I once asked a marriage counselor during an interview for a newspaper column, “What is the hardest year of marriage?” The year you’re in, he replied, adding that life and marriage are as difficult or easy as you decide to make them.
Last year was HARD, ya’ll. I lost my mojo. The end of 2014 brought a really good moment the girls and I had envisioned for a long time, and then as quickly as it came, it left. The rug got pulled out from under us. I spent most of 2015 in mourning. When I tell people that, they’re a little surprised unless they are part of my inner circle and listened to me cry and whine constantly. Being happy and outgoing is my natural default, which makes it easy to hide a months-long meltdown. I thought I was okay, though, at times. In reality, I was only okay because I neglected the daunting list of tasks I needed to accomplish in order to fix things and mostly, I neglected myself. I have a psychology degree, so it baffles me that I could forget the importance of self-care. That training and nurturing the mind and soul is every bit as important as maintaining physical health. But when you’re drowning in emotions, it’s easier to fall into the black hole than put in the work to claw out.
There came a day, though, that I looked in the mirror and knew I was in trouble. Weight gain, sleepless nights, lack of organization, short-tempered and irritated with my children, lukewarm about a job I once loved with great passion. I was simply going through the motions. Focusing on problems instead of seeking solutions. I called a recommended therapist and told her bluntly, “I need an adultier adult. A surrogate mother. A trusted advisor. A life manager. I just need help.”
Little did I know that one tiny step would give me the guts to take my life back. Small habits lead to big changes, as Pastor Craig often says.
During my first therapy session with wonder woman, I bawled like a baby. She handed me tissues, nodded her head and just listened. When I finally took a breath, she took my hand and said, “Are you done? Good. You’re going to be just fine. You need a little tweaking, but I can help you.” Two months into weekly therapy sessions, I was taking some of her advice, but in many ways, I just wasn’t there yet. Because if I’m keeping it real, I was only interested in making changes that didn’t infringe on what I WANTED to do. Instant gratification is my middle name. If it feels good at the time, I’m going to do it without worrying about tomorrow. We only live once, right?
(If you’re still with me, I promise I’m getting to a point here. Charles Dickens and I are long-lost siblings, I’m afraid.)
Christmas break was approaching when I would be off work (paid, yes, be jealous) for two weeks and sans children one of those weeks. This pivotal period of time was impossible to ignore. In two weeks, I could re-create habits that would pull me out of my funk, incorporate some changes I had talked about for years and put those therapy co-pays to good use. I was out of excuses, and my heart was broken enough for the light to come in when I overheard Avery tell her little sister, “Please just clean your room. Mom is never happy anymore and I don’t want to make her mad again.” Gut.punch.
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
I LOVE to read. I’m a nerdy bookworm who used to spend my summers reading series of books. But as a writer and reader, the author has to be good to grab and keep my attention. I found this book by googling, and bought the hard copy. (I’m also old-school in many ways; this is one of them. Men being chivalrous is another.) I was intrigued by the author’s approach to finding more happiness in her own life by interviewing experts, asking friends and family for advice and implementing her own plan broken down into months.
“I had so much to be happy about, but one April day on a morning like any other, I had a realization that I was in danger of wasting my life.”
I won’t spoil the book because I’m hoping that if life has knocked you for a loop and you see no way out, you’ll start by loving yourself enough to claw out. This book was a good start for me.
And so, on Christmas Day, I drove the Adorables to their grandparents, met my friends for a few too many drinks and woke up the next morning determined to do the hard stuff.
After I binge-watched Making a Murderer. (He did it, in case you were wondering.)
Today it’s 30 days and some change later, and I feel better than I have in years. I don’t take anti-depressants (no shame if you do though), I didn’t take a trip around the world, I didn’t inherit a huge sum of money and I didn’t meet a handsome, rich, Persian prince that filled a void and kissed me in the rain. (Unfortunately. Le sigh.)
Here’s what I did do:
I bought a notebook and wrote down goals. The goals included how I wanted to feel and what I wanted my spiritual, emotional and physical well-being to look like. I wrote down steps to get there. I made lists of nagging tasks, things I needed to do and daily self-care reminders. I was astounded by how much I had neglected in my year of mourning.
I went to bed by 9 every night. Yes, it’s hard. I had to neglect some things. I had to cut myself off from another episode of Beverly Hills Plastic Surgeons. Even when I was dying to see how the butt implant looked in jeans.
I woke up at 5 am most mornings, and 6 am at the latest. This sucked at first. I have always said, I am NOT a morning person. But the more I read about successful people, the more I understood the power of waking early. I had an entire hour (at least) of silence. Me. My coffee. Reading. Not rushing literally transformed how my day started.
I went to the gym before the sun came up. Fitness was my life for so long. Before, it was about cut-up quads and a tiny waist, but a week back into the groove, it became so much more. Meditation. Music. Being close to like-minded people trying to self-improve. I do weigh myself weekly (7 lbs gone) but I’m mostly addicted to the energy, clear mind and confidence I gain from impressing myself.
Waking early and working out helped me go to bed early, which made my eyes pop open before my alarm. Small habits lead to big changes.
I deleted the Facebook app and other than sharing photos from Instagram, I didn’t check it for two weeks. Torture. Completely. How would I know what people were doing? I would get left out of EVERYTHING! No stalking random people? No affirmation from people I barely knew? WHAT? It was pretty glorious, actually. I didn’t have to scroll past a video of human beings beating each other in a street fight, or babies being abused, or passive-aggressive memes posted to hurt someone rather than discussing it like adults. Mostly though, I didn’t have to be angry at the people who shared. What I consume is powerful, and I don’t want to see any of that garbage. When I did go back, I vowed to use social media as a tool to share love and light.
I reorganized my ENTIRE house. My poor Adorables came home from Christmas break to a mom that was re-energized, full of energy and on a mission. They opened cabinets and closets and then looked at me like I had three heads. And the chore list on the fridge that included daily chores as well as paid jobs? It makes me laugh!
I got rid of clutter. My closet went from overstuffed and full of shoes to ONLY things I wore on a regular basis. Bye-bye patent leather sky-high heels. We both knew I was never going to wear you. Clothes I had “outgrown” got packed away in a tub labeled with the date, and if I can’t wear them one year later, they get re-homed. I organized into gym clothes, work clothes and weekend wear. I bought much-needed items and vowed not to shop as a hobby anymore.
Or to fill emotional voids with things. Because that’s what all the shopping was really about. Thank you wonder woman!
I started setting boundaries. And enforcing them. My therapist has taught me a lot about myself. Although I act like a tough girl, there was always a lack of trust in myself. I won’t go into how that was created, but the lack of self-trust caused me to second-guess decisions, change my mind easily and let people trample me. I’m not afraid anymore. I say what I mean, and I mean what I say.
I gave up alcohol. I don’t want to diminish the hard work of alcoholics in recovery by suggesting I had a serious problem. I didn’t. But I did use going out and drinking on occasion as an outlet for stress release, and because I’m a pedal-to-the-metal type of woman, I usually woke up with a hangover. At 38, the hangover lasts for three days and impacts my frame of mind, allowing depression a sneaky side entrance into my life. Initially, giving up alcohol was a 30-day goal, but for now, it’s permanent. (See what I did there? Allowed myself room to wiggle out if I want to…dang you instant gratification!)
I replaced going out for drinks with alternative activities. One day in therapy, wonder woman raised a thought-provoking point, as she often does. Billie, have you ever noticed that you don’t count socializing unless there is alcohol involved? Coffee with a friend counts. Church with friends counts. Cardio at the gym with a friend counts. An evening at home painting with your daughters counts, too. Reframe your idea of socializing and get creative with ways to bond with people.
I bonded with people, even when it was uncomfortable. I’m great at business networking. I’m great at interacting with people. But getting below the surface is hard for me unless I know and trust people. Again, created long ago. I mended some fences that my pride and ego said weren’t important. I asked people to be my friend or mentor. I spent time with people I once thought were out of my league. I called a co-worker who has cancer and prayed with him. THAT was uncomfortable. And fulfilling. I started telling people more often what I loved about them, even when they looked at me like I had an ulterior motive.
I began to create a life I didn’t need to escape from. Once again, the glory goes to wonder woman, who encouraged me to re-decorate my room, make my house more of a home and become my own best friend. Doing this made the rest fall into place because, duh, small habits lead to big changes.
I embraced my spirituality. Religion is a tough topic for me, still, because I used to be extremely Agnostic. I love and adore several people who are Atheist. I always felt that discussing my beliefs downplayed theirs, but that’s not true. Church isn’t just a place we go on Sunday anymore, I feel it. It’s also where Avery has “dates” with her boyfriend and his family, and that addition to our life has brought joy. Small habits lead to big changes.
It’s not a perfect system, my Happiness Project. I’m still in therapy, and life is still really hard sometimes. Although I have a great start, I’m aware that maintenance is the tough part. February starts a new chapter in the Happiness Project, which means new goals and lists. But this week, when I got some news that six months ago would have crushed me emotionally, I tackled it easily. My kids feel like they have their mom back. People notice the difference in my attitude. I’m madly in love with my work again. I have some exciting endeavors on the horizon. I bought myself a fancy ring to celebrate my 12th year of being single.
I’ll leave you with words from wonder woman, and I have her contact info ready if you need it.
“You can only love people as well as you love yourself. Water seeks its own level. Your life had value the moment you were born, and you owe kindness to yourself.”