“Tough times never last, but tough people do.” ~Robert H. Schuller
About two years ago, I was working in a professional career that I had been building for nearly twenty years.
I had been at my company for thirteen years, and had been generally commended and given positive reviews and regular bonuses and raises for most of that time.
I had just left a terrible and traumatic relationship, and due to two years of criticism, gaslighting, and conflict, was experiencing severe depression. I was on medication that made it hard for me to focus and which gave me anxiety attacks.
My manager let me know that I was on probation at work, something that had never happened to me in my entire career.
One of the few lights in my life was an arts community that I had been very active in for several years, and I had just applied for a volunteer position working for the overseeing organization, which meant a great deal to me.
Though every day seemed like an incredible struggle, I was trying to pull things back together, do better at work, get on different medication, and continue to heal from the trauma of the relationship. I felt down but not out. I felt I was on the cusp of something.
It turns out I was right, but that the cusp wasn’t the something I thought it was.
I was informed I didn’t get the volunteer position. Gossip tells me part of that was due to me sharing on Facebook how I was feeling in my depression and recovery from trauma.
Due to “performance issues” stemming from my severe depression and anxiety, as well as institutional problems not of my making, and despite the fact that I told my manager that I was in treatment for depression, I was fired from my job (ironically, this company was a psychology-focused media company, run by a psychologist) and walked out of the office by co-workers with boxes of my stuff.
I wasn’t even allowed to gather information for the professional contacts I had made and nurtured. Meanwhile, I was still experiencing PTSD symptoms from the abuse in my relationship. And then, a relationship I had entered into a year after the breakup, which in retrospect was not a good decision for me at the time, ended. Though we’re still friends, the breakup was very hard for me, especially on top of everything else.
I felt I had just been forced to set up housekeeping in Rejection City; like everything I had been working for had crashed and burned, all at the same time. My feelings of self-worth and competence took a major dive. My identity as a successful, professional woman was crushed.
As a result of losing my job, I lost my health insurance, including mental health care, and had to stop taking my medication. I couldn’t pay my mortgage on the house I had bought when I was making decent money. I fought for a year to get back on my feet, got on Medi-cal, the state-sponsored insurance, and worked with my mortgage company through incredible frustration and red-tape.
I was determined that I was not going to collapse into a pile of sorrow, though that’s what I desperately wanted to do on most days.
I walked away from the arts community, which I realized wasn’t supportive of me or my efforts, and walked away from most people except the ones in my life who I knew to be steadfast in their support and care. I felt like I couldn’t trust anyone except the few people who had always been there for me. I spent most of my days alone, worrying and fretting, and numbing myself when I could.
That was about fifteen months ago.
I’m now still in my home, working part-time, studying, networking, working with a career coach, and am on the edge of starting my own marketing business in a new industry, while also taking on freelance clients. This is the cusp life was preparing me for, way back then, though I didn’t know it.
How do we get back on our feet and forge a new, even better path when life kicks us off the one we were on? Here are some tips:
1. Allow time to grieve.
This is really important. I had to take the time to sit with what had happened, to cry and get angry and talk to my close friends about my feelings, and to work through the sense of betrayal in many ways. I couldn’t afford therapy, so I just talked to myself when I was alone, which was a lot of the time. After about nine months, I finally reached a point where I made a conscious choice to move on from swimming in sadness and resentment.
Rumination is normal in this kind of situation, though eventually, you’ll need to stop. But at first, sit with all those awful feelings and be your own best friend. Acknowledge them, know they’re normal, and be there for yourself in this difficult transition. If you journal: journal. If you create: create. If you walk: walk. Do what works for you to get centered again.
2. Remember that things won’t always be this way.
When I thought I was going to lose everything I had tried to build, I panicked. I felt like I was sinking, and had nothing to grab on to. It was really scary, and I had more than one panic attack in the middle of the night. But as I kept working for what I wanted, things calmed down and I could see that, though the waves were choppy, I wasn’t going to sink.
The ship will right itself, once it’s time. Think of it like a painful breakup. You (hopefully) know that you’ll get over the sadness and all the other hard feelings. Practice mindfulness of your thoughts, and compassionately bring yourself back to the present when you start to feel that despair that your life has been destroyed. What has been destroyed is an old way of being; the intense feelings mean you are still very much alive.
3. Know that things won’t go back to “the way they were,” and this is okay.
One thing I knew instinctively right away is that I didn’t want to do the same thing I’d been doing for nearly twenty years, and I certainly didn’t want anyone ever again to have the hold over me that my old company, my ex, or the arts community had.
I spent (am still) spending a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do next and how I can hold power over my experiences in my own hands without giving that power away to anyone else.
Explore your own interests: What really lights you up? Now is the chance to do that thing! Try not to get derailed by “what ifs” or worries that your dreams aren’t realistic. There are ways to do what you want to do. Brainstorm, talk to compassionate people who know you well, ask yourself questions, observe what you enjoy doing or who you want to be around and ask yourself: Can I do this more?
4. Use language carefully.
When all this happened, somehow I knew that I didn’t want to introduce myself—or to think of myself—as someone who had just lost everything. I would tell people who asked me what I did for a living that I ran a freelance business, even before this was true, and often consoled myself with the fact that I was strong enough to walk away from a bad relationship.
Think of empowering ways to describe your new reality, and use them, even when you think thoughts to yourself. Feeling sad, worried, angry, stressed, and regretful is normal. But you need to create a link between yourself and your new future. Using the language of growth and new opportunities will help you when it’s time to start taking steps to move forward.
5. Network and connect.
I needed to work to pay my bills, and wasn’t getting any of the professional-level jobs I was applying for, so after many months of 4am wakings worrying about money, I posted to Facebook about what I had to offer in terms of skills, and a friend offered me a job. I’m very grateful, and, though it’s not what I had been doing, I can use the skills I have, can learn new things, and it has given me some breathing room to set myself up in life again.
Even if you don’t need a new job as I did, you may still need a new community or new friends. The important thing is to figure out what happened that wasn’t working, and to pursue new paths, not to just do the same things you were doing before.
There are so many opportunities to meet new people online and through community organizations. Identify the people you need in your life to help you get back on your feet, and go to them. And don’t forget to keep connecting with people in your life who are encouraging, welcoming, and compassionate.
6. Make your main priority taking care of you.
To the extent you can, make sure you’re taking good care of yourself. Get enough sleep. Move your body. Allow time to rest and relax and enjoy the things you love. Take naps. Spend time with people who uplift you, not ones who tear you down.
One thing I finally allowed myself to realize is that I was incredibly burned out and stressed at my old job, which likely contributed to the depression. Now I understand that, as I move forward, I am not interested in a new life where stress accompanies me every day, and a job where the goalposts are constantly being moved. This was an important realization as I explore ways to make a living.
What does your experience teach you about what’s important to your well-being, and how can you create a new life where well-being is a priority?
7. Ask for help.
I am very lucky to have family and friends close by who were and are able to be there for me in many important ways, including financially. I was able to get back on a medication that worked by going to a family friend who is a doctor, and who agreed to see me at no cost. This was vital to my turnaround. If it weren’t for my support network, I’d still be depressed and would probably have lost my home.
Hopefully, you have people in your life who are supportive and kind, and you also have other resources, whether it’s an alumni group of your college, a local job resource center, a library, or friends who are connected to different networks that might be able to help.
Think about what you need in order to get to where you want to go, and ask for help from those around you who can help. It’s not embarrassing to need help from others. A drowning person doesn’t reject a flotation device that a rescuer throws into the water!
8. Learn from the experience.
Though I had been through a lot of painful situations in my life, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a year as awful as that year. Part of my recovery was to sift through everything that happened and figure out what went wrong, including my own contribution to the situations. When we make meaning out of our experiences, we recovery more quickly. When we feel we have no control over a situation, we tend to feel depressed and hopeless.
Whether you journal, talk to a therapist, talk to supportive friends, or just think, be brave enough to look at the situation and understand how, going forward, you can prevent a similar thing from happening again.
Do you need to choose your friends or relationships more carefully? Do you need to avoid certain employment situations? Do you need to change some of your own habits? Once you’ve understood what happened, you’ll have the tools to create a new kind of life for yourself.