Taking Ownership of Past Mistakes and Re-Orienting Your Life
Updated: Mar 24
Posted on January 30, 2020 by Elise Marie Hollifield in Blog Submissions
Never give up. Things will always get better.
There have been times in my life where I sat down and planned a detailed course, I knew exactly what I wanted and how to achieve it. Many other periods have been defined by indifference and actively not thinking about that. When I think about the difference between these two clashing mentalities it is immediately apparent to me that what defined them were periods of depression and periods of happiness.
Another thing I can immediately put a finger on is how passive and susceptible I have allowed myself to be by other peoples’ desires for my life. Ever since I was small I was aiming to please other people by choosing things I thought would make them the highest level of happy with me possible. I know when I was a young girl I really wanted to be a nurse practitioner. That is a pretty specific thing for a child to want to be, right? When I examine why it is easy for me to think, 1) My mother worked in a hospital. 2) As a child I absolutely idolized my mother and anything about her that was a thing I could possibly be was something I wanted to be. 3) If my mother worked in a hospital then that was something I absolutely wanted to do. 4) When I visited her in the hospital she would introduce me to her coworkers and always had good things to say about nurses and nurse practitioners. “A nurse practitioner is the boss of all the nurses” she would say and if my mother idolized something then I most definitely wanted to also. For years I aimed at this goal. Whenever I had a theme paper to write I would write it on nurse practitioners or other medical field related things. Another topic I wrote on a lot was Wilhelm Röntgen who discovered x-rays (my mother was an x-ray technologist for many years). As I got closer and closer to college I began to have this anxiety build up inside me. Did I really want to be a nurse practitioner? Something I had been so certain on for so many years suddenly felt like it wasn’t my desire at all. What could I do? I had never thought of being anything else. No one asked me if there was something else I wanted to do except my grandparents. Something I did a lot as a child and teenager was draw. I would show my grandmother my drawings filled with satisfaction and she would always say good things about them. She would also say something like “Drawing is a fine thing but you want to make sure you have your certificate, your piece of paper that says you can do something and make good money with. Drawing is fine but you won’t make good money with that.” I know that was very pragmatic advice for a young adult, and because of that I delegated the things I truly enjoyed doing such as drawing and writing to the back shelf where they would always be to enjoy doing; but only enjoy doing as a hobby.
The anxiety quietly simmered while I was in my first two years of community college. I was a biology major and I absolutely loved everything about biology and anatomy, and when it came time for me to spread my wings and transfer to a four year I continued saying my goal was to graduate with a biology degree and move on to becoming a nurse practitioner. My first real reality check was after I was accepted at California State University Monterey Bay. It was the only four year that accepted me and I jumped at it. 6 hours away, off the central coast of California, small, quiet and their mascot was an otter! I packed away all my things and my family caravan-ed me away to my university. During orientation I remember choosing my courses and the math portion came up. There weren’t many math courses I had to take but the ones I did were intimidating. The highest level I did in high school was Algebra 2 and I never took Trigonometry. There I was with “Calculus” on my piece of paper and the aide asked me, “So you took the prerequisites right?” Honestly, I had no idea what the prerequisites were for Calculus so I said yes and they approved my courses. I also had Physics on my load which was both interesting and terrifying. My first day I went to my Physics class and felt very intimidated by all of the concepts and equations “which should be refreshers for all of you”. I left feeling flustered because they were NOT refreshers for me and I had no idea what they were talking about. I then went to my Calculus class and again, “these are refreshers” the instructor said as they drew trigonometry equations on the board and asked everyone to solve them. I spent a good minute looking at the board before I realized I really did not know any of these “refreshers” and if this was something I should already know how in the hell am I supposed to progress after that? I packed up my things and walked straight to my on campus job (working at the bookstore) where I had a complete emotional breakdown. My coworkers were very nice about it and told me I should probably go to the school counselor’s office. Wiping my face I walked to the counselor’s office where a very patient woman sat as I poured out my fears about why I was there and what I wanted to do. It all seemed so pointless and I had no idea what I wanted to do. She began asking me what I enjoyed doing and since the medical field was proving to be unattainable for me, and my hobbies were firmly planted on my back shelf, I started talking about how I liked to people watch. She suggested I try psychology and if I didn’t like it I could easily change my courses next semester. I had to take some psychology anyways for graduation. One thing led to another and before I knew it I was a psychology major.
I actually really enjoyed taking psychology, but what I liked about it was the research not the people aspect. While most of my fellow students were going into social work or marriage and family therapy I wanted to dive into how the mind worked and go as far as neuropsychology. I did very well in all my courses and even graduated with honors. I had a decent GPA and good letters of recommendation. Graduate school was on the horizon and I eagerly applied to schools in even further and more desirable places like Seattle and Eugene. The second reality check came when I took the GRE exam to qualify for graduate school. I have never been a terribly good standardized test taker. I get test anxiety and sometimes forget entire areas I previously knew like the back of my hand. My grandparents and parents knew this. As a child I remembered taking such a test to get into some advanced learning courses during elementary school and not making the cut. I was devastated. I cried and cried until my mother told me it was ok, that just because I didn’t get to go to the special classes didn’t mean I was any less smart than I was. It made me feel better but throughout all my years in school, any time I had to take standardized tests I usually just did good enough to slide by even though I was pretty much a straight-A student otherwise. I had friends in advanced courses and we would talk about what they were learning and sometimes I would look up the topics myself so I felt like I was on the same level. Needless to say, when my GRE score came back it was pretty lackluster. It was a big, ugly, average score. My heart sank as university after university denied my application and politely told me to apply somewhere else. I never even got to interview.
There was one university that did accept me, and it pains me to even think about this. I was accepted into not only a psychology graduate program, but a neuropsychology doctorate program. The school was in Chicago and I would have to live in the city. At the time my brother lived in Chicago and was super excited about the prospect of me moving there for school. I was excited but also really nervous because let's face it, Chicago is not the safest of places to be. My then boyfriend took it upon himself to convince me how terrible of a decision this would be. He played off of my fears that I would be putting myself in danger, terrible things would happen to me and worst of all it would destroy our relationship because he didn’t want to move there and could not handle a long distance relationship. For the record I had been going out with this person for several years and I knew we were going to get married and spend the rest of our lives together so for him to tell me this sank the ship my heart was sailing on. I was absolutely devastated. So in my moment of heartbroken weakness I decided to turn them down and not go to graduate school at all. We moved back to my hometown because we couldn’t afford to live in the college suburbs of Monterey any longer, and ended up living with his family and then my mother when they kicked us out. It was the closest I have ever been to being homeless and I was lucky to find a job as a Barista in a sea of other people my age who graduated and could not find a job in their field. I tried my hand at a job as a behavioral therapist (which oddly enough did not require a Bachelor’s in Psychology but recommended one), and learned very quickly I could not tolerate working with people, let alone small children with behavioral problems. This led to my second complete emotional breakdown as I realized I was not going to be able to use my degree since I turned down the higher education possibilities and could not stand working with people.
I spent a lot of time thinking about what I could possibly do and came to the conclusion that I was interested in biology and didn’t like working with people so I should try looking for some kind of laboratory job. This was after I had almost applied to an LVN program and didn’t do it because I realized a large chunk of their job was doing IVs and giving people shots. For the record I absolutely cannot stand needles. I have a sorted past with needles and have passed out several times. It seemed like a terrible idea to go into the medical field because of this but I assured myself if I worked in a lab it would be fine and I wouldn’t have to worry about needles or people. My then still boyfriend became convinced California was a sinking ship and we needed to move somewhere else with a booming economy-North Dakota to be precise. I really really did not want to move so far away but the more he talked about it the more I realized there was no convincing him otherwise. North Dakota could be a stepping stone to something better, he said. All we have to do is take advantage of the better economy and we will have enough money to move somewhere amazing like New Hampshire. We spent a lot of time idealizing New Hampshire and how great a life we would have once we were there. First though, was North Dakota.
I found a program in laboratory science in Fargo, applied and they accepted me. I was so excited! The program also had an internship with various laboratories in the area and what I read told me if I managed to work at one of those it would give me a one up. I applied for an introductory lab tech position and was accepted! It felt like things were really looking up for once, so we packed up our things and drove halfway across the country to completely isolated, middle of nowhere, tundra, North Dakota. When we got there I started my job and was immediately tasked with drawing people’s blood. What?! I could not believe it. I had a lab job, my job was supposed to be analyzing and sorting, categorizing, testing...nope. Turns out what I thought the job was, was entirely different. To this day I cannot remember if the job description said it involved drawing blood. I was devastated, again. My first day I almost passed out trying to draw someone’s blood. The tech training me seemed annoyed and asked me if I really could do the job. I assured her I could, but every moment filled me with dread and all I could think about was running away like I ran away from my Calculus course in college.
I didn’t last more than a couple of days before I emailed my boss that I couldn’t do the job and just quit. Thankfully this was a few weeks before classes were to start so I went to the office of administration and quietly withdrew my application. I don’t remember what I told other people. I do remember I felt like an absolute and total failure. I felt like the reason I moved to North Dakota was mute and now I was stuck there in a place so far away from my home. The best part was my then still boyfriend got a wonderful job in a fast food restaurant within walking distance from our apartment. I was so upset, and when I tried to talk to him about it he would reassure me and say the job was a stepping stone to a better one. We all had to start somewhere right? Right. I got a job at Panera and then time began to dither along. I managed to find a job as a secretary for a tax firm several months later and he was still working at the fast food restaurant. I was offered a job as an accountant after a year by a coworker who wanted to start their own business and thought I was too smart to be a secretary. He was still working the same fast food job. Great, I thought, we moved 2500 miles away from home so he could work at a fast food restaurant and I could run numbers for people while I quietly sank into the darkness of my sadness. It was truly a miserable time in my life. Top that with him falling in love with coworker of his who turned out to be a lesbian, forever denying him the satisfaction of a relationship and I was there to pick up the pieces for him because I was terrified if I didn’t we would be on the streets for real this time.
My regrets at this point were really piling up. I was sad that I never really sat down and figured out what I wanted to do with my life. I was sad it took me failing twice to realize I had no idea what I wanted out of life. People my age were already married with kids on the way while I was working a minimum wage job because of half-baked promises of grandeur and opportunity. I regretted leaving California, which for me is saying a lot because I really didn’t like living in California. I regretted letting myself be so vulnerable that I fell in love with someone who paid attention to me while my first boyfriend lost himself in video games and indifference. That person turned out to be just as indifferent it turned out. I regretted changing my major without trying a lower level math class first. Why did no one recommend that to me? I regretted only drawing for fun. Regretted needing someone to be there for me so badly I became the girlfriend of my first boyfriend who was an absolute, terrible mess. I regretted ignoring my brother while we were teenagers because he was just as lost as I was. I regretted lashing out at my only friend in college when she told me she liked me and I didn’t know how to feel about that. I regretted a lot, but what I regret the most is not being there for myself. I was always looking for other people to be my support because I was tired of having to do that myself, but we have to be our own support. We have to be our own cheerleader and friend. I guess what I regret the most is not wanting to be my own friend.
And then I met someone online. Just friends, it started out, and over time became something much more. He was there for me, to talk to and share music with, to laugh with and create wonderful stories with. I found myself falling for him before I knew it. Turns out he felt the same way and now here we are, 4 years later, married and living somewhere pretty close to New Hampshire. Turns out upstate New York is pretty similar. I had to rediscover myself. I have always been good at scraping together pieces of myself and carrying on, so it was pretty easy to land on my feet and keep moving. I guess I have a pretty strong will when I want to. I found a job, which lead to a better one I never would have imagined myself having back in college. Sure I am not making what some of my old friends are, what some of my family members are, or even some people my age are. I can accept that. This is me after a lot of failure and forcing myself back onto my feet. This is me after accepting my years in college may have not helped me find a professional job but they were necessary to get me here, where I am now. This is me after 2 serious heartbreaks I thought I would never heal from. This is me, married and happy with someone I would have never met if I hadn’t failed so much or made the poor decisions I had. I can accept that.
Sometimes it is really hard to look at yourself and really see yourself. The good and the bad. The whole ocean of bad with a little island of sunshine trying to be still among waves of darkness. Sometimes it is really easy to just push a plank of wood out into that and float for days, months, years, before realizing you lost yourself. You can’t remember why you wanted to let go so you have to look back and remember all the hard times, the bad decisions, the people you used to know and the people you left behind. Most of the time you really don’t want to and you take solace in living in the moment. Enjoying buying a new pair of shoes. Re-watching that series you really like. Browsing funny memes and watching cute cat videos. But there is always that little voice in the back of your mind that wants you to pull back from this and really be you. All of you. The you that wanted to emulate your mother as a child. The you that blamed your brother for leaving hot chocolate in the car because you knew they would believe you and not your brother. The you that sat on a hill during recess because you could see your mother’s hospital and you missed her more than words could express. The you who were friends with people who made you feel terrible because you knew they were the only friends you would ever have. The you who played with your brother in your grandparents’ backyard and made up fantastical games just for the two of you. The you who gathered up the courage to ask the boy you liked to the eighth grade dance and afterwards he never talked to you again. The you who laughed at your brother as he choked because he looked like a pigeon. The you that became friends with a great bunch of girls who all went to a different high school than you. The you that isolated yourself in your room every day after school and dreamed of prince charming. The you who fell in love with people who were terrible for you because you thought so little of yourself. The you who failed and failed and failed, only to finally do some things right. Sure you aren’t perfect, not by far, but I can live with who I am and it is time I start making some peace with myself.
I feel like now I can take ownership of a lot of the mistakes I have made. I’m tired of sweeping them under the rug and leaving them for some other time to experience and feel remorse over. Tired of compartmentalizing. I am a smart person who has done some very stupid things. I can accept that. I am a woman who has let herself be taken advantage of because it was better to feel something and belong to someone than to have nothing and feel nothing. I can accept that. I am also someone who never gives up. I am someone who while I may have pushed a great many people away, I still hold onto the small piece of me that knows not everyone is rotten. Not everyone will take advantage of you, and if you have some love for yourself you can be the person who fights for yourself. You don’t need other people to do that for you. I am someone who while I find myself staring into the endless recess of myself and wanting to fade away, never truly does and swims back to that island of sunshine. I know life is full of heartbreak, and pain, and sadness but I also know that there is also a lot of love and joy and happiness. You have to be brave enough to keep trying. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and think you have messed everything up and there is no way things could possibly be fixed. But you’re wrong. Something I remember my dad telling me once is that you have to keep moving, keep eating, keep breathing, keep sleeping, and eventually things will get better. The important thing is to never give up. That is the best advice anyone has ever given me.
Never give up. Things will always get better.