Why Leaving New York Was The Hardest & Best Thing I've Ever Done
Before I knew that I wanted to study writing, or go to NYU, or pursue a career in women's lifestyle reporting, I knew that I wanted to move to New York City. It was the city of dreams, after all. A place not two hours from my hometown, yet seemingly a whole galaxy away. It would be a brave new world, where I'd somehow "find myself," no matter how juvenile or romantic a concept. Where I'd achieve all the goals I didn't even know I had. Where, away from the small, backwards-thinking suburb I'd grown up in, I'd finally learn to embrace myself fully. The idea that anyone would choose to leave New York City would've seemed preposterous to a younger version of myself, even though that's precisely what I'd end up doing after seven years of living in both Brooklyn and Manhattan.
When I got to New York as an 18-year-old fresh out of high school, the city truly was a dreamscape. The light fog that never quite disappeared, even on the brightest, warmest of days, gave it a quality of magical realism. When I'd walk through Union Square on my way to class, or to the Westside Market uptown, or across Williamsburg on a weekend afternoon, I never fully believed I was there. Every person I met, new neighborhood I discovered, or foreign food I tried became a symbol for all that the city could offer: professionally, sexually, intellectually, and more.
The city of dreams was everything I believed it would be. The people I was meeting, and the setting I was in, presented me with opportunities I never would've had otherwise, like studying abroad for a year, interning at Marie Claire, or helping organize meet-ups for queer Latinx Millennials. It was those opportunities that inspired me to create a niche for myself within the landscape of journalism, only to then start a blog, only to later be hired by a start-up women's publication that'd grow to attract over 20 million unique readers per month.
I am grateful for every single opportunity New York gave me, but the city wasn't without its flaws. Perhaps no place ever can be. In retrospect, it was unfair of me to expect NYC to be perfect. It was unfair of me to demand that one place satisfy every component of myself. I ultimately had to make my way out, even if it was the hardest thing I'd ever done.
In truth, the university years were the best years. To this day, when anyone asks me for advice on where they should apply to college, I cannot reccomend New York enough. The transition from a small, predominently Republican, predominently white, predominently homophobic, sexist town to the hub of diversity that is New York was jarring for me at first, but wholly necessary. In New York, I found feminism. I found self-love. I found people who, like me, had grown up ostracized in their communities (sometimes for being fat, sometimes for being brown, sometimes for being gay), only to find brilliant community on the island. I watched as others became more progressive and open-minded in their thinking as a direct result of their new environment. Hell, I became more progressive and open-minded, too. I became more empathetic, less timid, and more myself.
It was in the years after graduating that things began to spiral for me. For a lot of people in a lot of fields, New York can be a spectacular place to build a career. By some definitions of success, it undoubtedly was for me. I landed one of the coolest jobs I can imagine, writing and editing for a major women's website. I found a sweet apartment in Bushwick with the quintessentially-New York brick wall in the living room. My colleagues were an assortment of inspiring, fearless, badass women and femmes. Thanks to being around feminist and fat positive babes all the time, I had even grown comfortable enough in my body to enjoy all facets of intimacy.
Maintaining the particular lifestyle that comes with New York, however, became a source of pressure. Succeeding in the New York workforce is arguably linked to the desire to climb the professional ladder, and a willingness to go above and beyond one's limits in order to do so. It is a city that, at times, teaches you to put your job over your relationships; over your wellbeing. You can have the chillest colleagues in the world, but this is a lesson that permeates the surrounding culture, nonetheless.
It didn't take long for me to begin to feel as though "success" existed in direct correlation to my bank account, or whether I could get a promotion in the office, how many websites I could get a byline on, or how many clicks a day my personal blog was attracting. It didn't take long for me to feel as though not working a 12- to 18-hour day was subsequently a sign of failure.
All the while, I felt like I needed to present the best version of myself to those around me at all times. I felt pressure to buy the chicest clothes, wear the trendiest shoes, and do my makeup every damn morning. It was like I needed to seem "together" and "with it" even in the moments when my mental health was at its worst.
My relationships suffered as a result. Not only my relationships with the friends and family who I never had time for, or the partner who would often wake up without me because I had an early meeting and fall asleep without me because of some event, but my relationship with myself as well. I lost sight of the things I truly wanted. I lost sight of the person I actually hoped to be. While so many people around me were thriving off the same exact pressures, I was crumbling under their weight.
Even so, the decision to leave New York was among the most difficult choices I've ever had to make. In doing so, I did not doubt that I'd never earn as good a salary. I didn't doubt that I'd struggle to find the same community I had cultivated over the years. I didn't doubt that I'd never have such awe-inducing co-workers again. I didn't, for a second, doubt that most people would label me a bonafide fool for running away.
Still, I knew that, where once it had been a source of wonderment and opportunity, the city had become toxic. I had wanted to be a writer, but I was forgetting all the reasons why. I had wanted to build my own family someday, but was failing to make time for the person with whom I could do that. I had wanted to start saving money, to create some kind of foundation for myself and my future kids, but the cost of living in New York combined with the pressure to constantly spend on clothes, parties, soirees, and shoes landed me in heavy debt instead. I had always wanted to achieve some kind of reasonable balance between my personal life and my professional life, but in this city, all I could focus on was the latter.
In the end, I chose to prioritize myself. I chose to take a risk and believe that I could be happy with less money and professional prestige, so long as I was getting more time to dedicate to the people I loved, and to myself. I chose to believe that my soul could benefit from living in a quieter, more rural area — where I could wake up to silence and greenery — so long as it was still progressive (and unlike my hometown). I chose to believe that it was time for me to break up with New York, no matter how special a place it can be for so many people; no matter how special it had been for me.
I was right to take all of those risks. Eighteen months after moving away, I find myself feeling more balanced than I have been in years. Even so, I know that I have New York to thank for the ability to forge a different path. It was being in that city, and with everyone I met within it, that gave me strength and confidence in myself. That taught me to trust my gut. That gave me the professional opportunities that'd eventually allow me to transition to remote freelance work. It was the city I "found myself" in, no matter how juvenile or romantic a concept, and for that reason, it's the city that taught me to know when to say hello and when to say goodbye.