A year ago today, I was technically homeless.
A day before, I still had a room in a company-rented flat, and it was the last remainder of my independence. Mid 2015, my life had turned into an emotional seesaw, my career wobbling up and down while I personally struggled to kick back from the bottom.
It started with giving too much trust to the wrong person and, as a separate issue, a drastic drop in the Malaysian Ringgit to US Dollar course (go figure). Together, they more or less directly caused the loss of my girlfriend, my job, and the lease on my regular rental.
From then on, my small savings too quickly turned into startup-colored smoke, while my office clothes turned into rags. By November 2015, walking long distances with 15$ shoes had caused constant, unbearable pain in my feet (plantar fasciaetis, look it up, it’s every bit as fun as described). As for my empty wallet, it had caused several friends of mine to ship-in with food, emergency money, clothes and even a laptop I could ‘pay later’ (you know it’s getting bad when you can’t replace your work tools). Even then push came to shove and I was living out of scraps, having breakfast on free cookies, many dinner on other’s expenses, and the rest as cheap as I could get. Christmas before new year 2016 was spent alone with a Big Mac dinner, since I couldn’t afford anything else as a holiday extra.
Needless to say, my sanity was about to hand me its divorce papers and, when I realised that the lease of my office-rented room would be over soon, leaving me with no address to my name, it just felt like the ultimate confirmation that yes, I was knee deep in it.
Self explanatory illustration of early 2016.
I thus took my donated luggage, stuffed it with my donated clothes and went to live in a 9m2 cabin, courtesy of my friend and colleague. That cabin had no bathroom (had to go to the next house, long story) no kitchen, the roof leaked. But aircon and Internet made sure I would be able to keep on working, and a door I could close with my own keys made sure that I kept both my privacy and dignity through that ordeal. I am forever grateful to this friend, as well as all the others who proposed to lend me their couch. A roof is always better than none.
But a borrowed bed is a borrowed bed. I wasn’t at home. I wasn’t at my address, I didn’t have an address, and I was living thanks to the generosity of someone else. On the 1st of January 2016, I had become technically homeless.
Fast forwards until today.
As I am writing these lines, I am surrounded by people I love. I can feel the aircon on my skin, but it’s from another room, in the city. I’ve paid for the laptop, sent some money to my family, and don’t have to count every penny anymore whenever I go shopping for groceries. Oh, and even if I had to, these pennies are still mine and earned as such. Also, and it’s important. I have shattered my personal deadlift record, which is good since now I have to regularly carry all these groceries.
12 months ago, I wouldn’t have dared dreaming of this. My dreams of 12 months ago were much, much darker.
How did the situation shift from a proverbial free fall to a figurative superhero landing?
“Totally nailed it.” ~The Bear.
Materially, this is a no brainer: my friends and a certain amount of luck contributed to keeping me functioning. Mentally, that’s another story. I have stumbled and fallen more times than I can remember. Every time I got up again, I had gained new knowledge, which allowed me to set for myself a couple of guidelines to live by. These guidelines were my litany, a safety net during my worst moment, and pivotal elements in situations where I decided to keep on going instead of giving up for good.
They might not be for everyone. If I believe that going through life without hatred and treating others and yourself with equal kindness are golden rules, the way to apply them as well as the way to deal with more idiosyncratic problems is ‘left as an exercise to the reader’.
And isn’t this exercise tough? Late at night, between one insomnia and the next, I would sometimes catch myself thinking “What if I was wrong all along? What if everything I think I’ve learnt is just a set of random garbage I use to rationalise my current situation?” I needed proofs. 2016 provided them.
If I could travel in time back to that fateful day in order to leave my past self a bit of reassurance, I would tell him not to worry about getting the following points right, at least for the year to come.
1. Give yourself a break.
We’re often tempted to be the hardest on ourselves during our worst moments. ‘Work harder, wake up earlier, push yourself’ become a daily routine… until we end-up unable to do anything because of a bad burnout. Health, physical or mental, comes first. When things are tough is exactly the moment when we need to take some distance and a good breather, to evaluate problems with a clear head and tackle them without having to deal with a body begging for 5 days of bedrest.
2. Your comfort zone is broader than you think.
Sometimes it’s not so much about getting out of your comfort zone, it’s about learning how large it is. This is another reason why I am grateful for the cabin. Staying there in a somehow self-imposed isolation helped me find how much elbow room I could make for myself, literally and figuratively.
3. Today’s mishap might very well be tomorrow’s luck.
I am not where I am now despite the hard time. I am here thanks to it, and not just because of the work I did or the changes that happened: being under a roof right now has the exact same root causes as me not taking any roof for granted a year ago. Life is funny like that, and acknowledging its absurdity is better than fighting against it, since the result will be the same anyway.
4. Sometimes you have to draw the line.
One wise person I’ve met once said : “Sometimes you have to draw the f*cking line”. She’s 100% right. I didn’t have to do it often in these last 12 months, but the couple of times I firmly stood my ground and got rid of someone/something nefarious to me made a huge difference.
5. Know thyself.
I had just literally lost almost everything, there was a reason for that, and it was not ‘them’. I did bear part of the blame, I knew it, it makes sense, but what was the reason? What was it with me that I haven’t realised yet?
While enforcing incredibly high standards on yourself is counterproductive, introspection is a great way to defuse traps we involuntarily set for ourselves.
6. The bottom of the pool is where you kick to go back up.
It sometimes take a hell of a good kick, and some panicking on the way up. But it is definitely better than drowning, and the only way to catch a life buoy if your friends, Lady Luck, or life, happen to throw you one.
7. Love trumps fear, every time.
Fear and love are two very special commodities: the more you use them, the more of them you have. The catch is: only one of these two will help you sleep better at night. I’ve said in the past that I’d rather trust and get hurt than give into paranoia; professionally and personally, this principle is what will have allowed everything to fall back right into place.
8. Pain is unavoidable.
There is something pathetic in asking people to wait up for you because stepping out of your chair too fast will probably cause you to fall over. That’s what the pain in my feet was like. I would get new shoes eventually, along with a lot of things, but for the time being, I had to walk on. The pain I felt at every step was part of the journey, and it made every reward along the way much more valuable. I now see my new shoes (and all other new things) as little miracles, even when they aren’t that new anymore.
9. You’re doing alright.
And I was. And mostly, we are. Despite everything we go through, all the tough time, all the baggage, we manage to wake up every morning ang get things done. It costs us, it keeps on costing us, but this is our most valuable achievement: we’re alive and kicking.
We’re alive and kicking, and as long as we stay so, there is hope. The hope for growth, learning, the hope for more sore feet and more miracle shoes, and the hope to one day sit and remember our toughest times as our most valuable memories.
There is no fight worthier of being fought than going through one more day, one more week, one more year. Loss, pain, and the ultimate ending are all integral parts of becoming better versions of ourselves -we won’t last, we’re but ephemeral, but this is the beauty of if: being able, in the end, to look at Life right into its eyes and say “Hey… thanks for the ride”.