My separation and divorce were not a surprise.
My ex-husband and I took our time with the process and worked it from every angle until the end was clear. But I was surprised on the day, months after my separation, when I woke up and simply couldn’t imagine getting out of bed. The kids were calling for me from their room and I remember thinking to myself,
Do I really have to do this, again?
At the time, my boys were young, ages 3 and 5. I was working full-time at night and on weekends. Solo parenting was new, the kids were at challenging ages, and I had no time to rest. I found myself yelling all the time… at the kids, but also at myself in my head. Every day was a downward spiral, ending in exhausted tears all around.
But this thought, on this morning, shook me.
Do I really have to do this, again?
It was an echo of my younger self, 20 years earlier, when I spent days alone in my dorm room because I couldn’t deal with the world “out there”. That younger me fell into a deep depression, only broken years later by the first therapist (after many) to suggest I try antidepressants. They worked wonders, and I used them for a decade, stopping only when I became pregnant with my first son.
But on this morning, I didn’t think about anti-depressants. For whatever reason, it didn’t occur to me to use that approach at the time.
On this day, in this moment, I only knew that I could not continue to function as I had been. I crawled back into bed even though (or perhaps because) my children called for my attention. As I lay under the covers weighing my options, I thought about how much I loved my boys despite their demanding neediness. I hung onto that one thought, which wasn’t quite enough to dispel the overwhelm but was a small light in very deep darkness. That light helped me to put my feet on the ground and get out of bed that day.
The next morning, staring at the ceiling above my bed, before the overwhelm could consume me, I thought again about how very much I loved my children. As the days progressed, each morning I thought about other things too… my comfortable bed, the friends I could call if needed, the food we had in the fridge, our warm home.
This impromptu gratitude practice pulled me back from the brink of a dark abyss.
A few years later, I discovered a gratitude journal, which helped me to create a more formal and robust gratitude practice. I did this daily for years, as my life moved from painful to challenging to hopeful to, dare I say, enjoyable. I began to reach toward purpose and a path which has led me to deep connections and truly meaningful work.
I did have some supports as I navigated those difficult years; good friends, mentors, and like-minded community. But I did not have the benefit of the now-ubiquitous conversation around happiness, gratitude, and spiritual wellness. I had to find my own way to it, and in doing so, waded through many (many, many) helpful and not-so-helpful methodologies and modalities for making life enjoyable.
I now have a wealth of options to improve my outlook at the ready, but this simple morning practice is still the first thing I reach for at times when I’m feeling frustrated or overwhelmed.
(Truth is, I’d be better served to do it every day, regardless.) And, it’s the first thing I suggest to women I work with who are going through a difficult time. It’s easily accessible and doesn’t require any special equipment. It’s nearly free and has no adverse side effects.
Now, of course, I can point to the research supporting gratitude as a way to achieve greater happiness. Robert Emmons is the leading expert on gratitude, and his research has shown that people who practice gratitude experience higher levels of positive emotions, more joy, and more optimism… and those are just some of the psychological benefits; there are physical benefits as well.
No wonder my gratitude practice helped to lift me out of my crisis of overwhelm.
Recently, I broke my foot falling down the stairs in my home. After a trip to the Emergency Room and the prognosis of a lengthy healing process, I began to consider: How might I avoid the overwhelm that could easily become a consequence of this situation? How might I see it as something more than a nuisance and frustration?
The first answer had actually arrived at the ER. I couldn’t drive (having broken my right foot) and, being the only adult in my household, was compelled to reach out for help. The response was overwhelming. Two friends arrived at the ER; one to drive me home, and another to drive my car (yes, I had driven myself there with a broken foot.) The following days brought offers of food, to drive my kids around, or pick up household items. New and old friends gave me rides to the doctor’s office and texted me when they were headed to the grocery store to see if I needed anything. It was not easy to ask for help, but deeply moving to feel so supported.
As long as I look for them, the lessons of this challenging time keep coming…
My boys, who are now old enough to take out the garbage and do the dishes, have been stepping up to do these things and more. Just today, they did a stellar job of shoveling the driveway after a snowstorm, while I stayed inside making hot chocolate in thanks for their efforts.
I can say for sure that my ability to respond to this and other surprises with flexibility, to look for the lessons (and appreciate them) is evidence of major personal change that has come from small changes over time. All the direct result of one tiny inspired action I took on a morning when I couldn’t bear to get out of bed. I will forever be grateful for that day.
Do you have a gratitude practice? How has gratitude changed your outlook?