There are perfect moments in life when all the confusion falls away and things become clear. You see how everything fits together; every loss, every disappointment—they all led to the happiness you feel right now. With its infinite complexity, the universe can’t help but hold all you’ll ever need. The trick is knowing how to find it. –“Lost and Found”
This is an excerpt from a chapter of my memoir that tells the story of a wonderful thing thing that happened as a result of a painful loss. It’s a fancy way of saying, “It was meant to be,” or “Everything happens for a reason,” neither of which I necessarily believe.
I spent most of my 20s being furious at my parents for fucking up my life. They were good people and I know they did their best, but their best was sorely lacking. They lived in a perpetual state of learned helplessness that informed all their decisions. The opportunities they missed to get help for themselves and for us had long-term consequences that affect me to this day.
I used to drive myself crazy imagining what my life would have been like if my dad hadn’t drank, or been stuck supporting his sick parents, or my mother was well enough to teach. But worse than the typical things I missed, like ballet and music lessons, were the pivotal things that impacted my growth and success as a young adult.
I had a lot of emotional problems when I entered high school. One of the administrators suggested that I get counseling from an agency that, as it turned out, I unwittingly ended up at seven years later anyway. The other recommendation came from my uncle, who said my parents should have me apply to small, private colleges instead of large state schools. He said the small schools would want me and would offer financial aid. I only know this because my mother told me years later — like, when I was in my 40s and clearly too old to do anything about it.
Because I had a slow start my freshman year of high school, it didn’t matter how many “As” I earned the next three years. My cumulative gpa was permanently fucked. That meant no scholarships, which was a disaster for a kid with no money who also had parents with no money. My two years of earnings from McDonalds evaporated halfway through my second semester at Bowling Green. I cobbled together the remainder of my tuition with work-study and a Perkins loan, which I got to spend the next two years paying back after I dropped out of school.
Being out of school meant I had to get a job, so I spent a year temping at various offices in downtown Cleveland. For a sheltered, sensitive kid who had never planned on anything but an academic life, it was brutal. I spent those days feeling alone, confused, and terrified that everyone would learn how stupid I was and fire me. For all my book smarts, I knew nothing about the real world. Temping in a city was a crash course in survival.
Eventually I got a full time job as a secretary — a profession I’d spent four years in college prep to avoid. I bought a car and moved out. I was broke and unhappy and deeply ashamed of what a failure I’d become, but I made the best of it. I took every computer class the bank offered. I became a Wang database administrator. Then I learned about relational databases and took classes in Paradox. Later, I took a minimum wage job at an internet provider and learned HTML. Those skills got me contract work and better paying temp jobs when I returned to college full time.
Unfortunately, the stress of adapting to student life after so many years of being a professional triggered severe depressive episodes. I was barely able to function. I spent three years failing and dropping out of classes before I finally graduated with a cumulative gpa of 2.76. It was humiliating for a former Honor student, but after eleven years of aborted attempts to get my bachelor’s degree, I was thankful just to have the damn thing.
The gpa was an issue when I applied to a master’s program at the same school but they admitted me on a probationary basis. I got a lot of help from professors who knew me from undergrad, especially when I told them about the depression and explained that I was now under a doctor’s care and on medication. Upon learning that I knew web design, the department chair offered me an assistantship as the department webmaster. I kept my own hours and worked offsite. Ultimately, my boss didn’t care how much or how little I worked as long as the work got done. This enabled me to get my graduate degree while also holding several part-time jobs, and it paid the mortgage on my house.
I graduated just shy of a 4.0 (stupid B in 20th century Irish Novel and Film!) and I defended my thesis at the same time I finished my course work. My advisors and the department chair told me that was almost unheard of, but I didn’t really have a choice. I couldn’t afford to pay tuition on my own, so I had to get everything done by the end of the assistantship.
With my master’s degree I was able to teach English classes. With my writing skills and computer background, I was able to create technical manuals and user guides. With my knowledge of internet applications, I understood how to create and leverage online content.
All of these skills are requirements for the work I do now, which is Instructional Design.
This profession did not exist when I graduated from high school in 1983. And it did not mature into a web-based discipline until the 00s. Colleges eventually caught up and began offering master’s programs in instructional technology; I just got there the long way.
It’s a high-paying field, especially in manufacturing, where instructional designer jobs are hard to fill. My employer had to go out of state for our last hire. So no matter what happens in my current job, I will always be able to find work, and I will always make a livable wage. It’s a very good place to be at this time in my life, but I wouldn’t be here without all the obstacles that forced me down this path.
I don’t know if that means this was meant to be. I only know that I ended up in a job that is perfectly suited to my temperament and skills. But more than that, my twisted career path exposed me to different industries and enabled me to work closely with all kinds of people: corporate VPs, blue collar workers, creative staff, tech guys, academics, and students of all economic levels. Those experiences have given me insights into people that I might not otherwise have met.
For a writer, that information is invaluable. A fiction writer needs to understand other points of view, and it’s a lot easier to do that from experience than imagination! In a very real sense, the losses and disappointments I had made it possible for me to achieve my dream of writing a novel.
All I need to do is finish the damn thing. 😛