Tell me your tale of reinvention
July 25, 2010 9:39 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone else feel like they lost a large period of their lives to something -- depression, illness, a bad relationship -- and has written a new, more empowering narrative of their lives?

I lost a bunch of years of my life to a really bad relationship and I want to come up with a more empowering story of my life.

I know people who have done this: one friend who was a long-time drug user, but had an intermittent career as a firefighter while he was sober; he writes the story of his life as an adventurer who couldn't resist the physical challenges and the lure of helping others. Another suffered for years with mental issues, got treated, talked his way onto a few film sets as a "producer", and is now rising in the indie film business. He covers the bad years by saying he was learning about independent film.

There's some technique there about making necessity a virtue and hiding the socially unacceptable parts while trumpeting the cool parts. Some way to make the bad things seem small and the good things seem like the core of the story. I guess it's basic marketing, but I'm not so great at it... yet.

I hate the "I overcame my tragedy now I'm a survivor" stuff, and I want instead a way to make my story seem like I was always a winner. Not that I've overcome this big thing, but that I didn't have a big thing in the first place -- not sure if that makes sense.

So my question(s):
1) Please tell me stories of your own or people you know about how they changed their personal stories in this way and reinvented themselves.
2) If you have analyzed how this works, and can explain it to me, please do so!
2) Resources about how to do this: books, techniques, websites, movies with examples...
posted by alternateuniverse to Human Relations (32 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
1. Rob 'Vanilla Ice' Van Winkle claimed to have grown up in harsher circumstances than he actually did in order to gain hip-hop credibility.

Rick Ross downplays the time he spent working as a corrections officer in order to play up the 'teflon don' aspects of his personal narrative.

There are a lot of examples within the entertainment/culture industries alone.
posted by box at 9:47 AM on July 25, 2010

Mod note: few comments removed, go to metatalk if you need to.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:53 AM on July 25, 2010

From a MeFite who would prefer to remain anonymous:
Something that strikes me about your question is the blending of the internal narrative - how you tell yourself you're still a good human - versus the external narrative - how people explain away the "down times" in their lives. I struggled with prescription drug abuse at one time, but I don't incorporate this into my external narrative about how I "turned my life around" - very few people (only a couple friends, no family, no coworkers) know about that stage of my life. Is it apparent to everyone that I'm doing better (emotionally, mentally, job-wise, financially, etc) than when I was using? Sure. But, I don't feel a need to share my narrative of "reinvention" with 95% of the people I know. So, keep in mind that there may be other people in your life - other than the firefighter and indie film producer - who have their own skeletons in the closet and don't need to share them. Maybe you do - and that's fine - but consider that finding the internal narrative and making it one that you find strength in may need to come first. Also, therapy (sorry, couldn't help it.) Good luck with finding, then naming, the path that feels right to you.
posted by jessamyn at 9:53 AM on July 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

I feel like people are winners when they're honest about the shit that has happened in their lives and the mistakes they've made, and personally I've started to feel better for being more up-front with people about stupid things I've done. Often this provides the common ground of "being human."

So...I guess I've started to reinvent myself by not trying to hide things.
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:55 AM on July 25, 2010 [8 favorites]

You have to find some small detail or some little positive thing you were doing during the bad years to make into the focus of the new story so that the bad parts don't need to be mentioned.
posted by amethysts at 9:55 AM on July 25, 2010

Not that I've overcome this big thing, but that I didn't have a big thing in the first place -- not sure if that makes sense.

The sense it makes to me, which may not be the sense you mean, is that you want to lie. That is, you want your story to be that you weren't in the shitty relationship at all, rather than that you were in shitty relationship, and here's the narrative of how you got out of it.

I'd rather know someone who knows they learned from a bad experience than know someone who pretended they never had the bad experience. That said, you don't have to tell everyone everything about your life. Every person you meet doesn't need to know that you escaped from [bad experience]. You can reframe your experiences internally in whatever way makes you best able to live your life now without having to relive the bad experience. But explicitly lying ("I never had [bad experience]") is counterproductive.

But perhaps I am badly misreading you. Can you clarify?
posted by rtha at 10:09 AM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I also am a little confused: Are you looking a) to lie, b) to reframe your stories to others in a more positive fashion, or c) to reframe the story to YOURSELF?

If a, I'm against it. If b, I'm a little unclear why you need to share the story of your past relationship with others and it might help to know context. Why can't you just say, "I was in a bad relationship for a while, now I know better and won't do that again"? I'm unclear why you need to "trumpet" the cool parts of a crappy relationship to others. This is something one does when job hunting and having a large gap in one's resume, not when one had a crap relationship that is finally over.

If c, what you need is to find out what YOU learned from that relationship -- I learned that controlling partners are not okay, I learned that I could feel good about myself without needing a partner, I learned that happily single is better than unhappily partnered, I learned that I really hate marmalade, whatever it is. Reframing it for YOURSELF does help you integrate that experience into your self-understanding and feel more positively about yourself.

But if it's for OTHERS, why does a relationship need to be justified or cooled up for others?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:14 AM on July 25, 2010

Btw, "make my story seem like I was always a winner" ... no such thing. There are people who work hard or overcome stuff or suffer or apply themselves diligently to X and BECOME winners; and there are people born on third base who think they hit a triple. Nobody is "always a winner." People get there because of all that stuff like hard work, perseverance, and luck. But if they've never had anything go wrong or had to work hard at anything? That's just luck, and they usually don't actually know how to DO anything. God forbid they hit speedbump.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:17 AM on July 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

I can speak to the long bad relationship part. I say that the experience left me with a healthy respect for and fear of the powers of self-delusion in the name of fitting into your culture's expectations. I say that your 20s are the first tragic act of a long play no matter what, I just performed mine with a partner on the stage. I say that I used to think I was all grown up, but I grew out of that. I say that I'm more honest, more self-confident and better suited to real relationships having gone through just about the worst possible opposite situation for a long time.

There are of course a lot of regrets, pain, and disapprobation left out of that take on things, but on a good day it's entirely true.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:17 AM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I want instead a way to make my story seem like I was always a winner.

I think the way to forward your goal... that there wasn't really a big thing in the first place, is to tone down the winning/losing aspect of it and do something like the Barack Obama "reasonable people of sincere beliefs can disagree about these things" approach. This is helpful if you have competing narratives out in the world where you might come up against someone else's version of events. So there can be times that are challenging and not-at-all-pleasant that can teach you things that you can move forward with, for you. And other people's roles in these situations can be downplayed or left out in the story you tell about you without a winner/loser scenario.

So, my own personal example. I was in a five year relationship with a younger man who decided in the second year of our relationship that he wanted to go to law school. I made some biggish changes in my life because of this [stopped living bicoastally, paid more than my share of the rent, dealt with a partner who was only sort of there a lot of the time, dealt with a partner entertaining thoughts of going in to politics which I was not really okay with] and we split up right after he graduated. What bullshit!

That said, he was and is a nice guy who sort of stumbled into something that went in a different way from what he expected. And we had some plans that made sense right up until they didn't. And we were decent to each other about it, but it still sucked terribly badly for a while. And bla bla bla I could talk your ear off about it, my sacrfices, the non-boyfriend I had, whatthefuckever. No one likes that story. It's uncharitable to my ex who wasn't a bad guy. It's uncharitable to me, who had a lot more options and made choices specifically to stay in something that was, at the time, less than optimal because it was temporary and because we had a plan. I'd probably do it again about that same way if given the opportunity. I'm okay with playing the long game, but sometimes it doesn't work out. I don't think it was a mistake to have done things that way.

So when I mention that time in my life, usually to explain why I live in this small town, I generally say "Yeah I moved here because I was dating someone at the law school. We split up when he graduated and he moved away and I stayed because I like it here. I have worked at the local high school for the last five years..." Many of the other things going on in my life are things that overlap that relationship and can be talked about without mentioning the relationship. Swimming at the gym. Working at MetaFilter. Hiking in the woods. My library work.

I think it's okay to change your mind. Or to decide you want something else. Or to just be able to roll with the decisions that other people in your life made and make for themselves. And then telling the new people [most of my friends now don't know my ex, and the ones who did sort of take my cues about it most of the time unless they are personal friends with him] my one sentence "that was then, this is now" story and then talking about something else. I think letting go generally is more useful than reframing if it means you stay in the bad scenario, even as a more positive re-teller of it.
posted by jessamyn at 10:19 AM on July 25, 2010 [7 favorites]

I think there's a real temptation to look on lost parts of your life as somehow meaningful — that is, all along it turned out they were part of a big narrative with a happy ending. Trying to distort your understanding of your own life so it meets those terms will make it worse. In other words, I think the "technique" you're seeking is a self-destructive one.

Those "lost" times of your life just were. What good you can come by honestly from them — without making an overblown narrative about it — hang on to it. Otherwise view your own present clearly and go from there.
posted by argybarg at 10:28 AM on July 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

wow... jessamyn and I have had some strangely parallel experiences.

In my case, I was "stuck", I guess, in this dead-end / "wrong", whatever, relationship, paying more than my share of rent, college tuition, being the primary breadwinner, etcetera, for eight years. Eight years of the peak of my prime, so to speak.

Now, I can look on those years as wasted, or I can look on them as a time when I learned a great deal about myself and who I am as a person. I grew and changed so much, not just during, but AFTER going through those eight long, sacrificial, dead-end years. Mainly I learned what was and was not important to me, how much I should sacrifice to another partner, and how to truly gracefully co-exist with another human being. I feel like overall the experiences I went through, and the lessons I learned in those years, and the subsequent years after the breakup, have matured me and made me a far better life partner.

Fast forward to now... I'm now engaged to a wonderful man, and honestly, I could look back at those eight years as a catastrophic waste of my prime, because here I am at almost-42, talking about the possibility that my fiance and I might never be able to have children due to my age, and I could allow that to cause me a great deal of angst, even though I was never interested in ever having kids before this, and in fact, that was the argument that ultimately ended my 8-year-long relationship with my ex (now, there's some irony for you).

However, the mister has said, quite firmly that IT DOESN'T MATTER. He would very much like to have a kid, however, what's more important to him is that we are together, and that I am the person I am today, that he chooses to be with, BECAUSE of what I've been through. He wouldn't have it any other way. In the "what if I had a time machine" idle-fantasy discussions we've had about this, he's quite clearly said that he doesn't think he would have gotten along at all well with the 30-year-old me, because that person was entirely different, more cynical, less experienced, more self-absorbed, and generally not as gracious and forgiving as the experiences I've been through have taught me to be.

So, there's my take, for what it's worth.
posted by lonefrontranger at 10:54 AM on July 25, 2010 [9 favorites]

Another suffered for years with mental issues, got treated, talked his way onto a few film sets as a "producer", and is now rising in the indie film business. He covers the bad years by saying he was learning about independent film.

I don't see why you can't do the same. Just insert whatever your profession/dream/goal is for independent film.

Or consider it as years spent learning not only how to love but how not to love. That sounds a bit touchy feely, especially in terms of telling others, so maybe it was time spent learning about yourself and others?
posted by new brand day at 10:56 AM on July 25, 2010

Response by poster: Eyebrows, I guess I'm a bit confused myself, but it's not choice a) lie. It's more like how do I tell a story to myself and to others (I guess they could be different stories, I hadn't thought of that) that emphasizes the positive, but not through making me sound like I'm a victim who overcame something.

I guess what I'm looking for is more like what the anonymous commenter wrote, or what jessamyn said, stories from people's lives where they made a big personal change, and how they tell others about it in a way that sounds coherent and empowered, but not self-pitying. Maybe this seems obvious to others but I can't figure it out.

So I'm looking for examples like those, from your own life or others' as to how you did it. What the "full story" was, and how you explain it to others (or yourself, not sure).
posted by alternateuniverse at 10:58 AM on July 25, 2010

You can't unring a bell... the way to empowerment of any situation is what you take away from it.

Be defined by a bad experience or look at it honestly and learn from it.. learn about yourself, make changes based on what you've learned and you ARE empowered.

Sometimes bad things happen through circumstances beyond our control and sometimes it's because of our own bad choices. Pretending they didn't happen at all or that they were something else entirely will just defeat the purpose.

I understand the need to make that time seem like it wasn't a waste (believe me, I have been there) but to just call it good when it wasn't means you are not owning your part of it and then..... what could you have learned and why wouldn't it just happen again and again.

In fact.. you are on your way now to that new narrative.. you are out of the relationship.. you are looking to take something positive away with you... you'll get to the part of it that makes you feel good about who you are and where you're going - and that way more important than the part about where you were.

Best of luck to you!!
posted by Weaslegirl at 11:05 AM on July 25, 2010

Hi Alternate, I should have previewed. Your comment above mine provides some clarity on what you are looking for. I can expand how I did what I'm talking about in my comments if you want me to.. might be too chatty to just post it all here.

I'd love to hear from you but if not I'm still wishing you all the best..
posted by Weaslegirl at 11:14 AM on July 25, 2010

So, do you mean like, "I discovered the wonders of my mind and sated my unending curiosity spending most of my childhood pacing around talking to myself," as opposed to, "Because I had very few friends, I spent most of my childhood pacing around talking to myself"?
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 11:16 AM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The Great: Something like "I'm extremely well-read" as opposed to "I had no friends as a child so I did nothing but read".
posted by alternateuniverse at 11:17 AM on July 25, 2010

Having experienced some tough times the last few years, what I do when I run into a former colleague or someone I went to grad school with or some other acquaintance and they ask, "What happened to you?" I reply, "Yes that was a difficult time, but I learned a lot, I have had the opportunity to work in this other industry, and now I have been doing [these other interesting and exciting things]" and then try and emphasize what I have been doing and learning recently.

That is the short version, I guess I am still working on a longer version myself. Oh, and, none of that is a lie.
posted by mlis at 11:20 AM on July 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Personally speaking, I consider myself to have turned a corner in the last few years, and I'm working on facing, and fixing, a lot of things that I've been running from for ages. Do I wish I had done this ten years ago? Absolutely. But I didn't. And I can't move on or up without knowing, and being honest with myself, about what I'm moving from.

That said, there's a huge middle ground between totally retconning yourself and being an open book of failure and tragedy. You can be honest with yourself, and others, without giving everyone the complete backstory. I mention no specifics in the above paragraph because they're not necessary to get my point across. Doesn't mean I'm personally ignoring or denying them. If you leave a job because you hated your boss, you don't mention that in future interviews; you find a way to spin your departure diplomatically without lying. (Notice how both of the examples you gave in your question are related to careers.) That's the middle ground you're looking for.

Notice, also, that you actually do know the stories of both your friends. On some level, they're still being honest with themselves and with the people they're close to.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:31 AM on July 25, 2010

"It's more like how do I tell a story to myself and to others (I guess they could be different stories, I hadn't thought of that) that emphasizes the positive, but not through making me sound like I'm a victim who overcame something. I guess what I'm looking for is more like what the anonymous commenter wrote, or what jessamyn said, stories from people's lives where they made a big personal change, and how they tell others about it in a way that sounds coherent and empowered, but not self-pitying."

That helps. (And jessamyn's story was really interesting.) Okay, so, here's a story from my own life, more or less as it happened (I'm sure I elide the parts where I'm a horrible person and emphasize the parts where he's a horrible person):

My freshman year in college I dated a junior. Like, right away. As soon as I arrived. I came from an area that wasn't SMALL, but was STABLE, so I had known a lot of my high school classmates since kindergarten, and other people had known my other HS classmates since kindergarten, so I basically had a pretty complete "backstory" on everyone -- I knew who was sleazy and who wasn't, and what people's problems were, and so forth. (But in a compassionate way, like, "Joe does X because he's immature, not a bad guy" or "Abby lashes out so often because her mother died when she was young.") This made me sheltered in a particular way, and I was very naive about some kinds of things, particularly, in retrospect, how people can be REALLY BAD PEOPLE but hide it. So the guy I was dating turned out to be a GIANT LYING JACKASS. I don't need to go into all the details, but he took advantage of my naivete, my limited social connections (being a freshman and all), and my trustingness to present himself to me as something he wasn't. He used me. I made bad decisions about studying and classes in order to spend time with him (although at least some of that is also attributable to difficulty adjusting to college, not just him). I was generous with him; he was lying to me. When I found out about the lying, I broke it off with him ... but proceeded to act at least a little bit like a crazy person, particularly with this need to be externally validated as a good/interesting/attractive person. (And his ex-and-again girlfriend proceeded to Single White Female me, on the theory that he dated me because she was deficient in some way ... she joined my major, my extracurrics, changed her hair to be like mine, showed up EVERYWHERE, while badmouthing me all over campus. It was awful. She also -- I am not kidding -- attempted to cast Satan out of me. But I totally tell THAT part of the story because it's HILARIOUS.)

So, the story I told when it used to come up (I'm 32 and I've been married 8 years, with my husband for 10, it doesn't come up that often anymore): I'd say, "I dated this real jerk my first year of college, and after I broke it off I was really off-balance and driving my friends crazy with all my self-analysis and everything. So finally I declared a boy hiatus and refused to date for a year -- my friends even gave me a 1-year-anniversary card with a beefcake on the front on the one-year anniversary of my boy hiatus! -- and in a lot of ways it turned out to be a good thing, because I really focused on enjoying college and trying new things and learning who *I* was and being happy with ME, instead of trying to find someone to date. I stopped caring about external validation. Holding myself aloof from the dating scene really gave me a chance to enjoy the shit out of my college experience, digging in hard in classes and trying all kinds of new things extracurricularly. And when I did start dating again, I dated casually (which wasn't really done at my college), and I really enjoyed getting to know a lot of different people. Probably the biggest thing I learned was that I was an interesting person and I enjoyed my own company."

All of these things are true; but the story I tell myself has more reminders of how people can sometimes suck and one should be careful and how people who prey on the naive are jerks. The story I tell others (or used to, when it came up) was much more about how much fun I had AFTER the fact. Of course, RIGHT afterwards the story would have to be, "I broke up with a jerk, now I'm going to have fun." But that story worked too, everyone's dated a jerk.

If someone asked for more information about why and how this guy was a jerk, I would generally provide at least some details to those close to me, though less as time went by and it mattered less. (It gets harder to remember, honestly, as it matters less and less as time goes by.) If it wasn't someone close to me I'd just wave it off and say, "Oh, he was just a jerk, I don't want to dwell on it," or "It was a whole thing, it wasn't important."

In a slightly different line, I'm taking time off from the workforce to be a mostly-at-home-mom right now, and I thought in advance and continue to think about how I will phrase it when I go back to work. I've involved myself in community activities, because that's what I do anyway, but I've definitely had more of a thought of, "How will I phrase then when I go back? What can I say I did during this gap in my resume?" So when you do have a chance to forward-think about it, you can position yourself a little better to explain the "holes" in your resume, or dating life, or whatever it is.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:14 PM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's some technique there about making necessity a virtue and hiding the socially unacceptable parts while trumpeting the cool parts. Some way to make the bad things seem small and the good things seem like the core of the story.
I'm almost kind of interested to know what your story is, mostly to see what it is, how you tell it, and how we can all help you think about it differently. I think what you're looking for is, "How can I look at those years and that bad relationship in a less negative way?" From what i understand, it looks like you're looking for specific techniques, almost like how to write an essay (thesis statement, intro, development, conclusion, etc.), but I think the best way to do this is to really process that period of time and that relationship, try to learn from it, accept that it happened, and move on. Maybe it was really traumatic and shameful, or maybe you felt stupid about your choices and actions, but truth is, that experience made you who you are. But what also makes who you are is how you dealt with it. So basically, the narrative would go like this: "I was with someone for 5 years, the relationship was like this, I was like this in the relationship, I handled it this way, I felt about it like this, [describe how it ended], this is how I dealt with it, this is what I learned from it, as a result, I am like this today." In other words, to tell a narrative takes some self-reflection and honesty. It also takes doing things, (e.g. firefighter, film, etc.) so that becomes part of the narrative. As long as you live life, you will have a narrative. You can't create a narrative to make yourself look better, yet by being honest about your past, you can make yourself not look like a loser/failure/what have you.

What's more important is the story that you tell yourself about you, and how you understand your own choices and actions. Then you can tailor how much detail you want to provide to others, depending on who they are (e.g. new friend vs. co-worker vs. potential partner, etc.).
posted by foxjacket at 2:29 PM on July 25, 2010

Response by poster: I guess in my case it was a bad relationship that led to several years of career underperformance, then therapy and treatment to come to terms with what happened. I'm a high achiever generally (or like to think so), so I feel weird explaining why I've only accomplished what I have (in a career setting). The same thing happens in new relationships, where people tend to stereotype you based on your past experiences, and can't understand how you could let something like that happen to you, etc. I know, I know, you don't want to date people like that, but it's the kind of thing you don't want to have to mention until you really know the person, but it's hard to explain those "gaps" in a positive way.
posted by alternateuniverse at 2:33 PM on July 25, 2010

Response by poster: Also, I feel like I have a lot of growing up still to do because that relationship held me back, and I'm not sure how I can explain the need to still have certain experiences that most others have had by my age.
posted by alternateuniverse at 2:43 PM on July 25, 2010

Response by poster: Sorry for all of the posts -- I guess what I'm getting at is that the narrative my friend tells about himself is not: I was bipolar and did a lot of destructive shit and then got treatment and stopped going in and out of institutions and was finally was able to focus on film so here I am. That's why I'm 28 and starting a film career.

The bipolar is totally left out. I only know about it because I was there. No one who has met him since knows anything about it (and I changed a few details to protect his privacy here). I want something similar, but don't know how to craft my story so it still makes sense.
posted by alternateuniverse at 2:50 PM on July 25, 2010

I guess when I think of reframing my own bad experiences, I think of these two experiences in my life that weren't so great but are a big part of who I am in the sense that they've taught me a lot about myself and have made me stronger. Those experiences are a part of me, and I like myself. So in a sense, I like those experiences, too.

1) I was a sensitive little kid and didn't take well to the usual round of teasing kids give each other. I was gullible, absent-minded, and easily humiliated. I also did not know how to talk back to them in a way that didn't invite further ridicule. It took a few years, but I eventually learned how to stare them down and deflect their bullying and do my own thing. This is a skill that has stayed with me my entire life. I was able to basically cross dress (female to male, so really, not that socially unacceptable) in high school and college because the taunts I got mostly slid off me. I don't think this makes me a winner, or anything, but every time I'm able to ignore someone's unreasonable taunting and continue to be myself, I feel grateful for the shit everybody gave me as a kid. I think I was a bit of a coward and had to learn how to stand up for myself the hard way. But when the lesson finally took, it took.

2) I spent about six years in late high school and all of college lost in a kind of depression--a very functional depression, but one where I would wake up everyday and look in the mirror and tell myself that I was ugly, stupid, evil, and worthless. What started all of this was a basic growing-up identity crisis. My religion, which had been the basis for all my social activities and framework for thinking about life, had become meaningless to me. I was also doing very poorly in school and taking it hard. I was used to being the smart kid, and redefining myself as not-so-smart was throwing me off in a way I hadn't expected. I was also terrified of the future because I did not know how to take care of myself. I had been a very carefree, bubbly and happy person, but over the course of a year my personality changed into one of negativity and sarcasm. My best friend and I stopped speaking because she did not know what to do with my ranting. I didn't know how to ask her, or anyone else, for help, even though some adults reached out to me. My parents told me after I'd gotten over the depression that they were scared of me. Not for me; of me. I felt abandoned at the time, even though now I know that if I'd asked for help, I would have gotten it.
I isolated myself in college. I had a few close friends, but I would go for weeks without really speaking to anyone. I did not make any plans for my future because I did not think I deserved anything better than what people were willing to offer. I put most of my time into working hard at school and learning how to take care of myself. I figured if I had no natural talent, I could still work passionately, fanatically hard, and redeem myself and make up for my failures. Oddly enough, that hard work did help me. I ended up at a good graduate school, met some great people and slowly came to believe that I'm a pretty okay person in spite of not being as perfect as I wanted to be. I'm grateful every day for the life I have now, where I'm happy, confident, and looking forward to the future instead of being miserable. I used to feel like those lost years were a huge waste (what if I'd just asked for help? I might have had more friendships, transferred to a better college, chased after more opportunities and become happier sooner), but I've come to realize that I picked up some good lessons. I have a strong work ethic and sense of personal responsibility now that I never had before. I also picked up a lot of empathy and patience for alienated, lost, and negative people, as well as respect for people who manage to stay strong and positive in the face of difficulties. And finally, knowing what it feels like to be miserable every day has made me so appreciative of simply being able to feel joy. I feel regretful sometimes when people talk fondly about college being a time of partying, ambition and positive self-discovery; but I wouldn't give up my own experiences for anything.

On preview: I was also in a crazy relationship that had me underachieving in graduate school. I never thought I would let myself give up my responsibilities like that, but I did. I feel like I don't need to explain what happened so much as explain why it won't happen again to future partners. I've also sort of learned that friends, even friends who care deeply about you, don't want to delve too far into your past. So it's okay to come up with something like "I had a hard time focusing on my career because of a difficult relationship, but now I am better because of x, y and z and will be working hard on doing better". They're more concerned with who you are now and who you will be, because that is the person they will be spending time with.
posted by millions of peaches at 2:52 PM on July 25, 2010

I've have the "lost a large portion of your life to something" part. The "reinvention" part is the thing that keeps eluding me.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:31 PM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think it's okay to change your mind. Or to decide you want something else. Or to just be able to roll with the decisions that other people in your life made and make for themselves.

I agree with everything jessamyn says but I will go one step further. A story is different from a lie. A Lie in jessamyns life (to use a very public example from this thread, is what) would be: I moved to this town to become a doctor! or because I discovered there was treasure under the old salt mine! A story is: I like it here. Small towns are awesome and I've always wanted to move to one so I did. The story she tells is fine too, but sometimes you want to make yourself and your world seem more poetic and meaningful, more purposeful and positive. In my book it's OK, for whatever that's worth, to elide the messy facts for a good story.

But we've already gone over how messed up I am, so yeah.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:28 PM on July 25, 2010

Best answer: There's been a lot of really interesting sociolinguistic studies of identity and narrative...especially with regards to PTSD, rape or other traumas and life events that individuals are forced to incorporate into the story of who they are and why. Much the same way as these people, it sounds like there are parts of your overall narrative that can't be simply ignored, but must be acknowledged or reconciled in some way. When we eschew/hide/block those parts entirely, we are denying that they exist, doubting that they do, or finding some other way to NOT work them into our identity (sometimes for very good reasons, sometimes because we can't deal, etc.). For some people, when they can't reconcile certain events of their lives into their personal narrative whatsoever or can't move forward, they take much more drastic measures (sadly, the decision to end one's narrative altogether is one such example).

Sometimes these identity-altering narrative events are forced upon us (being attacked, getting sick, etc.) There is always a period of transition (not terribly unlike Kubler-Ross' 5 stages of loss) that requires the person to accept how that life experience has forced them to change, or caused them to not be like they were before the thing happened. A person diagnosed with cancer not only has to deal with the disease and all that it entails, but how they feel like wearing the labels of 'survivor' or 'patient' or whatever else that may apply to them. They can reject or redefine those labels if they wish...there's limitless choices.

You've been through some stuff and are actively working on identity construction. Awesome. It's tricky when none of the labels and narrative choices out there resonate with you. Especially when those narrative catchphrases currently sound like 'wasted years' or 'bad relationship'. As you learn more about what others have done, how different ways of saying things demonstrate different perspectives or 'take-aways', and how identity construction works, you'll be able to use language to express exactly who you are today. And how your past experiences reflect that in a positive light. The bottom line is, whatever happened, it got you here. That says volumes in and of itself, because people have to connect the dots between the insightful person you are now and the things you say about who you were (unless they think you're lying, but why?).
posted by iamkimiam at 7:00 PM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

"This is the best of all possible worlds."

Both so very trite, but they encapsulate what I've got out of a period of my life that was a big black hole (some in my posting history if you're particularly interested). These are the things I tell myself, they don't always work as a way of translating that narrative to other people. One person in particular saw the first as "harsh" rather than the celebration that it is for me.

In terms of talking to other people about it, I keep it brief and honest and focus on the turnaround that has happened since. Of course the people who are important to me know more just by default.
posted by prettypretty at 7:34 PM on July 25, 2010

In a former life, I was an all-american eagle scout. In a later life (college), I went through a strange period of somewhat sociopathic revenge where I wound up in a situation completely over my head and wound up a convicted felon. These days, I find myself on capitol hill, meeting with legislators to go over the end-line ramifications of new (And proposed) legislation as it pertains to people with disabilities and medicare eligibility, and fighting for civil rights for all people. I've fleshed out more details here before---if you have any interest in my "story", feel free to shoot me memail.
posted by TomMelee at 8:19 PM on July 25, 2010

"I think of all the years I wasted; I think of all the years I saved"
Lyric from Magnetic Fields song Lonely Highway
posted by Candide at 11:05 AM on July 27, 2010

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