I was eighteen years old and sleeping on the couch of the dingy apartment I shared with Naomi, John, and Brad.
I didn’t have a bedroom of my own, so my nights were often disrupted by the comings and going of my roommates. Naomi’s late hours arriving home from her job at The Wild Zebra “Gentlemen’s Club” that our apartment shared a parking lot with. John’s drunken rages at Naomi, fueled by convenience store malt liquor, jealousy, and impotence. Good nights meant broken dishes and bad ones meant broken bones and another trip to a new emergency room with a sobbing Naomi defending his latest outburst. Brad was a quieter presence, eyes sleepy from whatever he’d smoked and occasionally even interested in a book I was reading. He’s a background player in my memories of that time, shadowy and indistinct.
I wonder sometimes what became of those three. We were thrown together out of a need for cheaper rent, not any kind of connection or friendship, all of us just graduated from high school and figuring out how to navigate the world beyond.
It was on that couch after a particularly violent night that I came to the first fork in the road of my life that I was truly conscious of. It was the first time I held a decision about who I wanted to be and what kind of life I wanted to live in my hands and really looked at it, really examined it for all its tiny facets and flaws, each tine of that fork leading to a different possibility.
Three months ago, I’d graduated at the top of a class of almost 3,000 students. Two months ago, I’d received an acceptance letter to Yale, among other great schools.
And yet here I was.
I was sleeping on the couch of this apartment wondering if I’d survive the next night like the one I’d just been through, while everyone I’d been friends with headed off to college. Headed off to fulfill their potential, or at least look like it. Headed off to see where their paths might lead next.
But not me.
In that moment, I was going nowhere. In that moment, I was a smart kid who’d somehow jumped out of her “normal” life and into this one, complete with this filthy dumpster couch and a bloody face and no idea how this had all happened so fast.
A lot of things led me to that couch. Failures on my part and failures on the parts of others. A lack of understanding of how financial aid worked and a tuition bill that might as well have been a million dollars for as accessible as it felt to me. A family that was struggling through a very dark season. A me who hadn’t yet learned how to ask for help when I was drowning.
So that was where I was- on that couch- even if I woke up every morning sure that it was all some bizarre dream and that I’d open my eyes to find the life I was sure I was meant to be living and not this terrifying reality that I’d somehow tripped my way into.
And it was on that couch that night that I made my first truly adult discovery. I discovered that no one was coming to save me. I had the vague notion that there were people who cared and maybe even resources that might help me, but that right now, in this moment, they were all going about their own lives, moving forward regardless of how I stagnated, how I stalled, how my own life was mired in this muck I’d somehow been caught in. It was a moment of uncanny clarity.
No one was coming. No one was going to throw me a rope. If I wanted out of this, I was going to have to figure it out myself, dig myself out one handful of mud at a time. I was going to have to save myself.
Now. Let me be clear about a few things. I had a whole, whole lot of privilege working for me, even in this very difficult time in my life. I’m not pretending that I didn’t and don’t want anyone to mistake this for a “pulled myself up by my bootstraps” kind of story because that’s not what this was. I’d made a big mess of my life. I had some help, but the bulk of that mess was of my own making. When I look back now, these decades later, I can see resources overlooked or unknown to me, helping hands that would have happily been extended had I but asked.
But in that moment, on that couch that night staring up at a cracked ceiling and listening to the wind against the plastic sheet covering the hole where the sliding glass door had been before Naomi went through it, I realized a truth that has never left me.
My life would never matter to anyone else as much as it mattered to me.
No matter what mistakes I made, no matter how I threw it away, the rest of the world would continue to move forward, even if it paused occasionally to say, “what a shame, she had so much potential,” before continuing on its way. I could rail against unfairness. I could wait patiently for a savior. I could throw myself off the edge of the precipice I was currently peering over from this couch.
At the end of the day, however, when it came right down to it, what I made of this life (or didn’t, really) wouldn’t stop anyone else’s from moving forward. Just mine.
If I was going to be something, anything, other than another bloody face in a dingy apartment living a half life watching whatever light I held inside of me dim to nothing, it was my responsibility. I was going to have to do something.
As I lay on that couch in the dark, truly examining this fork in my life, I couldn’t see any future clearly. I couldn’t see what the right path was. I no longer trusted myself to even see that the right path existed.
But I knew something had to change. That I wouldn’t survive this path if I stayed on it.
So the next day I did three things:
I applied to Texas A&M University (I was living in Texas at the time and A&M had rolling admissions).
I enlisted in the Army.
I asked my boyfriend’s sweet and generous parents if I could move in with them for a little while.
And just like that, there were a bunch more forks.
More choices. More possibilities. More help.
I did those three things (each of which felt monumental and extraordinarily difficult at that moment) and just like that, my life took a step off of that couch. It began to move forward again.
Slowly. Haltingly. With a lot of fits and starts and steps backward along the way.
But I inched forward. Off of that couch. Down one tine of a fork until I reached the next one. And then down one tine of that one. And then the next.
Sometimes I’ve picked the wrong tines. Sometimes it’s taken me a lot of forks I didn’t like to get to one I did.
I’m still working my way from fork tine to fork tine.
But I’m off that couch, grateful every day for the lesson it taught me.
We can’t wait for someone to notice that our lives aren’t working. They are our lives, after all. We have to do something. Sometimes we have to do anything. But we have to get ourselves unstuck enough to see the help that’s available to us, to receive the love and the life that’s waiting for us.
Because it is.
Leave me a comment and tell me about a time you felt stuck and then tell me the single first step you took to begin digging out- I want to hear, to learn from you and your experiences!