There’s a story my dad tells about the first time I played Candyland. I had gotten the game as a Christmas present at the age you are when you think that game is based on skill and not pure luck of the draw. The mental breakdown I had after I lost got the lighthearted game banned from my household. I burst into a pool of tears and loudly vocalized how I was feeling; I was a dumb loser, my mom and dad didn’t love me, they didn’t love Michael Wilson, they didn’t love my blankie, or ANYBODY. How could they? I was just a dumb loser!
About 20 minutes after I listed off all the reasons why I was a dumb loser, I regained my cool. I tiptoed back downstairs and in my cutest, snuggliest Gig voice, I said: “Anybody wanna play Candyland?”
“HELL NO?!” They politely shouted in unison.
I was a sensitive little girl with a huge heart… One of the deadliest combinations a person can be.
I remember one time my elementary school friend crushed my snow fort on the playground at recess. I assumed it was an accident so I remade the fort and jumped at the opportunity to make it even better than the first one. The next day I went outside only to WITNESS this girl INTENTIONALLY crushing my snow fort, AGAIN! The stark betrayal! I turned bright red with anger, fear and disgust and pushed her away, then quickly ran inside and cried to the teacher. The girl played innocent and pretended she didn’t know what she was doing. That’s when the lawyer inside me stood up, pointed at her face and shot back, “But how could you not know if you did it TWICE?”
Look who was red now…
That was the first time someone I’d considered a good friend blatantly betrayed my trust and I didn’t like how it felt. Being the forgiving human I am, I continued to be friends with her. A week after “the incident,” let’s call it, she tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I don’t really want to be your friend anymore, okay?”
This was the first time I cried myself to sleep listening to my mom’s speech about “plucking weeds from my garden.”
“Abby, the bad people in life are just weeds in your garden. You have to get rid of all the weeds.”
But I always saw the best in people and I wanted to be friends with everyone. I wanted to have big birthday parties and a big group of friends just like you see depicted in movies. For some reason, every birthday party I ever went to I felt really left out at. I felt like everyone else had inside jokes and wanted to play together and then there I was awkwardly trying to fit myself into the game.
At 16 years old, I had not been invited to countless parties, sleepovers, dances, etc. Instead of crying about it to my parents, I got to cry to my boyfriend at the time. He was a popular kid; he was the best looking guy in the class, he was one of the smartest kids in our grade, he was the runningback on the football team, he was behind the scenes of all the plays, he was into videogames and he hung out with the older kids. This boy was literally friends with everyone and had a part in everything. That’s why he couldn’t understand my pain when I wasn’t invited to the grad party of the person who invited the whole grade, I asked him when the last time he didn’t get invited to something was and he said, “I didn’t get invited to sleep at my friend’s grad party… But they just forgot my name on the list and added it as soon as they remembered.”
This had me thinking that maybe my Candyland meltdown wasn’t all that ridiculous, and maybe I was a dumb loser.
It wasn’t until I had been introduced to this new game – the modeling game – that I started to feel a real sense of belonging. Everyone at my agency loved me. There was an inside joke that my booker’s nickname was “Abby” because of how often she talked about me. There was a polaroid of me up on the frequent faces board at Kohl’s photo studio because of how often I worked for them. Every local photographer wanted to test with me. I was killing every photoshoot I was sent to, I’d get on set and knock it out of the park; five photos in, the photographer would look back at the pictures and say “got the shot.” In an instant, I was able to make more friends than I’d ever had just by finally having something in common to talk about. I was a natural.
New York City showed me a larger scale of this world. I was going to castings now, meeting around 15 prospective clients a day. Every casting I ever went to the director of it would be hugging me by the end. I was so comfortable I didn’t even know how to be professional with the casting directors, I was just treating them like friends; always bringing them cute treats (my specialty was pretzels with chocolate kisses and an m&m on top), always writing them thank you cards for meeting with me and hoping to work together soon. Actually, I still talk to a lot of the casting directors I met back then. They truly became friends and the city was my place.
It was a breeze for years and I faced zero criticism until one day all of my Ford New York agents replaced the Supreme Management board and the Supreme board replaced the Ford bookers. In the heat of that chaos, I would be subjected to criticism and not deal with it so well. But I’ll get to that in another post.
I had found my home and I immediately knew I had to be in the heart of New York City for the rest of my life.
I romanticized the city itself, and the idea of never leaving it, out of all proportion. This made going back to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin really hard for me. This especially made high school exceedingly difficult for me.
I spent a lot of my library time researching Manhattan apartments on Craigslist, talking to my city friends and planning my move. My grades started slipping, my interest started fading and I just had to get out.
At 17, I begged my school guidance counselor to let me graduate a semester early. She kept telling me that graduating early was for pregnant girls or people who aren’t involved in extracurriculars. I cried until she agreed to let me attend the community college across the street as a Fondy High student, which basically meant I was a full time college student getting credit except I didn’t have to pay tuition because I was technically in high school. I hugged her.
My first day of class at the community college was on my 18th birthday. It was nice to have more responsibility and take interesting classes, but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. My parents did everything they could to keep me attending there after my first free semester, probably because my second semester’s tuition for 18 credits was $1,500. The wise thing for me to do, they thought, would be to finish up my associate’s degree there before moving away. That way I’d have a degree to fall back on when I got there. But, the curse of being Abby Shippee doesn’t allow me to do things half-heartedly. If I’m not completely in love with every aspect of what I’m doing, I fail miserably. The same way a marriage to someone you are not crazy about would fail. Anyway, I decided I was too independent and smart to not do everything I wanted to do in life. So in the fall of 2013, I didn’t attend my college final exams. Instead, I moved to New York City with $150.
My parents were pretty mad. They were probably as mad as you would be if your (barely) 18 year old daughter cleaned out her bank account and moved to NYC – somewhere you, as a parent, had only been one time.
Since moving wasn’t something that my parents deemed “sane,” they wisely refused to give me any money. I hated them for it at the time, but looking back I understand. The move was really hard financially, but I was ultimately happy. Upon setting foot back on my turf, I felt more at home than I ever had before. I felt like my heart was whole and that I really belonged here and was doing the right thing; regardless of what everyone else with a brain had to say about it.
I was so happy, but I was in no way prepared for half the obstacles I was about to face. The kinds of obstacles I had only seen happen to Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness. All of a sudden here I was with $1.37 in my bank account trying to figure out how to pay the bus fare, where to shower and what to eat.
I snuck on the bus without paying the $2.50 fare an infinite number of times. The one time I got caught by the police, they fined me $100. When I finally had the money to pay it, I had this really good idea to, instead, write a letter appealing the fine and sending with it a random receipt, claiming it was mine from paying. For lying, they charged me another $25 for inconveniencing them because they had to take the time to look into where the receipt was purchased. Which apparently was on the opposite side of the city, 2 minutes before I was caught.
I was making money from a job I had as a hostess at a high end TriBeCa trattoria. On Valentine’s Day I was scheduled to work, we had 95 reservations coming in. When I swiped my Metrocard to get on the train to get there, my card didn’t work and I had exactly zero dollars to my name. I would’ve walked from Murray Hill to TriBeCa but the snowstorm dictated otherwise. I texted my boss and he responded, “If this is your way of denying my advances, this is a roundabout way of doing it.”
I abruptly lost contact with my family and most of my friends from home. I was working as often as I could and trying to find what it was in life that I really wanted to do and learn. I was sleeping on a couch and living out of one duffel bag filled with clothes that wouldn’t be washed for months. If I couldn’t sleep on the couch for a night, I’d take my duffel bag to work and lug it all over the city. If I couldn’t find another couch to sleep on, I’d meander the city after leaving the restaurant around 1am until I had to work again at 7:30am.
After living like this for nearly 6 cold, wet months I was MISERABLE. I was fat, my skin was horrible, I was crying all the time, my spirit was broken, I smelled horrible, I was exhausted and I was freezing. I almost couldn’t see the point anymore, but it still felt more like home than Wisconsin ever had. The people I was meeting had these amazing stories, nobody ends up here, everybody earns their way here. I knew I could make it too. The atmosphere that is New York City kept me alive, inspired and strong. The abundance of faith I had in myself kept me warm. The friends I kept close to me kept me tough. I was constantly reminding myself that I was getting to do the closest thing there is to traveling the world; talking to any New Yorker who will listen.
Then one cold day in May, I had a change of heart. One of my closest friends named Maddy, who is as beautiful as she is generous and as kind as she is intelligent, took me out for a margarita on Cinco de Mayo.
We went to this spot in the Meatpacking District called Tortilla Flats. This place was bubbling with drunken finance couples hula hooping and singing. After a pitcher of margaritas and a shot of Patron, I started thinking about my friend Helen.
Helen and I have lived 5 minutes away from each other since we were born. We went to the same elementary school, drifted apart attending different middle schools, and became friends again in high school. She graduated high school early and we had a class together at the community college that brought us back together and closer than ever. Even when we weren’t close, I still considered her a good friend. She’s like a sister – somebody you don’t have to see all the time to stay best friends with. So anyway, I thought of Helen and how she was at college in Pensacola, Florida. I thought how much different my life would be if I lived in Pensacola, Florida. I thought about how in that moment I would kill to lay on a beach or sit in the sun. I thought about how it was May 5th and how she was probably pretty drunk too. I sent her a text:
“If I buy a plane ticket to Florida right now, will you pick me up at the Pensacola airport tomorrow at 11am?”
She called me, drunk, and asked if I was serious. I said yeah. She said of course.
I spent the paycheck I had just gotten on a $350 one way ticket to Pensacola. I looked up at Maddy with tears in my eyes as the waitress was handing us each another free shot. We downed it, paid our tab, then got in cab that took us to the H&M in Times Square to look at swimsuits.
Realizing I needed the last of my money for my cab to the airport in an hour, I texted Helen to bring me a swimsuit when she picked me up. Maddy and I headed to meet our friend who was on a date at the movie theater with our other friend.
I told them I was leaving tonight and they reacted like any of you would react if your best friend drunkenly declared she had a one way ticket to Florida. We walked all the way back to Maddy’s and I hailed a cab headed to LaGuardia airport.
“Ma’am, ma’am! You wake up now! You pay I leave, you no sleep in my cab. Wake up now, miss.”
I had fallen asleep and woken up to my cab driver shaking me vigorously. I paid him the last of my money and got out, all I had with me was a backpack. I made it to my gate right as they were boarding.
The plane had a layover in Atlanta, Georgia. I got off there and TSA told me I missed my connecting flight to Pensacola, but I could catch it if I got on another plane that was going to Washington, DC. I got on that plane and the same thing happened, they told me to catch the plane to Pensacola in Ohio. Helen was blowing up my phone asking why I was late; first I tell her I’m coming to Florida in 10 hours and then I explain that I’m flying all over the east side of America trying to navigate these airports while being obscenely hungover, she must have thought I had totally lost my mind… Anyway, I got off the plane in Ohio, ran across the airport to find the Pensacola-bound plane. It took me to Texas first, then I arrived at 3pm in the pickup lobby of Pensacola International Airport.
Helen drove up in her black Chevy Trailblazer blaring Today’s Country Hits Radio. She hopped out right in the middle of the pickup lane wearing nothing but a swimsuit. She hugged me and said something along the lines of: “this is crazy”. Before agreeing with her, I wiggled into the swimsuit she brought me. We were headed directly to the beach.
We made it to Pensacola Beach on the Gulf of Mexico and I did something I wouldn’t have been able to imagine 8 hours ago: I fell asleep on the white sand under the hot, hot sun. The massive sunburn paralyzing me for the rest of the week was well worth it.
Helen had left me her car and continued to live her life. I’d wake up alone in her apartment to country music blasting from the living room, make a pot of coffee, grab a longboard and hit the road. Showing myself the pool and the palm trees. I’d go to the beach alone and sit outside alone. I got to experience living carefree for the first time in what seemed like forever. Helen introduced me to all of her friends and I learned a bunch of beachside drinking games. It was such an easy time and I was having a blast.
A week after I made it, her parents came down to move all of her stuff and hang out in the sun for a week. That week and the week my current boyfriend, Nate, lived with me in NYC vividly stand out as two of the best weeks of my life. The trip ended after about 3 weeks. Helen’s lease was up and her family was here to take her back to Wisconsin. They invited me to road trip home with them. Helen’s parents in the U-Haul. Me, Helen and her brother in her trailblazer. We made a stop in Tennessee for a night and took our time getting home. That road trip was a blast and reminded me the importance of always keeping good company. So thanks, Helen and Connor, for being my constant reminder of the importance of good times and good people.
If you’re reading this and think I’m an idiot, I probably wouldn’t like you if we met. I understand that to most people, this is childish, foolish, and outlandish. I understand that most people will think I’m immature or that I run away in the face of hardship. I understand that a lot of people think I romanticize the city too much or that I’m a dramatic person in general. If you think I’m insane, your life has probably consisted of you listening to your mom, or dad, or teacher telling you how to live your life. Telling you what you should do or what you’re supposed to do. As a result, your life probably doesn’t match who you are as an individual. And while you want to think I’m inspiring, you think I’m unrealistic instead. Or maybe you’ll make fun of me, because you don’t have the courage to do what you really want to do. Your brain can’t comprehend the idea of actually seizing your life.
When my kids are 18 years old and find themselves living a subpar life for too many days in a row, I hope they find the courage to change the circumstances around them. In fact, I think it’s important that they do.
I drastically manipulated the events around me twice; once when I moved to NYC and once when I ran away to Florida. I didn’t want a college degree yet – I didn’t want to waste my parents hard-earned money on a degree I wasn’t sure of. I wanted to learn about fashion by being back in fashion. I wanted to know if I wanted to be a writer by being a writer. I wanted to know if I wanted to live in New York by living in New York. I wanted to test myself to see what my mind could take. I wanted to do it on my own. I wanted to get a firm handle on who I am and what I want before I committed to a degree, a career, a place to live, a husband, a salary… If I couldn’t do it now, when was I going to do it? When I had graduated college at 24 years old and couldn’t afford to be stupid or fail miserably? At 18 if I failed, hey, at least I could try again at 20, and again at 22, and again at 24 with a degree and a smoking hot resume filled with years of experience, adventure and wisdom.
If I couldn’t be head over heels in love with my life and every aspect of it at 18, when would I ever get to be? If I couldn’t be completely selfish with my time at 18; before kids, a husband, responsibilities, when would I ever have gotten to be? Would I really have had to die unsatisfied with a to-do list in my hand had I not lived many of my hopes and dreams at 18?
These decisions had consequences and repercussions, just like every decision we make does, but aside from the hardship of not being able to predict my future further than 10 minutes ahead, I learned how to be alone with myself and genuinely enjoy the company I keep. I learned that fear is the worst emotion and will you hold you back from all of your desires. I learned that there’s no reason that my life shouldn’t be the exact success story that I want to proudly tell my grandkids was my life. I learned that I shouldn’t be ashamed, at this young age, to do everything I want to do for no reason other than I love it and believe in its importance.
With my suitcase and soul that seeks fulfillment, any moment can be another adventure. A chance to be completely free without hurting anyone.
“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” I’ve arrived at the mentality that I needed to arrive at, not the physical location, I’ve established a firm handle on who I am.
And that’s Abigail Shippee: born on a sunny day, hard-wired for happiness. My dark days are very dark, but man are they worth it, because my bright days are REALLY bright.
Until next Thursday…