Life without dreams, I discovered at a young age, is a particular kind of hell. It is the kind of hell where all meaning is lost. Whether it is day or night has no significance, because they are both intolerable. There is nothing to look forward to, no point to existence. I had lived in that kind of hell in my early adulthood. I had dropped out of university after two tortuous years to work in the “real world” as a restaurant manager. It didn’t take too many long nights of washing dishes to realize that my life pretty much sucked. I had no idea who I was. No clue what I wanted from life, or significantly, that you could want something out of life. More importantly, however, I didn’t know what life wanted from me. If this was all that life was, working at a moderately crappy job, going from terrible relationship to terrible relationship, than what was the point exactly? Before I would go to sleep I would quietly ask God to please take me back and let me start all over again. Hopefully the next time I wouldn’t be a massive disappointment.
The darkness and despair I felt was a signal, the discomfort meant to propel me to make drastic changes in my life. But change is, frankly, terrifying and I was having none of it. Instead I muddled around in the world, buying all of the self-help books I could find. I was searching for answers, but not too hard, because I was certain that the answers I found would be too difficult to bear. I had no doubt that if I were faced with the truth of myself, who I really was, it would suffocate me with its awfulness. It would choke me with shame.
I stayed in this uncomfortable ambivalence for many years. I was 21 years old, and miserable. Yet another boyfriend I had been madly in love was distancing himself from me. I could feel the desperation growing in me like a wild fire, needing to call him, needing to talk to him, needing him to know how I felt, needing to understand why. I knew that need would drive him away further, but it was fierce. I picked up a book instead, trying to make sense of this pattern of failed relationships. It was called “Leaving the Enchanted Forest” by Stephanie Covington. The only thing I remember is reading one line, and it almost knocking the breath out of me. I don’t remember it word for word, but the message was this: You cannot depend on others for your happiness. Your happiness is yours alone to create.
I had heard this probably millions of time before, but the words had always floated by and never really taken hold. This time, however, it shocked me with its truth. I realized that that was what I had been doing my entire life. I was only really happy if others (specifically a man) loved me. If he didn’t, I was deflated, absent, like all of who I was could escape with a simple exhale. With this appalling truth staring at me in the face, I decided that I would not be this woman any longer. I went to my room and looked at my phone. I knew that I needed help. I picked up the phone and put it down. I was crying with fear. I hung it up a second time. The third, however, was a success. The person who answered calmed me down, and I made an appointment. I was going to change my life.
I threw myself into recovery, determined to be honest above all else. I held nothing back. All of my shame came to the fore, and I realized, with relief, that it wasn’t powerful enough to kill me. With the help of others who witnessed all of it and accepted me anyway, I learned to accept myself. What I noticed, however, in this culture of recovery, is that many people who had been in recovery for years, were not really living. They were stuck in fear, always recovering. In recovery, their dreams came with a disclaimer.
“Please dream with caution as you are powerless and your dreams might be dangerous for your recovery. Don’t get too confident or sure of yourself. Remember. You are powerless over your (name addiction/weakness here).”
I noticed that recovery and survival were enough for many people. But it was not enough for me. I wanted to more. I didn’t want to just survive, I wanted to thrive. I had recovered my spirit and was eager to re-claim and discover who I was as a woman. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in recovery, attending meetings that reminded me of how powerless I was. I felt powerful. I wanted to taste life, to dive into its waters and learn its mysteries. I wanted to dream. I wanted adventure.
I decided to go on a vacation. It was my first real vacation while working as a restaurant manager. I was really excited because I had decided to go to Club Med for one simple reason, I had always wanted to learn to water ski. Growing up in land locked Calgary, Alberta had meant that things like water skiing had been out of my reach. It was a crazy dream I had had since I was little, and I was going to honour it. I picked a Club that had an abundance of water sports: scuba diving, sailing, water skiing. My mother, who has supported me throughout my life, and does still, gave me enough so that I could stay for two weeks. I was so excited.
I arrived in Mexico and threw myself into every activity. I water-skied every single day. I learned to sail. I took tennis lessons. I learned to scuba dive. I danced all night long. I met loads of people. The people who worked there were the friendliest people I had ever met and they came from all over the world. At the end of my first week it dawned on me. These people actually work in this place! This is their JOB. Every morning they wake up to go to work and this is what they see. This is what they do. This is AMAZING.
I realized something. I wanted this life. Just the thought of it felt delicious and dangerous.
When I came home I told my parents that I had made a major life decision. I am positive that they were hoping that I had learned that the “real world” wasn’t so great and I would go back to university where I belonged. When I had dropped out of university a few years before, it was with the promise that I would return. They had informed me, very seriously, that when people drop out of university they never go back. Dropping out of university, would, therefore, be the worst decision I could ever make. It would negatively impact the rest of my life. All of that potential from the brains in my head would be wasted. I dropped out anyway and promised that I would be the exception.
When I told them, instead, that I was going to be a scuba diving instructor and work for Club Med, I was prepared for my dad, especially, to lose it. I wasn’t disappointed. But strangely enough, when the shock wore off, they both supported me. Coincidentally the very first instructor’s course was just starting up in Alberta. If there hadn’t been one, I doubt I would ever have followed through. My parents paid for me to complete my training, which took about 9 months.
In my instructor’s class I found others, like me, who had become disillusioned with life. A few were lawyers. What we all shared was the desire for something more from life than what we woke up to, day after day. We were all searching for what that something more might be. We all dreamed of waking up to beautiful sunshine and sandy beaches every morning. In the meantime, however, the actual training was brutal. My first open water dive was in a glacier lake outside of Banff, Alberta. The water was so cold we had to keep surfacing to warm up the regulators so they would work properly.
I dove in water that was in the process of freezing while I was in it. It was one of our last dives in Alberta, before we did our exam dives in British Columbia. It was about minus 30 degrees Celsius outside, even colder with the wind chill. We were all moving quite slowly, not really believing that our instructor, Don, would actually make us dive in water this freezing. After watching us dawdle for a period of time, Don called us together. Instead of a pep talk, he let us have it. “You people are the biggest whiny children I have ever seen! This is the easiest fucking dive you are ever going to do! Now get off your fucking ass and get in the fucking water!” We all stood frozen in shocked silence. We had never seen him lose control before. He had always been so happy and cheerful, in a used-car dealer kind of way.
I got dressed more quickly, but his reproach did not change the fact that I dreaded getting into that water. The air was so cold that steam was coming off of the water, even though it was at the point of freezing. As grumpy as I was, there was a sliver of hope. I had noticed that Don was almost a bigger wimp than me when it came to the cold.
As soon as I got to the bottom I started inhaling as deeply as I could, practically hyperventilating, so that I could use all of my air quickly and be forced to return to the surface. I didn’t need to. My hunch about Don’s ability to adapt to the cold was correct. He signaled to us to go up to the surface within ten minutes. We crammed into the back of someone’s van, trying to remove frozen solid gloves from fingers that could barely move. I would have glared at Don had I not been so grateful to be out of that water.
After I passed my exams, and was certified as an instructor, I applied to work at Club Med. They called me within a few weeks. I flew to New York for an interview. A few weeks after that I was on a plane, leaving my life behind and flying to Sonora, Mexico, to work as a scuba diving instructor in Club Med.
I had dreamed a dream that was totally and completely mine. It was not my parent’s dream, not the women’s programmed “get married and have children” dream. This dream was utterly and entirely mine. And I had made it come true, with help of course. For the first time, I was excited by what life held in store for me. I had crawled out of the darkness that was my life for 21 years and emerged transformed by that experience. It was surrendering and connecting to something greater than me that allowed it to happen. I hadn’t defined what that was, hadn’t named it, and had no desire to. I simply felt a loving and compassionate presence in my life. That presence helped me to heal and encouraged me to have the courage to stand up for my life, for my dreams. It helped me believe that anything really was possible. I felt certain that whatever that presence was, it was partly responsible for me being there, on that plane, flying into the unknown possibilities of my life. I was incredibly grateful and excited.
Almost a decade later, at 30, I faced another existential crisis as I faced my own mortality. What helped me through it was recovering my dreams, dreams that were precious to me. One was acting, and the other, singing. I knew, from experience, that the key to recovering meaning in my life was to reach out for my dreams, to start a new adventure. I reached out to the universe to ask for help. Help this crazy rock star dream come true. And just like Julia Cameron warned in her book “The Artist’s Way”, there is a reason that people say “Be careful what you wish/pray for, it might come true.”
Stay tuned for the next installment