How You’ll Survive

(or: How Change Will Change You)

Stunning. Absolutely stunning.

There it is. The big news. This is serious. Pivotal. Huge. Your life will never be the same. It feels like everything that happened to you before this moment was just preparation for this. But you don’t feel prepared. Not at all. You feel stunned. Floored. Unready. Unsteady. And you should. This is, after all the biggest thing that’s ever happened to you.

You. Yes, you. This is happening to you.

You question the universe. You doubt the paperwork. You worry that there’s been some sort of brazenly stupid cosmic mistake. It’s all too much. Too big. Too preposterous. Too strange. Too real. You feel like you’ve been assigned to the wrong class or opened someone else’s mail. This disbelief will linger like a smell you want to scrub away.

You’re not sure how to handle public relations.

With some people, you downplay it. You say it’s not that big of a deal, you say you’re doing just fine, that of course you’re not overwhelmed or freaked out or numb from shock. With others, you admit how stunning it is: that this is actually happening — that it’s happening to you. And you’re not lying when you say either of those things, because you’re not sure how you feel about it, not quite, not exactly. Not yet.

You have a lot to learn, even if you already know a lot. 
This is an awful realization.

You are desperate for information. All of the information. There are books to read on this. Classes to take. Groups to join. Websites to bookmark. Right? You can do this. You can find out what you need to know. And you cry. Because you don’t know if you can. You feel like just don’t know anything.

You learn to tread water.

Somehow, you stay upright. You make plans and a tiny bit of progress. You let this become a job, this tedious work. You let it take over more of your life than you thought possible. And you look for milestones, safe harbors on the horizon. You wish for solid ground beneath your feet, but you feel only cold and see only darkness. And you worry about yourself and your fortitude — even as you successfully manage not drown.

Bonds get tested.

Some will break. Some will get stronger. You’ll be surprised at which do what. Clearly, this will cost you some friends (they either don’t know what to say or don’t want to say what they think). But the people who stay with you through this are treasures, and you would do anything for them — just not now, not yet. You’re not strong enough to pay things forward. But you promise yourself that you will soon.

This is a treadmill with no off switch.

Your progress feels small and feeble, pitiful and inconsequential. You trudge for days and get nowhere. The effort it takes to accomplish the smallest of things feels epic and desperate, deep and monumental. Nothing is adding up anymore. This is the opposite of fun.

Your new reality is not your new normal.

This is not how you thought it would be. You prepared for one reality, and the one you are faced with is radically different. The details are all wrong. The smell. The location. The season. The clothes you wear. The timing isn’t right. The characters are wrong, you expected different people to be there. But it’s not wrong: it’s just how things go. Truth is always stranger than the fictions we tell ourselves.

You grow frustrated with your lack of super-powers.

You wish you could be kinder to yourself. More forgiving. Less impatient. Less judgmental. You wish you could stop being so angry at your hands when they drop things and more understanding of your feet as they stumble. You say to yourself, “But I’m doing the best that I can.” And you sneer at how pathetic that sounds.

You compare yourself to people who look happy. And you seethe.

You become envious of people who are in better positions — whose good news is better and whose setbacks are smaller. People who look like they sleep really well every night and carefully eat expensive, perfectly measured, healthy food. You suddenly see these lucky people everywhere. They have better smiles. They have better posture. They have it all figured out while you spin in circles. At least, that’s what you think; in reality, they’re just as confused and jealous and as human as you are.

They probably won’t make a movie about what you’re going through.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s just not epic enough. Or unique enough. You know you’re not the only one doing what you’re doing. You know that there are thousands of people like you, slogging through the same process. Battling the same enemies and scaling the same slippery walls. It’s humbling to realize that the greatest fight of your life isn’t all that interesting to other people.

Playing pretend becomes grueling work.

You are playing a character, wearing a false smile. Your clothes feel like costumes. Today, you are someone who is “Totally fine and normal and doing just great.” People believe this character. That’s something of an accomplishment, in and of itself. Right? Bravo (or something).

Someone died. The person you used to be.

The old you? The you from before all this? That person is gone. That person doesn’t exist. It’s a character you can mourn but never bury. You look in the mirror, and a face you’re not familiar with looks back. “Oh, hi,” you think. And you slowly learn how to talk to this new person, how to live with this new person you very much hope will be your friend. You suppose, that if this big thing hadn’t happened, you’d be older now anyway, and probably still different, just in another way.

You are now that person who did that thing.

People expect you to be different now. They expect you to know things you don’t, and to do things you don’t know how to do. They think that just because you’re exactly where you are, you’re an expert on those things now. But you’re not. You’re just someone doing the best they can with the wild, crazy, absurd, and unsettling situation.

You want to travel to an alternate universe.

The one you think you really should be living in. Because you feel like you should definitely be doing something else. This isn’t who you’re supposed to be. You’re supposed to be thinking about, working on, and taking pride in something entirely, cosmically different. You feel like the universe ripped you off, swindled you out of a better existence. Because this? This still just doesn’t seem right.

You work to minimize this thing until it’s barely noticeable.

That was only one star in the constellation of events that makes up your life. You turn it into a footnote in your life story, a single brush stroke on the canvas that is your life. If it were a physical thing, you’d shove it into the attic, with the spiders and the dust and the boxes you haven’t opened since before the last time you moved.

You cut yourself some slack.

It felt like it all happened so fast. But when you sit and look at calendars, you’ll see that this change took plenty of time. And you can take yours to get through this. You can relax a bit now. Really. And when it’s all over, you’ll and marvel at how quickly it all passed.

You are shocked by how weird people can be about this.

Unfortunately, this will always be a topic of discussion for you. People will be curious about it, eager to talk about you (often when you aren’t there). And not everyone will be supportive. Not everyone will feel the way you do. And no one will feel as strongly as you do about it — it’s happening to you, after all. Everyone one else is just an observer.

You still get overwhelmed just thinking about it, sometimes.

You’ll be in the shower, or just about to fall asleep, and you will silently wish to just be normal again, to go back in time, to skip all this, for life to change back into what it used to be. The transformation felt too sudden, too abrupt, too uncontrolled. But you can’t annul the past. It will never be completely behind you. It happened. Normal is history. And you have to keep moving.

It’s a working part of you now, like a kidney or a lung.

At some moments, you will feel possessive of your experience. It is yours, and nobody can tell you how to feel about it, or how to act about it. You will be defensive of what you have been through. It is yours, even if it’s not ideal, even if it was painful, and you’d still never really trade it for anything else. Never.

You realize (with pride) that your way worked.

You know the insider-lingo. All the tricks, all the secret codes. You have heard all the stories from other people who have been through what you have and survived—managed to thrive, even. But your story is different. It’s not better, or worse, or more or less, but it’s different because it’s yours. And you feel secretly proud that you have done things your way, not theirs, not exactly.

Progress gets faster.

You sink into a routine. It’s not fun, exactly, but it’s steady. It dulls the stings and makes the chores feel like victories. It keeps you going. You mark days on the calendar: each X something you don’t have to worry about anymore.

Just when you think you’re okay, some little thing throws you off.

It’s strange, the things that make you think if the past, the before. A flash of a reflection in a window, a scent in the air, the sound of a siren or a horn — and suddenly you feel like you’re back in the middle of it, struggling. These flashes come less frequently than they used to. But they are still a shocking, and they make you feel more fragile than you’d hoped to be by now.

Your 15 minutes of uncomfortable ‘fame’ have passed.

People have stopped asking you about it. It is no longer a hot topic, or a thing to gossip about in hushed tones. It’s old news. At least, it is to other people.

You can manage to think about other things.

You’re reached a point of awkward balance. You’re standing, but not entirely steady yet. You know enough to know what to do right now. And you begin to daydream. You can see that you have a future, and you really want to be living it already. But you don’t know how. Not exactly.

You feel guilty for not feeling bad.

You accidentally have a good day. An entire day. An entire rotation of the earth occurred without you thinking about what happened. You don’t realize it until that long, wonderful day is over, but when you do, you feel strangely uneasy, like you’ve been careless with something important.

People think you’re doing better than you are.

People start asking you when you’re going to move on, asking you what’s next for you. What’s next? What’s new? And you’re stunned. You barely just figured out this. This huge, unwieldy, cumbersome burden that you’re still carrying, that’s still breaking you. Where other people expect you to be? You’re not there yet.

You are haunted in every house you visit.

It’s clear that some of your thoughts are not socially acceptable. Your feelings are unsettling to people who have never been unsettled like you have. You hide your dangerous and silly and preposterous thoughts, burying them behind routines and small talk and forced smiles.

You procrastinate out of fear of doing everything wrong.

The blank page of your future is blindingly bright. It’s perfect, and spotless, and intimidatingly full of potential. You’re afraid to make a mark on it. You’re afraid to stain it. So you decide to think about it again tomorrow. Maybe.

You’ve become someone else’s example.

Someone tells you that they admire you. That they are impressed by what you’ve done and how you handled yourself. And you’re baffled. You just did what you had to do, and even then, sometimes you stumbled. You made more mistakes than good decisions, you feel. But here you are, and someone is giving you credit it.

A normal day feels like a normal day.

Your work is becoming less arduous. You almost enjoy it. There are moments of beauty, of calm, of a peace that feels precious. Clocks tick. Coffee brews. Deadlines are met. Promises are kept. Laundry is done. You are hesitant to feel relief as you fold warm towels.

You get detoured in the wrong directions.

There are setbacks. Days when a cold hard wave of fatigue and regret and what-if slams you down. On these days, you cannot talk without snapping, or walk without questioning where you place your feet. As time passes these days become much less frequent and slightly less intense—promise.

You’re rewriting your identity.

You’re getting good at this, at this new thing. If you keep at it long enough, you’ll master it. Then it will define you more than that other thing, if you just stick with it. This new, wonderful activity will take the place of that other thing: that thing you don’t like to think about, that asterisk next to your name.

Your desires remind you that you are still alive.

There is a new restaurant you’d like to visit, something you saw in a shop window you want to buy, a hand you want to hold. You are wanting again. Wanting to possess and keep and touch and experience. This wanting: it reminds you that yes, you are still here, still going, not dead yet.

You live with the change like it’s some weird, annoying roommate.

It was strange and annoying and frustrating and bizarre. It was taxing and draining and intense and unpredictable. And now it’s right there, with you, a part of you, teaching you how to be patient and resilient and sturdy. You can live with it—really, you can. You’re doing it right now.

The biggest thing that ever happened to you is small compared to what’s coming next.

Another curveball. Another huge shift. But you can handle it. You know what to do. You’ve been somewhere like this before. You’ve learned how to leap from before into after. And you know that everything, always, from now on, will be a part of the after.