My Worst Month Became My Best: Here's How
I subscribe to a lot of digital newsletters. As a writer, I need to read widely; as a wellness junkie, I love to browse the latest crystal trends and zodiac-themed self-care routines (Pisces should take lots of baths, apparently). One article in particular caught my eye this morning as I skimmed the mindbodygreen newsletter, thanks to its provocative title: “Trauma Can Have A Positive Impact On Your Life. Here’s How.” The piece discusses the phenomenon of post-traumatic growth, a theory developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the nineties. Tedeschi and Calhoun posited that the psychological struggle to cope with trauma, resulting in new thought and behavioral patterns, can result in positive growth. Post-traumatic growth is an appealing idea: who among us hasn’t tried to put a positive spin on the hellish experiences that life throws at us? On its face, the theory makes sense, too, as stories abound of people recovering from trauma and becoming even stronger than before.
That said, post-traumatic growth is controversial, since it’s difficult to distinguish between actual growth and perceived growth. We want to believe we’re better off, of course, but it’s hard to say if we actually are. Further reading on the subject tells me that post-traumatic growth is not a universally accepted truth. Regardless of the theory’s veracity, however, the article got me thinking.
I’m currently on a bus headed south to Sevilla. We’re passing through endless rolling hills of olive trees. (Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world, contrary to popular belief that Italy holds the crown.) Yesterday I spent the evening laughing and loving in Madrid, my favorite city in the world. On Sunday night, I drank red wine and Coke out of smiling plastic cups with new friends, dangling my feet over the edge of an ancient wall as we gazed at La Alhambra in Granada. One of them said the meaning of life is to make a good story. I was lost in flamenco music in Córdoba on Friday and Saturday. I spent the earlier part of last week flying along the river in Sevilla, running through skate parks and street art. In just the past seven days, I’ve met people from fifteen different countries. I feel like I live a lifetime in a day. There is still a week left in January, and all these adventures have already made it one of the best months of my life.
And to think that it almost didn’t happen.
If you've been reading for a while, you may remember that last autumn was a turbulent season for me. From late October to late November, I was shattered. I had lost my best friend. I had lost the person with whom I was in love. I had lost my future plans to move to Barcelona, and with that, I had lost my certainty. I had left my job and my home in Washington, DC, along with the many people I love in that city. I had no idea what I was doing anymore. My old fears came back to haunt me. I was worried that I would free fall, and not in the poetic Tom Petty sort of way. Anxiety knotted in my stomach for a week straight with no pause, so I chased distractions just to feel like I could breathe. I promised myself that eventually I would figure things out. I told myself that at some point I wouldn’t have to drag myself through each day. Stripped of all the things that used to structure my life, it was one of the toughest months I’ve ever had. There’s no getting around that: it fucking sucked.
Had that month not happened, I would not be here. Had I not lost those people, had my heart not been broken, had my plans not been destroyed, I wouldn’t be riding this mercifully cheap, uncomfortable bus through Andalucía right now, weathered and bruised but full of infinite possibility. Had everything happened the way it was supposed to, I would not have experienced this kind of joy.
The saying goes that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. Promises of love, pleasure, and adventure sound pretty when they come out of someone else’s mouth, but what I’m finding is that the real bliss arrives when you create these things on your own. The harsh but empowering truth is that you have to be ready to get your hands dirty. You have to be willing to reach into the best and worst parts of yourself alone when no one else has the courage to do it with you. That’s what I’ve been doing, and it scares me sometimes but I’ve never felt more inspired.
The thing is, pushing myself through each of those terrible days in that terrible month landed me somewhere entirely new. Never before had I been forced to deal with a traumatic experience without the support of a romantic partner. Never before had my heart been broken. Never before had I felt so thoroughly betrayed, so untethered and so far from where I thought I was supposed to be. The distance between where I expected to be and where I actually was terrified me, but also showed me who I am.
That is the beauty of becoming unmoored. It forced me to anchor in the only place left: myself. The result is a kind of freedom I've never experienced before. The losses liberated me; opening me up to the limitlessness of the horizon and my own future. I lost a lot, but as my mother reminds me, I chose much of that loss. I decided to travel; I decided to end my long-term relationship; I decided to leave my job. With all the external trappings of my life gone, I was all I had. That experience was incredibly painful, but it's also probably the best thing to have ever happened to me, because it led me here. Without one of the worst months of my life, I would never have arrived at one of the best.
So, have I experienced post-traumatic growth? I don’t know. Heartbreak felt like withdrawal from hard drugs and people vanished from my life as if they’d died. My world turned upside down for a little while. I did my best to cope with the losses. I’d like to say I’m better off, but science tells us that it’s probably impossible for me to know. I can’t say whether I’m happier now than I would have been had my life gone according to plan, because that version of me never came into being. Here’s what I do know:
I wouldn’t trade the past month for anything.
I know what I want.
I know who the fuck I am.
And she’s got guts.