just shy of six months into my latest chapter. Portland isn’t off the table, but neither is New York. Let’s face it: I was never going to go anywhere else until I came here. And for worse or for better, I’m lucky to have had the chance.

Would you change yourself for a city?

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One response to “Empire State of Self.

  1. I love this post so much.

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