In September of 1996, I was a few short weeks into my first year of law school at UCLA. I was anxious and overwhelmed. I was sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated, and never stopped sweating in class (the Socratic Method, anyone?). But I was also focused and determined to crush my first year. Until my dad called me with the news . . .
He called one morning just as I was rushing out the door for my first class. His voice cracked as he said “Karen, it’s about Mike. Something happened. He died. He’s dead. He’s gone.” Then my father dropped the phone and I heard both he and my mother sobbing and wailing.
Mike was my brother. He was three years older than me and, for many years, he was my best friend and constant companion. We built forts, rode our skateboards, learned to breakdance (in neon zippered parachute pants), and terrorized the neighborhood ice cream man. He was hilarious, fearless, artistic, and incredibly smart.
But that was before he discovered drugs and alcohol. Before he was arrested for DUI’s, public drunkenness, and stealing food from a bakery. Before several unsuccessful stints in rehab, multiple job losses, and being homeless for two months. And before, at the age of 24, he overdosed on a bottle of Percocet mixed with a bottle of vodka.
For several years before he died, Mike and I had a very strained and tumultuous relationship. We didn’t see each other very often, and when we did it usually ended with a heated argument, Mike threatening me, or Mike hurting himself. But I never stopped loving him, worrying about him, or wanting to help him get sober. I knew what an amazing person he was, and that he had so much potential to live a great life.
So when Mike died, my world fell apart. I couldn’t find the strength or motivation to peel myself off of the floor, much less prepare for or attend my law school classes. I was consumed with guilt, shame, and anger. I slept a lot. I watched a lot of crap television, and avoided human interaction whenever possible. I wavered back and forth between dropping out of law school or immersing myself full-throttle to numb out my feelings. I chose the latter.
Initially, it seemed to work. I went to class, participated in study group, went to my professors’ office hours, and slept. One day after the next. Wash-rinse-dry-repeat. I didn’t cry. I didn’t feel anything. I was numb.
But I couldn’t outrun my pain and grief for long. One afternoon, as I sat in my favorite professor’s office, she asked me how I was dealing with Mike’s passing. Without thinking, I immediately said “Oh, I’m fine, fine. Good. In fact, I’m great.” And then I completely fell apart. I finally cried. Every emotion that I didn’t want to feel washed over me, moved through me, and cracked my soul wide open. It was brutal. And terrifying.
But it was also a gift. Because I couldn’t heal if I didn’t feel. My feelings came back with a vengeance because I needed to learn something about life and about myself. Mike’s death humbled me, transformed me, and gave me a perspective on life that many people don’t have. His spirit is always with me. His memory gives me the courage to trust and push myself, and reminds me to actually live while I am alive.
So while pain and sadness are inevitable in life, we all have the power to choose how difficult events will impact us. Do you want to simply survive tough times, or do you want to thrive and create your best life in the face of them? When life deals you a bad hand, what will you do about it? Ask yourself:
What do you want to create in your life?
What changes will you make?
How will you love?
Who will you love?
Where will you go?
What will you do?
Who will you be?
When will you stop waiting to live your best life?