The Cage I Built - and How I'm Breaking Free



One afternoon last week, I was working on a marketing campaign for a client when the strangest thing happened.


A thought came to me suddenly, as though the top of my head had opened expressly to accept it. The thought dropped like a stone straight into my gut, where it nestled and began to bloom; a strange and surreal orchid unfurling its petals in a slow, sumptuous ballet.


It said: I want to go back to school.


I was taken aback; school hasn't even remotely been on my radar. After years of hard work, I've finally built my business into a state of sustainability without an array of side jobs to supplement my income. Why school? Why now?


I was shaken by the enormity of it, but I attempted to laugh it off, fully prepared to disregard it as a whim, a silly idea, a hilarious and impractical what-if. It wouldn't be the first time.


But the thought wasn't done with me; not yet. Instead of fleeing as quickly as it had come, it kicked off its shoes and settled in for a long stay, staring pointedly at me as if to say, "I'm not going anywhere, you know."


It consumed me thoroughly; I could think of little else. Somehow, I prepared dinner, feeling like I was moving underwater. I went to bed and stared at the ceiling until the new day's birdsong began to drift through the open window. Thoughts of collegiate life swam obsessively through my head; I imagined myself against the backdrop of a tree-lined campus, studious and scholarly, a stack of books in my arms. It should have felt ridiculous. Instead, it felt...possible.


The whole time, I was crying. Tears fell from my eyes in a slow drip; more of a leak than a waterfall. Emotion churned within me; my whole body ached with it, and I could not, for the life of me, explain why.



This continued for three days. In that time, I began to reflect on my first college experience - a short-lived stint at Colorado State University in 2004. It did not go well.


I was failing biology. Truth be told, I was close to failing all my classes, but I was really failing biology. I've never had a great mind for math and science at the best of times, and these weren't even close to the best of times; I was experiencing moderate to severe depressive episodes, and some days I couldn't even manage to get out of bed, let alone go to class. When I did go, I felt lost, ignorant, and stupid. Biology took place in a lecture hall with hundreds of other students, and whenever I walked through the double doors and saw the sea of faces in seats, climbing up and back, I understood I wasn't one of them.


My other classes weren't any better. They were so much harder than my high school classes had been - harder even than the courses I'd taken at the local community college to get my EMT license the year before. I thought wistfully of the photos in all the college brochures I'd obsessively hoarded in my junior year of high school: students with great hair, clear skin, and poised smiles, looking as though they were living their best lives - effortlessly, of course. Reality was nothing like those brochures; I'd been misled, and my disappointment was bitter.


I had made a few acquaintances. There was Kurt, a fellow freshman with waist-length red hair, a penchant for getting drunk off Apple Pucker and stealing lunch trays from the cafeteria, and an unabashed desire to have sex with me (he never succeeded). There was Melody, who was doing much better in Biology than I was and sometimes let me copy her notes. She was working toward some very specific and complicated scientific degree and always hung around with a gaggle of equally impressive students, all of whom I idolized. I would follow them around campus like a pitiful lost puppy: please like me. They tolerated it, but just barely. They had all bonded in their notoriously difficult Organic Chemistry class - O-Chem, they called it. They had abbreviations for everything, as though they were far too busy studying to spend their precious time on the frivolities of multi-syllabic words. It was a language I didn't speak; more evidence that I didn't really belong.


Melody and I got an apartment together. It was her idea, and I jumped at it; I'd been living with my parents, which put a big damper on the image I was trying to nurture of myself as a grown-ass woman. The apartment was a dingy two-bedroom near campus for $600 a month, a sum that seemed so impossibly large that my belly would twist with anxiety whenever I thought about it. I got a job in a nearby sub shop to pay the rent - six dollars an hour and free sandwiches seemed like a good enough arrangement.


When I wasn't working, I tried to study, but the words of my textbooks all blurred together whenever I stared at them. Nothing made sense. I felt inadequate and hopeless. I'd never failed a class before - I'd always been quite a good student without really trying - but this was a whole new ball of wax, and it became clearer and clearer that I couldn't do it. I wasn't smart enough, or driven enough, or talented enough, or determined enough, or organized enough. I wasn't enough - period.


So one evening, alone in the apartment, I made a decision.


I looked around at the cramped quarters, the thin industrial-grade carpet in an odd shade of forest green, the kitchen sink piled high with dishes I never quite got around to washing. I saw the discoloration above the fireplace where the smoke from the one fire I'd (improperly) tried to light had stained the wall. I noticed the diminutive rabbit-eared television, the mismatched and threadbare living room furniture - hand-me-downs from my parents. The posters tacked to the walls without frames. The blinds that always hung askew. The broken section of the baseboard that I was always catching my little toe on.


I looked at all the things in this tiny, sad little apartment, and I made my decision.


This was good enough.


It was going to have to be, because I clearly wasn't going to be a person who was special, or extraordinary, or spectacular.


There was a time when I assumed I would. I grew up with an abundance of love, support, and privilege. All throughout my childhood, I was surrounded by people - parents, grandparents, teachers, neighbors - who made sure I knew they believed in me. I could do anything I wanted, they told me. I could be anything I wanted.


I thought back on my college experience so far and decided that each and every one of them had been horribly, dreadfully wrong. Their faith in me had so obviously been misplaced. Didn't they understand how hard it was? How could they possibly think I could have handled any of this?


I couldn't be extraordinary; my academic excursions had proved that I simply didn't have what it took. Instead, I would be mediocre. Average. Just like the apartment: nothing special, but good enough.


So I dropped out.


I increased my hours at the sub shop. I went to questionable parties with questionable people. I bought things I couldn't afford on credit. I drank a lot of booze and did a lot of drugs. Every night, I would settle in front of the TV and stuff myself full of junk food until I was physically ill. I told myself I was happy. I told myself this was what freedom felt like.


What I wouldn't understand until many years later was that I was the opposite of free.


I didn't know it at the time, but the decision I made - the decision to be average instead of extraordinary, mediocre instead of mighty - took on a life of its own. It planted itself at my feet, enclosing me in a tight circle. Its tendrils sprouted upward and turned into bars of iron, wrapping themselves around me and becoming a cage: a cage I hadn't even realized I'd built.


And it has affected everything - everything - I've done since.


It's tragic how we can spend decades imprisoned within cages of our own design.


It's even more tragic that the doors to our cages are rarely, if ever, locked. The saddest stories of all are those of the doors that remain closed for no reason other than that we don't even think to open them.



I've been living the last sixteen years of my life in this cage. Each iron bar is a limiting belief I harbor about myself. I'm not smart. I'm too lazy. I'm not talented. I'm not resilient. I'm not strong. I don't measure up. I'm too much. I'm not enough.


Despite years of inner work and an above-average degree of self-awareness, I couldn't see my cage until that thought dropped out of the sky and into my being, a mysterious download from the great beyond. The intense emotions that came up, the constant trickle of tears, the way it felt as though my blood vessels were vibrating like sound waves all aflutter - these were all signs that something big was happening. I didn't understand it...but I trusted it. I listened to it.


And I'm delighted to share that I am going back to school.


!!!!!!!!!!


Even typing that sentence is a rush; it leaves me exhilarated and breathless. I am?!!


I AM.


What's more...I believe, this time, that I can do it.


It wasn't until I'd decided to go back to school that I remembered a dream I had a couple weeks ago. In the dream, I was a student at Yale. It was all very vague and unspecific, and I don't recall any details, but I woke up at four a.m. in a right panic about the student loans I'd accumulated. Despite understanding that it was, in fact, a dream, and the student loans in question didn't even exist, my anxiety would not abate.


I laughed about it the next day, then promptly forgot all of it. Until I decided to go back to school, that is, and I realized that it hadn't been just a dream. It had been my subconscious opening up to the possibility of breaking free from my cage. And the irrational anxiety that followed was my analytical brain, doing everything it could to shut it down. Wouldn't it be terrible to be saddled with all that debt? Imagine the horror!


That tells me that this knowledge has been there, lurking in my subconscious, for quite some time. Like most things the logical brain tries not to know, however, it had to get through in the end.



I'm sharing all this because I'm excited, and also because this is about so much more than going back to school.


It's about reclaiming my narrative. Rewriting my story. Rejecting the limiting beliefs that sprouted up like iron bars around me.


It's about taking a deep breath, opening the door of my cage, and stepping out into the wild unknown to see just what I can become.


I can't wait to find out what's possible.

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© 2020 by Ali Owens​