Some people wear their smile like a disguise.
Those people who smile a lot, watch the eyes.
I know it ’cause I’m like that a lot.
You think everything’s OK, and it is —
’til it’s not.
~Ani Difranco, “Outta Me, Onto You”
That blast from the past (from the days when I wielded song lyrics like personal mottos) has been in my head since last week. Not because I wear my smile like a disguise anymore (these days, the optimism is annoyingly real), but because of that last, killer line:
“You think everything’s OK, and it is — ’til it’s not.”
Back in the day (when I was crazy but didn’t know it), that line comforted me in a “that’s how I feel but I didn’t know how to say it thank god someone else understands” kind of way. Because when I was on the bipolar roller coaster, that’s precisely how things were: OK (if not brilliantly freakin’ awesome), until suddenly they were very much not OK, not even close. Like a schizophrenically wired light switch, my world could flip just like that, at a moment’s notice.
These days, my emotions tend more on the normal-people side, meaning they’re affected by logical factors like how much sleep I’ve gotten or how things around me are going. And because of that, I’m usually able to keep myself on a fairly even keel, perspective-wise.
But this past week, I realized something: Just like in the gonzo days, that switch can still flip. Everything can be various levels of OK (“OK things are good” / “OK I’m holding down the fort” / “OK it’s a little shaky but fuck me I’m making this happen!”) — until suddenly, they’re not.
What I’ve been trying to puzzle out lately is what to do when that happens. Because it’s going to happen. There’s nothing any of us can do to avoid a sudden switch-up. There will be times, even in the most optimistic and dutifully designed lives, when things just really, really suck.
And if you’re trying to live optimistically and intentionally, it can be tough to know what to do with that.
A Confluence of Crap
Over the past week, a number of shit-meet-fan occurrences have happened in quick succession:
- My husband’s initial disability claim was rejected. We knew this would happen, as this is how The Man works (or rather, doesn’t work). When we met with our attorney to begin the appeals process, we learned the next step was to wait for our hearing date — sometime around December 2014. We did not know this would happen. So, one full year of doing and hearing nothing before we can even attempt to get a second income back in the house.
- My husband’s short-term disability benefits, which we thought we had for another month, were discontinued, resulting in a shortfall of several hundred dollars per month. (Been trying to find a stopgap client for a while; so far, no dice.)
- One of my practically new clients dropped me due to financial issues of her own.
- I was clobbered by a deadline pileup as several of my monthly posts were due the exact same weekend I was trying to dig out from a task backlog caused by meeting with said disability attorney, a bankruptcy hearing (did I mention the husband’s filing for bankruptcy? yeah, so there’s that), and a visit to the hospital for some tests for the husband.
- I realized the debt I spent four years paying down (and had juuust freed myself from) is piling back up way too fast due to the loss of said second income.
- I cursed myself for not being able to turn 15-hour workdays into all-nighters for fear of triggering the craziness and putting myself totally out of commission, at a time when in-commission is barely cutting it.
- I had a panic attack. Interspersed with “Holy fuck, what if I have to go back to the 9-to-5?” moments, which only caused further panic attacks.
- I blamed myself for leaving the 9-to-5 when I was already in a rather shitty fan position.
- Realized I’m making as much now as I did in the 9-to-5, and the reason it’s not enough isn’t because I’m not hustling hard enough, but because I am only one person. (And The Man takes a hefty hunk out in self-employment taxes.) Maybe once the biz has had some time to grow, I can hope to bring in two people’s income with one person’s efforts, but for now, this is the best I can do. It still doesn’t feel like enough.
- Realized once again that the best I can do still leaves us financially up a creek sans paddle. Attempted to crawl out from project backlog while getting less and less sleep and feeling more and more trapped.
- Repeat panic attack. Sprinkle in creepings of despair. Insert car deciding to make awful, expensive-sounding noises and the prospect of an entire weekend working 24/7 to get myself back on track.
- Cancel all plans. Go into catatonic state. Experience massive meltdown.
How to Deal When Everything’s Not OK
I am an optimistic person. Clinically so, at times. But even the most optimistic of people have days (or weeks, or months) when they can’t see the bright side of a dark situation. And that’s tough, especially when you’re used to pulling up your big girl pants, blazing ahead and refusing to be beaten by anything.
When your natural mode is conquer-the-world, feeling defeated and hopeless — even if it’s only temporary, even if the situation makes that understandable — can make you feel like everything up to that point has been a waste and a farce.
So, what do you do when your revolutionary side is immobilized by external badness, and all you want to do is curl up under a blanket and hope the world forgets you exist?
First, take a few long, deep breaths, hug the nearest huggable object, then try this:
1. Allow Yourself to Feel the Badness
My feelings of despair/panic/uselessness have been compounded by the fact that I felt guilty for feeling them.
I am not a complain-about-problems person; I’m a figure-out-how-to-beat-them person. I know some of the most wildly successful people have faced crap of their own, and I also know people IRL who’ve dealt with the ultimate in shitty situations and still managed to maintain an attitude that puts the rest of us to shame. So feeling defeated by our personal situation seemed horribly self-centered.
But here’s the thing: Your situation is the only one you’re living. You can’t play the “there are starving children in Africa” game with your feelings, because your reaction to a bad situation has nothing to do whatever other, worse situations are happening in the great big world around you. You can only live the life you’ve got, and when that life takes a bad turn, you’re allowed to feel bad about it.
While realizing you’ve still got it comparatively good can help you in the long run, you need to allow yourself time to grieve, kick and scream, and process your feelings before you try to move on from them. Just because “other people have it worse,” that doesn’t make your feelings any less legitimate.
And feeling bad for feeling bad certainly won’t do you any good.
Process the crap, let yourself feel how truly crappy it is, then move forward to trying to shift your perspective. Because you’ll never get past your emotions if you don’t allow yourself to go through them first. (Tweet, tweet!)
2. Phone a Friend
Or several. And your therapist. And your mom.
Because getting too stuck up inside your own head can give you tunnel vision that only makes a bad situation seem totally hopeless. You need some outside perspective to balance out your p.o.v., and you also need to hear from someone other than yourself, because we have a tendency to be much harder on ourselves than we’d ever be on a loved one.
The people closest to you will understand why a bad situation is hitting you hard, because they’ve followed your journey and they know what you’ve been through. They’ll be able to empathize with you (minus the “how dare you feel bad” guilt trip) and offer some words of encouragement (minus the “you don’t know what you’re talking about” critique) in a way you’ll never be able to do for yourself.
Not to mention the fact that just getting out and away from your circumstances, even if only for the time it takes to have a coffee, can do wonders for a mind that’s been stuck in crap-reaction mode.
3. Realize You Cannot Fix ALL THE THINGS
I fully believe that hustle + passion = results. But sometimes, you need to accept the fact that even your most passionate hustling will only go so far.
Sure, I can earn more by working more, but I can’t earn enough to replace an entire second income — at least not at this point in my game. Growth takes time, and I’m already putting in 24/7 weeks as it is. At some point, I need to realize that one person alone can’t save an entire sinking ship. I can help bail us out as we slowly go down, but I can’t let myself go down with the ship in the process. Some things are beyond your control or your ability to triage, and feeling bad for not being able to solve those things is pointless.
Similarly, an optimistic attitude can work wonders, but it can’t always fix what’s broken. Optimism can help you move through the shittier parts of life and deal when you’re in the midst of them. But it can’t necessarily make them better. Sometimes, things just suck, and all the optimism in the world won’t change that. The key is in realizing that optimism is mindset, not a magic wand.
Now that I’ve let myself kick and scream and etc., I can look at where we are and say, “Yes, this sucks, but here are the good things I can focus on.” I can begin to move on in spite of the crap, and feel some hope in the possibility of things eventually getting better.
What I still can’t do is say, “Here are the good things I can focus on,” and boop! everything’s better. I need to accept the fact that the situation we find ourselves in is less than ideal, and no matter how hard I try or how fiercely I look on the bright side, it will continue to be rough for some time.
It’s only by accepting this that optimism has any chance for a foothold. Real optimism isn’t about magically making a bad situation sunny; it’s about finding the rays of light in even the shittiest of situations, even while realizing full well how shitty they are.
“Acceptance” does not mean “acquiescence.” This is key.
4. Just Keep Swimming
Bad days and bad seasons will happen. And sometimes it will take a while for you to climb out on the other side of them. So in the meantime, be as patient and gentle with yourself as possible, try to find a little happiness where you can, and just keep moving, one step at a time.
Go to your job. Love your family. Pet a puppy. Laugh with friends. Enjoy the day-by-day (or minute-by-minute) happinesses wherever you can find them, knowing that this moment right in front of you is all you really have, anyway.
You may be surprised to find that can sometimes, that can be enough.
And when it’s not? Know that that’s OK, too.
How do you cope when things aren’t OK?
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