What to do when you've ruined your life
Every now and then, life becomes unacceptable.
It can happen for all sorts of reasons, but it generally comes down to one thing. You’ve lost something that really fucking mattered.
Maybe it’s a person. Maybe it’s a job. Maybe it’s your health.
Or maybe you’ve lost the idea of something. Like, an idealised future that for some reason suddenly seems completely out of reach. Because you fucked something up (or because you’re convinced you fucked something up.)
Ohhh *that's* why I'm so exhausted
When life is unacceptable, every day is another fight with reality. You wake up, remember what’s going on, and feel like shit.
Angry. Incredulous. Guilty. Ashamed. Whatever your particular cocktail of emotions, the internal message is clear: ‘life shouldn’t be like this’.
This fight with How Things Are is exhausting. It’s a fight you can’t win, but what else are you supposed to do?
Losing your grip on reality. Not as fun as it sounds.
The first time my life became unacceptable, it was because I'd lost something I didn't even think I *could* lose. I lost my grip on reality. As I described it for The Spinoff a while back, not long after my 23rd birthday, my life fell apart. I woke up one morning, and the world was a much scarier place, punctuated by episodic breaks from reality:
"Moments when time and space would cease to exist, sometimes for hours on end. And waves of immense terror.
As the months ticked on, there were many things I couldn’t do the way I used to. Each day one more thing was now outside my rapidly shrinking comfort zone. And worst of all, I had no idea why any of this was happening in the first place."
I didn't include this next bit in that very public publication, but the truth is I had *some* idea of why it was all happening. The night before that first morning, I'd taken some drugs. Nothing too racy, but they turned out to be less "recreational" and more "traumatically redefine your ability to trust in the basic reality of the present moment for months on end". So along with the bewilderment and angst, there was a good dose of guilt and self-flagellation thrown in, for doing this to myself.
Guilty until proven -- nope still guilty
When life becomes unacceptable, guilt is often a major player.
Even without the psychedelic pyrotechnics of my particular story, it's easy to feel like your situation is your fault. Maybe you're going through a break up, and doubting your decision (or doubting the things you did that lead to *their* decision). Maybe you feel like you've ruined your career prospects somehow, and are doubting every life choice that got you to this point (oof).
Or maybe you just feel awful through no fault of your own, but your inability to do anything about *that* makes you feel guilty and inadequate.
Not surprisingly, this internal pile-on doesn’t make you feel better. (Cue feeling guilty about how guilty you feel. Your brain may actually be an evil genius. Sorry.)
It's possible to ruin your life more than once. (And this is actually a good thing.)
Here's the thing. Some of us know that it’s possible to ruin your life beyond all repair, more than once. And while that may sound terrifying, there's actually a clue here about why we dive so deep into the Pit of Despair.
At 23 I thought for sure I had no future. I thought my brain was completely fried.
Back then, I had no way of knowing how totally I would transcend the pit of despair I found myself in. I had no way of even imagining how I'd one day look back and say, 'that pit of despair *made* me who I am, and I wouldn't change a thing'.
Then this year, a decade later, I ruined my life again (no drugs this time, just pure organic, grass-fed Life Stuff).
This time around there was a tiny voice in my head saying ‘wait on, we’ve been here before.’ In some ways that voice helped. ('I have expertise in Ruined Life Reclamation'). And in some ways it didn't help at all. ('That doesn't make this any less awful.')
But the fact that I'd been there before *did* point me toward something really important. Despair doesn’t have to make sense. It feels real, even when it’s completely unfounded.
You will feel like your life is ruined, even when it isn’t. And that my friends is a very big deal, because it means...
Fear can't see the future
When we're stuck, when we're hung up on whatever Thing is ruining our life, in our lighter moments we may try to convince ourselves that the Thing is not so bad, that the Thing will get better. And then, moments later when the fear returns, we feel all the more hopeless.
If you're anything like me, you then take that feeling of hopelessness as evidence of how fucked you are. You say to yourself, 'if I'm *this* afraid of having no future, I must *really* have no future.'
And yet, it is possible to despair at losing all hope of a good life, and then go on to live a very good life. It is possible to do this more than once, and each time think for sure that *this* one's the one you won't come back from.
Our fear can't see the future. That's the whole point. We're afraid because we *don't* know what's going to happen next (will I feel this awful forever? will this awful thing get even awfuller?). And in the grips of that overwhelming feeling, we think that means there *is* no future (or at least no good one).
Your problems may never get smaller, but you will get bigger
You can probably think of some worry that consumed you years ago, but doesn’t even warrant a second thought now. (That break up you agonised over, that exam you completely tanked.)
But sometimes things happen that do leave a scar. Sorrow that won’t ever really go - or that will take so long to process that for a long time you won’t believe it will ever end.
In these instances, it’s not about making the problem smaller. The comfort here is not platitudes (‘it’ll be alright’), because even if it *will* get better, your fear won't let you believe that.
The comfort, when you can find it, is something more like this: These problems are big. That may or may not change. But know this, you won’t always be this small. You will grow, and you will be bigger, and these big problems will be less overwhelming by comparison. Every day, week, month you stay on this earth, you will grow.
There will even be times you feel really big - sitting and meditating perhaps, or in flow out in the world doing the thing you’re great at, and your mind will be like sky and you will feel (really feel) that there is space for this big horrible stuff. Even space for that. And then there will be times, sometimes moments later, when the sky crashes in, when you are small again, when you seem to be completely overtaken by these big problems. And you can survive it all. Even all this.
And there will be times when you get sick of this back and forth, and you’re not sure whether you can keep it up. And then there will be times you see that back and forth as a kind of wayward, soulful dance, and you’ll find your feet, and your feet will find your rhythm. And on and on it will go, as long as it needs to. Wherever it may take you.