Wednesday, May 15, 2013

I'm Blogging For Mental Health: How to Start Over

Two weeks after my 21st birthday, I bought a beat up pumpkin colored Mercury Capris and headed west in search of Los Angeles.  It was 1981. There was no internet and there were no cell phones. I didn’t have a credit card. But I'd finished college and it was time to start my life's next chapter. With Wayfarers perched on my nose and the hot summer wind whipping my long hair into a frenzy (no air conditioning either), I drove towards the setting sun. Tears of sadness and fear trickled down my face dampening my lap all the way through the state of Ohio. By the time I reached the Indiana state line, my weeping had run its course and the song, “California Dreaming” trilled from my lips. To this day, that song is still such a favorite that it’s a ringtone on my phone.

While this may appear to have been a foolish and reckless escapade, it was not. The key reason for my adventure’s success, in my opinion, hinged on the fact that the trip was not in the least bit spontaneous. Embarking on my new life was thoroughly considered and carefully planned. I had an acceptance letter to the clinical psychology PhD program at USC tucked in my purse. I had $1000 saved from my summer job. I had an NIMH grant and student loans waiting for me as soon as I registered for classes. My best friend had just moved to LA to start law school so I could crash at her place while searching for an apartment of my own. I had family living 85 miles south of LA in Northern San Diego County. A reputable mechanic had thoroughly checked over my car before I hit the road.  I signed up for an auto club membership so I knew help was just a phone call away if I had car trouble. I had something called a triptik (a prehistoric version of mapquest), which was a little booklet consisting of a series of fold-out maps with my route marked in yellow highlighter, which had been assembled by the auto club before I left, to guide me on my journey. Two male friends were tagging along to split the driving and expenses. It was still a cheaper way for them to get to California than buying a plane ticket, so they were happy share the ride.

My new life in LA turned out well.  Because I’d done my homework and made reasonable plans before committing to the move, my California dreams become my reality.

Over the course of my life I've learned many valuable lessons about starting over. First and foremost, make it your mission to learn as much as you can about where you want to go or what you want to do. Don’t just pray or hope for the best. Things do not generally “just work out.” Take appropriate action so you can be an active agent in making the right things happen at the right time.

Think about what can go wrong and explore solutions ahead of time. At the same time, fuel your confidence by thinking about all that can go right instead of worrying incessantly about all that can go wrong. Evaluate your financial, emotional, social and vocational situation. If necessary, delay your plans while you shore up your resources if at all possible. It is very hard to handle the unexpected when you are running on empty!

Try a practice run. If you want to move to a new city, go visit for an extended stay. If you want to downsize, try getting rid of things. See if you can live on a smaller scale where you already live now. If you want to get divorced, separate first so you can see what things might really be like without your spouse. If you want to change careers, spend some time with people currently doing what you would like to be doing. Ask lots of questions and listen carefully to the answers. Once you’ve collected a lot of information, let your imagination run free. Visualize your best and worst case scenarios. Is the best possible outcome consistent with what you hoped it would be? If the worst happens will you be able to handle it? What options will you have if things don’t work out the way you expected?

Be flexible and ready to think fast on your feet. Plan for contingencies. Roll with the punches and don’t get stuck on rigid expectations. Develop a fine awareness of what really matters to you. Your values can guide you through tough situations or decisions you failed to anticipate. Recognize that no matter how well you plan, unexpected and difficult challenges will rear their heads and require quick action. Don’t expect everything to go smoothly or that you will be happy, confident and self-assured at every turn.

These guidelines even apply when the fresh start is not voluntary. If you are the victim of a natural disaster or other catastrophe, you will have to start over. If you’ve lost your job, you will most certainly be starting over. If you lose your spouse through death or divorce you will gain instant admittance to the starting-over club. Starting over after a serious accident or grave medical diagnosis will require a lot of emotional flexibility and a whole new set of coping skills.

After doing enough research to decide if the change you have in mind is right for you, look for positive role models. When I was considering whether an out of state move was right for me and my family, I reminded myself that people move all the time. San Antonio is a military town. I saw people arrive, buy a house in a weekend, get settled and 2 years later do it again. They moved all the time. They may not have liked it, but they did it. If they could move a whole household every two years, surely I could handle a move too. 

So, in April 2012, I did it again. This time I didn’t head from New York to California in an orange jalopy with no a/c. For this new start, my husband and I caravanned our late model cars across the plains of east Texas through the Rockies to our new home in Colorado’s Vail Valley. Fortunately, I’d learned a thing or two from that long ago journey to California and those lessons have continued to serve me well.

If you want a fresh start, be bold. Don’t let fear determine your course. Don’t get to the end your life harboring feelings of regret because of the all the things you wanted to do but you were too afraid to try. You can start over anytime you want to if you approach change in the right way. The world is your oyster. Where do you want to go next?