On Dreams

When I was younger, I had a lot of big dreams. Huge, actually. The kind that everybody laughs about because, well, every little kid thinks they’ve got what it takes to be a doctor or a movie star or a fireman, and the truth is that very few of them actually do. Those kids grow up and realize that they’re going to have to spend 8+ years in school taking organic chemistry and other scary lab sciences, or that they really suck at acting, or that they are in no way brave enough to risk their lives every day.

I remember very fondly what it was like to have those dreams. I mean, the possibilities were endless. Every teacher in school spouted “if you can dream it, you can do it” – and every kid latched on to that adage with a firm grip and a soaring imagination. Especially me. I was known for my creativity and wild ideas, and I came up with a million beautiful scenarios for my future. I knew that I would one day sing at a school function and be discovered by a record producer who would make me the next Britney Spears. Or that I would write a wonderful novel and become the youngest author to ever make the New York Times’ Bestseller List. As a fourth grader, I even immortalized in my personal time capsule my dream to join the army and then attend MIT on a full scholarship. I didn’t let the sky become my limit – I reached farther. The future was a bright light in the distance, waiting to bring me fame and fortune and blissful happiness.

I was so confident back then. I really believed I had what it took to do whatever it was I wanted, and I went for it. I would spend hours typing away in Microsoft Word ’97, convinced that the corny adventure story I was penning was pure literary gold. If I grew tired of an idea and no longer felt that I was on the way to creating the next Great American Novel, I just opened up a blank document and tried again. Never did it cross my mind that I might never succeed. I always believed there was a reason that particular story hadn’t worked out, and that the next time I stared at that blinking cursor and felt the creative juices dripping, something magical would happen.

That certainty and hopefulness defined my whole life. Self-doubt was not a concept I recognized. My life wasn’t perfect, but I rolled with the punches, knowing that ultimately things would work out in my favor. I knew I was smart and I knew I was good at a lot of things, so nothing else really mattered.

Fast forward a bunch of years. I’m not sure how many, exactly, have passed since I last felt so sure. It’s a part of growing up, I suppose, and it happens to all those bright-eyed, bushy-tailed kids who once proudly proclaimed that they would be president someday. In most respects, it’s a good thing, because as people discover their passions and their limits they begin to gain insight into the realistic ways they can lead a fulfilling life. But among adults and even adolescents, too many dreams are out of the question.

I gave up writing sometime around the end of middle school. I mean, I still wrote when I had to for school, but no longer was my folder of miscellaneous Word documents expanding exponentially by the week. Why? Because I became convinced that no matter how many stupid, childish ideas I put onto paper, none of them would ever be good enough for someone else to read. Until about a week ago, I had not attempted a piece of fiction writing in seven years.

In the same way that confidence and hope used to define me, now I find myself locked in a state of self-doubt, despair, and inadequacy. In the past few years, I haven’t even bothered to dream. Sure, occasionally an idea would pop into my head of something I’d like to do, but it usually got shot down immediately by the negative, nagging voice in my head that told me I wouldn’t be able to. I gave up on everything I had once been passionate about in favor of what I thought I could succeed at. I declared a major in math because I was good at it and it was practical, and I’d probably be able to find a job and make a decent living. I spent my time in leadership positions I didn’t enjoy because I liked the way the titles made me sound. After gaining a spot in an a cappella group, I stopped auditioning for solos because I thought everyone else was better than me. And I never spoke up in classes or social situations because I just knew I was going to stay something stupid.

Eventually, when I started depriving myself of food, I learned that an eating disorder was something I could be good at. It got results, respect, and allowed me to compare myself favorably to others around me. I honestly believed, for that awful period of time, that my eating disorder was the only thing that made me special and successful.

Slowly, I am learning to dream again. It is not an overnight process, but having spent the past three months in treatment, I’m starting to reconnect with that eager little eight-year-old who aimed every shot for the moon. The other day, I spent hours reading through every file saved in the writing file on my computer, smiling as I remembered the excitement I felt over each idea. None of those documents are bestseller material, but they’ve got heart. And I know that with every experience I have, I become a better storyteller. So maybe one day I will write the Great American Novel – there’s no certainty in it, but if I refuse to give up, the possibility will always exist.

My case manager had me write my bucket list during my first week in treatment, and none of the items on that list include practical majors or empty titles. And none of them are easy or guaranteed. I might never be physically able to run a marathon or hike the Appalachian trail. I might never write anything worth publishing. I might not have the money or opportunity to travel to every continent. But why should the possibility of failure mean that I shouldn’t try?

I love to write, and I love to talk to people. I love to be outdoors (although I hate the cold). I like making lists and crafting and understanding new things and knowing that I’m making a difference. I walk funny and I have horrible eyesight and I talk in weird voices sometimes. And all those things make me special. I’ve seen where I go when I spend my whole life trying to become the person I think I have to be in order to be successful, and it’s dark and scary.

I’m allowing myself to dream, just like I did when I was too young to know better. I may not know exactly what I want to do or who I am, but I’m done slamming doors in the face of possibility. I’m ready to aim high and pursue my passions. I will not be afraid anymore.

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