I recently gave a workshop entitled,“Breathe, Just Breathe: How to Get Back Up When Life Takes You to Your Knees” and it was a huge success.
A room full of people opened up, shared their stories of love, of loss, of sadness and grief. They got real. They were vulnerable. And I'd like to believe that by the end of our two-hour circle together, a few—if not many—were healed in some small but monumental way.
If you feel stuck because of a trauma—recent or old—and have little desire or energy to move forward, you are not alone. You may be caught in the storm right now, but there is hope. Whether you've just endured a divorce, death of a loved one, sickness, or betrayal, you can create a new and fun life again. And you have everything within you to heal.
I promise. Because I've been where you are, and I've come out the other side. You can, too.
Almost 20 years ago I was a part-time nurse and stay-at-home Mom to 3 kids under five, a wife to a devoted man who worked as an engineer, and we lived in Santa Fe with a beautiful home, nice cars, and a full bank account.
But something inside me was skeptical about my perfect life. I felt irritated, lonely, and disconnected from my husband. Why couldn't we reach our potential? Why did I feel so miserable? And why did I have a recurring thought that I wanted my perfect husband to be run over by a bus?
I suggested counseling. We went, and things felt better, but only for a short while. Then the niggling feeling that something was wrong would return. I was afraid to dig too deeply for fear that I'd find out I was terribly flawed. So, of course, I didn't go there...
Never could I have imagined that anything was wrong with him. He was calm, productive, brilliant in his job, patient with the kids, attentive to me. Yes, he had flaws, and yes, I blamed him for being lazy, not very emotionally present, and annoyingly passive. But nothing that would've suggested anything was terribly, horribly wrong.
But throughout ten years of marriage, the feelings within me only intensified. And just months after we celebrated our ten-year anniversary, I was confronted by a man I didn't know when I found out by accident that my loyal husband had been unfaithful for the length of our marriage.
So I understand what trauma feels like, and I know what many of you may be feeling. Even when you are convinced that the pain you are in now will never go away, and you think it may just be easier to give up. I remember. Your heart has been ripped out, trampled on, betrayed, and broken beyond repair. You may believe you will never again feel like yourself. But...
It's important to think about the big picture. And we have a choice about how we respond. So imagine waking up every day eager to create something fabulous; laughing again; letting go of the pain, sadness, and rage; and feeling reawakened to a spiritual life, trusting that all is okay.
After my own traumatic event, I no longer believed that happiness would happen for me, or that I'd be able to have a healthy relationship someday. I was convinced that the pain of betrayal—the gut-wrenching kick in the stomach feeling—would last until my dying day.
In fact,“Breathe, just breathe,” became my daily mantra. I'd wake up each morning and have to convince myself that yes, my life had just unraveled, and yes, I had to get up and face it. I'd feel the familiar knot in my stomach and instinctively draw in a deep breath, repeating my mantra. I had to get out of bed and tend to three babies, but I also sensed that I could heal (someday) if I kept moving forward—one tiny step at a time.
I expected it would take several years, maybe a decade or two, before I'd feel okay again. So imagine my surprise when about six weeks into my soap-opera story, I heard myself laughing?
It was in that startling moment when I realized that I could one day be healed of this trauma, probably even sooner than I'd anticipated. I expected that it was going to be a long and tedious road ahead, but I also felt hope that I could have a promising—and maybe even happy—future.
And as I mourned the marriage I thought I had and then lost, I noticed something different was happening: I began to feel better. I felt free. I felt liberated. I even began to feel genuinely happy again, much to my surprise.
My heart still felt broken, and I couldn't imagine how the jagged tear through it would possibly mend, but I was getting glimpses that it could.
This is precisely how I began to heal.
In order for you to heal, you have to come clean about what happened to your life, or your marriage, or your job—whatever it was that brought on the trauma. You have to face the facts without distorting them, then feel the pain that comes from telling yourself the truth. Face the pain head-on. Feel it, then mourn the losses—they are real, and they need your undivided attention.
Grief needs expression, so it's important to keep in mind how it operates as you learn to lean into it:
Grief is unpredictable. It comes out of nowhere, prompted by nothing, and usually at the most inconvenient time. I allowed grief to move in and take up space for as long as it needed to. Wherever and whenever grief found me, I acquiesced. I caved. I grieved in parking lots, in grocery stores, or at the mall. I just went with what I was feeling because I had no other choice. I was tired of fighting the feelings that kept trying to get my attention, and in the end, it was the smartest thing I'd ever done. Grieving saved me.
Grief is intrusive. It does not care that you have things to do. It shows up at the dentist; in line at the bank; while having a good time with friends. And it will continue to badger you, like a two-year-old, until you are ready and willing to answer it (just like a two-year-old!).
And because I hadn't really grieved much of anything in my life until that moment, I was grieving several decades of sadness: my history of abuse; my father's death; my feelings of abandonment and inadequacy. I grieved a life-time of previously un-grieved moments—all wrapped up into a messy package of heavy, almost debilitating, grief.
But as I gave into it, it began to work on me, healing me.
Grief is personal. We tend to side-step grief because it causes pain, but what many of us don't know is that is the gateway to healing.
It's not a surprise that we often stuff grief down with food or busyness or some other feeling-altering drug or behavior. We don't want to grieve because it's hard. It's exhausting, and it's tedious. We'd much rather avoid it, but that's when we stay stuck, get sick, and give up. We give up our power; we give up our hope; we give up the hope of a brighter future.
Grief takes as long as it takes. My journey through grief took 20 months before I could walk away, feeling shed of the trauma—for good. It took crying, journaling, talking, screaming. I allowed whatever needed to come forth have access to me and my life, for as long as it planned on staying.
It came in waves so not every day was a bad day. But because I was expecting most days to be emotionally challenging, I allowed it all in—the good, the bad, the ugly, the difficult.
You may find that friends, family and society may want you to be better right away, to “get up and get going,” but that's only because they are uncomfortable. They don't know what to say or how to act in the face of your grief, or your grief may be triggering their un-healed grief.
No need to listen to them. Be true to yourself and grieve. And do it however you need to, for as long as it takes.
The most peace and the deepest presence I've ever felt was when I was smack-dab in the middle of heartbreak. I no longer had any interest in looking backward and I didn't care what happened in my future. I was just trying to make it through the excruciating heartache. I was only able to exist moment-by-moment, mostly while in shock.
But it was also in my deepest, most gut-wrenching sadness, that the world became exquisitely beautiful. Sounds were suddenly more crisp and clear; colors seemed to jump out at me with such boldness that it often took my breath away. I was grateful to be alive—despite my heartache—even if that meant having to feel every frickin' edge of my crumbling life. I was ready to move forward.
This seems counter-intuitive, but it works. As you feel the magnitude of your emotions, you will begin to heal, making space for more joy, more fun, more productivity, more LIFE.
I believe that unhealed grief is damaging, and whatever you resist, persists.
If you continue to ignore grief or stuff it down, you will get sick; you will feel depressed; you will have little energy; and you will draw in more exhausting circumstances. Left untreated and unresolved, grief will rob you of your life, your fun, and your dreams.
But the good news is this: once you've done the hard work, grief moves on. It disappears as quickly and as sneakily as it appeared. You may even wonder where the heck it went, and when, oh when, did it actually leave? You will have healed so completely that you'll barely remember how grief once raked you over the coals.
Grief has visited me a few times since my marriage collapsed, over new issues, and the process has always been much the same: as I've allowed the feelings to make themselves a temporary fixture in my home and life, grief worked me over, then eventually left me--allowing more joy and energy and life to seep back in.
You know you're coming out of grief when you begin to feel and act in new ways. You cut your hair, you change the color of your living room, you go on vacation. You begin to feel more confident that a brighter future is out there for you. You get honest about what happened, then you get curious about what you want to be or what to do next.
You begin to ask yourself, “Do my current choices reflect what I want in my life?”
You begin to believe in your dreams, and you take baby steps toward them. You feel excited, humbled, and alive. The pain of the event may still be with you, but you are also feeling hope that one day it will all be behind you. You feel confident that you are changing, and the change is positive and exciting.
You will understand, and may even appreciate, the following: "You couldn't relive your life, skipping the awful parts, without losing what made it worthwhile. You had to accept it as a whole--like the world, or the person you loved."
~ Stewart O'Nan