Seven years ago, at the ripe old age of thirty-six, I was diagnosed autistic. It was a gorgeous, sunny, spring afternoon in May when my life changed forever. I remember the weather particularly, as it’s been a specialty of mine since childhood. As I sat in the passenger seat of my mother’s Jeep digesting the news, I noted that it was an especially low-humidity day for that time of year on Long Island. I looked over at my mother. She, too, was processing the report we had just heard. Tears brimming her eyes, she turned to me and asked, “Are you okay?”
I thought about it. For most of my thirty-six years, I was NOT okay. In fact, I spent a good chunk of those years angry, sad, confused, resentful, lost, and very much wishing it would all go away. Suicidal ideations became the norm for me somewhere around 8 years old. The planning, wishing, and hoping for the courage to do it, didn’t become the norm until my twenties. For three decades, I had failure after failure, followed by deep depressive episodes, only broken by panic attacks as my anxiety raged. Was I okay?
“No, I’m not. And I haven’t been,” I answered, “but maybe now I will be.”
I didn’t know it then, but that moment was the beginning of a new life for me. In that instant, for the first time in thirty years, I was able to see that not only was there potential for life to be different, but that it could, maybe, even be my life.
It was a year after that sunny day in May that I began to work on building that life. I started with an idea, a goal if you will. With the new self-knowledge my diagnosis provided, I set out on this giant mission: to create a life that I didn’t need a vacation from, and later, to teach others how to do it too. A process I now call Self-Defined Living. What I had come to realize in that first year, was that so much of what I pressured myself to achieve, didn’t come from me at all. In fact, I was pushing myself to burnout trying to attain other people’s wishes, wants, and dreams for me, instead of my own. I was using all my precious energy and time to pursue a life that I didn’t even really want, and then, continuously beating myself up inside for “my failures.” It needed to stop, and I need redefine my life.
I began thinking about the big trigger words in my life. The ones that carried the baggage of other people’s expectations with them. Words like happiness, family, love, and yes, the dreaded word, success. What did it mean to me to be successful? What does it mean to have success? Is success the end goal of living? And when I broke down what that word meant to me, I realized that what I truly believed success to be was not the version of success I was chasing, and so epically failing to catch. I had been in pursuit of an endless list of “things” that would prove my success to the outside world. Chasing degrees, jobs, relationships, anything that would show the world I was “successful,” but no matter how many boxes I ticked, I was still consistently miserable. It was time to redefine success in my own terms and put all of that same energy and time into pursuing this new self-defined version of success. It was time to find that inner voice I had silenced for so long and ask myself what success really meant to me. It didn’t take long to see that what success meant to me was very different from the version of success that had been spoon fed to me by a world fueled by sameness. Success to me wouldn’t look like the “right” job, house, or husband but instead success to me would be to feel like I fit in my life instead of shoving myself into a life in order to belong. Success for me would be to live a life that is aligned with my values and to wake up most days happy about opening my eyes. Success to me cannot be quantified, tallied, or compared. It is a subjective journey to reach a personal goal. Success is not one thing to many people, but rather many things to many people. And with that understanding of myself, life suddenly went from being a competition with others, to being a uniquely individual challenge. It was obvious. How had I missed it for so long? Silly me! Of course, my success would never look like other people’s success, and it was time to stop wanting it to. And with that, it was time to chase the life that I wanted for myself: a life that I was happy to wake up in, a life that met MY expectations of a self-defined successful life, a life I didn’t need a vacation from.
Don’t miss Becca’s keynote address at the 2019 Daniel W. Rosenn Conference on November 16, 2019!