Life comes at you fast. That was the slogan for an insurance company a few years back, and I’m sure most of us never really gave it all that much thought. Like most pithy sayings, though, there is truth in it. Much of the time, we go about our everyday business without major waves. We get up, go to work, take care of our families, meet our obligations, see our friends, practice our hobbies, and just generally exist. But what do you do when life brings you a Big Experience (big enough to warrant proper noun status)? The kind that feels like it turns your world upside down?
A few months ago, I had one of these Big Experiences. My marriage ended in a dissolution. That’s a hard sentence to read, and an even harder one to write. The details of the situation aren’t important for what we’re talking about today, but suffice it to say that I didn’t get married with the intention of it not being successful. At my core, I’m a “doer” and an achiever – an “I can fix this” kind of person. Dealing with this situation has been more than challenging. It has felt like the greatest failure of my life. There have, however, been some things that I’ve found helpful in processing this change, and my hope is that by sharing my experience, others might benefit from some of the strategies that have worked for me. This isn’t specific to marriage; your Big Experience could be a job loss, a health crisis, the breakdown of a treasured friendship, or really, anything knocks the wind out of your sails.
Have Mercy (On Yourself)
If you’re a child of the 80s, you probably remember Uncle Jesse from Full House exclaiming “Have mercy!” in his faux-Elvis drawl on pretty much every episode. It’s good advice, though. We need to show ourselves mercy, or, perhaps more accurately, grace, when we are in times of crisis. There have been days over the last few months when I’ve felt pretty good, and have gone about my business as usual. I’ve been grateful for those days. There have also been days where I have felt overwhelmed and suffocated by all the Big Feelings (also big enough to justify proper noun status) that come with a Big Experience.
My first instinct is just to try and power through, but all that does is cover up what you’re really going through and what you’re really feeling, and it sets you up for all those Big Feelings to come out unexpectedly, probably at an inappropriate time. So, on the days when all I could manage to do was watch Netflix in bed in my yoga pants, that’s what I did. I’ve learned to give myself the grace to be where I am, whether it’s a good day or a bad day. Have mercy.
Assemble Your Crew
I cannot stress this enough. You need your people when you are going through a Big Experience. Not the people who give you the “at least” statements: At least you weren’t married that long. At least you didn’t have kids. At least you got fired on a Friday. At least you’re losing weight from being sick. Nope. These are not your people right now, well-meaning though they might be.
This is the time to draw your real tribe close, to lean on them, and to let them in. In my crew, there have been the ones I’ve cried to, the ones who have made me laugh until I cried a whole different kind of tears, and the ones who have offered to set all of my ex-husband’s possessions on fire (don’t let your friends do this…but maybe let them talk about it a little, because everyone needs that one righteously-angry friend, bless their vengeful little hearts).
The weekend after I filed my dissolution paperwork, the town my wedding had been held in experienced a massive forest fire. I remember texting Krystal in a semi-panic; seeing the fire felt like too much of a big, horrible physical manifestation of the demise of something I had put a lot of hope and work into. She reminded me, though, that fire is often a symbol of rebirth, renewal, and purification. The phoenix rises from the ashes. This is why you need your people. For perspective, when you are unreasonable and think you have burned a town down with your Big Feelings.
Anyone who knows me knows that, while I have no discernable musical talent, I am an obsessive lover of music and a reserve of many, many wildly trivial musical facts. No one cares that James Taylor sings backup on Steve Winwood’s song “Back in the High Life.” Seriously, no one cares. Also, I don’t even like Steve Winwood, but that fact is in my head, and it won’t leave to free up space for something more important. Point being, music is a big part of how I process things. When Rob Gordon organized his albums in High Fidelity autobiographically, I related to that so much. I strongly associate songs, albums, and artists with different periods of my life. Because I’m a naturally shy person who very much does not love to share their feelings freely, I escape into music. The artists I love can express it for me better than I could for myself, so I sing loudly in the car, in my house, pretty much anywhere that I can be in my Big Feelings with my music and not be judged.
Maybe music isn’t your thing. Maybe it’s crafting, or journaling, or working out. Whatever it is that lets you channel everything into a creative space or into an activity, seek that out. It’s cathartic on so many levels to express yourself through something other than just talking (although the talking is important, too). And, in the meantime, you’re honing a skill or developing yourself in a positive way, rather than letting yourself fall down the rabbit hole of the Big Feelings (but you’re still allowed to do that when you need to; see above re: Netflix and yoga pants).
Finally, the most challenging of the strategies that have helped me so far, has been to just say yes. Visit a new church? Sure. Go on a blind date? Yep. Join a small group? Count me in. Go to a networking event where you don’t know anyone? Of course. Never mind that most, if not all, of those things, are enough to send my introverted self into a mild to moderate panic. I’m learning to say yes, even when it is scary. Even when it takes me way out of my comfort zone, because you never know where something will lead you. When your Big Experience has shaken your confidence and knocked you to the ground, why not see what else is out there? Maybe the reason you’ve been broken all the way down is not to lay there in ruins, but to be built back up, better, stronger, and wiser than you ever were before.
One of the things that I’ve said yes to is attending a new church. For a myriad of reasons, which aren’t terribly important to explain here, we didn’t attend church regularly when I was married. I’ve found that since I’ve been back in a routine of attending regularly, I’ve felt better overall. I still find it difficult to adjust to a new environment and a new group of people, but I’m trying. Trying, and saying yes, even when a “no” would be so much easier, is the important part.
I’m not out of the woods yet. I know there are more tough times ahead, but actively practicing these strategies has helped tremendously. I hope they make your Big Experience a little easier, too.
Melinda is an obsessive music lover, a proponent of all things sparkly, and a reluctant suburbanite. She works as a paralegal specializing in domestic relations, civil litigation, and estate planning. Melinda never met a dog she didn’t like.