When my life was turned upside down, I had to grow up quickly
Bad things happen to everyone. Everyone will lose someone. Everyone will have their life overturned or blow up in their face. In April 2015 my big, life-changing thing happened when a close family member was sentenced to prison. Before that, there were years of anxiety, stress, and legal battles spent trying to avoid that big, terrible thing — and then, it happened anyway. And while I have worked really hard to stay mentally healthy, positive, and in general present in my own life, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a daily struggle and that I’m still recovering from the fallout. However, there are also some major things I’ve learned from the experience of having my life torn apart that I value, and that have made me a better, more grown up person. Of course I wish I could have learned them in a different way, but I appreciate them nonetheless:
Always check on people.
Something I do now that I didn’t do before is check in with my friends, family, and even strangers. If I haven’t heard from someone in a while I’ll reach out. If someone is having a string of really gloomy Facebook posts, I’ll shoot them a message. If a stranger is crying in public and looks lost, I’ll see if they’re okay. Prior to my family problems I used to think that if someone was going through something bad and needed help, they’d reach out to me and let me know — and if I didn’t hear otherwise, I could assume everything was okay. Now that I’ve been through it I realize how hard it can be to ask for help, and how easy it is to feel guilty about “burdening” your friends with your problems (even though you should never feel guilty for confiding in others). The greatest gift you can give someone is bridging that gap for them so they don’t have to reach out for help on top of going through something terrible. Even if you don’t feel that close or comfortable checking in on someone, do it anyway. Even if it is something scary to you like a death or an illness and you feel like you don’t know what to say, let them know you’re there. Your little act of kindness might be what they need to make it through the day.
You can always make it work.
One of the immediate effects of this life event were that I went from being a clueless college student who never thought about taking care of myself, to being a clueless college student who suddenly had to figure out how to apply for financial aid, find a job, and live on a budget I could pay for. As terrible as this experience has been I will always be thankful for the wake up call it gave me. As a junior in college, I was faced with the reality that I did not know how to be a self sufficient adult that could carry myself through the world. And while my entry into adulthood was sudden, it’s made me realize that I can get through anything. Roommate dropping out a week before I sign a lease? No problem. Chaotic, seemingly unsolvable problem at work? I’ve got this. Crazy, soul-ripping dating drama? Whatever. Because after having been through the ringer and back, I now know that I can survive life at its craziest, and if I remain calm and think clearly I can get through even the most terrible and challenging life events successfully. And on top of that, the every day problems seem even smaller and more manageable in comparison.
Happiness is (sometimes) a deliberate choice.
Disclaimer: obviously there are sometimes circumstances outside of your control, or you are dealing with depression or other health problems. That’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is recovering from the fallout of a really terrible event and deliberately deciding you’re going to fight to see, enjoy, and contribute to the good in the world. There came a time after a while of being sad and feeling lost and helpless in my situation when I decided that I didn’t feel like doing it anymore. Just because someone I loved went to prison didn’t mean I had to mentally go with them. That’s not what they wanted for me, and definitely not what I wanted for myself. That’s when I realized that happiness is a hard won decision you make for yourself every day. Little things like your friend’s laugh or how much fun you can have sitting with your family or how pretty the day is feel all the more special when you realize those things are wonderful and might not happen every day. You come to realize that all happiness really is in the long run is appreciating the good in your world and in the people around you, and fighting to see and spread more of that every day. Now, I fight every day to be unapologetically happy. And yeah, I sometimes get made fun of for my unrelenting sincerity (especially in a place like NYC), and I realize that other people not might get it. Everything you love could be taken away at any second, and that’s all the more reason to celebrate and enjoy it in the moment, not bemoan it for being less than perfect.
Focus on what is actually important.
When seemingly everything fell apart for my family and me, we still had each other. Nothing in the world felt real or stable anymore but each other. That made the love and support for each other that we had naturally built up over the years the new foundation for the world. I don’t know a lot about the world and I’m not as sure of a lot of things as I used to be, but I do know that I love my family and I love my friends. Everything else seems pointless in comparison. When you see how easily all the other stuff can fall away when a bad, life-shaking event happens, you realize that the really important human relationships in your life are the only things worth fighting for at the end of the day. Everything else you can take or leave.
Taking care of yourself is taking care of everyone else.
Everyone knows the old self-care adage “put the oxygen mask on yourself first,” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly true. Taking care of yourself is taking care of everyone else in the midst of a big, life-changing disaster, because when you think about it you won’t be able to help anyone else if you haven’t gotten help yourself. I unfortunately learned this one the hard way. When disaster first hit I spent all of my energy trying to make everyone else happy at the expense of my own sanity. And while helping others is in my nature, I’ve had to work really hard to unlearn it to a certain extent. I’ve since realized I need to make sure I’m okay before I make sure everyone else is okay, because no matter what is going on or I will be of no use to them. On top of that no one wants to see me fall apart at their expense.
Those are my dearest lessons from my major, life-changing event. While I wish things could be different every day, I’ve learned enough to appreciate the good I’ve taught myself, and to be proud of the person I’ve become in spite of all of this. It certainly hasn’t been easy, but my personal growth and the journey I’ve been on has brought me to the things I hold dear today. So if you’re going through anything like this know that you are never alone, and it really will eventually be okay. I’m proof of that.