For some, life changes so gradually it’s imperceptible. For others, it’s changes so little it feels stagnant. For me, there’s a single day that became the start of my entire life changing. A day that brought a thought so powerful, it marks the pivot point where life has since become “before” and “after”.
That day was July 15, 2013.
It was the longest, hardest day of my life. That was the day my 3 ½ month daughter had spinal neurosurgery.
At 3 months old, my sweet baby girl was having a more serious surgery than anyone in my family ever had.
There are so many memories that hurt from that day.
I can still feel her in my arms as I held her tight while I walked her down a long hall toward the operating area. I can still see myself handing her little body over to the doctor and watching her be carried away while she looked at me over his shoulder, confused about why I was staying and she was going.
Watching them turn the corner into the room that I couldn’t enter, not truly knowing what the next 6 hours of surgery would bring or what would happen after, was so much harder than I ever expected.
The waiting was agony.
But the part that haunts me the most, the scene burned in my mind that still to this day makes me sick to think about, was walking in to recovery room after surgery and seeing my tiny infant in the huge hospital bed.
My brain knew it was her, but my eyes hardly recognized her.
Her body was so swollen from the anesthesia and fluids, her features were all blended together. Her red blood count had dropped severely during surgery turning her skin so white, it was almost translucent.
Due to her tiny size and having inherited her mother’s difficult veins, they’d struggled to start an IV so she had bandages all over her body from several failed attempts and a huge IV tube sticking out of the top of her tiny head.
All I could think about while I looked down at her was her soft spot – how tender, exposed and vulnerable it was. How powerless she was, and powerless I felt.
We also had a 20-month old at home so later that night, my husband went home to be with her and I stayed in the hospital. As she slept, I sat in the dark hospital room on one of those terrible fold out couch/bed contraptions, listening. I listened to her shallow breathing in the bed next to me, to the nurses doing the rounds in the hallway, to the constant beeps of the various machines attached to her body…and I listened to my thoughts.
Oh my thoughts.
I was feeling so sorry for myself.
Why was this happening to me; why was this happening to my daughter?
It’s like all the things that made me unhappy, everything that felt unfair in my life, came raining down on me in that room.
I thought not just about how I alone I felt in that room, but how alone I felt in my marriage.
How it wasn’t just that I didn’t have a partner that night, but that I’d lost my partner, and my ability to partner, long ago.
That it wasn’t just that I felt uncomfortable in that room, in that hospital, in that situation. It was that I felt uncomfortable in my house, in my job, in my marriage.
I felt like I was waiting.
Waiting for my life – the one where I was happy, fulfilled, and satisfied – to finally start.
Waiting for something to come along to fix my problems. Waiting for things or people to change so that I could feel better and more satisfied in my life.
I felt stuck. Like I’d been waiting for a very long time. Probably most of my life.
And then, in the darkness of the room as I was laying there spinning, a new thought came to me. It came as a whisper, barely noticeable at first, but it was so different than anything I’d thought before that I paid attention.
The thought was:
I have one life to live
There are no second chances, no do-overs
I get one go-round at this life
Why would I choose to spend one more day waiting to be happy?
My life wasn’t bad, but it didn’t feel great.
My life looked pretty amazing from the outside. I had it all: the house, the husband, the two kids, the great job at a great company, the health insurance to cover my daughter’s surgery.
Everything I’d thought I wanted. Everything I’d worked so hard to create.
I’d always been a good girl, a responsible adult. A rule follower and over-achiever. I did everything I was expected to do. Everything I thought I should do. I followed all the rules, I worked incredibly hard, I made sure people liked me, I made sure I fit in.
So why did I still feel so empty?
So much like a stranger in my own life?
When I was really honest with myself – while wasn’t often – no matter how great life looked on the outside or how hard I’d worked to create it, on the inside I didn’t feel happy.
Throughout my life, at varying points I’d had those feelings before: empty, alone, like something was missing.
I always assumed there was something wrong with me, so I’d do whatever I could to shove those thoughts back down, hide or ignore them and go back to focusing on daily life.
Back to doing what I thought I was supposed to do. Back to hoping that that would be enough.
But that foreign thought that had started out as a whisper kept getting louder and louder over time. It became impossible to ignore: I have one life. I don’t get any more chances at this. When it’s done, it’s done. Only one ride per passenger.
The clock is ticking, and I’d already wasted 30-some years waiting to be happy. Any more waiting was just wasting more of that precious time.
When I’m old, I don’t want to look back at my life and think “meh, that wasn’t so bad.” I don’t want to settle simply because it’s not terrible, because others might have it way worse.
I want to look back and know that my life has been great. A life that represents me and what I find fulfilling. A life fully lived.
Since that day, I’ve stopped waiting.
I stopped depending on other people or things to change in order for me to feel happier or less empty. Because I realized that, by expecting others to change in order for me to feel better, I was literally giving them – those people, those things – my power.
I was the only one living my life, and as long as I waited for situations or people to improve to feel better, I was going to be waiting forever. Situations aren’t always great, and people can be really disappointing. But I don’t want to waste the best years of my life waiting to be happy.
I was never going to be truly happy until I changed from the inside. Until I changed how I looked at life, how I looked at myself, until I evaluated what I was doing, and feeling, and thinking, and believing about myself and the world around me.
Over the past five years, I’ve worked incredibly hard to understand myself and figure out who I was, what I really wanted and how I wanted to show up in the world.
In my quest to look for a life that I love and that makes me happy and fulfilled, I have found myself.
I realized that what made my life feel empty is that it wasn’t me. I wasn’t being ME. I was living some false version of me. A version based on what I thought other people expected and who I thought they wanted me to be.
The most important change I made was to truly change how I look at and show up for life.
Happiness and fulfillment are no longer things I’m waiting for; they are no longer things I expect from other people or situations. They are things I seek within myself and build my life around daily.
Looking back, I am so thankful for that longest, hardest day. Sitting in that hospital room, I could never have fathomed how my life feels now.
That single thought, born out of the pressure of that day and all the unfulfilling days I’d lived prior, has literally changed my life. Any time I feel myself holding back or telling myself “it’s not that bad”, that thought plays in my head. And I remember. And then I choose me. I choose a life lived fully. I choose not to wait, not to settle, not to waste any more precious time.
If it weren’t for that day, I wouldn’t be where I am today: 5 years later, now a single mom to 2 happy, thankfully totally healthy little girls, living in a home that feels like love, pursuing a career that lights my soul on fire, and feeling happier than I’ve ever felt in my life.
So, I’ll leave you with one question: What are you waiting for?
This article originally published on Medium on January 22, 2019