“The only thing that punk rock should ever really mean is not sitting around and waiting for the lights to go green.” ~Frank Turner
I was exactly where I should have been on the afternoon I jumped. I was four years post-undergrad at an elite private college, halfway through a Masters Degree from the nation’s top Social Work program, about to begin an internship, and working three public service jobs simultaneously. My boyfriend had just moved into my apartment, and the feeling of being “settled” was just starting to sink in.
The remaining challenge of adulthood, it seemed, would be finding the energy to keep working seven days a week on no sleep, maintaining each job so the humble salary of any single one wouldn’t become my sole source of income.
It seemed fair to me. But moreover, it seemed normal. My father had driven to work at 4:00am my entire life, only returning at dinnertime to retreat to his home office and get started on his other work—the stuff that really paid the bills. Now that I was in my twenties it felt appropriate, mature even, to grind away the day and night and wear sleeplessness with pride.
The “nobility” of my work in foster care added an even deeper sense of meaning. I felt my own self-worth balloon in relation to how many families I visited each week, how many ice cream cones I bought for abandoned kids, and how many miles I put on my car. It seemed to be filling some empty space in me.
On some days, when I wasn’t listening to audio courses or dictating homework into my phone on the way to work, I would play a favorite punk album and sink into memory: epic sing-a-longs in dark rooms with my favorite bands and sweaty strangers.
I’d remember the thrill of wandering Berkeley, California (my heart home) at night, pen in hand, and letting the poetry flood through me. I’d feel the thrill of sharing my words with other artists, talking free verse and Tom Waits and chapbook titles.
But that was rare. I had grown up.
Like most who plunge full-hearted into social services, my passion had formed as a direct response to a lifelong series of personal sh*t-storms, and my mission was to learn how to use my experiences to help others.
And here I was, doing it, making the difference. By twenty-five I had built an unmistakable identity. Ambitious and tough, I was proud that my accomplishments in addition to my exterior image (despite my 5’2”/100 lb. stature) spoke of tenacity, unexpected power, and passion.
Except at night I watched my boyfriend’s band practice and something bubbled under the surface, making my throat ache and my fists clench anxiously. At work I’d talk to clients about the importance of holistic health, drawing out their Life Circle and stressing the importance of following your bliss and all that new-age crap. I’d smile and shake hands and say things like, “If it doesn’t make you happy, don’t do it.”
And I’d feel like a fraud.
I was always, always, always in helper mode, but I was tired and numb. I longed just to find a sunny spot and read a book.
If you’re a helper, a healer, or a big-hearted person by nature, you know this ride, the push and pull of every daily interaction. An immediate clinical assessment, the five-minute inventory of a total stranger’s strengths and needs, and the “simple” things you can and must do to help them, make them smile, save them.
Go to the grocery store and repeat. Go to your second and third job and ask what else you can do for the team. Go home and make dinner. Chip away at the text-stream, put out fires, offer condolences, advice, and both ears. Try to read five pages of a new self-help book before falling asleep on the couch, spent.
Unchecked, it’s easy to live and die this way.
So when I reached the top of the rock cliff forty feet above the calm blue quarry, I wasn’t expecting the invisible force that pulled me forward, though I should have been—my rebellious spirit had been waiting for the right moment to rescue me.
To this day, the line between accident and intention is blurry. I had scaled the same precipice many times before, watching from the grassy patches as others ran and leapt and landed feet-first in the water with glee. My deep phobia of water was powerful, though, and I was always happy to climb back down the rocky slope to meet my friends at the shore.
But this time was different; I was begging for an alternate ending. It wasn’t that I was knowingly asking for death, or even feeling particularly self-destructive. It was more like a deep internal urgency had hitched itself to the late summer air, and all at once, I knew I was supposed to take the plunge, to surrender myself to gravity, to water and earth.
It was a sunny September day and my man was waiting in the water below.
I wasn’t thinking about my lifelong fear of drowning, or my work cell phone, which was definitely ringing incessantly in the car a few miles back through the woods. I wasn’t thinking of anything. But my heart was pounding up my throat. My hands were sweating, and every time I revved myself up to make the short run to the edge, my stomach dropped and my feet felt stuck in mud.
For the final minute on top of that cliff I felt the weight of my entire life—the straight A’s, the career ladder, the desperate drive to please my parents, the pressure, the self-denial—holding me in place. Still, sirens were ringing in my head and something wild was screaming, begging me to move.
I took one last shaking breath, willed my right foot forward, then my left, pushed my black Vans off the edge, and leapt into empty air.
In order to land safely in the quarry, a diver must maintain perfect aim and balance, remaining upright so the impact of twelve feet of water is absorbed through the feet. Instead, closing my eyes and curling instinctively into fetal position, I hit the water face first. The impact shattered the bones in my face, causing my eye to break through the socket—muscles trapped in fissures, vision lost, reality gone.
The last thing I remember from my first life is the feeling of a heated blanket in a dark hospital room. The neck brace made it hard to breathe and harder to gag each time I felt like puking from the pain.
Paul, my man, my motivator, and my guardian angel, sat beside me in a metal folding chair for hours. When the painkillers finally took over and I sunk into oblivion, the feeling came rushing and brought tears to my eyes—stillness, relief, ecstasy. I whispered to Paul, though probably only in my mind, “Thank you for killing me.”
It was a sweet farewell from my first self, and a grateful nod from a new me.
The intensive recovery process prohibited work of any kind. In a novel medical approach the surgeon inflated a balloon within my sinus cavity, reconstructing my face and ensuring my vision could return to normal. But the delicate procedure deemed most normal daily functions dangerous, if not impossible. Worse, the hardcore regimen of painkillers and antibiotics left me covered in hives, photosensitive, exhausted, and constantly nauseous. But internally I was giddy, on fire, new.
In a blur of exhilaration and terror, I was forced to stand still. To examine my swollen face and black eyes every morning and decide how to spend each day. I was an infant again. I was Dobby holding a sock—shocked, ecstatic, but unsure where to start.
So I found a sunny spot and read a book.
And every day, while the world worked and worried and wondered about identity and success and all the other mental prisons I was used to, I drove to cafes with comfy couches and read. And I wrote. And I contacted venues and bands to set up shows and I listened to all my old favorite albums.
I found a cute little house outside of Woodstock for my boyfriend and me to feel like ourselves. We hung up all my posters from bands I grew up on and had friends over whenever we could, just to sit still, and talk, and feel.
My internship was filled by another MSW student, and my grad school granted me a leave of absence. My foster care caseload was divided among my coworkers. By force, I was freed.
That year I began therapy with a psychologist who not only helped me safely explore my past traumas, but also guided me into my second life with compassion and empowerment. I read and read and read, and the words poured back out of me.
In the spring I decided to drop out of grad school for good, feeling confident in my own abilities as a social worker and student. In the process I was able to shed the borrowed beliefs that had led me to max out student loans and wear down my true self in pursuit of institutionalized validation. My life itself was suddenly enough.
When I was able to return to work, I kept my full-time job in foster care and quit the rest. My coworkers whispered about “brain injury” and wondered if I was permanently messed up. But I gave myself permission to sit still and to call my own shots. I negotiated a flexible schedule and worked on publishing poems and building a creative business that made me feel alive, but more importantly, like myself.
I don’t recommend jumping off a forty-foot cliff in the height of your professional climb. But I beg you—yes you, exhausted social worker, stressed out salesperson, dejected teacher, grown up punk, secret poet—to give yourself permission to pause.
Question who you’re living for, who you work for every day. Question your values; are they really yours? Deconstruct your identity. Have you been carrying the same stories about yourself for decades (“I’m the hard worker, the overachiever, the struggling professional”)?
Are you making a difference in the way that only you can? What will it take for you to push pause? Reset?
Who would emerge if you killed your current self?
Liberation looks different to everyone, and it’s always evolving.
I still have a day job. My rent checks still occasionally bounce. My parents will forever be disappointed that I’m not a famous journalist or whatever by now. I still get rejection letters from publishers, and I have bouts of paralyzing depression… But there’s a different kind of dignity and drive that’s born when you take your life back from Default Mode, when you declare your own Red Light Moment and stop, then step back to take inventory.
When your life belongs to you alone, every struggle has a purpose and every triumph is yours to celebrate. Being able to use my innate gifts to do work that fires me up, automatically multiplies my impact on the world. The same goes for you.
What’s the thing you excel at without trying? Start there. Pretend the light has just gone green.
Then take the leap. Listen to the wild voice that whispers to you, and trust the motion it compels.
Chances are, you’ll land on your feet and someone will be there to guide you back to shore. But if you find yourself pummeling toward “death,” embrace it. Let your old self die along with the dogma and pressures that have worked on your tired soul all these years. If you want it, there’s a whole new world, and a better you, waiting on the other side.
Then, curate your new life—ditch the jobs that suck your soul out through bloodshot eyeballs and forced smile. Purge the toxic relationships even if it means drawing a thick and terrifying line in the sand before close family and friends. It’s scary and most people will warn against this type of “recklessness.”
Just don’t neglect to fill the void. Fill it with art and music or podcasts on self-improvement or long late-night talks with people you admire.
If you can’t find the scene you’re looking for, make it. If you’re aching for more, build it. If you find yourself ready and waiting for the moment, it’s already here. Jump.
*Disclaimer: Neither Tiny Buddha nor the author is advocating physically harming yourself to facilitate your personal evolution. The message is about embracing your truth and choosing to be reborn, not risking your life.