When I was 18 my life took a turn. I was forced to grow up quickly and figure out things on my own. Some things were within my control while others were falling through my grasp. I was working three jobs; serving at a local chain restaurant in the morning, nannying during the day, and retail at night. If I didn’t work all three, I made sure to pick up an opening or closing shift at the restaurant.
For the first time I found myself forced to get an apartment, signing away a whole tree it seemed with my John Hancock. Part of me felt like I was signing my life away. I signed for that apartment without seeing it on my lunch break and went to work the closing shift before returning. A friend helped me move about seven of my paintings stuffed into the back of my tiny white car amongst books and some clothes. My whole life fit into a car and even though I wasn’t homeless, I felt homeless. Walking up three flights of stairs, I turned the jagged metal key to see what was behind door number one.
My friend set the paintings down and told me, “No matter what, you have to make this work.” Terrified at those words and not meaning much at the time I smiled and said, “I know.” I remember entering the unknown space for the first time. No noise, no T.V., or music. It was everything I could do to block out the loudness of my thoughts, of feeling everything while not wanting to feel anything at all. I had no bed, no pillow, no food—thank goodness for working at a restaurant—and would later realize I had no toilet paper! Yes, you read that correctly. Call me crazy but when you have never had to purchase the bare essentials you don’t realize what a blessing they are. That’s why everyone loves getting socks for Christmas. I slept on the floor for the first week with a blanket, and really wasn’t in the apartment long enough to have it concern me. I had a roof over my head and a lock on my door, I was safe and I had what I needed.
A week later I made my first big purchase, a queen air mattress that I lived on for 4 years—shout out to Coleman! I forgot what a real bed felt like. I got used to the rubber balloon-like squeaking when I tossed and turned at night, and the nightly routine of pumping it up to have enough air and duct taping tiny holes. I called it my modified sleep number, for a quarter of the cost.
Some might have found this miserable and sad, but the truth is that this made me who I am. I learned how to stand up for myself and what I needed. I learned that friends and family matter more than things. I found myself and who I was, and learned who I wanted to be and where I wanted to go in life. I pushed myself to work hard and give everything I do 100% no matter the task. I learned to live life to the fullest and realized tomorrow isn’t always guaranteed. I believe it is always important to remember where you’ve come from, and what you have come out of. My situation made me realize I had to work hard, not for anyone else, but for myself. I could not rely on others to look out for me. I had to trust that I was enough. I learned that if you work hard, it pays off. Maybe some people don’t notice, maybe they do. What matters is you do it for yourself, to get to where you want to be.
I no longer have an air mattress and hardly ever run out of toilet paper, even though I still hate purchasing it. I live in an apartment that is all me and, better yet, has become my home. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t remember that 18-year old girl sitting in the middle of an empty apartment and think, “How did I get here?” Sometimes it’s like I don’t even know who it was, but I know her strength and courage to keep going is what got me to where I am today.
Remember the things that count and what got you to where you are today. To my friend, who has since passed away, I whisper back, “I did it!”
Quote and painting above by Bono Artist and Author, Carly Schrader
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