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Confessions of a serial quitter

For most of my life, I’ve been the “anywhere but here” girl. I have never once started and finished at the same educational institution. Not elementary, middle, or high school. Not college or even graduate school. It was never about moving or what my parents wanted. Every decision to transfer was mine.

The first time I left a school was in fourth grade. I was a very anxious child, quickly diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I hated going to school because I never knew what awaited me there. I had trouble making friends and was sensitive to my environment, easily detecting any problem or conflict from a mile away. Just the idea of going to school caused me to experience physical pain, coming in the form of frequent headaches and stomachaches.

At the time, I thought that the solution to my anxiety was to switch to a new school. Things would be different there. I’d suddenly be with people who liked me and understood me. I could have a fresh start, a clean slate. Changing locations would fix all of my problems. My headaches and stomachaches would stop. I would actually like school and want to go.

While at first my parents encouraged me to stick things out, they also raised me with the belief that you shouldn’t have to stay in a truly bad situation. If something makes you uncomfortable or unhappy, you can speak up and try to make a change. It’s something they learned as career academics. They themselves had a tendency to change jobs when the politics or environment of a university became unbearably unpleasant. They never wanted me to feel powerless or stuck.

But what I took from their perspective was that the solution to all my problems lay in finding the right situation, the one that made me comfortable and happy. The problem was the school, not me. It wasn’t difficult to convince my parents that transferring was the best solution for me in fourth grade. I don’t think any of us wanted to admit the possibility that at least part of the problem—part of the unhappiness, social isolation, and discomfort—was me.

This quitting pattern continued over the years. I went to two different middle schools, then a total of four high schools. By the time I was a teenager, I’d developed a bad case of depression, making it even harder for me to feel understood no matter where I went. I continued believing that if I found the right school, the right place for me, I’d finally be happy.

Sometimes, that was true. I eventually arrived at a high school that was a good fit for me. The same thing happened in college. There were consequences to my leaving, and different schools had their own issues, but the particular place and people seemed to be a better match for who I was and what I needed. Still, perhaps leaving wasn’t always the best remedy for my problems. The schools I graduated from were also the ones I spent the most time at, the ones I made myself stick out because I’d exhausted all my other options. So were they really the right fit, or did my staying at them ultimately shape them into something that fit?

By spending time somewhere, by not leaving after a semester or a year, I was able to get more comfortable. I would actually begin to make friends and scope out the positives among the negatives. Around my second or third college, I started to understand that no school or place would ever be perfect. It would be impossible for me to live a discomfort-free life because discomfort is inevitable, and necessary.

In my adult life, I’ve stuck out jobs that weren’t great, taken on assignments I didn’t enjoy, and worked with high-maintenance freelance clients I wanted to drop but didn’t. I have also stayed in romantic relationships despite occasional conflict and imperfections. I credit much of this to the lessons I learned by being the “anywhere but here” girl for so long. Sometimes, you have to stay in unpleasant situations to get through to something good. Or, at the very least, to fulfill an obligation and make a living.

However, even as an adult, I found myself seriously considering transferring graduate schools. It was a decision that tore me apart. I wanted to be someone who stuck things out, and I knew that the problem might not be the school, but me. After weighing all of the information I had, I chose to take my chances on a transfer. I didn’t want to let the fact that I’d transferred schools so many times before cause me to stay at one that simply wasn’t working for me. I tried not to feel like I was quitting, but rather that I was choosing a better situation for myself. Now that I’ve graduated, I’m fairly confident that I made the right decision. Once again, I ended up where I needed to be.

It can be hard to know when to stay or when to quit. It’s something I continue to struggle with when faced with a less-than-ideal situation. Our society has a very strong “stick with it” attitude that discourages and punishes quitting. Being called a “quitter” is an insult. It’s perceived as being far nobler to stay and fix things than leave and try your luck elsewhere.

However, I personally believe that there’s a time and place where quitting is the best option. You don’t want to stick out a truly bad situation, one that will never get better no matter who you are or what you do. And you absolutely should not accept a situation where you are being mistreated. But if you can make a change in yourself, if you can learn to accept the negatives and build up the positives, it’s worth sticking around and seeing if a situation can get better. Sometimes, it’s not them. It’s you.

Alana Saltz is a writer and freelance editor living in Los Angeles. Her essays have been published on Role/Reboot, Writing Forward, The Urban Dater, and forthcoming on The Manifest-Station. She has an MFA in Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and recently completed a memoir. You can visit her website at alanasaltz.com or follow her on Twitter @alanasaltz.

(Image via Clare Mallison.)

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