During our time in high school, I believe we are granted one event or circumstance that can change the course of our lives. No one can predict it or tell you what it will be; it’s as simple as this: someday, you will have an experience which you will look back on and realize meant more to you than you could ever have predicted. Moments like these are how we know we’re alive. The most fundamental part of adolescence is the ability to adapt, change, grow, and become something and someone new--right up until the moment you turn that tassel and throw the cap from your head, signifying your ascent to adulthood.
Before you continue reading this--lest the title make me out to be some sort of teenage vigilante--I'd like to make it very clear that I did have a reason for going to the Big Apple. For the past two years of my life, I have worked with a nonprofit organization called ProjectHeal, which works to provide treatment grants to those suffering with an eating disorder. Every year, a gala is held for the organization in New York City, and this was the first year that I was given the opportunity to go.
Naturally, I wanted one of the most important people in my life to be standing there beside me, especially given that the evening of the gala fell on our one-year anniversary.
Of course, it goes deeper than that: I don't think I would be sitting here writing this if it weren't for him. After an abusive relationship, a two-year struggle with a serious eating disorder, and years spent enduring the general pressure associated with being an adolescent girl in the twenty-first century, I had retrained my brain in all ways associated with love: keep the doors closed to your heart; lock the key up and throw it away; and, no matter what, do not give anyone the opportunity to shatter you again. I was not prepared to again have someone willing to knock on that closed door, take my hand, and remind me that I--just as much as anyone else--deserved the same amount of love and kindness I gave out.
Being hurt and coming back from it is no easy feat. The human heart learns what to avoid, what's going to hurt you again, and it is not easily untrained from these behaviors. It takes a lot of bravery to jump back into the trenches and attempt to make your heart whole again. There is no possible way, not now, not in a million lifetimes, for me to find a way to repay him for what he did to save me.
All I knew how to do was to follow through with a promise I had made him almost a year prior: "We are going to make it to New York City."
I knew he didn't believe me, and in that moment I'm not really sure if I believed myself. But I knew that I was going to try like hell to make this adolescent fever dream a reality. I was going to find a way for us to get there, because I wanted to--and I knew that if I wanted anything as badly as I wanted this, well, I would make it happen. We were young, afraid and daring… and willing to risk it all to do something memorable enough to stick in our minds, something powerful enough to be worth telling younger generations.
Thus, when the opportunity fell in our laps, things began to move at top speed, and the next thing I knew we were boarding a plane to fly over a thousand miles away from home. That night, while our parents thought we were sleeping over at friends’ houses, we would be enjoying twenty-four hours on our own in a city which the two of us had only dreamed of getting to explore together. Our plan was wild and reckless--stupid, even--but it was just daring enough to actually work.
So when our plane rolled down the runway, the wheels lifting from the tarmac as we jetted away from our small town, I had no idea for the kind of adventure I was really in for.
Looking back at the way the city sprawled open before us--the smell of street food, the sound of cars and sirens and conversation in a hundred different languages--I cannot pinpoint a specific lesson I learned while racing after yellow taxis or winding through subway stations or stumbling down the scarcely lit road where we were staying. I was too much a part of everything, too consumed with complete awareness of my surroundings. I cannot begin to tell you what it was like to be embraced by worlds both affluent and impoverished, artifacts both modern and vintage, and people both open and closed in the city where dreams are bred. Every footstep, every second I spent in this place of reinvention and revitalization, sent a peal of thunder rippling through my chest. These drumbeats told me that everything was changing, even if I didn't know it yet.
There’s nothing like the taste of independence that comes from being on your own with the love of your life at only eighteen years old. That 24-hour excursion was a taste of the real world, of the independence that I had spent years longing for. The irony of being eighteen is that--in the eyes of the United States government--you are an adult and can make your own choices, but everyone else around you still sees you as a child incapable of standing on your own two feet. This makes it so hard to understand your role in society and your place in the hierarchy of humanity. We're all trying to figure ourselves out, and for me a crucial part of that process was making the choice to board that plane and set foot in the city that never sleeps.
To this writer, social media manager, and generally giddy eighteen-year-old girl, New York City had always signified safe harbor, a place where dreams could be made into reality. This trip came at a time when I needed to call upon that power. I had entered a particularly dark period of my still-young life--a period in which I had given up on dreaming. I had given up on the one thing that makes the human experience so vital and worthwhile: the ability to create a reality that was once only a thought. But when my boyfriend wrapped his arms around my waist, holding me close in front of the racing cars under the streetlights, I realized the inevitable power in the return of my ability to dream. It wasn't the city, or my boyfriend, or even the events of the day that had given it back to me--it was the sheer fact that I had made it to this place I’d believed I would never get to see. And I knew that if I played my cards right, kept my head up, and continued on the best path forward, I could stay here someday. I could be everything that I've ever wanted to be, and more.
I didn't have to keep closing the door and locking myself inside.
I was free.
I was once again free to imagine a future outside the confines of my high school and my suburb, past the walls and barriers in my recovery, all the way to a life lived on the other side of hell. I dared to hope that the future could be better than I had ever dreamed of--and that, as long as I was daring enough to take the chance, I could get there.
It was hard watching the city get smaller and smaller on my flight home. As the plane went higher--as the giant buildings and the millions of residents disappeared underneath a white blanket--I made a promise to my boyfriend and myself that we would come back again. I didn't care how long it would take to get back, how much money we would need to save to do so, or what the circumstances would be. I just knew that we had to return.
Though the city had disappeared under the clouds--along with its glowing streets, winding alleys, and bustling people in every direction--it wasn't gone. It was just waiting: on pause, so to speak. It was ready for us; we just had to grow a bit more on our own before we, in turn, were ready for it. Time is the best provider of knowledge and experience, and once you've opened yourself up to the intermingling of time, perseverance, and dreams, you will grow all the wiser with every risk you take.
The light was beginning to creep in through the crack of the doorway.