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How To Quit Your Life, And Then Start It Over

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Collage photos via Getty Images

Leaving everything you know is terrifying, but the unknown offers excitement

There is no manual for how to quit your life and start over. This is especially true when there’s nothing overtly wrong with the life you have. Why do it then? Why leave behind a life you’ve built, populated by people you love, for the unknown? Is that ever a good idea? Is it even sane? I’m not totally sure. But recently, I did it anyway.  

The hardest part about quitting your life and starting over is making the decision to quit your life and start over. That requires major mental organization, like making a life spreadsheet. On the whole, I am not an organized person. I don’t keep a calendar. Excel software makes me shudder. I make and keep to-do lists only in my head, even though I write all sorts of useless information on paper. I rely on my memory to make appointments that are important. For some reason, this foolish approach to life worked for me—more or less—for most of the nine years that I lived in New York. 

I had friends I liked a lot and jobs that I wanted. Even with complaints, New York felt like—and had become—home. I went to grad school for something I was interested in. I paid bills. And, while I mostly subsisted on deli tuna sandwiches rather than on groceries that I never bought, every once in a while I’d bake a chicken and invite more than one person over to eat it with me, which some people, who do this with nicer plates and more side dishes, call a dinner party. To anyone who was not me, I imagine my life probably looked—not like a well-oiled machine, obviously, but—like a car; a pragmatic one, maybe a hatchback that kept running pretty well with only minimal maintenance.    

But despite the fact that things were basically working for me in New York, they weren’t working for me in a bigger picture way.  I was not taking Stock of Things—tracking how I was (or was not) really spending my time, and how that really made me feel. Furthermore, I was not being honest about whether my ad hoc way of doing things was holding me back from other things I wanted—a good relationship, a family, and feeling more passionate about my work. Finding answers to these questions seemed to require a spreadsheet of my life, which I didn’t know because I’m not organized. But a past co-worker was, and she told me so one afternoon on our way to lunch.  

As we stood idly on our office escalator, she laid it out for me: If you make a spreadsheet of your life—one column of good things that currently exist, another of the not so good things, and a third of things you say you want but don’t have—you’ll be able to make a conclusion, at least intellectually, about whether you should quit what you’re doing and start over. Even if that means leaving New York, to go to California. 

I listened to my friend talk about the negative circumstances that filled her life in New York City, and what could be possible elsewhere. As she talked, I drew up a spreadsheet of my own, in my head, where I make spreadsheets. I populated column A with stuff I was pretty unhappy with, column B with things I liked a lot, and a small column C with things I wanted. It depends on how micro-detail-y you wanna get with your spreadsheet, but I kept mine rough, which, for me, helped make my conclusion clearer. 

Column A: On the whole, I didn’t sleep enough. I drank too much (New York City apartments are so small that socializing happens most often in bars, and there are so many of them that you can basically roll yourself from one to the next), and had too many hangovers. I also had too much work and therefore felt too anxious to run in the mornings, which was the only real antidote to my work stress. I didn’t cook, which was somewhat of a micro-detail, but significant enough to add to the feeling that I was not a fully functioning person. Dating in New York felt like banging my head, over and over, against the same brick wall. (No one ever moves to New York to start a family, I always say.) But more than that, I was dragging around with me a handful of pseudo-relationships that never fully became real ones, and never fully went away. It started to seem like removing myself from them, geographically, would be the only way to find clarity. Finally, and worst of all, I wasn’t excited to write. New York City, which had previously inspired me to write so much, had sucked me creatively dry. The hangover I woke up with too many mornings was obviously from alcohol, but I felt the city was bowling me over as well.   

Column B: All of my friends. My professional network I’d built over nine years. My apartment and roommate, both wonderful. My running route, which, when I managed to go on it, made me feel centered and in control. Deli sandwiches.

There was, to say the least, a disparity in size there, and for the first time, I saw a conclusion I could no longer ignore: It was time for me to quit and start over. 

Talking about quitting, however, is a lot easier than doing it. First, I had to say out it loud to another person, in order to make it real (that person was my therapist, Catherine). Once that happened, the floodgates opened. Tears burst from my ducts like they’d been begging to get out for ages, but had only just found an opening. I was letting go of the effort I’d been pouring into being in denial, in order to keep living there. I could feel my soul re-inflate like it was a balloon. Finally, I was able to move on. 

With that done, I set about the unpleasant task of telling my friends I was moving to California, like hordes of my other New York friends had already done, and seemed happier for it, scampering, as I always saw them on social media, around sun-drenched palm tree-heavy landscapes with friends and dogs. My plan was to freelance and to work in a restaurant until I could get something permanent lined up, and sublet from an acquaintance until I could find a place of my own. 

The meetings with my friends in New York, in which I told them about my departure, sucked. Each one felt like a little shred of my heart was being torn away. And because that was true, the next thing you need to do to quit your life and start over is to be merciful on yourself—determine the end of your period of departure with an unavoidable itinerary, a plane ticket, or a car rental, as soon as possible.

Until you do that, though, you don’t have to go anywhere. You could even change your mind in the meantime and stay. Don’t fall prey to that. For me, buying a plane ticket was the most pragmatically important step of leaving because it became the organizing principle around which the rest of my leaving steps were made. It was scary, but also kind of a thrill. Change was about to happen; it was out of my hands. 

Once that’s finished, you’ll have work to do, like pack, find a way to ship all your crap cross-country (use Amtrak! It’s a crazy deal!), find a place to stay wherever you land, and throw a going away party for yourself. And, if you so choose, you may turn off as many thoughts about the present and past and future as you can, because many of them will be too big to face while you actually have stuff to get done. I started hanging out with people like I wasn’t leaving. It was freeing and glorious. I started dating someone, unreasonable as that was, a month and a half before my departure. I didn’t worry about where we were headed because, I assumed, it would end, and as a result, I enjoyed all of the moments we had together, as they happened. I believe they call that living in the moment. Maybe you can’t date like that in real life when you don’t have a move across the country hanging over your head, but still, I’m gonna try to do that from now on.  

Similarly—because I knew I didn’t have a future in New York—I’d never loved the city more. But not in a way that made me want to course-reverse. While I lived there, I couldn’t pause long enough to appreciate what made it so great. I was too stressed out, too busy, too hungover, too tired. In the month leading up to my departure, it became the prettiest, messiest, largest, most-diverse symbiotic human creation I’d ever known.      

I will not lie. The day I left New York was fairly excruciating. I had given myself enough time to say goodbye to everyone more than once, but actually leaving the city was a different monster. I’d been out the night before with the guy I was seeing and a close girlfriend, eating one final perfect New York meal (the hot breast sandwich and pina colada at The Commodore), and ending the night with one (or a few?) final cocktails at my local bar, which meant that, fittingly, on my final morning in New York, I was hungover. I woke up early. I finished packing (I am not organized). I wore a vintage Star Fleet Academy T-shirt, a going away present from another close friend, and sweat through it while I cleaned the bathroom. I showered. I woke up my dude. I heave-sobbed goodbye to my roommate. My dude carried my gargantuan suitcases downstairs, and I called a car. I said goodbye to him, and to the city, like I didn’t mean it. How could I mean that? That was impossible. So I went through with it like I peel an egg—thoughtlessly, until it was over. A little shell never hurt anyone, and the egg tastes the same. I got in the car. It pulled away. In that first moment of pause—when all of the lifting and packing and goodbye saying was really over—I gasp-cried. Then I apologized to my Lyft driver. He’d caught me in a funny moment. 

JFK, like every airport, is not a real place. So even though I was technically still in New York, it felt like I’d already left—which was a relief. On the plane, I selected a shitty romantic comedy, plugged in my earbuds, and didn’t look at Queens, or the Manhattan skyline, or Long Island even once as we flew away.

Here’s the deal: As I write, I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 11 days. There have been ups, and there have been downs, and both have been extreme. Los Angeles is not New York. The things I loved about New York are not here. But the things I think I love about L.A. are not in New York. As with everything, no place, nor person, can be everything, or have everything, for anyone.

And—that’s fantastic. But I didn’t come to that conclusion on my own. I came to that conclusion with the help of a new friend I met in Los Angeles. I was at a cemetery where celebrities are buried, in the gloaming, for a live show, ordering a beer and chips, surrounded by picnicking Angelenos who were sun-kissed, healthy, and very relaxed. As I tipped back my PBR, I saw someone I knew from New York wave at me. He introduced me to his friend, Todd, who’d moved to Los Angeles from Brooklyn, New York, two years before. Todd asked me how I was doing. 

Admittedly, I told him, I was kind of freaked out. Some of the things about New York—even some of the things that had exasperated me by the end, like the wall of humans that confront you, one against the other, the minute you step out your front door—I missed already. And in response my new friend Todd smiled and offered this advice, that he’d once heard from another L.A. transplant: Neither city is forever.

Both are too expensive, too extreme, too hyperbolic, for most people, to settle into forever. Which means that the best thing you can do in either place is enjoy the hell out of whatever they have to offer, for the time you’re there—just like I’d started to do in New York only when I knew it would be over. But giving up one life does not mean you’ve lost it. It just means you’re gaining something else, somewhere else. In a life that has so much to offer, why not go for as much as you can get? Plus, of course, now I have a tan. And that’s pretty nice. 

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