by Nicole Alexander
In my mid-twenties, I departed the east coast for romantic San Francisco. I’d been dreaming about moving to the west coast since I was a teenager and carted most of my stuff out there, imagining this would be permanent.
While living in Northern California, I reconnected with my adventurous, outdoorsy spirit. I ricocheted my body off a rock cliff (attached to equipment and an instructor below), rode on the backseat of a motorcycle along side the Pacific Ocean at night (until it got too cold and we had to pull over at a creepy hotel and abandon the bike), hiked for many miles with the view of the expansive, shimmery ocean, surfed at a beach that warned of Great Whites, and jumped from a plane at a height of 18,000 feet.
I also fell in love with a married man.
One Friday afternoon after work, Joe and I were on our way to a charming resort in beautiful Sonoma Valley. We drove on a road lined with a canopy of grand, majestic trees—like an enchanted forest. The experiences we had together often felt surreal and otherworldly, the beauty of our surroundings an appropriate reflection of a relationship that was mired in illusion. It occurred to me then I was living in a reverse or twisted fairytale.
I couldn’t tell anyone about my married boyfriend, so I was living a sort of double life, always waiting for Joe, in a blurry “in between” state, wondering and hoping he was going to follow through on his promises, even though the sane part of me didn’t truly want that, didn’t want to come between him and his family. But I was addicted to him, to the relationship. Anyone who has ever been addicted to something or someone knows sanity and addiction do not mix.
Those of us with addictive personalities are intimately familiar with that intense pull to satiate ourselves, to numb out with relationships, food, possessions—you name it. Addiction boils down to a fear of emptiness, a fear of sitting with yourself, stripped of your defenses.
While living in San Francisco, I also accumulated plenty of stuff. I was always shopping for a new top or dress or pretty thing. I gradually developed the habit of drinking three glasses of wine per night—sometimes downing the entire bottle. On days when I wasn’t with Joe, my routine after work and the gym was to turn my beloved food network on and pour my first glass of silky, soothing red wine, as I began cooking dinner. It always felt deeply comforting at first—like a warm embrace—until the end of the night when I had stuffed myself silly. There were many days, when my body felt so weighted down and cumbersome—like my legs were shackled by enormous chains to the ground—that I could barely summon the energy to step one foot in front of the other.
After nearly three years of living in San Francisco, I made the decision to move back home to New York. I knew that it was the only way to end the relationship with Joe. I began the process of unwinding my life there, sorting through everything, donating and selling my belongings. I shipped the things I couldn’t part with to my aunt, who had offered to store them until I got settled. My aunt had about ten large boxes coming her way.
Home shit home, I thought to myself as the plane touched down at JFK. I was sad to be back. I was thirty, so the shame, the failed expectations, felt monumental. I had left my job in San Fran without having another one lined up and hadn’t carved out a niche for myself within the finance world I had been working in. I knew this type of work was not my calling, so moving on from it wasn’t a bad thing—days later the economy came crashing down, solidifying my decision—but I didn’t know what the next step was. And I was broke, financially and spiritually.
Originally I had departed, or more accurately, fled New York with the vision of a brand new, sparkly life: in San Francisco, I’d have many friends, a loving significant other, a stimulating and fulfilling career. Everything that had ever eluded me would find its way to me in San Francisco. Big surprise: I didn’t find what I was looking for because, as our wise friend Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us, Wherever You Go There You Are. You can’t run away from yourself, from your issues. They tag along for the ride.
A friend of mine who was in a 12-step program once told me that it was a well-known behavior in that circle, this fleeing business, and that a man announced one day in a meeting that he had “done a location.” I had done a location, all right. I had “locationed” myself right back to the drawing board. No money. No career. No significant other. No home. Bupkis.
While living in San Francisco, I received a gift from my mother. A journal. On the inside cover, in small font was an anonymous quote—a quote she undoubtedly did not even notice: “A seed will bear no bloom without the perseverance of its roots.”
After arriving back home in NY, I moved into my cousin’s apartment while she and her boyfriend were living abroad, so her apartment was vacant. It was also empty of heat. There was a problem with the radiator, and the super did not make it his priority to restore it. I brought very few clothes and personal items to the apartment with me, and I think rotated the same two pair of jeans more than I should admit.
I drove to my aunt’s house, where I had shipped my boxes, several times to organize and transfer some of the items to my mother’s home. My possessions were now scattered between three locations, and I felt the same way. Scattered. Fragmented. Incomplete. During my first cold week at my cousin’s, I remember sitting on the couch alone, eating take-out, and feeling like Bridget Jones. I cracked opened my fortune cookie, which read: “It doesn’t get better until you get better.”
My next step was not a fantastic new job or a great new place to live or my true soul mate—AKA the unmarried version of Joe—like I was praying for; it was, instead, a daily yoga practice. And not handstands and pretzel-like poses (although learning, over time, to do inversions was invigorating): just moving my body and breathing and tuning in. Unbeknownst to me, I was beginning the process of slowly unwinding old patterns and stuck emotions in my body.
After about a year of yoga, and eating ice cream out of the container—and, I’ll admit, reading my Zen tarot cards—I picked up the remainder of my stored belongings from my aunt’s house and gradually proceeded to get rid of nearly everything. With each bag full of stuff I dropped off at the Salvation Army I felt lighter, freer. I had thought skydiving would be exhilarating and liberating, but the feeling of suffocating to death during the 90-second free-fall put a damper on the experience. Likewise, I couldn’t fly with the emotional baggage I was carting around. In my physical reality, I’d been transferring and shipping those same possessions from place to place for years. I was attached to my stuff. And it was suffocating me. What was exhilarating was shedding what I’d been dragging around from place to place for so long.
I realized I didn’t need much more than myself and my yoga mat to be happy, to feel whole. I was less desirous of stuff or beauty procedures, like highlighting my hair—not that there is anything wrong with that, but my hair was in need of a break after a period of obsessive salon visits. The armor was sliding off.
As I practiced yoga, I became more aware of my body. I see a vision of my younger self perched on the edge of my seat, hunched forward, shoulders up by my ears, a self-protective stance. I also had a habit of standing on the outer edges of my feet—a bizarre balancing act. It was as if my feet were hesitant to commit fully to the ground. On my yoga mat, I brought attention to my feet, sinking them into the floor. The wood beneath them felt solid, real. I was aware that standing this way, with my feet firmly rooted on the ground was new to me—how different it felt.
For years, I’d had a recurring dream that I was trying to fly to escape from imminent danger. But with each attempt I’d plummet back down to the earth, vulnerable again to whatever I was running from. Around the time I began discarding my possessions, I dreamt that I was soaring. It was how I’d envisioned skydiving—free and airy—but I didn’t need to take a big, impulsive and risky leap to fly: I only needed to place my feet on the ground.
A version of this essay appeared in Yoga International.
Nicole Alexander is a graduate of both Antioch University’s Masters in Creative Nonfiction program and YogaWorks’ 500-hour Teacher Training. Nicole’s work has been featured in (the former) Open Salon Editor’s Picks, Fringe Lit, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Breathe Repeat, Elephant Journal, Westchester Magazine and Yoga International.