I Spent 18 Years Of My Life On Autopilot. Here's How I Took It Back

Written by Dr. Michelle Marks

One morning on the commuter bus traveling through Albany’s Empire State Plaza, I suddenly realized, "I live here." At that point, I’d been in Albany for 18 years. But I'd been treading water.

When my husband and I moved from New York City to Albany, my life seemed full of promise. Both just graduated, he was starting his medical residency, and I was looking for a job in psychology. I was also pregnant. We were gearing up for a great life, and Albany was meant to be a pit-stop.

Two years later I was a single mom, working a job that was a metaphor for my entire life. It was deeply unsatisfying, but comfortable. It was the perfect job for someone whose life was on pause. Nothing ever changed, no one ever left. Time passes and you don’t even realize it.

Fear no longer holds me back. Now, I see it as a reminder that I’m completely engaged in the adventure of life.

My life wasn’t entirely without joy. I was raising a son I loved. I had started a new relationship. I developed a specialty in positive psychology. It wasn’t until later that I realized the irony of spending my time helping other people achieve their goals, while my life was entirely stagnant.

As a child, I remember being in a rush to grow up. But when it happened, I didn't notice. I experienced exactly the same thing that morning on the bus. I woke up to my life and I was 45. My son had left for college. My creaky knees, soft belly, and reading glasses were undeniable evidence of my aging body.

As I looked at the Albany skyline, a blurred image came into focus. That sentence, "I live here," showed me that my life would continue regardless of my participation. Then and there, and I committed to never losing another day, or losing myself, again. That was four years ago.

Although that revelation came suddenly, the process of reclaiming my life has required continual effort. It began with evaluating the trappings of my life, deciding what I liked and didn’t like, and taking steps to do more of the things I enjoyed. Before I went on autopilot, I’d dreamed of gilt-edged parties and fabulous friends. Now, I realized quiet evenings with family were much more meaningful to me.

I started to identify the woman I’d grown into based on the choices I’d made (albeit passively), and then actively began molding her into the woman I want to be. I used my psychology expertise to design a program of daily exercises to “re-sculpt” my life. Part of my approach was committing to a mindfulness meditation practice. Consistently practicing self-awareness keeps me off automatic pilot.

I also began to focus on self-compassion, consciously responding with kindness to myself when my harsh inner critic showed up to chastise me. These strategies haven’t just kept me engaged in my life; they’ve also helped me know myself better, own my strengths, and acknowledge my flaws.

I cultivate my capacity to be in the moment by consciously savoring ordinary activities, like drinking a cup of tea or walking. I’ve actually turned “I live here” into a personal mantra. I repeat it to myself when I notice the edges of my world blurring again. It brings me back into the present.

Finally, I remind myself to face my fears because I know that we need to do scary things in order to grow. Fear no longer holds me back. Now, I see it as a reminder that I’m completely engaged in the adventure of life.

I live in Albany. I hike and bike here, I work here, I eat here, I binge-watch Netflix here, I make love here, I laugh here and I sometimes cry here. I might look the same on the outside, but I’m an entirely new person. People I haven’t seen in a long time still recognize me. The only difference, they say, is how happy I look.

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