A few weeks ago, I felt ambivalent about leaving Israel and coming home.
I’m ready to go. I’m ready to be on American soil, ready to be surrounded by all that is familiar. Ready for blueberry Eggo waffles, pork products, and a bed with a mattress that doesn’t make my neck ache.
I think that mostly, though, I’m ready the rest of my life to begin. In the three years since I finished college, I’ve figured out what I want to do with my life, what my preferences and requirements are for both my career and my personal space, and have turned into the adult I always hoped I’d become.
When I look back on what my life was like on graduation day 2003, I’m shocked by how much has changed since then. Three years ago, I was in the midst of an existential crisis of sorts, unsure whether I would be able to hack it in Washington. I didn’t know what field I wanted to be in, whether or not it would be safe to admit my DNC affiliations if I chose the defense and security route, or whether or not I’d even be able to land a job. So what did I do? Chickened out, moved to Philly so I could be near my boyfriend at the time (what can I say, he was one of the only stable things in my life at that point), and wound up interning at a fabulous PR firm for 6 months.
Granted, although this little detour wasn’t exactly a good idea, it wound up being just what I needed. I loved the firm where I was interning, but I hated being away from Washington, and I knew that I belonged inside the Beltway. So that spring, I landed a job in D.C., packed my bags, kissed my suddenly-turned-long-distance boyfriend goodbye in the parking lot of my apartment building, and hopped on I-95.
I was terrified of my first “real world” job: I was responsible for far more than I’d ever had to manage before, my boss was relying on me to make sure his day ran smoothly, and I had no idea—at all—how I was supposed to navigate the complex web of relationships, rivalries, and power plays that characterize life in Washington. Holy s***, I remember thinking to myself, hands shaking as I tried to keep track of interview requests, budget forms, and my boss’s scheduling preferences, I can’t even keep my own life together. How the hell am I going to pull off doing this for someone else?!
To top it all off, my boyfriend and I, together for almost two years by that point, were on the rocks. Things bottomed out that July, when, after months of panic attacks that came on whenever I felt like I’d screwed something up at work, coupled with months of tense not-quite-fighting-just-bickering-over-inane-crap with my boyfriend, he finally called it quits. Feeling like I’d been punched in the gut, I decided to take some vacation time. Work was killing me, and without the support of my boyfriend, I needed to take some time to regroup. I went home for a week, during which time my dad asked the question that I now mark as one of the major turning points in my personal development: why do you care so much?
“Lillian,” he said, re-filling my cosmo at our traditional father-daughter happy hour, “you work hard. You do your best, and you give 110% to your job, your studies, and your relationships. Why do you care so much when someone doesn’t like it? So you make a mistake or two at work. Big deal! So your boyfriend breaks up with you when you didn’t have the chutzpah to break up with him. Big deal! I’ve always wondered why doing your best can’t be good enough for you. I’ve always wondered why you’ve never said ‘this is who I am, and you can take it or leave it.’ I’ve always wondered why you have to judge yourself and your success based on what other people think.”
I sat, staring into the pink swirl of my martini glass, looking down at the lemon rind at the bottom as I chewed on what he’d just said. “Um, I don’t know,” I replied. “I guess I never thought of it that way.”
“Well, I wish you would,” he said as he pinky-stirred the ice in the Johnnie Walker Red Label he was nursing. “I hate seeing you beat yourself up over what everybody else thinks. In the words of Popeye, I yam what I yam. You are what you are. And if somebody else doesn’t like it, it’s still okay.”
I spent the next year thinking about what he said, and taught myself to embrace it. Why should it matter if someone else doesn’t like me, doesn’t think my work is up to par, doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life with me? It shouldn’t. From that evening forward, I did a lot of thinking and a lot of changing. I came back to Washington with a different attitude, and finally began to carry with me the belief that, take it or leave it, this is who I am. If you take it, great; if not, it’s okay too. Either way, I’m still fabulous.
As I thought more and pushed myself with each new discovery of a feeling or thought pattern, I began to realize that this mentality of needing approval from people other than myself had affected every aspect of my life: my career, my relationships with others, and, most importantly, my relationship with myself. I realized how much I’d started to need other people, particularly boyfriends, for both approval and shelter from real life. And I realized how much I needed to disabuse myself of that notion.
I instituted a no-boyfriends-until-I-figure-myself-out policy, wrote prolifically in my journal, created an excel chart of all my ex-boyfriends and what I’d learned from each experience (no lie, it’s further proof of my supreme nerdiness), and started digging deeply into my own psyche. I swallowed my pride and, for the first time in my life, ventured into the self-help/relationships section of Border’s. Granted, I donned a baseball cap and pulled it down over my eyes—so the pride wasn’t totally swallowed—but that’s not the point.
I knew that the number one thing I needed to do was to spend a substantial amount of time away from relationships. I needed to get over my ex, obviously, but I also needed to push my boundaries and learn how to manage life by myself. As I continued managing life in D.C., which was far from easy, I began to gain more and more confidence in myself, and knew that I was evolving into the person I’d always hoped to be, but hadn’t known how to become: self-aware, unapologetic, and happy with who she is.
One of the things I knew I’d always wanted to do—but was too scared to ever consider doing alone—was to live abroad. And not just live abroad, but to throw myself into the hardest situation I could think of and see if I could come out alive on the other end. I knew, back in the day of almost constant boyfriends, that it would take more than I had in me at that point in my life. But as I grew stronger and more self-assured, I began to think more about it. If I could do this, I reasoned to myself, I’d be advancing both my career and my personal development. If I survive it, I’ll know what I’m really made of. If I succeed, I’ll finally be the person I want to be.
And so the following spring, when I was faced with either grad school in Chicago or a year in Israel—a country where I didn’t speak the language, didn’t have any family or friends, and had never visited before—I knew what my decision would be.
No one was particularly thrilled with my decision, and I had a lot of explaining to do. But I knew that, as scared as I was, I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t do this. When July of last year rolled around, I boarded a plane to Tel Aviv, and off to the Holy Land I went.
I’m now looking back on this experience as it draws to a close, and I’m thrilled by the view. I was right. In coming here, I conquered my fear of the unknown, scary world that seemed so insurmountable just three years ago. In learning Hebrew and going from illiteracy to full conversations and three-page essays, I’ve proven to myself that I really can succeed in any situation. In being away from my family and my entire support network for a full year, I’ve proven that I can rely solely on myself, and that I’ll excel when I do so. I’ve finally become the Me I always envisioned.
And now, I’m ready to come home and put that finally fully-evolved Me to work in America. Professionally, I’ve built a strong foundation for the credentials I’ll need to become a Middle East expert, and will begin bolstering my security policy credentials in the fall when I start graduate school. But I’ve also developed the personal skills I’ll need to live the life I want, and now I’m ready for the next phase of my life to begin.
Now that I’ve done this, I know that in two weeks when I board the plane back to the United States, I’ll be ready for whatever awaits me on the other side.