Last weekend I visited Panama City, Florida. It had been eight years since my last visit, and a full ten years since I called the place home.
I first moved to Panama City in the summer of 2001, right before my senior year of college. I’d won a journalism internship through Freedom Communications, owner of the local paper, the News Herald. I was paid in bragging rights and tarnished nickels, but it was enough to rent a furnished efficiency apartment. At the end of the summer, I returned to Amherst with a tentative job offer in my back pocket, which I cashed in upon graduation. I spent the next year as a general assignments reporter, covering local politics and general interest items (a.k.a. “weird stories involving animals or weather, sometimes both”).
In my limited experience, there are two types of newspaperpeople – those who excel at finding the story, and those who excel at telling the story. I firmly fell into the latter category. I couldn’t uncover a tale of corruption to save my life, but I could make the plight of a potbellied pig owner seem compelling, or use my amateur investigative skills to return a Purple Heart to its rightful owner’s family.
For someone fresh out of college, it was the best job on earth. The year I spent in Panama City was, in a very real way, the last time my whole life was spread out before me in an endless array of opportunities. From there I could go anywhere, do anything. Those were supposed to be my coolest years, my best years.
Instead, I mucked it up in spectacular fashion.
I had spent my whole life up to that point in school. And school, unlike real life, is filled with frequent indicators of one’s progress, through grades and evaluations and report cards. In a newsroom, it doesn’t matter what you did yesterday. No one ever affixed a gold star to a particularly well-written piece. The power company didn’t give me an A for paying my bill on time. It was during this year that I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, because I felt I was failing to thrive as an adult.
As I drove through the familiar streets of Panama City on Sunday, I wondered how my life would have been different if I’d pushed myself to get out of my apartment, to make non-work friends, to integrate myself into the community. In short, I wondered what would happen if 2002 Windy had behaved like 2013 Windy.
This, of course, is wishful thinking. There wouldn’t be a 2013 Windy without a 2002 Windy. I still struggle with anxiety – just ask Jason! – but it no longer cripples me. I have learned to engage, to be a participant – but I still breathe a sigh of relief when the garage door goes down at night.
When I left Panama City in 2003, I was a mess. When I came back on Sunday, I was filled with gratitude. The lessons I learned there certainly left scars, but they’re no longer painful to touch.