I have spent a lot of time on my own this summer.
Some of that was not by choice. When you find yourself at the end of something, there tends to be a few responses. First, you go numb. Second, you get mad. You throw things away and cut all of your hair off and lose a lot of weight (I highly recommend the Break-Up Diet of just being so sad you can’t eat) and open up a bazillion dating site accounts. You say shit you don’t mean (“Hey, I’m fine!” “I’m totally over this whole thing!” “I’m ready to date again!” “I AM SO UNBELIEVABLY FINE!” and then you wonder why people are looking at you funny). People get engaged and you express your (completely sincere) happiness to them while frantically pushing down the searing pain in your gut. You back out of social events because you feel utterly humiliated by how much of a failure you are. And you hold on. You hold on with your bare hands to anything that feels normal.
This summer could have very easily made me go “Oh, I’m screwed. I’m about to turn thirty, I’m single, I’m still trying to get a full time job and that’s probably why I’m alone, I can barely keep my house clean, everything is awful and hopeless and I’m just gonna curl up into a ball and binge watch Bojack Horseman. THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE THE YEAR I DID EVERYTHING RIGHT AND I JUST WANT MY LIFE TO START, DAMMIT!”
Therapist told me “You are handling this way better than most people handle this sort of thing.” Which was very good to hear, considering how crazy I felt, but at the same time it made me go “…holy shit. There are people who are handling this WORSE than I am?!”
Then everything starts to hit and when it does, you remember your therapist telling you that keeping everything bottled up will make things worse in the long run, so you cry. You cry for a really, really long time. And then you’re fine for a few days, and then you cry again. Because you had all of these dreams, you see. You had all of these ideas and dreams and fantasies of an existence that won’t happen in the precise way you planned, and even though there had been so many red flags, you held on until your knuckles split and you crashed down and now you’re left feeling an unbearable sense of failure. And then, you start thinking about all of the other times in your life that you tried to control the end of a story and it failed miserably.
And for some insane reason, I started thinking about when I was sixth grade and I tried to hold on to something – and someone – that ultimately wasn’t good for me.
I was not a very popular kid. I was the total nerd who had some good friends but I would always look over at the popular table with envy. They were all pretty and thin and blonde and hairless, whereas I basically turned into a werewolf with braces in seventh grade. But the main thing was that I just wanted to be friends with everyone. Well, not friends – I just wanted everyone to like me. I have a psychotic need to be liked.
When I was in fifth grade, I had this friend. For the sake of this post and for privacy, I’ll call her Elphaba. Elphaba was fun, and loud, and kooky, and we were on the same travel basketball team, and I thought we would always be besties. We spent a lot of time that summer goofing around and playing, and when we won the Manchester Basketball Association Championship and I was voted MVP of the team (Go Black Knights!) we celebrated equally. I felt on top of the world.
Then, in sixth grade, she was in the same homeroom as me. I thought, “This is great! I can be friends with my pal from basketball again and everything will be awesome.” But Elphaba had changed. She wasn’t so fun anymore. She was mean, and spiteful, and aggressive. I don’t know what was going on with her and part of me wishes I had been a bit more sympathetic, but when you’re eleven, you just assume that people are going to be friends with you if they were originally friends with you.
For the entire year, I racked my brain trying to figure out what I did or said that would have made Elphaba turn on me the way she did. What was the moment where my friend turned into my enemy? She bullied me mercilessly and even got other friends to turn against me. It wasn’t necessarily the things she did that hurt, but the things she didn’t do. She acted like I didn’t even exist, and when I tried to be her friend, she’d lash out. My mom was apoplectic every time I tried to defend Elphaba, saying to me “Ally, she’s a horrible person! Why do you still want to have her in your life!?”
And all I could say was “But she was so nice to me last year. I know she still has a nice person in there, somewhere. I can’t just give up. I have to fix this!”
“Ally,” my mom said, trying to be kind but failing to disguise the agitation in her voice, “Not everyone is going to want to be friends with you. You can’t control other people.”
WHAT. That’s bullshit! I’m awesome! Anyone who doesn’t want to be friends with me is insane and OF COURSE I CAN CONTROL OTHER PEOPLE! my brain screamed.
This line of thinking is, in fact, horrifically toxic. The more you know…
I kept trying to no avail. I got more and more upset and isolated and anxious about going to school each day. I wanted her to be my friend so badly but every time I tried she just clawed away from me. I would have done anything. Nothing changed. Finally, school counselors intervened and Elphaba quit actively trying to make my life hell, but clearly we were never friends after that. I don’t know what became of her after that; I went off to high school at Porter’s and never heard about her again. I couldn’t fix her. I couldn’t rescue her. She didn’t give a shit about being fixed. And it took me a long time to realize that I hadn’t actually done anything wrong. She just stopped wanting to be in my life. Which blows, but life is unfair sometimes.
This has happened a few times in my life, mainly because I’m horrible at realizing that some people just won’t ever give a shit enough about me to realize what they’re doing, so then I blame myself for not trying harder. But it’s also because I suck at building and maintaining boundaries with people who aren’t good for me. I don’t mean the walls that go up when you can’t be emotionally open with someone. I mean boundaries that allow you to protect yourself and maintain a healthy dose of self-care and self-respect. I let everyone all the way in, because I’m a very optimistic and loving person with a big heart. And then I’m like “Oh shit, this person just screwed me over, again, and I just…let them.”
I have a pathological need for people to like me, when I really shouldn’t give a shit. I mean, as long as I like me, everything should be fine. Right?
I’m going through a bit of that right now. But the thing that totally blows about this situation is that in sixth grade, with all of my fighting to keep this one toxic person in my life, I kind of forgot about the other, awesome people in my life, who genuinely liked me, who thought I was smart, and who wanted me around. Who didn’t want to change me.
We tend to focus on the bad people instead of the good people.
You can’t really control who comes into your life, or how they’ll behave once they’re in it. And you definitely can’t control when people leave it or how they behave as they’re leaving it. That’s the heart of life, after all. People coming and going. People making you happy. People breaking your heart. People just vanishing. Nobody stays forever. But you can control how you act when they are in your life. You can either make people (other people) the center of your happiness, and you can live and die on their actions, and hold on WAY too tightly when people try to leave, or…you can just trust that you are enough and complete and whole by yourself, and let people add on to your life.
That’s a lesson I haven’t really internalized until this summer, because I love hard when I love people. I love entirely and completely and I allow other people way too deeply into my soul and I love so much that I forget to notice the little things that really should make me pause, and then I turn into someone that I kind of can’t stand. I’m not saying I’m going to love less, but I’m going to be pickier in how I spend my love. The quality of who I choose to spend my time with needs to get severely edited. I spent a long, long time very afraid of articulating how I felt in certain situations because I didn’t want other people to be mad at me. Because I’ve had too many people just up and leave when I spoke up. But I’ve realized – maybe the people who up and left when I spoke up were doing me a favor. Maybe they were vacating a spot that should be held by someone better. And maybe I need to be okay with myself first before I start trying to let someone else run my shit.
There’s a saying that I hear in yoga circles a lot called “kula.” It means “community of the heart,” or tribe. You gotta find your tribe. And it’s gotta be filled with people who love you ferociously, who would do anything for you, who will call you out on your bullshit, and who will be there when you need them. And the way you get that tribe is by being yourself, unapologetically. You have to be okay with yourself and your journey before anyone else can. And if they aren’t okay with you and your journey, or they try to fundamentally change who you are, you have to let them go. Otherwise you’re holding on to things that weren’t meant to be. Because I realized something as I was going through this valley of Emotion – I’m doing all of the right things. I’m trying to get a full time job, I’m not just sitting around not working on it. I’m actively seeking my own happiness. I’m doing musicals again, something I thought I would never do. I’m a good person. I’m a good friend. Maybe I wasn’t meant to get married or have kids, but instead I’ll pour that energy into doing good work.
After you cry, and get mad, and cut people out, you know what you do after that in the grieving process? You call up your friends and tell them “I’m in a lot of pain” and they just show up. They feed you with love, and concern, and rage, and sometimes really good barbecue and alcohol. They let you play with their animals or their babies or both. They let you cry on them. They send you funny memes. They give you CRAZY tough love that hurt like hell but it made you stronger.
Those are the people I want in my corner. I heard from people I haven’t heard from in years and I remembered just how amazing they are. That’s the way it should be. The right people will stay.
So that’s where I am right now. I’ve turned the corner from thinking everything is terrible, to thinking that perhaps my best days are ahead of me, with the people who were meant to share those days right alongside me. And in the words of my spirit animal, Tracy McConnell from How I Met Your Mother, “The world only spins forward.”
To the best days yet to come.
PS – I’m still pissed about the How I Met Your Mother finale. Not so much because the Mother croaked, but because of how they totally fucked up Robin and Barney. You spend an ENTIRE season on this one wedding weekend and then divorce them in the first twenty minutes of the finale and then Robin’s this bitter single lady who sacrificed love for her career and abandons all of her friends because they give her the sads? NOPE. It was slightly redeemed by the whole “Barney meets Ellie” scene that had me practically weeping. Still, BAD FORM.
PPS – Some of those popular girls I salivated over being friends with in middle school? We’re all friends now, and we are making plans to get together and catch up now that I’m, you know, not psychotically trying to get their attention and I’m just being myself. Just goes to show you that you shouldn’t have to TRY to get people to like you, or work crazy hard to get them to be in your life. They should just be in your life.