No one gets out of this life unscathed. We all have a tragic story – or five or way too many – to tell. Unfortunately, enduring the loss of a child, surviving a bout with cancer, going through a messy divorce, or being the victim of violent crime are all too common. When trying times do come our way, many of us don’t possess the coping skills or resilience to withstand and bounce back from the storm. I used to be one of them.
However, I’m here to tell you that the lemons life throws at you are the norm – not the exception – and are the perfect ingredients for making a tasty lemonade. Seriously. That’s not just some positive thinking platitude. When life brings you to your knees and shakes you to your core can be a time of profound growth where you develop strength of which you never knew you were capable.
After taking care of my brother as he wasted away and died an ugly death from AIDs, the end of my 18 year marriage to my high school sweetheart in an explosion that made Divorce Court look civil, and years of wrong turns, things not working out, and being flat-out disappointed with life, I tried to kill myself in June of 2007, by swallowing a bunch of pills. Because I wasn’t found in time, the drugs went all the way through my system wreaking destruction.
After a week in a coma, I woke up with a brain injury to a very different world. Initially, I was seriously mentally impaired and couldn’t retrieve words, remember the day, my sons’ ages, or that I’d gotten divorced. Physically, I could only make garbled sounds resembling words, couldn’t coordinate the acts of breathing and swallowing anymore, and had no fine motor skills in my hands which constantly shook. My ex-husband sued me for custody of our two sons, won, and promptly moved out of state with them.
And I thought things were bad before?
The resulting brain injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it forced me to make the drastic changes in my life and mind that I’d needed to make long before. I had to get honest with myself and others real quick and drop any pretenses that I’d been trying to uphold. I mean, it’s pretty darn hard to pretend all is well when you’re severely brain injured and have lost custody of your kids.
At first, I tried to hush hush all that had happened out of embarrassment and shame which was an exhausting and nerve-wracking, 24-hour job. I soon realized that I couldn’t keep up such a charade. My injured brain just didn’t have the mental stamina. I needed to devote my limited energy to healing not hiding.
With determination, hard work, and discipline, accompanied by lots of reading, self-examination, counseling, doing things differently, and through the miracle of neuroplasticity, I slowly emerged from the mess I had made – and I mean years.
As part of my healing journey, I started talking and writing about my experiences and the touchy subjects of depression, suicide, and mental illness. Upon putting all my dirty laundry out there for everyone to see and allowing myself to be vulnerable, the most amazing thing happened. I found that people were most often compassionate and understanding. Many went on to tell me their stories about “having been there.” Eventually, I came to understand that if I refused to take on any shame, there was none. The shame only existed if I imposed it on myself. (Read more: Taking The Shame Out Of Depression And Suicide)
I tell all the nitty-gritty details of how I got to the point in life where I thought suicide was the best option and how I climbed back from that rock bottom place to not only survive but thrive in my memoir, Sex, Suicide and Serotonin. I kept telling myself, “When you’ve hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up” and hoping it was true.
It turns out, it is!
Finding The Good In The Bad
Studies have shown that some trauma survivors reported positive changes and enhanced personal development, called post-traumatic growth (PTG). PTG refers to any beneficial change resulting from a major life crisis or traumatic event, but people most commonly experience a positive shift by having a renewed appreciation for life; adopting a new worldview with new possibilities for themselves; feeling more personal strength; feeling more satisfied spiritually, and their relationships improve. (Read more: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger)
Your Weakness Can Be The Key To Your Strength
When we close ourselves off from feeling uncomfortable emotions in the name of being strong, to keep from looking weak, vulnerable, and incapable to others, we’re missing out on the opportunity to grow and to let others support us. When we open ourselves up honestly and transparently and became vulnerable to others, it allows them to more readily accept their flaws and extend themselves and us compassion and forgiveness. (Read more: Your Weakness Is The Key To Your Strength)
Letting Go Of Expectations
There’s a popular saying, “What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be.” This is so true. I used to be the world’s best at fabricating an illusory bubble of what life “should” look like and then criticizing myself mercilessly when it didn’t measure up – which it never did. From experience, I’ve learned not to even begin to presume that I know what’s “best” in any situation. What we like, want, and think we need isn’t always going to provide growth or even get us to our goal, often. So many times, circumstances, which I pegged as dubious, at first, turned out to be just fine, when all was said and done. (Read more: Life Gets Easier By Managing Expectations)
There’s Peace In Accepting What Is
Pain, discomfort, and uncertainty are all a constant part of life. As I said above, these are the norm, the rule, not the exception. Expect them. It’s our thoughts, attitudes, and actions in dealing with them that make things worse – much worse in my case. When hardship and chaos do show up, if we can learn to accept and work with them, there is peace to be found in the pain. I have found that almost every situation, no matter how dismal it may seem initially, can be made instantly better by asking myself “How can I make this work for me?” That one little question changes my perspective from that of a victim to an empowered, conscious person. (Read more: One Little Question)