How to Survive the Worst Year of Your Life

August 2018 to February 2019 will go down in history as the worst six months of my life.

Cliff’s Notes: Dog Died, Mom Got Cancer, Relationship Ended, Dad Died.

It was a lot.

I’ve read and studied so much about grief in the past few years — at the time, I thought it was to help my clients. Because grief is part of any major life change.

Little did I know, I was preparing to survive the worst year ever.

In some ways, I was prepared. And in other ways: it is impossible to prepare.

These are a handful of tool that helped me survive the worst year of my life.

Hopefully, they will help you in your hour of deepest need.

Just like anything, practice makes better. (I don’t believe in perfect anymore.) After each loss, I got better at each of these. I am so grateful I had many of them in place before my dog Bodhi died — because without them, I would likely be in corner somewhere, drinking cheap box wine and eating ice cream straight from the container.

Without further ado:

How to survive the worst year of your life, in advance:

1. Get a therapist.

2. PRACTICE ASKING FOR HELP.

3. FIND A COMMUNITY.

4. BUILD A MORNING ROUTINE.

5. WRITE.

6. GO EASY ON YOURSELF.

 

Take a deep breath, and here we go…

1. GET A THERAPIST.

Get a fucking therapist.

I feel strongly enough about this to drop an F-bomb. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Get a fucking therapist.

If you don’t have a therapist, I want you to stop reading this email, and go to psychologytoday.com and find someone to talk to.

There are ways to see a therapist if you don’t have insurance. There are affordable ways to get a therapist. You have the time to see a therapist. If you have questions or hesitations, at me. Let me help you.

Therapy is not a luxury.

It is a basic human need. Talking to your friends or family about what’s going on is not enough. I mean it.

There are things you won’t tell your friends because you don’t want to them to judge you — whether that holding back is conscious or unconscious. You need someone you can share your whole self with, every dark thought, every resentment, every ridiculous fear.

When things start to spiral out of control, you will be surprised at what starts to swirl to the surface. I was so grateful I had started seeing a new therapist about a year before Bodhi died — because I had the trust and foundation to move through my mom’s diagnosis, my breakup, my dad dying… and all the messy things in between.

Please find someone to talk to. Preferably weekly.

My therapist is still one of my key life lines. She’s amazing. The work with her is still hard, messy, and I am so glad that none of you know what I say to her. But having someone to hold space for me allows me to hold space for you.

So get a therapist.

 

2. PRACTICE ASKING FOR HELP.

 

Start asking for help.

I mean, right now.

Is there something you need to do, but you’ve been dragging your feet or feeling overwhelmed by it? Maybe it’s meal planning, or walking the dog, or changing a lightbulb.

If it’s not effortless for you to do on your own, ask someone to help you.

You want to be a master at this by the time you really need it. At the very least, you need to hesitate less when you reach out.

Because when the day comes that you can’t figure out how to leave the house to buy peanut butter, or you can’t muster the energy to make a sandwich… that is not the time to learn how to ask for help. Everything will feel like 1,000 pounds, and you will barely have the energy to breathe.

You will need this skill to survive, and the only way to hone a skill is to practice it.

Practice with little things. “Hey, could you come help me hang these pictures?”

“Hey, I need some accountability to walk in the morning. Could we make a plan for next week?”

“Can you remind me to find a therapist by the end of this week?”

Start small. If you’re not used to asking for help, it will be hard. You don’t have to ask someone to move all your furniture the first time; ask for small things so you can work up to the bigger things.

Simple requests will build the help-asking muscle.

So when the time comes, it will be easier to say “Hey, I can’t manage to get food in my mouth. Help.” or “Will you fly 1,000 miles with me to be there when my mom gets her cancer diagnosis?”

It will never be easy — but it will be possible. Because you practiced.

 

3. FIND A COMMUNITY

You need a place where you feel at home.

This one is tricky, because I can’t tell you where you’ll find it.

For me, it’s a 12-step community. A brutal heartbreak eight years ago got me into a 12-step room, and it’s been a lifesaver ever since. There’s no way for me to know if there is a 12-step fellowship that would be helpful to you. But if you have a coping mechanism that used to help, and just isn’t helping anymore… there may be a room for you. (If you’re not sure, send me a message — it’s way more than just AA these days.)

But having a group of people with whom I feel at home with is huge. Some of them I know well — I know their grandkids names and where they went on vacation — and others are complete strangers. But no matter what, I know I’m welcome.

I don’t have to “earn” being a part of that community. I don’t have to be a leader. I don’t have talk or participate every time, or even show up every week — but I know when I do, I am always welcome.

Some people find this at church. If that works for you, go do that.

Some people find this in pickup kickball leagues. If that works for you, go do that.

For some people, it’s their weekly restaurant visit. Or the neighborhood bar. Or the yoga studio. Or a political action group. Book club. Bible study. LGBTQ+ group. Crochet circle. Dog park.

Please find a your place.

Don’t get mad at all the places you don’t feel welcome (because there will always be plenty of those) — just let them go. Keep looking. Be like the wise ant. Ignore the salt.

“Everything on earth is of mixed character, like a mingling of sand and sugar. Be like the wise ant which seizes only the sugar, and leaves the sand untouched.”  – Autobiography of a Yogi

Go find a group that feels like sugar. You will need to feel belonging and welcome.

4. BUILD A MORNING ROUTINE.

Eliminate the question: “What do I do now?”

I am clinically depressed. I’ve been medicated since I was 24. (You are welcome to your opinion about that, but I’m not interested in hearing it — whether it’s pro or con.)

I will never forget when my psychopharmacologist said to me:

“These are the things that are useful for depressed people:

Eat right
Exercise
Get enough sleep  ( …I might have visibly yawned at this moment )
Spend time with people who aren’t depressed   ( … interesting. I perked up at this one. But then he blew my mind when he said… )

Routines.”

ROUTINES?!

My whole life, up until that moment, I had thought routines were only for boring people who were boring sticks-in-the-mud. I wanted to be an interesting person. I wanted to be spontaneous. I wanted to be… unpredictable. (Ha. That joke was on me.)

But once I was given permission — nay, prescription — to have routines, I went wild. Bedtime routine. Work routine. Food routine. Money routine (better known as a “budget,” y’all.)

Now I find routines comforting. The reliability is soothing.

I am not held hostage by the chaos of unpredictability.

While my morning routine has changed over the years, over the last 6-12 months, it has looked like this:

      1. Wake up
      2. Make coffee (Necessary.)
      3. Go for a walk on Bayou St. John, swing on my favorite tree swing
      4. Write morning notes
      5. Meditate

Sounds idyllic, right? I hope a part of you is thinking: “What a bougie morning. I don’t have time for all that.”

Think again.

This routine was more like a lifeline. This year, it was a life preserver, and without it I would have drowned.

It wasn’t always in this order. Sometimes I would meditate before I walked. Whatever. I knew what had to happen in the morning. However long it took me.

Some days, I would have to rest between making coffee and writing by laying on the kitchen floor and staring up at the ceiling through tears. But I knew what came next. However long it took me.

What they don’t always tell you about grief — or even if they do, you can’t really prepare yourself for it — is that you will feel completely unable to make the simplest decision.

Simple yes/no, this/that, milk/half-and-half decisions will feel like you are composing The Fourteen Points. It will feel impossible.

So you’ll just stand in the kitchen for hours, staring into the refrigerator until you become so overwhelmed and starving you melt into a puddle on the floor.

Having a routine meant that when I woke up, I didn’t have to make any decisions. I didn’t have to think “What do I do now?”

That question was my constant refrain for six months straight. It still makes up about 80% of my mental dialogue.

“But… what do I do now?”

Whether it’s tiny “do I empty the dishwasher or make a sandwich?” decisions, or “How will I go on?” decisions — it’s a question that has haunted me so much, it’s become comfortable. Reliable, even. Not quite soothing, yet.

But with a morning routine, I didn’t have to answer that question, for a couple blessed hours. And because I had already had this routine before Bodhi died, the neural pathways were already there. I could just go on blessed auto-pilot for at least 90 minutes every day.

Take my word for it — autopilot is a godsend.

Please develop some framework for your morning, now, while you can.

 

5. WRITE.

 

Get it out of your head.

Did you notice that thing in my routine just now called “write morning notes?” I am probably totally butchering the original process, championed by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. But this works for me, for now.

My morning notes look something like this: sit down, open a blank google doc, and write whatever comes out of my head. And I mean whatever.

Sometimes it’s my weird dream from the night before about being stuck in a parking garage. Sometimes it’s the long lecture I want to give my ex about how unfair the world is and why he should seriously reconsider his choices. Sometimes it’s just the raw grief — an unadulterated, messy collapse of words and emotion that doesn’t make sense.

My morning notes are simply what is crying out to be expressed.

Sometimes I write to God. Sometimes I write to myself. Sometimes I write to someone else. I don’t decide beforehand. I just write.

It clears the slate of my heart and mind first thing, and gives me a chance for a fresh day.

At night, I also close my day by writing — by hand — a series of things:

What went well today?
What did I do well? (even if it was “I ate lunch today even though it was hard”)
What am I grateful for?

Sometimes there are other things. Sometimes there is detritus from the day that needs to be sifted out on paper. But mostly, it’s just a way to close another sundown. So maybe I get a fresh night. So maybe I dream about swimming with Bodhi. So maybe I don’t dream at all.

Writing does a few things for me. It helps me stay honest about how I’m doing. It helps me practice where I’m focusing my attention — especially in the evening. It keeps sharp my ability to express what I am feeling in words. And it helps me email all of you and share how it’s going.

You do not have to be “a good writer.” You do not have to know what you’re writing about. If you’re scared about what’s going to come out when you sit down, it’s probably time to start. Trust me when I tell you:

writing will set you free.

 

6. GO EASY ON YOURSELF.

 

This one is both the hardest and the most important.

If you think asking for help was hard? Just wait until you try to go easy on yourself.

When you were once able to whip up four course meals for friends, and now cannot seem to make a sandwich, it will be easy to say things to yourself like “How the mighty have fallen.” or “WTF is wrong with you?” or “Get it together.”

These are not particularly kind things to say to anyone, let alone someone who is struggling through a major loss.

But most of us have very little practice being kind to ourselves.

“Going easy” is not a virtue that is encouraged in our society. For all sorts of systemic reasons I won’t go into, we believe that the best way is the hardest way. We believe the difficult path is virtuous. It’s glorified, encouraged, and rewarded.

Except there is no “hardest” way when you’re grieving. Every way is the hardest way, and they all feel terrible. Grief feels like “all pain, no gain.”

One of the hardest things for me to accept, in the beginning, was that my new life goal was:

“Get through the day.”

It felt like betraying my deepest truth: value every moment. Make the most of every day. Each day is a gift.

But that no longer felt true. These days were not gifts. They sucked. They were shit sandwiches. No amount of silver lining or spiritual self-bypass was going to get me out of that.

My new goal: Just Get Through Today.

And it took months to accept that was okay. That was enough. Once I was through enough of it, I began to realize that getting through the day was a massive win.

Getting through the day was an achievement.

I had to let go of every ounce of ‘aspirational thinking’. I had to release forced optimism.

God bless any poor soul who mentioned “manifesting” to me in these months — I could barely contain my honest thoughts about “You become what you think.” I grateful I didn’t punch anyone in the nose.

Instead, I started saying things to myself like “You’re doing a great job,” every time I drank a glass of water.

I’d rest my hand on my chest and say quietly “Oh, honey, this is so hard. It’s okay. You’re okay.”

I gave myself permission to cancel appointments, classes, and obligations. My expectations of myself were at ground level — that was a good thing.

I remember, shortly after my dad died, complaining about this. Feeling like such a failure or a loser because I was just trying to get through the day.

Now, just six months later, I’m proud of myself. I got through today! I got through yesterday. I’m making it.

When the expectation is to Just Get Through, anything more than that feels like winning the olympics. Seriously.

Last week I replaced an electrical breaker in my house (after writing my night-time notes by flashlight for over a week) — and I basically threw myself a party. I was SO PROUD of myself.

A year ago? I would have berated myself endlessly for being so lazy. For letting it go on that long. For being so self-sufficient that I refused to call an electrician. I would have belittled myself, thinking “When will you get it together?”

But today? I threw a party. I no longer have to shower in the dark. I’m getting through. Today is a good day.