I used to hate it when people would tell me about some horrifying trauma they went through and then at the end say, “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.” It sounded crazy. How could a triple hernia with a side of shingles be the best thing ever?
One time a friend sent me a video of a guy shouting into the camera, “Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me!” I remember thinking, “Pal, you need to raise the bar a little bit. If cancer is the best thing I’d hate the see what’s 23rd on your list. The time you went skinny dipping in the piranha tank? The night you did all those shots of tequila and chased them with expired milk?” I mean, what didn’t make the list?
Some of you know how my stories go so you won’t be surprised to hear that tonight, about 30 minutes ago, I turned into one of those grateful-it-happened guys.
In 2012, my girlfriend left me and I came very close to ending my life. You know those Palestinian women who scream and wail at their son’s funeral and throw themselves into the grave? I was like one of those women except the grave was my heart and I almost didn’t climb back out.
After months of intense therapy, countless late-night walks with friends, and some pharmacological wizardry, I started to pull myself together. Little by little I started leaving the house more. I began talking to people at work about the weather and the state of the lunchroom fridge. I started eating again.
But there was one thing I needed to do before I could honestly say I was solidly on the road to recovery. I had to stop being afraid. I wasn’t afraid of one thing I was afraid of everything. I was afraid of talking to strangers in a coffee shop and I was afraid of dying alone. I was afraid of coming back five minutes late from lunch at my day job and I was afraid of telling people I went to support groups so I wouldn’t hurt myself when I went home. The world was a dangerous place. Nothing and no one was safe.
The most embarrassing memories I have are how I handled the breakup. I was a wreck. The level of self-harm I reached astonishes me even now. It had nothing to do with her. It had everything to do with me. In the history of love, there have been far worse ways to end a relationship. There were no fights. No yelling at each other. There was just an ending to something I never thought would end. The pain went through me like the Wehrmacht through Warsaw.
I knew the only way to make sure I wouldn’t crumble like that again was to build inner strength by doing the scariest things I could think of. I don’t mean skydiving or alligator wrestling. I mean the stuff that shakes your soul and rattles your will.
I asked the World’s Angriest Yoga Teacher out on a date
I unfriended my ex so I wouldn’t be tempted to check up on her
I started telling people at work that I was no longer with The Woman Everyone Adored
I got onstage in a little room in Tacoma and told the story of my recovery
I asked that girl on the second floor if she’d like to go out for coffee
I told my son about the night I almost left him without a father
You know what happened when I did all that? I got stronger. Even when things didn’t turn out the way I wanted I got stronger. I broke up with the World’s Angriest Yoga Teacher when I decided I’d rather learn to be alone than learn to ignore insults. I knew after that cup of coffee with the lady on the second floor that we wouldn’t be a good match and I quietly stopped flirting with her. I began accepting invitations to share my story at shows about mental health issues to let people know they weren’t alone.
I thought I was doing a pretty good job of it until yesterday. Yesterday I did something that almost made me pass out. Tonight I did something even scarier.
Yesterday on my lunch hour I walked to the library. While I stood in the magazine section I saw my ex checking out books at the counter. I hadn’t spoken to her in over two years. I started hyperventilating.
When I was a kid I read about acts of bravery the Lakota Indians called counting coup. The greatest act of bravery was touching an enemy warrior in battle and escaping unharmed. I knew immediately this was what I had to do. The ultimate test of courage. Walk up to my ex-girlfriend and say hello.
I walked up and gently touched her elbow. I said, “Hi.”
And then I ran to the self-help section. I could barely make out her, “Hey!” as I dove into the stacks and grabbed a random book off the shelf. I was hoping it would be, “What To Do When She’s Right Over There” or “Counting Coup for Dummies.” I have no idea what book it was. I couldn’t focus my eyes and my hands were shaking. It’s possible I wasn’t even holding it right side up.
I snuck a look over at the counter where she had finished checking out and saw her smile and wave. And then she left.
Tonight, I was feeling pretty good. Pretty damn good. I had touched the enemy in battle and escaped unharmed. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t really the enemy and that I was more in danger of passing out from not breathing than I was from being wounded in battle. I did the hardest thing I could think of and survived.
Then I went to Costco. You may not think of Costco as place of spiritual growth but there are things that happen in the aisles of America’s biggest retail membership warehouse that cannot be explained through price points and volume purchasing.
The first thing I headed for was the balsamic vinegar. I eat a lot of salad and I buy oil and vinegar in bottles the size of a water tower. As I turned the corner and headed down the aisle I saw her. My ex. Again. She was standing by the almonds. Five feet from the vinegar. Her back was to me and I could have turned and run but instead, I stopped, took a breath, and walked forward.
I was a few feet away when she turned and saw me. We walked up and touched each other on the arm. She asked how I was doing and I said great. I asked how she was doing and she said good. We talked for a minute or two and then hugged. I told her I loved her and she said she loved me too.
When I got home I wrote her an email thanking her for everything that happened. She was the only one who could knock me down hard enough to change my life. She has no idea what I went thought after we broke up and there’s no reason for me to ever tell her. Tonight I got a chance to apologize for things I needed to apologize for and to let her know that I wouldn’t change a single thing about that night in 2012. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.
And that is what I’m hoping you guys will come and tell a story about. “Dusting Yourself Off – Stories of getting back up.”
When was the last time you got knocked down and climbed back to your feet? How did you do it? Are you grateful or angry? Was it long ago or last Tuesday? There will definitely be people in the audience that night who are still down. Maybe your story will help them get back up.
The rules for stories are below but you know the kind we’re looking for: true stories that happened to you that still mean something to you days, months or years later.
Remember to practice out loud on friends or pets and keep it under 8 minutes.
I hope to see you at our next show on Thursday, August 27, 7:00pm at the Roy St Cafe.