“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life” – Thoreau, from Walden

Your neighbour quits his job and moves to Hollywood to try his hand at acting. Your sister relocates to Penang to raise a baby in a shack on the beach. Someone you know moves to Kyoto to become a ninja.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably watched others make great sweeping life changes and thought to yourself all the reasons this is not possible for you. You may even have a list that looks something like this:

Why I Can’t

I dropped tens of thousands on my education; Why would I change careers now?

I have a lease and an apartment full of things; How can I travel?

My student loan payments have reached epic proportions; How can I take time off work?

I worked on this list for years. It grew and grew. My limitations grew bigger and more insurmountable with each passing year. I kept a second list as well. This second list was potentially more dangerous than the first, since it only further justified my immobility with things over which I had no control.

Why Others Can

They don’t take life seriously. (Hollywood? Are you kidding me?)

They have no debt.

The have parents or a trust fund to pay their way.

They’re single and fancy-free.

They don’t have the responsibilities I do.

As my list grew bigger, my life grew more entrenched. What were once minor limitations (a $1000 visa bill) grew to epic proportions ($50k in student debt). I began working against myself, trying to prove to others the myriad of ways in which my life was exceptionally difficult; I enrolled in law school, I chased ambivalent men, I starved myself down to a perfect 110 pounds.

Anyone with an ounce of sense could see where this was headed:

Complete and Total Mental Breakdown.

Lots of people have these; maybe everyone, at some point in their lives. Life offers us such a delicious array of catalysts for change, does it not? The Complete and Total Mental Breakdown though, is a personal favourite.

Think how many lovely life changing adventures have started this way. How many bestselling books have you read that began with the protagonist climbing out of utter darkness? Visit the travel memoir section of your local bookstore and observe the same beginning to so many fabulous adventures: Wild, The Lost Girls, Eat Pray Love.

It happens every day. People extract themselves from the most disagreeable situations and create whole new sources of light and goodness that never existed before.

Which is exactly what I did. After my Complete and Total Mental Breakdown I did almost every single thing on my ever-expanding list of “Things Amy Will Never Do.” I dropped out of law school. I sold all my stuff and sublet my apartment. I travelled to faraway lands. I had wildly inappropriate love affairs. I swam in the ocean every day for months at a time.

In retrospect I wonder if the Breakdown is something we do intentionally. Faced with a desperate situation, do we not back ourselves into a corner on purpose, get ourselves so desperately tied down with loans for things we don’t need, jobs in grey offices on ugly streets, houses in very proper but utterly boring suburbs?

Once you get backed into a corner, the only way out is up. Total innovation. Complete reinvention. No one can judge you for it when you’re up against a wall. When you have ugly purple bags under your eyes and an unsightly ribcage poking out of your oversized t-shirt, who’s gonna judge?

Fortunately there’s another way. What I’ve figured out is this: You are responsible for your own life. That includes your actions and your reactions, the flux of your emotions, the job you work at and the balance of your bank account. The whole shebang.

It seems trite to say, but you can do anything if you want it bad enough. Since coming back from overseas, I often talk with people about where I’ve been, what I’ve done and who I’ve seen, etc. (I’m rather boastful, I must admit, a habit I intend to break in the very near future. After this article, surely.)

Almost always this conversation is met with the same response. “I’d love to change careers/travel/do something extraordinary too but…”

Aha! Have I been there, my friend. It seems human nature to set the possibility of change outside yourself. If I had a different job, I’d be able to do X. If my wife wasn’t afraid of flying, I’d be able to go to Y. If this, if that. If you, if me. It’s all pretty much that same thing.

You can start today by becoming aware. Awareness is the first step to change. Had I known what I was doing, Complete and Total Mental Breakdown may not have been necessary to propel me out of the disagreeable life I was living.

Every time you say, “Yes, but…,” every time you say, “I can’t…”; catch yourself. Is this an actual limitation or is it a perceived limitation? And before you apply the former too liberally, remember: Terry Fox ran half-way across Canada with only one leg. He ran the equivalent of one marathon every day. Canada is a big-ass country. It’s huge.

If the cancer hadn’t spread to his lungs you can bet he would’ve run the whole way. Death, it would seems, is an actual limitation. And yet Canadians run the “Marathon of Hope” every year in Terry Fox’s name so even that is debateable.

Next time you consider your limitations, do me a favour and consider Terry Fox first.

What are your limitations, perceived or otherwise? Have you ever been bogged down by a seemingly insurmountable roadblock only to realise it was a complete illusion?

Photo by Cia de Foto

Amy Knapp

The story of Amy Knapp’s Complete and Total Mental Breakdown is told in her book I Am The Swallow, which was recently accepted for publication by Iguana Books. She is currently running an indiegogo fundraiser to raise some dough for the editing costs.

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