Reverse Engineering Your Life

Three cheers for utter devastation!

They say that the top five stressors in life are:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce
  • Moving
  • Major illness or injury
  • Job loss

Thanks to this freakin’ pandemic, along with life in general, many of us are experiencing several of these stressors at once. It can be devastating. It’s a fragile time, and an all-time low. Under the circumstances, you can’t be blamed for feeling like a starfish that has been washed up onto dry land.

If the hits just keep on coming for you, it’s important for you to understand that you’re quite likely in a state of mourning. You are grieving the life you once had that has been ripped out of your hands. It’s perfectly natural to be upset, depressed, overwhelmed, angry, and afraid, by turns, or all at once.

Be gentle with yourself. Treat yourself as though you’ve just come out of major surgery. Give yourself time to heal and breathe. Let yourself feel all the different emotions. There’s no shame in that. It will take time to regain your bearings.

But once your feet are back up under you and you have a renewed sense of the compass points of your life, dare I say it? You have a unique opportunity. Yeah, I know. Hard to believe. But hear me out.

Your life has been stripped down in such a way that you are practically reborn, and yet you’re no baby. You are a capable, imaginative, creative creature who has just been stripped of its shell and perhaps everything that you’ve held dear up to this point. You are naked and vulnerable in the world, but you still have your brain and your character and your life experience. No one can take that away from you.

That vulnerable state also means you have more options than you ever have had in your life. And options equal opportunity! Even though you might be feeling like you’re at the bottom of a blast crater, you can now rebuild your life any way you want. You are at the foundation. You can build something amazing out of that crater. The land has already been cleared for you.

Believe me, I speak from experience. In 2014, I had hit rock bottom. Someone I loved more than life itself died quite unexpectedly. I also had just gotten my third college degree and was realizing that, like the other two, it was completely worthless in terms of starting me on a career path. I had a job that I knew would not be able to sustain me financially moving forward, and I had been kicked out of my apartment and had no idea where to go. The few days I experienced homelessness was enough to make me understand how I didn’t want my life to be. I had nothing left but the ringing in my ears after the explosion that was my life.

But that’s when I had an epiphany. (Don’t you just love a good epiphany?)

If ever I was to have the life I wanted, I needed to start now. Rather than scrambling through life, desperately clutching at whatever handholds came my way to get me out of this pit, I needed to reverse engineer everything, and I mean everything, about the way I chose to live.

I needed to think deeply about what it is that I truly wanted out of life, and then position myself to achieve those goals. I thought about where I wanted to live. (A liberal place, definitely not Florida). I thought about what I wanted to do. (Be in a stable, healthy relationship and build a solid home base from which to travel. I thought about what that would look like in detail.)

Your goals might be very different from mine, but one of my major realizations was that my job should not be my life. My job should be what allows me to live my life. I didn’t want a job that made me so miserable that that feeling bled into my off hours. If I was miserable, how would I be attractive to a healthy and positive life partner? I wanted a job that sustained me financially, but I also wanted one that I didn’t have to bring home with me. I wanted time to explore and have adventures and read books and focus on the people I love. I wanted time to write. I wanted to be able to turn off my phone whenever desired, without consequences.

I needed to do several things. First of all, I had to stop settling for the crap jobs that continued to put me in the waiting room of life. Waiting for change and not being the change was getting me nowhere.

I also needed to break free of toxic people. If I wanted to have a good life, I needed to be surrounded by good people, and those people would never present themselves if they had to swim through a sea of poisonous drama to get to me. I needed to put myself in places where I was most likely to meet the kind of good people I want in my life. That process was an emotional spring cleaning of sorts, and it wasn’t easy, but it was necessary.

But most of all, I had to take chances. I needed to have a clear vision of what I wanted, and I needed to say no to negative things and break old destructive habits, and say yes to opportunities. I needed to move. And now was my chance, because I basically had nothing and no one. While traveling through life without baggage can be scary, it can also be liberating.

If you’re at ground zero, down there amongst the smoke and rubble, there’s nowhere to go but up. This may seem counterintuitive, but I’m telling you to stay in that crater for a bit. Take some time to carefully plot out your course so that when you reach the rim of that crater, what you’re looking out at is exactly what you want to see.

I’m not saying that my path from 2014 was easy, but it was carefully plotted out. I now live in liberal Seattle, have a job I love that I don’t have to think about after the shift is over, I’m happily married, and life is good. For the first time in my life I feel as though I’m exactly where I need to be, and it took total effing devastation to get me there.

I never thought I’d say this, but three cheers for devastation, and a hearty thank you.

It can be done. Don’t just let life happen to you. Make it happen. There will be better days. But take some time to figure out what a better day would look like for you, and only then go there, step by step.

Check this out, y’all. I wrote a book!

Don’t Give Me Grief

Grief is very personal.

Etymology fascinates me. Where do words and phrases come from? I’m constantly intrigued.

Just the other day, I heard someone say, “Don’t give me grief.”

Grief and its verb, grieving, are states that I’m all too familiar with. It’s a natural part of life to be devastated by the loss of someone you love. It’s also something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

But to say that grief can be given, as if you can box it up and hand it to someone, like the world’s most ill-conceived birthday present, is a bit of a stretch. It’s also kind of insulting to the griever.

No, grief is too personal for that. It’s not something that is presented to you, fully formed, from some outside source. It’s what you feel. It comes from your very heart and soul.

No two people grieve alike. There’s no standard timeline (and anyone who tries to force you into one is clueless and rude). There’s no right way or wrong way to grieve.

Your grief is all yours. You most likely don’t want it. You can’t be blamed for wishing it would go away and leave you alone. But grief is the state in which all of us get to reside, at one time or another. In all probability, you enter that realm without warning, and have to blaze your own trail, in hopes of coming out the other side, much altered, but hopefully stronger for it.

Grief is caused by the loss of someone. It strikes me as wrong to say that it is given to you by someone. After all, it’s not as if you can say, “return to sender.”

Don’t give me grief about this. I know what I’m talking about.

A box o' grief

Like this quirky little blog? Then You’ll love my book!

Marry Your Husband? Hold on a Sec…

I just read an article that brought tears to my eyes. Entitled, “You May Want to Marry My Husband” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, it is about the author’s imminent death. That’s heartbreaking enough, but then it goes on in poignant detail about how wonderfully amazing her husband is. The amount of love she has for this man is evident, and clearly she wants the best for him, and can no longer give him that bright future herself.

But what chokes me up is that I know exactly what this man is about to go through, having lost the love of my life myself. And the last thing he’s going to need, for at least a few years, is to be bothered by a lot of women looking for love. His wife is not like a car. She can’t simply be replaced because she’s been totaled.

The fact is, his entire life is about to be totaled. He’s about to experience devastation of nuclear bomb proportions. For a good year, his ears will still be ringing from the sound of the explosion. He isn’t going to be able to emotionally hear anyone else.

After that, he’s going to have to figure out how to rebuild from the ground up. That isn’t for sissies. He is not going to be the same person. There will be scar tissue. There will be completely different perspectives.

For example, his wife talked about how he loves live music, and how they’d go to listen to it all the time. Well, now doing that may be too painful for him. He may never want to go to a concert again. Or maybe he will. That’s something he’s going to have to figure out for himself. I’m just saying that expecting him to be the same exact person he was pre-apocalypse is asking a bit much.

In time, he may discover that there will be changes he’ll be happy to make. None of his relationship compromises will be required anymore. One day, he’ll realize he can put the toilet paper on the roll any direction he darned well pleases. Another day, he’ll think, “Why am I still eating lima beans? I hate lima beans.” Or maybe it’s time to start growing the beard he always wanted, or shave off the one she always preferred. And yeah, buddy, convert that room into a man cave!

He’s also going to have to map out a whole new future. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, most of us take comfort in the thought that we have a pretty good idea what the road ahead is going to look like. The author even describes that in her article. Well, now the road, for her grieving husband, is completely obscure. Trust me when I say that’s scary as hell. He’ll have to redraw all his charts.

This emotional and physical makeover can take years. It can’t be rushed. There are no shortcuts, as much as his late wife would like to give him one. And there are no deadlines. Everyone is on his or her own schedule when it comes to grief.

I do strongly urge people who are going through this to seek out grief support groups, however. The Healing Center here in Seattle has been a godsend for me. At a time in your life when you are the most alone you have ever been, it’s important to know that, well… you’re not alone.

So ladies, please do not pounce on poor Mr. Rosenthal just yet. Yes, from what I’ve read, he’s infinitely lovable. I’d go for him myself if given the opportunity. But give him time. Give him space. Give him a chance to recover and figure out who he is post-explosion. He’ll thank you for it. Eventually.


Like this blog? Then you’ll LOVE this book!

Grieving through the Holidays

If you’ve lost someone you love, the holidays can be a particularly painful time. All those memories. All those traditions. All those people, still alive, who insist that you to carry on all those traditions.

How can you be expected to decorate a tree when every ornament reminds you of the person you’ve lost? And it takes so much energy to put on a brave face at family gatherings. I know more than a few people this year who were forced to retreat to the bathroom to weep.

There is a great deal of pressure at this time of the year to be joyful. That makes your utter lack of joy feel even worse. And no one wants you to figuratively (or literally) pee in their eggnog. “Can’t you see we’re trying to fa la la here? Don’t ruin it!”

And then there are the well-meaning gifts, designed to memorialize the one who is gone. They were given in a spirit of love and support, but they feel like little stabs to your already wounded heart. No one knows the right thing to say or do, because there is no right thing to say or do.

Even in a good year, the holidays can be exhausting. But they seem positively soul-sucking when you’re dragging around a tractor trailer of depression. It makes you feel detached at a time when everyone is coming together.

For me, it’s like having to take a huge breath and plunge into the ocean, in hopes of coming back to the surface again before you drown. That was Thanksgiving. That was Christmas. That was my birthday. What a relief to get through it all and come up for air!

One more to go… the dreaded New Year’s midnight, when no one will be kissing me. I’m supposed to overlook the fact that I’m completely and utterly alone. I’m supposed to feel happy for everyone who is being kissed. I’m supposed to look forward to the new year, and feel nostalgic about the past year.

That’s a heck of a lot to ask. I’ll probably try to go to bed at 11 pm and hope the neighborhood revelry doesn’t wake me up. While you sing Auld Lang Syne, I’ll be trying really hard to pretend it’s any other night.

If you know people who are grieving, ask them what they’d like to do or not do for the holidays. Ask them what they want to talk about or not talk about. Don’t apply pressure. If they are ready, offer to help them create a whole new tradition, perhaps one in which dancing and romance aren’t flaunted.

But most of all, be patient. And don’t force your fa la la on them until they can get through it without weeping in the bathroom.


Even in the face of grief, there are things to be grateful for. Check out my book on that very subject.

Spiritual Purging

Apologies in advance if you’re reading this over breakfast, but have you ever felt so sick to your stomach that you just knew that the only way you were going to feel better was if you threw up and got it over with? Sometimes that toxic, acrid, roiling source of your misery just has to come out in order for you to move on. If your body needs to purge itself, there’s really no point in trying to resist.

Just so we’re clear, this is not a blog entry in support of bulimia. A physical need to vomit is entirely different from a psychological one. Having said that, though, there will be times in your life when you need to do a spiritual purge.

I crashed headlong into that need recently. I was subjected to such a profound level of injustice that I left the situation feeling as though I had been dragged behind a chuck wagon through a cactus patch. Naked. I felt so emotionally beaten down, bitter, cynical and hopeless that I was practically paralyzed into inactivity. While my inner child threw a tantrum, I just sat motionless, defeated and deflated, and shed more than one frustrated, furious tear.

What this boils down to is another form of grieving. I was grieving the loss (yet again) of any sense of justice and equity and decency in this world. I was grappling with the concept that some people operate without even a hint of a moral compass, and that ethics are only for those people who are sufficiently evolved to see their value.

I can practically hear my mother’s voice telling me that life isn’t fair. As true as that may be, it’s cold comfort in times like these. No, what I had to do was figure out a way to accept the fact that this monumental, steaming pile of bullsh** was to forever be part of my reality moving forward. If I didn’t accept that, I’d go mad. Worse yet, I’d be incapable of writing because I’d be eaten up by the sheer inequity of it all.

Fortunately, I have friends. Friends who will allow me to spiritually purge these toxic elements from my very soul. So what follows is a conversation, more of a verbal vomiting that, when all is said and done, made me feel much better.

Friend: “Have you ever considered how unhappy some part this man actually is?”

Me: “He’s a pathetic, sociopathic, tiny fraction of a man. He isn’t unhappy. Sociopaths have no feelings. He is entirely directed by the lizard part of his brain. He will lie, cheat, steal, and do it with a smile on his face. He has no moral compass or any sense of equity or compassion.”

Friend: “Okay….”

Me: “He is a waste of human flesh, a blight on humanity, and an embarrassment to the universe. I would have more respect for a blood-bloated tick that I had just pulled off my dog’s anus. How’s that for constructive anger?”

Friend: “That is actually good because I am a safe witness. Nice use of creative language…Got any more choice words that are vivid? Release it baby! It is blocking your other writing… And that ain’t cool.”

Me: “He’s the pus from the pimple of a diseased corpse. I wouldn’t give him a bucket of my spit if he were on fire. To say that he’s a cancer on society is an insult to cancer.”

Friend: “Keep it coming…”

Me: “His spirit smells worse than Roquefort cheese.”

Friend: “Get poetic baby…”

Me: “He climbed into the gene pool when the lifeguard was out to lunch. Somewhere there’s a village that has been deprived of its idiot. He is the slime at the bottom of the toxic waste dump that is his soul.

Friend: “Oh my…anything more?”

Me: “He has a face that frightens children. Okay, I’m laughing now. Damn you! And I have an idea for a blog.”

Hooo. That felt great. Thank God for friends. They are such a treasure.


Twisting the Knife

The strange thing about grieving is that it’s often at its most acute during times of pure joy. That seems kind of counterintuitive, but nevertheless it’s true. I frequently find that when I’m experiencing a moment of triumph or ultimate happiness, I’ll think, “God, I wish Chuck were here. He would love this.” And then it all comes crashing in.

For instance, twice in the past few months I’ve had a wonderful time with friends whom I know he’d have loved if only he had had the chance to meet them. Both evenings were rounded out with dancing. And then, as is often the case, everyone paired off for slow dancing. Everyone except me, of course, because my dance partner is no longer with us. Both times I wound up crying. Note to self: Avoid slow dances until such time as you have found someone to dance with.

And then sometimes I twist the emotional knife of my own volition. I have no idea why. Perhaps I’ll bury my nose in one of his t-shirts and breathe deeply. It brings him back for a precious second. But it also brings back the realization that he isn’t truly back at all, and never will be again.

Why do I do this to myself? I don’t know. But just try to take Chuck’s t-shirts from me. You’ll pull back a bloody stump.

Grief is a process.



Grieving Alone

Christmas comes, then my birthday, then the new year. At this time of the year, I’m always acutely aware of the passage of time. I’m looking forward to all things new, missing much of the old, and wondering what it all means in the overall scheme of things.

It’s been almost two years since the love of my life died quite unexpectedly while I was out of town. It still hurts. But I am past the very worst of it. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it, but I’m becoming used to it.

As supportive as people try to be, everyone grieves alone. It’s a deeply personal experience, and one you can’t really explain. But I came across a really interesting document on my hard drive the other day. For a about a month after Chuck’s death, I wrote daily about what I was feeling. I’d forgotten I’d even written it. I’m a little surprised that I had the presence of mind to do so. But then, writing has always brought me comfort, and I knew there were things I couldn’t really say to others. They wouldn’t understand.

I entitled it “Grieving Alone” and tucked it away. I’m glad I did, because with the passage of time, I can barely remember just what a devastating emotional desert I had been walking through. In retrospect I’m rather proud I survived.

Here’s a little tiny bit of what I wrote:

  • It feels as though I’ve been struck by lightning. More than anything, I feel utterly, completely, and totally alone.
  • He died all alone.
  • That can’t be right. No. That makes no… wait. What?
  • I will never travel without Xanax again.
  • I woke up, and for a few precious seconds it seemed like just another day. Then the reality of everything came crashing in. Chuck was dead and I was now a different person than the one I had been 24 hours ago. I felt like I had been dropped from a great height. I felt battered and bruised.
  • It’s all so fragile. It can pop like a soap bubble.
  • Between chest heaving tears, I feel like I could sleep for a thousand years.
  • I can’t breathe. I want to go home. But he was my home. There’s nothing to go home to, now.
  • Suddenly I was a person who couldn’t listen to love songs without crying.
  • Oh, look at that sculpture! Chuck would love that. I can’t wait to tell him about it. Oh… wait.
  • Tell me what to do. I can’t think. Do I sit? There? Okay. Now what?
  • I’ll never feel his leg hooked over the small of my back again. I’ll never feel his body heat. He’s cold. I wonder where his body is now? Are they treating it with dignity?
  • I’m looking at everyone around me, with their cares and concerns and their… lives… and I realize I’m on the outside. I’m looking in and I can’t feel.
  • As we pull into the driveway, I see that Chuck didn’t get around to fixing the side view mirror on my car. Figures. “You always were a procrastinator.”
  • I wonder when I’ll be able to speak about Chuck to people without them looking uncomfortable.
  • Just get through one more work day. Then I’ll have days off. To what? Sleep. Blessed sleep. But also a huge, yawning mass of time to fill up with Chuck-less stuff. Too much time. And not enough time.
  • So many things we worry about don’t matter.
  • Sleeping is the hardest part. I miss his snoring, his body heat, the feel of his leg on the small of my back. I started crying, wailing. “Take me with you!” “I don’t want to be here without you.” “I can’t do this.” “I’m so alone. Please, take me with you.”

Hoooo. All of that is very hard to read. But it was harder to live. I can tell you that if you’re going through something like this right now, it does get better. It really does. It never goes away completely, and I still have rough moments at unexpected times, but it gets better. If I could do it, you can do it.

[Image credit:]

Letting Go

I once knew a young girl whose mother had died, and her father, although living under the same roof with her, was making himself emotionally unavailable. So this 15 year old only child found herself basically all alone. It was heartbreaking to watch.

And then her father moved on. He got himself a girlfriend. He got engaged. They decided to sell the house and move to another state. My friend could move with them. Of course she could. But by now she was 17.

She did not want to leave the house where her mother died. It felt like betrayal to her. It felt like abandonment. So she was running around, desperately trying to figure out a way that she could buy the house from her father. She would get a job, she said. She’d get roommates. She’d take in boarders.

So I told her my deodorant story.

One of the last things my mother bought me before we discovered that she was dying was a stick of deodorant. Nothing sentimental. Just, “Honey, do you need anything from the Walmart?”

After she died, and once the deodorant was used up, I found it impossible to throw it away. I’d hold it over the trash can in a death-like grip, and then I’d put it back on the shelf. I just couldn’t let it go. It was as if throwing it out would be like throwing my mother out. Disposing of that deodorant would mean a lifetime of deodorant that was not purchased by my mother. That seemed even more final than her death, somehow.

I held on to that stupid deodorant for a couple of years. Then one day, I realized that my mother was not in that deodorant. She wouldn’t be further from me if I threw it out. So I tossed it, burst into tears, and the next day… nothing had drastically changed. Except that I had a little more shelf space.

Sometimes you just have to let go.

I told my friend that her mother wasn’t in that house, she was in her heart. I also told her that her mom wouldn’t want her to get stuck with that mortgage at such a young age. It would be an albatross around her neck. I told her that her mother would want her to live her own life and go to college and have adventures and explore new places.

Often when you cling to things, it’s like holding onto a rock in the middle of a raging river. It might seem like the safest, smartest thing to do at the time, but all it does is cause you to get beaten up by the current. Sometimes it’s better to just let go and float downstream to where the water is calmer and the view is new and delightful.

It’s hard to see what’s around the bend in the river before you go down it. It’s a lot more obvious when you look back at it from over your shoulder. Letting go takes faith. Have faith.


Mourning the Imperfect

We’re told it’s impolite to speak ill of the dead, but that makes mourning most people extremely difficult. Nobody’s perfect, and this habit we have of trying to sanctify people simply because they’ve done the one thing that we will all do eventually, which is shuffle off this mortal coil, means that there are whole portions of their lives that we are made to feel uncomfortable about discussing.

This is extremely unfair to those of us who get left behind. For example, I’m still intensely mourning the loss of the love of my life, but the fact is, our relationship was tempestuous and rocky at the best of times. The good times were fantastic and unforgettable, but the bad times were crap. I need to be able to process that, too.

Many of my loved ones cannot understand why I’m grieving at all, and because of that, it’s a topic I can’t bring up in their presence. They don’t want to hear about the good or the bad, so I’m left to chew on all of it alone. I shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about the happy memories, and I shouldn’t have to avoid mentioning the unhappy ones in order to keep from proving their unspoken, elephant-sized point. That makes it awfully hard to move on.

And sometimes I feel as though I’m the only one on earth who is willing to admit that I’ve been happy to see certain people go. That has been the case with two people who loomed large in my life when I was a child. One abused me physically, the other abused me emotionally. When those two died, my “grieving” took on the form of not doing a happy dance in the presence of anyone who might be shocked. I should be allowed to talk about that, too, but I rarely have the opportunity, because I try to respect other people’s feelings.

I do agree you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead around those who live on and might be offended. But I strongly disagree that you shouldn’t do so because the people in question aren’t around to defend themselves. That’s a steaming load of cow manure. Their best defense would have been to not lead toxic lives in the first place. They made their choices. So if you have to badmouth them in order to heal your wounds, I say go for it.


Unintentional Hauntings

Do you drive an old, beat up, red Ford F150 pickup truck? If so, and if by some coincidence you’ve passed me on the street, you may have seen my look of pain as I’ve gazed intently at you. It’s not your fault. It’s just that you drive the exact vehicle my late boyfriend did, and for a split second I think that maybe his death was a bad dream and he’s driving toward me. Then, as you got closer and I discovered you weren’t Chuck after all, the pain of loss came flooding back.

Unfortunately, there’s just such a truck sitting in the driveway three houses down from me. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but no. That poor neighbor must think I’m completely barmy, the way I’m always peering at him.

It could be a lot worse. You could be a man wearing a belt who encounters my little dog and transforms him into a completely terrified basket case, cowering in a corner. Obviously my poor pup can’t tell me what that image reminds him of, but I did rescue him from a horribly abusive puppy mill, so I can imagine.

It certainly makes you think. There’s the person that you are, and then there’s the memories that you evoke in total strangers. For all I know, my car stirs up memories for someone that I drive past, or I may have a significant shirt or hairstyle or smell that is creating a reality, however temporary, for someone, and I’m not even aware of it.

It’s like living on two separate planes simultaneously—the life you live for yourself, and the life you are living for someone else. What a concept. Note to self: be a lot more tolerant of those who look at me strangely. You never know what plane they are on.