One of the crappy things about spending a good portion of your life thinking you’re not good enough, is that you rarely take a moment to actually own and celebrate real achievements, for fear of sounding arrogant, selfish, or narcissistic. And in this age of social media and living our lives for all to see, I made the decision to quietly accomplish something that has nagged at me my whole life, without publicizing it, complaining about it, or celebrating it, with anyone but my nearest and dearest.
I actually contemplated not even posting this, but after a gentle nudge from a best friend to own this moment, and, of course, some wise words from Brené Brown that says it’s good to share your story to a large audience if your healing is tied to the sharing.
I think this definitely qualifies.
I feel like in order for this moment to work its magic and heal some old wounds and to truly sink in, that I need to share it. If others relate to my story, I hope my words give you a warm hug and a boost of confidence!
When I graduated high school, I was on a one-way track to a career in music. I got a small scholarship to study vocal performance, and it felt like everything was going to work out. Three years into my degree, I got married, joined a band, and decided that I’d rather be a rock star than an opera singer – nothing wrong with being an opera singer, by the way! In fact, many of my classmates went on to be incredible music teachers and performers. (hugs y’all!).
From there, it seemed that time passed at alarming rates. Will graduated from Sac State, we moved to Moscow for a few months (long story), then moved to Austin, so I could pursue music, and before we knew it, a decade had passed, and we finally settled in Sacramento. I began working in nonprofit, and my career took off. I loved my work! I was consumed by it. I played in bands (many, many bands), and was living a beautiful life with my husband. But something continued to nag at me and was only exacerbated by every conversation I had to sit through as people talked about their alma maters. So many awkward moments of me trying my hardest to avoid the dreaded question: “where did you go to school?” I had even been present when people around me were actually making fun of people who didn’t have degrees (I should have said something because it was horrible, but I was drowning in shame).
That’s right. I never finished my college degree.
So, throughout the years, I would devour everything I could to learn, grow, and sharpen my skillset. Workshops, leadership programs, I read book after book. I figured if I didn’t have a degree to rest upon, that I would have to wow people with my abilities and experience. So, I got really good at a LOT of things. I worked HARD, LONG, hours, to prove to others and myself that I was worthy of a seat at “the table.”
It wasn’t until a rather nasty bout of depression surfaced that I decided to start going to therapy. It is not hyperbole when I say that cognitive-behavioral therapy saved my life. I left my guts and gallons of tears in that therapy office and worked through layers and layers of crud. Suddenly, finishing my degree didn’t seem all that difficult. In fact, it was going to help release decades of shame that had built up over time. I had spent the better part of two decades building up expertise and a work ethic that was so solid, I felt more prepared than ever before.
So, I took a step, and then another, and what do you know…here I am. This Saturday, I will “walk” with my classmates in a virtual commencement and “receive” my Bachelor of Science in Leadership Studies and Nonprofit Management from Colorado State University!
Am I proud? Well, when I list out what I also did while going to school, then the answer is yes. In addition to going to school, I also…
- Worked full-time (and then some)
- Organized my final Big Day of Giving
- Created and ran my own consulting firm.
- Worked three jobs while merging with another firm.
- Traveled a lot for work (and wrote lots of papers in hotels, when I should have been sleeping)
- Organized, stage managed, and performed at Denny & Mayor Steinberg’s Birthday Concert.
- Launched a social justice blog to hold my efforts in fighting weight bias and discrimination (the one you’re reading right now!)
- Read tarot professionally
- Volunteered for the Warren for President campaign
- Cared for family, including my mother who was recovering from a major stroke
- Remodeled and painted my backyard studio
- Sacrificed time with friends and family almost every weekend for the last 18 months.
Yep. TOTALLY WORTH IT.
I didn’t come from a family of educated people or wealth – quite the opposite. In fact, my family actively discouraged college because their religion felt it turned people into non-believers (you know, all that knowledge and science is dangerous!). I wasn’t encouraged, there was no college savings, and I was constantly being told by my own parents to NOT go.
My Grandmother grew up on the reservation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in a house with 15 people. I come from dust bowl migrators, dirt floor poor, farm labor camps, and the hardest workers I’ve ever known. I spent summers picking walnuts and swimming in make-shift pools made from metal cans. I come from an old country church where songs were rituals, prayers danced like fire, and people were only concerned about the status of my soul, not my future here on earth. I am grateful to my upbringing for instilling an incredible desire to work hard and be passionate about the things that feed my soul, but I knew my future held a different path. I knew it sitting in those church pews – the place where I would hone my musical talents. There was more to this life. I felt it in my bones.
Against all odds, I left home when I was 18, enrolled myself in college, couch surfed with friends, and tried my hardest to break out of the deeply ingrained cycles of poverty, little to no education, and holy roller religion that had taken root way before I jumped on the scene.
It took me 27 years.
And yet, I still blamed myself. I was terrified that people (even friends) would think less of me or discount my hard work or skills because I didn’t have that piece of paper. I’m exhausted just thinking about the amount of life I have wasted on feelings of worthlessness. And while I now embrace my story, I still acknowledge that there are many, many other barriers to college and education that I didn’t have to face due to privilege. I am utterly awestruck by those that face systemic racism or other systems of oppression and find their way to an education.
But just like my therapist said… it wasn’t the degree that would change the game, it was the conscious act of investing in myself that opened the door to my healing. I began believing that I was worthy, and degree or not, I knew this was the most important work of my life. Every paper I wrote, I felt a huge sense of relief and excitement and each time I hit send, it chipped away at my feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.
If you’re reading this and also struggle with self-esteem, imposter syndrome, feelings of worthlessness, or feelings of shame for who you are or where you come from, remember that the healing is in the process, not the end result. Take a step toward a goal, then another, and please, don’t forget to celebrate both the big milestones and the small moments of accomplishment. Eventually, as one of my favorite quotes by Rilke says, you’ll “live into the answers”.
Thanks for reading.
An enormous thank you to my family and chosen family – Will, you principally dealt with my absence every weekend, and I am so grateful to you for being my cheerleader, helping me get through the rough patches, lifting me up off the floor when I had been ground into a puddle of tears and exhaustion, and supporting me in every way. I love you.
Yeah, I’m already looking at grad school programs. 😉
Congratulations to my fellow 2020 graduates! We did it!