The Voyage

Make voyages. Attempt them. There’s nothing else.
— Tennessee Williams

It is so easy to look at someone else's story and see the end result. It's impossibly simple to believe only the good about others but the worst about ourselves. Perhaps that's the human condition - giving others endless grace and giving back to ourselves the opposite.

Yet, the journey is never as simple as it seems from the outside. Success is not born overnight. There's no race to a finish line. For any of us. And beyond that - there is no one-size fits all definition to success, definition of the finish line. There is no one journey that we all must take. We have the opportunity to peer into others' lives in this voyeuristic culture of Instagram posts and Facebook albums, but it so rarely tells the beginning and middle. Just the end: the developed picture.

My pretty Instagram picture right now is this: a full-time business-woman/calligrapher/entrepreneur. Time to read. Time to cook. A doctor husband. Life in a big city. Clients. Two cats. My Instagram picture looks like I've made it. It seems like something I always wanted. It seems like it happened overnight.

Less than a year ago, I was at a job I absolutely hated and I was living a life that seemed very out of control. I don't have words for how much I hated that job, but it was a hair shy of all-consuming. Every single day I felt sick before walking in to the office. I counted down the minutes until I left. I thought if I had to talk to my boss, or my colleagues, for one more second I would explode. I plotted quitting endlessly. I talked about it until my husband asked me to please stop. Though it contradicted my complete hatred of the job, I had maxed out my vacation accruals and somehow not used any of it. HR kept calling to tell me I needed to take a day off or risk losing them. It had destroyed my mental well-being and I was trying to take refuge in external things like my small business. I felt that I was in the job because my husband's medical school necessitated I provide for us, try to pay down our collective student loan debt, and that I couldn't afford to do something else with any pay cut.

I knew that the job wasn't financially enough either. We were so financially far behind our peers who were buying houses and cars. We had massive loan debt from medical school and undergrad, interview season with a $10,000-20,000 burden approaching (all out of our pocket), a car on the verge, an upcoming move, the desire to one day own a home and have children. I needed to do more and make more. And a small business was the only way I could see that.

I slept 4-5 hours a night. Fitfully. I woke up every morning with a pounding heart. My routine was timed to the minute. I worked from 5 am to midnight every day. There was absolutely no room for variation. If something interrupted my schedule - a computer error, a printer glitch - I would burst into tears.

When I got new emails, I felt like they threatened that final thread I was hanging by. I told my husband not to speak to me when I was working because I just had no space for anything more. But I was always working. 

My apartment was such a mess that I, a formerly neat person, would slide piles of things to the side to get to the next pile of work. The cats had to step over paper piles. We didn't vacuum for a month straight.

I worked 85-100 hours a week. My husband, who works an average of 90 hours a week would ask me to please spend time with him. He was struggling with depression caused by the high-pressure and burnout of medical school and I didn't have the patience for it. We used to argue over who was having more stress or a worse week.

I didn't cook. I didn't clean. I took one 1/2 day on weekends when my husband and I would do as long of a hike as we could stand and then return, exhausted, to get back to work.

There was nothing healthy going on with me. I wasn't eating well. We had the same meal for dinner every single night, of every single week, for months straight. My complexion had turned completely awful. I lost a healthy glow and felt pale. No manner of skincare products worked. Sometimes I just sat on the floor in a panic. I became afraid of the fire alarms going off when we cooked. I feared heat waves or cold snaps. Going grocery shopping stressed me out. Traffic made me panic.

I'm not really sure why I felt like working myself to the bone would chase out the bad in my life, but I did. I was working so hard to erase the rest of what was going on, without the ability to see that it was making everything worse. I thought that my side business could make up for so many things that were seemingly out of my control: my low-paying day-job; my husband's student loan debt; rising rents; a spouse's depression; the lack of control that comes with following a spouse through medical school. 

And so, while my business grew, nothing about it made me happy. I experienced for the first time what complete burn out felt like. Each new project felt so difficult to complete. I lacked inspiration or drive. But I kept going. My husband kept telling me: we don't need more money if it destroys you. But I wore that exhaustion like a badge and my business grew because I was giving it every last thing I had.

It's interesting. You have your whole life to make a business grow and work. You have years and years to become successful at something. You can't take back destroyed friendships. You can't get back damage you do to your body. You can't unhurt a spouse. You cannot rewind. I'm not sure why we choose, in so many cases, to rush to some non-existent finish line when we can take our sweet time getting there and enjoy the run.

When my husband got a position in Chicago and an income for the first time in five years, it was apparent to both of us that I needed to quit either my day job or my side job. There was no longer a way for me or my husband to operate at what we'd been attempting back in Oregon. And so, out of mostly necessity, I quit that day job to move across the country. Relief flooded over me like waves off of a wake. And so starts that pretty Instagram picture.

I am not at the end of anything. With any luck I am at and will often be at the beginning of something: growth, a journey, a learning experience. I feel those old feelings biting at my heels almost constantly: you have to work harder, you have to make more money, you have to grow this business, you have to work hard to maintain control. But if the past three years were any lesson, I know that I have to kick back at those monsters on my heels because outrunning them never works. You just end up collapsing before they devour you.

The next time you see the pretty picture, love the pretty picture, but love harder what went into making it happen or what's going into making it happen every single day. Love that voyage that brought the picture to you.

Kelsey Carpenter1 Comment