Sometimes, life just breaks you.
Life flips you such a monumental finger that, no matter how educated, prepared, capable, charming, connected — even pretty — you may be, you are suddenly so far out of your depth that you can’t even yet see it for what it is.
Some of you are nodding at this with hard-earned experience. The rest of you are at least a bit delusional because life hasn’t yet robbed you of the “illusion of invulnerability” many of us are privileged enough to carry long past our adolescence. Life hasn’t yet shown you that it can, and does, happen to any of us. You remain armored in the false conviction of your illusory control. I hope you get to keep it for a good, long while. (But please don’t condescend to those who life has taught a less fortunate lesson.)
Some event, out of your control, becomes completely overwhelming. Sometimes, it’s an obvious crisis, but other times, you won’t even recognize it until long after. You don’t have the tools to solve the problems it makes. In fact, the tools you’ve always relied on make it worse. You’re blindsided. Your capacity is completely outstripped by the demand of the challenges you confront.
It is beyond your frame of reference. You can’t even begin to figure a way out of it. Hell, you don’t even yet realize what you don’t know. That sort of crisis tends to strip away all the things in your life you cannot trust. It stripped everything from me.
My family and I had been through a string of pretty “normal” personal, professional, and health troubles. Individually, they ranged from annoying to downright scary. Together, they were just sort of exhausting. But then came “that thing” that blew up my life in slow motion. No one recognized it at the time because it happened inside my brain.
I’ve lived with Multiple Sclerosis for a long time now. MS is when your immune system becomes convinced your own myelin (the “insulation” around many of our nerve cells) is the enemy that must be destroyed. It is usually associated with motor difficulties, fatigue, numbness, and pain.
But MS is a capricious beast. It can strike anywhere in your brain and spinal cord. And since everything we do and everything we are gets processed through the bottleneck of our central nervous system, its effects can be surprising, variable, and all-encompassing.
I thought I had a good handle on my MS. I’d met each challenge it had thrown at me. But this time was different. This time, it was a massive right frontotemporal exacerbation.
What does that mean? Among other things, it deeply affected my emotions, cognitions, behaviors, and communication. For a guy who’s always made his way by analyzing the world and communicating those results, it was devastating. It’s pretty natural that a deep depression followed.
And, of course, it didn’t help that, through a healthcare snafu, it went unrecognized and unaddressed. All I knew was that everything was now vastly “different.” I knew something was deeply wrong, but I couldn’t explain what. No one around me understood. How could they?
When a massive crisis strikes, it’s easy to get caught up in saving face: desperately trying to show the world that nothing is wrong. “Move along, nothing to see here.” And, it turns out, I was pretty good at covering…for a while. Of course, face saving just leaves more time for the negative consequences to accumulate.
But when you don’t understand the problem, you can’t craft a way out. You can’t ask for the help you really need. And those around you get exhausted just trying to navigate the storm.
They don’t understand what the real problem is, either. From the outside, exhaustion looks like laziness, pain looks like anger, confusion looks like stupidity, overwhelm looks like victimhood, and all your efforts look like a string of failures. People come to see you as undependable and ineffective. Gradually, you are written off. Those closest to you see your worst and their disappointment is crushing.
When you’re truly broken, you don’t see it. We have a whole host of self defense mechanisms that hide that realization. When you finally do see it, it is overwhelming. And when you finally try to do something about it, things are now even worse and the tools you’ve always depended on aren’t right for this job. But you have to start somewhere.
For me, In the grips of that crisis, I turned to the only tools I had: science and entrepreneurship. Science to help me understand what was happening. Entrepreneurship because, once I was figuring it out, I realized that a lot of other people needed these tools, as well. They were my way of making meaning out of despair.
I’m not heroic. I’m not inspirational. I’m just trying to make the most good from the worst that has happened to me. So, here I am. Using my science. Trying to do well by doing good. Trying to make something that will make a difference.
And the truth we don’t want to face in our hero-worshiping, up-by-your-bootstraps culture is that none of us walks away from broken by ourselves.
The truth is that it can get too familiar in all that brokenness. It can become so daunting just looking at how far you need to go. It can be terrifying trying to pick a path through the debris of a life you cherished so that you can break ground on a new spot with the deep, rich soil that will once again support growth. But no matter the odds and no matter how it looks, you get to choose whether you stay broken where you are.
It’s been a long, slow slog. I’ve had to learn how to think, emote, and behave differently. I’ve had to re-learn how to process social signals. I’ve had to learn that silence and pride, and face saving are the enemies. I’m still learning and experimenting every day. I suppose I always will.
What have I learned in rebuilding myself?
- Accept what you can’t control. No, really. Just accept it so that you can focus on those things you can influence — no matter how inconsequential they may seem.
- Embrace what you have. Use your tools and resources. If you have none, then build them. Learn something. Make new connections. Practice. Exerting what small amount of control you have left builds confidence and capability.
- More of the same won’t get you out. Different will. Accept that what you’ve done in the past is no longer suited to your new environment. Try things until something works.
- There is another side. It might not look like what you had or what you’ve always thought you wanted, but you can make it good. The future won’t turn out as you expected, anyway. You might as well appreciate each moment, find joy and meaning in the journey, and delight in the ephemeral results, as they come along.
- Pride is your enemy. Everyone likes a “winner,” but we’re all just making it up as we go along. Very quickly, you’ll learn who has the substance and kindness to be helpful. Those are the people you want to connect with. Those are the people you want to succeed for and help, in return.
That all seems pretty trite. We all know those things in the abstract, but they are the first we forget when we need them most. That’s one reason why broken can be so difficult. It locks us alone in that moment. So we must be reminded.
When we’re truly broken, all we can see is, “I can’t.” We forget that: if we believe we can, we might, but if we believe we can’t, we won’t. We forget that asking for help is part of what defines us as human.
Our world has become more capricious, contingent, and unpredictable. It is no use pining for a certainty that never really was. Sometimes, the world just grinds us up. No matter how grim it seems or how distant the possibility of success, the only real choice we have is whether or not we stay broken.