When I was 19, I decided to quit.
Quit what, exactly?
I dropped out of college. I quit my job. I stopped talking to my family. I resigned from all the clubs I was in. I broke up with the guy I was dating. (Okay, he broke up with me.)
I called up one of my best friends and cussed her out.
For two weeks, I basically squatted in a drug dealer’s house, in a room with no furniture besides an old mattress someone had left. He let me stay as long as I wanted, for just a hundred bucks.
Here’s what all that taught me:
Anyone can give up.
Back in high school, I put up a facade. I was a prep on the outside, goth on the inside. I made straight A’s and had the kind of test scores your parents brag about. My friends all thought I was going to an Ivy League. Then a series of unfortunate events happened.
My mom’s mental health got worse. She turned violent. She bankrupted my family with credit card debt. Every day for years, I thought she was going to kill us all in our sleep.
Somehow I got through all of that and made it into college, but not anywhere close to my top choice. My parents discouraged me from applying anywhere but two state schools, and I let them kill my self-esteem.
I grew bitter.
I scowled at other people’s happy families and success stories. Life wasn’t fair after all, and it gave me a quiet, inner rage.
Giving up happens gradually.
You don’t just up and quit one day, not when it comes to your entire life. You do it gradually. You give up one thing at a time.
First I gave up running.
Then I gave up backpacking and kayaking.
Next, I gave up wearing my best clothes. I wore a Jessica Jones getup with ripped jeans and old shirts. After that, I started showing up to my classes later and later, before I quit going altogether.
I convinced myself there was no point in calculus or French history because I was at a worthless school, and nobody was ever going to take me seriously, no matter how hard I worked.
I was almost there. Now all I had to do was focus on all of my problems, and stop thinking about my future. I was going to be waiting tables for the rest of my life, and that was just fine. Finally, I stopped believing that I was worth anything to anyone.
Ultimately, it took me about three months to give up on life. By then I didn’t realize that’s what I’d done.
I didn’t realize how bad it felt.
When you give up on yourself, so does everyone else.
That was a dark winter.
I still showed up to work, but my boss despised me. I didn’t smile, not even with my eyes. Customers left my tables early. Some nights, I just hid somewhere and read a book.
He found me in the back kitchen one night, reading The Fuck-Up by Arthur Nersesian and drinking an Irish cappuccino.
“You can quit,” he said. “Or I can fire you.”
“It’s cool,” I said. “I’ll quit.”
On my way to clock out, he gave me this look of confused pity. “What the hell happened to you?” he said. “You used to be so smart and sexy. Now you’re like a drug addict, except you don’t even do drugs.”
He had a point. Nobody flirted with me anymore. Nobody made conversation with me. I was boring to talk to because all I did talk about my big plans to move to New York one day and get out of this hell hole. People couldn’t stand to be around me for five minutes.
Somewhere around there, my boyfriend also ghosted. He was the first guy I’d had sex with, so it kinda hurt.
That’s what happens when you give up.
It becomes a team effort.
It doesn’t matter how successful you are.
Losers aren’t born.
It doesn’t matter what you’ve accomplished. There’s no vaccine against giving up. Someone can go from having everything they thought they wanted to having nothing and nobody at all.
Stories about downfalls fascinate us. We don’t understand how someone falls from the top of the world to the bottom.
It’s not that hard.
Every single one of us has a voice in our head that wants us to stop trying. It wants to give up. It wants to believe that we have no talent and no intelligence. It wants us to see a bleak future.
This voice likes taking up space in your head. For some of us, it never goes away. You have to fight it constantly. The more you fight it, the easier it gets. But it never goes away, not completely.
It’s the Babadook you keep in the basement.
Your sob story is going to irritate some people.
When I was out there in the land of quitting, I made friends with a homeless woman who drank behind the bar where I worked.
We got along for a while.
I thought our friendship was something special. I convinced myself maybe she was the only person in the entire world who knew what it was like to be me. Yeah, it was pretty arrogant.
She ended up shaking me down for ten dollars, and my jacket. It wasn’t exactly a mugging. It was more like an extreme guilt-tripping. We were just talking one night, and all of a sudden she snapped. “You think you’ve got problems?” She was tired of hearing me compare our lives like they were the same. She found it insulting. Then she demanded all my cash. It wasn’t much. She looked dissatisfied, so I threw in the jacket.
Then I walked home, slowly realizing what an utter disaster I was.
I couldn’t do this anymore.
All you have to do is ask for help.
Help doesn’t always come, but it comes more often than we think. You just have to ask for it.
You just have to get over yourself.
A few days before Christmas, I called my dad. I expected him to say more hurtful things and then hang up the phone. Instead, he invited me back home. We started showing each other a little more appreciation.
My professors turned my failed grades into withdrawals, and the university put me on probation instead of kicking me off my scholarships. Friends started trickling back into my life.
Slowly, I remembered what gratitude felt like.
You don’t bounce back. You crawl.
It took the better part of a year to feel normal again. It probably took even longer to undo the damage I’d done to my future. The ghost feelings of giving up haunted me. For years, I felt scared that it might happen again. I’d start to slip back down to the ocean floor.
That fear was a nice motivator.
I’m not a big fan of bootstrapping stories. The world can be a cruel place. Not everyone gets a second chance. Some people don’t even get the first chance. If you do, though, don’t waste it.
There’s one thing I know that’s true for everyone. That feeling of hopelessness you get from giving up is unbearable. You don’t want to stay there for long if you can help it.
If you can’t pull yourself up, get help.
It’s worth it.