It’s Okay to Put You First

Around two months ago, I left behind my world. Everything I knew, everyone I love, and a city where I built my life. I packed a red truck full, piled high with boxes and suitcases filled with every belonging I would need to live on my own. I watched as my white house–the house I called home for 22 years–disappeared from view. I sat silently in the back seat as we drove through state after state before coming to a stop in Virginia. Middle of Nowhere, Never Going to Be Happy Here, Virginia. I put on my best smile as my parents prepared to walk out the door and leave me behind; yes, I was the one doing the leaving, but in that moment, it felt like I was being abandoned. As they drove away and I locked the door behind them, the only thought on my mind was: how am I going to be happy here?

My first month in Virginia, I lived life one day at a time. If I could make it through this day without wishing I was home, it would be a good day. If I could find a silver lining in this tiny town today, I could make it through one more. Day after day, one day at a time, for a month. August to September seemed to drag on and on, on and on. Despite reminding myself that this tiny town, in this tiny apartment, in the middle of nowhere, was only temporary, I knew I wasn’t going to last like this; I have lived the one day at a time life before. I lived this chapter of my story before; I knew how the chapter goes. One wrong step, one day too close to the edge, and I would be back in the dark for the next month, two months, year. After struggling, fighting, pushing through to find a new normal, I wasn’t willingly to sacrifice my light, my life, my mental health for temporary darkness.

The greatest lesson my depression ever taught me was to fight for myself. Saying yes to your own happiness is okay. Sometimes, you need to put yourself first, and there is nothing wrong with that.

It’s taken me a month to write about this because for a while, I was still trying to pretend there wasn’t a problem. That everything was truly fine. My friends and family would receive daily or weekly updates–all was well, Virginia is great, my classroom is wonderful. How could there possibly be anything wrong if I wasn’t talking about it? This was everything I wanted. But this was not the way I wanted this new chapter to pan out. At 22 years old, I was finally learning to put myself first–and in the middle of September, that’s exactly what I did.

But not before hitting the floor. It took my first big girl paycheck–a moment that should have been something to celebrate–to break me. Living more than thirty minutes away from my parents for the first time in my life, it was this moment when it hit me: I was a poor twentysomething. Even with a steady income, it was a teacher’s salary. And if I was going to be poor, I wanted to be poor in a place that made me happy. Instead of celebrating my first paycheck, I spent that Friday night sobbing to my mom on the phone, curled in a ball on the floor of my tiny bedroom that I rented from a nice couple in an even tinier apartment. There was nothing my mom could do from five hours away to stop the tears; once they started, all of my hidden unhappiness from the past month poured out with them.

I cried over money. I cried for missing home. I cried over the family renting me this tiny room. I cried about telling them I needed to move out. But most of all, I cried over the new house that was waiting for me. A tiny house in Alexandria with a bedroom and a kitchen waiting just for me. A beautiful white house that I had no means of getting all of my belongings to without someone to come and help take me out of the tiny room I currently called home. I cried until the tears finally ran dry, and I could hear my mom clearly on the other end of the line. In that moment of my twentysomething life, I realized something else: moms are the real superheroes in this life.

That same weekend, there was money in my account–money I knew my parents didn’t have to spare, but was somehow there for me–and my boxes were packed once again. The money and the packing and the moving was the easy part compared to telling the couple I was renting from that I was moving out. They were nice people–a little bit quirky (read: extremely weird)–but they had provided me with a cheap room and a place to live for my first month as a real grown up. After my first month was up, though, I knew I couldn’t stay. Despite their hospitality and generosity, I needed to do what was best for me. I needed to put me first–even if I felt like the worst human in the world as I handed them my key with only a day’s notice. Putting me first was still so new, and knowing I was letting someone else down was truly the hardest part. But as I closed the door behind me for the last time, I have never felt so empowered and light in my life. This was a turning point in my life; looking back, I know this was the most important part in this chapter of my story.

For the second time in a month, I carried my belongings down the same stairs I had carried them up a month earlier to pile them into the back of another truck. This time, it wasn’t my parents in the front seat, but a teacher I lovingly refer to as my “work mom” and her husband. In less than an hour, I was staring out the window in the backseat, watching this tiny, nothing town disappear from view. Knowing I’d be back for work there tomorrow, but already unable to control the smile spreading across my face because my real Virginia life was about to begin. As the last box found its place in my new room and I waved goodbye to my fairy godmother/work mom, I cried again. But this time, it was because I was home.

You cannot wait for other people to put you first. You cannot wait and pretend and hold in the unhappiness until it drags you down to the floor. You cannot allow yourself to get lost in the dark because you’re afraid of admitting you need help.

You have to fight for you. You have to be there for you. You have to want your happiness.

Most of all, you need to understand that it’s okay to put you first. 

Because once you learn that lesson, once you stop worrying about everyone else, once you realize that you matter most, the whole world will be at your feet.

It was time to stop wandering around in the dark. It was time to step out of the woods.

It was time to say goodbye to Triangle, and hello to Del Ray.

It was time to put me first.

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