Opening Up About My Mental Health

Let’s talk about anxiety!

We’ve all experienced it at one point or another. Maybe it was before you had to present something in front of a class or maybe it creeps into every conversation you have with someone. However constant or random it is in your life, it’s there all the same and it is the worst.

My relationship with anxiety is still very much a gray area in my life as I’ve only recently found a therapist and haven’t been properly diagnosed. I don’t have a professional’s stamp of approval that I’m an anxious person but trust me, when answering phone calls at your job makes your bowels contort and has you looking for any excuse to run to the bathroom so you can cry and breathe, you know something’s off. That’s been an ongoing pattern in my life since before I can remember.

I don’t understand my anxiety yet, but I’m looking forward to getting to know her as my therapy journey unfolds. She’s sort of like a very on and off again partner — sometimes we can’t help but fall back into our toxic patterns. In the past, that’s shown up as getting drunk before noon to head into my serving jobs — it’s how I would transform into my “calm, cool self,” into a version of me that didn’t shake in challenging situations where I was being watched. I convinced myself that handling stimuli like this was okay, that it was only temporary and that I just needed a push before finding my footing. Now I realize I was harming myself to appear like I was healthy.

Anxious feelings are a common thread in all of our lives, which is why many of us find unhealthy ways to cope with them. More often than not, people think “the anxiety label” is only for people who’ve been told they’re “sick” and need medication, when really there are millions of anxious people out there who don’t have the proper resources or privilege to even get diagnosed in the first place. They go their whole lives with that fear left unchecked and numb it the only way they know how…alone. And that, my friends, makes me so fucking sad.

Therapy and mental health education weren’t prioritized discussion topics in my upbringing, which I know is the case for many other families. In my Portuguese household (at the risk of speaking for a group of people and being misunderstood), I was taught to be resilient, to repress things and to carry on. Having a therapist or talking about seeking professional help just weren’t commonly on the menu, but Bacalhau was (gotta love a silver lining). Looking back, I know this wasn’t anyone’s fault, it’s just the pattern we knew best. Unfortunately, it’s the pattern most people know best.

While I didn’t have a point when I started writing this, I guess I just wanted to remind people that you never know what’s going on behind closed doors. Humans have an incredible knack for burying their shame, even if what they’re afraid of is nothing to be embarrassed about. I’m still very anxious (roll credits) about sharing my own mental health experiences. I would never have made it this far without the help of all the people who shared theirs so boldly. So, with that being said, I want to open up a nurturing space to talk about it, to remove the shame and to make getting help something worth being proud of.

If you got this far, let me know if you want more blog posts about topics like this. I’d love to go more in-depth about my own experiences, too. Please feel free to share your own with me in our judgment-free zone and know that you’re never alone, even when it feels like no one gets it.

Filling Your Own Cup: Persevering in Uncertain Times

Do you ever feel like you’re stuck because pieces of you are split up in different places?

Lately, I’ve been feeling like I’m in limbo. The feeling first started creeping in when I was living somewhere I was anxious to leave and I knew that better opportunities were waiting for me somewhere else. It’s like I was saving my creative energy for a new setting and until I was there, I’d keep coming up short creatively (or at least, that was my excuse). I thought paintings and blog posts would pour out of me the second I moved into this new apartment. But, I felt more uninspired than ever when I arrived at the “better” place.

I repeat this mistake a lot — making a change of scenery responsible for providing me clarity. In my experience, however, focus almost always comes from the inside out. It doesn’t appear out of thin air in a new place, as much as we might want or need it to. You have to go digging.

When you feel overwhelmed and you’ve been staring at that blank canvas or empty journal, ask yourself: what’s really slowing me down?

For me, the answer took a while to excavate but when I touched the nerve, it all came pouring out. I was grieving the fact that my family and I were separated by a greater distance than I had ever known. My parents had moved back to the Azores in July and I stayed behind in Los Angeles, which meant that we now led separate lives in different countries. It was a lot to take in and a little too much for me to acknowledge. You could say I felt those growing pains hard.

Things proved even more difficult with COVID-19. Whenever I thought I’d be able to see my family, new obstacles popped up threatening to separate us even longer. I’m certain many of you understand and I think we’re all missing someone or something more deeply than ever. You can almost feel the collective fear of time building in the atmosphere.

The point is, when I finally allowed myself to look at the source of my blockage, all of the reasons I was exactly where I was supposed to be revealed themselves too. All of the friendships, opportunities and moments my boyfriend and I had created in LA came up. It was this incredible life we had built even if it was separate from my roots — what a scary and beautiful thing.

What I learned through facing my blockage head on was that I had been making people and settings responsible for my ability to create, and that’s why I kept finding myself in the same spot. I was giving outside influences all of my power even when there was little I could do to change them. When I finally acknowledged the distance from my family objectively, I realized what I actually needed. I needed to fill my own cup.

Now I know that whenever I feel creatively stuck because my heart is in different places or lamenting something, I can always choose to find beauty in where I’m standing now. People, settings, and things will constantly change and I can still choose to show up for myself. In the past, I might’ve thought this way of thinking made you a selfish person. Now, I realize it’s the kind of thinking that can save your life.

Your Brain on Abstract Art: A Guide to Achieving Mindfulness Through Painting

As my relationship with abstract art deepens, I find myself wanting to share all the juicy benefits it’s provided me with the world like a healing elixir. I think if more people knew how welcoming and nurturing painting like this could be, we’d alleviate a lot of the collective tension. Who doesn’t want that?

In this blog post, I’ll be sharing three ways abstract painting can help you achieve mindfulness and how you can start benefitting from this creative process regardless of your level of experience.

Let’s start, shall we? 

To begin, I want to try to describe the process of abstract painting and what it feels like. To me, the thrill of it stems from freedom — every ounce of feeling and subconscious thought makes its way to the canvas without hesitation. It’s grounded in pure expression and never dictated by the pressure to create something perfect or recognizable. 

That’s what makes it so inclusive. Whether you’ve been painting for years or never held a paintbrush in your life, you know you’re safe to channel your authentic creativity on the canvas and give in to the process as it unfolds without fear of judgment. 

This specific type of freedom always reminds me of how you create when you’re a child; without inhibitions, not trying to stay in the lines. I remember coming home from school and spending time at my desk with all this energy inside that needed somewhere to go. I would tear through construction paper, rip apart old fuzzy posters, and start throwing any paint and assorted crafts I could find into this mass of controlled randomness. All the pent up energy made its way to this thing that wasn’t a thing at all. I didn’t think the result was pretty when I was done, but the aftermath was a fullness that’s stayed with me since. I’ve come to understand that these are the reasons why: 

  1. Abstract painting is free from the binds of reality 

For anyone with a busy mind, abstract painting can provide a comforting stillness much like meditation. When you’re not focused on a clear vision, result or specific form, you let yourself wander into the subconscious. Vered Aviv writes in his Frontiers in Human Neuroscience article that “abstract art frees our brain from the dominance of reality, enabling it to flow within its inner states…and activate brain-states that are otherwise harder to access…it enables the exploration of yet undiscovered inner territories of the viewer’s brain.” With this freedom, you can express feelings and forms of energy that don’t fit the mold of something humans have quantified or defined. 

For example, last year I went through something physically and emotionally traumatic that left me feeling deeply isolated even when I was given support. I wasn’t prepared at the time for the feelings that came up and I didn’t know how to articulate them. I tried talking about it (to myself and loved ones) and writing about it, but words didn’t do the experience justice. So, on one of the days when it all felt especially unbearable and claustrophobic, I pulled an old canvas out of my closet and faced the discomfort head-on. I poured every tear into a process that had no structure and allowed myself to feel each emotion while the painting naturally unfolded. It was the most healing I had felt since the experience because I didn’t have to define it — what came out of me was unfiltered feeling itself, all the ugliness and beauty of my “inner states.” While the process of painting through the trauma was painful, the aftermath when it was done was like drawing a full, clean breath. 

“Shedding” Original Abstract Acrylic Painting by Mariana R. Cabral

2. Abstract painting helps you focus on the present moment

As previously mentioned, even if you’ve never painted before, you can achieve the mindfulness from abstract painting very early on in your practice. All you need is a canvas (or your medium of choice), some paint (I recommend acrylic to start) and paintbrushes or palette knives. The real magic unfolds the moment you begin concentrating on the canvas and experimenting. As you mix colors, discover new textures and play, you find yourself so focused on the task at hand that you enter the flow state. The flow state or “being in the zone” is a psychological theory that describes being so fully consumed by the present moment that the outside world, time itself and self-conscious thought slip away. You step outside of your typical thought patterns and into something bigger than you. 

Often when I tell people about these benefits they’re reluctant to paint because they think of art-making as daunting, something you need the perfect training and materials for. While I won’t deny that my time studying art in college helped me build a strong foundation, it upsets me how many people feel like they don’t have “what it takes” to paint. Sadly, I think a lot of this shame stems from childhood. It might’ve been a bad teacher, hypercritical parent or friend who judged your artwork so harshly once that you gave up on art altogether. I understand, and I faced that shame every day in many of my art classes where the pressure to be perfect clouded the high of free expression. It took time to find a space where I could express myself without limitations, and when I finally did I stopped obsessing about the final result. Abstract art allows you that freedom to rediscover your voice.

3. Abstract painting can change your brain 

Once you get comfortable enough to start playing with your new materials and painting consistently at your own pace, you’ll start to notice a drastic mood shift. For me, this was gradual but also completely life-changing. I’d notice the same release of energy and calmness wash over me that followed after a yoga or meditation practice. The more time I committed to creating freely like this, the less my anxiety or depression crept in (which was especially healing during the early stages of quarantine when I thought I might lose my shit for good). I was able to address those feelings, release them and put them somewhere. 

Research shows that through this process you activate your brain’s pleasure and reward system (serotonin). In one particular study done in 2014, fMRI scans were used on two different groups of post-retirement adults — one half of the group engaged in a 10-week art intervention while the other did not. The results showed a significant increase in stress resistance through more functional connectivity in the brain for the group exposed to the art-making. No effects were reported for the group that did not participate, which further proved the “neural effects of visual art production on psychological resilience in adulthood.” You can read more about this study and others here on Art4Healing’s special report. The results are mind-blowing — from improved critical thinking to increased empathy and reduced depression/pain.

“Untitled” Original Abstract Acrylic Painting by Mariana R. Cabral

All of this research and information is to say that abstract art (all art really) is nourishment for the soul, and the benefits are universal. Whether making art helps you translate feelings that are otherwise impossible to explain, stay focused on the present moment or heal longterm wounds, I’m a firm believer that this practice is worth every bit of effort. For me, it’s made all the difference — it’s been a friend, support system and a guide into my inner self that’s helped me grow more than anything else ever has. 

For those of you who are curious but embarrassed to try, please take this blog post as an official loving push into your abstract art journey. For those of you as deep into this practice as I am, please let me know if any of this resonates, and let’s connect!

If you enjoyed this post and would like an in-depth guide on what materials I recommend starting with along with some tips and tricks I’ve learned over time, I’d be happy to share what’s worked for me. As always, thanks for reading and happy painting. 💕

References

I Started a YouTube Channel!

Hello everyone! I finally committed to something that’s been a passion and fear of mine for YEARS — YouTube baby. 😳✌️

This new “From the Art Series” will feature a time lapse of my abstract paintings and illustrations every week. I might also record some audio explaining what the pieces mean and how I get through the process. The idea behind “From the Art” is to uncover how certain feelings, thoughts and ideas make their way into our artwork to heal us. I hope that by showing how deeply cathartic expressing freely in this way can be that I’ll help others find their freedom too, or at the very least just give you something fun to watch when we need it most.

Feel free to follow, subscribe, and let me know what you would like to see. I’d love some feedback. 💜

My Big Fat Hollywood Move: In the Thick of It

I don’t know how long I had been complacent before I moved out here, but I do remember feeling like Dustin Hoffman in the opening scene of The Graduate — propelling lifelessly on a moving walkway into his future. I bounced from one non-stimulating experience to another and rotated between the same toxic behavioral patterns. I couldn’t own up to my fault in it.

In the early stages of living in LA, we faced everything from nearly running out of money to our first landlord shortening our lease out of nowhere. I spent endless hours applying for jobs, apartment-hunting, juggling job interviews, and handing my resume out to open hands while Rich held up the fort. Regardless of the effort being made on both sides, we didn’t have the sufficient combined income to find another place before getting kicked to the curb.

On paper, it seemed like LA might not be in the cards. Somehow though, we were fine. Even in that first shitty Koreatown apartment where all the neighborhood cats congregated for weekly orgies and cops drove by looking for drug deals to bust, we were hyped up on the promise of the next adventure.

We traversed the city’s urine-stained streets, checked off all the major tourist stops on our list, and made time for daily walks around our neighborhood where I’d press my fingers onto wild flowers and milk every sultry sunset as fuel to keep going. I’d devour my peanut butter and sliced banana toast on our rotting wooden balcony and manifest. The cross-shaped power line in front of me was my temple.

While LA might not have been the reason I started finding a way out of the muck, the urgency and mayhem of reconstructing a life without the proper arsenal gave me a purpose. It forced me so far out of my comfort zone, my survival instincts kicked in. It was the first step that led into a sprint until finally I was going somewhere of my choosing.

As I picked up momentum, I unraveled years of false information I’d been telling myself: I’m not talented. I’m always five steps behind. I don’t have what it takes. I’m just not good enough, at anything. I thought hiring managers could see the same deficiencies I felt about myself. Truthfully, with how abusive my self-criticism could get, it had become a self-fulfilling prophecy and I’m sure they could see it.

In LA, once the fear of running out of money kicked in, I realized the only way we could stay was if I fought the toxic inner monologue with discipline and will power like never before. I decided to prove myself wrong. I’d prove that even though I was hundreds of thousands of miles away from “home,” I could make it work.

Eventually, through braving a lot of discomfort, some of the things that used to scare me more than anything became routine — from public speaking all over town to finding my own health insurance and everything else I would’ve put off in the past, I was rewiring my brain to adapt to the changes I needed to make.

One morning, I sat on the balcony and asked the cross-shaped power line for a job and a new place to live. I left my intentions lingering in space and carried on with my interviews in spite of that conniving inner voice telling me I wasn’t going to make it. Soon enough, I landed a temp job at a start-up in Santa Monica and Rich and I met a couple looking to share an apartment in Culver City — just days before we were about to lose everything.

At this point, things began to align at lightning speed. The anxiety of making an income and finding a place to live replaced with a cushy job and apartment at precisely the right time. I went from wondering what would happen next to spending eight hours of my day minutes away from the Santa Monica Pier. I’d walk along the beach and take the train to our resort-style apartment complex every night in awe.

Fast forward six months and the temp contract in Santa Monica had ended. I fly back to Massachusetts for the holidays not knowing if I’ll have a job waiting for me in LA when I get back. About a week later, I land a full-time job as a copywriter in El Segundo just in time for the new year — fulfilling a dream to write for a living that I thought might never come true. I start devoting a huge chunk of my free time to making art and reading about spirituality, philosophy and health. I feel free.

Life since moving to LA hasn’t shifted all that drastically from the life I had in Boston in terms of opportunity. No matter how new the experience is, that thrill of novelty wears off and eventually you’re just left with yourself again. If I hadn’t taken the time to work on the things that were dragging me into that dark, stagnant black hole, no amount of moving or wishing things were different would’ve set me free.

I’m still fighting the urge to sink into that stagnant place every day. That might always be part of my story. However, I also know that when I commit to an action and apply the discipline to see it through, manifestations come to life and I get closer to my bliss.

The state of the world has shifted drastically since I first started writing this blog. In fact, it’s been stored in my drafts for months because I felt like I had nothing of value to say. Never good enough. Now, as we’re all battling social distancing and the inner demons that arise during stagnant times, I feel like this has its place — my homage to the inner peace that can derive from taking disciplined action toward your goals, even the smallest ones.

I hope this introspective time inspires you to keep finding what feels good in spite of any toxic inner voices trying to hold you back. I hope you start to remember what you’re capable of so you can manifest your dreams, and I wish for everyone a life of their own choosing.

My Big Fat Hollywood Move: Baby Got Back Problems

A 24-year-old’s last-ditch effort at “following her dreams” with her boyfriend and moving across the country to see it through

When I posted the first installment of my LA blog series, I had been on a writing high all day – something I hadn’t felt in months. I can’t tell you how long I sat down to write that particular post, but I can tell you that when things like this happen I’ll sometimes forget to eat or piss. It’s like the idea might fade so I have to race to get it down before I can return to being a person.

Unloading all of that “I’m like totally chasing my dreams” euphoria onto a document and sharing it had me feeling pretty on top of the world. It might be silly but, to me, I had committed to something and allowed myself to be vulnerable. I hit that “Publish” button and got up ready to take on the next challenge. I was invincible. The last thing I thought was going to happen was almost instantaneously falling to the ground in scorching pain. I think that’s fair.

What had happened (and this is where the universe’s dark sense of humor comes in) was that while I had recovered from a muscle tear/strain in my lower back before moving to LA, the pretzel position I sat in all day to write about the move reignited the injury with a vengeance. And it really got me good this time around. A stark contrast to how indestructible I had been feeling just moments before. Of course, still riding the excitement of posting something I was proud of, I ignored it. I stood up even though my back could barely hold up the weight of my upper body. I didn’t allow myself to accept that this was happening. So, I convinced and dragged Rich (the boyfriend) out to celebrate the blog post and indulge in some beer and wings instead. Why not?

On our way to Buffalo Wild Wings, people driving beside us must’ve assumed I was in labor. I had my legs pushed into my chest cannonball-style and was taking the deepest breaths of my life, trying to force the pain away with each exhale. It wasn’t working, and we frantically drove around for twenty minutes just looking for a parking spot. There were none. There never are. We kept getting stuck at the same lights and driving around in the same circle before committing to yet another absurdly priced parking lot. This is driving in LA by the way. Parking is impossible, traffic is endless, and nothing is free or cheap. Eventually, we commit to a parking lot. When I get out of the car I’m waddling in slow motion like a duck and crying. Rich is in a panic, urging us to go home. To anyone watching I imagine it looked like a scene from Days of Our Lives. Regardless, I wiped away the tears, told the pain to fuck off, and set forth toward the wings. This would be a night of FUN!

Sitting while the fire in my back bubbled with buffalo sauce on my lips and a cold Blue Moon in my right hand, I realized I had unintentionally embodied the content of my very own words. What was it I said in the last blog post? Oh yes, that in a moment of pure bliss at the Santa Monica pier I had felt “fear because these moments of inner peace rarely last”. How fitting that I had just finished typing those words only to have thrown out my back seconds later. Yin and yang, my friends.

When I got up from that bar table, I had to muster a force from the gods not to crawl on all fours to the nearest bathroom. Somehow, I made it to the door and placed myself in line. For that two-minute wait I started to think the sweet release of death might be better than moving another inch. I only really caved when the room started spinning, which is when I realized the pain had won. I assumed my duck position once more and waddled all the way back to the car. Peeing or any other bodily function would have to wait.

It took everything in my power not to feel sorry for myself as we drove home, but all I could think about was how I had wished for inner peace to last and found myself here instead. How I had signed up for dance classes that I may not be in the condition to attend for a while. How I had written about fighting to be more present. And I had. So, what the hell?

It’s been a little over a week since all of this went down and I’m happy to say I can see from outside the melodrama and self-pity now. I can see that recurring problems can’t be ignored, and that unfortunately being present or grateful won’t make them disappear either. Unwelcome stressors will always come up, much like my student loans. While they can be avoided in some ways (in my case: not sitting in a terrible position for hours like I had been advised not to, yoga, core-strengthening), the true test is how well you can improvise and apply what you’ve learned from previous setbacks. Of course, that’s assuming you have the means necessary to do so. Not everyone has the proper resources to overcome the negative hurdles or injustices that plague them. I wish there were more ways around this.

I don’t have a recipe for avoiding the hiccups that pop up however big or small in each of our lives, but I do think that Imogen Heap was right in writing that “there is beauty in the breakdown”. With the extra recovery leisure time, I succeeded in applying for my own health insurance (I’m a grown-ass woman) and gingerly introduced walking back into my routine. This time, absorbing a totally new environment and spending some quiet time with myself. I have more to look forward to now and a heightened awareness of how important prioritizing health is, whether it’s physical, psychological or a mix of both.

I started this blog wanting to draw attention to the elastic band nature of our lives, the extreme highs and lows. I thought I could tell the truth – dive into the sticky vulnerable muck and prove that it’s just as therapeutic to write as it is to see yourself in the raw experiences of others. It’s a reminder that we’re a collective of both good and bad experiences. So, while I had plans to fill this second installment with all of the incredible things I’ve done and seen since I moved to LA, I didn’t want to gloss over the not-so-Instagram-worthy bits. Not only are they pretty hilarious to look back on sometimes, but they’re also a reminder that life is just one long improv exercise. You participate, laugh, and keep moving.

Hold

There’s an insatiable hunger that food can never dull. It lives in the deepest crevice of your heart, and contorts your dreams till you’re sick. Feed it too much and the hunger spreads. Feed it too little and it’ll eat its way out. Feed it nothing – now that’s the trick.

Like a dog whose attention spans the world all at once, let the sky’s breath ruffle your hair. Stand under the sun till you ignite. Hold your mother’s hand.

Ignore the growl in your core till it turns into rhythm, a silk beat to walk in time to as you spread yourself thinner and thinner into dust because when you cease being wants, craves, and burns,

you’re cosmic.

Surface Tension

He held me on the sidewalk while bodies passed, dodging us like we were delicate birds in the middle of the road.

I stained his jacket like the rain looming above our heads threatened to stain the city.

We had been here before. Me grieving a loss of something I’d never had. Him towering over me like a building I could lock myself inside.

I used to think he waded in shallow waters while I sunk into the deep. I pictured his long tranquil body at the surface, a halo of sun emanating over the sea. I couldn’t reach it.

In the car I mourned the loss of nothing and felt myself sink. He held my hand just in time to keep me afloat. We locked eyes and fingers, igniting a forcefield to keep the world out.

Driving through the clutter, we escaped the muck that pressed onto our skin – mine always stickier than his it seemed.

When we were free I kissed him so he could feel the light he had left inside me.

It was then I knew we’d find our way together

through the rain,

the sea,

and up towards the sun.

Wasting Away

If only I could puke me out.

When I was done carving out my insides

I’d watch the ugly colorless excrement squirm on the floor.

______________________________________________________________________________

No need to kill it.

It’ll just die starving, waiting for nourishment like a newborn

– reaching out for hands.

______________________________________________________________________________

We’re all put off by our own vomit,

so I turn my back on it

because I’m clean now. I am.

______________________________________________________________________________

But wait,

a familiar acidic sting touches the back of my throat

– runs its fingers down my tongue.

______________________________________________________________________________

When I turn around the waste is standing behind me.

“Is something wrong?” it asks

– a foul smile forming on its face.

______________________________________________________________________________

And before I can answer I’m puking again.

My blood vessels burst all at once like a firecracker

And the lights go out for me too.

Where’d All My Friends Go?

I’ve been thinking about friendship lately, the inconsistency of it, and the paths we take to certain people. They say you need to take time to work on yourself before you’re marinated and ready for the right romantic partner, but what about when it comes to making lasting friends?

When I was an introspective, moody, an ego-driven teenager, I attracted a group of misfits that matched my disfunction. Together we smoked weed in basements, lurked in city parks at night, navigated romance or the lack thereof without tact, and wore through the hot topics that occupied our world like the intellectuals we thought we were. If you had asked me then, I would’ve said I was certain these were my people. Now I understand why my dad rolled his eyes.

Meeting during the peak growing years meant that some of us grew apart. As our personalities came to the surface, college and distance punctured any of the consistency left. I was the first to leave, even before college. I wasn’t missed much, and didn’t think twice about the fact that I was always traveling to them and rarely ever visited myself. One friend from that era in my life stuck around and, to be honest, she’s the only one that was ever meant to, even as our paths tangled and diverged. She made the equal effort.

Version 2

Nearly eight years later, and I still “keep track” of them through the lens of Instagram, which everyone can agree is a healthy and truthful peek into peoples’ lives. Who doesn’t love a charming scroll though someone’s filtered and seemingly perfect Instagram life? When you’re already feeling left out, these false fragments of your old crowd’s otherwise unbothered lives really taste like shit. But the lasting damage this media pattern has done to me is a topic for another time.

The lack of connection and intimacy that came from the inevitable falling out with my high school friends had me sprinting into college foaming at the mouth in desperation for something more. Desperation dug its claws into me and lured leeches into my world. I was too eager to please. I forgot to respect my own standards, which made it easy for me to fit into everyone else’s world without the satisfaction of anyone fitting into mine.

At that time, my priorities were getting around to validate my self-worth, getting fucked up because the feeling was still fresh and I thought I liked myself better that way, and searching for the right people. Blinded by the need to live what I envisioned was an adventurous and thrilling life, I neglected to nurture myself at all. As you can imagine, lasting, real, and healthy connections were nowhere to be found. I hadn’t even developed one with myself yet. It was a cripplingly shallow time in my life, the lack of depth contrasting humorously with how intense my experiences with the “friends” I had attracted actually were.

Though I would never willingly revisit freshman year of college, I occasionally look back through those journal entries and feel heat radiating from the pages. Those people and I, we were flames, untouchable and primitive like we had all dreamt we’d be some day. As short-lived and short of depth as it all was, I think I needed to get it out of my system. It was the scream I had been holding back inside me all through high school – guttural, dirty, and unapologetically loud for everyone to hear. It was a massive ‘fuck you’ to the time I had wasted living in a shell.

I eventually withdrew from that first college (ahem, flunked out) and from relationships that came with it. There weren’t many. I found my way out of the city and to the safety and isolation of my parents’ house in suburbia for a much-needed semester off. This location-shift brought my better high school traits back to the surface. Introspection greeted me like and old friend, and I learned to spend my days appreciatively alone. I  watched movies, filled journals with poetry and art, played with my dog, talked to myself (a lot), read, listened to records for hours, and slipped away from time without any repercussions. While I was getting to know myself again, the fire inside lit up at the thought of a new adventure. This time I would do it right.

Through a lot of hard work, self-discipline, and time spent alone, I earned the credits I had lost freshman year after trading away my academics and intelligence for a good party. I emerged from the ashes like a phoenix and tore into community college like it was my job. While earning straight As and shooting my GPA up to a 3.9, I also helped publish, write poetry for, and contribute artwork to a literary journal myself and other writers built from scratch. After school, I would head to a full-time paid internship at an advertising agency nearby. I didn’t make many friends during the semester I was juggling all of this, but I remember being too busy growing up to care. It was a detox, and when it was all over I applied to another four-year college and got in. I left the safety of home and found myself in another world.

There I was, a junior transferring to a new school again, only I knew this time was special. I could feel it. You know when you find yourself somewhere, and you get that roller coaster feeling in your stomach, like something’s wrong down there, but it feels good at the same time? It hit me hard. The nerves, the expectations, the fear, the drive to make this experience count. To this day I still believe that feeling in my stomach set off a siren only certain experiences and people could hear, because everything that followed seemed to fit. Every passing friendship, acquaintance, relationship, hook-up, classmate, coworker, etc., left an imprint. There were long-lasting connections brewing and short bursts of passing intimacies, but they each held weight in my soul and made me feel so in-tune with the world. What had changed? Why was I feeling fulfilled?

It was the balance. The balance was everything. The ability to harmoniously feed your intellect, nurture your creativity, work hard, take a step back, take risks, or stay in. I was discovering my rhythm and certain people around me started to step in time to it with me. Their balance matched mine.

And the beautiful thing, which is also equally sad, is that the equation of your balance changes the more you grow and it starts to fall out of time with the friends you’ve picked up along the way. So, even those deep connections that you hold dear, start to unravel as you go in different directions. And while you may only see each other through a screen now, there was a season in your life when they were the exact fit you needed.

Friendship is inconsistent, messy, part of the continuous and ever-changing nature of the universe. But one thing is for certain, you can only guarantee yourself more love, more happiness, and more fulfillment in your life by taking the time to nurture those things in yourself above all else. That is and will always be the most important friendship in your life, and it’ll set off the siren when its time to call others onto you.