From the Other Side

Two weeks into my maternity leave after having Luke, I was laid off from my job. Since I was a property manager living onsite, we were given 72 hours to vacate our home. My then husband was unemployed, and our savings were nil. It was truly one of the scariest times in my life.420776_110079595817575_861439767_n

I had a sixteen-month-old and a newborn baby and nowhere to go. Our parents helped us find an apartment in town. The youth group from a local church moved us in within hours. And even though it took about three months, I found a part-time job that would keep us afloat until I went back to school to eventually become a teacher.

91437800_1595259927299527_4447399636704952320_oI found this mug in the Walmart clearance section that Christmas. I sipped my coffee most mornings during that season in my life with tears streaming down my face and anxiety crippling my mind. It would be just six months later that I would make some big life-changing decisions and start on a new path that led me where I am today.

This mug reminds me that no matter how scary and impossible life feels sometimes, it is temporary. It reminds me that I am strong as hell and can rise above my present situation. It reminds me that there’s nothing like a woman with a made up mind. And that on the other side of what I’m going through is something beautiful and worth holding out for. I needed this reminder today. Maybe you do, too.

Leaving Well

It has been quite a year for us, friends. I’ve seen posts and reflections sprinkled all through Facebook and Instagram the past few days, looking back on the year and taking account. Savoring the beauty, mourning the loss, accepting the inevitable, looking forward to what lies ahead.

It’s a beautiful practice and one that collectively we should practice more often than once a year. Because introspection and reckoning with our choices is something that helps us grow, sometimes beyond measure, beyond our wildest dreams.

There are resolutions and words of the year. (You can read about mine from 2012 to 2018 here and here.) New planners, new gym memberships, new commitments and goals. And I get it. I do the thing, too.

But sometimes I feel like we’re so intent on moving into the next year that we miss a huge opportunity to truly learn from the year before.


Years ago, when I was in a chapter of my life I now refer to as The Depths, I happened upon an advice column called Dear Sugar on the Rumpus. Later revealed as Cheryl Strayed, Sugar’s essays carried me through the darkest time in my life. Her compassion, wisdom, and sincerity breathed new life into me as I was finding myself and finding my way out of the darkness.

Many of these essays I still come back to time and again. (And if you want a quick run down of the 15 best columns, check this list out.) But the one that has always resonated with me most is The Reckoning. I will let you read it for yourself (and trust me, you want to), but one idea that I carry around with me every day from this essay is the idea that we all face times of reckoning, of calling an account for our lives – who we are, who we want to be, and how we want to get there.

And that’s what the New Year brings on in so many of us… this reckoning with the last 365 days and how we want to move forward differently and the same.


I want to challenge myself, and you, too, to sit in 2019 just a bit longer so that we can leave it well.

In his book Your Best Year Ever, Michael Hyatt walks through five steps for achieving our most important goals. Step two is Complete the Past, and for good reason. We cannot truly walk into a new year refreshed and prepared for what it offers if we haven’t put the past to bed.

My recommendation? Read Your Best Year Ever. If you don’t have that kind of time, check out Hyatt’s essay “Seven Questions to Ask About Last Year” to get you thinking more honestly about the past twelve months.

And then give yourself some time to breathe and think and, well, just be. Sitting with ourselves, offering ourselves grace and understanding, and being at peace with who we are right now without any of the resolutions met or goals complete… that is a gift and one we must continually give.

The Home Within Yourself

“My husband and I divorced six months ago. Shortly after the holidays last year, we ended our marriage. In many ways, I feel more relief than grief. Things had been falling apart for some time. And now that it’s all over, I am completely certain that we did the right thing.

Our separation and divorce were pretty nasty. Lots of accusations and mistrust. For my part, I have been able to shield our children – they are 6 and 9 years old – from most of the back and forth, but this has been a tough year for all of us.

Thanksgiving is coming up next week, and I am really messed up about it. I have never had a Thanksgiving or Christmas without my children before, and I worry that I won’t survive this separation. I know that sounds dramatic, but I don’t know how to do this.

I have family and close friends in town, but I am afraid that I’ll drag everyone down with my grief. I don’t want to fake-smile through the weekend. But I also don’t want to be alone. This is my conundrum. What the hell am I supposed to do?

I know you have done this before, so I am hoping you can give me some advice. How do I make it through this first holiday without my babies?

Thank you,

Lost”


Since I started telling the truth about my life, this is a question that finds its way to my inbox often. Figuring out how to do the holidays after divorce can be so scary and sad.

I first want to say a big “Congratulations!” to you. Making big life changes can be tough, and I think divorce is one of the most difficult things to do. It sounds like this was a healthy decision for you, and I applaud your courage.

You have done this hard thing, and now you will continue to do the next hard things with that much more kindness and tenderness and strength.

On this morning seven years ago, I woke up with a lump in my throat. I had dreaded this day for months. Within an hour, I would say goodbye to my boys as I dropped them off at before-school care just as the sun was waking up. And I wouldn’t see them again until the next Monday after school. All of those hours of family Thanksgiving memories – 123 hours, in fact – I would miss for the very first time. To say I was devastated would not be an overstatement.

On the way to school, the boys and I talked about keeping our Christmas tree up until at least January (it turned out to be February that year, and on purpose!), what presents we’d like to get our puppy and kitty cat. I kept my eyes forward and my grip tight on the steering wheel, channeling all of my focus on the drive so I didn’t have to think about how much my heart was breaking. At least not yet.

After saying our goodbyes and kissing their pink cheeks, I walked out of the school gymnasium toward our car, my body wracked with grief. Slamming the door shut in outrage at what my life had become, I did the only thing I knew to do that would release the pent up rage and fear and agony in me – I screamed “NO!” about a dozen times and sobbed. I beat the steering wheel, too. (That always helps until you accidentally hit the horn.)

The rest of that Thanksgiving holiday is a blur for me. I remember snippets here and there, but the one thing I know for sure is this: I survived it.

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Lost, I know what it feels like when the anticipation of this weekend and all it entails is sitting so heavy on your chest you’re afraid you’re going to stop breathing. When your throat aches from screeching out anguishing cries in a whisper so your children don’t hear. And I am here to tell you it’s moments like these that wear down our rock-hard, jagged edges and soften us into the tender, open-hearted people we are meant to become.

On really tough days like this, my friend Bess would text me with some truth bombs. We all need to be reminded of the truest things sometimes, so here are some for you.

You are strong enough to weather this.

No matter how much they hurt, feelings can’t kill.

Being alone is not necessarily a bad thing.

Your people love you and want to shoulder your pain. It’s okay to let them.

…..

My first piece of advice to you is this: feel your feelings.

It is easy to self-medicate with a million things to dull our pain. But it never works, Lost. I have tried nearly everything there is, and I’m here to tell you: it. never. works.

So sit in your grief. Let it seep into your bones. And then share it. With a trusted friend, with your therapist, with the pages of your private journal… Whatever makes sense for you, do it.

Because this taking in and sharing of grief has transformative powers, I believe. Like the caterpillar that hides away in its cocoon, quite literally consuming itself
so that it can come back together again to emerge a butterfly, we must first become undone in order to be made whole.

And then, we must learn how to look inside ourselves to find that safe place, home.

For human beings, I believe the active ingredient in this process is grief. So hold this grief, this gift, tightly to your chest and let it shape you as you share it with those who are standing with you in this season.

One of the biggest challenges for me in parenting after divorce was all of the open time I instantly had when my children were with their dad. It is still a challenge, honestly.

For so many years, mothering consumed my time, my thoughts, everything. Because, well, it had to. Those early years of parenting demand so much of us physically and emotionally.

And then, in a breath, I had 122 days every year without my children. 122 days. That’s a lot of days.

At first, I tried to fill this time with things like browsing the aisles at Target, lining up dates or lady dates so I wouldn’t have to eat a meal by myself, or traveling to visit friends and family out of state. But after a while, that grew so exhausting (and oftentimes financially irresponsible, quite honestly).

One weekend, I had too much month left at the end of my money and had no choice but to stay home. I was admittedly nervous about this predicament I’d found myself in, but it turned out to be one of the most life-giving and replenishing weekends I’d had in a long damn time.

That weekend was the start of me learning to find a home within myself.

On Friday night, I fell asleep to an Austin City Limits re-run streaming on my laptop. Saturday morning, I slept in. Made French press coffee and scrambled eggs in smooth butter for breakfast. Took a long walk with Polly at a park nearby. Finished Cheryl Strayed‘s moving book, Tiny, Beautiful Things and bawled my head off in the best way. Sunday brought church and lunch with my parents and lesson planning for my classes the following week.

I cared for myself the way I would care for my best friend who was going through a crisis and needed a weekend to just breathe and be. It was uneventful and quiet and soul-feeding.

Lost, on the days when you find yourself in an empty home with nothing to keep you busy, learn to care for yourself as if you were your own best friend. It will change your life.

…..

Since that first Thanksgiving without my sweeties, I have had three more like them. It does get easier, but the ache of missing my boys never leaves. I still get choked up when I have to say goodbye for a break. Thoughts of them are always running in the background of my mind, and that’s okay. Beautiful, even.

As you walk through this first Thanksgiving without your babies, I hope you find comfort in your grief, remembering that experiences like these can be catalysts for growth and change that otherwise might be impossible. And I hope you find a home within your beautiful heart, remembering that all the love and care you pour out on others is meant to be poured out on yourself, too.

Yours,

Ellie

The Storm

 

Dear Ellie,

I recently ended a relationship with someone I loved very much. Things were really good between us for a good while – almost five years – but over the past several months, somehow we stopped being happy together. In every way, he was exactly what I needed. Except this: he’s married.

I know, I know. I know what you’re thinking. He’s not married like everyone else I see is married. He’s married in the “we live in the same house but haven’t touched in years” way. He and his wife even sleep in separate bedrooms, for crying out loud. They haven’t been happy together for a long time, if ever.

What started as a really great friendship between us has evolved into a complete clusterf*ck and now I’m afraid I’ll never talk to him again. 

I’m writing you now because I woke up to an email from him this morning. Promising that he was going to see an attorney and get the ball rolling on a divorce. Begging me to reconsider. Telling me all the things I already know – that we are perfect together except for this small detail.

I’m afraid that I’m not strong enough to end this relationship and move on with my life. I have given him five years of my life and looking back it seems as if it’s all been a complete waste. I’m also afraid that I’ll never find this kind of love again, that every other man I meet after this will pale in comparison to him.

Am I a complete asshole for wanting him to leave his wife for a relationship with me? How do I move on with my life without constantly looking in the rear-view mirror at what I’m leaving behind?

Love,

Dead End Road


Dear Dead End Road,

I am so sorry for your heartache. Ending a relationship with someone you love is one of the most gut-wrenching choices to make. When I think of the five most traumatic experiences of my life, the end of a relationship in one way or another fills the top three spots.

When I was in the middle of my divorce, friends surrounded me in ways I didn’t know friends could. I had no idea how many people really cared about me until I started walking through the fire and they joined me on the road of coals.

One of these people I had known since college. We were just acquaintances for years, but even then we shared a strong connection. I was drawn to his intellect, the thoughtful way he moved about his life, the love he had for his child, and, if I’m being honest, how much he seemed to like me. He was married, too. But much like your mister. Over the years, we developed a strong friendship based on mutual respect and care.

As my divorce was finalized, I found myself becoming more and more drawn to this man. I felt safe with him. As much as one can by someone living states apart. It was probably the first time in all my life that I’d felt sheltered by a man who was not a family member. Reeling from a terrible marriage, this feeling of safety and security was something I craved.

It took me a long time, but I finally came to understand the huge mistake I was making by investing so much of my time and emotional capacity in someone who was still at least one foot in his marriage. Looking back, it seems so obvious. But when you’re eyeballs deep in feelings for someone, it is tough to see things clearly.

What was so difficult about this realization was that it came way too late. In the process of trying to figure out what the hell to do with the mess we created, this man and I destroyed the friendship that we had enjoyed for over a decade. To date, it is one of the deepest, most profound losses of my life.

Love is something that moves freely between two people. It is not forced, and it is not compelled.

Dead End Road, you are not an asshole for wanting this man to leave his wreck of a marriage for you. But it doesn’t really matter what you want for him. What matters is what he wants for himself. You could be the perfect woman, everything he needs, but you will never be able to convince him to love you fully. Love is something that moves freely between two people. It is not forced, and it is not compelled.

So I would encourage you to shift your focus to the second question you ask: How do I move on with my life without constantly looking in the rear-view mirror at what I’m leaving behind?

At the heart of your letter, Dead End Road, is a profound need to be loved. I can say that because I know exactly what that feels and looks like. This man – and any other person for that matter – will never be able to love you the way you must love yourself first. For me, it meant that I started some intense self-care practices that I used during my divorce. I made a list of all the things that brought me joy or calmed me or made me happy, and I committed to doing at least one of those things every day. By taking care of myself, I was able to shift my focus from the man I cared about to what mattered more than any other relationship – the relationship I had with myself.

I also reached out to safe female friends who loved me and who had earned the right to hear my shame story. I knew that these “move a body” friends would not judge me, that they would look me in the eyeballs and be willing to hear every guilt-filled detail without wincing or rolling their eyes. I knew that they would walk with me down the path to my own healing, and that we would all be better for it.

I’m now almost four years down this path, and while it has not been easy, I have learned so much about myself and about what an authentic, loving relationship should look like.

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Photo courtesy Erin Alaine Photography

I am now married to a man who is one of the most devoted, sacrificing, forgiving people I have ever known. The love we share is rich and full and imperfectly perfect. He sees my flaws and loves me all the more. And you know what? He is 100% dialed in to our relationship. He’s not tied up in anyone else’s apron strings. He’s willing to do really tough things to love me well. I trust him completely.

The work that lies before you is worth it, my dear. It is grueling and will make you want to bawl your head off every now and then. But on the other side of that hill is a whole life full of whole love, and it’s waiting for you.

During that broken-hearted season in my life, these lyrics from a song by Mumford & Sons entitled “After the Storm” were a soothing balm for me. I hope they will be for you as well.

But there will come a time, you’ll see,
with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart,
but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart
and flowers in your hair.

I believe that all of our past experiences come together to create the people that we are – beautiful and broken and altogether breathtaking. As I’ve grown in my understanding of failures in life, I’ve learned that the only true way to be restored is to embrace them, to hold them tightly to our chest and let them shape us into stronger, softer, deeper feeling people.

You see, Dead End Road, you’re not on a dead end road at all. While the path you’re on might not be clear right now, there is so much more life and love in front of you. One step in front of the other, I’m sure you’ll find your way. And women like me who have walked this same road are standing on the sidelines cheering you on.

On my wedding day a little over a year ago, I wore a flower clasp in my hair to honor that difficult season, to pay homage to the woman who was broken and hurting and trying to find her way to a healthier, more love-filled life. Now, when I see that clasp resting among my other bridal jewelry on our dresser, I will think of you, too. I’m rooting for you, my sister.

Ellie

If you want to reach out to Ellie, you can contact her here.

Between Lost and Found

 

Dear Ellie,

A little over 3 years ago, I destroyed my marriage. I had already done a lot of damage to it by being unfaithful and by being generally unreliable, but that night in November was when I walked away from it. I’ve often regretted that moment since, but with time I’ve come to appreciate that it was the best decision for my wife. She is happier, more prosperous, and more secure with the life she has built after me than she ever was with me.

The most tragic casualty in the whole process is my daughter. She is the light of my life, the sum of all my hopes. She is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of humanity. I broke her heart by leaving, and even now she really doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.

I can’t blame her. For one thing, she’s still a child, so even if her instinct was incorrect, she is blameless for it. For another, I am and will always be her fiercest defender. But finally, her instinct is probably correct; I have been pretty severely mentally ill since I was very, very young, and as no combination of medication, therapy, and hospitalizations has ever effected a meaningful improvement, I’m not likely to ever get better. In fact, with other medical conditions I have recently acquired, I doubt I’ll be around for all that much longer anyway. So while I love my daughter unreservedly – and in many ways, my ex-wife – I think it was very cruel and heartlessly irresponsible of me to enter into their lives as I did. I really should have known better; people have been telling me that I’m a human hurricane for as long as I can remember.

Which brings me to the subject of my submission: I’m thinking of leaving. It’s been fun and all, but I’m quite tired and I’d like to go. I’ve been on for a while, and while I definitely flubbed a number of scenes, I feel I’ve given it my all (what a sad amount that turned out to be) and it’s time to exit stage left.

I’ve stuck around these last few years for the sake of my daughter; but lately I’ve become increasingly convinced that she’ll be better off. Nothing else has any appeal; while I get on well with all my coworkers, I have no real friends, and I can’t seem to keep any (usually through my own reprehensible behavior). I have nothing else in my life but work and whatever electronic distraction I can cobble together for an evening. Furthermore, a careful examination of the available evidence leads inexorably to the conclusion that, while I have amassed a not-inconsiderable amount of education and information, my opinions and perspectives have no value to anyone other than myself, and my existence generally serves no beneficial purpose, as what I do at my job can be done by basically anyone.

I’m supposed to have a question, but I really don’t. I guess I just wanted to tell someone, and you’re someone I’ve admired for a long time.

Signed,

Lost at Sea


Dear Lost at Sea,

On a hot summer’s day when I was about nine or ten, I helped my father clean out our garage. As we sifted through all of the mess that our family had amassed over who-knows-how-long, I came across a board with a nail sticking straight out of it towards the sky. I wondered what might happen if I stepped on the nail with my banged up Keds lace-ups. So I cautiously pressed my foot straight onto the nail. You can guess what happened.

A shock surged through my body as I felt the nail puncture the feeble tennis shoe rubber and drive straight into the ball of my foot. I remember reflexively yanking my foot up off the board, screaming out in pain, and hobbling into the house to examine the damage I had just inflicted on myself.

This childhood memory has run through my mind countless times over the years. It seems like such an obviously stupid thing to do – to intentionally step on a nail. I still wonder what in the world I was thinking because I can’t for the life of me remember what was going through my mind at the time. What I do know is that I made a decision to act knowing that the action had a good chance of hurting me. But I did it anyway.

Oh, Lost at Sea. Your letter sits heavy with me. The pain you so deeply feel is something I can identify with, at least in part. You have undoubtedly been through several acutely traumatic experiences, some of which you brought on yourself. I know how much it hurts to look back on one’s choices and examine the fallout. Devastating loss and guilt and shame have a way of rotting our souls from the inside out. I know what that feels like. But I also know that it doesn’t have to be that way.

The people in your life who have called you a human hurricane are wrong, darling. And that unfair labeling of you tells me far more about them than it could ever tell me about you. Other people’s opinions of you are none of your business.  What is your business is what you believe about yourself. And that is where your work begins.

I can tell from your letter that you have a driving power within you, a power that right now is mostly centered on self-hatred. In order to change your life situation, you must be willing to do away with the distorted beliefs you have about who you are as a man and instead refocus that drive on love – of yourself first, and then others.

The truth is, you are not the first person to get a divorce and watch your ex-spouse build a happy, fulfilling life with someone else. Nor are you the first person to have a strained relationship with your child as a result of divorce. These things happen to even the most beautiful and brave people because we are all messed up and do and say awful things to the people we love. Coming to a place of self-acceptance is the key to the door that will begin your healing.

Once you are able to accept all of yourself – not just the mistakes you’ve made but also the parts of you that are holy and lovely, too – you will be able to take all of it, all of who you are, and courageously transform into the person you’re meant to be.

You mention that you have been severely mentally ill for as long as you can remember. I don’t know if you’re actively in therapy right now, Lost, but I plead with you to invest in your recovery by finding a licensed mental health professional who will offer you insight and support. Through my own mental health struggles, my therapist has at times been my only guiding light. If it wasn’t for her, I might not even be here today.

There is no reason for you to walk this road alone. You deserve to have someone look you in the eyeballs and hear your story and sit with you in your sorrow. We all do. Give yourself the gift of community. Be willing to move out of isolation into connectedness. This can be literally life-giving if you let it.

When I was twenty-one years old, I stepped onto another nail on purpose, metaphorically speaking. I married a man who had proven himself to be untrustworthy and irresponsible. We were both young and had no idea what it meant to make promises, let alone keep them. I think I knew that marrying him would bring pain into my life, but I did it anyway.

Right before my father walked me down the aisle at my first wedding, he looked me in the eyes and said, “You know, you don’t have to do this. We can turn around and leave right now.” In his voice was a sort of desperation I’m not sure I’d ever heard before. I said, “I know, Daddy.” And then the church doors opened up and I took a step forward and he walked me down the petal-speckled aisle to the man who is now my ex-husband.

During that time in my life, thoughts of self-hatred and self-doubt played in my mind over and over again. I couldn’t yet see the marvelous gifts that I had to offer this world. All I could see was the sum of my mistakes and failures and nothing more. So I married a man I didn’t trust because I didn’t believe anyone better would ever love me. I didn’t believe that I was worth more than that. And I didn’t have the strength to tell anyone because I wasn’t yet ready to change my life.

But you are.

I can tell you are ready, Lost at Sea, because of the scorchingly sorrowful letter you wrote to me. The hundreds of people reading this right now know that, too. And you know it as well. I know you are ready because you mustered the courage to speak your pain to me; you gave voice to your sorrow. That is a brave step, my dear, and one that I hope you will celebrate years down your road of recovery.

Your ex-wife might be happier now that you two are no longer married. That is not necessarily a reflection of you or a judgment on who you are as a person. In time, I trust you will be able to establish a healthy co-parenting relationship with your ex-wife because I believe you do truly love her and want her to be happy. That’s more than millions of ex-spouses can say about their former better-halves.

While your daughter might be full of resentment or anger or indifference towards you right now, that does not have to be the way your story together ends.

I am around hundreds of middle-schoolers every day. And around hundreds of elementary students on a weekly basis. To put it mildly, I know kids. I’m not sure how old your daughter is, but I do know children are resilient and they crave a relationship with their parents even when their behavior screams they don’t care at all.

Regarding your beautiful girl, my advice is to not give up on your relationship with her. As you continue on the path of your own self-healing, you will be better equipped to love her and maintain a healthy relationship in which you both can thrive. You can’t skip the step of your own healing, though, because as I mentioned in my response to a reader last week, you’ve got to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else.

It took more than seven years for me to lift my foot up off the metaphorical nail that was my first marriage. At first, it hurt like hell. And I limped around for a while. But when I focused my attention and my strong will on my own healing, it empowered me to love the people in my life – my sons, my family members, my close friends – in a way I’d truly never experienced before.

And that can be your story, too, Lost at Sea.

The thing most beautiful to me about life is that we have the ability to stand in front of our future and decide what we will become. You have the power to heal what is broken. But you must be willing to do for yourself what no one else can do – make peace with your past mistakes, embrace your whole person for the bright-and-shining-and-flawed man you are, and choose to get off the nail and start healing from within.

Do these things and you will find exactly what’s meant for you.

Fiercely yours,

Ellie

**Every struggle is different. Recovery from crisis is possible, and if you are wrestling with some of the same themes as Lost at Sea, know that there is hope for you. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 and according to their website provides confidential support for people in distress and prevention and crisis resources for you and your loved ones. Visit their website here for more information, and know that while it feels you are alone, there are millions in the world who stand with you in your fight.

If you want to reach out to Ellie, you can contact her here.