One of the most cliché things people say when something bad happens is, “you’re going to come out of this even stronger.” How can something so true sound like such bullshit? When you’re in the midst of heartbreak, grief or trauma, the last thing you want to hear is that this experience is somehow going to improve your life in the end. But it always does.
To illustrate my point, I have to dig into my own experiences. That can be difficult to do, and even more difficult to put out into the world. You always worry about what people will think, what assumptions they will make about your experiences – or even more terrifying – about what kind of person you are. Being misunderstood has always been one of my deepest emotional anxieties.
One of my spirit animals is RuPaul. Among his many resonating and meaningful quotes is this one; “What other people think of me is none of my business.” As a developing writer, that message is becoming more and more pertinent. It is important to keep a sense of perspective when opening up yourself and your experiences to interpretation. The most honest thing I can write about is my own truth, and not one person can deny me that.
The most difficult experience I’ve been through in my life happened only two years ago, and it led me quite literally to where I am today. I was 24 with everything together. I had a good job, the first car I bought myself, a downtown loft apartment, great friends, a loving family, and a partner I loved dearly. The date everything changed sticks out in my memory – October 13, 2011.
To put a long, painful story short, my partner left me overnight. I came home from work, he took me out to dinner and told me he was moving across the country early the next morning. I have blurry, tear-streamed visions of that night and into the next morning, pleading with him to not go. We had one last, desperate kiss around 4 or 5 a.m. and I never saw him again.
Devastated is an understatement for what proceeded. He wouldn’t get in touch with anyone from his work, so they contacted me for all the files he had and company property he had taken with him. In an attempt to recover work documents from an external hard drive he left behind, I found journal entries throughout most of our relationship confessing his growing resentment and eventual “repulsion” (his word) of me. There were awful things written about my body. Often, these things were being written while I was in the room with him. It was incredibly painful to read, and there are times I wish I never had.
There was a crippling sense of loss and a visceral sensation of heartbreak I had never before experienced. I had an apartment half full of the belongings of someone I only thought I knew. An apartment I could no longer afford in a city that no longer felt like home. I’ll be the first to admit I dove headfirst into that relationship. I gave it everything I had. I believed in it fiercely – I did not think it would end. I mourned the end of the life I had envisioned with him, and I mourned the person I had believed him to be.
His family showed me endless compassion and helped me break our lease and came to collect his remaining belongings. I made the decision within a week to move to France. It was the moment where I decided to pursue my own dreams and take a leap for myself. After consulting several friends from my French program, I decided to become an au pair. I found a family to host me for 8 months and bought a one-way ticket in December 2011.
Now, this all sounds pretty great. Moving to Europe to find yourself after a horrible breakup sounds like the plot to a bad rom-com, but the reality was much more complex. Shortly after I arrived, a close friend of mine back home passed away. It was a few days before Christmas, and I was in a new country with a new family celebrating Christmas with entirely new traditions. I can promise you I sneaked away to cry at least once that holiday.
I remained an au pair until July of 2012, at which point I decided to move to Berlin. My time in France was a deeply rewarding experience not without its challenges. I learned an incredible amount about myself and I developed a self-confidence I thought I had lost when I hit puberty. There were days I was in agony and there were days I felt invincible. It took a long time until I stopped trying to figure out why he left. It took me even longer to stop fantasizing about what I might say if I ever saw him again.
This new life I’ve started hasn’t been all sunshine and roses, either. It’s been a long, uphill battle to completely start over in a new country. I’ve faced a unique set of challenges that have further developed me into the woman I am today. The past two years have really shaped me, and I’m grateful for that. Despite the deep darkness I found myself in, I was able to move forward with my life in a really exciting way.
Not every hardship gives you such a clear cut opportunity to change your life. Sometimes the bad things that happen are just bad without opening any more doors to you. Regardless, I think it’s true that even the worst situations can lead you to come out the other side of an experience stronger, wiser and more capable. Maybe you learn a little more compassion. Maybe you learn you’re worth more to yourself than you realized.
Sometimes the lessons are more cynical. You learn what kind of people you should avoid. You learn what you won’t ever put up with again. Even those lessons are empowering. You are telling yourself, “I’m better than this.” That’s important. You have to realize that your life and your experiences are the only person’s you have any control over. You have to bend the arc of your life story towards self-love and personal growth. If you don’t, you risk letting the bad things that happen to you take over your life.
There was a time in my life where I felt like a victim, and indeed I’ve faced a fair amount of trauma in my life. I was bullied in my early adolescence and was sexually assaulted in high school. I had many emotionally exploitative friendships. I wondered why all these bad things happened to me, and I kept putting myself in harm’s way. I didn’t love myself enough to walk away from people who were poisonous. I wanted their love. I wanted their acceptance. For me, it really took someone just shitting on my life for me to say “no, fuck that!”
No matter what has happened in your life, tomorrow can be a new day. I know there are people who don’t see that, who cling to their pain and let it nourish them until they are hollow, spiteful versions of their former selves. It’s always painful to see people brought down by what happens to them. Don’t let that happen to you. Not a damn person on this earth is worth that.
You might not have control over what happens to you, but you can control how you interpret and internalize the experience. Some might even say that you need bad experiences in life to make you a more well-rounded person. No matter what you’re going through, one thing I can assure you is that the way you feel in the moment is, like everything else in life, temporary. You will get through it. The road may be long and dirty, but when you come out the other side, you’re going to shine brighter than you ever have.