Traumas Come in Threes

by Morgan Boyer

When I was about 19, I came up with a mantra for myself, which I would deliver unironically to anyone who’d listen: “Morgan Boyer will always be okay.”

It may seem a little self-serious and laughable for someone only two years into college, but at that point I’d already survived a plane crash, an ATV accident, and a year living with a roommate who was actively dating my first love. The unique combination of luck and perseverance I’d witnessed made me think that my perpetual survival against all odds was less wishful thinking and more of a fact.

At some point over the past seven years, I forgot my mantra. It’s not that I became less certain of my toughness or good fortune—I definitely hadn’t. Over time, I just lost that juvenile need to define my experiences with a battle cry or catch phrase. But as I emerged from 2019, a year that will go down unquestionably as the worst in my life thus far, it returned to me. Now, that strange confidence my younger self had about my scrappy exceptionalism serves as a compelling promise of the light ahead.

On paper, 2019 doesn’t look so bad. I made more money than I have in my life, I traveled to seven countries, and I proved a lot to myself by closing my first sales deals and writing a book. If you told me two years ago that 2019 would have been so eventful, I’d be ecstatic, ready to take the good with the bad. What I wouldn’t yet understand is how debilitating some traumas can be, especially when they’re one of multiple. They fuse together and mutate into something different, some grief monster that does more harm than stacks of cash and fabulous vacations can undo. And no matter how hard we try to make sense of traumatic experiences—by perhaps rationalizing them as everything happening for a reason or bad things occurring in threes—sometimes we find ourselves marveling at just how ridiculous they can be.

During the course of five months in 2019, I found out my boyfriend of three years had cheated on me, my great-grandfather died three weeks past his 100th birthday, and I was fired suddenly from a job where I’d worked for almost two years. Each event would have been bad enough on its own, but experiencing the three back to back taught me an extraordinary amount about myself and trauma in their juxtaposition.

I discovered the cheating first, in May, which I think served to color everything that happened thereafter. I was tucking my boyfriend into bed in the early hours of the morning after he came home drunk. As I went to plug his phone into the charger, unspeakable truths unfurled before me, making me question if I knew the guy sleeping in my bed at all. In an instant, my life looked incredibly different to me than it had in the moments before. People talk about the trauma of an earthquake coming from the realization that the ground beneath your feet is not nearly as solid as you’d thought it was. I’ve never understood that so clearly as I did in that moment.

I angrily shook him awake, but it was no use—he was too drunk. That left me to rattle around the apartment for the rest of the night, my mind a furious echo chamber as I told myself even worse truths: I needed to leave him, move out, and start from scratch again. None of the options available were remotely happy ones, a fact that made sleep impossible. Alone with my thoughts and with nowhere to go, I texted him an angry stream of consciousness. I took a bath. I meditated. Eventually, after hours spent shaking and nauseated on the couch, I managed to sleep for a couple of hours. The next day, I left for Croatia, unsure of what my life would look like when I returned.

I suddenly became hyperaware of how ubiquitous infidelity was. Every third song seemed to be about betrayal, every movie on the plane seemed to feature it as a key plot point. My friends inadvertently gravitated toward tales of being cheated on while I sat quietly in the backseat, for once, too ashamed to tell my own story. My boyfriend’s sins were too numerous and ghastly, and I knew that opening that can of worms would be a regrettable mistake. The one friend I’d broken down and told had no appetite for my waffling. There was only one option here, she said: dump him.

I knew the fact that I was burying the story so deep inside was reason enough to leave. If I couldn’t bear to say these things aloud, who knows how many lies I was telling myself. The problem was that the ways it would uproot my life were so numerous that it felt like I would be punished more than he was. I was extremely happy with the life we had built before this sinkhole swallowed it. I felt loved, part of a team, and like he was my family. As much as his transgressions hurt me, that seemed like a lot to give up.

After all, hadn’t I had flirtations over the previous year? Hadn’t I rationalized stepping out while at conferences across the country? Of course, I’d never acted on my impulses, but I could vividly understand that his drunken dalliances had nothing to do with his feelings for me or lack thereof. It was just the thrill of receiving validation while in a state where good judgment had been long-muted by drugs, alcohol, or both.

Even still, I spent the entirety of my trip flipflopping between disbelief, anger, and heartbreak. I could hear the arguments of every friend piling up against me as I considered staying. Meanwhile, my boyfriend was pleading with me across time zones, promising me that he’d work his entire life to make me glad I stayed.

Listening to his litany of makegoods, I longed for the future he depicted. It seemed so much brighter, so much easier than what awaited me if I left. It wasn’t the fear of being alone that made me consider staying, though I certainly wasn’t calibrated for that reality. It was that I’d be giving up on our collective dreams; plus, the logistics were a nightmare. Moving out would mean doubling or tripling my rent to live in a far inferior space. I had visions of cooking for one, trying new restaurants alone, going to see Marvel movies by myself. Leaving would mean taking exhaustive motions to secure my own unhappiness, all in the interest of an elusive and abstract sense of “self-respect.”

So I stayed. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, but I have spent more time contented in my decision than regretful of it. With everything else that went on to happen this year, I’m not sure I could have shouldered a breakup and a move heaped on top.

That said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t ever question my decision. In quiet moments, I judge myself for being too cowardly to tell anyone the whole story. Occasionally, I’ll catch a look myself from the outside and feel like a clown. Weathering the entire situation in silence left me fragile and burned out.

It’s in this state that I completely checked out at work. I’d had one good quarter, but as opportunities dried up, our CEO was swapped out, and sending out more unanswered emails felt like a death sentence, I struggled to keep up with core responsibilities and gave a 30% effort. On the plus side, my 30% happened to be better than most people’s 100%. On the minus, it was pretty quickly detectible to the new CEO that my hustle was in tatters, if I’d ever had any.

When I got the call that my great-grandfather had passed, I was afraid to even ask for the day off. Heads had already started to roll, and I knew I was on thin ice. But I knew that one day, I’d regret missing his funeral far more than I’d ever regret weakening my already-precarious standing at work. It was just a job, and not one that I liked all that much anyway.

The funeral was sad and hard, but what I found harder was seeing him so weak and tired at his birthday party earlier that month. Gone was the independent, vibrant man that I’d known for the entirety of my life, and in his place was someone I didn’t recognize, a man who couldn’t focus, struggled to stand, and whispered weakly into the microphone. It might seem obvious that his health had eroded—he was 100-years-old, after all—but for me, it was a pretty clear sign that without my great-grandmother, who had passed two years before, he had let go of whatever spark, whatever lifeblood that had held his strength constant all that time.

His death felt so matter-of-fact by that point that even at the funeral, watching my family deliver one moving memorial after another, I couldn’t bring myself to cry. Turns out that I was suspended in shock and denial, because it wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that the full impact of his loss hit me. Looking ahead to the oncoming holiday season did the trick. For over a decade, I’d spent each Thanksgiving with him and Bubbie—save for last year, when I opted to celebrate with my boyfriend’s family and disrupt the entire family’s tradition. Even though I know things don’t carry that much causality, I still feel a little guilty. Now, we’ll never share the holiday with him again.

Zaydie’s death marked the end of an era, stealing one of the last members of the G.I. Generation from the world. It occurred to me that even though he was larger than life and had such a big impact on his community, with only a waning oral history to pass down, it wouldn’t be long before his legacy was all but wiped out. He lived a life I can only aspire to—he was successful, well-traveled, and had three generations of family to be proud of—but now he was gone, and we only had the numerous buildings he constructed around Miami to point at to say, look, Zaydie built that. He was here.

By the time I got back to work, I found that I unequivocally hated my job. I began tallying the days until I could quit on a post-it note, calculating how much money I stood to lose by quitting before then. I felt myself growing increasingly irate, snapping at my boss and rolling my eyes visibly in meetings. Nothing could be said to scare me straight—not when I was inches from quitting on a whim.

One Thursday in October, I was working from home when my colleague started texting me in a panic. Our weekly sales meeting had been moved. Then, her HR account had been reassigned to another email. Finally, at 6:30 PM, our manager had set a meeting with her at 9:00 the following morning at an off-site location. I’d tried to talk her off the ledge as the evidence mounted, but when that meeting hit her calendar, I knew my protestations would only offend her.

I was on the train the next morning when at 8:55, I received the same meeting notification for 9:30. Whereas my colleague had the evening to steel herself and pack up her desk, I had all of 20 minutes to throw my belongings in a tote bag and rush over to the other location. I certainly didn’t have time to prepare, which felt like my manager’s last swipe at me.

The levels of anger I felt when I entered the room were surprising—I hadn’t known I was capable of such wrath. Unlike the seething, cold rage I felt the night I discovered my boyfriend’s infidelity, I found myself charged with a cackling righteousness. I struggled to hide my smugness as I snapped at them for their shortsighted hypocrisy. I was drunk on the fury roiling in my gut, mixing dangerously with the satisfaction that they had played into my hand perfectly. It was only been a matter of time before I quit for free, but here we were. They had chosen to fire me and would thus have to pay me handsomely to leave.

That feverish delight only lasted me a few hours before the realization set in about the decision that had been made. The executive team had agreed that the company would be better off without me. And even though I spent the day doing feel-good things, I couldn’t outrun it. I quickly found myself engulfed with dread as I mentally examined all of my past work experiences to compare my failures, breathing life into my ever-present anxiety that I won’t ever be successful and that anyone would be a fool to hire me. Over the next few weeks, I rode violent waves of highs and lows, both riddled in their delusional extremism. Which brings us to today: I’ve been unemployed for three months, and I expect that the worst is still ahead of me.

Depending on how I’m feeling on a given day, I can talk myself into the fact that getting fired was my entirely own fault. If I’d been more diplomatic, if I’d been hungrier, if I’d been more concerned with appearances, perhaps I could have prevented the whole thing. It doesn’t matter that I was performing the best of anyone; once I’m in that mindset, I can’t get myself to see reason.

The experience and implications of getting fired sit squarely on my shoulders. I am so afraid of spending another two years working for people who are poor managers or doing work that crushes my spirit that I shut down when looking at job listings and advancing through interview processes, as if I have PTSD. Though friends and family have been supportive, it has been an isolating experience.

The savageness with which I can point my grief inward scares me sometimes, which is why I think getting fired has been so much harder for me to make peace with than being cheated on. I know for a fact that I am blamelessness in my boyfriend’s infidelity, and while that doesn’t mitigate the bizarre helplessness of the events, it does lessen the anger phase of grief. I’m angry, but I’m not angry at myself, and that’s a much easier pill to swallow. But something happened to me in the moments after both became reality: suddenly, I was a victim of cheating, a person someone would want to fire. Just like that, it became absorbed into my identity and self-perception. Throw in the death of a patriarch, and snap—you’re living in an entirely new world.

When I look at all that happened last year, I wonder how a person can be expected to navigate so much back-to-back. Really, it’s simple: they just do. People are dealt terrible hands, hands certainly worse than mine, and they just keep going. It’s not always a great triumph—in fact, it rarely is. Maybe they’re a little worse for the wear, maybe they have new demons as a result, but all the same, they get up the next morning and do it all again. Hearts still pumping, lungs still breathing, they carry on, now enlightened with the surprising knowledge that they can handle more than they thought they could. That realization has left me a little swollen and calloused. Things that I would have expected to break me failed to do so. That makes me think that whatever next trauma life has in store for me—although it will be painful—will be surmountable as well.

Now, there’s a good chance that along with an increase in resilience, I’ve changed, and not because these events have left a stain on my character. The experiences and my response to them taught me a lot about myself, and I could almost watch from the outside as I was being shaped by them inadvertently. But regardless of whether my identity has been irreparably altered by the events of the past year, I have a feeling that my sweet, 19-year-old self had some real sense that holds up now. Morgan Boyer will always be okay—and that gives me hope that I have some amount of power against life’s peculiar whims, even if it’s just the strength to survive them, come what may.

Morgan Boyer is a startup veteran who lives in Brooklyn and spends the majority of her free time writing a novel capturing her experiences at startups. This year, she traveled to her 32nd country, her favorite of which was Morocco. When she’s not writing, you can probably find her trying out a new restaurant or coercing someone into playing a board game.