After asking friends what they would like to hear me talk about on this blog, I’ve gotten several requests to elaborate on why I ended up in New York City, working in the film industry, and on the flip side, why I ended up leaving all of that behind to come back to Iowa. Fair questions… but they deserve more than one post. Thus, today begins a story series, starting from the very beginning. Ultimately, it’s a pretty classic tale – a country girl leaves what she knows to see what the big city has to offer her, encountering twists, turns, life lessons, and close calls.
It’s a fitting time to start this story. This November marks the 9th anniversary of my move from Iowa to NYC. I packed up my white 1994 Corsica about a week before Thanksgiving 2006 and drove myself to the Big Apple with no job and about $1500 in savings. I was a trapeze artist without a net (metaphorically speaking). A couple people thought I was being brave, a lot of people thought I was being foolish. For many of my friends and family, it seemed like a snap decision… to drive away from my life. What they didn’t know is that I had been preparing to go for nearly a year. That’s really where the story begins.
January 2006. I was 22 and getting ready to start another semester at Iowa State. I’d already been in school for 4.5 years and was at least 2 semesters from graduating. I’d changed majors 3 times. My heart wasn’t really in my current major or college anymore; I wanted to study film production but Iowa State didn’t offer a film program. I felt trapped in purgatory, which might seem silly. What about those college glory days? Why would you want to leave?
Because I was bored, unmotivated and generally frustrated. I drank a lot. That’s also generally a thing college kids do to pass the time, but for me it was a problem. I would go out with my friends and promise I was only going to have two drinks, but it never ended up that way. Once I started drinking, I couldn’t stop. And that’s kinda when you know a habit is a problem – when you have no control over it. I’ve written about this struggle before so please read if you like, but here I will say I am thankful I was self aware enough at this point in my 20’s to know that I needed a change.
But how do you change when the social life with friends you love is built around partying? I didn’t know what TO do, but I needed to stop what I had been doing. So I made the decision to not enroll that semester. Instead, I got 2 part time jobs and tried to save money. I fantasized about starting a new life where no one knew I liked to drink, where no one expected me to, where no one knew me at all and I could be the intelligent, passionate, sober person I had perceived myself to be in high school. She had gotten lost somewhere in the last 4 years and I wanted her back. My big question was how to make that happen.
Even though I swore I was going to cut back on my drinking, old habits are hard to break. That January, with all these thoughts about clean slates swirling in my head, I found myself leaving a party in Des Moines and making the 30 mile drive home to Ames on the interstate. In the middle of a snowstorm. Completely drunk off my a$$.
I shouldn’t have driven. I don’t need hindsight to tell me that – I knew it then, as I was getting in my car. But I didn’t want to stay at this party because I’d just had this awkward and painful conversation with a guy who took another chip out of my barely beating heart. And I thought, “I’d rather die than stay here!” So I left. Stupid stupid stupid 22 year old me.
There have been a handful of times in my life when I felt that my death was one more wrong decision away. That night was one of them. The snow was so thick I couldn’t see past my headlights and so packed on the interstate that I couldn’t really tell where the road was. The storm was rain that had turned to snow and it was 2am, the plows weren’t out and the road was an icy mess. I thought about pulling over, but feared I would never get moving again or be hit by another car.
It’s funny because usually when you’re drunk you aren’t afraid of anything. I was both very drunk and very afraid on that road. I kept thinking about my parents and how disappointed they were going to be by how dirty my apartment was when they had to clean it out after my funeral. How I’d never see my friends again. Thirty miles that I normally take at 70 mph, and I was going 25. I’m never going to get home, I thought. I started crying at one point. I sang Amazing Grace to calm myself. The drive went on and on and on. They are going to find me in the ditch when the plows finally come through in the morning. Hopefully I die on impact, rather than freeze to death. Please God, don’t let me die so I can go home and clean my apartment.
Then I woke up. In my bed, in my apartment. It was morning and I had to go to work.
I don’t really know how I got off that road. I have no memory of taking the exit off the interstate. I don’t know if any of the lights were red on the way to my house. I blacked out. Behind the wheel of a car, in the middle of snow storm. And somehow, I got home. I have no explanation for how or why, other than God took pity on me. Me, this poor, sad, drunk 22 year old girl who had her whole life in front of her and needed to dig herself out of a hole she created. He must have given me a free pass that I didn’t deserve.
That night was one of the lowest in my life. And after that night, I started taking my predicament more seriously. The fear that I had in that car stayed with me – fear of dying while I was ashamed of myself. Where was this brave, motivated girl I had once been? A girl who’s future was so important to her that she never touched a drop of alcohol or other substances in high school? Who was determined to be a positive change in the world? Would people even remember her if I died tomorrow? Or would they say, “She was a blast, great at shotgunning beers!” No thank you. Not even a little. I also recognized that I was living down to expectations. I had to set higher ones for myself. The fear motivated me to say, “This is not how your story will end.” I was going to write myself a new story.
That spring, using a Google search, I found a 7-week intensive film workshop at a photography school in Maine. They taught everything, from pre-production to shooting to editing. They also had a work-study program, which allowed students to work off room and board. I knew no one who had actually attended the school but I knew the change I was seeking would require something drastic. I vowed to myself that nothing would stop me from going to this school. This was my opportunity to learn something I was passionate about, and then make hard decisions. Would I transfer schools, move out of state? I didn’t know but I was convinced I would find the answers if I could go away somewhere for 7 weeks.
So I tried to prepare myself, mentally and financially, for the task ahead. I was a typical college student (read: broke) so I asked for any shifts at work I could take and asked my parents for help with the plane ticket. I obviously needed help mentally too, so I started seeing a therapist once I week. I went for 3 months. I would say the major turning point came for me when, in talking about this idea of leaving Iowa and my fears of all the unknowns, he asked me, “What is the worst thing that could happen, if you move away?”
“I could die.”
“You could also die tomorrow, driving to work. Aside from dying, what do you think is the worst thing that could happen?”
“I might totally fail and have to move home. And then everyone would know I failed.”
“Yes, that would be embarrassing. But would you survive?”
I thought a long time about this. Yes, I knew logically I would survive. But the thought of failing seemed as terrifying as death. I connected, for the first time, that my fear of failure prevented me from reaching my full potential… because I only attempted things I was certain I could handle. I had no idea what I was capable of. I had never tried to find out.
I vowed then, so long as it was highly likely I would survive XYZ with all my faculties in tact, I would give XYZ a try. I had to stop being afraid.
My parents, frustrated by my lack of direction and focus in life, refused to help me pay for this trip to Maine. And rightfully so. It pissed me off at the time, but I now understand it forced me take ownership of my situation. If I wanted to go on this crazy adventure, I’d have to work for the funds myself.
I took pictures of everything that year: nature, my friends, my self before selfies were even a thing. They are all ‘action’ shots of life happening in front to me. I think I was trying to capture my entire line of vision because I knew it was going to change. These people and place were all going away soon. I was terrified and excited about where I would go and I was trying to remember everything about this moment before it happened. I knew one day I would look back and remember how hard I worked to pull myself up.
I also collected and saved motivational quotes – about overcoming fear, living outside of your comfort zone, bravery, challenging yourself. This was one of them:
“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”
— Anatole France
I averaged 50 hours of work a week through the summer; and about the only thing I did in my spare time was go to a video rental store and watch movies – any movie. At the end of August, I got on a plane and flew to Maine. I had never been away from Iowa for more than a week in my entire life. I wouldn’t know a soul there. I felt like Columbus, sailing into the unknown, slightly afraid I would fall off the edge of the earth.
I knew I had to leave to get my clean slate, to become the person I wanted to be. I was afraid, but I couldn’t let that stop me.
So I went.