Growing up in the suburbs of Kansas City meant living the ‘perfect’ lifestyle – living in a brown, box shaped house with a 2 car garage on a block full of identical lawns with the smell of freshly cut grass, the sound of children laughing on the swing set out back, and the sound of a television playing Disney Channel from every living room. Every marriage was expected to be happy, every child was expected to be well mannered in school and well liked on the playground, and every day was expected to end with a nice dinner in the dining room. Mental illness was a sour notion, tainted with bad feelings and a hushed weekly trip to the therapist. You were just expected to fit into the box that Midwestern society put you in and weren’t ever to raise your voice or think differently than the crowd.
Luckily, I grew up with a mother who liked to color outside the lines and a father who expected good grades with a bit of humor on the side. They always told us to be completely and unabashedly ourselves – even if that meant wearing Crocs every day of 4thgrade or wearing vintage clothes while everyone else was sporting Abercrombie. And even though my sister and I knew that our parents loved us, no matter what – we would never bring up the scary thoughts inside our head or the fact that we might not be able to fit into our unspoken societal box. We were able to get A’s and become the President of our clubs, so why did those thoughts even matter? We always pushed them away.
Then I made the decision during my senior year to head to Ole Miss after high school. I had watched, and quite frankly obsessed, over a girl who had previously gone to a southern school. I wanted to be just like her, so I started to dress like her, join the clubs that she did, and just basically try to live up to her way of life. As this was happening, I suddenly began having episodes of extremely heavy breathing, hand shaking, and fast heartbeats whenever I thought about actually going to Ole Miss. I had no clue what was happening, but I just brushed it off as deep-seated fear of heading to college. We were all worried about graduating, so that was probably happening to everyone too… or so I thought.
Flash forward to after college graduation. I had definitely had more of my weird heavy breathing episodes, but they never got to the point where I felt I couldn’t handle them any longer. But as my departure date for Australia loomed nearer, my episodes became worse. At one point, I just had to lay in my mom’s arms after trying to pack all of my life into 2 suitcases and sob my heart out. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, and could barely even see. I just knew that I had this gut wrenching feeling that I couldn’t move to a place that was so far away from my family. But, as per usual, I didn’t classify this episode as anything out of the ordinary. I just assumed that it happened to everyone when they were about to experience change.
It wasn’t until a family member of mine was diagnosed with anxiety that I actually looked up the symptoms and realized that I had found a word for what I had been experiencing since high school. I decided to take that knowledge and use it to understand myself a little bit better as I go through this transitional time. I found that taking deep breaths, meditating, and exercising help me the most when I am really feeling like another episode is about to hit.
I still don’t know much about anxiety, but I do know that my entire family has it. I think it comes with keeping in rhythm with the values and cultural standards of the society we were raised in. However, I think that moving to Melbourne might have helped me to break out of my little, perfect box and grow in whatever direction I fancy.
Since moving here 3 months ago, I already feel like I have changed quite a bit. I have started to realize that people around here wear whatever they want, love whomever they want to love, and just generally speak their minds. They are fairly easygoing and don’t seem to have such high expectations of people. This has been SO refreshing. At first, when I would see a girl on the street wearing bright colors or something just completely wild, I’d think to myself, “Why on earth is she wearing that? Doesn’t she know that people will judge her?” But the more I interact with Aussies and expats, the more I realize that no one really cares what you wear or how you personally define yourself. There are hundreds of people in this city and everyone is just going about their own lives. It has been eye opening to realize that I’m not on a pedestal for everyone to judge exactly what brand of jacket I put on this morning or whether my wardrobe’s color palette matches. NOBODY CARES! And boy, is it liberating.
I also realized that societal expectations have gone out the window. As the weeks abroad have pressed on, I kept thinking about the decisions I was making in my life and whether or not my parents would approve. Or what my friends would say. Or whether I was doing this ‘adulting’ thing correctly. But you know what I realized? There’s no road map after college that tells you exactly what your destination will be. There are no signs, no flashing lights, and sometimes, your car runs out of gas. No one is there to help you fill it up or get you out of the middle of nowhere. At first, I found this completely and utterly terrifying. I’m alone! I’m freaking LOST as to what my life should look like. I kept trying to plan every little detail of my future and figure out exactly where I would be when I turn 25. I kept scrutinizing every decision I made and wondering if mom and dad ever had the same questions. But then, I realized –
It’s just me now. I get to make the decisions. I get to choose whether I spend or save, buy the plane tickets, eat the chocolate cake in one sitting, or join a random choir. There is no one telling me what to do, who my friends should be, what I should be wearing, or what my life should look like. And this has made a world of difference.
First, I stepped out of my little Midwestern, suburban box where I was expected to have a stellar GPA and resume.
Then, I stepped into a Southern, very ill fitted box that dictated what I wore, whom I worshipped, and what I did on the weekend.
Now, I’m stepping out of my restrictive box and into the world. I’m able to fill up a whole room with whatever I please. I’m able to let my voice be heard across the world. I’m able to love and laugh and eat and sing and do whatever I want because I decided and not because my parents or friends told me to.
And do you know who was already doing this? Rory. He has never once fit into the box he was given. He refuses to dress like other people, act in certain ways, or do the things other people have commanded him to do. And he could not care less. At one point, I was a little bothered by this, because he just wouldn’t confine to the gender roles I assumed everyone was raised with. But you know what? He was freaking RIGHT. Our relationship is so much better and stronger because he pushes me every day to step out of my comfort zone and accept the present, just as it is. Honestly, we all just need a Rory in our lives.
So the moral of this rant is basically that whatever box someone is trying to put you in, snap out of it and run! You don’t need to let the world dictate exactly who you are. There is such beauty in being exactly who you are and speaking your mind and loving who you want to love. And those who matter won’t mind. Those who mind seriously don’t matter. Just be yourself every. Single. Day. And if you have anxiety, then find a way to help yourself that works for you. Don’t let anyone brush it off or belittle your mental illness. Take the time to research remedies or even go see a therapist. But remember – it’s your journey and yours alone. The world is yours for the taking – all that’s stopping you is yourself.