The strange thing is, until the worst actually happens, it’s impossible to predict the shape that it will take. Everyone argues with their friends sometimes; it’s only when you get into that one, big, relationship-ending argument with your best friend that you realize losing her is an actual possibility. Rumors and mini-scandals are a part of high school life, like lockers and lunch periods—everybody’s got one—but it’s only when people start turning away when you say hello, when the flood of nasty emails hits your inbox or your Facebook wall, that you realize this rumor isn’t a small one, that you’ve been targeted for a complete and vicious shunning. And everyone’s parents have a particular arrangement and dynamic, and to be honest, I never really thought about the arrangement between mine, until my mother woke me up when I was 16 years old and told me that her “friend from out of town” whom I’d been asked to have dinner with the night before was going to be my new stepfather, and that her divorce from my current stepfather had been going on, quietly, politely, without my noticing, for months.
The worst happens to everyone, at some point. When I asked the other Rookies about it, I got so many stories: Failing a necessary course out of nowhere. Getting caught shoplifting. Living across the street from a crack house, with a roommate who steals your clothes, yells at you, and runs a borderline-illegal yoga studio out of your living room. Or having a roommate revenge-pee on your furniture. (A different roommate. WE THINK.) Or this: “All the girls in my sixth-grade class decided, as a group, that they hated me. Our teacher called a special meeting and ORDERED them each to name something they liked about me. A bunch of them were like, ‘I can’t think of anything; can you come back to me?’ My stomach still hurts when I think about it.’”
Waiting for the worst to happen is impossible, and always embarrassing, like trying to find your glasses when you’re already wearing them, or looking frantically for your keys when they’re in your hand. When the worst finally hits, you always realize that it was there, all along.
The good thing about this is that it’s a waste of time, waiting for something terrible to happen, or trying to predict what that terrible something will be. The bad thing, of course, is that when something does happen, you’ll know it, and it will not be within your power to stop it from happening.
So let’s assume the worst has already happened to you, at least once. That something terrible and beyond your control has already come down the pike; that you’re sitting here, reading this article, thinking that your life is ruined. Or even that you’ve ruined your own life. It’s not my business to say whether what’s happened to you is a big catastrophe, or a small one; whether you’ve had a falling out with a group of friends or lost a parent, it all feels huge while it’s happening. My business here today is the recovery end of it. No matter how big this feels, one of these days, you’re going to wake up in the morning, and you won’t be in a catastrophe anymore; you’ll be in your post-catastrophe life. It will have changed, but it won’t have to be horrible.
Besides being impossible to predict, and always feeling inevitable, the worst things—big and small—share a few other distinct factors, some of which are very helpful when it comes time to get up and move on.
For one thing, you’re about to find out who your friends are. When you’re sad and alone, it helps to think about this: happy, popular people are constantly surrounded by a bunch of folks who don’t actually like them very much. It’s not that those people are cruel to them, or that those people are two-faced or deceitful. (Well. Some of them may be, but it’s not really my business to decide.) It’s just that happiness and popularity and power are attractive to people who want to be happy and popular and powerful themselves. The textbook-y term for this is “social capital”: on the most basic level, people are more likely to be friendly if they believe you can help them get something, even if that “something” is just social status or more friends.
Which is all fine, but when you lose that social capital—when you’ve been made unpopular as the result of losing some friends or a social shunning, or when you’re going through something so difficult that the only person you can really afford to take care of is yourself—you lose those superficial relationships.
It’s not your fault, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. My best friend, for example, is one of the most naturally popular people I’ve ever met. She’s charming, and kind, and outgoing, and really fun, and people automatically and inevitably love being around her. She’s always had about a thousand people who want to spend time with her. But last year, she had a serious illness—not something lethal, but something which definitely incurred a lot of grossness and vomiting and deliriously high fevers. (She’s better now! Don’t worry!) It lasted for a long time, and it made her extremely tired, and she was also going to school throughout, so she couldn’t really pursue all her thousand different friendships in the way she wanted to. So some people dropped away. It wasn’t her fault for being sick, she’d done nothing wrong; it was just a case of losing some social capital.
But you’ll notice that I’m still referring to her as my “best friend.” And so are lots of other people. The relationships that last, through these hard times, aren’t the ones that are about getting something out of you. They’re the people who can hang with you when you’re having a panic attack, when you’re crying your eyes out, when you’re too tired to do anything but watch crap TV, when you’re just no fun at all. They’re the people who don’t just like you—they love you. By the time this is over, you’re going to know which friendships were conditional, and which ones to keep for the rest of your life. That’s a tremendous gift.
These deeper friendships are essential to the second part of this equation: figuring out what goodness you still have. No matter how total a catastrophe may seem to be—losing ALL of your friends, having to move to an ENTIRELY new city, trying something and failing at it and being so humiliated that you can NEVER try again (you can, and should, try again)—there is always something good left over. If you don’t have many friends right now, you might still have your art, your sport, whatever makes you feel like YOU (and, as it happens, a lot more time to practice). If your parents are getting divorced, you might still have your best friends. This stuff is essential to surviving a bad time.
When something awful happens, it’s often hard to focus on the remaining good factors in a situation. Awful happenings are so intense and overwhelming that they often command the majority of our attention. But it’s essential to look away from the catastrophe right now, to focus on the edges of the picture and away from the car wreck at its center, and see what’s there. By doing so, you can come to a whole new appreciation of what you want and need. When something awful and life-changing happens, the actual shape of your life becomes clear: you suddenly realize, out of the million different little factors that comprise Being You, which ones were essential to feeling good. This sounds cheesy—like, you just realize what really matters, you know?—but it’s not. Sometimes you only realize that something was essential to your happiness when it goes missing. Everybody hates their job, until they lose it, and then they’re broke.
This process is great, because realizing what you need is always great. If you need new friends, well, you now know which kinds of friends you don’t need, and you’ll be on the lookout for people who are nothing like the jerks who just dumped you. If you’re devastated because something you wrote is being made fun of, or you had a solo in the choir recital and flubbed it, suddenly you really do know how important it is to you to sing or to write well. And that kind of passion is what separates dilettantes from people who can devote their lives to a goal.
I used to be attracted exclusively to cool, smart, sarcastic, emotionally reserved, or troubled dudes that I had to chase—taking relationships seriously was so normal and boring and suburban, you know?—until I had my worst breakup ever, in which I lost my job, one of my two closest friends moved across the country, and this guy (whom I’d just moved in with) ditched me because I seemed depressed, and that was too much for him to deal with. It was awful. But after that, I knew that I did take relationships very seriously, and I wanted someone who wasn’t afraid to take them seriously, too—someone who wasn’t afraid to chase me, and to be emotionally expressive, even if that seemed uncool or sentimental.
And I got that. I got precisely that, in fact, from a friend who’d been around during the whole terrible breakup process, and we’ve been together for years, and I’m just absurdly happy. Like I say: when something terrible is happening and your life is changing, it pays to look for the good stuff in the picture.
Third, and finally, here’s the best part about ruining your life: you find out who you are.
When things are going well, you can take yourself pretty much for granted. That’s what happiness does: it lets you deal exclusively with the parts of yourself that you like and feel comfortable with. Happiness is like living in a big house, and only visiting a few big, sunny, well-cleaned rooms. That’s great; I’m not anti-happiness. Who could be? But, in the house of anyone’s mind or life, there are always rooms that haven’t been cleaned yet. Rooms that no one visits, places where junk is piled up and mice infest the floorboards and make nests out of old newspapers, dark and dim and unwelcoming inner places that everyone would prefer just to ignore.
When the worst happens, you have to visit those dark rooms. Like a teen in a horror movie, you just have to go down into the basement and see what’s hiding there. You get to know how you respond to stress, what grief feels like for you, and who you are when you’re consumed with anger. You have to visit feelings and aspects of your personality you’re not comfortable with; you have to (if you’ll let me stretch this particular metaphor to its breaking point) start cleaning up your junk.
But what you find can surprise you in some good ways. Maybe you’re resourceful in ways you’d never imagined. Maybe you have goals or needs or even good qualities that you’ve been ignoring; bad times have a way of showing those to you. Somewhere between my parents’ divorce when I was 16—that stepfather actually disappeared when it was over; I saw him twice again in my life, for five minutes each time—and my relationship with a dude who disappeared in part because he couldn’t be bothered to care for me when I was in need (and in part, let us be honest, because I am hell on toast when I’m upset; this is also an article about ruining your OWN life, after all), I found that I valued permanence and commitment and authenticity in relationships more than almost anything else in life. I’ve experienced a lot of unpleasant things, but what hurt me most was finding out that I had been wrong about how much people cared. But that’s what made me a good friend, and a sincere person: someone who could stick around for others during their own hard times, someone who would stick up for people or reach out to them when they were being bullied, and who would listen to people when they were lonely or afraid or stuck in a bad spot. I wouldn’t have known this about myself—and maybe I wouldn’t even have those qualities in the first place—had I not been through my own world-ending catastrophes.
You’ll never know what kind of a survivor you are until you have to survive something. Maybe you’re strong. Maybe you’re someone who can endure. Maybe you’re just incredibly good at staging comebacks, at arranging things so that you can make the best of a bad situation, and come out on top. You’ll never know, just like you’ll never know what really matters to you, or who your best friends are, until you’re called upon to live through a bad time.
When the worst happens, it’s always unpredictable, and strangely inevitable. But it’s only when the worst happens that you can discover the best in yourself. ♦