Divorce. Breaking up. Moving. A new job. Getting sober. Stopping using or abusing drugs. Discovering we’re codependent, and redefining ourselves, our relationships (including our relationship with ourselves) and our behaviors. Finding out we have a chronic illness, and we need to center our lives around it. Empty nest syndrome (yes, it’s real).
We wake up in the morning and before we go to bed that night, our lives have been irrevocably changed. They’ll never be the same again.
Sometimes we lose it all (or almost all of it) all at once. A friend from many years back woke up one morning. That day, he discovered that his wife of 15 years had been cheating on him from day
one; that neither the son nor his daughter he thought belonged to him were his; and that day, his business went belly-up.
Some people may call it “reorganization.” Others name it a “new beginning.” Most of the time I hear it described like this: “Sigh. I’m starting all over. Again.”
I hate it, at least in the beginning. We’re walking in the dark and living in the mystery. We don’t have a clue about what’s next. Sometimes we may wonder if we’re dying – the transformation feels that profound. Usually the person isn’t dying – not in the physical sense. But the changes taking place can be so profound that the experience feels similar to a death.
Times it feels like our heart has been broken. If we tell people that, they may look at us like we’re overplaying the drama queen role, but recently Mayo Clinic identified “Broken Heart Syndrome” as a legitimate physical illness. A broken heart, which can be caused by the loss of a loved one or an overload of stress, shows itself with symptoms similar to those of a real heart attack. These symptoms may include heart pain that worsens with each heartbeat; difficulty breathing or shortness of breath; and nausea or vomiting.
I went out to do errands. Around lunch-time, I decided to find someplace to eat. I had driven out of my usual neighborhoods and didn’t recognize the mall I pulled into, at least not at first. Then I saw it – the restaurant where we celebrated my son, Shane’s last birthday – the one two days before the date of his death.
The pain hit hard and fast – right in my chest. I felt paralyzed. My hands gripped the steering wheel. I couldn’t move them to rummage around in my purse and find my cell phone. Movement of any kind hurt too much. I couldn’t even roll down my window and yell, “Help.” I’d rate the pain as a ten on the pain scale from one to ten.
For just over one hour I sat in the same position, leaning forward, clutching the steering wheel, stopped in my tracks by this pain in my heart. Then slowly the debilitating pain began to subside. I
didn’t get out of the car; I went home instead. A week later I went to my doctor. (This was before the identification of Broken Heart Syndrome as an actual physical illness.) The doctors made me stay overnight.
The diagnosis? “It’s the strangest thing,” the doctors said. “For all purposes, it looks like you had a myocardial infarction (heart attack). But then, it also doesn’t appear as though you actually suffered from a heart attack. It left the doctors scratching their heads but I’d known from the minute – the second – the nurse at the Emergency Room asked me if I had someone I could call after Shane’s
accident that his death had broken my heart.
Don’t rely on self-diagnosis. If your heart hurts, get a checkup.
Then, when your body stabilizes – which it will – you can get on with the business of Starting Over Again (SOA). One idea that may be helpful: although it feels like you’re starting over again, is remembering you’re not really starting over. Life is a continuum. You’re either jolted or sliding into the next experience. You’re moving on.
Here are a few tips for those of you in that uncomfortable place of SOA when you thought the last time you started over would be the last, only to find yourself SOA.
- Let yourself grieve your loss or losses. You don’t need to be so stoic. Give yourself room to be human. What you’re going through may be extremely difficult and it may hurt. But you will get through it.
- Remind yourself that what you’re going through won’t last forever. If you have to leave post-it notes around the house, then do it. Remember other times you’ve started over, and how you got through those experiences? Draw on what you learned, including that you did survive that devastating time.
- Give yourself time to cocoon. No, you’re not isolating. You’re resting, giving your body a chance to adapt to this sudden change.
- Tell your story as often as you need to, and tell it to people who will listen and care. While some people may accuse us of obsessiveness, telling our story over and over is an important way we integrate the unthinkable into our life story.
- Set goals. In the beginning, start by writing a list of what you want or need to accomplish just that day. Take life in small chunks. After some time passes, begin writing goal lists that go further into the future. For now, while you’re in shock, a list for today is enough.
- Be kind to yourself. There may be days when all you accomplish is getting out of bed and taking a shower. Instead of focusing on how little you did, tell yourself you did great – because you did.
- Slowly, as new people and interests come into your life, be willing to say “yes” to opportunities. I never fail to be amazed at how either a person or an interest that I think is just a “time killer” slowly becomes a major part of my new life.
- If you need help, ask.
- If you need to cry or get angry, cry or get angry. You may even be furious with your Higher Power. That’s okay. You’ll work it out further down the road.
- Know there is no one right way to start over. We have tools, not rules. Now is the time to dig into your toolbox and use what you’ve been given: living in the present moment; prayer; meditation; exercise (when your body can handle it); detachment (which involves feeling all your emotions); and sometimes Acting As If. Know that if the emotions become too intense, you can shut them down for a while without going into denial. Something as simple as taking a shower, going into another room, or going to the grocery store can help you stop falling deeper into what may feel like a bottomless pit of pain.
Although I said there aren’t any rules, I lied. There are three: don’t let anyone hurt you; don’t hurt anyone else; and don’t hurt yourself.
You will get through this – I promise. It might not happen as quickly as you want it to or it may happen so quickly it surprises you. But one morning you’ll wake up and find yourself living in a new normal instead of waking up to a blast of pain from what you’ve lost. Instead, your new life will be there, fully formed. You’ll be living it.
You’ve done it. You started over again, whether you wanted to or not. Now the next time you need to start over, you’ll be more prepared.
From the Desk of Melody Beattie