This summer, I took a self-imposed sabbatical and it completely changed my life. No matter who you are or what you're doing, I recommend you do this, particularly if you're feeling stuck, overwhelmed, burned out, confused, afraid or some feeling other than unbridled joy.
I feel unbridled joy. I feel purpose. I feel inner peace. I feel clear. And that's really saying something because it's a brand-new experience for me--something I don't remember ever feeling in my whole life.
It has nothing to do with material wealth, I don't even have the latest iPhone.
It had nothing to do with absolute certainty about any aspect of my personal or professional life. Most days I'm walking a tightrope along with everyone else, especially as an entrepreneur.
It has nothing to do with having a perfect body (I don't) or 50 million Twitter followers (I don't) or being a raw, vegan yogi (I'm not). None of the things pitched at us each and every day, guaranteeing more health or happiness, made me feel this way.
Want to know what did it? Having the courage to stop doing or being anything. After many years and months of striving and overdoing in an effort to find validation outside myself, I just stood still and found it within me. And it worked like a charm.
I didn't know the sabbatical I placed myself on would be so transformative. I did it out of sheer desperation to stay alive, at first. It was about mid-March when the events of my whole life hit me like a ton of bricks. The past six years were especially full of turmoil, but each time I tried to blame it on those events and experiences, I realized how far back the feelings went. How long there had been an undeniable low-grade, hyper-vigilant, teetering-on-the-edge-of-depression/anxiety/woeisme vibe. Yes, some brilliant wit, humor and gratitude came through on many an occasion over the years, but it would never last long. I would default back to stressing about something or someone and it was in mid-March that I saw this pattern with astounding clarity. It had always been like this. It would always be like this--unless I did something radically different.
I had two months left before my graduate school program ended. I literally didn't think I would make it. It was a finish line that loomed before me. I felt like I was at mile 24 of a marathon I hadn't properly trained for. "I can't do it," I said to myself. "I'm done."
And I sat with the possibility of being done--with everything. Of backing out and giving up and disappearing somewhere. I went to Los Angeles for some meetings with new and old friends. A professional gig I tried to set up fell through. I didn't care. I spent four glorious days in a small bungalow in the jade-covered hills of Laurel Canyon. And I celebrated myself for being there. I made some new friends and contemplated moving to LA immediately. I was going to sell or throw away everything I owned and get the F out.
But first, graduation.
Having dropped out of grad school once at the age of 22, I figured I should finish this time. I had come so far, starting a self-designed graduate program within mere months of self-designing myself at the start of my gender transition. I'd endured three years of holidays without cards or calls from my family. I had made the hard decision after ten years to stop chasing someone who didn't love me back. I had moved through three living situations in as many months. I sat with the painful reality that my whole life reflected what I had learned to settle for.
I was bone-tired. I didn't want to do more. I wanted to disappear or just cease to exist. I felt confused, disoriented, frustrated and didn't care about anything. Complete and total despair was there each morning I woke up. It stayed throughout each day as I struggled to remember who I was and what I wanted or cared about. Bedtime was a mercy, time to escape the mindfulness of my reality. My therapist encouraged me each week but I couldn't see the silver lining to anything I was doing.
And then, I chose. I chose to do whatever it took to make it to the finish line. I would push through and graduate and immediately put myself in time-out. I was my own boss now and I was putting myself on sabbatical. Indefinitely. Until the confusion and despair I felt abated.
March, April and May are a blur. It was piles of papers and deadlines and emails and a routine of sleep, eat, work, eat, sleep, repeat. Looking back now, so much of my life has felt like that compared to how I feel now. I kept my head down and kept plugging away, not at all connected to or inspired by my work or my own character. It was just survival mode--and life is about that sometimes, but it isn't sustainable. And it is no way to truly LIVE. But I needed to do it until I knew another way, and now I've walked through that door and won't go back to it.
It started as a trust fall. Summer was coming, business slows down. My first thought was, "I can't afford to go on sabbatical". And that thinking got me where I was so I tried on a new thought, "I can afford to go on sabbatical". I had the amount of work I wanted, no more no less, on my plate. I looked at my finances at face-value. The truth was I really could afford to not do a damn other thing for several months and I would still not be in absolute peril. Just seeing the possibility there, and honoring the choices that made it possible, lifted my spirits. It was especially scary because I had three major trips planned for June which meant more expenses than income. I fearlessly made the choice, anyway.
The finish line of graduation was one of the most anti-climatic experiences of my life. I hobbled toward the metaphorical finish line and looked up but the seats were empty. No crowd cheering. No fanfare. A subtle silence. I reminded myself that I did it for me and it was over and now it was time to go "home".
The first few days of my sabbatical were excruciatingly painful. The momentum I'd gained from years of overdoing was incredibly strong and turning the habits and patterns reminded me of the scene in Titanic when they first sight the iceberg. They throw the brake and you see the massive machinery jarring and shuddering to reverse direction. That's how it felt inside my body and mind. Everything was being resorted and reoriented. I tried to sit still and read a book and I literally couldn't do it for days. Moving, moving, moving. I was compelled by the conditioning and it kicked and thrashed for a while. My meditation practice and my overall mindfulness helped slow things down. I spent the first week sleeping more hours than I was awake. My adrenal glands were beyond fried, even though I didn't know it at the time. I thought something was very wrong with me. I worried that I had done all that work and now I would lose it all to a serious illness. Nope, I was just burned out. I woke up and ate breakfast and slept. And woke up and tried to read and slept. It lasted a week. And then it was over.
Then June came and I travelled all over and met up with old and new friends. I stood on stage in Portland, OR and told a story about my chest surgery to 400 strangers in a dark theater. I spent a lot of time on stage as a teenager and it was both familiar and quite different, sharing intimate truths and not scripted lines from a play. Between trips I decided to find a new apartment and effortlessly secured a place for myself on terms so perfect, it felt heaven-sent.
Everything was working so well, so easily and effortlessly, it was hard to trust. But I compared it to the struggles I had known and no longer wanted for myself. I wanted to keep experiencing more states of bliss and less states of striving--and I could only feel that if I allowed it. I kept writing ALLOW, ALLOW, ALLOW in my journal. And I looked for ways the Universe was testing me to follow through.
Opportunities come up, personally and professionally, and I have a new response to each one. The reactivity from pain, fear and self-abandonment has disappeared. Decisions feel easier. I'm preparing for the fall with an entirely new perspective and a clean slate, wiped fresh from a period of intense rest. I see my life as a product of my choices, actions I take from one minute to the next. I express myself clearly and allow others to do the same. I reflect on who I had been in the recent past---the product of intense self-doubt, insufficient self-worth and surrounding myself with some people and experiences that reinforced those feelings. It's difficult to make a positive from a negative--I am not a lump of coal and neither are you.
And it wasn't like everyone and everything was horrible. But there wasn't enough of the good, primarily because I hadn't been creating space for it.
The self-imposted sabbatical was an exercise in creating space. Space and time to sit still and allow truths to simmer and seep into my consciousness. For grief to be seen, felt and heard. For acceptance to take over. After too many months of hearing myself say, "I really don't know what to do/say/be/think", I feel confident and clear once again. It took time and tuning into my intuition and inner voice--something I had silenced by seeking answers or "the truth" outside of me. Something I couldn't find because I had abandoned myself.
One of my favorite musicians, Missy Higgins, wrote a whole album about a similar time in her life. One song, Everyone's Waiting, speaks to how it feels for me:
My self-imposted sabbatical taught me that it is possible to feel joy, clarity, purpose and inner peace but it starts with making space for it. Only you can make it, and I highly recommend you do.