Freedom or BUST! The True Story of the American Dream

By Natalie Rivera

I apologize in advance if this offends you. Nevermind, I hope it pisses you off and makes you want to stop squandering your potential. You deserve more than where you are right now.

I spent most of my life with one foot weighted down with the obligations of approval and conformity and the other tied to a rebellious rocket shooting for the stars. Needless to say, my heart is an epic battleground and I’m stretching the limits of my, ahem, flexibility.

I cannot help but be ME. Believe me I’ve tried otherwise.

I was a weird kid. I didn’t know I was weird until one day in 5th grade. A boy at my bus stop told me, and I quote, “Natalie, you always act like an animal.” The truth is he was probably right. But, so began my typical childhood self-consciousness and approval seeking behaviors. Don’t get me wrong, I was still weird, but I chose to share that side of myself only with my family members, who are just as gloriously strange as I am.

Screw the American Dream

I never believed in the American Dream I was sold…You now, the cliché: go to school, get good grades, get into a good college, get a good job, loath working and waste your free time on TV and booze…do this until you’re 65, retire, live in poverty for 5 to 10 years (consuming more TV and booze) and die. Today, this glorious misappropriation of human potential would include Facebook and YouTube, but not much else has changed.

Screw that. I would rather live in a cardboard box than accept the mediocre life society told me I “should” want. This is what I’d preach from my soapbox when I was 15. I had never met anyone who truly enjoyed what they did for a living, and I never observed a relationship I would want. Think about that. How sad. Yet, adults in society vehemently encouraged me to submit to the inevitable suffering of adult life, unfulfilling relationships and working my butt off to make someone else rich. Then, they’d package it neatly with the imminent reward of a white picket fence, a dog named Fufu and a BMW.

But, I knew the sugar coating was BS. Like a cat turd in a candy shell.

I knew there had to be a better way. The status quo made me gag.

Thank God I had parents who encouraged me to forge my own trail. Yet even with the freedom to choose, I didn’t know what else to do. I took a year off after high school and then went to college for lack of a better idea. I also went because I actually enjoy learning and expanding my mind…and also because my one year of full-time employment at Walmart was enough to make even vagrancy look appealing. Good times.

Into the proverbial box I dove with nose plugged and my finger in the air.

Five years later, I had finished 2.5 years of college, I worked in a marketing and design career I never wanted, owned a house in the suburbs, and was in a marriage that was just as uninspiring as I had expected. Everything was just peachy. But it wasn’t.

I had submitted. I was doing a darn good job living everyone else’s dreams.

I might have seemed okay to the outside world, but I had become burnt out and dead inside. I felt exhausted and empty, like someone drained my blood. At work I would look at the carpet under my cubicle desk (a.k.a., voluntary prison) and dream of curling up in a ball under there and taking a nap. When I would get home from work I’d frantically prepare dinner, eat and clean, knowing that once I sat down I wouldn’t be able to get up again. By 7:30 p.m., my young bod was totally done for the day. Then one day I was stopped at a traffic light and thought to myself, “I wonder how long this light is. Maybe there’s enough time to close my eyes for a few minutes.” Then I noticed how strange that thought was. I looked at the other cars around me, all filled with people twice my age, none of whom looked like they felt as terrible as I did. For the first time, I realized something wasn’t right.

I went to the doctor and had her do every test imaginable, yet they all came back showing I was “healthy.” Right. Eventually, my doctor labeled me with “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” (which is really just a cover-up for “I don’t know what the hell is wrong with you”).

So, I started eating a natural, balanced, healthy diet and I improved, a little. One morning my alarm went off and jolted me into a fit of dread. I hit the snooze button and observed myself thinking,

“If I had to KILL someone in order to NEVER have to wake up to this damn thing again, I think I might do it.”

Crap, did I just think that?

A few weeks later, I sat in my cell at one in the afternoon and lamented the fact that even though I was done my work for the day because I work like a rabid beaver, I had to plant my bum in that chair for another four hours because, well, that’s just the stupid corporate world we live in. I was either going to cry, throw up, scream or stab someone. I had to get out of there. I told my boss I was sick and needed to leave. I got in the car and just started driving…not home…just anywhere other than this.

I ended up 45 minutes away at a state park. I drove in, took a turn I’d never been down before, parked my car and started walking. I walked and walked until the sun glistening on a small swampy pond caught my eye. I walked toward it, sank into the grass on the bank, and I cried.

I cried because I sucked at life—I just couldn’t stuff myself into that box. I cried because I knew the rat race was slowly killing me. I cried because I shamed myself into accepting my life with the justification that other people would DIE to have what I had—I “should” like it, but the truth was that I didn’t. And I hated myself for that.

I knew what I had to do, but it scared the crap out of me.

That day I made a decision to be free.

I made a decision to stop living everyone else’s dream.

I made a decision to be motivated by my own laziness. I could work my butt off for MYSELF and create the freedom my heart longed for.

I decided to stop “shoulding” on myself.

I banished the word “should” from my vocabulary. From that day forward any time I was told or thought that I should do something I’ve seen it as a signal for me to immediately and forcibly do the OPPOSITE.

I was no longer taking advice from people on a treadmill going nowhere. I finally embraced that the American Dream wasn’t MY dream. And so I started to let it go.

I said goodbye to my very last employer at the age of 24, started my own graphic design and marketing company. Soon after, I decided to go back to school full-time. I slowly began taking control of my life. I also embarked on a psychological revolution of ravenously consuming self-help and spiritual books.

During my soul searching, I discovered that my purpose was to help others live their potential and fulfill their purpose. When I graduated, I opened a non-profit teen life coaching center. I was feeling a bit more like myself, and my fatigue had improved, but I still had this deep ache inside—like a hungry beast devouring me from within—that I quickly stuffed down and repressed, just like all of my deepest desires.

Through my new business venture working with teenagers and families, my own mind expanded. Observing them forced me to see that there WERE other ways to live. Looking deeply into the intimate lives of others was a mirror in which I could see my own reflection—showing me how much of my life wasn’t really mine. One day, as I facilitated an exercise called “if you really knew me,” designed to help families express their individual truths, I saw a young teenage girl open up to her family. She had been assigned to my program due to property crimes and self-injuring behaviors. Her mother and little brother embraced her with deep reverence and tears of understanding, as she bared her soul and told the truth of the torment of her inner world. What an honor to witness such love, such vulnerability, such power in revealing her truth.

I had an epiphany that day, and there was no turning back.

I HAD to be me!

After so long with my true self hiding in she shadows, I wasn’t even sure who I was, but I was 100 percent certain who I wasn’t. Within a three-month period I totally wiped out EVERYTHING in my life. I stepped down from my non-profit, I left my empty marriage, I sold my house, and I even got rid of my dog.

Again, I made a decision to be free. To finally follow through on the promise I’d made to myself—to stop living everyone else’s dreams.

I made the decision to stop trading in my magnificent life for comfort and certainty.

I made a decision to stop settling for less than all that I am.

Although there were moments in which I was temped to retreat back into the darkness of repression and denial, I clung firmly to my deep-seated desire to live authentically. As soon as I released all of which no longer served me and let go of the identity I had created around everyone else, the most amazing and perfectly aligned people and circumstances magically appeared in my life. I found my soul mate and partner in life and business. I found my true calling as an entrepreneur—as an empowerment life coach, speaker and educator. As if by magic, my fatigue had lifted. (Turns out my CFS was depression manifesting itself in my body. Go figure.)

Today, I am authentically, totally and emphatically ME. I own it. I don’t apologize.

I am living the American Dream!

You may be thinking, “wait, what?” Didn’t you say you hated the American Dream? Let me explain. I’ve come to understand that somewhere along the line, society’s idea of what the American Dream is got wildly off track.

The Real American Dream

The American Dream isn’t about the cliché of the picket fences (or the reality of voluntary slavery). It never was. It’s always been about the American Spirit—it’s about the dominion of choice.

The American Spirit was demonstrated in the courage of the immigrants who came to America with a few dollars in their pocket and the hunger that pushed them to become America’s best small businessmen and businesswomen.

The American Spirit was carried in the hearts of the pioneers who picked up everything they owned and left behind everything they knew to head west in search of a better life.

Today, the American Spirit is seen in the young mother who puts herself through college, in the woman executive who never took “no” for an answer. It’s seen in the impoverished youth busting his butt, staying after class to get help from his teachers and working a job to save money so he can go to college. In the teens who voluntarily turn off the TV, video games, and/or social media because they know that the dreams that ache in their heart can’t be found behind a screen; they know that their life is worth so much more than that. It’s about having the freedom to choose to turn determination, risk, courage, blood, sweat and tears into a bold life with limitless possibilities.

The American Spirit is about freedom or bust—live your potential or die trying!

Yup, that’s me! That’s my life’s mission. Maybe I’m not so weird after all—I just heard the call of Spirit.


Natalie Rivera is a firestarter, speaker and entrepreneur. She is passionate about empowering others to GET REAL and live authentically. After a decade of living a life that wasn’t hers and developing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Natalie let go of everything and completely transformed. Through her journey to healing she rediscovered her true self and greater purpose—to inspire others to transform their lives. Natalie “retired” from the rat race at 24, put herself through school as a freelance designer, created a non-profit teen center, and later created Transformation Services, Inc., which offers motivational speaking, curriculum development, life coaching, event management, and publishing. She is also the Publisher of Transformation Magazine. Visit



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