One minute I had a good life. I was happy, and my family was happy too. The next minute, we received some terrible and unexpected news.
Without going into detail, I can say that it has been devastating … a slow-motion train wreck with no end in sight.
Surviving the present takes everything I have. I was in shock for a while. In a way I still am, but I’m getting through the days at least.
Even though I still have a lot to be thankful for – a steady job, a safe place to live – it feels as though I’ve lost everything. There’s so much grief and anger and fear.
It’s hard to do simple things, like shower. Even breathing feels hard sometimes.
I feel bad and judge myself for not living up to my potential, for not being stronger … but the thing is, I am doing the best I can. It’s just that my best has become so humble.
I’m not sure that I have a question, exactly. I just wanted to write and ask what you would say to someone who is going through the hardest time of her life.
*This letter has been edited to protect privacy.
Did you read the Little House books when you were young? I did. Laura Ingalls was my hero.
My grandmother even made me a sunbonnet, which I tied proudly under my chin when I went to feed my grandparents’ chickens during summers in rural Arizona.
For the rest of the year, my family lived in suburban New Jersey. We had a comfortable house, but I created a “claim shanty” in our backyard. My cousins and I piled logs (read: twigs) for the long winter.
Of course, I had no real concept of a sub-zero winter in an uninsulated space. Like so many children before me, I fell in love with a romanticized version of Laura’s life.
As an adult, I went back and read the Little House books again, and they sounded very different. There was still fiddling and dancing, but there was also terrible deprivation and uncertainty.
The Long Winter wasn’t romantic, it was horrifying. The whole town nearly died of exposure or starvation or both.
Why am I telling you this? Well, your letter reminded me of Laura’s description of sudden blizzards, with storm clouds blocking the light and strong winds howling.
That sounds to me like the metaphorical equivalent of your situation.
One minute you were looking at clear skies; the next, you were surrounded by a blinding fury. It wasn’t your fault and it certainly isn’t within your control.
I’m so sorry that happened to you.
Of course you feel shocked and afraid. Of course everything from breathing to brushing your teeth is ten times harder than usual. Of course you feel as though you’ve lost your way. Who wouldn’t?
Here’s how to survive in a blizzard: Find the nearest shelter. Once inside, keep warm and stay hydrated. Don’t get too proud to ask for help and supplies.
During a blizzard, you do not expect too much of yourself. Rather, you go into survival mode and let nonessentials go.
Furthermore, you do not allow harsh self-talk and cold judgment to chill you further. When you’re already freezing, that’s the most dangerous thing you can do.
Instead, you practice being kind. You talk to yourself as you would a beloved child. This will probably feel strange, and that’s all right. Just try.
Instead of berating yourself for all the things that aren’t happening, congratulate yourself on the most basic self-nurturing decisions.
You went back to bed when you felt tired? Fantastic. You made yourself a cup of tea and wrapped yourself in a blanket? Brilliant.
In the context of your ordinary life, it’s easy to take tasks such as showering and laundry for granted.
But you are not in ordinary life any longer. You are in a blizzard. As such, just doing the basics means that you are succeeding.
Here’s your new mantra: Surviving is succeeding.
No one – and I mean no one – expects you to “live up to your potential” in the middle of the worst emotional crisis of your life. As Hands Free Mama Rachel Macy Stafford wrote in the midst of her own crisis, “Love is the only thing required of me right now.”
Finally, remember that strength doesn’t always look and feel like you think it will.
Once upon a time I told a terrible story to my counselor. It was my own Long Winter, scary to talk about and scarier to live through. At the end of our session, she said, “You’re so strong.”
I was incredulous: “But I feel so weak.”
She didn’t miss a beat: “That’s how it works.”
This is how it works, my friend: You feel weak, but you are strong. You feel hopeless, but you have hope. You feel alone, but you are held.
This may be the worst storm you’ll ever weather, but there is a light within you that will outlast the wind and the snow and the cold.
I would bet my life on it.
“It can’t beat us!” Pa said.
“Can’t it, Pa?” Laura asked stupidly.
“No,” said Pa. “It’s got to quit sometime and we don’t. It can’t lick us. We won’t give up.”
Then Laura felt a warmth inside her. It was very small but it was strong. It was steady, like a tiny light in the dark, and it burned very low but no winds could make it flicker because it would not give up.
~ Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Long Winter
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