Forged in Fire
When I was twenty years old, Bipolar Disorder burned the life I knew to the ground. When something like that happens, when tragedy strikes, when you experience trauma, the people around you will say all sorts of well-intentioned things that will fall short of the truth, make your eyes roll, and leave you feeling surprisingly angry and alone.
When I was twenty years old, Bipolar Disorder burned the life I knew to the ground.
When something like that happens, when tragedy strikes, when you experience trauma, the people around you will say all sorts of well-intentioned things that will fall short of the truth, make your eyes roll, and leave you feeling surprisingly angry and alone.
“I’ve been there.”
No you haven’t. Not here. Not this exact spot. You were somewhere else. You are someone else. You don’t really know. You can’t even begin to imagine what I’m going through.
“Don’t blame yourself.”
Who else is there? Who else is more responsible than me?
“There’s nothing you could’ve done.”
Then why can’t I stop thinking about the million little things I could’ve done differently that would’ve made a difference, that could’ve changed it all?
“It could be worse.”
No, it couldn’t. This was the worst possible outcome. Oh, you mean because I lived? Maybe it would’ve been better if I hadn’t. Maybe we all would’ve been better off. It certainly would’ve been easier.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Then why do I feel so weak?
“Everything happens for a reason.”
Then why does this seem so senseless?
When you get burned, people assume what you’re looking for is relief. They reach for warm wishes, white lies and soothing lullabies.
When I was feeling depressed, I hated that. I knew people were doing the best they could. I knew they didn’t know what to say. When you see someone who is clearly going through a hard time, your natural instinct isn’t to meet the hard stuff head on — it’s to offer comfort. I get that.
But going through two manic episodes opened my eyes to the hard truth, and I had no interest in closing them again.
The hard truth is that if you’ve been through a traumatic experience, if you’ve suffered a tragedy and are trying to figure out how to go on, you’re right to feel alone. Going through hard things is incredibly, unbearably, crushingly lonely — no matter how many other people have gone through something similar, no matter how many friends and family members offer their support.
There’s only so much anyone can do to help. You’re the one who has to decide to pick up the pieces and start rebuilding. No one can do the work for you. And while you’re doing that work, you’re constantly going to feel like you’re fighting a fight no one else can see, and you’re going to wish the battle wasn’t so easy to hide. You’re going to wish everyone could just be aware and, at the same time, wish they would all just forget. You’re not going to wish they were sad, but you’re going to wonder how they can be so obliviously happy. Other people will move on before you, or won’t get hit as hard in the first place, and that’s going to make you feel forgotten and left behind. You will constantly struggle to put what you’re feeling into words, and that’s only going to make you feel lonelier.
The hard truth is that no one knows exactly what you went through then or what you’re going through now, and you’re never going to know exactly how to tell them. That’s life. Loneliness is part of the price we pay. I’m lonely at times, and I know you are too. We can be lonely together. We can listen and share and make it more bearable. But that’s the best we’ve got.
As for the blame, it’s tricky. You likely deserve less than you think. Perhaps none at all. But being told so won’t make it go away. Instead, you’ll learn to live with the blame, however misplaced or unfair to yourself it may be. You must. I still blame myself for what happened to me every day. In many ways, I still believe it was my fault. There are countless things I could’ve done. If I got to play another hand, I’d play my cards differently — of that there’s no doubt.
But, while taking responsibility is a practical and necessary measure for moving forward, in a more fundamental sense, what happened to me was beyond anyone’s control. We do the best we can with what we know at the time. I had no idea I was genetically predisposed to Bipolar Disorder. I had no idea how easily I could lose control. I had no idea I was playing with fire.
The hard truth is that life is painfully unfair. Bad things happen to good people every day. No matter how hard you try, how much you worry or how carefully you step, at some point or another, we all get burned. Trauma and tragedy spare no one.
Life inevitably makes victims of us all. Over and over. We get into car accidents, lose loved ones, fall ill. Jobs come and go, economies turn, home prices collapse and we fall on hard times. Stress turns to burn-out to depression to drug overdose and suicide. Cancer. Heart disease. Bad genes. One in five will be affected by mental illness this year. One in four pregnancies will end in miscarriage. One in three women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
We don’t get a choice in the matter. Pain and suffering can’t be avoided — not forever, not for nearly as long as we’d like. To a frustratingly large degree, our fate is out of our hands. We’re powerless. Impotent. Weak. Waiting to be crushed by circumstance.
What happened to me, what happened to you, what happens to us all — sure, we play a part, and you’ll no doubt spend hours and hours agonizing over every little chance you had to change the outcome. Maybe that helps you do better next time.
But in a grander sense, the fault lies not with each of us, but with life, unsatisfying as that may be. That’s why you’re right to be angry. That’s why you’re right to call foul, to yell and kick and scream about the unfairness of it all. It is unfair and it’s not your fault. That’s not a victim’s mentality. That’s accepting the cold, hard facts of life.
There will be things that happen to you that you’ll have no meaningful control over. They’ll leave you bloodied, bruised and broken, and more often than not they’ll happen for no good reason at all. Not everything that doesn’t kill makes you stronger. Saying otherwise is wishful thinking. Nothing more.
For years, I worried about whether I’d ever be the same. Whether I’d ever have the same mental sharpness, the same quick wit, the same confidence. I constantly wondered whether I’d done permanent damage. I agonized over the idea that my future trajectory had crashed and burned and would never recover. I spent so much time dwelling on what I’d lost in the fire and how I would never get it back.
The hard truth is that we all lose things in the fires of life. Possessions. Opportunities. Futures we’ll never know. Loved ones we’ll never get back. Parts of ourselves.
Sometimes the worst thing does happen, and sometimes we are partly to blame. Sometimes, for no good reason, something will happen that will do permanent damage, that will leave you weaker and more fragile than before. Tragedy will strike and you will be traumatized.
But, just as trauma can lead to stress, so too can it lead to growth. That growth will take time and will require more strength than you think you have. It will require patience and perseverance, and you’ll need to push harder than you have ever pushed before.
After something terrible happens, no one wants to be told they’re lucky. But in time, you will feel lucky to have lived. Instead of yearning for what was lost, you’ll find ways to feel grateful for what you were given: a chance to keep going.
The loneliness won’t go away, but you’ll find community and belonging in sharing your experience with others who have felt the same depths of despair. If you’re lucky, you’ll find meaning there, and connection too.
The anger will fade, or at least, you’ll find ways to make it productive — to use it to fuel change, to speak up and speak out, to demand better, and to do better.
I’m twenty-nine now. It’s taken nine years to rebuild my life from the ground up, and the job is still not done. Some days it’s still a battle.
At my worst, I still wonder what could have been if what happened hadn’t happened. Where I could’ve been. Who I could’ve been. What I could’ve been doing. It’s hard not to dwell, though as hope continues to crowd out despair, it does get easier to focus on what could be, instead of what could’ve been.
At my best, I no longer feel like a shadow of my former self. I feel stronger than ever, more resilient than before, and better prepared for whatever life has in store.
Life’s fires are devastating and senseless. They maim and kill indiscriminately, regardless of any good deeds you may have done or plans you may have laid. There’s often nothing worse and often nothing to be done. And there very well may be no upside. You may simply be left to make peace with hobbling along for the rest of your days.
But if you’re really, really, really lucky — if you manage to get through the fire — there’s a good chance that you’ll come out the other side with more strength than you can possibly imagine.
No one walks through hell unscathed or unchanged. The strongest swords are forged in the hottest flames.
These days, more and more, I feel lucky to have been forged in fire.
Depending on where you’re at in your story, that might not resonate with you right now. But if you find a way to keep going, in time, I promise it will.