I squinted, peering across the beach at the huge stretch of sand that met an endless ocean. Space. A lot of space.

“Wait right here,” my friend, Rob said as he set down a large audio speaker next to me on the sandy sidewalk. “I’m just going to park my car real quick.” 

My phone pinged with a text from a friend. I had a feeling what it would say, and I wanted to be honest. “I’m disappointed you won’t be here,” I wrote. “But I understand. Love you, too.”

Plenty of space. But it still didn’t feel like enough. 

“OK, let’s do this!” Rob said as he approached.

“Rob…” My throat felt tight. “I’m honestly not sure how many people are going to come.” 

“Annie, it could just be us, and it would be great!” he said, hugging me. “It is great.”

“You’re right,” I said. “Earlier my friend, Amanda, asked if I could hold space within myself for both disappointment and joy. But now…” I pulled back. “I’m going to use all the space for joy.”

And we walked out into the sand. 

Free Willy

Owning kitchen items like rolling pins is always pleasantly shocking – a badge of adulthood – providing the same sense of pride as apple slicers or lemon squeezers. No matter how off-course life might seem, at least you can swiftly slice and de-pit an avocado with one small gadget. 

The rolling pin collected small pieces of sweet dough as I slowly flattened the ball of it into a thin layer across wax paper. My head buzzed, high on the sugar of raw cookie dough, and I swayed to the sound of Michael Jackson’s Free Willy soundtrack song.

Hold me like the River Jordan

And I will then say to thee, you are my friend

Carry me like you are my brother

Love me like a mother, will you be there?

A whale cookie cutter pierced the dough, and I thought of the past 364 days of sobriety, as well as each friend attending the sunset beach breathwork to celebrate my 1-year milestone the next day. The private meditation session and cookies were gifts to them, a small price to pay for the amount of generosity they had shown over the year. However, the several hundred dollars put towards the evening felt like a potentially bad idea in the wake of recent events. 

A year after being laid off and struggling to freelance, I successfully pivoted my career and landed a job as a Digital Producer at a creative agency, as I mentioned at the end of the story, 10 Lessons I Learned from 1 Year of Unemployment. The video accompanying the story shows signs of what’s to come though.

I appear well-nourished with enough disposable income for a long-awaited spray tan. However, there is a visible unease. A reluctance to call it a happy ending and also a sense of unsteadiness, leading me to say to the camera, “I don’t want to tell people everything is going to work out because things could be f*cked up tomorrow.”

And, like an episode of The Bachelor, things were indeed f*cked up the next week. The client I was working with unexpectedly put the multi-million dollar project on pause, and there was no guarantee of if or when work might resume. My boss informed me it was my last day of work in another abrupt lay-off.

“I imagine it has to be harder this time,” my friend, Brittany, texted after I told her. I barely wanted to admit what happened, but I needed to explain why all social plans were halted once again. “It seems like it would be more difficult after finally having a job.”

I removed a batch of whale cookies from the oven, recalling my response to her.

A Second Wind

Within 30 minutes of being laid off, depression forced me into that frighteningly numb space where few want to admit they’ve been. I drove up the PCH from El Segundo back home. When you’re unsure of your next paycheck, the ocean loses its lustre and no longer feels like yours to enjoy. I considered pulling into the beach parking lot, jumping off the end of the Playa Del Rey pier and letting the sea take me, either off into the distance or into its depths.

I kept driving though, and by the time I pulled into the gym parking lot, sanity resurfaced. And by the end of working out, the brief stint of full-time employment felt less like a sinking anchor tethered to my spray-tanned ankle, and more like a giant gasp of air. Like a whale who briefly surfaces to fill its lungs before going back under for hours, the short period of stable income and routine provided just enough to sustain me. It kept me going, along with help from continued sobriety, the promise of a perfect beach celebration, and the people who were there for me. Thinking of them made me confident in my decision to move forward with beach breathwork.

The baking timer alarm sounded. Another batch of cookies was done. I counted them and moved towards the living room where my list of 30 breathwork attendees laid on the coffee table, each with a checkmark, x or M for maybe. I updated the list based on last-minute texts received.

Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. Yes. No. No. No. Maybe. Yes. No. No. Maybe.

A ‘maybe’ in LA meant a ‘no’ in the Midwest. And despite the exponential amount of personal growth experienced through the last year of sobriety, the no’s too closely mirrored the lay-off’s and job rejections. As I tallied up the responses, a wave of disappointment flooded my thoughts. The idea of a perfect celebration drowned along with deflated hopes.

Sunset Beach Breathwork

“A year ago I came to this beach for sunset breathwork,” I said to friends who were seated on blankets in front of me, facing the ocean. Some had come straight from the Abbot Kinney Festival down the street.

“That morning I admitted to Kaitie I needed a break from alcohol, and later that day, before coming here, I met with Steph and Matt at the Abbot Kinney Festival. And the anxiety felt without drinking was overwhelming. I couldn’t even enjoy the festival.” I looked to Steph and Matt who both smiled, recalling that day a year before and how far I had come.

“Since I’ve been 16, I’ve used alcohol as a crutch for many reasons,” I continued. “To enhance fun, to avoid pain, to hide from discomfort, to feel confident, to be liked, to feel loved…”

I looked at the 15 people who came. Almost all of them were friends made within the last year thanks to being unemployed, providing the ability to attend various Crossfit class times. Some I talked to every day as best friends and some only a couple times ever. One couple had just started to know me, and yet, invited me to live in their home if I needed a place to regroup before finding a new job. The space in my heart I reserved for joy filled and expanded, almost as huge as the beach around us.

“And I’m sharing this because we all have crutches we use to lessen our fears and discomfort. Some of us overdrink, some overeat, some over-sex, overwork, over post to Instagram.” 

They nodded, acknowledging their vices of choice.

“Sometimes crutches are necessary after something happens.” I thought about lay-offs and break-ups and broken legs. “But if we don’t set them down at some point, we will never walk or run on our own. At certain points over the last year, I had to crawl without them, and that’s ok. Because sometimes that’s what it takes to be great.”

During 2019, I learned greatness does not necessarily mean your dream job or financial success or material possessions. A large part of greatness means acknowledging shortcomings and finding the courage to confront them.

“And we owe it to ourselves to be great.” I echoed words said by Rob in one of my first breathwork classes. “You don’t owe it to your parents or your boss or your boyfriend or girlfriend. You owe it to yourself. And you’re all great for being here.”

There was no doubt in my mind the people who needed to be there – for whatever personal reason of their own – were there.

Favorite Moment of 2019

The following month, I found a Digital Producer job at a well-established ad agency, offering the stability I had been seeking and the ability to stay in LA. I went back to work, but I also went back to old crutches. I drank for fun, but I also drank to ease discomfort. I made amends with people from my past, but I also allowed myself to feel hurt again. I bought items that were long overdue, but I also sought to purchase joy. I disappointed myself.

In those moments of self-doubt, I’ve mentally replayed one of my favorite memories of 2019 which occurred that night on the beach.

Lift me

Love me and feed me

Kiss me and free me

I will feel blessed

The Free Willy song played as I handed out whale cookies to the group who gazed at the setting sun and brilliant reflection across the Pacific Ocean. My feet fumbled in the sand, unsteady after the deep meditation, and my friends wiped tears from their eyes.

“I don’t even know why I’m crying!” Dara said. Like most of them, it was her first time doing breathwork. Every uncertain penny spent felt worth it, and as we huddled together for a group photo, I shared my takeaway.

“You guys, as I opened my eyes, I had an overwhelming feeling that everything is going to be ok.”

“Annie,” Rob said. “Everything is ok.” 

We smiled for the self-timer, and I thought, “I am blessed.”

Finding the Space Within You

“Freedom” was the word I chose for 2019 on New Year’s Eve. I intended for it to mean freedom from a career path that wasn’t right for me. Freedom from resentment. Freedom from crutches holding me back. As the year ended, I realized it was more though. 

Sometimes freedom is less about the space around you, and more about finding the space within you. About realizing your own capacity to hold many things. About your power to house disappointment and hope, pleasure and pain, sadness and joy, all at the same time. And that often, the more we make room in our heart for both fear and love, the more the love eventually fills the space.

Through my fear and my confessions

In my anguish and my pain

Through my joy and my sorrow

In the promise of another tomorrow….

Thank you to everyone who filled 2019 with lots of love.

You’re always in my heart.