When I was 19, most of my friends were alcoholics and addicts. None of us had futures plotted out. None of us believed our lives merited such worth. We tended bars and waited tables and partied hard in between. We were surviving, scraping up affection wherever we could get it- often through one-night stands and drunken, sloppy affirmations of loyalty. Our lives had been sideswiped in some way or another, a parent left or lost, a messy divorce, a ride through the foster system, abuse, abandonment, neglect. Few had much family to speak of. Even less had someone who believed in them. Some had dropped out of high school, others failed out of community college. The fundamental rule between us was that we expected little and judged less.
I crawled inside that existence with my entire being. It was the deepest sense of belonging I had experienced to that point in my life. It was tinged with booze and smoke and a sort of gritty film of filth, but it felt like a cocoon, a place to hide inside without anything pressing in on you. There was no failure there. No one to disappoint. Just highs where you could get them and someone to be with during the lows that followed.
One night, while smoking outside a beach bar I was too young to be at, one among our crew turned to me and asked, “what are you doing here?” I thought he meant there at that particular bar, and I answered accordingly. He looked back at me and said, “no, here… like this.” He nodded at the beer in my left hand, the cigarette in my right. And then he looked directly at me. “You can get out of here,” he said. “The rest of us, we’re stuck. This will be our life in twenty years. But you can do better. I can see it in you.”
At the time, I felt mortified, as though he was calling me an outsider. An anxiety sprung up in me that if I didn’t belong there, I didn’t belong anywhere. There was nowhere else I could go. But his words took seed inside of me. I played them over and over in my head, parsed them for truth, wondered what it was he had seen. Three years later, at 22, I entered college for the first time. I was terrified and older than most of my classmates, but I discovered an ability in myself that I hadn’t before known existed.
That conversation remains one of my most precious memories, so much so that I’ve only shared it once or twice. I still feel a sense of shame about it- that maybe I was an impostor all along. And also, I feel the jolt of having been so profoundly seen during a time when I was trying my hardest to be invisible. It scares me to think of it. But those words have pushed me through these past twenty years.
I feel a new terror now, entering a Ph.D. on what will be my 39th birthday. I have this urge to run away from it all and from my kind, clean friends (what an adjective!), to return to that beach, a little dirty, be anonymous again, to have no one expect anything from me, to be safe from disappointment, to count loss as ordinary, and pain as mundane.
For the past few months, I’ve been swallowed up in shame. It’s an old story, and I’ve written about it here. The challenge that comes with friending and loving so many good, whole, joyful people. I compare myself. I envy their carefree natures, their easy joy and ready laughter, their optimism and ability to focus on the positive. I envy their stability and marriages, bank accounts and homes and cars and the sleep they get at night. I feel inept in this way, deeply ashamed that I am always calculating the loss, always tallying the things gone wrong and the ways that life is hard. I feel resentful too, like a spoiled teenager, jealous of the ease others have known and spitting at the unfairness of the hands we’ve each been dealt.
So here’s the revelation I had during last week’s time away.
I have experienced what has sometimes felt like an never ending waterfall of shitty life moments. I have lived through more trauma than most people I know. Enough to reasonably become cold and hard and untrusting and despondent. But…
I’m still standing. I’m still choosing to try. I’m still choosing to love, to believe in a better future, to work to make it hurt less, to stay open to those in my life, to make space for new relationships, to start over (again), to move forward, to change patterns and fears and beliefs and flaws. I have not let the darkness win. I have not let the hardness of it make me hard (or, at the very least, I have worked to soften it as often as possible). I am living with the awareness of the imperfections I carry, and though they are sometimes magnified in the presence of those who seem a little more perfect, those imperfections have been shaped by things that were often out of my control. I choose to bear up under them, to allow them to be seen, to love myself in all the places I fall short, to be loved when I want to run and hide.
Without this perspective and in comparison, I am just a morose, pessimistic, exhausted individual who sometimes complains too much. And so, I must remember this as a part of my story. I must celebrate the challenges I have overcome. Yes, I would like to be more cheerful, less anxious, and not always waiting for the other shoe to drop. But also… I am still managing to be this cheerful, this calm, and this confident that the good moments still outweigh the bad.
I find myself so often wanting to apologize for needing so much of it… so much love and affection and comfort… so much time and energy… so many words. For needing this forum, this public validation of my grief, and you, my readers. That it has been given freely and without judgment, I suppose means that each of you are somehow standing with me outside that bar at 19, scared and already weary of life. You are there granting me the courage to walk forward.
You have carried me through this last year. Each of you, in your own way, has helped to make this all ok. You have enabled me to continue to believe.
I know this will likely be one of my last posts for some time. Already, I am awash in the demands of school. And so, I want to end this with gratitude. It seems impossible to adequately express it or what this has all meant to me. Thank you for reading, for supporting, for your comments and emails and letters and encouragement. Thank you for making the space.
I’m still smackdab in the middle of my story… my story… as though saying that is a reminder that I’m still here. This isn’t an ending or even a conclusion. It is simply an arrival. I’ve made it here. This is where I am now.
Until next time, and with deepest gratitude.