When I moved to Atlanta in 2010 I was broke. I’m not talking “broke” like “I was living within my means but acting like I had no money”….I’m talking “broke” like “let me scatter my spare change on the floor and see if I have enough money for the electric bill”. I moved in with one of my best friends, who moved to Atlanta a few months before me, and we shared a one bedroom apartment. She got the bedroom (because she moved in first) and I claimed a mattress on the floor in the living room that I would put in the closet every morning after I woke up. We worked as tour guides at CNN: an entry-level job that barely covered our rent, let alone our student loan payments. I didn’t have a car, so I would walk to the MARTA station and take the train to work on the days my friend was off. For extra money, we would work after-hours events at CNN and hope that the caterers had enough food left over for us to take home so we could save a little money on groceries.
I know this sounds like I made it up. I didn’t. This is a true story. This was my life.
Those were days when every penny counted. Get-togethers meant inviting our friends over to hang out by our pool; everyone would bring whatever they had in their cabinets and we would create a potluck of snacks and play beer pong with cheap booze. One Thanksgiving when we couldn’t afford to go home for the holidays, we invited our friends over and we had our Thanksgiving dinner on the floor of our apartment, with everyone bringing whatever they could. The day we finally moved into a two bedroom apartment I remember laying on my mattress on the floor and saying to my boyfriend at the time “I have a door. An actual door to an actual bedroom! I’m rich!”
I would get depressed a lot in those days. I’m not saying money buys happiness, but it buys food….and I could barely afford that. There were days I would look at my bank account and it would send me into an anxiety-ridden tailspin that ended with me driving to a Plato’s Closet to try and sell some clothes. Those were the years I spent Christmases alone, the years of “survival mode”, of “making it work”, of not living the dream. They were hard years.
I struggled to find joy, contentment and a place where I belonged. I had this “oily” feeling that my life wasn’t going according to plan and it made me feel like absolute shit about myself. I often questioned why I moved across the country, thousands of miles from home, from everything comfortable and familiar, to a place where I was barely able to survive. I wanted more: I thought I deserved more.
I couldn’t wait to be far, far away from those days of struggle. I wanted to be “living the dream” (aka I wanted to be able to go to Target). I didn’t realize those hard times were creating building blocks for my future. Now, when I face something hard, I come back to Atlanta and all I learned as a broke twenty-something. Atlanta taught me resilience. It taught me it’s important to ask for help because without help I wouldn’t have had rides home on those nights when I worked late for extra money. I started gratitude journaling during this time and it helped me look for the good in every day rather than constantly feeling down about my circumstances. I learned to be humble, to be grateful and to be resourceful. I taught myself how to budget in Atlanta: a skill I am still very proud I was able to teach myself to this day.
Life doesn’t always deal us the hand we think we deserve. Sometimes we find ourselves at a job we hate, in a living situation we hate, or scattering change on the floor to pay the bills,. Sometimes we find ourselves sleeping on a mattress on the floor, or spending Christmas alone, or going to a wedding alone, or sitting alone, wondering how you got where you are, wondering how you’ll get out. Sometimes it’s not fair and life just sucks. But, within us we have the power to rewrite our story by choosing to look for the good in every day rather that sulk about the shitty hand we’ve been dealt. If you find yourself struggling with your circumstances, I encourage you to start a gratitude journal, and to use that journal to chronicle every little thing that you’re thankful for, even if the only thing you write is “I’m breathing”. You have a choice: to use this time to grow, or let yourself wallow. Choose to thrive, choose to grow, choose to let these struggles give you the strength to build the foundation of your future.
I don’t always miss Atlanta or feel nostalgic for it, but I am forever thankful for who Atlanta made me; for the struggles I had there and for the way it shaped me. I’m thankful for the way Atlanta taught me to look for joy even when I slept on a mattress on the floor in a one bedroom apartment I shared with my best friend. I’m thankful for the way Atlanta humbled me and made me able to ask for help. I often felt hopeless in Atlanta but even now I know I can make it through the worst days because I have survived many before. Nine years later, I am still gratitude journaling and it’s a practice that has given me the ability to choose joy even on my saddest days.
Even today, when things get hard, I come back to Atlanta. Because in Atlanta, I learned to thrive.