My friend @markrsmith asked me recently: What do you do when your world turns upside down? How do you cope?
There is a part of me that thinks I ‘should’ give an expected answer from someone who claims to have faith. Like, I have faith that the world will turn right-side up. Or, I have faith that what’s happening is all for the best. Quote a couple Bible verses, pull out something Gandhi said, bing-bang-boom. Everybody goes home with a warm, fuzzy feeling that doesn’t quite get to the heart of the pain when our worlds get shattered.
I guess the question that springs to mind when I hear “What do you do when your worlds turns upside down?” is I wonder what kind of turning upside down? Honestly, no matter what kind of turning upside down happens, I usually freeze emotionally. I often have a lot of stuff to do that can’t wait just because something has been turned upside down. If there’s a zombie apocalypse I have a very strategic plan that involves an SUV and breaking in to grocery stores for all the canned goods. (But that’s a different post.) People have their worlds turned upside down all the time, many times for positive life events like having a baby or leaving home to move in to your first apartment or dorm. Those events can be painful and require personal growth as the person you were becomes the person you are in order to meet the new challenges of life.
Then there are the events that take us by surprise and have long-term effects on us. I remember the first funeral of a close family member I attended, my Uncle Alfred. Whenever we talk about funerals in my classes or I attend another funeral or I hear the song “Eagle’s Wings” I think about that funeral. I didn’t know it at the time, but that funeral helped shaped how I think about death and life transitions around death. That was a slow kind of turning my world upside down. I wasn’t aware of how my worldview would change as I processed those events. Becoming aware of death as a part of life took a long time to process.
I think if I asked every person reading this blog “What has turned your world upside down?” you each would have a specific event spring to mind. So, without treating this blog like group therapy, here’s one of mine. I had a group of solid friends who I was deeply connected to and had spent several years with. Then I moved away to a town where I knew no one, and I struggled to find my place in the new community. While I knew I was going to move for several months before when I actually did move I was shocked. It felt like my support network dissolved. Looking back now it hadn’t, but that’s what it felt like. I was in this new environment, and my friends were beginning on new paths as well. I didn’t cope well. I found it difficult to make new friends because of the expectations I had stacked in my head that I attributed to the new people around me. I denied that anything was wrong for months. Thankfully, several people in my building and in the community reached out to me. I found a new spiritual community at a local church that surrounded me and supported me. It took me about two years before I felt like my world had re-adjusted, but the world did not go back to being right side up. Instead, I got used to the upside-down-ness. Some call this finding a “new normal,” but the other side of that transition did not feel “normal.” Eventually the clashing differences between the way I lived my life before and the way I was living on the other side were not so clear. Occasionally my heart aches thinking about how my relationships could have evolved if I had not moved away, but I also have a difficult time imaging who I would have become if I had not moved away. The road less traveled, right?
We often have to grieve what we have lost, whether that is a loved one or a career opportunity or leaving behind a group of friends. Of course this grieving takes different forms and lengths of time for each situation and person. It helps to identify what has thrown your world upside down because sometimes it is not obvious. Last May I had a day where I was just off. I had trouble concentrating and just felt weird. I realized in the evening that day was the anniversary of my graduation from college–one of my major life transitions. While not breaking down crying I felt sad as I remembered the closing of my college chapter. I hear the same type of story from people about a deceased loved one’s birth or death date and about divorce anniversaries. One of the weird cultural things in America seems is that especially at this time of the year in between Thanksgiving and Christmas we put on a happy face and deny anything is wrong. Denial is a bad thing. It means we’re not dealing with whatever is going on and can lead to more problems down the road. When I acknowledged my feelings about my college graduation (helpfully prompted by friends at dinner that night) I expressed remorse about paths not taken and reflected on many of the good things that happened during college. I texted a couple of college friends to remind them of our graduation anniversary; and they had been thinking about it, too.
When our world gets turned upside down it is our support network that catches us. We are not alone in life. Our friends and loves ones may not be able to empathize or even sympathize, they may not be able to turn our world back around, but they are there to walk our journey with us. If it’s hard for us to cope along, maybe it’s time to throw ourselves on to our safety net. I wish I had done that earlier after I had moved. I think it would have helped reenforce the relationships I felt like I was losing and helped me realize I was more supported than I felt like I was. (For those of us whose support net include a spiritual community and a Higher Being casting yourself on to that support net is highly encouraged.) We are not alone. Perhaps that is the only comfort I can give today about worlds turning upside down. We can’t really prepare ourselves. We can’t force the world to turn right side up. We can’t make ourselves stop feeling. Hopefully we’re not ignoring the problems. It’s not much comfort to know you’re not alone when you’re hitting rock bottom because so often you feel alone. What I do know is that we are all more supported and loved than we know. So we cope. We go on living, waiting (hoping?) for our world to re-aline and adjusting when it doesn’t.
The great thing about the diversity of life on this planet is its ability to evolve to meet new challenges. With each new challenge we become someone a bit different. When the world turns you upside down you can pretend you’re still the same. You can pretend the world is still the way you thought it was yesterday. Having tried that, I don’t recommend it. Here is an example (granted, an example from TV) about someone who did recognized and admitted his world being turned upside down:
In 2004 the last episode of the U.K. sitcom Coupling aired. In the last scene the character Steve, who has been a little immature throughout the series, interacts for the first time with his newly born son. When the newborn is lying under a bright lamp Steve shields his son’s eyes from the light. The audience then sees Steve through the slowly opening eyes of the baby as Steve’s voice over that has narrated the story says, “Then I became a different person.” Even though it’s not quite clear, the voice over sounds like a future Steve narrating the events. Steve may not at the time have understood how he was changing to meet the new challenge of parenthood, but he recognized it afterward.
Not every world turning event is as clear as having your first child, but they can be as just as difficult. What do we do when our world turns upside down? I guess the only thing all animals on this planet do when faced with new challenges… evolve.
As a personal note, sometimes we need a special kind of help during transitions, grief, and general life upside-down-ness. Especially if you are feeling depressed, having trouble doing daily activities, or thinking about self-harm, please seek a professional counselor, therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. You can find a therapist by asking your general physician for a reference, calling your insurance company, or visiting the psychologist locator on the American Psychological Association’s website.If your friends are encouraging you to seek a therapist and you do not want to, please know that many people seek therapy and it is in the vast majority of circumstances helpful. Unfortunately there is still a stigma in America about seeking a mental health professional, especially if one fears the diagnosis of a mental illness. Please visit the National Alliance on Mental Health‘s (NAMI) website for more information and to educate yourself and others about the realities of mental illness and stigma.