The year I was 22 was easily the hardest year of my life.
I hesitate to say it was the worst year, because it was also the year I took a fast track to life lessons, and got away from a lot of toxicity. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was better off without much of what I lost. So it wasn’t the worst, but it was definitely the hardest.
That year, I was in an emotionally abusive relationship, got broken up with from said relationship, got ex-communicated from my social circle because of that breakup, got fired from a job, got some bad medical news, and had absolutely no vision for my future. I was dreading turning 23; it was scary to be turning another year older with less of a plan than ever before. On my 22nd birthday, I had been planning for my marriage, my career, and my future babies. One year later, I was single, unemployed, and visionless.
I felt like a failure. I was angry. I was traumatized. I had people in my ear from every direction telling me that I would grow from this heartache, and that there’s a silver lining. Someday you’ll look back and understand why all this happened! I wanted to tell them that even if that were the case, it still wasn’t worth it. Sure, I’m learning some valuable life lessons, but at what cost?
The day before my birthday, I cried the whole day. Reflecting on the previous year was exceedingly painful. Anticipating the upcoming one was unbearably dreadful. That year had shown me how unsafe the world is. There was pain awaiting me at every turn. And if there was any possibility that I would experience even half the pain in the next year that I had in the previous one, I didn’t want any part of it. I resented the fact that the world kept turning when my life was frozen in heartache.
But when I woke up the next morning, something surprising happened.
At first I didn’t remember that it was even my birthday until I looked at my phone and had a few text messages sending me well wishes. When I realized, I instantly got sick to my stomach.
Then I read one of those birthday texts. It was from my best friend. She knew I wasn’t up to much celebration. She had sat by me through all the bad news. She had cried with me. She knew. Instead of sending a typical “hope you have a great day!” message, she chose to get real, forcing me to do the same. She said, “I know this birthday is different. How are you feeling?”
Up until that very moment I would have told her that I was feeling terrible. That I couldn’t really do anything but cry. That I wished I hadn’t turned another year older. That I would like to just skip this birthday, lay in bed all day, and try again next year. I wanted to make a public announcement telling people not to wish me a happy birthday because there was absolutely nothing to celebrate about me surviving another lap around the sun.
But that’s not what I said. I responded:
“Thank you. It is different. I’m really going to try to view it as a reminder that God preserved my life through what I truly thought would kill me.”
I don’t know why my attitude changed right in that moment, but it did. I had been filled to the brim with bitterness. I had resented God for keeping me alive through so much trauma. But when my friend’s text invited me to confront the reality of my life, I realized — now that I had lived through all of that, I was freer than I had ever been before. I was free to live without fear because I had proof — I was proof — that human beings have a remarkable ability to survive.
There is a very peculiar beauty about having your worst nightmare come true. And it surfaces when you endure the trauma, assess the damage, and stand fact to face with the rubble and dirt that’s all around you and inside you. As you take it all in, you may be bleeding, you may feel half-dead, but you’re still there.
You transform into not just someone who has lived, but someone who has survived. And you gain a confidence to know that if you survived this, you can survive anything. A new worst nightmare can’t unravel you.
I didn’t want to turn 23 because I didn’t feel like reflecting on 22. It was hard. There were days when I sincerely thought the pain would physically kill me. But that morning, I found my reason to celebrate. 22 gave me an invaluable gift. I had no guarantee that the world would be kind to me. In fact, I had plenty of evidence to the contrary. But I also had plenty of evidence that, if the world continued to be cruel, I had the power to live and grow — and maybe even flourish — in the harshest of conditions.
That’s what I celebrated on my 23rd birthday. I survived.