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On Choosing Your Own Path and Chasing Checks

Balancing personal happiness with financial stability is not easy, especially under the gaze of immigrant parents

It's Monday. My direct deposit was supposed to be made a week ago.

I spent most of the morning making casual-but-frantic inquiries with my bank's customer service. Each time, I was told that there was no way for them to check if money was coming; they could only confirm if it was there or was being held for some reason.

This was a perfectly reasonable and efficient response to my anxiety driven question, but that didn't stop me from thanking her for her time, hanging up, and then calling again to speak to another representative. Later in my car, I reach for the phone at every stop light and lie to the pop up notification designed to prevent texting and driving.

With a quick glance, I check to make sure the light is still red and that traffic crossing the road is still moving steadily. I've rehearsed the next sequence: Swipe, open app, fingerprint, check balance and groan at the number I see. A black Toyota Camry pulls up behind me and immediately begins honking, shaking me out of my angst.

***

Over the years, I've had periods without work due to depression and other mental health concerns. There was no money coming in and needing to depend on others for help made me spiral further into the depressive state I was already drowning in. Lack of money didn't help my depression. Depression didn't help me work. In those moments, I questioned every decision that led me to this space.

I grew up watching how hard my parents worked. All children of immigrants know the story of how their parents left home for education and to provide a better life for their families. We also know that it is our responsibility to make those sacrifices worth it. I remember watching my parents work multiple jobs while going to school and raising a family. It was an example of what was to be expected of me: Do whatever it takes for your family. It was a lesson in how to persevere and survive, but it was also an early lesson of how I did not want to live my life.

At an early age, I knew that I was plagued with a heaviness that I had not yet discovered the language to explain. I was grateful for the sacrifices my parents made and I wanted so badly to be worthy of those sacrifices, but I was also terrified of what that would mean for my life.

When I was younger, I told every adult who would listen that I wanted to be a lawyer. As an African, the other immigrant option—doctor—wasn't my ministry. Math and I didn't get along well enough for me to devote my life to it. Perhaps if the internet was around back then, I could have researched to discover other career options, but back then, I was the oldest and didn't have any other examples. Lawyers are basically performers and since I couldn't fix my Nigerian born mouth to tell my hard working parents that I wanted to be on TV, I figured dramatic opening and closing statements were a good compromise.

I'm always concerned that anything I build can be toppled by one sleepless night or a morning I can't seem to welcome.

I used to believe that my parents wanted me to choose between happiness and financial security, but I've since learned they were worried about my future. They knew that struggling would be alleviated by steady work. My father told me once that he thought perhaps my depression came from idleness. Keeping my mind busy would help me ignore the weight of depression. We know that's not how it works, but I do understand why he would think that. He's always worked through any obstacle that came his way, but it didn't work like that for me. It couldn't.

I didn't know what the options were back then but I knew there had to be another way. I know that I made the best decisions for myself, but can't help but feel guilty that I didn't choose the path that would show my parents how much I appreciated their sacrifices. Sitting in my car—fiddling with banking apps, hoping the checks I earned found their ways into my account—I think about how I should have chosen a life with more concrete expectations and clearly drawn measures of success.

Despite my career, my parents still worry about my future and despite my successes, I always worry that I've disappointed them. I know that I could have gotten that law degree, but I can't tell you if I would have lived long enough to practice. The career I have chosen hasn't been without its pitfalls. I'm always concerned that anything I build can be toppled by one sleepless night or a morning I can't seem to welcome. Trying to find the balance between what works for me psychologically and what works for me professionally is a delicate balance. The instability and lack of guarantees has triggered self-doubt and treading a bit too carefully when leaping would have served me better but ultimately, the need to reconstruct and redefine what I call success has been the most helpful.

At the end of the day, chasing checks isn't so much about the hustle, it's about knowing that I haven't given up. It's about knowing that I've completed something and that thing has put me just a bit closer to the stability that I need. That said, if I'm going to run after invoices, I'd like the option to sit in the back with a driver watching traffic while I check my apps and ignore all the honking.

Bassey Ikpi is a Nigerian born, American raised writer and mental health advocate. She is the founder of the mental health organization The Siwe Project and creator of #NoShameDay. She is currently working on her first memoir in essays for HarperPerennial. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram: @basseyworld

In April we're exploring "The Hustle"—the things people do to survive and thrive at all costs. Click here for more stories about all the ways people manage, make and squander money.

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