For my first three decades on this Earth, life went pretty much according to plan. As I achieved major milestones, I smugly checked things off the “how-life-should-be” list in my head.
After attending college together, my high school sweetheart and I married and drove half-way across the U.S. with all of our possessions in an 18-foot U-haul to start a shiny new life together. With a computer science degree, he had landed a good job with a national company.
We initially rented the upstairs of a Kansas farmhouse that had been converted into apartments. As hubby quickly climbed the corporate ladder, we moved around to different states, upgrading our digs each time. Six years into the marriage, we bought our first house in the artsy section of a college town. The two bedroom, one bath bungalow had hardwood floors and a colorful, bee-loving perennial garden in the back yard.
Two years later, we purchased a proper two-story, four bedroom house in a cozy suburb in an excellent school district and welcomed our first son into the world.
In the years that followed, I took care of my baby and older brother as he wasted away with AIDs. (Read that story here.)
Over the next decade, I had another beautiful boy, and my husband and I continued to relocate our family about every two years, chasing the good life. In August of 2000, after eleven moves, my brother’s death, two miscarriages, and fifteen years of marriage, I found myself in an expensive home in Florida with marble floors, a laundry chute, a swimming pool in the back yard, and a Porsche in the three car garage. The most recent move to Florida was the third to the state during the marriage and the third move to a different state in the previous five years.
By now, I was a stay-at-home mom, a corporate widow, a professional mover, and one angry, unhappy woman. I wasn’t even sure what the plan was anymore.
By 2004, the husband moved to one state and the kids and I moved to another. Fighting over every little thing, we began an ugly divorce that drug on for years in the court system and took a huge emotional toll on me. In 2007, we were still battling it out, and I was more lost, miserable, and hopeless than ever. In a pill popping stunt, I tried to commit suicide which resulted in a serious brain injury. The ex immediately sued me for custody of our sons, won, and promptly moved out-of-state with them.
I woke up after a week in a coma with a brain injury to a very different world. Initially, I was seriously mentally impaired. With determination, hard work, and discipline every day, for years, accompanied by lots of reading, self-examination, doing things differently, and the miracle of neuroplasticity, I slowly emerged from the mess I’d made of my life.
Having never been alone, I found adjusting to solitary life hard – damn hard – and the transition took years. But, I grew to love my solitude. Being alone forced me to grow up, become responsible for myself and my life, and put energy into improving both. I had to figure out who I was without hiding behind the roles of mother or wife. Over the years from the ashes, a new me emerged – stronger, happier, and mentally and physically healthier than ever.
It’s almost a decade later. At fifty-something, I’m happily single and haven’t had a relationship since the brain injury. My sons, who are now young men, have lived with their father in a different state all that time. Somehow, I’ve established myself as a writer and have authored two books. (Beat Depression And Anxiety By Changing Your Brain: With Simple Practices That Will Improve Your Life and Sex, Suicide and Serotonin: How These Things Almost Killed and Healed Me) For the first time in my life, I am having to support myself.
While my life doesn’t look anything like what I’d planned – not even close, it’s still good because I’ve learned how to take “what is” and work with it for my benefit, happiness, and success. If you find yourself in the middle of a life that looks nothing like you had in mind, here are some lessons I’ve learned that might help you.
Ditch the “shoulds.”
I’ve come to realize that there’s no checklist of what life “should” look like. I don’t have to adopt the beliefs and shoulds of others. I get to decide what’s right for me. Almost all pain and suffering can be alleviated by getting rid of the “shoulds” and consciously being accepting and open to whatever unfolds. Many philosophies teach and I’ve found that emotional torment and suffering comes from attachment to our thoughts about what happens, not what actually happens. Pain originates in the space between thoughts and reality.
Accept and work with what’s before you.
Stop fighting the circumstances, people, or yourself. It is what it is. At this point, what you do can either help or hurt you. You are creating your future with the choices you make today. A well thought-out response is almost always going to prove more successful than a knee-jerk reaction. I spent way too many years making things worse for myself. Not anymore.
I’ve found that every situation, no matter how dismal it seems initially, can be made better by asking myself one question: “How can I make this work for me?” This simple question changes my perspective from that of a victim to a person consciously choosing to take what is in front of them and work with it for the best.
Focus on the long-term goals.
Zoom out and look at the bigger picture. Try to find the lessons in the situation. Your current circumstances aren’t what you planned, but they may bring new opportunities that didn’t exist before. If you are too focused on “what was supposed to be,” you could completely overlook “what could be.” Stay open and concentrate your efforts on the possibilities, not the problems.
Revise your next steps as needed keeping long-term goals in mind. There’s more than one way to get to the top of a mountain. Consciously decide who you want to be, how you want to behave, and what’s going to be in your best interest. Hold that image in the forefront of your mind, move forward and assess and revise often.
Six months ago, my oldest son moved back in with me after graduating from college – just when I was getting firmly set in my solitary ways. I sure didn’t see that one coming. So, I altered my plan and threw out any shoulds that had crept into my life. I’m excited to see what’s next.