[Trigger Warning & TL;DR: A long time brewing, my writing is rawer and edgier than in any other post, and I do broach topics like PTSD, assault, stalking, anxiety, depression, weight gain, and body image. Despite the negative sentiment in my warning, the post is optimistic, focusing on finding hope and purpose after adversity. I suffered silently, afraid to be open here, but I know others have gone through the same struggles. If my story encourages you to seek help or share yours, then we can heal together.]
2016, to put it mildly, was a shit year for me. To be fair though, I’ve had a lot of shit years in the last decade. Ten years ago, I suffered under the excruciating torment of a never-identified stalker who sent harassing emails to me and about me to my friends, family, and even professors. My senior year in college I awoke each morning not knowing what new horror awaited me when I checked my mail or went to class. No one really helped me, even professors and campus security, and I graduated never wanting to set foot there again. To this day, I gleefully burn the mail I receive from them requesting alumni donations. When I attended graduate school, which is second only to the store in terms of workload and stress, I was a complete push-over. My adviser recruited me under one premise only to then give me “research” which would never qualify for a publishable paper much less a master’s or doctoral thesis. I was 20 going on 21, and I was naive enough to treat professors like gods among us rather than human beings and colleagues. My immune system buckled under the pressure, and I needed two surgeries in less than six months. Ultimately, I decided to change the pace.
I dropped out of my PhD program and began freelance computer consulting while taking business classes at the local community college. Life improved. My body and mind recovered from the onslaught, and I made progress understanding what I really wanted in life as well as who I was an individual. Then my grandmother collapsed on Thanksgiving and spent the next six weeks wasting away from renal failure in our living room. She died on December 22, 2008, and I gave her eulogy on the 27th, my birthday. Not to be contrite, but she and I had a special relationship. We were best friends my entire life, even when I was at odds with my parents or going through difficult times. She was a second mother to me, always filled with good advice and dirty jokes, who never passed judgment and recognized the frailty of being human. No words will ever adequately describe how devastated I was by her passing. Four months later just as I was getting my bearings again, my mom died quite suddenly and unexpectedly, sharply descending me into the worst depression I have ever faced.
The summer of her death I drank way too much, spent late nights out with friends, and generally acted more like a party girl than as a grief-stricken daughter. I was also executor for my grandmother’s estate and co-executor with my dad on my mother’s. The distractions of what we called “drink nights” with friends were the only thing keeping me sane enough to spend my days sifting through the remnants of several lifetimes, endless possessions of the people I loved needing to be neatly sorted into keep, donate, or worst of all, trash. I still remember the rainy day we put some of my grandmother’s belongings on her front yard for her neighbors to divvy up because we had neither the space nor the time. My brother was deployed overseas, and with my dad and I working flexible schedules, handling the final details of their lives fell largely on us.
Both houses sold quickly, and my dad and I had to find a place for all three of us to live. After paying bills and funerary expenses (plus my ongoing student loans), our options were limited. The original plan was for the family to move to North Carolina, but companies remained stingy with financing from the housing crisis. Renting never occurred to us, most likely because renting a home in Maryland at the time was significantly more expensive than an actual mortgage payment. Desperate, we met a man open to a seller-financing agreement—an arrangement where your lender is the original owner of the property. You bypass the issues with banks or lending institutions, but you also lose safety measures on both sides. The days were blurring together, and a decision had to be reached before my brother came home from overseas. We took the deal.
As a family, we began to heal again. You never fully get over the loss of a loved one, but over time, you learn to live with the pain, even push it to the background and focus on the good memories and the love you had. Computer consulting was leaving me dissatisfied, and the idea of opening a bra shop, one where we could make positive changes in people’s lives, turned from an occasional whim—the hypothetical, not really serious, throwaway idea—to a legitimate consideration. Beginning a small business is as exciting as it is terrifying because as much as you want to succeed, you’re more likely to fail. You fight everyday in an uphill, bloody battle, and sometimes you still loose. Everyone says “fake it till you make it,” but what if you don’t? How do you handle the defeat? It takes a special kind of person to open a small business. They have grit. Or they’re a masochist. Maybe both.
For over two years, I continued freelancing because the store’s financials barely supported our operating expenses without factoring in a paycheck for me. Two years of work at a job without receiving a single paycheck. Persistence, a little social media magic, and amazing word of mouth provided traction and momentum for the store in our third year but also increased my work and responsibility load to the point that I could no longer accept freelance work. I had to start paying myself, but even now, I do not make as much as I did in computers or as much as I could in many normal jobs. Requests for discounts, demands for sales, and pleas for expansion cut into our paltry profit margins, and many months I took only what I needed to make ends meet with the rest reinvested in the store. While a bit hard on me, the benefits for the store have been manifold. We have shown double digit growth rates every single year, which means we help more people, reach higher sales, and can afford to expand. Truthfully, we should never have opened with such a small budget, and I always advise prospective store owners to double whatever they think they need.
In any job, customer service is challenging, but it’s especially hard to handle when you are depressed or struggling. You can’t unload on a customer because you’re having a bad day, and no matter how bad things are, I generally look like I have my shit together. In fact, I have gotten ridiculously, scary good at pretending life is swell even when things fall apart around me. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism. Maybe it’s for survival. Maybe faking it gave me the strength to move forward until I could legitimately say “Yes, things are good.” Then, my brother’s attack in 2015 happened, which I wrote more about here. My innate fear of being regarded as conceited encourages me to downplay my memory, but I do have excellent recall. I can remember people’s names and faces even if it has been a year or two between visits. Imagine the sheer power of that memory when dealing with tragedy. Imagine being able to recall the exact blouse your mother wore or the position of her hand when she died or the gory images of your brother bleeding out on your carpet after being hacked up by a machete. Closing your eyes is like a punishment and does not make make recovering from trauma easy. Drinking does though. If you down enough of your poison of choice, you won’t sit up in bed at night crying. You’ll pass out. And sometimes that is a relief you can’t measure. It’s hard to know how to get help when you’re suffering, when you’re living inside this dark shell, frightened of your surroundings and always waiting for the next bad thing to happen.
The unfair standards I place on myself make it hard to admit when I need help too. If I am not getting up early to exercise, eating smoothies, being the perfect worker, brimming with energy and sunshine and sparkles, and generally being some kind of twisted modern have-it-all-and-nothing-can-destroy-me super woman, then I’m failing. Failing at what exactly? Life? Being an adult? Getting my shit together? I spent a long time living in the darkness, letting it seep into my skin and enveloping me completely, until I realized I desperately needed change. I quit drinking, started making positive changes, and returned to some semblance of my normal life only to hear from my seller-financed lender that I had to pay the full loan balance or sell as soon as possible. Let’s just say things went downhill from there. Ultimately, finding financing for a small business owner is harder than you’d imagine, the market wasn’t biting on the home, and the aforementioned generous seller was being, well, an ass. That’s all I can say about the situation at present, but I spent months living in uncertainty, working with lawyers and real estate agents, and unable to tell anyone but a close few about how dire the situation was. At the end of the day, I turned the keys of my house over to him. The week I found out we lost our last injunction my veneer cracked.
The new place wouldn’t be ready until October 9th, and legally, I agreed to be out by the 5th. It was doable, but I asked in advance if we could have four extra days to make the move in one smooth transition. He agreed. After all, he won, and what was four more days? Despite despising him personally, I wanted to do right by the situation and planned to clean the house thoroughly so he could try listing it immediately. I didn’t want to be petty and preferred to close the chapter on a positive note. The morning of the 4th, he sent a text stating we needed to have the keys ready by 8a.m. on the 5th or pay a $3000 security deposit and $1000 in rent for the remaining four days. And so at eight o’clock on a sunny Tuesday morning right before hurricane Matthew was due to hit North Carolina and with only three quarters of the house packed, I shook my brother awake and said “Get up. We’re moving today.” Everyone lined up to help was for the 9th except my aunt and uncle who could only help a few hours. My dad, brother, and I worked to the brink of complete exhaustion and breakdown, pushing beyond what any of us thought we were physically and emotionally capable of doing. We finished packing and made one trip to the new place where our shed had been relocated the week prior, and then we reloaded the U-Haul and drove to my aunt’s to camp out for the four days. Our saving grace was my brother’s boss. He showed up at 2a.m. when we could barely move, barely think, and he pushed us the rest of the way.
In the same week as this devastating blow, a customer argued with me about deserving a referral fee in addition to the customer loyalty program we already have because a friend came with her. I snapped. I didn’t raise my voice or get unpleasant, but in a tone more exasperated and sharper than usual, I said discounts literally had taken food out of my mouth so people could buy their bra just a little bit cheaper and I was done. She had $10 off, and that’s all she was getting. My friend Amber always asks me how I have such patience with people. I never really knew how to answer her, but the more I turned the question over in my mind, the answer I arrived at was that I genuinely want to help. If you look at a task as something you want to do or enjoy doing, your attitude about it shifts, meaning you can tolerate more setbacks and obstacles. For me, I treat customers like the people they are rather than as someone I am obligated to wait on or serve. It’s probably why I have become friends with so many. Of course, even I have my breaking point, and it took every ounce of strength I had to go to work that week—living off the floor, my muscles aching with even the slightest movement, my fingers bruised and bloody—and say I was doing “just fine.”
After that, I became deeply bitter and resentful of the store. I was ready to start shutting down in December. I blamed the store and the customers for everything that went wrong in my life. I always joke the universe shows me no pity. If I wake up sad or feeling ill, the customers that day won’t be satisfied with anything or want to push return policies, vendors will screw something up, a shipment will get lost, or any of the myriad of other fires business owners put out each day will flare. And that’s just it: I went from joking about bad luck to actively believing in it (appropriate given today’s date, no?). Instead of waking up each morning excited for the day, I dreaded it. I kept asking myself “What else? What else do I have to survive?” Again, I was in that dark place, and with the darkness came my favorite companion: alcohol. Alcohol is a vice made easier by Facebook. All my friends post memes meant in jest which smack of alcoholism, and it’s all one giant laugh because apparently being adult is only made bearable with wine or whiskey or whatever. Nightly cocktails are the best lubricants of modern living, and if you think your life is fucked, what’s the point in not partaking in the revelry?
My weight also suffered over the course of the year, in part due to my bad habits and in part due to an IUD I had inserted the week before my brother’s attack. I gained over 35 pounds last year on top of the 15 I gained the year before that. When I tried to talk to doctors about the weight gain along with other persistent symptoms, they kept telling me to exercise more and eat less, or worse yet, they shrugged their shoulders and didn’t take me seriously. This fall, I was diagnosed with Vitamin D deficiency and high triglycerides (like crazy low for the former and crazy high for the latter). So, now I hate my job, a job that I can’t even justify keeping because of the pay. I lost my house. I feel fat and ugly. My immune system is in the toilet, and I’m in serious risk of cardiovascular disease. In December, Hades, the cat I have had for over half my life, started into final stage renal failure, and I had to set up his rainbow bridge appointment on my birthday. We won’t even mention the political discord, general sadness, and complete anger spewed about the election everywhere. Fuck you, 2016.
If you’re still reading, I didn’t go into this long spiel for pity. I don’t want pity. God knows I have done an amazing job at pitying myself the better part of the 2016. I’m a deeply rational person, and yet I still convinced myself that if I could just get to 2017, all the bad vibes or luck or dark clouds above me would dissipate. Ironically, not even 12 hours into the new year, my favorite bedspread was ruined and I found out my identity was stolen. The next day I faced the worst stomach flu I have had since I caught mono back in September 2014. I was nearly hospitalized. Life leaned in close and whispered “You so sure 2017 is your year?”
I had enough. I was not going to let an arbitrary date or raw deal set the tone of my life. I realized we are all like the mythical phoenix. If you’ve never heard of this creature (or watched/read Harry Potter), a phoenix bursts into flames and dies only to be reborn from its ashes. Have I had a shitty year? Yes, but what makes me think I get to wallow in self-pity and indulge in this morbid fantasy that I am cursed or that one bad event ruins the week or the month or the year. People in Syria would happily swap with me I am sure. Does that invalidate my own feelings and my own depression because other people are suffering more? No, of course not. We can’t use other people as metrics to make us feel better or, conversely, to feel worse. We will all have times when our life explodes in flames, when everything around us burns so hot it reduces to smoldering ash. We may even have times when something is burned so badly it isn’t salvageable, maybe even a part of ourselves. We don’t get a free pass in life. We are not promised a charmed, privileged existence where nothing bad ever happens, but we also don’t have to pretend to have it all together when we clearly don’t. We don’t have to plaster on a fake smile and pretend everything is going like we hoped. We can beautifully, darkly, completely, and utterly fall apart. We can stop doing our nails or eat a burger or not exercise or Netflix binge or have a panic attack or be depressed. You are entitled to feel how you feel. Your feelings are your feelings, and no one should make you feel like they aren’t valid and important.
But, if we’re ever going to survive, if we’re ever going to be happy and take enjoyment from life, it’s the next part that matters. It matters that you get up. Even if you can only rise to a bent knee, you try to get up. You don’t be the victim of what life throws at you. You take that bad moment or even that bad year, and you let it make you stronger. You learn from it. You fight everyday for your happiness. It’s not easy, and you’re allowed to breakdown again. You’re allowed to burn to ashes again and again if that’s what you need, but the important thing is that you come back to us, that you come back to life.
Last year, if my year started off the way it has this year, I’d have already been written off the whole year. The whole damn year. All because I had a few bad days. My friend Mark told me once he doesn’t have bad days, only bad moments. Isn’t that a wonderfully simple sentiment? For people like myself who struggle with depression, it may even be too simple, but there’s a lot of truth to looking at moments as moments only. This year, I told my dad the morning of the snow storm when my car bumper was dented: “It’s just a car.” 2016 me would have used this as further reinforcement that 2017 was doomed. Speaking of the doom and gloom of 2016, I should also note how many posts I saw from friends who were almost scared to admit 2016 was a good year for them, that they had a new baby or got married or bought a house or generally were in the black as far as life events go.
It got me thinking of the last decade that I just painstakingly recounted for you. Did I have a bad experience in college, even a traumatizing one? Yes, but I also kicked ass, graduated near the top of my class, and was the first person in my family to get a college degree. Was grad school what I hoped for? Nope, but I learned to channel my 12 year old self, the person who took on bullies twice her size and wasn’t afraid to let it be known if you were taking advantage of her or her friends. I found myself again and discovered who I wanted to be. Even though my grandmother passed, we had enough time together to share how much we meant to each other, and I live each and every day knowing how much she loved me and cherished me. That’s a gift. The same is true of my mom, and their combined lessons on humility, dignity, compassion, and endurance have enabled me to carry on even when I wasn’t sure I could. When all you look for is the storm, how can you possibly appreciate the sun?
Life burned down for me in many ways, but I have also risen up. The new place I am renting is wonderful. The dogs love their doggy door and fenced in yard, and for the first time in seven years, I have a fireplace again. My commute is less than two minutes if I catch the lights right, and I only fill up my gas tank twice a month. The weight gain, the high triglycerides, and the low vitamin D I mentioned? My dad purchased me 8 Steps to Reversing your PCOS by Fiona McCulloch for Christmas. Every single one of my symptoms is documented and explained. For years, I felt systemically sick and was seeking a diagnosis only to realize I already had my diagnosis. I just needed to find the right resources to help me heal. Even little things like the bedspread are sorting out. I contacted the company who made it, and they are replacing it for free. The store had a record-setting December, and January has started great. We’re doing swim this year finally, and I’m genuinely excited to get to work in the mornings. I’ve been coming in early and working late because I want to and am enjoying the experience again. I am reborn.
It wasn’t the turnover from 2016 to 2017. It was my new resolutions. I resolve to stop letting myself be victimized by my circumstances, to stop assuming it’s always my fault things aren’t better, to understand trying harder doesn’t always mean you’ll succeed, and to stop thinking I should be strong all the time. I resolve to be vulnerable. I resolve to take things in stride and not to let one bad moment or one bad day or even one bad week ruin my whole outlook. I resolve to seek out the light when I feel the darkness approaching and to understand life is more than houses or businesses or loss. I resolve to keep fighting. I resolve to burn down to ash if I need to, but I also resolve to be born again and again, to rise up from my own ashes, dust myself off, look life hard in the face and say: You will never beat me, but you will make me stronger.
Happy New Year Everyone!