When the Plane Goes Down

I used to think that I was unbearably unique. No one understood me because there was no one like me; I was a rara avis of the first order. Later I came to understand that I was the quintessential Baby Boomer, in fact a little behind the curve, so that by the time I thought it, felt it, ate it, smoked it, drank it, or wrote about it, most of my generation had either already done the same or was right there with me.

So when I wrote my first book, Southern Vapors, I was the only one surprised to hear that one of the deepest chords of resonance was what I wrote about the disappointed expectations of the Baby Boomers. A typical passage:

In 1998, we moved back to Atlanta. It was there that the coup de grâce to my lifestyle was administered by the Internet stock boom. I bought what was being sold hook, line, and sinker. The new-era b.s. fed right into my desire to be as wealthy as my parents—not tomorrow, but yesterday. I had waited long enough on the fringes; I don’t think anything could have stopped me from investing in those soaring stocks. Like most people, I had enough success to get intoxicated and stay that way until getting sober was no longer a possibility—not voluntarily, and not until it was way too late.

And, like many people who participated in that particular market frenzy, the bloodletting for me was severe, about a 70 percent loss. Not too long thereafter I proceeded to get divorced, and the subsequent descent to my personal financial bottom was swift and merciless. I seriously contemplated what I would do when all of the money was gone, and whether my daughter, Rachel, could realistically be expected to come stay with me in a trailer during the weeks that I had custody.

It never came to that, but by June of 2010, I was living in a tiny apartment with a washer/dryer room in the parking lot and gaping cracks around the doors and windows through which the frigid wind blew in winter. I was jobless, not by design, and close to being broke. I was not cool with this by any means, but I was trying to tolerate the idea that I was put here to learn something and that this was part of the lesson. Who knows, maybe I was going to make a career out of teaching formerly rich people how to be poor with grace.

When I talk to people in my age bracket about the book, they tell me how strongly they relate to this description of what it feels like to watch your life tank unexpectedly. Along with baby formula, we were bottle-fed a dream that had no chance at all of becoming reality; yet for many of us, it wasn’t just our expectation of reality, it was immutable fact. Is it laughable to look back and understand that many of us felt entitled to a problem-free future? Yes. Does that make our false sense that the world owed us certain things any less real? No.

I thought that my life was going to be like an airplane flight: takeoff, a few bumps on the ascent, and smooth sailing once I hit cruising altitude of thirty-eight-thousand feet. Even air pockets were not part of the flight plan, and my idea of bumps consisted mostly of getting grades on tests that were lower than what I thought they should be. I know people who died along the way because they shared my mindset, which is a mindset that does not produce any effective coping skills to deal with life’s problems. If there aren’t going to be any problems, who needs coping skills?

My saving grace was that I made a lot of friends who were willing to listen to my problems and give me a level of support that kept me in the game until I could build my own infrastructure. For many years, I was an impressive house of cards.

Is it, then, about blaming our forebears for inculcating us with propaganda cloaked in shirtwaist dresses? Is it about hanging on to regret over how our lives could have been different? It could be, if we want to make it that. I myself spent multiple decades making it that, and it did not improve my lot one whit or make me feel better in any way.

Two things made me feel better. One, the awareness that really bad stuff could happen to me, which took away fear of being blindsided; and two, slowly, painfully, brick by brick, adding to my storehouse of knowledge of what to do when the really bad stuff happens.

Where does a person go to take Life 101 as an adult? I visited three different mental institutions between 2000 and 2010, and I learned a lot at every juncture: on the way there, during my time inside, and on the way back. That’s a pretty extreme path. Most people can probably make do with some combination of connection to community, counseling, and spiritual practice. Each of those categories is purposely broad. Community can be anything from family and friends to a twelve-step program and everything in between. Counseling can be anything from the kinds of experiences I had in hospitals to a few sessions with a therapist. Spiritual practice is whatever works for you.

For my part, knowing that I’m not the only one to crash is very cheering, so I have gladly traded in my perceived uniqueness for a seat in the row next to the rest of you.

Lynn Garson is an attorney with the Atlanta office of McKenna Long & Aldridge and the author of Southern Vapors (2011), her first book.

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