Wednesday morning, right against the deadline, I officially declined Johns Hopkins School of Public Health’s offer to attend their PhD in Health Behavior and Science. And while I’ve already excitedly accepted and announced my matriculation into the University of Tennessee’s doctoral program, declining JHSU’s program brings both sadness and joy.
You see, I had the opportunity to attend the most prestigious public health school in the country. I had the opportunity to accept a four-year tuition scholarship and take loans to support living (at least for year one) before finding a part-time research assistant position. I had the opportunity to join an institution of highly driven academics who are known to push themselves through seven day work weeks – “balancing” prestige and achievement with home and self. I had the opportunity to leverage a national network of leading researchers and to place myself in the path toward becoming one of the top few.
I chose not to.
For my remembered life, from childhood through to young adulthood, I have believed that I needed to be “the best”. This belief manifested by trying to be the best daughter, the best sibling, the best student, the best girlfriend, the best employee, the best supervisor… And when I experienced hiccups- an argument with a parent, a drift with my sibling, an A-, a broken relationship, or an unhappy supervisee, I told myself that I failed and that I needed to do better.
After decades of the same pattern, I broke. It sounds dramatic, but is realistic.
I wasn’t broken, but I did break open.
Between summer 2012 and spring 2013 my world and worldview dramatically shifted. I “failed” at marriage and walked away. Full of self-blame, I turned to alcohol to keep me comforted in the evenings. When I was laid off in January 2013, I blamed myself first; I wasn’t qualified enough, skilled enough, successful enough. None of those things were true, but I couldn’t see that for myself.
I sank into bed, into panic, and into depression. For a short while, I sank further into alcohol. Then I hit a tipping point, and I chose to ask for help.
Since then, I’ve begun to explore balance.
At first, balance looked like leaving the field and becoming a dog walker. And while I gained much deep joy and therapeutic healing from loving and walking my furry friends, it wasn’t for me full-time. Balance then presented itself as baking; both into my own kitchen kneading Shabbat challah and at a local bakery, The Blue Frog, at which I found part-time work. Yet while I gained deep joy from greeting customers, perfecting ciabatta and french loaves, and pulling a good espresso, it wasn’t for me.
I returned to the field and entered higher education. At that point balance transformed into an intricate web of sinking in to a regular 40-hour work week, working sobriety, developing coping skills through exercise, baking, Netflix and friend time, and committing to therapy.
While I was making strides in taking care of myself and learning to find balance for myself, one underpinning held me back: the role of choice.
Through continued self-reflection and with significant therapeutic nudging, I was confronted with the understanding that throughout my life I believed that “things happen to me”. While I may have re-pinned memes and purchased magnets declaring my “mastery over my ship” and capacity to “adjust my sails”, I never truly embraced the idea of choice.
I have choice.
I didn’t spend hours and nights studying to make that “A” grade because I was being forced to. I felt like I had to “be the best” and so I chose to study like hell.
I didn’t drink because alcohol was my only available coping mechanism. I drank because I had an addiction, I love red wine, and I chose to imbibe.
I didn’t leave the domestic and sexual violence field because I was laid off and couldn’t get rehired. I chose to take time, care for myself, and figure out where I was going next. Hence why dangerous opportunity was born.
As I negotiate my day-to-day life – staying late at work or leaving early, doing the dishes or leaving them in the sink, folding the laundry or leaving it in the dryer, making dinner or eating a cupcake, walking the dog or playing with her ball, going out or spending time alone, saying yes to UTK or no to JHSU – I am navigating choices. Most of my choices relate to the concept of balance.
I can live a balanced life if I choose to.
That sentence is as simple as a poem.
That sentence is as complex as poetry.
This week, my choice to say “Thank you, I am declining your generous offer” was the culmination of two and a half years of therapy. It was the gift of letting go and taking in. It was an act of balance.
Read more about balance from KTMade: Opting Out