Starting over: standing up after breaking down

Lacks sweet sugary goodness...

I remember my early adult years, totally engulfed with romanticism, and the hope of eternal bliss. The majority of my journal entries were dedicated to a crush, a lost love, or the dream of something wonderful that was surely on the horizon. But then something horrible happened. Perhaps it was the realization that all the RomCom's starring Meg Ryan or Sandra Bullock are just scripted projections of our collective desires, simply manifested on film- to give us all unrealistic expectations of love. When in fact, this world appears to be littered with potential mates that fall well below the curve. Sure, a select few get it right the first time around, and live to grow old, applying their wedding vows to real life- that whole for better or worse thing. While others, consider it a good run to last over a decade in marital bliss. This stark realization hit me around the same time I became a single parent. It doesn't always work out. I've watched and supported numerous friends over the years get married and divorced with the same enthusiasm. We swap the woes of shared custody, and try to fill the time without our kiddos, taking up hot yoga or attending a paint 'n sip class, making lemonade out of situation that utterly lacks sweet sugary goodness. While we adapt to our new circumstances out of necessity, it's a very unpleasant process. How do you stand up after breaking down?

One of the biggest letdowns in this situation, is the loss of the dream. When you're courting someone, part of the thrill is sharing your ideas for the future with someone you hope to write your own chapters with. You want to travel the hostels of Europe with nothing but a backpack? Me too! You want three kids and a goldendoodle? ME TOO! These conversations paint a future that feels entirely engraved in stone. It provides a comfort to project these possibilities. All the while, knowing you aren't alone in this big bad world. When an end finds it's way to your own storyline, you can feel utterly sideswiped, even if the writing was written on the wall for years. You are essentially given two options at this point. Breakdown, or breakthrough.

I didn't have a single coping skill...

Let's start with breakdown. If I may, I would like to illustrate for you the wrong way to find your footing again. While I've mastered the art of resilience over time, this was not my finest hour (or year.) At 21, I went through a heart-wrenching break-up. How bad can it even be at 21? I say it now, and it seems like I was practically an ameba in the great scheme of things. I think it was so crushing, because it was the first one that felt so real. It's that one relationship that you put away in your history, wrapped in little box (probably Tiffany's)- leaving it to be sacred. We all have that one. With this breakup, my little ameba-self broke into a thousand pieces. It was unexpected, but entirely predictable. It was devastating, but necessary. It was part of my story, without regrets. How did I manage this breakdown? I got drunk, for about a year. If I wasn't at work, I was dancing at the bar. If I wasn't dancing at the bar, I was sleeping to escape from my reality. Knowing what I know now, I have great compassion for little me. My defense mechanism was just to numb out. I didn't have a single coping skill to get through it gracefully, until they were forced upon me.

What was this wet stuff on my face?

Numbing out isn't a sustainable plan. We all have different ways to do it. Some watch T.V., binge eat, shop, drink kamikazes (that was mine), do drugs- the possibilities are infinite. In the end, we have to hunker down into our feelings and actually feel them. The first time I experienced this, I was in an AA meeting in 2000 (like I said, drinking wasn't a sustainable coping skill.) I'm not sure what topic was swimming around the meeting, but I suddenly felt fight or flight come on. I don't know if it was a panic attack, or what- but I flew out of that meeting like a honey badger was after my jugular. My best friend took off after me, concerned for my emotional state. I was crying. I didn't do that. I was used to feeling uncomfortable, and making it go away with a shot, or dancing to techno. What was this wet stuff on my face?! At that point, one of the most epic best friend moves of all time took place. She drove me to the top of a lookout downtown, and we listened to Counting Crows "Colorblind" on repeat while I sobbed, and we smoked. It was my first grief, nearly a year after the inital blow to my heartstrings. Following this emotive catharsis, everything got better. I found myself back in school- in the honors college, navigating new relationships and friendships. I discovered art, and fell in love with my first dog, Oryan. It was crazy to me, the power that "feeling" holds, how healing it can be. Why did I wait so long to do it? It hurt. It hurt, but it wasn't fatal. 

Colorblind by: Counting Crows. From the movie Cruel Intentions.

I would rather have jury duty...

We are so afraid of pain. I go to the dentist and make a mental list of all the things I would rather endure, than the pain of that one filling repair. I'm not kidding. I would rather have jury duty, a colonoscopy, navigate spreadsheets,...anything but this! Then it's over, and I take a sigh of relief. Wow, I put this off for 6 months. For that? Sure, rebuilding an entire life after marriage and children, is a far cry from my post-adolescent illustration. But is it? This experience taught me to honor my feelings, reach out for support, and lean into the discomfort. This ameba break-up laid the foundation for all coping skills to follow. If you're rebuilding your life after an unexpected end, I recommend the following:

  • Don't numb out. For all the hours, days, and months you spend feeling nothing, those feelings don't go away, they just get bigger until the pressure cooker bursts. It's not always convenient or pretty when it happens.
  • Enlist help. This is no time to try to pull up those big girl/boy britches, and do it alone. The people that love you will catch you. Just ask. Sometimes this comes wrapped in french fries and chocolate milkshakes. Mmmm. Milkshakes.
  • Feel. If you're sad, feel it. Don't stuff. Cry. Write about it, draw a picture of your tears! GET IT OUT of your insides to make room for hope.
  • Counseling. I can't tell you how much I wish I had access to a counselor back then. So much pain could have been saved, if I had the opportunity for professional help. Counseling is literally always a good idea. It doesn't make you weak, or crazy (I hear this from patients all the time,) it makes you strong enough to know you don't need to suffer.
  • Dare to dream. While losing your vision of happily ever after can feel crushing, you are no longer confined to those old blueprints. You can literally create any future you want from this moment forward. Dare to dream of the possibilities. You get to write the next chapter.

Life is waiting...

Endings are hard. Finding yourself in the space sprinkled with disappointment, and crushed hope- is likely the last thing you want to be going through. I get that. I wrote that song- a few times now. Please don't lose yourself in the "should have been blues." It only reminds you of loss. Feel those feelers and take that first step forward. Life is waiting for you. What will you write next?