Since I was twenty-two, fresh out of college, I’ve worked in the field of social media. I was taught in the most mediocre fashion to create content. My career endeavors took me into the world of digital marketing companies and nonprofits while I continued to learn and grow in my skills and abilities through trial and error, and a whole lot of YouTube videos. I worked with hundreds of different types of clients from the fitness industry to PCOS bloggers, home health care and human resource management softwares. Let’s just say, I hated it.
So when my last job and I parted ways during COVID-19, I was terrified and undeniably relieved. I was free. I was free from a situation which compromised my values day after day, belittled me for having mental health issues, and dismissed me for having ideas that went against the grain. I was free, but also incredibly directionless, finding myself aimlessly walking through a life of isolation, depression, and lack of direction.
But it wasn’t always like this.
It was a typical Wednesday morning waking up in Colorado. The sun was still asleep as I woke up at my regular, insomniac time of 3:00 AM. My eyes burst open to a full blown panic attack. My breathing was rapid and tears were flooding out of me with absolutely no purpose or reasoning. I couldn’t figure out why I was hyperventilating.
My chest was caving in while my brain collected every dark thought about who I was and who I had become. The whole “I saw my life flash before my eyes,” normally happens when someone is having a near death experience. Was I dying? A vivid series of events rushed through my head with a coinciding heat in fast forward. That was it. There was no other explanation. I was definitely dying.
I’d been experiencing an ongoing battle with panic attacks surrounding death since quarantine started. Not to mention death had been so prominent on my brain over the last year. People from my hometown and childhood were dying from fentanyl. Drug overdoses. During the time I traveled, I’d experienced six or seven losses. Some close to home, others were friends of my previous partner.
I had spent the last few months going to bed every night with the desire to never wake up. But once I felt like the desire was coming to fruition, all I could do was pray to God because it wasn’t my time. There was still so much more I needed to do. I still had too much to learn about my family and friendships to mend. I needed to be there when my best friend had her baby. I wanted to find a career that actually made me thrive and give back to the world. I wasn’t actually ready to die.
Just like that, something clicked. I sprung upright in a seated position and yelled, “STOP!” My dog, Luna, popped her head awake. She isn’t a guard dog by any means, but when you are in a panic she will be there to give you all the love and comfort you could ever need. Luna knew, and I knew that I had enough. This entire way of life I’d been putting myself through was getting out of control and I needed to take back the wheel. If I didn’t change my life, my way of thinking, and take action, I was going to die. There is no rewind button or redo on the VHS of life. I needed to get my shit together and see my life for what it really was, not this unmanageable saga that had formed before me.
We all have to face one eerie concept. One day, we are all going to die. It might be in your sleep as an old lady in your comfortable bed, or it could happen way too soon in a car crash from a drunk driver while you’re texting your friend about going to the bar. I strongly believed that I would die from either lung cancer after years of smoking, being malnourished due to my eating disorder, diabetes from the pints of ice cream I would down in a savage binge, or worst of all I would take my own life because depression had gotten the worst of me. Dark, I know, but I had to be completely honest with myself which meant that there was one death hypothesis I needed to say out loud:
I was petrified that I would die of a broken heart.
If you think I’m joking, the internet will terrify you once you begin to Google what takotsubo cardiomyopathy is. Others know it as ‘broken heart syndrome.’ After a seriously stressful event, your body can get a massive adrenaline rush that causes something similar to a heart attack. Depression in itself can have detrimental physical effects on your heart. With full transparency, I could see the reality of the risks. I needed to not only make these changes work, but make them stick. This is what I thought was happening to me the moment I awoke in a panic. This was one of my greatest fears because I knew that it was actually a possibility. Maybe not a likely possibility, but how can you possibly debate with your brain when you’re in a state of panic and Googling your symptoms?
Since the moment I moved the last piece of furniture into a new apartment in Denver, I could feel my heart breaking bit by bit. I was going through the longest, most heart-wrenching break up leaving me more alone in the depths of my depression. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted in life to literally save my life. I had to start over making friends which, as an adult, is significantly more difficult than a kid. At least they have school. I was unemployed trying to navigate a global pandemic filled with isolation. But it also was my first time really trying to make friends since I’d traveled. It meant I’d have to start communicating with people who didn’t live out of a backpack, but rather had two story homes with dining tables no one ever ate at and uncomfortable living room chairs that no one ever sat in.
But what made the most dramatic impact on my life was that I had to put on the biggest, fakest smile every single day as a facade to not alarm the rest of the world that Lauren Michelle Dow might not actually be okay. If there was a switch on the back of my neck hidden underneath my hair, I would have shaved my hair clean off and turned that sucker off months ago.
How I Started Making The Change: By One Small Step at a Time
Normally getting out of bed wasn’t the difficult part for me. It’s like I wanted to spend the morning suffering. After my panic attack, I had to do something different because I was different. For the first time in months I didn’t wake up wanting to die so I knew I better hone in on the feeling for as long as it would last.
I put my headphones on and blasted an acoustic cover playlist. Basic white girl stuff right there, but it’s so good! Normally I can’t write with music on, but again, something had to change. Starting my day off with music sets the tone for the rest of my day. This means my selection is critical and I am meticulous with the exact songs I allow my brain to take in each morning.
I avoided high stress situations, anything involving human beings, and my family. I had to make a tough call on that one because they viewed me as a patient, not as a daughter or a sister. Everything we talked about was always my food intake and asked “how are you feeling?” or “have you eaten today?” I had to detox from everything that was causing me to lose grip on this new reality I was creating for myself.
It was exciting. My body was juiced up on natural adrenaline instead of eighteen cups of coffee I usually have to get my day started. Looking at the calendar, I had 9 months before the lease in Denver ended. Perfect place to start. I had a timeline for my goals instead of this aimless date that didn’t force my inner go-getter-ness to spread it’s beautiful wings. I flipped open my journal to a fresh new page. I could smell the opportunity seeping out the binding. Pen in hand, I looked out onto the balcony where the sun was still fast asleep.
I had absolutely no idea where to start. All of this pent up excitement for figuring out my life was jonesing me up, but I had no idea what to do with that energy. Where does someone start when they want to set goals for themself? How does a person just change after years of putting themselves through anguish?
I turned to the pros. Aka, I went to YouTube and listened to a billion Ted Talks about happiness, depression, the brain, anxiety, addiction, you name it. My thought process was, these people are up on stage in some amazing country in front of hundreds of people live streaming their professional and personal experiences to help inspire others on change. They were clearly up there for a reason and I wanted to listen.
When I initially knew in 2017 that I wanted to spend a year traveling, I had to go through a similar process. I needed to start asking myself the right questions. I needed to understand what it was I wanted to achieve, why I wanted to achieve it, and how I was going to make it happen. I wrote in detail the answers to the previous questions. When I say detail, I’m talking specifics. The physical nature of your body, the items you have in your possession, the conversations I would have with people, and the condition my mind would have to be in. I literally wrote a novel to prepare myself for what I was about to do because I knew it would be a game changer for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to mess this up and go all in with a willy nilly, balls to the walls, “let’s just wing it” mentality.
And guess what? I did it. I accomplished my goal and came out of it alive, and with more questions than ever which is what I wanted to get out of the trip to begin with. I wanted to challenge myself to dig deeper into who I am and what defines me. This experience was no different.
So I took a lesson from my own book.
I started asking myself in that moment as I prepared for the next part of my life, exactly what I wanted. Easy enough. I wrote a huge, long list in detail of all the things I desired, but then my brain began to swell with anxiety. I felt debilitated all over again. What I wanted had no direction. I wanted to build an eco-friendly home out of a storage container. I wanted to live in Asia for six months. I wanted to live out a restored van traveling North America. I wanted to be healthy and quit smoking. I wanted to get married, have kids, and tour the globe talking about my recently published book. I wanted everything with little to no direction.
But the one thing that stuck out in my laundry list of overwhelming wants, was that no where on this list did I take into consideration my needs. I needed family. I needed friends. I needed stability. I needed direction. I needed routine. I needed flexibility, self-love, and encouragement. I drew a line down the middle of the paper and made a new column that stated my needs.
When we want our lives to change in some big dramatic way, we tend to do the things we want. Which isn’t a bad thing. I say live it up and do whatever the hell makes you happy. You deserve that. But if we don’t stop to first think about why we want some big dramatic change in the first place, we’re only going to find ourselves back at square one in a few weeks, months, or years. We have to focus first, on what we need.
Thinking about making plans or setting goals for myself looks significantly less selfish, and by selfish I mean I first have the conversation of needs before wants. Always. In that moment making the lists in my journal, I recognized that I needed support and stability first and foremost, not a six-month stay in Asia where I’d have no one while experiencing one of the biggest culture shocks of my life, providing me with no sense of the words.
So if you’re thinking about making a big change in your life, ask yourself what you need first. And if what you need lines up with what you want, then you are on one hell of a journey my friend and I can not wait for you to experience what is about to unfold for you.
But if what you need is unparalleled, do a little reevaluating. It’s not to say that you can’t do these things you want in life. On the contrary, you absolutely can. Just take it from someone who put her needs on the back burner for thirty years. It took me to a lot of places and experienced a million incredible things. But I always ended back at square one, having to start all over again.