“We are all broken, that’s how the light gets in.” – Ernest Hemingway
I’ve never liked that Hemingway quote. I’m not sure if it’s because I don’t like the idea of everyone being broken, or if it’s just a touch too pithy to give me a real sense of perspective. Whatever the reason, I’ve always felt a resistance to it. And yet, when it popped up as the Wicked Wednesday prompt this week, I couldn’t stop pulling it apart. Why don’t I like it? What was he saying? How are people broken and why would it be such a universal thing?
I don’t have answers to those questions. Maybe being broken is universal because we are transient, flawed creatures that are formed (and informed) by our environments. What I mean is that we are affected. People are easily affected. And when you’re easily affected, it means you get touched, nudged, toppled, broken and rebuilt. It’s part of life.
I’ve been broken. I’ve been plenty broken. I was ragged with fault lines, all of which stemmed from a big one that I acquired early in life. The fault lines got bigger as I got older, widened by pressure I put on myself and the pressure of growing up. By the time I was in my early twenties, I was smoking too much, drinking too much and having a lot of casual sex with partners I don’t remember. Everything was a struggle, and the harder I struggled, the harder it got.
The strange thing is that I knew I was writing checks I couldn’t cash. I remember knowing that, sooner or later, the bill would come due and that when it did I was going to be screwed. I also remember, very distinctly, the grimy, helpless feeling of not being able to stop. I could feel myself breaking down, but rather than caution me, it made me go at it harder. I was inviting it. I wanted the thing that would run me off the rails. It came, but not in the form I expected.
When I was 24, I met J, the man I would eventually marry. I was already in a casual relationship, but J was different. He was very serious and he took me very seriously. Not far into dating him, I had a miscarriage. I didn’t know I was pregnant, nor did it occur to me that I might be because I was on the pill and I always used condoms. The timing of the miscarriage put the conception a month before I met J, which meant that the baby would have been my other partner’s. Without getting into details, it’s safe to say that, had I not miscarried, the situation would have been a nightmare. My other partner was lovely in many ways, but he was also a drug addict with bi-polar disorder and he wanted to have kids. Having a child with him was not an option, but he would have made terminating the pregnancy, (or giving the baby up), as difficult as humanly possible.
Given all of that, I should have been relieved when the doctor told me that I had been roughly 3 months pregnant but was not any more. I should have been relieved. But that was the thing that finally broke me. All of the fault lines caved at once and I had a proper breakdown. The depression and panic disorder that I’d been struggling with swamped me and I didn’t know what to do. I was in pieces, struggling with the compulsion to glue myself back together, but I couldn’t. The bits of a broken cup can’t sweep themselves up.
So, I went into therapy and J stayed with me. I’m not overstating it when I say that it was heroic of him. My structural integrity (emotionally speaking) had never been strong, but the breakdown dismantled it completely. As my recovery progressed, reasons that all of those cracks had developed became clear. It also became obvious that the abuse I put my body through was more than a way to escape. It was a way to punish myself.
I began to meditate, I started running, I stopped smoking, I controlled my drinking. I dusted off each piece and decided whether or not to keep it as part of my new whole. I laid aside a lot of old pieces in that process, which made room for new ones to grow in their place. In the end, if I hadn’t broken down so thoroughly, I never would have had a reason to help myself. And if I hadn’t had so much unwavering support, I don’t think I could have done it, even if I’d tried.
I had a very close call. I could easily have ended up in a dark place with a dramatically shortened life span. When I broke, it was the start of my becoming who I am and I’m grateful for it. What’s more, I know that I’m not alone in this sort of experience. You can’t get through life untouched. Some people just crack harder than others. Some people recover and some don’t.
Which is why I suspect I don’t like the Hemingway quote. It implies that everything will be all right for everyone. I applaud the idea that there is hope in being broken. I am an example for the fact that there is. But I got close enough to the edge to know that mending yourself isn’t a given. That being scarred but full of light is not a guarantee. It takes so much work, and support and LUCK, and some people never make it. Some people stay in pieces, lost the dark.
That feels important to acknowledge. That feels critical. Because you aren’t guaranteed a recovery, regardless of how much you deserve it. People slip through the cracks. People, good people, are lost all the time. For those of us who came close to not coming out whole, the light Hemingway talks about is not a given, but a gift. It’s a gift, and I wish that everyone could feel it. Because too many people don’t.
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