Taking Up Space
Instead of dropping twenty dollars on an Uber that would stick me in rush hour New York City traffic on a Friday evening, I decided to stick to my budget and make the frugal choice, stuffing the three fully-inflated balloons that I had purchased for my friend’s birthday into an Uptown subway that would take me directly to her apartment.
My plan, in theory, seemed reasonable. I had seen plenty of people bring large items onto the subway before: dogs; carts filled to the brim with groceries; large stereo-esque objects with music blaring for the entire car to hear; armloads of shopping bags. People frequently scaled the standing poles in the subway cars and performed incredible dance routines with their arms and legs flailing, running the risk of hitting other passengers in the face. Three large mylar balloons seemed like nothing.
What a mess. As soon as I got onto the train, the silver ribbons streaming from the ends of the balloons immediately tangled themselves around the subway standing pole and, embarrassingly, other people’s feet. The balloons took up the capacity of nearly three people -- if I held them up, they would inevitably hit everyone around me in the face. If I pushed them down toward my feet, I risked inhibiting an exit for passengers leaving the train, and potentially squishing the balloons.
As I tried to shift myself to the back of the train, a man standing across from me, who was understandably peeved, glared in my direction and muttered something along the lines of,
“She is taking up so much space.”
Up until just a few weeks ago, this man’s words (and his glare) would have swallowed me. Already feeling badly about the balloon situation, I would have carried his words with me for the rest of the evening, and questioned my entire character against this one encounter. But today, I paused at his words instead, which had triggered a conversation I had had with my therapist earlier in the day.
“Mamata, there is something different about you today,” she had said approvingly as I arranged myself on her couch. “You are taking up space.”
For my friend’s birthday, I had dressed up a bit: straightened hair, a face full of makeup, and a sweater and pair of pants that I knew I looked good in. I had walked out my front door with an additional boost of confidence, feeling happy about my appearance, and allowing that feeling to manifest in how I carried myself for the rest of the day.
But I knew my therapist wasn’t just referring to the clothing. She was picking up on a new energy that had been buzzing around me over the last couple of weeks, one that indicated that a more resilient, 2.0 version of myself was slowly starting to break through the wraps of a cocoon to make an appearance.
The past year has been particularly trying, filled with work, personal, and mental health challenges that had exploded all at once in a fiery crash and burn toward the end of the summer. Truly, I felt like I had hit rock bottom, or at least scraped its lowest layer. As the smoke settled and I inventoried the damage, I did not recognize myself.
What I saw was how small I had become, and not just in size. I had become voiceless at work, allowing a year to go by without contributing my opinions to a project and letting everyone else’s visions become my own out of fear that mine were too stupid. I was a doormat in my personal life, molding my aspirations to those of others and feeling deeply ashamed when I did not meet their expectations. I was terrified of new experiences that pushed me out of my comfort zone. I was constantly drained, eating just enough to get me through the day and never sleeping more than four to five hours a night. I didn’t feel like I deserved to take up space, and I was becoming terrifyingly complacent with that idea.
I believe we have a responsibility as humans to do the hard work to guide our destiny. But I also believe in the universe and its grander plan; from my experience, it has a way of shaking us up and pushing us in the right direction whenever we need it the most. Rock bottom, it turns out, was my shake up. After weeks of wallowing and blaming and questioning everyone and everything, I finally understood that the only person responsible for prioritizing me was me.
Taking up space, I have come to understand, starts with putting your own care first. At the advice of my mom, I started writing down motivational words and quotes on different-colored Post-it notes and strategically sticking them around my bedroom. On those same Post-its, I wrote out some of my personal priorities, keeping them in my line of sight so I would hold myself accountable to them: redoubling the commitment to meditation; sleeping by 10PM; meal-prepping on Sunday nights so I didn’t waste money eating out. And then there were the little things, like challenging myself to doing my hair every day instead of just throwing it up in a bun; giving myself a spa night with the TV on in the background; treating myself to pizza; meeting up with a friend at least once a week.
These slow, but steady steps have been instrumental in helping me grow back into myself. It’s helping me to understand my likes and dislikes, how to say no, and how to feel settled in the choices that I make for myself. There are definitely days where I’m human and I falter on my priorities. But instead of beating myself up, I have learned to be gentle with myself, and to remind myself that it is never too late to hit the reset button.
So. Back to the dude on the subway. Was getting on the subway with massive balloons my smartest move? Definitely not. Should I have just paid the twenty bucks to take a cab to my friend’s place? Probably. I chose instead to appreciate a moment to reflect on how far I had come, and to learn from a silly decision. When he glared at me again, I simply looked at him and smiled, owning my choice and my space on the train before getting off at my stop just a few minutes later, and internally vowing to never take balloons on a subway again.