One Year Later

I’ve lived in Birmingham for a year today. And now, just like last year, I find myself sitting in a brand new and unfamiliar apartment, crying.

Last year, the tears were brought on by fear and potential loneliness. I had been in Birmingham for twenty-four hours and, upon saying goodbye to my dad, I realized that no one else in the world knew, or cared, that I was here. When I closed my apartment door after watching my dad drive away, I was overwhelmed with the gravity of my situation, and the tears rolled down.

“What have I done? Why am I here?” I asked myself as I closed the door.

When he left, I didn’t know what to do. It felt like such a big deal, to be there, in my own apartment, alone, starting a new chapter of my life, but no one was there to share it with, so I ignored the gravity of the moment. I made home in the only piece of furniture in my living room, and I prayed because it was all I knew to do. I waited for the uneasiness to pass, the disappointment, the weight, I distracted myself with decorating the walls and watching Harry Potter to mask the feelings trapped in my chest, but it didn’t. I waited, and waited, and waited, and I convinced myself that the cloud had passed, the fear was gone, that joy had come, when in reality those things had just become my normal.

The truth is that I spent my first six months in Birmingham the same way I spent that first afternoon; lying to myself, ignoring my feelings, using jobs and tasks to pass the time.

You see, I was really excited for this move. I’d gotten into grad school and was going to live in a city that I loved. I’d never moved, except to go to college, and I was finally getting to live alone. I had plans to get a cat and never wear pants. I imagined late night writing sessions, wine nights with the friends I’d make, and deeply loving my time in grad school. I was coming off of an incredible summer, and I believed myself to be walking into an incredible year. I was ready to master the single and independent twenty-something game.

What I didn’t know is that level-one of that game involves a lot of failure.

My first six months in Birmingham were so damn hard. I wouldn’t have told you that at the time because, really, I didn’t know. I was working full time while going to school full time and trying to maintain my sanity. My every day was spent scheduled down to the half hour, often rushing from one job to the next and sneaking my textbooks under the counter at one. I went head first into my life here, not realizing that I sacrificed myself in the process, and surprised when my mom asked me if I’d considered going back to counseling. Without my noticing (or with my chosen blindness), my depression and anxiety had once again taken over my life, and I didn’t have the energy to do anything about it.

After diving in head first, I had crashed and burned.

I hadn’t prepared for the level of transition that I was going through. I hadn’t thought about how hard it would be to move to a new city, to start at a school where no one knew my name, to learn what grad school is like, to take on not one, but two new jobs, to find a church, to really, truly live alone. I was outside of everything, from my location to the people to the culture, that was familiar, and I expected myself to just roll with it. I never gave myself the chance to take it all in. I never made room for grace. Whenever I’d slow down, I could acknowledge that the season was hard, but I wouldn’t really slow down long enough to ask myself why.

After that first semester, those first impossible months, after I’d found a new counselor and cried a lot of tears, my life in Birmingham really began. I got a cat and, when I was home, rarely wore pants. I had my late night writing sessions, but was always too tired to host the wine nights. After changing my concentration and finally choosing a career path, I fell deeply in love with grad school and found myself excited about the future. I went to church, invested in the people around me, showed up to my weekly counseling appointments, asked myself hard questions, committed to my schoolwork, and chose to really be here. I stopped hiding from myself, I quit one of my jobs, got on antidepressants, and I allowed my heart and my mind to make Birmingham feel like home.

This last year has been nothing like I expected it to be, and, to use the cliche, I wouldn’t have it any other way. This last year has been hard as hell, but I’m more proud of myself now than I ever have been, and that feels like a really big deal.

Ashton Ray