Ten years ago today, my apartment building caught fire and nearly killed me when I was almost trapped inside. I lost almost all of my belongings that I owned because my neighbor in the New York City apartment building I had moved into 3 weeks before set her gas stove on fire and then ran out of the building without turning off the gas. I used to think of September 5, 2009 as the worst day of my life. Now I think of it as my best. I wouldn’t wish my path on anyone, and I also wouldn’t change it, not one bit of it, because I love my life now and each of these difficult steps brought me here.
The first few years
Over the several years after the fire, I was dealt a hefty dose of PTSD that still persists in fits and starts today. I had intense anxiety attacks that would take over my mind and body without warning. I often felt like I was watching myself fall into madness. Being conscious of your descent and having no ability to stop it is a terrifying existence. I would be lying to you if I didn’t fully admit that there were nights I would lie awake in bed and wonder if life was really worth it. Many days, my answer to that question was “no, it’s not worth it.”
A nightmare that led to a dream
One night, I had a nightmare that I had climbed out to the balcony of my apartment and jumped to my death. I woke up just before I hit the pavement on Broadway down below. Obviously, I woke with a start. The moon was so big and so bright just outside my window that it was almost blinding. I went out to my balcony, and in my foggy state of mind, I could swear that moon spoke to me. I was in a job I didn’t like, in a romantic relationship with a narcissist, and I spent most of my time profoundly unhappy. Out on that balcony, I realized that I wanted to be a writer, that I had always wanted to be a writer, and if I had died in that fire, I never would be. I’d die with stories still in me. That’s when Emerson Page, the protagonist in my novel that would be published almost exactly 8 years later, began to take shape in my imagination. I would later learn that the name Emerson means “brave”, and that’s what she’s taught me—to be brave. Deep in my gut, I know that the moon and Emerson saved my life that night, and that they have saved me many nights since.
Several months after the fire, I wasn’t doing well. One day I found myself sitting on a New York City sidewalk crying. I didn’t remember where I was going or how I got there. It’s as if I had fallen asleep and woken up in a place I didn’t recognize. A man put his hand on my shoulder and asked if I was okay. My honest answer was, “I don’t know.” Shortly after that, a friend convinced me to go to therapy and recommended a therapist to me. Our first meeting was basically me throwing out a lot of words and a lot of emotions, Brian listening, and then him telling me two things that changed my life: “I’m not afraid of you” and “I think I can help you if you want to be helped.” And that was it. I entered weekly therapy for 3 years, and to this day I still go to see him here and there when I am struggling. It is not an exaggeration when I say Brian pulled me out of my deepest darkness many times and that he is one of the tiny handful of reasons that I survived those early years and went on to build a life I love today. Without him, my life now would not be possible. He is a miracle worker. I owe him everything.
Making peace with my past
As it turned out, the fire was one trauma that burned away the wrapper I tightly bound around many other traumas I had endured over the years. Once the fire happened and my PTSD was in full effect, I could no longer hide nor contain those earlier traumas. I had to deal with them. Those traumas were festering and wreaking havoc in my life in all kinds of ways that I hadn’t even known or acknowledged. It was painful to do the work to heal myself, and it was necessary.
About a year after the fire, I got my first dog on my own as an adult. I had grown up with dogs and loved them so much, but had convinced myself that I needed to be in a relationship before I could get a dog because raising a dog and taking care of one in New York City on my own was something I just couldn’t do.
My fire gave me a lot of occasions to say, “Well, if I’m not going to do this now, then when?” And so, I decided to foster a dog. The fostering lasted about 5 seconds. I saw my dachshund, Phineas, a rescue who desperately needed a loving, supportive home, and I knew he was the dog for me and I was the human for him. We have had our ups and downs – plenty of mental and physical health issues for us both – but he is by far one of the best beings I’ve ever had in my life. We rescued each other. We still do.
Grateful for the lemons
My fire stripped me bare of any and all pretenses, excuses, and denials. Though at first it made me afraid of everything, it eventually made me fearless. It made me strong and confident. I had run from a burning building, lost almost everything, and rebuilt my life—mentally, physically, and emotionally—from scratch. What did I have to be afraid of? What could I not do? That fire taught me that my only constraint was me. I wasn’t making lemonade out of lemons. I was and am grateful for the lemons, just as they are.
My life is not perfect now, far from it. There is still so much I want to do. There are so many places I want to go and see. There are still so many experiences I have yet to have, that I want to have. For today, I’m putting those aside. Today, I’m just happy to be here at all, still broken in some places and with all the pieces I need to be whole. Thanks for listening. Thanks for being here with me. It means more to me than I have words to say.
“Life loves to be taken by the lapel and told, ‘I’m with you, kid. Let’s go.’“ ~Maya Angelou
I’m so glad Maya Angelou got her stories down, that she left us with such a legacy of hope, encouragement, and the unbridled belief that ordinary people can chase down extraordinary dreams. This quote that she tossed out onto Twitter about a year before she passed continues to inspire me. It’s one of my favorites, and it’s the only place where she ever wrote it down.
It conjures up a mental image for me that’s empowering and action-oriented. The very best helping hands we have are at the ends of our own arms. Use them. Build the life you want. Yes, you can do this.
I’ve waited to post my thoughts and feelings about the act of terrorism that happened in New York City last week. Honestly, I didn’t have any words. When I worked at Amex, my office was right there. I walked that stretch of road countless times in the four years I was there. I have wonderful friends who still work there.
On Tuesday, I started getting texts and social media messages asking if I was okay. I work in midtown now, and found out about the news via Twitter as so many people across the country and across the world did. I was physically fine, and extremely sad this had happened. Especially in my city that I love so much.
The piece that really gets me is that the people who were hurt and killed weren’t doing anything inherently dangerous. They were just living their lives. Going about their business at 3pm on a Tuesday. It was just an ordinary day like any other day until it wasn’t.
All I can really think to say is that not a single one of us chooses what happens to us moment to moment. Life’s here and it’s gone, and so often it’s through absolutely no fault of our own. There’s nothing we can do to prevent it. We are always teetering right on the edge of existence whether we choose to realize it or not.
My heart breaks and my eyes tear up in memory of those people who left our city on Tuesday, and to everyone who knew them and loved them. Their loss is our loss, as a city and as a nation. I didn’t know any of them personally though I will honor their memory by living my best life every day.
It’s daunting to think about what you’d title your autobiography, right? How do you sum up a life in one line? Let’s try.
I love tough challenges and I’m happiest on a vertical learning curve. If I had to pick one phrase to describe myself it would be “endlessly curious.” As such, the title of my autobiography would be I’ll Figure It Out: The Christa Avampato Story.
What would be the title of your autobiography?
“Don’t be so scared. My love, this is how you bloom.” ~ Evan Sanders, The Better Man Project
The process of becoming is uncomfortable, even painful. It requires so much stretching and reaching and growing. In the short-term, it feels safer and easier to keep our dreams and spirits small. Over time, that safety, ease, and comfort have a hefty price tag; they rob us of who we’re meant to be and the goals we’re meant to reach.
I’m in the midst of a big leap now. And though I didn’t choose the timing, I did choose the path. I put the wish out into the world, and the world responded. The response wasn’t what I expected but it did open the way that I needed to make my path a reality.
And so, here we go. Onto the twisting, uncharted road where I can only see just a few feet in front of me. I know the very next step, but not the one after that. Sometimes the fear, uncertainty, and stress feel overwhelming. And at those times, there’s always someone who says, “You’re going to be okay.” So I keep going. And blooming. I hope you will, too.
“For a star to be born, there is one thing that must happen: a gaseous nebula must collapse. So collapse. Crumble. This is not your destruction. This is your birth.” ~Zoe Skylar
We work so hard to keep things, even ourselves, from falling apart. Somehow we have managed to associate becoming undone with being completely done, forever. Don’t be ashamed of your undoing or your failure, your missteps or your losses. This is a cycle of life – catching and releasing, holding on and letting go, rising up and falling down. There’s so much to be learned and experienced in the collapse. There you can rest, restore, and rebuild. Wiser, braver, stronger, more focused, and with the knowledge that no matter what life throws at you, you will find a way to shine.
“Do not just slay your demons; dissect them and find out what they’ve been feeding on.” ~ The Man Frozen in Time
Even the most well-adjusted, confident, and kind people have occasional thoughts and feelings in which they feel less-than. I don’t need to look any further than my mirror to find someone who fits that bill. And while I can play the game of fake it ’til I make it with the best of them, the most effective treatment I’ve found is to really get at the root of my own negative self-talk. Hack away at that root, and there is so much more freedom and joy that gets unlocked.
For example, whenever I’m searching for a new job opportunity, I read the role description and if I don’t fit one bullet my first reaction is to move on. I’ve learned that this is a direct result of my inner perfectionist (which causes plenty of other challenges for me, but let’s just stick to this one for now.) If I can’t do something 99.9% perfectly, I’m obsessing about that 0.1%.
As an adult, I’ve learned to constantly put myself in the role of being a beginner to counter this. Along the way, I have grown my skill sets, met incredible people, traveled to stunning places, and dare I say it, become a recovering perfectionist. I don’t know that I’m ever going to completely get rid of that perfection instinct, but I do know that I control it now and it doesn’t control me. I’ve learned to congratulate myself for trying something new, even when it’s a complete disaster. I’ve learned to be my own best cheerleader and my own best company. I’ve learned to value my strengths and to no longer fear failure.
And as for those job applications, I send them off. I don’t take myself out of the running for anything that sounds interesting to me. My friend, Brooke, once told me years ago that we are all born knowing nothing. We all start at zero. We learn everything we need to learn just by going through life . And that process never stops, so why stop ourselves? Now that’s what I call slaying a demon and then eating its lunch.
Tell me if this sounds familiar. You’re single: “When are you going to find someone?” In a relationship: “When are you getting married?” Married: “When are you having kids?” Divorced: “Just couldn’t make it work, huh?” Have a child: “When are you having a second?” Have multiple kids: “Well, forget about ever doing anything fun for the next 10 years.” I know this happens to women all the time. Maybe it happens to men, too. I can only speak from personal experience that this constantly happens to me.
Here’s what I know to be true: people are judging you every second of every day and it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. If you choose to live your life differently than others, if you make different choices, they assume that your life is somehow a judgement on theirs.
But here is the good news: you are being judged, many times unfairly, so you might as well live exactly the life that you want. Somewhere along the way in the development of our social norms, commenting on someone’s politics or religion became off-limits and commenting on someone’s love life remained hopelessly free game.
My advice to you (and to myself): if they are asking a respectful, tastefully worded question based in true curiosity, fabulous. Let’s have a conversation. You know someone I should meet, great. Please connect us.
However, if they are rudely passing judgement and making you feel small because of your circumstances and choices, then please, in no uncertain terms, walk away. They are not your work to do. I’m serious. You are a gorgeous, talented, stunning human being, and anyone who tries to belittle you because of your life choices doesn’t deserve your time.
Smile, get up, and walk away. You have better things to do and better people to do them with. Insults and rude behavior are never acceptable. In 2017, I hope we can all experience a greater sense of decorum in all of our interactions. In the meantime, go live your best life and leave those judgements right where they belong—with the people who make them.
“Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.” ~Rumi
How many times have you wondered if you’re good enough for a job, a person, or just something wonderful? Understand this: you are enough. You are so much more than enough. Forget about being too young or too old for something. Forget about your regrets and self-doubt and fears. That thinking doesn’t serve you. You’re better than that. You’ve always been better than that. Now go get the life you want, the whole life you want, because that’s exactly what you deserve.
I’ve been talking to a lot of friends this week. It seems that 2015 was a tough one for many people. Disappointment is a painful feeling because it leaves us both hollow and confused. I’d take just about any emotion over disappointment. It’s a tough one to get through and get over, though it’s also a gift in the truest sense of the word because it means a truth, however painful, has been revealed to us. And with truth we can create something new, forge a different path, and become a better version of who we are.
So if 2015 was a tough year for you, if you had your fair share of disappointment, think of it as fuel that can help you build a brighter 2016. Someday, we’ll look back and say this is the year that had to happen.