I was 25 years old when I fell apart for the first time. Until that moment, I thought, my life held up to pretty close scrutiny: I set goals and reached them, I was smiling in all the pictures, I’d closely managed my brushes with heartbreak. In short, I’d ‘kept my shit together,’ a 25-year tightrope walk, each step careful and anxious, but poised and pleasant to the outside eye.
Everything came crashing down at once: My first love crumbled at my own hands, breaking his heart and mine. My family, newly navigating my coming out at the distance I’d assigned them, felt out of reach. I pushed my friends, most of whom were also his friends, away. At work, I found struggle with my students and with my colleagues, most of whom weren’t responding to my style the way I expected. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and couldn’t focus on any singular thing.
Gone were the golden days. I’d tumbled from the pedestal, wailing against the pavement, and everybody could see me, the real me. Shaking, stammering me.
If life were a movie, this moment would have found me against a symphony of sympathetic instruments, the camera closing in on my bruised fists colliding against the ground. Then, when it was certain the audience understood my plight in full, the scene would mercifully cut to black, pulling us all to some time in the distant future. The beginning, perhaps, to a redemption story.
But life isn’t a movie. I waited, cocooning this self in blankets and self-pity on the couch, and waited. Nobody cut the story to black; nobody began righting my wrong turns. One day, I stood up, examined myself in the mirror. What a mess.
Listen: Every last one of us is magic. I’ve wandered the world for just shy of thirty years, and I can tell you I still haven’t met a single person who didn’t carry something worth falling in love over. The magic we carry, of course, varies wildly. Some of us steady storms, some of us paint ordinary days unforgettable, some of us infuse love into food on dinner plates, some of us sing to sold-out arenas, and on and on.
We all crave to be seen, particularly for our magic. We push in earbuds and cast ourselves as stars of music videos, examine ourselves softly in the mirror, find a stance in photos that reflects the ‘us’ we want people to know. In an effort, perhaps, to be seen and loved, we do our damnedest to underline our magic in bright colors. Rarely, if ever, do we purposefully draw attention to our mess.
But this, I’ll tell you, is the great irony: Sometimes it’s the mess, the parts of our story we’ve sealed, brick by brick, away from everybody’s eye, that people will fall in love with. We so cautiously curate our presentation to highlight our magic, each of us performing for the other, and we convince ourselves we’re alone in the mess we’re carrying around.
Because every last one of us has mess. We’re all comprised of elements people don’t celebrate. Some of us are too loud in public spaces, some of us get awkward when we feel to many eyes on us, some of us snap at the people we love under stress, some of us act smug when we’re feeling unsure, and on and on.
And, because of that, we all know what it is to stumble, to bring pain onto ourselves. Every last one of us knows the experience of spilling against the pavement, wailing in honest agony, and knowing –– at our core –– that, this time, we broke our own heart.
All magic, all mess. All waiting to be seen.
Back to that broken scene: Me, newly acquainted with what it is to be an honest-to-God mess, wrapped in blankets on the couch in a messy apartment. By morning, I stared at my phone, waiting on good morning texts that would not come, and evening found me falling again onto the couch, watching Project Runway reruns and concluding that my search for happy endings was over.
My way out, I realized slowly, was not out, but through. If I didn’t want to stay here, I would need to get my character across the fade-to-black chasm myself. I would have to drag my blankets back to my bed, dutifully arrange the pillows and sheet corners. Do my laundry, show up to work with new tries in mind, and –– here’s the important part –– begin the process of being honest with myself about the goddamn mess.
I’d been careless, not just with my heart, but with his. I’d been arrogant, allowing my mind to convince itself that my heart would follow its orders. I’d become so accustomed to saying what people wanted to hear, I’d stopped worrying whether or not my words were sincere. I’d become passive in my own story, pulled in whatever direction a breeze might take me, because I hadn’t found the courage to act on what I needed. I’d been hurtful, prideful, and deceitful.
And, if that wasn’t who I wanted to be, then I needed to stop being it.
I set out with new resolve. I lost my magic in ignoring my mess, and so now I needed to figure out how to field both. I’d always wanted to be brave, but now I wanted to be brave enough to break. I’d always wanted to be loving, but now I wanted to be loving enough to speak difficult truths. I’d always wanted to bring out the best in the people around me, but now I understood that part of that was allowing them to talk about the parts of themselves they believed to be the worst.
I wrote reminders on post-its, posted them around my office. Months later, I had the word ‘brave’ tattooed on my forearm. I began telling my story, not just the times where I’ve been lovable, to the people who are trying to love me. And everything, as life would have it, began to radically transform.
All right, reader, I want to try something. Think about the worst thing you’ve ever done. The story that, if you told it, in full and honest detail, makes you worry people might see you differently. What would happen, do you imagine, if you told that story to your best friend? Your lover? Your family?
About a year ago, I decided it was time to stop keeping fences and barbed wire around my own Worst Story, my darkest lowlight, my most egregious crime. I shared it, hands shaking, with a student as we discussed her pain. I shared it with my best friend, looking him in the eye and trusting him to stay. I’ve shared it no fewer than a dozen times, and –– to my relief, to my epiphany –– no one has left. Everyone has stayed. I know what it is to be seen, exactly the human proximity I’d been hoping for.
We are all, perhaps, a single story from falling in love with each other. Our magic brightens the world, propels us forward, paves a pathway toward What’s Next. But it is our mess that enables us to connect, to reach out and rescue one another, to stay when somebody’s given us every right to go.
I’ve journeyed miles and miles since my first days of falling apart, but I still have to train my hands not to bundle the mess together and package it as magic. We are, every last one of us, comprised of both, a full spectrum of magic to mess. We are dreamers and destroyers, our hands loving and ruinous, our stories triumphant and broken. If what we yearn is to be seen, we must trust the people we love to carry both in equal measure, to see us and stay, to love us all the same.