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2022: A Year of Growth

Hell of a year!

The end.

Just kidding. I have a bit more to say than that.

This year gave me some of the highest highs as well as some of the lowest lows. Before diving into why this year was such a substantial one for me, I will explain where I was in life at the end of 2021. And since I love music so much, there are a lot of songs that I'm going to sprinkle in that represent different parts of my year.

Toward the end of 2021, I realized that my life had become pretty stagnant. I was going through the motions of my life without any sort of enthusiasm or fanfare. I realized that I wasn't living my life. I was simply present. So I took time to think and figure out what I wanted my life to look like and what was holding me back. Ultimately it all boiled down to one big thing: fear. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of the unknown. Fear of (insert any sort of lame excuse here). I was tired of being scared all the time.

The first order of business was taking the leap to return to school. I started classes as soon as possible, which meant I started in December. I didn't give myself a chance to talk myself out of it. I just plunged in head first.

I also rounded off the end of the year with the first concert I'd been to in at least 10 years. A coworker had gotten free tickets to a Blue October show and knew that I liked their music. So he gave me a couple of tickets, and I went with my friend Julie. My anxiety had gotten so bad for a while that the mere idea of dealing with a crowd at a concert gave me anxiety. I almost changed my mind at the last minute about going, but I reminded myself that I needed to stop living in fear and go do things.

The show itself was small. Honestly, it was just what I needed to enjoy myself and not feel stressed out by the crowd. It felt really good to start venturing out beyond my anxiety-induced bubble. Such a small show may seem insignificant to many, but I thought I'd never go to a concert again. I went to many concerts with my parents when I was growing up. But as I got older and my anxiety worsened, I would have panic attacks just thinking about going to a show. I forced myself to make peace with the fact that I wouldn't get to see artists perform live. So dipping a toe back into that world was empowering for me.

And so as I entered into the new year, I was working on school, working toward my career goals, and trying to push a bit out of my comfort zone. Not any giant leaps or anything, just baby steps.

And then we dove into 2022. It didn't take long before I slipped back into my stagnant slump. I poured myself into school. Of course, I needed to put time and energy into school to do well, but I also pushed myself too hard. I put unrealistic expectations on myself.

For most of my adult life, I've been insecure about how little I pushed myself in school. I felt like I had given up, or settled. I knew I could have done more. I knew I could have done better. And so when I started back to school, I wanted to prove that I wasn't an idiot. I wanted to prove that I could do this.

Was anyone accusing me of being an idiot? No

Was anyone keeping tabs on my grades? No

And yet, I felt like I had to do the absolute best I could. I forced myself to redo assignments even though they were passing grades. They were passing grades, but it wasn't 100%. I pushed myself so much harder than I needed to. And I didn't fully register that I was pushing myself that hard.

Hi, my name is Hannah, and I'm a perfectionist.

Not even joking about that, either. I am a perfectionist.

By the spring, I learned from my advisor that my GPA was 4.0, and I was thrilled. I had been invited to join the National Society of Leadership and Success and the National Honor Society in Psychology. I was doing better in school than I ever thought possible. I felt on top of the world.

And then I felt the pressure to keep that up.

I had earned those grades and those spots in those honor societies while taking some of my easier classes. It wasn't long before I completed all of the easiest classes and was transitioning into some of the more challenging course classes. Getting those perfect scores and keeping that 4.0 was getting harder. And I hardly had any social life to speak of anymore. My days were spent at my computer with my cat supervising.

A few things gave me a wake-up call from the pressure I was under. The most prominent wake-up call was when I went to my annual physical. I knew it wasn't going to be my best physical. I knew I had gained weight and wasn't taking the best care of my body. At my appointment, I weighed in at my peak weight and had elevated blood pressure. I get along really well with my doctor, so nervousness wasn't to blame for the elevated blood pressure. It was likely a combination of not eating well, not being active, and having a lot of stress. My doctor hadn't been overly concerned with my elevated blood pressure since it was the first it had been elevated, but she still gently advised me on ways to bring it back down. She knew from our conversation that day that I wanted to better care of my body and health, so she didn't need to lecture me or scare me.

I went home from that appointment determined to do better for myself. I made some changes, and it didn't take long for me to start losing the weight that I had put on and to bring my blood pressure back down. There's still plenty of work that I could do, but having that doctor's appointment gave me a kick in the pants to start making some changes and be more aware of my health.

The only thing I didn't do was ease up on myself. If anything, I put more pressure on myself to get it together. I bullied myself for not doing a better job juggling school, work, and my health. I also started to bully myself for my insecurities with dating and relationships. That wasn't a new issue for me. I had been struggling for years between wanting companionship and feeling so anxious whenever I went on dates that I would have panic attacks.

When I try to work on myself and overcome challenges, I try to backpedal and figure out where the issue started. So I began going back through all my experiences with dating, crushes, you name it. I meticulously picked through my issues surrounding love and trust. And I was reminded of the constant flow of rejection over the years. I remembered the way that people mistreated me. I remembered things that I had stuffed back into the recesses of my memory. Despite doing this to help myself, I accidentally wound up giving myself horrible panic attacks and depression. I couldn't stop crying. I was inconsolable. I could hardly function. I took a sick day off because I stumbled into such a scary and challenging place. While I needed to process those memories, I shouldn't have tried to go through them without professional help. I needed to navigate those memories with a therapist.

I knew I didn't want to go back to my previous therapist. She wouldn't provide me with the support and assistance I needed. And so I was on a hunt to find a new therapist. Long story short, I wound up giving a new therapist a try. It turns out, he's excellent, and I connected with him quickly and comfortably.

During our first appointment, when we were going over brief background information, I started sharing things with him that I hadn't told a single soul before. I remember commenting to him, "wow, I've never told anyone that before." He asked how I felt sharing that for the first time. And I explained to him how freeing it felt. It hadn't felt scary to share those moments with him. I felt safe. I felt comfortable. And I felt ready to dig into some deep and heavy things finally. It was reassuring for me to be able to trust my new therapist and feel comfortable enough to open up to him immediately. I knew I would be able to make true progress working with him.

I expected that during therapy, we'd dive head-first into the worst of the worst. In actuality, my therapist had a better plan. He had me fill out a questionnaire to give him insight into my primary anxieties. It would help give him background on myself and give us both some direction. It helped us figure out where to begin.

As I have already mentioned, I'm a perfectionist. But when I looked at it a bit closer with my therapist, I realized that a lot of my perfectionism stems from being a people pleaser. It was also what had been holding me back from living my life. I was so concerned with making sure I didn't upset anyone. I didn't want to make waves. I would do my best to be the best to keep everyone happy, even if it meant sacrificing my happiness. As cliche as it may be, I was a sheep just following the masses. I was following along without any thought or consideration about whether or not I wanted to be doing that. I was doing what I was "supposed to do."

After my therapist and I shed light on this, I realized I needed to start making changes. It was scary to think of what this could mean. There was the possibility of letting people down, and I hated letting people down. But I needed to focus on myself. I needed to figure out what I wanted in life. I needed to figure out what my values were. I needed to reevaluate my life.

I started to recognize that many of the values I kept were ones I felt like I was supposed to hold. They weren't ones I genuinely held in my heart. But it would take time for me to figure out how to readjust.

I took it a little bit at a time. By the middle of summer, I decided to give dating another try. I didn't have any hopes or expectations. I was going to put myself out there. I would be open to dating people beyond who I felt I was "supposed" to be with. As much as I hated online dating, I figured I'd give it one more try.

Look how cute I was for that date!

So I met up with a guy for ice cream. We walked around and talked. For the first time, I wasn't anxious on a date. I had a fine time with him, but something felt a little off. I couldn't really tell what at the time. But I realized all the attention was on me, and he shared next to nothing about himself. When I asked about his work and life, he would give me vague and brief answers. I knew that it was just a first date and there was time to get to know one another, but something felt off. When he walked me back to my car, he kissed me before we parted ways. Saying that there wasn't a connection doesn't even begin to describe how bad that kiss was. I was bored out of my mind as he went on kissing me. We really had no connection. The next day, he made it pretty clear when talking to me that he wanted to find someone to hook up with.

I was not interested in a second date.

When I talked about it with my therapist, I explained that I wasn't interested in online dating anymore. I was tired of going on dates with people I clearly didn't connect with. I wanted to meet someone while I was out just living my life. I wanted to have the chance to talk to them and connect with them in person before I figured out if I wanted to date them. But to do that, I needed to work on my confidence. I needed to be able to be comfortable being myself.

I spent the rest of the summer focusing on myself and developing my confidence. It was hard to put myself out there with my busy schedule, but I did what I could. One of my best friends, Mason, was getting married over Labor Day weekend, and I planned on spending that weekend almost like a vacation. I was going to treat myself to a hotel rather than ask a friend to crash with them, and I was going to have a good time. Work had been crazy, school had been stressful, and I owed it to myself to let all of that go and enjoy celebrating a beautiful wedding weekend.

I told Mason that I planned to look hot at his wedding and really enjoyed dressing up, and doing my hair, and makeup. I had no grand plans for that weekend. I just wanted to go, have a good time, and feel good about myself.

Mason and Katie had a small, intimate ceremony with just a small group of people in attendance. Mason asked if I would attend the ceremony, which was an incredible honor. Mason and I met when I was 20 and had just moved to Madison. He and I went through many life events together, both good and bad. He's been there for me through some of my most challenging times, and I've done my best to do the same for him. Watching him marry the love of his life was such a beautiful experience. I can't even properly articulate how beautiful it was.

The funny thing is that, despite how close Mason and I are, I didn't actually meet Katie in person until that day. Mason and I hadn't gotten to see each or catch up since before he met Katie. So I met her for the first time on their wedding day. And just like when I met Mason for the first time, I knew Katie, and I would be lifelong friends.

I like to think it was when I helped her take her hair down that solidified our friendship—just kidding. She's such a wonderful person, it's impossible not to love her.

At their reception, I got to meet some really incredible people. I didn't know most of the people at the reception, but I wasn't going to let that stop me from having a good time. I didn't want to return to my hotel room and end the night early. I was there to have a good time.

Earlier in the night, there was someone that had caught my eye. I had been introduced to them along with the group they were sitting with. Even though they were at the opposite end of the table from where I was sitting, I couldn't take my eyes off them. At one point, the group at the table started to move, and they took that opportunity to come over and talk to me. We started talking, and despite having just met them, I felt like I had known them my whole life. It was so easy and comfortable talking to them.

One thing we talked about was opportunities. They pointed out that people are constantly waiting for the right opportunity without recognizing that there are thousands of opportunities every day. (I'm not doing it justice, they explain it much better) This idea that there are always new opportunities kept running through my mind.

It wasn't long before nearly everyone left for the night, and just a few of us remained. I didn't want the night to end, but I was too timid to suggest anything. Thankfully, the person I had been talking with suggested we go out and keep the night going. Again, I was timid and shy, so I hemmed and hawed. I looked to the others in our group for one of them to decide. Everyone was playing chicken with making a decision. And so they brought it up again, encouraging us to go out and keep the night going. I wasn't someone that went out late at night and partied. But I wanted to. Finally, I said okay and took one of the opportunities to continue spending time with them.

We went to a queer club and danced together as a group until the club closed. Throughout that night, I gently hinted to that person that I was attracted to them. They also spent the night gently hinting that they were attracted to me. By the time the night ended, we both knew we were into each other.

We met up the next day with another friend and hung out before we each left town. It hadn't even been 12 hours, but I wanted to see them again. I was amazed by how things were so effortless. It was exactly what I had told my therapist I wanted. So after I returned home, I asked them out.

And we started seeing each other. Again, it felt effortless. I wasn't nervous with them. I wasn't self-conscious. I felt so comfortable with them. We connected so quickly and fell into a nice rhythm together.

Only, there was a bit of an issue. I had met them at a complicated time in their life. I knew that when I met them and knew there might be some challenges ahead. But I didn't realize the challenge it would pose the two of us.

All of it came to a head at my least ideal moment. A cousin/best friend had lost her father and needed support going through such a difficult loss. Despite having never met her father, I didn't hesitate to book a flight and a hotel on my week of vacation to be with her in Florida. The weekend before I flew to Florida, the person I was seeing told me that things were becoming extremely challenging for us. I felt helpless. I wanted to stay back and try to work through this challenge, but I had to fly down to Florida and be there with my cousin.

Worse yet? I got to Florida just in time for hurricane Ian to roll in.

Thankfully, it had been relatively mild where I had been. But there were so many things happening at once. I was putting on a brace face for my cousin, crying my eyes out in my hotel room when I was alone, and trying to figure out what was going on back home. It felt absolutely surreal. I never expected to experience a hurricane in my life. Experiencing my first hurricane during such a difficult time in my life felt like a cruel joke.

The stress of everything happening brought my old trauma back to the surface. While I was trying to survive the week, I had nightmares every night. I would have nightmares that people were coming after me, trying to kill me. By the time I returned home after that long week, I was in horrible shape. I wasn't letting on to the person I had been seeing that I was in such rough shape. I knew they were trying to figure out what to do regarding the challenge for us. I didn't want to add to that stress.

Because I was in such a bad place after that week, I had forgotten the conversations we had before I left. So much happened so fast. I forgot that they had said they'd tell me what they would do after I got back. So I was blindsided when they told me they needed to step away to work through the complicated stuff they were dealing with. I was shocked. It felt out of the blue. In reality, it wasn't out of the blue at all. I had just been in survival mode and struggled to process what was happening.

It took me weeks to actually process all of it.

Thankfully, I was with Mason and Katie when they told me they had to step away. I hadn't been alone. They knew I was trying to handle a lot. And they did everything they could to give me a good day.

We took this photo together about an hour before I got the text saying they had to step away. Despite this photo being taken on such a hard day, it's one of my favorite photos with Katie. She reminds me a lot of myself, so it's only natural to be silly and ridiculous when hanging out with her. And then that night, I stayed with Mason and Katie so I wasn't alone while I tried to process what had just happened. I can't thank them enough for being there for me that day.

I went back to work after arguably the worst vacation of my life. I was desperately seeking any sense of normalcy. I talked a bit with a coworker about how sad I was that this person that I had fallen for couldn't be with me right now due to extenuating circumstances. Only my coworker had a different take on it. Even though she didn't know this person or the circumstances, she told me that they wouldn't have stepped away if they cared about me. She suggested that I wasn't enough for them. She suggested that I had basically misinterpreted the entire relationship.

Talk about kicking a girl when she's down.

After two days of these comments, I told her she wasn't allowed to talk about this person or this situation anymore. She was causing me an insane amount of pain. She knew that I had struggled in the past with feeling unlovable. She knew I had anxieties about misinterpreting romantic situations from being gaslit in past relationships. She knew I had these insecurities, but that didn't stop her from saying those things to me. Her comments made me feel like my insecurities were real. I went from being the most confident I had ever been to questioning my worth. As hard as it had been to have this person step away, the real kick in the shins was that response when I needed support.

I did a lot of hard work in therapy following that. I had to remind myself that I'm enough. I had to remind myself that I am lovable. I had to remind myself that I'm deserving of love and happiness. And I had to remind myself that the challenges and complications hadn't been my fault.

I'll admit, I'm crying quite a bit while I write about this part. But I'm not crying because I feel worthless or anything like that. I'm crying because it breaks my heart to think of how low I was. It makes me cry to think that someone that was supposed to be a friend could make me feel so terrible. It makes me cry that someone induced even more pain while I was already sad and hurting. All under the guise of friendship. She claimed that she said those things because she cared about me. Call me crazy, but that's not how you treat a friend.

Thankfully, I have a community of loving and wonderful people around me besides her. And so I was met with so much love and support to help me remember my worth and how loved I am. A few weeks after all of that happened, I met up with a bunch of my aunts and cousins for a girl's night, and it felt so good to be surrounded by so much love.

I had felt like my life was in limbo for a while. I had put my life on hold to process what was happening. But I didn't want to stay frozen in place like that. And so I went back to working on myself. I had made so much progress with my therapist on my confidence and figuring myself out. It was time to pick that back up and work on myself. As cliche as it may sound, I felt like a caterpillar undergoing a metamorphosis. I had stopped just as I was breaking out of the chrysalis. It was time to push free.

For the majority of my adult life, I had been questioning my sexuality. I didn't know how I identified, but I knew I wasn't straight. But it was one of my best-kept secrets. Society told me that I was supposed to be straight. And as I said before, I sacrificed my happiness to keep others happy. But I was finally putting myself and my happiness first. Through talks with my friends, I finally felt ready to come out and openly be myself.

Coming out as pansexual was one of the most freeing experiences of my life. I hadn't realized how much anxiety was linked to my identity. It didn't fully hit me until I shared with my friend Julie about a time many years ago when I had confided in a cousin about being uncertain about my sexuality. A few months later, we had a falling out. And it was ugly. She was mad at me for not supporting her and her disastrous choices. I felt like she was going to want to get revenge. I was terrified that she was going to out me to my family. Beyond that, I knew how mad she was, so if she chose to out me, she would twist it around and make me seem like a horrible person. I spent years scared that she was going to share my best-kept secret. And I realized I didn't have to be scared anymore. I broke into happy tears. I was free. I could just be myself. And so much of my anxiety had faded. It isn't gone, but it doesn't plague me like it once had.

It was around that time that I realized how much I had grown. I started the year so timid and unsure of myself. And there I was, almost at the end of the year, feeling like I had finally started to figure myself out. I broke out of my shell. I broke free. I can honestly say that I have never loved myself more or felt more confident in myself. I never thought that it would be possible to find myself here at this point in my life.

I always take a week of vacation at the end of the year. Working in healthcare, the end of the year is often pretty crazy. So I try to give myself a little break from the chaos. And since my last vacation had been so horrible, I was determined to have this one be better. With school and family holiday plans, it was too tricky to plan a trip somewhere far away. Instead, I made some day plans. I met up with Julie on my first day off for dinner and spent some time catching up. And then, the next day, I headed down to Chicago to hang out with my friend Kitt. Just before my vacation started, my therapist encouraged me to take some time to explore my sexuality further. I quickly reminded him that I wasn't looking to date anyone new and that my love life was on hold at the moment. He clarified that he meant that he was encouraging me to go to places like queer bars, clubs, businesses, and things like that. And so I mentioned it to Kitt, and we made sure that was on the list of things to do while I was visiting them. So we spent the day catching up while we went ice skating, got sushi, and went out to a lesbian bar.

A couple of days later, I went to Geneva, IL, and got a tattoo. I had wanted to get a tattoo for the longest time, but I never knew what I wanted to get. I wasn't going to be flippant and get something on a whim. It needed to have meaning. It wasn't until I realized how much I had grown this year that I realized what I wanted. I wanted to get a tattoo that represented my personal growth. I wanted something that represented the happiness and contentment that I had found. And I wanted something that would encourage me to keep growing. And so I contacted the artist that had done some work with my sister, and he designed the most beautiful tattoo I could ever imagine.

It turned out even better than I had hoped. It makes me happy every time I look at it.

This year has given me many tests and opportunities to grow and evolve. As the saying goes, you can't have the good without the bad. I'm just so grateful to have so many wonderful people around me to help me through the bad. Beyond my friends and family, I feel fortunate to work with some seriously amazing people. Having people stop by to say hi, or shout hello to me down the hall helped to remind me that I'm loved when I was feeling low. Without even knowing that I was going through a hard time, they would check in with me because they cared about me. That love and support had such a substantial impact on me this year.

I'm grateful for all of the people in my life. And I'm grateful to be where I'm at in life right now. There were some extremely difficult days this year, but those days helped me grow. Without those hard times, I wouldn't be where I am now.

I have no idea what I want or hope for in this next year. I'm not going to try to take a guess about where this year will go. Right now, I'm just happy to be where I'm at.

Happy New Year, everyone.

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