There were two moments in my life when I hit rock bottom, three if you count the time in junior high when I was so viciously bullied I spent lunches in the library. But, since nothing that happens before you get your first Brazilian wax counts (that's the universal standard, right?), I'm counting two.
Both times, my lifeline wasn't at the bottom of a bottle, or a BFF who tirelessly sympathized, or a fling (though all of those played a part), but a book — a self-help book to be exact.
This is an ode to the genre of books that people never name-drop, like a New York Times best seller that the cultured casually slip into conversation, or boast about reading religiously from cover to cover, like The New Yorker. It's the genre of books that never get critical acclaim, and while you may start a book club about it, you’re probably not going to advertise its time and place on Facebook.
But, in the times of serious need, when spiraling in self-deprecating despair, I was most consoled by people who went through what I was going through. It just so happened that I had never met them.
When my first (again, we're counting post-wax) serious boyfriend cheated on me during a missions trip, lied about it, and then promptly started dating her once he realized that the jig was up, I spiraled. I thought I was going to marry him. And, now the integrity of our entire relationship was open to scrutiny, the feeling of my replaceability was insurmountable, and I was convinced I would never date again. [Editor's note: That's a direct quote from my personal blog in '06. Oh brother.] All my beliefs of trust, commitment, love, and faith came crashing down like Humpty Dumpty and absolutely refused to be put back together again.
Instead of a shoulder to cry on, the pages of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, with its cheesy title and equally cheesy cover (don't Google it), helped me find purpose in my unexpected single status. From swearing off dating forever, I jumped to Dr. Gary Chapman's The Five Love Languages (the singles edition), written by a relationship counselor/psychologist who found that most married couples felt unloved by their spouse because they communicated their love in different ways. Then, I hopped to Francine Rivers' Redeeming Love, the closest you'll get to 50 Shades of Grey in the Christian aisle. It's a retelling of the biblical story of Hosea who married a prostitute and kept forgiving her and bringing her back home despite her constant affairs. The book paints a very moving picture of what unconditional love could look like.
From one high to the next, I jumped from book to book, each one helping me work through the five stages of grief. I became a self-help junkie, always looking for my next fix. But, it was those books that gave me consistent and constant counsel without the hefty bill of a therapist and self-absorbed guilt from talking a bestie's ear off. They kept me afloat for five years until I finally started dating again.
Then, I got laid off. And, it was the refreshingly raw words of Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird, who talked me down when I thought my young career was dying a very sudden, ego-crippling death. Getting laid off, despite all the practical "it's just business" reasoning, can demoralize you so swiftly and effectively that I wholeheartedly believed I wasn't qualified to write another published word again. Lamott's brash telling of her (many) failures and ways she got back up affirmed that 1) I was not crazy, or 2) at the least, I wasn't alone. Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way taught me to haul my ass back to the drawing board and keep applying and writing and believing. And, when I eventually landed a job in NYC, Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In reminded me that work is hard but it's a hard-wrought privilege and something worth fighting for.
Self-help books may not be the sexiest titles and I might not proudly read them on the subway, but they've helped me through heartache that lasted years, through career drama, and subsequent identity crises. And, for $14.95 a pop, that's a pretty damn good deal.