No one tells you how to keep going when your life falls apart. There’s no real body of wisdom, not even so much as a Buzzfeed listicle to tell you what happens when your whole world crashes down around you. You have a bad day, then a string of bad days, then a rough month, and before you know it everything that was good in your life is gone and you have no idea what to do next. Your life as you knew it is just gone but you’re still breathing, somehow. So now what? No one tells you what to do then.
People do get on with their lives. All the time, in fact. Not everyone— a few really do decide they can’t continue— but many do. You tend to not have much in the way of options. But afterward, no one really shares how it can be done. And it’s not something most people want to think about if it hasn’t happened to them.
Four years ago I discovered that it’s possible to find a way out of the dark when your life has been reduced to tatters. But I also learned that there’s no script, things don’t necessarily get better, and a lot of people will give up on you.
In 2012 I was going through the worst depressive episode of my entire life. I had stopped going to my classes and independent study check-in meetings at graduate school, and, as it turns out, grad students are expected to show up and meet their obligations in order to successfully complete their program. Who knew? By spring I had been kicked out of my MFA program. My academic career was over and my artistic career was languishing. This might’ve been mitigated if I hadn’t pushed most of my friends away and shirked whatever support network I had. Instead, I managed to walk straight toward the (figurative) ledge and there was nobody there to pull me back.
My housemates told me to move out by the end of the summer. I had some money stashed, but having to move suddenly was a massive drain. I ended up renting a room in the far suburbs with some friends, but eventually the relationships started to sour. I barely left my room during those late months— unsurprising, considering I didn’t have a car. I also had no career, no partner, no friends, and no real reason to get out of bed other than habit.
In November, soon after the country voted to give Barack Obama another four years in the White House, I heard about an upcoming soccer game between two teams I had never heard of, and for the next few weeks that game was all I could think about.
Most soccer fans know the story of AFC Wimbledon by now, but when I first read about them that winter it was like stumbling onto a secret. Wimbledon FC were a small non-league club for most of their history, rising to the Football League in the late 70s and reaching to the old First Division just nine years later. The South London side then knocked off Liverpool (back when they were nearly unbeatable) in the 1988 FA Cup Final.
The Dons were one of the founding members of the Premier League, but from there it was a slow decline into financial troubles and poor leadership. New owners sought permission to move the club to different city— something which happens all the time in American sports but was largely unheard of (and blasphemous) in English football. The FA originally said no, but yielded to pressure and appointed an independent commission to decide. The commission said yes, and more than a century of football history for this South London neighborhood was gone. Two seasons later, the team ran out in their new city and their new colors as Milton Keynes Dons.
And Wimbledon fans, having lost everything, picked themselves up and did they only thing they thought they could do— they started over. AFC Wimbledon was founded as a phoenix club in a campaign famously referred to by the FA as being “not in the wider interests of football.” Tryouts were held on Wimbledon Common and the new club— which, although lacking the legal papers the Milton Keynes outfit clung to, was the continuation of Wimbledon FC in every way that counted— fielded a team for the 2002-03 season in the Combined Counties League, all the way down in Tier 9 of the English football system. That level of amateur football isn’t so far removed from Pub Team. AFC Wimbledon were committed to reclaiming what had been lost, and over the next nine years climbed their way up through nonleague football and, after a dramatic shootout win over Luton Town, secured a place in the Football League.
YA author and YouTube personality John Green, a Liverpool fan, had adopted Wimbledon as a second team (and is now a sponsor), and I found out about their upcoming Cup tie by reading his Twitter feed. I subsequently fell down a Dons Wikipedia rabbit hole.
Reading that story, in my emotional state, was kind of a big deal for me. Weighed down by despair and inertia, I had resigned myself to waiting for my life to get just a little bit worse. Maybe health, or circumstance, would do me in or no one would blame me if I took care of things myself. AFC Wimbledon’s story, of a fanbase that lost everything and a community that had one of its major institutions stolen away from them who came together to rebuild from scratch and find a way forward… I’m not sure if I would describe what I felt then as “hope,” but it was the closest I had felt to that in a long time. I clung to it. I searched for articles and watched grainy YouTube videos and lurked in internet forums, trying to find a hand-hold to grab on to, like a train whose cars are full and riders are clutching to the sides and roof for dear life.
The 2012-13 season was the club’s second in League Two and it wasn’t going well. The Dons were lingering near the relegation zone and were forced to sack their longtime manager. Things were looking up when Neal Ardley was brought in, but everyone knew it would be a long climb. Wimbledon got a boost in the FA Cup when they beat York City 4-3 in a First Round replay. Then the Second Round draw brought what Wimbledon fans had been dreading for the past decade— a match against Milton Keynes.
That game, weeks away, was what shook away some of my cobwebs. All of a sudden my entire life hinged on this soccer game between two teams I hadn’t even heard about a month prior. I didn’t know if I met the “qualifications” to be a fan of this obscure fourth division English football team, but I knew I needed them to win. I needed to believe that you could lose everything and eventually be okay afterward.
AFC Wimbledon didn’t win that game. Stephen Gleeson put Milton Keynes ahead right before halftime, Wimbledon’s own Jack Midson equalized right before the hour mark, and in stoppage time Jon Otsemobor hit a backheel flick into the net from close-range to win it for MK. Wimbledon fans claimed a moral victory, of course; the fact that the real Wimbledon faced off against the pretenders, the Franchise, was a win in itself. The owners of the Franchise, the FA, the media, had all written AFC Wimbledon off, and fielding a team against Milton Keynes, awkward as it was, gave proof that a football club means more than legal papers and commission reports. Wimbledon fans lost everything, so they rebuilt, and forced the pretenders to face a reckoning, even if they came up short on the day.
In the intervening years things did get better, for me and for AFC Wimbledon. Their biggest achievement was (barely) escaping relegation on the last day thanks to two late goals by Jack Midson. They slowly built stronger and stronger teams, enough at one point to earn an FA Cup Third Round tie with Liverpool (which they lost thanks to a Steven Gerrard brace, but they kept it close for a while). Last season they went on a blistering run of form after Boxing Day and went from bottom-half of the the table to qualifying for the playoffs, and then triumphed in the League Two playoff final over Plymouth Argyle to win promotion to League One.
Meanwhile, although I was briefly homeless, I eventually got my housing situation sorted out. With some stability and breathing room, I started working to build a new career. Now I write about soccer for a living. I’ve mended bridges with friends and made new ones, and I’m slowly learning to forgive myself for my past mistakes. I’m also trying to practice adequate self-care and be mindful of my state of mind, so that bad days or weeks don’t metastasize into another bout of deep depression.
Managing my mental health over the past few weeks hasn’t been easy. I was despondent when Donald Trump was elected President and I truly don’t know what this country will look like years from now or whether I’ll have a place in it. I’m anxious over the possibility of living out my remaining years under an oppressive autocracy. But I’m doing my best, because the Resistance will need me— and because I know things can get better no matter how hopeless they seem.
Speaking of hope-against-all-odds, AFC Wimbledon face off against Milton Keynes again on December 10th in their first ever league fixture. Wimbledon will meet their ersatz foes as early contenders for a promotion place. Meanwhile, the Franchise were relegated from the Championship last season and are at risk of being dropped at the end of this campaign as well.
Over the years I’ve learned that people can survive all manner of adversity and find hope where there is absolutely no trace. No one knows how to give advice for how to survive the worst that life has to offer, and I won’t claim to have any special wisdom, but this is what I do know: at some point you have to make a choice to get through it. You have to have to decide, consciously and with eyes open, that you’re going to do everything you can. You have to make that choice knowing you could fail, and knowing that you might die in the attempt. You make the choice and then you do everything you’re able to do to make it happen.
And when things are dark, you try to take comfort in knowing that it’s been done before.
Come on you Dons.