Over a period of several years, my life seemed like an impossible obstacle course. I was a card carrying member of the sandwich generation. For 10 years, I was my mother’s primary caregiver and she was in and out of hospitals, emergency rooms, and even hospices, until her death in 2009. My husband’s photography business failed, thanks to the economy. My daughter went through a challenging adolescence. We had to sell our family home and in the course of seven years, moved four times. I worked at a job I didn’t love, but needed the money, and then lost that, thanks to the economy. Then my husband and I got divorced. Within just the past three years, I lost two of my closest friends, and both my beloved dogs.
I know I’m not alone in having faced difficulties — I see it happening all around me all the time. And truthfully, as challenging as these years have been, they have also been pretty miraculous.
This past year, I’ve traveled all over the world for my new job, which I love. I’m filled with gratitude for friends and family and their generosity and kindness. I know that hard times will continue to show up in my path, that is the nature of life. But I’ve also learned some tools to help me through the rough times.
I’ll share them, but there’s a saying in AA that goes: “Take what you like and leave the rest.”
1. Talking. It doesn’t matter who you talk to, as long as you talk. Speaking about what you are going through helps you to make sense of it, as long as you try to let the thoughts flow and don’t judge them. Talk to a friend, a therapist, a support group. A friend of mine says that talking is so helpful, even if you stopped at a lamppost every night and just told it your troubles, it would probably make you feel better. Isolating and keeping your problems to yourself leads to drinking more, eating too much, numbing yourself – rather than letting the grief move through you. I know, I’ve eaten more, drank more, watched too much TV, and used drugs to get through bad times and I gained weight and got even more depressed. (I’m not saying that meds are not helpful — they can save your life. But it’s not the only way.)
2. Not talking. Not to contradict myself, but talking is great and so is not talking. Sometimes it’s just good to sit with the feelings and be quiet.
3. Crying. Crying is so healthy. It never used to be for me, it always gave me a headache, so I always tried not to cry. But when life really got to be too much, crying was a necessary release. In fact, there was a time when I wondered if I would ever stop crying. I did.
4. Screaming. It’s a bit difficult if you live in a city and you don’t have a place to scream without a neighbor nearby calling the police. But if you can get in a car, or even sing loudly (bordering on screaming), or go out to the country and scream — it’s a great release.
5. Silence. Being silent has become one of my favorite activities. No TV, no radio, no background music, just silence. I do it every morning, early, drinking my coffee in silence, and as often as I can during the day.
6. Writing. Getting out your thoughts and feelings is an incredible tool, especially if you write by hand. When I was going through my divorce, I wrote in my journal, the really gritty stuff — and then I also wrote a blog, less gritty, but they were both very useful.
7. Hitting a pillow with a plastic bat. Some people prefer a punching bag, but the idea is the same, physical release of the anger. I also ran like a madwoman on the treadmill while I was going through my divorce. Almost daily I ran four miles as fast as I could. The endorphins really lifted my spirits.
8. Reading. Read everything you can on whatever you’re dealing with. For me it was mostly books on divorce, loss, and grief. My favorites: Crazy Time, anything by Pema Chodron, Dark Night of the Soul, Broken Open, Eckhart Tolle, Getting Naked Again. It all helped.
9. Walking. It’s a great way to get some exercise and be in the present moment, and to be alone with your thoughts. It’s also when I get most of my creative ideas, when I’m moving and not sitting at my computer.
10. Prayer. I was never into prayer — never in my entire life. And then I got so desperate that I began to ask for help. Not for anything specific, but just to let go of everything. And the help always showed up in some way or another. It really is quite miraculous.
11. Meditation. Friends ask me, what’s the right way to meditate? I have no idea. I just breathe in and out and notice the breath and the thoughts as they pass through my mind. When I take some time every day to meditate, something positive always comes from it… a feeling of well-being, a thought, a feeling of peace. And it helps you to learn to sit with all kinds of feelings.
12. Animals. I simply cannot overestimate the power of having animals in your life. My two dogs, Lucy and Lola — SAVED MY LIFE. They kept me going. They died a few years ago and I miss them every day. Unconditional love came to me every single moment of their lives. Someday I will get another dog or a cat because I know there is no better way to get through life than having a beloved pet. Trust me on this.
13. Music. Who can live without music? And dancing? Never let a day go by that you are not listening to music and take at least one dance break — even, no especially, when you are blue. When I was going through my divorce I had a sound track which included: “Goodbye to You,” “I Will Survive,” “F&*K You,” “Rolling in the Deep,” “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger,” “Fix You,” “Pressure,” “Don’t Stop Me Now,” “Just Give me a Reason,” “I’m Beautiful,” “Bad Romance,” classical music. The soundtrack continues, along with the dancing.
14. Laughter. Two years ago a close friend of mine was very ill and in a coma. I went to the hospital every day to be with her and I came home every night and watched Louis CK. I watched every special and every season of his shows (even the terrible one on HBO). He couldn’t save my friend’s life, but he saved mine. Laugh. Often. Loudly.
15. Nature. Central Park is my refuge. Every season, a couple of times a week, you will find me there, so grateful for those 800-plus acres where I always find comfort in nature.
16. Sad movies. Philadelphia. Terms of Endearment. Brian’s Song. Beaches.Kramer vs. Kramer. Brokeback Mountain. Season 4 of Parenthood, I cried through every episode. Never underestimate the power of a good cry.
There are many other ways to get through difficult times; body work — a massage or reiki, travel, eating well — but if you notice, almost everything I listed is either free or not too expensive (except for the pets). I know some people like retail therapy, but that always made me feel worse in the long run. Dating can be a good distraction, but sometimes it can leave you feeling more alone.
Now if Louis CK could just come over and watch a sad movie with me, life would be perfect. No, truthfully, it already is pretty perfect — and I’ve come to appreciate that “these obstacles” are my life.
For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin — real life.
But there was always some obstacle in the way. Something to be got through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life. — Alfred D’Souza, 1921-2004