In packing up my apartment, I came to the horrifying realization that I own three fish tanks.
As with most over-indulgences, mine started innocently enough. I put a beta fish in a specially designed vase on my desk at work to make up for the fact that I didn’t have a window. I found him so relaxing that I bought another one for home. And then, because I liked that too, I purchased a 20-gallon tank for my living room.
The trouble started when I went to the pet store in Manhattan to pick out some fish.
“Oh, look at those albino catfish,” I said to the clerk, pointing at a tank of creamy white fish with beady red eyes. “My dad had those.”
“What?” the clerk asked, looking puzzled.
“The albino catfish,” I said, pointing again.
“Those are Corydoras,” he said. “What did you call them?”
I called them albino catfish. Because that’s what I was taught they were.
“He had those tinfoil sharks too,” I said, pointing to another tank. “But I don’t have room for those.”
The clerk looked dumfounded. “Tinfoil sharks?”
“The tinfoil sharks,” I repeated. “The ones over there that look like… little tinfoil sharks.”
I realized how ridiculous I sounded even before the words came out of my mouth, but I couldn’t stop myself. Tinfoil sharks, I quickly realized, were not a real thing. According to this clerk, neither were the Speckled Mollies, the Fancy Tail Guppies or, because I didn’t get recognize the pattern yet, the Tinfoil Barbs.
With every mention, I got more and more perturbed – which is probably to be expected when everything one ever learned during childhood is called into question.
I pointed at an aquarium of small, brightly colored fish.
“What do you call those?” I asked.
“Those?” the clerk asked. “Those are Neon Tetras.”
“Finally,” I said. “We agree on something. I’ll take five.”
Later, still reeling from the experience, I texted my brother, “Whatever you do, don’t go into a pet store and try to name all the fish.”*
But I digress. All I’m saying is that as I was leaving New York, I was surprised to find myself in possession of three long-empty aquariums, all of which needed to be lugged to Goodwill along with countless other unfathomable belongings I accumulated over the years, like a deluxe cappuccino maker and a pair of snow pants.
Exhausting as that was, it was nothing compared to saying good-bye to the people I met along the way. Especially since I felt the need to explain why I was leaving in the first place.
The short version is this: I was unhappy.
Not with any one thing in particular. It was more a nagging sense of boredom and dissatisfaction. My life had become stagnant and I felt stifled.
All this came spilling out on my 33rd birthday. As anyone who was out celebrating with me that night knows, one minute I was fine and the next I was sobbing.
“I hate my new job.”
“I don’t want to live in New York.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
It was unclear what set me off that night, but my best guess is that I was scared to start yet another year only to have it end up being exactly like the one before.
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” I said to my friend between sobs on the cab ride home.
“You don’t have to,” she said. “You can do whatever you want. You can go wherever you want.”
She didn’t get through to me in that moment, which is to be expected when one drinks six mojitos in as many hours, but she did eventually and thank God for that.
Life is too short to be hating where you are.
When I wrote about that night several months ago, I thought I captured my meltdown adequately. Evidently not. In retelling the story a dozen times as I prepared to leave, many people were surprised to hear that my decision was born of anything negative.
“I’ll have to read it again,” a co-worker said one night over dinner. “I don’t remember it being that bad.”
“It was awful,” I insisted.
She’s not the only one who missed the clues. Several weeks ago, when I retold the story to a guy I used to date, he nodded along as I explained how mundane and unremarkable life had become.
“I guess I need a new challenge,” I said. “New York is fine, but I’m ready to move on.”
“I think we’re similar,” he said, nodding again. “I mean, except that for you, everything you’ve done thus far has turned out exactly as you wanted.”
It was my turn to be shocked.
“You must be joking,” I said.
But one look at his face clearly showed that he was not.
“No one blows up their life up because it’s all going according to plan,” I said.
I motioned to the restaurant that he and I were having dinner in. “Even this,” I said. “Do you really think this is how I wanted it to turn out?”
It isn’t. None of it is.
Perhaps the reason why people are surprised to learn that I’ve been unhappy (besides the fact that I never really said so) is because I do, in fact, have a great life. I have everything I need and much of what I want. I know that I should appreciate that – and I do.
But I wouldn’t say that everything has gone according to plan. Writing press releases in a one-bedroom apartment and doing 75 percent of my grocery shopping at a Target was never what I dreamed my life would be.
I’d like to think there’s much more to it. I want to do work that I think is important. I want to live in a place that excites me. I want to meet curious and interesting people. At some point, I’d even like to find someone who will take me to dinner not because I’m leaving, but because he just wants to.
I don’t doubt that I could find all that in New York, but there’s been a pull to do it elsewhere. This past summer, it got too strong to ignore.
“Well you’re making a change,” this guy said over dinner. “You weren’t happy so you’re doing something about it.”
“Yes, exactly,” I said. “I was unhappy, so I made a big change.”
It was a painfully honest moment – one that I probably would have cared to do without in front of someone who I’d rather think that I’m living well. There’s always something a little pitiful about announcing things are a mess.
But if there’s any silver lining, it’s this: I’ve found that there’s great power to finally admitting that you’re unhappy. It comes as a huge relief to recognize that what you’re doing – no matter how good it looks and how hard you tried – isn’t enough.
I don’t know that this new plan will make me any happier, but it’s the best option left. Onward.
Note: In fact checking this post, I learned that most of the fish breeds my dad taught me are correct – at least according to a Google search. The clerk I met was apparently naming them in Latin. Manhattan. Always full of snobs.
Related: Sharing this TED Talk about “The Art of Being Yourself.” My favorite part is towards the end, where the speaker discusses how we all wait for a catastrophic moment to evaluate how we should be living. It’s much better to do it when things are going well.