1. How do you tell the story of pain? All tragedies begin with hope and promise and end despair and destruction. This year, similarly, began with hope — a January filled with promise for adventures and love that ended up, twenty-seven days later, being the worst time of my life. How do you tell the story of pain? You don’t: you tell the story of how, after everything falls apart, you slowly rebuild.
2. Most people turn thirty years old and celebrate. I tried to kill myself. It sounds flippant now, but it’s true. Thirty is a year where most people have their lives on track; it is a year when people shed their childhood and embrace the goodness of progress. For me, I celebrated regression. I turned thirty years old under-employed, in therapy after a mental breakdown, in hospitals for panic attacks, in debt because of medical costs and reckless behavior brought on by despair. I turned thirty alone, not knowing who I was anymore. People begin to build a real life at thirty — I started my thirtieth year beginning at zero, again.
3. Frank Lloyd Wright once wrote: “The present is the ever-moving shadow that divides yesterday from tomorrow. In that lies hope.” When your yesterday causes so much pain that your tomorrow seems unfathomable, you live in the present. You get through today, and that’s all you have. Each day, you figure out something new: you find a job, you meet people, you realize that hiding in your apartment, medicated (legally and not), does not help your sanity. The individual “todays” make up weeks, a month. Life begins to look like life, even just a little, again. Even then, you still live in the present that divides yesterday from tomorrow; you still search for hope.
4. The cherry blossoms in High Park make me smile. The trees, the trails, the squirrels, the children playing by the pond: they are all small sources of joy. Small joys also come from a change of place, a change of space, a change of pace. And so I move. Move to the High Park/Junction neighborhood, move in with a friend, move away from a pool of memories, good and bad, to begin to forge new ones. The spring brings with it the re-emergence of cherry blossoms, and the re-emergence of opportunity after a particularly dark winter.
5. You never know when you’re going to find the person who helps you pick up the pieces of a broken psyche. Sometimes they are a lover, or a friend, or a stranger, or a doctor. Sometimes they are all of the above. Sometimes you meet someone for a drink and then a walk in the park and then dinner and then you stay up waiting for them to message you because they have unwittingly become the thread that is holding your fragile self together after being strewn on the floor for so long.
6. For a long time after being hit by a car early in the year, my brother couldn’t move some of his fingers in certain ways. Even now, he has limited motion and feeling in parts of his hand. The driver of the car has no way of knowing this, because he drove away without stopping to see the damage he had caused, without getting to know who he had hurt and how. My brother took this all in stride, and taught me a lesson: sometimes the person who hurts you doesn’t stop, or even care to know just what kind of damage they have done. Dwelling on that doesn’t help you heal; healing comes from coming to terms with that damage and building a life around the new limitations that you have.
7. Panic attacks are not appropriately named. Instead, their name should be reminiscent of what they do to you, their ability to take your breath away to the point where you can’t see or stand or face the world. They should be called a name that makes them seem like more than just fright and anxiety — something that recalls days and nights spent in emergency rooms, recovering from cuts and bruises and hypothermia and shame from collapsing to the ground, curling up in a ball, gasping for air for hours until someone calls an ambulance and the nurse looks at you, again, and sighs because she knows that she can’t help you and she’ll be seeing you again. Today. Tomorrow. Maybe three times next week, maybe twelve. You call your boss and tell him that you’re in the hospital again; you tell your girlfriend that you’re caught up at work so that she doesn’t worry; you tell your family that you have a cold; you tell yourself that, at some point, it’s not worth fighting anymore. And then you pick yourself up, keep fighting for a few more hours until your next panic attack takes your breath away again.
8. I used to wear a t-shirt on the beach. More accurately, I used to avoid beaches. I was ashamed of my body, and ashamed of the way she saw and thought of my body. Spending six days a week at the gym this year not only brought me the confidence to take my shirt off in the water, and not only gave me structure and an outlet to focus my internal tumult, but also gave me a desire to go to the beach, to sit in the sun and relax and not worry about what she thinks and what everyone else thinks. To be me, to be indulgent, to dip my toes in the water and start to feel alive again.
9. The leaves change colors in the fall. People change colors in the fall, too. Some people start pulling away in the fall and start losing their love and you don’t notice it until the dark of winter and you’re left without shelter in the cold. Some other people pull you close and make you realize that the heat you felt in the summer was not an aberration, but instead a sign that you’re worth keeping around through a few more seasons. Some people, like me, like the trees, shed their leaves of the past and start getting ready to grow new ones. Some of those leaves may haunt the tree, refuse to fall off, but most of them will eventually disappear. In the spring, new life will erupt. For now, this fall, the trees and I shed people and memories that are changing colors and withering, and build strength for the cold season ahead.
10. It is strange to think that we spend so much of our lives working at jobs where we make enough money to support the little part of our lives when we aren’t at work. It is then glorious to one day discover that the work you are doing now is your life’s calling, that the work you have done until this point prepared you and set you up for a job where you have purpose and fulfillment. It shouldn’t be strange, but it is an odd feeling to wake up every morning and realize: this is my legacy, my life’s work, the thing that keeps me moving and living and happy. Work isn’t just work anymore, but instead joy.
11. True healing comes not from just being able to bounce off the horrors of the past, but from facing those horrors again and standing strong in their midst. I am not healed — I crumble at the sight of an engagement ring on her finger on the streetcar, or at the sight of the airport gate in Chicago, or at the seemingly-permanent imprint of her face in the back of my eyelids every time I attempt (and fail, still, after all these months) to get a good night’s sleep — but I am healing. I am reclaiming spaces and places and experiences; I am reclaiming a sense of self. It is frightening.
12. At the start of the year, I decided that my word for the year would be “move.” It was, in hindsight, an a propos word: I moved jobs, houses, careers, mindsets. I was more active, I explored my city, and I delivered more projects. I moved. I did not, however, move on — instead I realized that moving on was counter-productive.
Moving on is couched in an implicit notion of forgetting, of letting go. There is no healing in forgetting; there is no learning in letting go. Someone once told me that she will forget me entirely, but will never forgive me; I now respond that I will forgive her entirely, but will never forget her. When you forget, when you let go, when you move on, you throw away all the moments of happiness and joy with all the hurt and pain. There is no solace in forgetting — things hurt the same no matter how hard you try to let them go, and there is no respite in letting go.
When you really and truly love someone, you do not move on. You do not forget, you do not let go. You move forward, but you do not leave them. You keep them inside you and use their memory as a reminder of how it felt to loved then left, how it felt to be cared for then hurt, and how it felt to be yourself and then learn to be someone else.
In 2012 I did not move on, but I did move. For that, I believe am a better person. This year, now, moves on to the next.