There was one and only one time I’ve ever slept on a mattress without any bed sheets. The experience is now known as the best and worst night of my life. Best because I finally made a move I so desperately needed to make. Worst, because… well, the hell it took to get there.
Back to the mattress. Yes, it was as gross as you imagine it. Coupled by the humid Southern air, it was rather… well, uncomfortable. How I ended up there is a long story. A typical tale of a good girl falling for a bad boy. What’s not typical is I had finished grad school just four months prior to that night.
In a few months time, I went from becoming the first woman in my family to earn a master’s degree to lying awake in the middle of the night in the bad side of town. I had imagined coffee, books, and Ph.D applications after graduation. Instead, I had veered completely off track, and ended up staring at the ceiling on an unclean boxspring wondering how I got here while deep down knowing exactly how I got here.
Most people would assume the boy I met one random night in the bottom of a wine glass was the one who sent me spiraling, but really, he wasn’t. I did it to myself. By the time I met him, I was already locked and loaded. And it wasn’t the first time. I’ve graduated before. I’ve walked across that stage to meet someone on the other side, and together, make a wild, spectacular turn off the straight and narrow. So this atypical story? Sadly, it was typical for me.
And honestly, it became typical because I thought I didn’t deserve any better.
It wasn’t about saving them–the addicted, the reckless, the hopeless–it was about destroying myself. It was no coincidence I chose those emotional jungles disguised upstanding gentlemen right after I left academia, the one place I had a positive self-identity. The one place I felt like I was good. Like I was whole.
I can only describe how I felt post-academia in glaring cliches, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I was numb and lost. So I set myself on fire just to feel something. Back then, burning was better than feeling nothing. I just wanted to feel alive again. And for awhile, I decided that feeling alive meant feeling bad.
I felt every negative emotion in every color–from searing red to desolate black. Suddenly, I had stories to tell and scars to show. I thought I became one of those interesting girls like Edie Sedgwick or Zelda Fitzgerald. I was no longer an invisible, skittering library mouse. For the first time in a long time, men were paying attention to me. I liked it when they watched me twirl.
It took a lot of emotional work and some real talk to finally leave behind the boys with their matches and me with my kerosene. It took my best friend blurting out some uncomfortable truths at lunch one day for me to see the absurdity of my actions. In her endearing country drawl that makes even the most terrible things sound like sweet tea, she asked me the one question I had avoided, “What are heck are you doing?”
A few weeks later, her question echoed with me that night on the mattress. My mind screamed at me until I slowly rose up and left. I moved swiftly and quietly, and never looked back on the boy I left. It sounds like some act of bravery, but it really wasn’t. I sobbed in the car on the way home and replied to many sweet but vacant text messages that followed. It took everything I had to heal and move on from the nothing I left.
Since then, I have watched so many brillant people–academics or not–do the same thing. Being on the outside with my scars and hindsight, it pains me to watch someone go from burning bright to burning alive. I want to shake them, but more importantly, I want to hug them and let them cry like my best friend did for me. I don’t have the disarming Southern accent like her, but I do know this.
You deserve love. No matter what.
You deserve real, can-hold-it, can-count-on-it love. The love that shares looks over the table and dances on the kitchen floor. The love who makes you smile and lets you cry. You deserve to be someone who makes you better. Someone who makes you want to burn bright, bright, bright. You deserve the kind of love that can’t be searched for, but just has to be found. Love is frustrating like that, but somehow that just makes it sweeter.
And here’s what you don’t deserve. You don’t deserve to be destroyed, abused, and shattered. I don’t care how many lunches you ate alone in high school, how many comic books you own, or how many nights you gave up to study. Being yourself–however weird that person is–doesn’t make you any less worthy of love.
Because really, love doesn’t care how weird you are.
And because one day, someone will care. Someone will care how weird you are. They will care because they want those things. They will care because they want you. You and all the little things you think are “deal breakers” or “secret single behavior” are the person they’ve been looking for. They will accept you because of your flaws, not in spite of them. They won’t mind your cracks, your voids, your jagged pieces. Yeah, you’re imperfect, but you’re also exactly what someone needs.
Also? You have a choice who you love.
You really do. You don’t have to take the last thing offered to you or the first person who buys you a drink when you feel lonely. You can wonder and you can wait. You can take however long you please to make up your mind. You can decide if this person is in your life for just one night or for the rest of it. You can let go of that relationship that’s not working and bravely look for another. Because there will be another. And another. And another if you wish.
Because while we all want to believe we’re special snowflakes, humans are the same in things that matter. And people have a weird way of finding each other. That is, if you’re not too busy setting yourself on fire to be found by someone with a good soul and a bucket of water.
I know this post has hit over 1,000 words by now, so I’ll leave you with one quote that sums up this entire crazy thing.
“You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.” ―Brené Brown