I was driving across Veterans Bridge with quite the hangover, spiraling down into a cycle of gross, negative thinking that was going to leave me feeling worse than the bottle of cheap pinot noir I'd split with friends the night before. As it turns out, wine can do many things, but it can't fix feelings hurt over something as little as a party that had all but fallen through.
Cruising along to brunch, I thought about how I was supposed to be bigger than all this, immune to the idea that any one thing can make you happy. How was I still a person who could be undone by a minor disappointment? I called myself mean names and thought bitter, acrid things about myself while fiddling with the transmission and crossing the lanes. And then, in the middle of all that ugliness, about halfway across the bridge, something occurred to me. I felt this gnawing, painful void inside me, yet I'd never been able to fill it—not with any one of the people I've dated, not with shopping sprees, not with sex, not with magnums of wine or bottles of bourbon, not with macaroni and cheese, not with friendship, not with anything.
I thought about all the times someone had pointed out to me that I approach relationships unhealthily. I thought about how badly I'd wanted to marry my first boyfriend, the hours I'd spent doodling little wedding dress designs and imagining the apartment we'd have together in New York while getting our Ph.D. and law degrees at Columbia. I was so invested in the imaginary future I'd painted in such detail and with such bright colors. It took five whole years to realize I liked the picture I'd painted more than I actually liked the realities of our relationship. I thought about when my last boyfriend refused to move in with me because he thought I was just trying to check things off my to-do list. I thought about how much I'd wanted our first Christmas together to be perfect and how much it stung to not have had any of the holidays go like I thought they would in my head. There was no picture of us together by the tree, no kissing under mistletoe, really none of the trappings I thought a Christmas and New Year's in love would have. I'd pinned so much of my self-esteem and joy on a mental Hallmark card.
I used to believe this was something I only did in relationships, that this bad habit of disconnecting fantasy and reality could be solved if only I stuck to being single. I once spent a year single and celibate on purpose, thinking that the mere act of quarantining myself would magically solve all my problems and correct all my bad habits. This time around, I've started to notice that even if I'm single, I'm still always trying to create those picture-perfect moments, hoping they might smooth over that gnawing, angry void. I pin the same unfair, unvoiced hopes on friends and family, hanging hopes far too heavy on these delicate bonds. I wasn't hurt about the reality of one little party losing out to a busy holiday season—after all, the evening turned out quite lovely with two girlfriends and conversation and more wine to go around. It would have been even nicer if I hadn't been so cranky about the difference between reality and my expectations.
I didn't feel empty because people had other plans, I felt empty because I hadn't gotten to feed the beast with the perfect champagne flutes, the perfect punch, the right festive outfit, the glow of the Christmas tree on friendly faces and the holiday cards lined up on the mantle. I was trying to check "throw the perfect holiday party" off my little mental list, just liked I'd tried to check off "marry first boyfriend" and "cohabitate with a significant other." But no matter what I throw into the void, it will never fill up. Even the most delicious meals and beautiful clothes, the greatest friends, fastest cars and biggest yachts would do nothing to fill it.
I could meet an amazing man who loves me and wants to ride off into a ridiculous sunset, and he'd get swallowed up, too, just as I have too many times before. I began to wonder about all the friendships I've had and relationships that have ended and if they turned to rust in part because they got lost in the void. By the time I finished crossing Veterans Bridge, I'd managed to have the revelation I've been waiting years to have: There's no sense in throwing yourself into the same dark place over and over again. There's no point in trying to live up to your own insane aspirations and thirst for perfection to combat a grim, empty feeling. The void is nothing more than a fear that we won't be happy. Ironically, all we need to be happy is to stop fearing the alternative.
It can take such a long, long time to really and truly see your faults for what they are. All these years, I've caught glimpses of them here and there, like trying to see what you look like from reflections in shop windows and rearview mirrors. Suddenly, I saw my biggest challenge in full-length, front and back, like those walls of mirrors you twirl in at the bridal salon. I saw that it is going to take more than a glass of wine or a new pair of jeans or a year spent single to fill the void. It's going to take more than having a boyfriend or throwing the perfect Christmas party or winning a million dollars for life to be perfect—or for me to feel whole. Sometimes, you need to feel your absolute worst to see your own capacity to feel your best.
What I saw driving across that bridge was that I have the power to make myself happy and that there are many more ways to get there than one evening's plans, than one declaration of love, than one dream vacation, than one fat salary or one perfect casserole. Happiness doesn't require perfection. Happiness, strangely, requires nothing more than genuinely releasing everything that prevents you from reaching for it. It requires only openness to the possibility of being happy. Simply let go, and your inner void will collapse in on itself like a dark, dying star, turning into a brilliant supernova.
Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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