when you fail.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

This is a strange week for me.

I thought a lot about where I was a year ago, and the people, places, and different situation I was in. I thought about all of it as I drove down Highway 99 at 6am this morning. I sipped coffee from my thermos, turned up the radio, and let myself go back to where I was one year ago.

One year ago, I had just finished the first days of a new job. I was thankful to have a job straight out of graduate school, let alone a job in the industry and field I had been studying and working in. This job provided me a huge apartment, incredible benefits, and tons of opportunities down the road. It paid really well, had a supportive working environment with room for growth, and new friends and coworkers ready to partner with me. I was confident this was where I was supposed to be, and what I was supposed to be doing.

One year ago, I celebrated with Paul, and we toasted to our successful move to Northern California. It felt like the start of a chapter of our lives we had spent so much time thinking about and planning for. After a turbulent year, we caught our breath while relaxing on the beaches of Maui, and then quickly turned around and left our communities in LA for new adventures up North. I had secured a job in the same geographical location he would be doing his graduate research, which felt like a long shot during the months of the job search. But I did it, and we were happy, excited, and looking forward to the next few months of adventures together.

I couldn’t help thinking about how different my life is now, just one year later. I’m not where I was, I’m not doing what I was doing, and I’m not with the person I used to be with. Honestly, I don't even feel like the same person I was a year ago. It felt like everything changed, in the blink of an eye – while in reality everything changed slowly, piece by piece, until I didn’t recognize anything anymore.

So what happened to that picture-perfect plan that I set in motion a year ago today?

In short, I failed. A lot.

Okay, I know it wasn’t entirely my fault, but I have recognized and chosen to remember this past year as a year of failures. I’m not going to sugar-coat it and say it was totally circumstantial, or a combination of “wrong-place, wrong-time” situations. Yes, there were external factors, like anxiety and stress, work environments, unmet expectations, mental illness, etc. But I have chosen to take responsibility and admit I failed, in more ways than one. Because I did. I made poor decisions, I said the wrong thing, I hurt others and I hurt myself. I failed, and I want to own that.

Failure is a tricky thing.

It’s an inevitable part of life. Everyone will remind you that failure is normal, and everyone experiences it. But failure still comes pre-packaged in a beat-up and ugly box, sitting on your doorstep without a return label. It can’t be resold or passed along. It’s something you have to accept and live with. And I’ve learned that living with failure is pretty damn hard. For something that can’t be avoided or ignored, it still feels awkward to bring up in conversation or acknowledge with others. Some folks find talking about failure totally normal and a key part of their story. The only thing is, it still felt like I was fresh off a steaming pile of failure, without some incredible resolution or success story to cover up the stink. It didn’t feel right to talk about how shitty this past year had been, if I couldn’t swing it or turn it into something positive. After all, who wants to hear about me screwing everything up, and then just complaining about it?

I’ve failed before in my life.

Things like failing exams, losing tennis matches, even disappointing my parents or others close to me. But those felt easier to acknowledge and accept. They felt simpler, like a conversation or trying harder next time would resolve them for myself and for others. Everything that happened in the last year, however, felt like I had made all the wrong decisions and was hit with this amount of unexpected failure out of left field. It dropped me to rock bottom, and I couldn’t find a way to get out. Everything just kept coming, one after another, until it was too much.

I couldn’t keep up with my workload, and missed meetings with my coworkers and students. I couldn’t finish tasks on times, and was having breakdowns at least once a day. I couldn’t find a community of friends, or a new church to readily attend. I didn’t feel motivated to go out and meet new people. I watched my relationship with Paul slowly begin to grow colder and more difficult, and I couldn't support him in the ways he needed. I couldn’t even take care of my basic needs, and stopped eating and sleeping regularly. And then, it all happened at once. I went on medical leave. I quit my job. My relationship crashed and burned, in spectacular fashion. I moved back home with my parents. I was unemployed, heartbroken, and felt like a total and complete failure.

It sucked, in the worst way possible. I have never felt a pain like this, and lived with it, for weeks on end. I didn’t want to hide it, so I told people about all the miserable stuff of this past year, in the name of authenticity and vulnerability and honestly -- just not caring anymore. It felt impossible to try and not acknowledge it. I didn’t care that I didn’t have some feel-good way to tie it all up, I just wanted people to know this past year sucked and I somehow survived. I didn’t want to hide behind my failures, even though they were big enough for me to comfortably stand behind for as long as I wanted.

When you fail, it really does feel like the whole world is against you. Like there’s some terrible person orchestrating this series of miserable circumstances that convince you that everything you did was wrong. And maybe you did do a few things wrong, or make a bad decision. You can be sad, and angry, and frustrated. All of your feelings are valid and deserve to be felt.

But here’s the bottom line: Failure is inevitable in life. Being a failure is not.

It took me some time, and a lot of space, to realize that I am not a failure. I may have failed (at a lot of things in this past year), but it does not define who I am and what I will do in the future. It takes time, and a lot of space, to get to a place where you can acknowledge and accept a new perspective on your failures. Some folks can get there faster than others, but it took me some time. And, I was just plain tired of feeling like I couldn’t do anything. When you spent time at rock bottom, you can convince yourself nothing is worth trying because you won’t get it right. I’ve been there, and I was damn tired of it. I needed to go, I needed to do something.

The funny thing about spending an extended time at rock bottom, is you realize you really don’t have anything left to lose. When I looked around at where I was, I realized I couldn’t sink much deeper. I was unemployed, living with my parents, fresh out of a long-term relationship, with nowhere to go and no one to be with. My "plans" were no longer relevant, and I was very prepared to be making lattes or sandwiches to help pay the bills for the foreseeable future. There was nothing else left to take, it felt like I had already lost everything.

So, I headed back out into this stupidly weird world with the very real possibility of failing right over my shoulder. I told myself whatever is coming down the pipeline can’t be worse than where I was right now. After all the bad that had happened in the last year, that had to be something good coming soon.

And strangely…that's exactly what happened.

After almost a year of stuff blowing up in my face, it felt like an Angels in the Outfield-type miracle, plopped down in my lap out of nowhere. An Instagram DM with an old friend led to an interview, which led to a job offer, which led to me driving down the 99 this morning to a new office space, new coworkers, and new work in front of me. It is different work then what I was used to, but it's work I feel passionate and excited about. There's no pressure to “make it fit,” or force myself into a position just because it makes sense with my resume or is in the same geographical area I thought would be the backdrop of my future. They told me I was a “creative,” and I felt my heart soar in a way it hasn't in so long. I've spent this week exploring, writing, and creating content. It came naturally, and I couldn't believe how this all fell into place just over the past week or two.

It makes me want to look up in the sky, try to find God, and ask “Is this it? What I’m supposed to be doing right now? Because I really don’t want to screw up again.” He doesn’t usually answer immediately. I like to think He's laughing and telling me to focus on what I'm doing, and not the possibility of failing again. I know this is a blessing from Him regardless. Who else could have aligned the circumstances to have me back home again (which I didn’t want), without any real job to do (which I didn’t want), with no plans to leave or someone to be with (which I really didn’t want), and finally at a point where I’ve accepted my failures and started looking forward instead? He brought forth something so gently into my life, at exactly the right time, and exactly the right space.

I know someday this whole story is going to be a powerful, and mighty, part of my journey. It didn’t feel that way for a really long time. But it's starting to take shape and feel like that now. After the first good thing that's happened in so, so, long, I’m finally starting to see the next chapter of my life take shape. It’s still a little thin, and feels fragile, but will flesh out and strengthen over time. I have failed, but I am not a failure.

Finding yourself at square one and starting over after failure is a humbling experience. It's where I am this week, and will continue to be for a while. But I don't plan on staying here, I plan on moving forward, trusting in what God is doing and where He is leading me. He didn't pull me through the shit-show of this past year for nothing, and I chose to firmly believe there is good still to come.

And we’re on our way.

Respectfully submitted,
Leah

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