Yesterday I had a lovely chat with one of my friends about finding and losing your purpose. This is something I have been thinking about a lot over the last two years, since going on sick leave. In North America purpose often equals career, so I felt like I had mine snatched up from me and was left a sort of empty shell of a human, limping around my house trying to figure out who I was supposed to be. I didn’t understand at first that a person isn’t defined by their productivity, and that your purpose also doesn’t have to be the thing that provides your income. I was a part of the problem before that problem became one of the main themes in my life and made me reevaluate how I saw myself and the world.
I had a path for my life. I had plans. Two, five, ten year plans. I’m a total Amy Santiago, so once I knew what I wanted my purpose to be, I planned heavily for it. I mean, it took me quite a few years to figure it all out, but once I did, I was organized and ready to go.
And then chronic illness came along and basically punched me in the face and told me I had to make new dreams.
When I was a teenager I started out wanting to be an actress. And then I watched Supernatural and I wanted to date Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles at the same time, so I decided I wanted to go into television production in order to get a full time job on the set of Supernatural so that I could date them. And then I read The Da Vinci Code and I wanted to be Robert Langdon and I got ¾ through a religious studies degree. And then I found out that symbology isn’t really something I could realistically have a flourishing career in so I started watching Alias and decided that I wanted to be Sidney Bristow. So I finished my Religious Studies degree and I also did international politics and history of warfare courses. And I tried to learn Russian. And I went for a run every morning while listening to that “Won’t Back Down” song by Pink and Eminem. And then I tried to be a spy. And it was looking good for spyhood but then I realized I would need my license if I wanted to be a spy. I really didn’t like the thought of driving, especially because I just wanted to be one of the spies who stays in the office and is connected to the field-spies via spy-skype and tells them things like “The bad guy went that way! I see him! He is a green dot on my black computer screen and somehow doing a religious studies degree gave me the expertise to understand this super complex computer! Look at me type in all of these random numbers that are probably binary code and then find out the path the bad guy is probably going to take! You can cut him off on the other side of that alley, in Italy where we are, because that’s a super romantic place to work!” (So basically Melissa McCarthy in the movie Spy but only in the beginning). And then I also realized that at the end of the day at my spy job I would probably go home to my minimalist spy apartment, heat up something in the microwave and then obsess over the thought “Wait…what if I’M the bad guy?” and I would probably cry in the shower a lot.
Then I watched the movie “The Interpreter” starring Nicole Kidman and decided I wanted to be a diplomat (ugh I was the actual worst). So I studied to work for the federal government, particularly Foreign Affairs. I wanted to travel the world and try to help people and learn about different cultures and make a lot of money as one of these diplomats. That dream stuck for a long time and it seemed very doable. I worked really hard towards it. I took tests for it and I wrote essays for it and it and I got a scholarship to do a second masters degree in International Development Studies. It seemed like it could be the thing I did for a living. It felt very purposeful. All I needed to do was finish my first graduate degree and then it could all be mine. And then near the end of my first graduate degree the sickness from my undergraduate degree, the maybe-MS-maybe-fibromyalgia-maybe-migraines-maybe-stress-maybe-nothing-maybe-Lupus-definitely-EDS-but-we-don’t-know-that-yet poked me on the shoulder and was like “hey girl hey, I missed you so much. Let’s do lunch and then throw it up because our stomachs hurt so much.”
So I finished my graduate degree and I went back to bed for a long time and I feel like when I got out of bed I stepped into another strange dimension with a parallel Lisa who has way less energy, and then her dreams became different dreams.
My dreams went from “be a career driven woman who works 60+ hours a week and lives all over the world and has super human diplomatic immunity powers” to “try to be someone who feeds herself today, k? The kitchen isn’t THAT far away from your room.”
And then after I got a little more acclimatized to this new dimension and this new version of Lisa, and the unnamed illness seemed to go back into hibernation, I found out that Target was expanding into Canada. I loved all the Target commercials I watched on television so I applied to be a manager. The only criteria I ever seemed to have for pursuing a career was “saw it on tv.” I hated retail but I figured maybe Target would be cool enough to make me like being a retail manager. And then I got the job and it involved some travel throughout Eastern Canada and New York, so that thrilled me. I thought maybe this was the universe’s way of compromising with me so I could still put on pencil skirts and blazers, and roll my fancy carry-on through airports while listening to my heels click, and be someone who travels enough to call herself a jet-setter in her head but not out loud because that sounds douchey. And it worked! I did love Target enough to actually enjoy retail. And I went on some awesome trips and met awesome people. And I thought “awww yeah, new life…you’re okay.” And the unnamed illness stayed away for quite a long time so I thought “omg maybe it was just double mono and I’m fine now.” And then, during one of my business trips, I stopped being able to breathe. There was inflammation around my lungs or something *shrugging emoji*. One of my coworkers had to keep an eye on me in my hotel room to make sure I didn’t die, just in case it was a blood clot. My dad had to swoop in and take care of me. And I didn’t feel like a super professional jet-setting adult anymore. That was chronic illness punching me in the face again. Well I guess it was punching me in the lungs. It was trying to formally introduce itself to me, taking off it’s coat and hanging it up so it could get cozy. It was reminding me that I could run but I couldn’t hide. Oh and also I couldn’t run, let’s be real here.
And the rest you know. I started working as a secretary. I started liking that. I worked my way up through some really cool university positions and then got a sweet gig as a recruitment coordinator. I didn’t see that one on tv, so that’s probably how I knew it was meant to be my real life adult career. It was going to be my future and I Amy Santiago’d the shit out of that. All the binders with all the colour coded tabs!
And now I’m on sick leave and my job is going to doctors appointments and occupational therapy appointments and physical therapy appointments and laying down in giant tubes that scan my body and trying to walk for 10 minutes a day without my hips popping out and professionally rolling my eyes when acquaintances say “it must be nice to stay home all day.”
And all of that sounds pretty shitty, if we’re being honest. But somewhere in all of that – in my new dimension of career decline and future-dream-destruction – writing happened. I found words and they wrapped me up like a warm blanket, they coddled me and made me feel like a fresh little baby that is safe and happy because she was just burped. Writing gave me a way to more-or-less make sense of what was taken from me. Maybe taken is a strong word. Rearranged? Let’s go with that. I found my passion. Writing makes me feel successful and alive. It gave me a way to connect to other people who are feeling what I am feeling. I found the thing I’m supposed to be doing with my life, even if most days I am too tired to form words so I can’t actually do it as a career.
So I don’t know if the happiness that is writing would have been on that first path I was on. Probably not. And that’s why it’s so hard to say that I wish I could have stayed on that first path, the one with a fancy career and no illnesses or pain. And who knows, something else probably would have derailed me at some point. Everyone has a thing. There will always be obstacles. I’m sure everyone can say “I had a dream for my life and [BLANK] punched me in the face and told me I had to make new dreams.” Like maybe even someone who became a super rich and famous actor after just one audition can say “My dream was to be a research librarian and then I gave in to a friend’s dare and auditioned for a movie and the lead role in Fast and the Furious 17 came along and punched me in the face and told me I had to make new dreams so now I’m People’s Sexiest Man Alive and I get stopped in the street all the time when all I really want to do is go read a book in solitude.”
You get the point. If you change the words around a bit, this is your story too. What happened to me is not a new concept. Life never goes as planned.
The feeling like I have a purpose still ebbs and flows for me. It’s hard as hell to come to terms with the drastic changes that chronic illness can bring into your life, and because of that I definitely second guess myself sometimes. But other times, when I write a blog post about being sick and someone e-mails me to say that I’ve made them feel less isolated, I stop and think about how important of a purpose that is. I think I’m lucky that everything came together this way and gave me the chance to help other people out, to let them read their story in words that maybe they couldn’t find.
Maybe we’ll all find our purpose and that will remain our purpose for the rest of our lives. Maybe our purpose will change as we change and evolve. Maybe there will be periods of time in our lives when we feel like we don’t have a purpose. But I like to think that’s just a time when we are recalibrating, making sense of who we are now, once we have experienced things we probably didn’t see coming. I like to think that’s just us giving ourselves the time we need to figure it out again.