We were at a Waffle House, probably on the road to or from somewhere, but I don’t remember. To the server, I probably looked like your average pre-teen having breakfast with her parents and younger sister. We sat two by two at a four-top by the window. The symmetry was beginning to feel familiar enough, even though I still sometimes felt like I was sinking in the hole my brother left behind when my parents sent him across the country to a boarding school for emotionally troubled teens.
We were a family broken, but we did our best to pretend otherwise as often as possible. At least I did. I didn’t like talking about it. I didn’t like thinking about what was wrong with us.
“So we want to talk to you girls about something,” my Dad said.
That was my cue to act suddenly fascinated by the mushy blob of strawberries swimming in the syrup on my plate. My appetite shrank. Usually this sort of announcement meant talking about the stuff none of us wanted to say out loud. The four of us would launch into this awkward dance of conversation clearly choreographed by a recent therapy session my parents had endured.
“There might need to be some changes for our family,” he said, as though there hadn’t already been enough of them. “You all know your brother’s school is incredibly expensive, but it’s important that he’s there so that he can get the help he needs.”
My mom intervened, “What this means is that we’re gonna need to find a way to cut back on the things we spend money on. The movie channels, vacations…It’s possible we’ll even need to sell the house.”.
We had always lived in that house. It was home. Would this make us homeless?
“Well, where would we live?” I heard myself ask.
“I don’t know. I’m not saying that’s definitely gonna happen. That’s kind of a worst case scenario. We’re just trying to let you two know what’s going on so you don’t feel surprised if it happens,” she said.
They didn’t know I was already several steps ahead of them. I didn’t need help imagining the worst case scenarios. I’d gotten really good at it since my brother had boarded that plane to Oregon. I wasn’t about to allow myself to be blind-sided again. Imagining the worst gave me the fuel to walk the line, maintain control, and most of all, keep from fucking up. Imagining the worst case scenarios kept me safe from experiencing them in reality.
Do better. Be the good girl. Don’t get attached. Rely only on yourself. Don’t be needy.
I carried this mentality well into adulthood, having no idea how crippling it was for me internally because of how incredibly rewarding it was for me externally. I made great achievements. I was self-sufficient. I was aloof enough in my romantic relationships to keep men intrigued. To my friends, I was the one who had her shit together. They could come to me for advice, and I’d coolly dole it out. I thought I knew the secret to living the life we all seemed to chase. I believed I had an edge that others didn’t.
Sure, it nagged at me that it always felt like something was missing in spite of everything I had. Occasionally, I even felt guilty for not being happier. To reconcile that, I convinced myself that it was normal to feel some degree of disconnect from my life or some sense of longing for more. Being a half-hearted observer of what I actually wanted rather than an active participant in my life just came with the territory of being an adult. Everybody around me seemed to know the drill, too. They hustled constantly for that unreachable thing, popping antidepressants like candy, drinking alcohol or binge-watching bad TV, going grey, losing sleep, caffeinating, and complaining about all of it. Were you even an adult if you weren’t doing these things?
I wasn’t inside my life. I was inside a fishbowl. And while my fishbowl was pretty and sat next to other fish in their fishbowls, never did we swim the same body of water. And as exciting as it seemed like it might be to get my fins out into the real, roaring ocean, my allegiance was always to safety first.
We’re all fish that start out swimming straight for the good we innately deserve until the moment most of us hit a glass wall. Maybe your brother is shipped off to boarding school. Maybe your parents get divorced. Maybe you’re bullied at school. Maybe your mom overdoses on drugs. From then on, we keep circling the perimeter of what we now realize is our own fishbowl, only occasionally glancing outward. It’s painful to look out there for two reasons. For one, we know we risk catching a glimpse of our own reflections, and the chances are pretty good that we won’t like what we see. Secondly, we’ve taught ourselves that what’s on the other side of the glass is just an illusion, an impossibility. Happiness, peace, abundance. and true joy aren’t meant for us. We believe the sooner we fully accept that, the sooner we can quit expecting more, and the sooner we can quit feeling the discrepancy between what is and what we want to be. So round and round we go.
The catch is that we’ll never quit wishing for more from inside our fishbowls, because it’s our birthright to experience the vast beauty of the ocean. There aren’t exceptions to this. Even if we try to deny this truth, it’ll come beckoning us at some point. The longing will bubble up. What we do with our inherent desire for genuine happiness is what makes the difference in the way we live our lives. Simply put, we either choose to believe we deserve it, or we don’t. We either open our hearts to receive it, or we pour more gasoline on our fiery yearning with a slew of unhealthy behaviors and distractions that push us even farther away from what we truly want.
Yes, it’s common to feel disconnected, half-hearted, or jaded in life these days. It’s anything but normal, though. What I can tell you now is that we’re all charged with the sole purpose of experiencing our most joyful lives while we’re here on earth. Mountains aren’t moved by people who feel half-empty. Real, lasting change isn’t affected by those who are letting fear confine them to a fishbowl. Most of us would agree that the world feels out of sorts and desperate for change right now. We each have a responsibility to be deeply, truly happy if we want to make that happen. It’s the first important step, and it’s one you actually have a say in. My challenge to you is to be honest with yourself about whether you’re doing everything in your power to make it a reality.