Have you ever been in an impossible situation you thought you’d never get out of? Ever feel loaded down with problems that never end? How about totally down in the dumps, lost, scared, hurt, abandoned, bummed out, miserable, and totally depressed?
I have. I know what the inside of that deep, dark cave looks like, and it ain’t pretty.
I’m usually a positive thinker and a problem-solver, though, so it takes a string of disasters with no breather and no solutions in sight over a long period of time to really get me down. That’s happened twice in my life. Let me tell you about the first time and how I got myself out of the cave.
In my mid 20s, life was not only good, it was amazing. I had three more semesters left in college (I started a few years later than most), I had a beautiful, two-bedroom apartment that I shared with a roommate, and I had two part-time, flexible jobs that allowed me to live pretty comfortably.
After three years of dating a fabulous guy, I dropped one of the jobs, gave up my apartment, wished my roommate well, and moved in with my fiancé.
Within a month, we butted heads. He had been acting strangely: nit-picking, fault-finding, distant. A few members of his band were acting strangely, too, when they came over to practice. He was clearly unhappy, and I tried my best to discuss it—whatever it was—but he said everything was fine.
I finally blew up over his umpteenth sarcastic remark just as I was leaving for my first class of the spring semester at 6:30am. Things weren’t fine. Not for me, anyway.
When I got home from work at 10pm, he was gone.
A break-up is one thing. No reason given is another. Being left in an apartment that wasn’t mine even if I could afford it alone was yet another challenge, plus it doubled my commute to my university. Add full-time classes and a part-time job—it was a lot.
I was really miserable and my head was spinning, but I held it together as I tried to work things out with my fiancé and figure out what to do.
I dropped two classes. I figured a summer and a winter break class to make them up was better than risking low grades. With no time off from classes for 18 months, though, I would be drained.
Things didn’t work out with my fiancé (I found out later his lead singer was involved).
I moved out, had two disastrous roommate situations, and finally landed in (yet another) problematic arrangement in an off-campus student apartment.
Living in my university town close to everything had its perks.
An academically-challenged, very religious, nearly blind roommate who was, shall we say, a tad peculiar wasn’t all that bad. The six guys upstairs, never-ending parties, and overflow from their beer keg tub dripping through the ceiling on my bed was not good.
One morning while I was in the shower, one of those guys went in my room (while my above-mentioned blind and not-very-capable roommate was sleeping), “borrowed” my phone (which was a landline with a 25-foot extension cable that reached out to the shared living room), and refused to give it back to me.
He exploded in a rage when I yanked the cord out of the wall back in my room. Hey, it’s my phone. I needed to call someone. My phone. Um, right?
He didn’t hit me. He just sprayed a lot of spit on my face as he called me names—back down? Who, me?— and turned various shades of purple and yelled and screamed and punched and kicked the door in like a very large toddler throwing a big tantrum.
I had him arrested, someone plunged a large landscape timber through my car window the night before the court proceedings, and he was convicted of harassment the next day.
But wait! There’s more.
The landlord kicked me out. Fortunately, it was the day after graduation, but I had nowhere to go. With 18 credits that semester, I hadn’t had space in my brain to make plans. I wasn’t even working at this point—I was living on student loans and a small scholarship, and I earned enough money for ramen noodles and an occasional beer by editing and word processing classmates’ papers.
Depressed? Not yet. Stressed? You betcha.
The black cave didn’t appear until I had lived for a few months with my older sister (over an hour away from the city I had lived in for 7 years) and the only job I could find was in a mall bookstore for minimum wage.
The commute wasn’t fun, and I was miserable at my sister’s. There really wasn’t room for me, a lot of little things were huge roadblocks or major disappointments, and more than once I felt like the darkness was closing in. I felt like I was suffocating, failing, losing it. But I kept on going. I kept trying.
Not only did I survive, I reached my goal.
Little by little, things got better, even great. And here I am, smiling at these memories as my fingers fly over the keyboard.
How did I do it?
1. I believed in my ability to get myself out of the mess I was in.
2. I basked in the glory of success. Not only had I handled all that stress, I hadn’t given up, and I had graduated with honors.
3. I tried to focus on positives, not negatives. I admit I had a hard time not dwelling on that last semester and how, if I hadn’t blown off geology and taken a C (gasp!), and slightly blown off two history classes and taken Bs, I would have had high honors.
4. I kept my “Shining Star” front and center: graduation. It was my goal and guiding light, and by refusing to take my eyes off my Shining Star, I was able to solve problems and figure out solutions. After that, my goal was to get a good job and back into my own apartment. The rocky, dimly-lit road was bearable because I had goals.
5. I stayed away, as much as possible, from negative energy, argumentative people, and drama. I was emotionally drained and exhausted, and I needed every bit of energy I had. Self-preservation was first and foremost.
6. I kept my sense of humor and enjoyed ordinary things. At the bookstore, I relished the opportunity to read anything I wanted. Despite the low pay, I had fun with co-workers and I made friends. Even during that last semester I had a blast on campus playing my guitar at open mikes, attending poetry readings, using the gym and the track to work off stress and, of course, the occasional bar tour with classmates.
7. I planned for the future. After I graduated and had a temporary roof over my head, I constantly reviewed available apartments for rent and decided what neighborhood I wanted to live in. I saved money, dreamed, and schemed as I focused on my goal.
8. I solved the problems. The bookstore job didn’t pay enough, so I took on an additional 15 hours a week as a tutor at a community college and continued to search for something related to my degree in English.
9. I didn’t blame myself or beat myself up. Not too much, anyway. Yes, I made mistakes. I could have planned better, but I forgave myself. With all I had going on, I could barely think straight. I had reached my goal, and now I had a new one.
10. I congratulated myself for every step forward. I reflected on how well I handled an interview even when I didn’t get the job, and I thought of ways to do better next time. And when I finally saved enough money for an apartment and moved in, I celebrated.
Life wasn’t exactly a breeze when I finally got my apartment, though I did find a decent job within a few months. Money was super tight.
I still had a busted driver’s side car window (the college guy and the landscape timber, remember?) covered with plastic that flapped in the wind. I was glad, though, for a smart decision I had made when I first went back to school: I spent most of a personal injury insurance settlement on a new car so I wouldn’t have to worry about a big loan payment or used-car breakdowns while busy with classes. It was still running great. Brilliant. See #3.
I had a lot of healing to do (oh, yeah) and adjustments to make, and all that came in time.
I remember the exact moment when I knew I had really done it.
It was two years after I was settled in my apartment when the phone rang. It was a woman I didn’t really know, though I knew who she was. She had got my number from a mutual friend, someone I had met through my ex-fiancé years before. She was crying and needed to talk. I listened for an hour, dry-eyed, compassionate, nodding as she sobbed out the story about her relationship with my ex-fiancé.
I comforted her as best as I could, but what she really wanted to know was, “Did he leave you with no explanation, too?”
There were no tears left (and I had shed many). No sadness, no anger, no bitterness, nothing. Life was good, and I had a lot of extra room in my heart for someone else who was hurting just as I had been. That was when I knew I had reached my true Shining Star: Peace.
Comments are always welcome. And yep, that’s me in the pic around 1989, in front of my fab apartment pre-big mistake. My roommate took it. Check out those earrings!