The Wildfire of Loneliness
By Eva Nienhouse
It was the end of April in 2016, and in a week I’d graduate from Michigan State University. I’d completed my journalism undergraduate degree in three years, motivated to chase down my Southern California dream—of palm trees and entertainment, big sunglasses and red carpets. I was going to make it.
The week before I walked the stage at the Breslin Center, I received a call from Ally, the manager for the West Coast’s NBC Page Program. I was finishing up a final project at the communications building on campus with a group of other senior students, all of us tired and more than ready to put on our gowns the next Friday. I wondered how I’d decorate the top of my cap. I’d already ruled out “She believed she could, so she did.” It was overdone.
I ran outside to answer the call, where there was less buzzy “senioritis” in the air.
“Hello?” I answered, grateful I could hide my shaky hands.
“Hi there, Eva,” Ally said, her voice warm and light. She didn’t rush her words. Unlike me.
“Hi-Ally-how-are-you??!!” I replied, my nerves mashing all the words into one.
“I’m well, thank you. I’m so happy to inform you that you’ve been accepted into the program,” she said then. “Do you accept?”
“Yes, oh my gosh, YES!” I said. I felt warm all over, joy racing through my veins at lightspeed. “Thank you so much, Ally. I’m so excited!”
The year-long early career program accepts less than 2 percent of its applicants. Pages serve as ambassadors to NBCUniversal and work in various assignments within the company’s expansive portfolio, from publicity to show development. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d smiled so big. I’d completed three rounds of interviews, including the final interview for which I’d flown out to Los Angeles about two weeks prior. I couldn’t believe it.
After I hung up, I looked at the East Lansing sky, the clouds gray and heavy, rain on its way. I’d done it. To someone else, someone I’d only met once, I mattered. And I’d been good.
I ran back into the building, my feet not moving fast enough for my beating heart. I found my friend Kelsey in the lab and stood there just for a moment, breathless. She looked at me and smiled.
“YOU GOT IT, DIDN’T YOU?!” she shouted, her voice bright and proud. “OH MY GOD, I KNEW IT!!!”
We laughed then and she gave me a hug. Kelsey was the one who’d encouraged me to apply to the program, and we applied together. She’d been happy for me when I made it to the third round and she hadn’t, and I know I would have felt the same had the roles been reversed. Kelsey was a true friend.
It all happened so fast. That June my mom and dad helped me make the move to Los Angeles for the job. My first real job. I’d always wanted to work in entertainment, and I still couldn’t believe that I was a part of that world so soon.
I began working almost as soon as I arrived. I learned about the business of entertainment, television, publicity and programming. I gave tours of the news center on the studio lot, and I helped prep for red-carpet events and premieres. I made a few friends, but after training, we didn’t see each other often.
Life in L.A. was different than my life where I’d grown up in Traverse City. Not bad, just different. I learned fast that the freeways had numbers, like 101 and 405, and that it was quicker to order a pair of scissors from Amazon than figure out which number led to the nearest craft store. Also, there really were cars everywhere—nice ones. And people everywhere—not always so nice. Smog was real, and so was sunshine, a commodity rare in Northern Michigan.
I knew this place was different. But I could get used to traffic—and I did. I could get used to smog and sunshine—and I did. But there was something that I wasn’t sure I could get used to, something that felt wrong and sad and heartbreaking, all at once. And that was the loneliness, my own personal wildfire, spreading slowly in me.
Throughout high school and college, I’d always been independent. I didn’t mind being alone, and I enjoyed my time to sing with no one listening and to dream quietly. But I loved sharing life with my friends and family, too, and I found comfort knowing they were never too far away.
Now that I was a four-hour plane ride from my mom and dad and friends like Kelsey, I realized what it felt like to be really, truly alone. I was learning what a lonely wildfire felt like, and I’d never felt more trapped. I felt the smoke grow in me and suffocate my strength. I watched the flames of loneliness wreck my happy and obliterate my brave. I wasn’t sure how I’d ever spare my heart.
It was so hard to feel like myself in a place where I was completely on my own. In a place that had beautiful hills to hike, but where I never saw a familiar face. Where there were dozens of canyons to explore, but none of my most-dear company to adventure with. But I knew that I was where I had to be. If I wanted to work in entertainment, I had to be here. And these things were just new. They wouldn’t always be so new.
I longed to find a companion, to feel a familiarity in something, even if the presence wasn’t human. And so I ran the canyons. I ran everything that was unfamiliar until I recognized it again. I ran to the neighborhood that had the house that reminded me of home. I ran up the hill that mom knew, too, that we drove together on her last visit, so I could tell her I saw it that day.
I ran to the setting sun and I ran to its rising. I ran to find the smile that hadn’t sprouted in days. I ran to look for the laugh I’d misplaced. And I ran away from the loneliness that was starting to hurt.
I ran to escape the confusion I felt: that this place wasn’t what I thought. I ran to silence the yelling that came so loud, that said I wasn’t adjusting the right way. I ran to escape the terror that left me alone with my thoughts.
My life in Los Angeles wasn’t what I thought it would be. Entertainment wasn’t the magical industry of my dreams, and my work didn’t fill me up the way I’d hoped it would. The West Coast wasn’t meant for me, I realized, and it was so hard not to feel like I’d failed.
I finished out my year-long program, and, when I came home to Michigan to take a breather, my health had suffered more than I’d let myself feel. I made an appointment with my physician, and she confirmed my clinical depression. She ordered blood work so she could best address my physical condition. My results came a day later.
I learned my complete blood count (CBC) was dangerously low. The expected hemoglobin range of a healthy person is between 12.0 and 16.0 grams per deciliter (g/dL). My HBC was 6.8 g/dL. My body was having a hard time getting oxygen from my lungs to the rest of my body. My white and red blood cell counts were very low, too.
“If you had continued to run, I am worried you would have had a heart attack,” my doctor said. My heart was working too hard.
I ended up needing a blood transfusion and three rounds of iron infusions. I learned, then, how physical depression is. Depressed, I hurt more physically than I ever had. My sadness consumed my brain, my soul and my body.
Hearts and wildfires
Loneliness burrowed me deep into depression, and depression broke my heart. I was empty of happiness, and my physical body was empty, too. I lost my blood—not in a car crash or tragic accident—but to depression. To this day, that thought is still hard for me to conceptualize. Mental health is physical health.
Had I not come home, I know my story would be different, and I don’t forget this. Hearts can’t continue to beat without blood.
After my transfusion and iron infusions, I slowly began to heal physically. Still, the darkness of who I’d lost out West weighed heavily on me, and I found it helpful to talk to someone. My experience was hard to process alone; sifting through its ashes, harder still.
It is true, though, what they say about wildfires: the most spectacular, most beautiful growth doesn’t come until after everything has burned.
Eva Nienhouse is a writer and the assistant editor at Grand Traverse Woman Magazine. She started Red Sled Productions, where she creates brief, meaningful videos for both businesses and individuals alike. In her free time, Eva enjoys yoga, running and biking, and when it’s not frozen, swimming in the bay. Her favorite thing to do is write. Connect with Eva at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see the full issue of Grand Traverse Woman please go to: https://www.grandtraversewoman.com/sept-oct-2019-issue/