The Fork in the Road: When Choosing One Way Means Losing the Other
By: Jennifer Fiorile
A haiku I wrote was published by a magazine, Chronogram, in my hometown in New York state. It goes:
If I had prepared,
things would have been different, but
I can't say just how.
I think about that a lot. The way my life would have gone if I had chosen this over that. If I'd foreseen the need for x instead of, what I've mostly done, flying by the seat of my pants. I didn't utilize my teens to prepare for my twenties, and I didn't use my twenties to prepare for my thirties. Things just kind of fell into place, and I focused more on enjoying and living in the moment than the future. When I was younger, the future, adulthood, seemed like a blank canvas, and the amount of choices I had to make about things that would affect the rest of my life was crippling. I was paralyzed by choice, so I only made choices about whatever was in front of me in the moment. Though this method didn't work out so badly, I was really living smack dab in the middle of a mess. But I found a cheat code to adult life. I had help. I had therapy.
It's been ten years that I've been in therapy. It's hard for me to believe that. Sounds so mature to say that I've had ten years of anything. Like I've got plenty of other decades hanging around filled with other life experiences. When I look back at the beginning and middle years of that decade, I think, "Wow, I was crazy. How did I even manage to get any work done?" I know the answer, though. It was a scramble 90% of the time with my top priority being whatever was due tomorrow or would get me in the most trouble for not being done in time. There was no system of living in place and it was largely chaos, decisions were made on the fly with more regard to my emotions than what would benefit me in the long run. That's because I believed that whatever suited my emotional needs at the time was what would benefit me in the long run. I lived for and through them.
Though I often enjoyed this sort of firecracker lifestyle, being a passionate person meant that as happy and blissful as I could be, I could also be just as angry and self-centered, which I often was, easily throwing a whole day or week into upheaval which I then had to organize again once I regained composure. It was a way of living that, frankly, wracked my nerves. I never knew when my emotions would get the better of me, so I couldn't trust myself to weather the stormy waters without being thrown overboard.
Despite all that though, the sweetness of love, the blossoms of spring, and afternoon naps on rainy days have never been as intensely joyful for me again as they were when I was younger and living so deeply in the ebbs and flows of my mind. I laughed, cried, and screamed with my whole heart and all my power. That, writing, and loving were the best ways I knew how to live and avoid the life I feared. I traded out intensity for better navigational skills, but I wonder to myself, who would I have been, what would I have learned, if I'd never gone to therapy, if I'd simply let myself mature into my twenties? This is something I'll never be able to discover about myself. I can make guesses, but I'll never know for sure what my life would have been like if I hadn't chosen to go to therapy.
I'm quite certain it would have been very difficult. I'd have really made some major mistakes and mishandled the people I love. I was already doing that at the time. My hectic approach to life and relationships was becoming more destructive and less whimsically carefree. I didn't want to be encumbered with adult responsibilities, because, perhaps, I didn't believe I could handle it. The thought alone of having to grow up and be responsible was frightening. I literally lived in near terror of having to be responsible for myself. Living in the moment was a way to keep myself from having to acknowledge the fact that I was a young adult and that I'd only keep getting older if things went the right way. I thought adulthood seemed sad, boring, and restrictive. I thought it seemed joyless and oppressive. I had no sense for what else there could be in life.
Therapy, though, made it seem less scary. I got to talk about my fears and hear from someone older and wiser, with the authority to be considered wiser, what part of my fears were real and which weren't and how to handle the real bits. Yes, you do lose a lot of things as you become an adult, but I've come to find, you gain different values and meters for happiness and fulfillment. I may feel less unbridled joy (and less off-the-chain anger), but I've got a sense of balanced calm that nicely counters my former experiences. I used to surf the waves, getting swept under by big swells, but now I observe the waves from the shore and dive in when it makes the most sense. I'd say I've got a 75% success rate.
Through all that therapy, working through my thoughts, feelings, and experiences about and in the world week after week, I learned to think differently about my place in it and other ways to enjoy life. I learned how to settle down and think as well as I could feel. When I reflect on it, it's hard for me to imagine any other version of my twenties. I'm not sure what else in my life would have prepared me for adulthood, and living well and sanely, as therapy has. The prospect of life without it, without a place to pour out the contents of my brain each week and examine things piece by piece, seems bleak. But I'll always wonder what lessons and skills I missed out on learning organically, just through living and making mistakes, that would have shaped me into a well-rounded, wise-but-weathered soul. Or would I have kept rolling down the hill, faster and more recklessly as the years went on, only to smash to pieces against a wall at the bottom? The path of that journey is unclear to me from where I am now.
Because of therapy, I'll never know what kind of person I'd have become on my own. Other people have overcome far darker experiences in their twenties than me and still become fully functional adults without much help. Maybe that could have been me. I don't know how my way of living would have shaped me or my mind as I matured. I discovered a way around that, when it seemed I wasn't going to manage it on my own, but I'll never know what effect time and experience could have had on me.
The most famous poem by American poet, Robert Frost, is The Road Not Taken. It's often used as a call to take chances and live to the beat of your own drum. This is uniformly how it's presented in popular culture and in American schools, but when I was doing my Masters in American Studies, I heard a different interpretation that changed everything about it. The poem goes:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
With a sigh, emphasized the other student in my course. It implies a tone of regret about the road he didn't take, or perhaps the one he did; we can't be sure. "...as for that the passing there, Had worn them really about the same…," she said, informing me, without her knowing, for the first time, that neither road was really any better than the other. As far as Frost could tell, the roads were equal. But he had to choose one, and in choosing one, he would never know what was down the other.
There's a two-fold lesson in this: that popular culture (and school) often gets the deepest truths about living totally wrong and that some choices we make means we're missing out on the other choice's path, whatever it may be. This dichotomy is true in many cases: where to live, what job to take, who to settle down with, whether or not to get married or have children. It's just that, in the case of therapy, it doesn't just affect your life, it morphs your whole concept and understanding of your mind, the world around you, and everyone in it. Its changes reach to your deepest core.
Of course, I don't regret therapy. I was a mess (but I stopped identifying as one), and I desperately needed professional help to get myself going in the right direction. Therapy has helped me find the strength within myself to live better. Maybe the paths that lay in front of me in my twenties converged later on down the road. I like to think I would've gotten to a less chaotic life eventually, simply by maturing over time. "All roads lead to Rome," the saying goes. I've had a Sherpa, a guide, to help me clear and make maps of the brambly paths in my mind.
My haiku is correct in regards to my lack of preparation in some parts of my life (chaos and emotion still have power in my life, I just handle them better) but overlooks those key moments where I did, unintentionally, try to pick the right path. Of all the choices I made on an emotional whim in my twenties, beginning and sticking with therapy was a good one. I shed the life of the old me for a better version. My life is better now, but I still know her. I still remember what she thought and felt. She is me, I am her, but I'll never see or feel her again like I once did. Still, though, I think she'd respect the older, wiser, calmer me. She and I still share the same heart. I made a choice many years ago that has made all the difference, and, upon reflection (and because of therapy), I can say, in a lot of ways, just how.