What To Do When You Feel Yourself Becoming A Shitty Person

Photographed by Bek Andersen.
To read Laurel's first post on leaving her "perfect" NYC life, click here.

It’s been four months since I moved to Cape Town, South Africa after leaving my "perfect" job in NYC, and I've had a lot of time to understand what kind of person I left behind: Not only did I feel shitty sometimes, I was on my way to becoming a pretty shitty person. I lost touch with a lot of the things I loved most about myself, and viewed the world in such a skewed way it’s honestly a little embarrassing. So, my time in South Africa has been a project of screwing my head on a little tighter.

It’s an exercise in perspective: what matters, what doesn’t; what’s within my control, and what’s not. I'm learning what suffering actually looks like, and how big the world is beyond my front door.  

If you read my first post, you know that when I left New York I was an anxious mess. I was already in a bad place emotionally, but deciding to leave what I’d built and set my life on a different course was terrifying — even though I know I’m beyond lucky to have had that choice at all.

I didn't know if I’d be able to get work again. I didn't know if my friendships would be as strong. I also didn’t know what it would do to me to go from being stubbornly independent to more or less completely relying on my boyfriend. (Spoiler alert: That part has been really hard.) As anxious as I was to go, I was even more afraid to just bail on this opportunity. What would happen then?  
 
Photo: Courtesy of Laurel Pantin.
I didn’t always see New York as some kind of concession, though. When I first moved to the city in 2004, the affection and empathy I felt toward the strangers around me made my heart ache in the most fabulous way. If I had to describe what feeling “alive” is, it’s that. But after a while, I fell into a routine, and the worlds that contained my neighborhood, job, and friends became oppressively small. I became a little provincial, which is a funny thing to have happen in such a large city. I found myself judging things outside the city as cool, maybe, but not…you know…New York. Bad, bad, bad. 

Worse yet, I lost the essential things that make me feel like me: my sense of creativity, excitability, and enthusiasm. I used to keep myself up at night having ideas or working on art projects. Walking into my office used to make me feel so proud and lucky — I’d literally laugh out loud sometimes. The girl-gang feel of being in a workplace full of amazing, talented, confident women, and the freedom to have fun ideas and make things — these had stopped registering. Instead, I was consumed by all the ways I felt I was lacking. If I had taken a Myers-Briggs test, I would have been a whole new personality type: NMNN (Narcissistic, Materialistic, Needy, Neurotic).

My drive to love, thrive, and create was gone, and I wanted it back. When the opportunity came to shake up my life, and become that thousand-watt weirdo again, I’m so thankful I took it. I'm also thankful, of course, to have even been presented with that chance. I've been able to pick my life up and shake it out like a giant blanket, to get all the crumbs off and let it fall fresh. 

Our first month in Cape Town was all about getting that zing back, and it was the most exciting, romantic month of my life. My fiancé and I were making a new home in a beautiful place, everything sparkled, and I was discovering how interesting, delicious, and fun life could be outside The Big Apple. Big surprise: There are cool and interesting things happening outside of New York. Of course, I had to have known that was true on some level before I left.

Now that I’ve spent a little more time here, my perceptions of Cape Town are adjusting, too. Living here has taught me that there is stuff out in the world that’s way, way worse and harder than what I thought was bad or hard. Living as an ex-pat, and exposing myself to the world beyond that city grid I left behind, is thrilling, humbling, inspiring, and frustrating all at the same time, and it’s reshaping the person I’m becoming. 

Nobody wants a history lesson from me, and nobody wants to hear a “white girl goes to Africa and feels sad” story. That’s not what’s this is. As a commenter mentioned on my previous post, Apartheid ended in 1994 — well within my lifetime, and probably yours. That fact was abstract to me until I was able to put my adventuring glee on pause and really notice how much racial segregation is still a part of everyday life in South Africa, how pervasive racist attitudes are, and the chasm in the distribution of wealth. The poverty is staggering — it’s not a difference of the haves and have-nots, it’s the have-everythings and the have-absolutely-fucking-nothings. 

It’s impossible to ignore, but also really difficult to process — especially the feeling of powerlessness that comes with witnessing something so unfair on such a huge scale. How can you reconcile so much natural beauty with so much ugliness, or the feeling of your own boundless possibility with the reality of zero opportunities for so many?  

When you’re in a place so far removed from these kinds of realities, like the fashion industry in NYC, it’s really easy to ignore. I’ll be the first to say I was too self-involved to give important social issues the attention they deserve. But, as my priorities and perspective continue to shift, I can’t ignore it, or the role that I play as a member of society here. I’ll also be the first to admit I don’t have the answers, but my experience has profoundly changed the way I look at the world, and how I relate to it and to those around me.  
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Looking at my life through the lens of fashion, this new perspective makes the kind of consumption I engaged in back at home feel embarrassing. I wanted things just because and, if I could afford them, I bought them, then I wanted other things. I wanted fancier and better. Mainly I just wanted. Unsurprisingly, I never felt satisfied. 

In my first post I mentioned having a dressing room instead of a closet at our new place. (I know.) But, the thing I love most about it is that the open space helps me consume less. It reminds that I have more than I could want. When things are spread out like that, I can take stock, reorganize, and look at my old stuff with fresh eyes. Standing before a too-packed-to-see-anything New York closet, I lost sight of how much I had, or how much one person really needs. (Much less, I now know.) Now, I'm finding joy in getting dressed again — and feeling none of the "I wants" that made me into a worse version of myself back there. A large closet by any definition is a luxury, but the most luxurious part about this one is that I'm no longer compulsively filling every inch of space with more belongings. I'm able to appreciate what I have — which is way more than enough.

If I can make this frivolous comparison, giving my clothes the room to breathe has given them new life, just like leaving my life and the New York fashion bubble has given me some much needed perspective. So, how did I stop becoming, feeling, or being shitty? I simply took some space. And in the space, I found my essential me-ness again, but a me that's growing into a more aware, braver person than I was before I left. I'm still working on these changes, but I hope I can make a meaningful contribution somehow. For the next two months (and beyond!), I'll be working on figuring out what that looks like.   
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