Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Music for the Meltdown

I have a story.

When I entered college, I didn’t know what it was like to fail. I was valedictorian of my high school class. I had never had a job interview that didn’t end in a job (and I had a lot of jobs). I’d never been fired. I’d never failed a paper.

I expected things to change. I even sort of welcomed the idea that they would change, in a hard-to-explain sort of way. But then they didn’t.

I got one B in all of undergrad. I worked two or three jobs at a time. I was president of the English honor society.

I tell you these things not to brag. It wasn’t that I didn’t work for these things, but I never felt pushed. I just sort of did what had to be done. I didn’t really think about it.

So, I applied to graduate school because it seemed like the right way to go. I dutifully collected my letters of recommendation, wrote a vague personal statement, and sent off the applications to four different schools.

I didn’t panic when the first rejection came back--not on the outside. I shrugged and tossed the platitude-heavy letter into the trash. But on the inside, a switch had been flipped. The thought that I wouldn’t get in had never really occurred to me. Sure, I had contingency plans—I always have contingency plans. But I have plans for how to escape my car if it’s suddenly engulfed in flames (I know, I might have some issues), that doesn’t mean I’m expecting my car to explode.

The next letter came, and the envelope was thin. I’m not one for ceremony, so I just ripped it open and read what I was already afraid I would see: “extremely large applicant pool,” “many fine qualities,” “wish you the best of success.”

Right. Two out four. I don’t panic easy. I don’t mean by that what you think I mean.  I don’t panic easy because I panic hard. I start with internal arguments. Then I move onto placing blame—not on others, but on myself. Then I moved on to tearing myself to shreds from the very core: “You aren’t cut out for graduate school.” “You’re not really very smart, and someone finally figured it out.” “You don’t belong there; you didn’t even belong in college in the first place.” (Yes, there are semi-colons in my internal monologues--don't judge.)

After I ripped my own heart out, I started rationalizing. “It’s just two schools. You still have 50% of your applications out there. The first two schools came back fast because they were rejections. The other ones are taking so long because they’ll be acceptances. It’ll be okay.”

Then the third letter came. Small envelope.

There’s no polite way to put what happened next: I freaked the fuck out.

I continued to go through my day-to-day motions, but I was a mess. The fourth school had me hanging onto a wire for months. February passed. Then March. Graduation was a month away.

Looking back, I now know that I did everything wrong. I now help other students apply to graduate school as part of my job, and I so frequently think about just how wrong I did it. I applied to too few schools. I didn’t tailor my personal statement. I didn’t really know what I wanted to study.

But, at the time, all I could see was each “thanks, but no thanks” letter as a condemnation. A failure.

Time kept ticking away. My now-husband’s acceptance letters to law school came in, and I tried to balance the pride and excitement with the utter, sheer terror. Do we plan to move? To where? Do I keep holding out? Do I give up? And what do I do if I give up? Keep working at Wal-Mart (my college job)? Enroll somewhere to get my state teaching certification? Try my hand at being a (gulp) writer?

You see these series of questions and think, “That’s not so bad. You had options. You were doing okay.” But, no. I wasn’t. I went through those questions not once a day, not once an hour, but constantly. Every minute of every day. I was on the verge of losing my mind. I was so unprepared for this that I couldn’t even go through all the stages of panic. I was just stuck on this one, an endless hell of scrutiny and blame.

And that, my friends, is when I found the power of music for the meltdown. And seeing as how it is now October Meltdown, I wanted to share a list of my favorite meltdown songs, songs that I listen to when things seem like they’re going to fall apart, songs that either help me put it back together, help me let go, or just help me watch it fall.

“Let Go”- Frou Frou

This was the song that got me through the graduate school panic. At one point, I was listening to it on repeat as I ran on a treadmill in the gym. It was the first time in a month that I didn’t feel like puking.

So let go, let go/Oh well, what you waiting for/It’s all right/Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown

Since the graduate school fiasco, I’ve found comfort in this song for many moments in my life when I felt like the reality I thought I knew was crumbling out from under me. And there is, it turns out, “beauty in the breakdown.” Every time the reality I thought I knew vanishes, I find something more interesting underneath. 

"You Think You Got It Bad" Lyfe Jennings

No guts, no glory/No pain, no story. . . You think the world owe you something, but it don't owe you nothing

Do you know what a meltdown means? It usually means that I have a lot on my plate, and the reason I have a lot on my plate is because I'm taking risks and trying to push myself onto greater things. I could avoid the meltdown, but that would mean staying static and never knowing what I could have become. And that is so not a trade off--this song helps me remember that.

"Warrior" The Yeah Yeah Yeahs

The river it spoke to me/It told me I'm small/And I swallowed it down/If I make it at all/I'll make you want me

Sometimes the way through a meltdown is to stop whining and get the job done. That's not necessarily easy, but I'm not the first one, and maybe doing it will help make sure I'm not the last. When I need to suck it up, I listen to "Warrior."

Oh, and that fourth graduate school response? It was the big envelope.

So, there you have it. Three different approaches to dealing with a meltdown embodied in three different songs. What's your meltdown music? 

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