Small Life, Slow Life: When the Unthinkable Happens. (Also known as: How to Cope When Your World Just Exploded.)

Photo credit copyright Eric Cahan (text is mine). See more of his beautiful sky photos:

It happens to all of us, sweetheart. And it very recently happened to me.

Things are humming along fine, and then – bam. A blow to the head. Suckerpunch. You didn’t see it coming. You’re blind-sighted.  Knocked out cold. Flat on your back. Everything you’d been planning, dissolved. Ruined. Lost. O-V-E-R.

It’s not the first time it’s happened, but it feels like the worst. The pain? You’ve never felt anything like it before.

Been there, babe. I was just  there.

It could be the death of someone close to you. It could be a breakup, or the loss of your job. If you’re living in any parts of the world struck by disaster (as those in New York have very recently experienced, and I experienced myself in Japan), you may have figuratively and literally just lost everything.

Or it could be a good, old fashioned, straight-up breakdown.

While going through tough times in the past, I often wished for a “get through it” guide somewhere on the web, but most of them were unsatisfying to me. “Love yourself!” they say. Or the ever-elusive “Be good to you.” Yeah – what does that mean? So I thought I’d share what I’ve learned from the few times in my life that all seems lost, and how I made it back.

It Just Happened (like…just now) 

Resist the urge to do something destructive. Don’t laugh this off. The inability to cope with mindblowing pain is a very real thing, and I’ve been there. If you are afraid of what you might do, there are resources to help. Here is a resource for a 24-hour crisis hotline. You don’t have to use this one – there are thousands. If you’re completely alone and afraid for yourself, call someone. Google “crisis hotline.” You never know who you’ll get at the other end of the line. I remember a very kind doctor at UCLA a few years ago who changed my entire life. His name was Felipe and I’d wandered in at two in the morning, at the end of my rope. He sat with me, witnessed my pain, and helped me along. I tried to write him a thank you letter once, and I got it returned to me…saying no one worked there by that name.

The pro of going through this (which you won’t see until later) is that subsequent losses will make you so, so very much more resilient. It has been years since I’ve longed to do something to hurt myself. As you navigate through life, loss is an inevitable part. You will begin to see seasons of loss as the time just before joy appeared.

The unendurable is the beginning of the curve of joy.” –Djuna Barnes

Don’t drink or numb yourself with drugs. You think it will help, but it’ll really just exacerbate the problem. For me this time around, a nicotine-free e-cigarette was a lifesaver. I could sit outside and gather my thoughts and feel like I was doing something, but not actually poisoning myself. Drinking or numbing behaviors often achieve the opposite of what you want them to.

Resist the temptation to isolate yourself. Call your mom, your therapist, your friend, or that really nice person you met at a college party six years ago. Chat with someone you only know online. You’ll be amazed how long people will listen to someone who is in crisis. It’s the humanity in us, recognizing suffering and wanting to alleviate it. No matter what you believe about people currently, most of them are basically good and are willing to help you.

Get somewhere safe. When, at 2am, I was suddenly sitting in my car with all of my belongings, I drove to a well-lit parking lot and tried to figure out what to do. No one was answering the phone and I never felt more alone in the world. Then I got a grip and drove to my mom’s house. She woke up immediately and apologized for having her ringer off. As soon as I saw her, I calmed down. Get thee to a safehouse. Seriously.

Don’t take any action. This might be hard, especially if you’re in conflict with someone. As agonizing at it is, pull the plug for now. If you don’t trust yourself, hand your phone over to a friend and have them lock it with a password you don’t know. Again, resist thinking this is silly and take me seriously. Almost anything you will say in the state you’re currently in, you will come to regret. Better to keep quiet for now. Closure can come later.

The First Week 

Let it suck. Understand that you are going to be in kind of a stupor. At this point, you can’t imagine that you’ll ever be happy again. You’re down on your luck and embarrassed. All you can see is the fury/sadness in front of you. It feels like you will never laugh, never eat and never sleep. These feelings are normal and will pass. That isn’t to say that they don’t hurt worse than anything you’ve ever felt in your life. I know they do.

Talk to a therapist. This is the first thing I do in crisis mode. I did it after breakups in the past, I did it after I got back from the Fukushima earthquake . I’ve done it a lot. Even if you think sitting in front of a stranger is going to do absolutely nothing and all you’ll do is cry/scream/not say anything, do it. There are low-income counseling services in every major city in the US. I found one after the earthquake and only paid $25 a session for a year. That therapist saved me. It was hard at first. All I did was sit in her office and cry. But eventually, I began talking. And once I began talking, I began healing. Google “low cost therapy” with your zip code.

Grieve, grieve, grieve. This is the time, sweetheart. Lay in bed, watch old movies, and cry your ass off. Call in sick to work if you must (I found that work actually helped me substantially, but I have taken a week off of work to collect myself in the past). This is not  the time to be a hero and show up in front of everyone claiming that you’re fine. You’re not fine. You’re a fucking wreck.  Give yourself 100% permission to be a fucking wreck. Seriously. That means – ask other people to cook for you. Don’t make the bed. Don’t brush your teeth. Lay in piles of your snot-covered tissues. Pull over at the side of the road because you need to sob. Scream into a pillow. Don’t wash your hair. Buy a pile of cheap plates at the 99-cent store and break  every. single. one. of them.

I cried in the bathroom at work every single day for a week. My coworkers knew, and were unbelievably supportive. Fall apart, and do it now. If you don’t deal with this now, you’ll be increasing the time that you’re haunted exponentially. Don’t cling to hope that the other person will change their minds, and don’t torture yourself with guilt of what you did or didn’t do. Don’t try to fix ANYTHING – you’re not in a position to make decisions for yourself!

The only power you’ve got in your arsenal is to FALL APART NOW. 

Have a “safe to call” list (and a “not safe to call” list). If you’ve been fired or broken up with, you need a team of 2-3 people who you can call at any time to vent/cry/be a fucking wreck. Fair warning – you are going to repeat yourself over and over and over.  This will last for about two weeks on average. Your friends will understand that you are going to repeat yourself, and they know that anything they say to you will only help momentarily. They will have to give you the same speech many times. But no storm lasts forever, and you will come out of this. For a while, unable to sleep, I called my friend Marianne every single morning at 6am as she got ready for work. I repeated all of the same phrases over and over and over.  I was so scared I was draining her, and yet every time I called her, I spewed five minutes less of shit than I had the day before. I don’t know what I would have done without her as a sounding board. After two weeks of 6am phone calls, I started sleeping until 8am. Had I put on my “I’m fine” face and not called her, I am 100% convinced that I would not be in the stronger place I’m in right now.

Likewise, there are people you absolutely should not call. Your boss who fired you. Your sister who sold all of your stuff on craigslist. Your boyfriend who broke up with you. “But I know he loves me!” I hear you protesting. “If I can just talk to him, he’ll realize!” No. “They made a mistake in letting me go!” you’re saying. “If I just explain myself…” Nope. “But she’s a righteous bitch and she needs to suffer the consequences for what she did!” No, no, no. In these times, more than in any other, SILENCE IS GOLDEN. The most annoying thing you can do to someone who has let you go is disrespect their decision. It sucks now, but you’ll have your dignity later. DO NOT CALL. DO NOT TEXT. Delete their numbers in your phone, or save it as “By calling this person, you admit to total defeat and humiliation.” You will be so relieved in the next coming weeks that you didn’t reach out and say all of the overly-emotional things you wanted to. And when and if you actually do talk to that person again, they’re not going to look at you like you’re batshit insane – or even worse – pity you. Do you know what the worst thing is after suffering a hard knock? Being looked at with pity.  Keep your dignity, babe.

Eat. (Seriously.) I am the type who has zero appetite when something is wrong. If you can’t stomach food, try high calorie shakes. Bananas work for me too when absolutely nothing else will. I know you don’t have an appetite, but when you deprive your brain of nutrients, you will get even more depressed. Do whatever you need to do – whey shakes, Jamba Juice, Clif Bars, bland oatmeal, fruit. I lost ten pounds during a recent crisis, and it wasn’t good. I felt lightheaded at work and was constantly overwhelmed with emotions I couldn’t control. Then I started drinking chocolate shakes just to get calories in. My friends cooked for me. And I immediately felt so much better.

Understand that you won’t be able to sleep. This is part of the process. Even heavy duty sleeping pills won’t help you sleep for more than a few hours when your body is in such a state of shock. Understand that sleep will eventually return to you, and be gentle with yourself. If you’re awake in the middle of the night, walk around the house. Turn a movie on. Make a cup of hot water with a squeeze of lemon in it. Google “inspiring stories” and read them. Walk outside in bare feet and let your toes feel the grass. Your body is detoxing really toxic emotions. It’s normal that you can’t sleep and I personally feel that sleeping pills impede the process of healing. Don’t take them.

A few years ago, I’d wake up every night like clockwork at 4am and not know what to do with myself. I started recording all the episodes of Wheel of Fortune on TV and at 4am, I’d watch them all. There is very little in Wheel of Fortune that reminds you of tragedy. And I got really good at word games as a result.

Write. Get a journal that is solely for this dark time in your life, and write everything there that you wouldn’t ever say out loud. I’m a writer, and yet I somehow resisted doing this until Week 2. I wish I would have done it earlier – writing is such a release for me, and once I started writing, I started sorting through everything. Your journal is the place where you can say all of the awful (or sad, or clingy, or heartbroken, or embarrassing) things you need to say, and no one will ever know. Once you’ve moved past this phase in your life, you can burn the damned thing. But when you’re awake at three in the morning and have tapped out your “safe to call” list, this journal is going to save your life. Trust me. Do it.

The Second Week

Oh, fear not, little bundt cake – you’re still going to be a fucking wreck. But this time, you’ll actually be able to take a few steps while doing it.

It’s time for activity. If you have a job, go to work. I know you don’t want to, but it’s going to help so much. Sometimes, you might have to cry in the bathroom. Most of your coworkers are not total douche bags and will understand. In fact, many of them might end up being much nicer to you than they were in the past. If you don’t have a job, this is the time to go see friends, visit your parents, or do some errands. Once a day, you absolutely must get out of the house. Also, this is the time to start showering and brushing your teeth again. Go to (non-emotionally charged) movies, queue up your Netflix with shows you’ve been meaning to watch, take on a sewing or crafting project. Keep your hands busy.

Read books that uplift you. I’ve been reading a ton. Some of it is self-help, some of it is spiritual, and almost all of it helps. My first recommendation is When Things Fall Apart. I’ve returned to this book in many crises. It’s a keeper. The Prophet is another good one. Here is a list of books to get you through a tough time.

Watch comedies. There are so many good ones. My favorite is Wayne’s World. But I’ve also recently seen Pitch Perfect, Wreck It Ralph and re-watched A League of Their Own. If you even manage one laugh, you’re winning the battle, my friend.

If you’re not a comedy person, watch The Food Network. Seriously, there is nothing on The Food Network that will remind you of death, being dumped or being fired. It’s the absolute perfect channel to leave on 24/7 when you’re going through a rough time, and it may help your appetite return. Even Rachel Ray can be kind of comforting in a weird way.

Write the unsent letter. By now, you’ve hopefully listened to me and had no contact with anyone who may have hurt you. But I know very well that your urge to say something – anything – is going to be undeniable. So write the unsent letter. Really do it – pretend you’re going to send it. Wear yourself out and say absolutely everything you need to. In eight hours, you may need to do it again. There’s nothing wrong with that. (Just don’t ever actually send it!)

If someone you love has passed away, the unsent letter can be an incredibly healing exercise. I write one to my deceased sister nearly every year. I tell her how I’m doing and how much I miss her. I tell her I’m sorry for anything I did to her. It helps.

Keep calling your friends. Keep going to therapy. Keep writing in your journal. Keep falling apart. It feels like shit now, doesn’t it? Surely, you should be over this by now. Nope – it’s only the second week. Keep having those repetitive conversations, keep crying your ass off in your car, keep reaching for the phone when you feel like you can’t take it any more. There will be many moments when you feel like you can’t take it. Accept them. Pain is like a shitty lover – when you avoid it, it will find you, pin you against a wall, passionately take you and then leave you alone. Don’t try to outrun it. The more open you can be to your pain (as unbearable as it feels), the quicker it will leave you. Pinky swear.

Don’t make plans yet. A few weeks ago, I kept trying to make new plans. I was apartment hunting with gusto. I was cutting out pictures for new vision boards. I was making new life goals. Do you know what this did? It made me feel really shitty. What was I thinking?! It clearly is NOT time to be making big plans yet – you are smack in the middle of Grieftown, USA.

I kept telling myself that if the Law of Attraction is real, that every time I cried, I was messing up my vibration to the universe and ruining my future. Um, that’s bullshit. You absolutely have got to fully embrace your pain before you can make any plans at all. You’re still loca en la cabeza, mi amor. Don’t worry about what you’re manifesting in your future. Think of it this way: you are a toxic volcano on the verge of total destruction. Your only job is to release the noxious gases and lava every time they bubble up, until they’re gone and the world is safe again. That’s it. You’re a volcano. Saving the world…from yourself. Release the pain every time it bubbles up. You’ll be surprised how quickly it will pass.

Make an empowering playlist. Music can run you or wreck you. Let it run you. My iPod has been such a LIFE SAVER during all of this! I’ve made tons of playlists of empowering, happy songs.

That said, listen to sad music when you need to. Hopefully away from the presence of sharp objects. Sometimes, you just need to listen to that super depressing song and let yourself cry it out. That’s fine. Just listen to a happier song once you’re done.

Do things to pamper yourself, even if you don’t feel like it. Cut your hair or get a blowout, get a manicure, get a massage, sit outside, use a natural face mask, buy one of those scalp massagers, take a bath. Doing healing things for the body greatly reduces stress on the mind. I don’t have a ton of money right now, but I’ve been indulging in regular manicures. I don’t know what it is, but it helps so much.

The Third & Fourth Weeks 

If you do exactly as I’ve said, you’ll begin to feel better sometime between the third and fourth weeks. Your appetite will return and you should be sleeping semi-normally. You’ll still have really dark moments, but you might find that you’ll be able to laugh again and your sense of self will be much stronger.

If you’ve slipped at all during this time, go back to where you messed up and repeat the steps. Write in the journal. Pamper yourself. Write the unsent letter. Repeat the same story to your friends over and over. Watch comedies and/or The Food Network. Read books that uplift you. Call a crisis hotline. Stay somewhere safe. Get out of the house once a day. (AND GO TO THERAPY, FOR GOD’S SAKE!)

Find a support group. There are millions of people who are going through, believe it or not, exactly what you are. By Week 3, you should feel more accepting of your situation and maybe even willing to admit it to complete strangers. Being with like-minded people who are focused on healing is extremely important at this time. A support group is perfect. Google it – they exist. Trust me.

Take an online class/get ye a hobby. I highly recommend taking any classes by Susanne Conrad, founder of the igolu work. She’s the Director of Possibility for lululemon athletica and I basically have a giant girl-crush on her. I was actually in the middle of her goal setting class when my little tragedy struck, and I was given the opportunity to talk to her about it. Here was her answer:

What an amazing thing to say. Isn’t she rad?!

If you’re not ready for goal setting, Skillshare has tons of other classes you can take. I found quilt stores in my neighborhood that give inexpensive classes. I’ve tried out a lot of yoga studios. There are art/poetry/hackey sack/pottery/crump dancing classes all over the place. Go to them. The weirder they are, the better. Creating brand new experiences takes away the sting of your memories.

Now is the time that you’ll want to start doing something new, separating yourself a bit from the sad-sack of a person you were before.

Use this time to make yourself more interesting. You’ve been putting your life on hold for nearly a month now. It’s time to return to the world. Listen to podcasts on subjects you don’t know anything about. RadioLab is a fantastic one – you’ll learn about time, space, memory and other awesome sciencey stuff. It’s extremely well done and their podcasts have definitely made me more interesting. Susanne Conrad also has podcasts on her igolu site and they run at just under five minutes a pop. They’re really uplifting! You could check out iTunes U and learn about subjects you always wished you’d taken in school. Get some books from the library on things that always interested you but you never had time to study.

A dark period can make you feel like you have more downtime than a prisoner – use this time to improve yourself!

As within, so without. (AKA – Make your physical and online worlds positive.) This is the time to clean up your place and fill it with fresh flowers. Put any mementos in a box in the closet for now – one day you’ll be able to look at them without wanting to barf. Clean out your car. Use a toothbrush to clean the grout in the shower. Mop the floors until they gleam. Open the windows.

One thing people don’t usually talk about is making your online world as positive as your physical world. The thing I love about Facebook and Twitter so much is that you can add people, and remove them. In other words – drop the dead weight! Follow inspiring people on Twitter – Brene Brown. Danielle LaPorte. Marianne WilliamsonThought Catalog. Mastin Kipp. Comedians. Spiritual gurus. Business whizzes. Anything that lifts you up. Subscribe to newsletters with inspiring quotes or practical advice for hard times – there are just about a zillion.

Likewise, remove anything that brings you down. You can always add back the person later on when you’re stronger. Make your online world impeccable so you’re not hit with gut-blasting surprises every time you go online. The importance of this cannot be underestimated!

Begin the process of acceptance. If you’ve done what I’ve said, reality has sunk in by now. Begin talking to people in your outer circle (your inner circle is likely more than well aware) about what happened. Talking about it makes it easier. Say to yourself in the mirror, “Such and such has happened. It really happened, and I am alright. I didn’t die. I am still standing.” Repeat this as many times as you need to. We’re not coloring what’s happened with any emotions or judgments. We’re simply stating what is.

Don’t force yourself to forgive yet. Funny thing about forgiveness that almost no one will tell you – if you just focus on healing yourself, forgiveness comes naturally. Every time. You don’t have to work at it. If you’re having trouble forgiving, there is likely a very good reason. You probably shouldn’t be around that person just yet.

When you’ve processed all of your pain, you will forgive all trespasses automatically. You may even find yourself grateful that things happened the way they did. (Can you imagine?)

If you really still feel like reaching out, make sure it’s safe and in your best interest to do so. If you haven’t heard from a person who hurt you in three weeks, do you really need them in your life? But if you still need closure or feel strongly that something needs to be said, now would be the time to send a text or email. Make sure you are in a non-emotional place when you do so.

If there is any chance of you overreacting or being reinjured, I strongly advise you to wait. Life has a funny way of bringing closure in its own timing – trust that and continue your process of healing.

This is the time to start making plans. Plan a dinner party for friends. Go see a show you’ve really wanted to see. Look at your calendar for the next months and pick days to go to the zoo, to have a spa day, to go to the beach, to spend way too much time in a bookstore drinking coffee. Get a gym membership and attend some classes. Invite your friends to country line dancing (I did that recently – it was amazing). Go to comedy shows or poetry readings. Listen to a lecture on environmentalism. Check out craigslist or Facebook for events happening in your area. Run a fun 5k.

Be pleasantly surprised that you’re experiencing actual moments of joy. Funny how that works, ain’t it? Remember Week 1 when you were never-ever going to be happy again, when you thought you were going to cry yourself into a giant ball of snot for the rest of your life? Well, lookey there, sweetheart – life went on, and it’s taking you right with it. Rejoice in the moments you’re able to laugh at something funny. You are a resilient badass and you will be truly happy again before you know it.

I love telling this story and I will do it here. In my early twenties, I went through a really bad breakup. Like, bad  bad. For three weeks, I barely got out of bed. I laid on the driveway of my mom’s house and smoked cigarettes all day, watching the sun and then the moon form an arc overhead.

Three weeks into this total disaster, I hadn’t laughed once. In fact, I don’t think I did much except go to 7-11 and buy cigarettes. Anyway, one day my dear friend Stephen had visited me and was trying to cheer me up. He was playing my grandfather’s piano in the garage while I lay on the driveway – you guessed it – smoking cigarette after cigarette.

The neighbor next door brought over a bowl of fresh peaches from her tree. I, in my “I’m not eating” state, refused, but Stephen happily took one. I remember looking at the peach and thinking, “Wow, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to enjoy a peach again.”

Stephen bit into the sweet fruit and I’m not sure what exactly my neighbor had given her tree to fertilize it – because that peach exploded EVERYWHERE. A genuine stream of peach juice shot out three feet in front of Stephen, covering the floor of the garage in sticky liquid. There was an audible sound to the explosion – like the sound of jumping into a bathtub of tomato paste. Stephen sat, dripping peach still in his mouth, with his eyes wide with shock.

For several seconds, I just stared at Stephen and looked back at all of the peach juice on the garage floor. Then, inexplicably – I laughed. I laughed until I hurt. I laughed until I cried. I laughed my ass off. We both did. The mirth seemed to rise up out of nowhere. Ten seconds before, I’d been an empty cage. And then, without warning, I broke into blossom.

It was the funniest thing ever, and the memory still makes me smile.

Healing is like this. You will cry. And cry. And cry. But one day, out of nowhere, you will laugh. The world will go on. And you will go on with it.

Do not grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form. –Rumi

I really hope that all of this helped you. I know what you’re going through – I promise. I know you’re thinking, “Sure, sure – she said all of that, but that’s for other people. She doesn’t understand my pain. There is truly no way I’m ever going to be happy again!”

There is a way, sweetheart. And you can help speed it along.

Email Me

If you are ever in a truly dark place and feel like you have no one to turn to, please know that you can email me. Anytime. I will answer you. I’m here.

With love & sending you tons of thoughts of healing,


11 thoughts on “Small Life, Slow Life: When the Unthinkable Happens. (Also known as: How to Cope When Your World Just Exploded.)

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  6. I lost my dad while me and my ex were on holiday, we had to come home early, it was awful. Then my mum broke her shoulder so i had to help her look after my nan, then my nan passed away, 4 months after my dad, then my bf left me 2 weeks later….saying he fell out of love during this hard time…..and not long before christmas…urgh. I wish i knew how to forget all tha

    • Lolabelle,
      I know it has been 2.5 years after you left the comment.

      I hope you are doing well with your life, sending prayers for you 🙂

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  8. Pingback: I’m sorry, and welcome. – The Grief Years

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