When I was in my early 20s, I dropped out of college when it’d gotten too “hard,” started drinking every day, and fighting. I took kickboxing, judo, and jiujitsu classes at a local gym.
I liked fighting. I liked being small and slight (I was 5’3 and barely 120 pounds), and I liked seeing the look of surprise pass over someone’s face when I made a man 100+ pounds heavier than me cave to the ground or tap.
The other gym-goers and I went to bars most nights, and whenever I got drunk, I got mad, and when I got mad, I wanted to fight. I had “liquid courage” that equated to me, a little slight thing able to take dudes 150+ pounds heavier than me. I thought the fact that I dominated in the gym would translate to dominating in the real world.
I’d always pick a guy ridiculously bigger than me. They wouldn’t want to hit me, that was clear, but I’d get them to fight me, and when I wouldn’t let off, they usually had to be the ones to end it.
One night, I got a concussion. I’d had them before, but not like this one. I woke up the next morning in a strange bed, smelling like vomit. I rolled over to see my boyfriend next to me. I couldn’t remember anything after the fight from the night before.
“What happened?” I asked him.
“You hit that guy in the balls. He slammed you on the floor. You got a concussion,” he told me.
“Where are we?” I asked next.
“My mom’s. She’s a nurse.”
We hadn’t been dating long enough for me to meet her, but here I was, waking up in her house. Hi, I’m your son’s new girlfriend and I just got a concussion in a bar fight. I’m classy, I thought and cringed.
Throughout the rest of the day, flashes of the previous night kept coming back to me. I remembered the guy grabbing me by the hips and whipping me headfirst on the bar floor. Then, sometime later, vomiting over a toilet and a woman holding a flashlight in front of my eyes and telling me to stay awake.
I walked around disoriented for weeks, which turned into months. I’d recovered from the concussion fine, but I realized I didn’t like who I was. I’d graduated high school in the top 1% of my class, gotten a scholarship to a prestigious private liberal arts school, which I’d then dropped out of two years later. Who was I now? Where did that person from before go?
Was I really this stranger who’d decided to challenge a man over 300 pounds to a bar fight? This drunk college drop-out fitness junkie?
I holed up in my apartment, stopped going to the gym, or hanging out with my gym mates.
I was going through, what I would learn later, was an existential crisis.
Overcoming an Existential Crisis
Richard James, counsellor, professor, and author defines existential crises as
“moments when individuals question whether their lives have meaning, purpose, or value.”
Existential crises can arise out of multiple situations: when life begins to feel meaningless or without purpose, we get reminded of our own mortality, we wonder if we are being true to ourselves, or we experience something traumatic. The current pandemic has made many of us reassess our lives in scary new ways.
Existential crises aren’t all bad. While these could be a sign of a mental health issue (anxiety and depression, to be specific, and seeking out the help of a mental health professional would be best), it could also be a positive thing.
We should stop every once in a while to examine if our life is what we want it to be — if what we’re doing feels healthy and like it’s aligning with our morals and values. A “crisis” can help set us on the right path once again, especially if we’ve strayed.
My crisis was a crisis of authenticity. I didn’t feel like…me. I wasn’t living the life that seemed like should be my life.
Here’s what I did:
Talk to Someone
Therapy works. I know you’re just paying someone to listen to you, and that seems silly and frivolous. But in no other relationship can I be so comfortably and thoroughly selfish. A good therapist is going to listen to you, but also call you on your bullshit and encourage you to grow.
For once, you don’t have to worry about whether you’re talking too much about yourself. You can dive into the deep darkness and unsettle everything that’s stuck there at the bottom and help yourself swim up into the light.
My therapist was the first person I was able to confide in and say, “I think it was really dumb I dropped out of college, and I should go back.” All I needed him to say, and all he did say, was, “I think you should.”
Work on Answering the Smaller Questions
“What am I going to do for a career?”
“Can I stop drinking for the rest of my life?”
Those are both huge scary questions that I couldn’t possibly tackle. I needed to break them up into smaller chunks. “Do I want to go back to the same college I dropped out of or transfer to another one?” and “Can I not drink today?” or “Can I look into attending a 12-step group for help with not drinking?” were much more reasonable questions.
Focusing small can help you start to build your confidence up. Even if you feel like your life’s been meaningless, you may remember that you recently hugged your friend when s/he was hurting and that obviously meant something to them.
Try to Stay Positive
I really struggled with this one.
“I’m a fuck-up. I’m a drunk. I’m a dumb college drop-out,” I kept internally berating myself.
My therapist suggested I write out my shit-talks into affirmations. “I’m a fuck-up” became “I’m trying.” “I’m a drunk” became “I have ____ many days sober” or “I’m a recovering drunk.” “I’m a dumb college drop-out” became “I will graduate college.”
Telling yourself affirmations or writing them out on post-it notes and leaving them where you’ll see them often can help considerably. You can also start to keep a gratitude journal by writing 5–10 things a day that you’re grateful for (it could be as small as that you have a car or that you’re alive).
Working through an existential crisis is a process and not one that can necessarily be worked through quickly, but it can be worth it once you come out on the other side.
Previously published on medium
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