Tonight I am thinking about risk.
Not the board game, which in my family is currently called “Kohleun’s Game of World Domination,” because I won the last time we were all together. Nah, I’m thinking about that thing I really, really, really hate to do.
I hate taking risks, because I am very security oriented. If I don’t have a sure thing lined up, I at least want two backup plans and two backup-backup plans for each backup plan, or at the very least, a couple extra bucks in my bank account. Not because I will ever have enough money to pull myself out of an emergency but because I want to be able to drown my sorrows in a good cup of coffee.
On January 6, I woke up at 5:00 a.m. to an anxiety attack. I was signed on to teach a class that semester with a community college in the area in addition to my floral design job. But I hit a psychological wall. I realized that every morning at 4:20 I woke with the sensation of holding up a million disparate pieces that I would, inevitably, drop. Then I would talk myself down, fall asleep for another hour and be back at fighting the world from six in the morning till after midnight many nights. I had to admit to myself that academia, while in many ways a passion of mine, was and is the central source of my strongest anxiety and it has been since I started college.
For several years I felt like an imposter. I decided at the end of my first year of undergrad that I didn’t want to be a screenwriter and film costumer. I wanted to be a professor, a philosophy professor. I dove headlong into studying philosophy. I went through a very painful feminist/intellectual/religious awakening, wrote a lot, consumed ridiculous amounts of coffee, and battled what I am now convinced was undiagnosed depression.
Around my junior year I had seemed to hit my stride, with lots of positive feedback from both philosophy and English faculty while I continued to design costumes for the university’s theatre program and write prolifically. While I don’t think the imposter syndrome ever goes away, I realized then that I could let go of the nagging feeling that I was not good at academic work—that I did not belong. I traded that anxiety for the sense that yes, I do belong in academia, but I didn’t belong anywhere else. I had let myself lose touch with other skillsets. Not that I couldn’t do them anymore; I just tied so much of my identity and self-worth to academia because I knew that was something I could do well. Although it didn’t offer job security or peace of mind, I could be secure in knowing that I knew how to read analytically, how to conduct research, how write an essay, how to fall asleep at my desk. Naturally, that meant investing another year of my life and another thirty thousand dollars into a master’s degree in St. Andrews, and two more years into teaching for adjunct pay. Naturally.
So, when 5:00 a.m. on January 6 came along, I completely fell apart. I waited two and a half hours to call my mom, since it was a Saturday morning, and I was raised to be polite and shit. She picked up the phone, clearly confused. I squeaked out, “Mom, will I still be a real person if I’m not an academic anymore?” “Of, course,” she replied. “But will I be okay if I’m not an academic anymore?” She said, “Sometimes it’s okay to just be a florist.”
And so I was just a florist for a few months, until I found myself turning back to old habits of writing fiction, drawing fashion illustrations, and sewing. I remembered why my mom taught me how to sew: because as long as I didn’t know how to sew, she and her friends would be constructing the doll couture and outlandish 18th and 19th century period dresses I would sketch in my math notebook. A friend recently asked what my favorite subject in school was. I replied, “18th and 19th century corsetry.” He quipped, “In elementary school,” to which I shot back, “Is sixth grade elementary school or middle school?” Yeah, I made a corset and two crinolines. So what?
But even though I love what I’m pursuing now, it’s intensely scary. I put my last fabric order on my already well-used credit card, which terrifies me. I have an interview for an unpaid internship with a famous designer, which also terrifies me. I don’t actually know how to be a designer. I don’t know how to do a lot of things. I spent the past year reconfiguring and doubting my intuitions regarding relationships, so I don’t even know how to ask someone out. I don’t know how to debone a duck. I know that seems like a superfluous skill to a six-years vegetarian, but it’s something I’d like to know how to do, whether or not I ever do it.
I don’t know how to pick up and leave a place or people or routine I’ve grown attached to. I don’t know how to risk more than I already have, and I feel like I’ve already risked a shit-ton; I’ve risked my own understanding of my identity and worth as a person. I just want to feel brave for a while. To feel wise, rather than completely foolish for making such a drastic change in direction. I want to feel like the risks are worth it, that life will inevitably turn into Kohleun’s Game of Life Domination. But if I knew that, it wouldn’t be a risk, would it?