I’ve spent most of my life being different, and most of my life hating it.
I was raised in a small town in Northern New Mexico. Six-thousand-people small, mostly Hispanic and white, and almost all Christian. I’m Jewish, and there were a total of eight Jewish people in the entire town. Most of them were my family members. We stood out every year because we were the only ones who didn’t put up Christmas lights.
My family wasn’t rich, far from it, but most of the kids at my school were below the poverty line. When I was in kindergarten, my mom was 32, making her the oldest mom by far. Most of the other women in the town were grandmothers by the age of 35. When I reached high school, there was daycare – not for the teachers’ kids, but for my classmates’ kids.
I, on the other hand, was the perennial straight-arrow. I was quiet and serious, and I spent a lot of time with adults. On Wednesday mornings I would visit my grandma’s “Coffee Club,” where she and her friends would beam at me, quizzing me about my life and telling me how smart and precious I was. It made me feel good, but it also made me feel incredibly different from all the other kids I knew.
I was the only one who wanted more homework in second grade because school was too easy.
In middle school, my relationships were fraught and turbulent, like most adolescents – but with a twist. I was the only one who wanted to learn about and discuss current events while my peers were busy gossiping and groping each other.
High school was better. I was friends with some of the older girls and got along famously with them, taking weekend trips and weekly sleepovers. I even got a boyfriend, and when he broke up with me because I wouldn’t have sex with him, my friends all backed me up. It made me feel strong and accepted, which helped make my next relationship much more of a success. My boyfriend was a true gentleman, and I felt an amazing bond with him. Maybe too much, because when he graduated I felt so isolated I wanted to hide in my room or transfer to another school.
I skipped senior prom and went to a Wallflowers concert in Denver instead.
Don’t get me wrong here. I clearly had a great childhood. I wasn’t abused or living in poverty. We didn’t have to struggle to make ends meet, and I didn’t have to worry about where I’d get my next meal. After high school, I went to the University of Pennsylvania – an Ivy League school. Sure, it felt like I was the only freshman who wasn’t from Long Island, and all of a sudden I realized my Jewish family wasn’t very Jewish at all compared to my orthodox classmates who had grown up around Jews their whole lives. But still, these weren’t actual problems – they were quirks.
I was just different.
But that also doesn’t mean I didn’t struggle with it. I had a hard time connecting to people. I felt isolated. And even though I had a strong personality, whenever I found myself taking a separate path from the rest of my group, I found myself questioning it. Doubting. Asking why. Wondering if maybe there wasn’t something wrong with me.
Why when I graduated did I not just want to settle down and get married like everyone else? Why didn’t I want a typical high-powered corporate job? Should I be more ambitious? Should I be more willing to commit to a man – any man – for life and just start having babies? What the hell was my problem?
I tried my best to be like everyone else, but I couldn’t. It just didn’t work. I felt like I was chasing a form of normalcy, but I never could quite catch up.
I finally experienced my turning point at possibly the weirdest place for a major life revelation – an IKEA.
I used to have a thing where I liked going to IKEA to play house. I wasn’t a little kid, I was in my early twenties. For my half birthday, a friend and I went so I could pretend I lived in a home with lots of decor and clean closets.
Never mind the smell of Swedish meatballs or the kids running around, I was in heaven.
All of a sudden it hit me: I’d love to work here! Lo and behold, I looked up and saw a sign announcing a new store opening in Costa Mesa. They were hiring. I inquired and learned about a job fair in a couple weeks. I went to the fair, resume in hand. After just a few interviews, I got hired on the spot to be manager of the crossover department.
You know all the decor and plants and mirrors and candles? I was in charge of placing them around the store.
At first, I enjoyed it. I helped build the store from the ground up, even got placed in charge of my own team. Sure, I had to send a few of them home on days when they came in high on crystal meth, but it was fun to be a boss. Here I was, 25 years old, and I had responsibility, not to mention a hilarious blue and yellow uniform to wear each day.
Unfortunately, I also had a supervisor who had it in for me. She punished me in the most IKEA way humanly possible – by ordering me to spend a week alone, unpacking baskets and rattan furniture. Somewhere in the depths of all those splintery wooden baskets and the smell of formaldehyde, I had my revelation: I needed to get the hell out.
I quit my job and took a trip to Israel (thank you, Birthright!). For the first time in my life, I felt free. For five weeks, I traveled the Judean desert, ate creamy hummus, and met other travelers who, like me, had never quite fit in. We had long, meandering conversations about history and modern society, self-expression and freedom. I had time to explore the surroundings and myself.
For once, I didn’t feel alone.
Since then, I’ve understood that my weirdness isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength. It’s what makes me interesting and adventurous. It’s what inspired me to join IKEA – and what inspired me to quit it and travel when I needed to sort out my life.
Best of all, I realized there are other people who feel like “the only ones who…”
Recently I joined a writing group and met three wonderful, inspired, empowered women. Just like me, they’re thinkers and doers, people who’ve spent much of their lives feeling different and isolated. It’s been cathartic to share individual stories of separateness and feel connected with each other now.
If you feel like “the only one who…” don’t despair. Appreciate yourself for who you are, for being unique. Then look around. Get outside your box and meet new people. Your tribe does exist – even if it’s a tribe of one.
I’m a Life Coach. To coach with me, please contact me.