Friday, September 21, 2018

The Trauma of Being Laid Off

I was laid off last week. It’s the second time I’ve been laid off in my advertising career. The first time, people congratulated me on getting my first layoff under my belt. Apparently it’s a right of passage in the industry. Despite it being so commonplace, it was incredibly painful to me. At that time, the recession was just beginning, the automotive industry was falling into bankruptcy, and I was a single mother of a small child. Losing my job meant losing everything. When it happened, I’m embarrassed to admit, I sobbed like a baby. I sobbed while they told me, I sobbed while security escorted me out, I sobbed in my car on the way home.

Never again, I promised myself. Never again would I let advertising hurt me like this.

I knew if I were ever laid off again, I would be prepared for it. And truly, in the ten years since that first lay off, I have emptied my personal belongings, cleaned my desktop and prepared myself for the fateful call. Despite having endured countless layoffs at ad agencies since that time, I myself have not lost my job again.

At least not until last week.

And last week, knowing that rumors were flying around that layoffs were coming again, I cleared my desk of anything important. Cleared my desktop of anything not important. Saved what files I needed and braced myself for the worst. And despite all the preparation, I was entirely shocked when my phone did ring. For whom bell tolls? Well, it tolled for me.

Despite every intention of handling this layoff with grace and detachment … instead I cried like a baby once again. But why? I’m married. My house is paid for. It is not a recession. I have every reason to handle this layoff as a minor blip in a long and successful career. I was not prepared to react to this second layoff as I did the first … as traumatic.

And yet there it is.

It was and still is traumatic. Losing your job without warning and without really believing it’s going to happen, is traumatic. Aside from being dumped by a lover, being dumped from a job is pretty high up there on the cruel jolts we can experience. It has all the same personal elements. You’ve been summarily dismissed. You no longer matter, your contributions are not valued. For whatever reason (even if it’s just financial), you’ve been told that you are no longer wanted or needed. This is rejection, writ large. So there you are, with your manila envelope and your hurt feelings, trying to figure out how to get out of the building without your key card.

Now my usual way of dealing with a traumatic event would be to immediately fix it. I would start searching for a new job, applying posthaste to every job within a 20-mile radius that might possibly consider me. In a rush to escape the pain of being rejected, I would set to work on being accepted somewhere else as quickly as possible.

My therapist counseled me otherwise.

She suggested I do nothing. She suggested I sit with my feelings for now. I have a severance package. There’s unemployment compensation to apply for. And there’s that spouse of mine who can certainly keep the bills paid.

My husband also suggested I take some time to figure out what I want to do next.

Both of these suggestions leave me dealing with … trauma. Everything in me suggests that the best thing to do is to avoid all of the bad feelings. I should do everything I can to keep the bad feelings at bay. I have to admit to glancing at the jobs in my area on Indeed and on LinkedIn. I have to admit to debating whether or not to just take a job — any job — to be anything but job-less.

But instead, I’ve decided to heed my therapist’s advice. Maybe there’s something to this? Perhaps I should allow myself to grieve the loss.

I’ve started reading a book I couldn’t get into a few months ago. This time I really took to it. It’s called The Trauma of Everyday Life and it’s by one of my favorite writers, Mark Epstein. Epstein combines both his experience as a psychoanalyst and as a Buddhist to share his thoughts on trauma and recovery. And in his book, he echoes some of what my therapist suggests:
A critical component of what became known as The Noble Eightfold Path, Realistic View counseled that trauma, in any of its forms, is not a failure or a mistake. It is not something to be ashamed of, not a sign of weakness, and not a reflection of inner failing. It is simply a fact of life. This attitude toward trauma is at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings, although it is often overlooked in the rush to embrace the inner peace that his teachings promised. But inner peace is actually predicated upon a realistic approach to the uncertainties and fears that pervade our lives.
You don’t get to inner peace by avoiding your negative feelings. You don’t get over the trauma of being rejected by pretending it never happened and replacing the job or the lover with another job or lover. You find relief through allowing yourself to experience your feelings, as they are. Allowing yourself to grieve. Allowing yourself to be sad. This can be a challenge, however, as everyone around you is trying to discourage you from feeling those bad thoughts too.

It’s amazing how determined we all are to avoid bad feelings. Since losing my job, I can’t tell you how many people have immediately remarked that I’ll find a better job. Everyone’s in a big rush to not feel sad. It’s human nature.

Other people have reacted to my news with, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that!”or “How awful!” And this makes me feel better. I read those comments and emails and I nod my head, “Yes, it is awful. I feel terrible.” There is relief in that. Almost a weird kind of acceptance.

How odd.

I’m still sad. It’s only been a week and apparently I’m going to have to sit with this feeling of rejection a bit longer. But in a way, just allowing myself to be sad that I lost a job I really enjoyed, and I lost the opportunity to work with people I really loved, is making me feel better. I feel calmer and deeply rooted in myself, if that makes any sense.

The other day I decided to walk to my therapist’s office instead of driving. I’m usually in such a hurry all the time that I don’t get to walk anywhere. My neutral setting is a “rush” setting. I think this is true in the case of most working mothers. I’ve always got to be somewhere and I’m always running late or disappointing someone. There’s a constant clamor in my head where I’m trying to keep everyone happy simultaneously and quite frankly, it’s an impossible task.

Walking to therapy was a big deal.

It was a beautiful, humid morning. The moisture in the air combined with the sunlight to create a sort of glorious haze over the park behind my house. The leaves on the trees were suffused with a living light. I ran my hand through a row of puffy-tailed plants along the sidewalk. I watched my hand move through that morning light, move through those puffs, and I heard a Blue Jay’s siren from above. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard a Blue Jay. A lawnmower started in the distance. Someone was walking their old dog.

And it was all so beautiful, I felt a kind of joy I hadn’t felt in a long time.

I wouldn’t have felt that feeling on that particular day, if I hadn’t gotten laid off, and if I hadn’t allowed myself to mourn the loss. I’m sad, but I’m also joyous. I contain both feelings, fully. As Mark Epstein puts it,
When we stop distancing ourselves from the pain in the world, our own or others’, we create the possibility of a new experience, one that often surprises because of how much joy, connection, or relief it yields. Destruction may continue, but humanity shines through.
I’m hoping I’ll shine through in this. I can’t say I know what exactly is next, but I’m open to it. I’m open to all of it.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

On Becoming My Grandmother

Grandma working the swim cap.
It just dawned at me that I may be becoming my grandmother.

My grandmother was fancy, at least in my child's eye. She wore jewelry and always had her hair, nails and makeup done. Or if her hair wasn't done, she wore a turban with a jewel in the center. When she swam, she wore patterned swim caps with chin straps. She smoked cigarettes on slim holders and extended her pinky when she drank coffee from her china cups. When she flipped the remote control from the stock exchange to the Home Shopping Network, she stretched her fingers in such a way so as not to ruin her nails. She owned a number of fur coats. Not particuarly warm and fuzzy, my grandmother did not cuddle or bake cookies, though she did offer to buy me bedazzled sweaters that were featured on cable television. And she kept the refrigerator stocked with Andes chocolate mint candies, which I was welcome to have.

My children and spouse were imitating me the other night. They were pretending to eat like I eat. They extended their fingers dramatically and pursed their lips carefully as they ate their imaginary food. Then they all erupted into laughter. I remained somewhat flabbergasted by all of this. When my son makes his "Mandy Face," he purses his lips and raises one eyebrow.

None of these are things I knew about myself before their antics.

Sitting at lunch with some co-workers today, I realized that I dress up to go on an airplane, I never wear tennis shoes or athletic gear unless I am exercising. I don't leave the house without makeup, not even to go get bagels or coffee. I put on lipgloss before I get out of my car or attend meetings. The older I get, the more I prefer wearing dresses. It's one piece of clothing, so it's easy and you always look elegant. None of my dresses go above the knee. And I would never wear a dress with a flat shoe. The mere thought of it makes me shudder.

All of this leaves me to conclude that I may need a swim cap at some point in the near future.

And though I'm not particularly affectionate, if you visit my office, there is candy and you are welcome to it.





Friday, September 29, 2017

If You Would Sing For Me Like That


When my husband and I first met, we bonded over books, music and a mutual appreciation of suffering and psychotherapy. (That may sound, odd, I realize. But there it is.) We shared favorite books and bought them for each other. We made each other mix CDs. We told our childhood tales and shared our therapists' wisdom.

There was a deep ache in all of it that resonated in one another.

And beyond a shared pain that could be pressed with just the slightest touch of a fingertip, beyond that there was a shared hope. Such a joyous spark within in us, a faith even, that things could be better. Should be better. Maybe even better together?

How the stuff that reached down into our bone marrow and shook our protective shells loose, oh how that stuff made us wrap around each other and intertwine our broken arms and wounded hearts. You can laugh or roll your eyes if you like. But we were both damaged goods, fragile to the touch and quick to bolt. It's true. I'm laying it bare before you like a fool. And in each other we found shelter. We found safe quarters. Buddha help us, we did.

That was many years ago and we've each grown stronger. We're not quite so fragile. We've recovered from bad relationships and reconstituted ourselves into two successful people with a happy family and a nice house and successful careers.

All of that takes a lot of work.

Building a marriage, a home, and a family takes a lot of work. External work. Financial work and physical work. We've added a marriage counselor in the midst of all that to keep our relationship together at its core. We've just finished a major project renovating our yard. Totally new back yard and front yard. It represents a lot of money and a lot of shared decision-making. Also a lot of optimism. You don't spend money on a yard unless you feel pretty secure in life.

But all that building and buttressing and care-taking ... it all takes a lot of work.

Are you noticing a theme here? WORK WORK WORK.

How do you keep the soul of the thing intact amidst all that work?

Where has our vulnerability gone? Where is the rawness and shared grief? Where is the beauty of the mixed CD, the favorite book ... a childhood tale that neither of us has heard before?

Sometimes that magic gets lost in the day to day. Building a life is not exactly the same thing as a budding romance.

Lately my husband has been listening to classical music. I used to like classical music when I played the violin. But now I sort of hate it. It stresses me out. It doesn't speak to me and it has no soul. I like singer-songwriters and more contemporary or alternative stuff. He likes classical. We can't even make playlists for each other any more.

We don't share the same books anymore either. He's switched to audio books and I've switched to a Kindle.

But we do watch some of the same shows (but not all).

Marriage. It's an evolution. It's not all new and stardust and figuring each other out. It's easy to grow apart and feel like all you see is the differences. I don't like his music and he doesn't really have the patience to read what I'm reading.

What's closer to the soul than books and music?

I don't know.

Who are we anymore?

Where did we go?

Tonight he sent me a song by Gregory Alan Isakov. And he also sent me the lyrics. (He never pays attention to lyrics.) My husband is a musician and listens to the melody. I'm a writer and pay more attention to the words. Isakov has both going on, but more importantly, it was one of those moments in a long-term relationship where I was suddenly taken back to the beginning.

"Perhaps he still knows me after all," I thought.

We do know each other. Our souls speak the same language.

Music can do that.

Words can do that.

So for tonight, we're not talking about how many minutes we have to water the new sod or whether the new arbor vitae is tilting slightly to the left. We're not fighting with our daughter over taking her medicine. Or getting annoyed over who put what in the wrong place. (He did.)

So tonight we touched the soft places in the hidden corners of our hearts. Tender. Hurt. Hidden and real. How often do we neglect that secret self once we go from lovers steeped in discovery to spouses battling out turf?

Tonight I listened to the sound of our shared heart. Our shared hurt. Whoever it is we are underneath all the bogus trappings of propping up a life. Underneath it all, we are those two vulnerable people who dared to meet. Who dared to reveal ourselves to each other. To touch each other and uncover the soft places inside.

It made me remember a hairpin on his windowsill. Mine. How he told me he left it there on purpose so that he could touch it in the morning and think of me after I'd left.

It's a wonder how a little song can make you feel human again. Remind you that there's something beyond mortgages and deadlines and picking up the dry-cleaning. Something like love.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Twelve Years, Give or Take.


Twelve years ago or so, I winked at a guy on Match.com. Sure, winking's kind of a wimpy way of getting a guy's attention. But for me, I was practically throwing myself at him. I'm subtle that way. My flirting capabilities have barely evolved from running up and punching the boys I liked on the playground.

Despite the fact that I had no photo on my profile (amateur), this incredibly dashing and intelligent lawyer responded to me. He said it was my wit that attracted him. I had written a rather insane profile, in which I listed all my likes in dislikes in the most absurd fashion.

"You're a smart ass," he wrote. "I like that."

He also added that he shared my various likes and dislikes, including a seething distrust of old ladies.

"In fact," he wrote. "I just splayed an old blue hair across the sidewalk this morning on my way into the office."

The man called me a smart ass in his opening remarks and then used the word "splayed." I think we can all agree I was pretty much toast.

We crashed into each other for a year and a half. Our relationship was intense and joyous. I don't think either one of us had experienced that kind of connection. Over-the-top. Hilarious. Adventurous. Easy. And oh-so-very chatty. Sitting with Fred was like sitting with my long-lost best friend. We talked for hours over dinner. For hours late into the night and early morning, our legs tangled together, with me pounding my fist into the mattress from laughing so hard. Ridiculous and passionate and somehow we each felt we'd met our match.

Until we broke up.

*Record scratch*

I know. That's not how this story was supposed to go. What can I tell you other than when we first met, we were both fresh out of relationships that had left us reeling? Our lives were complicated and we were still disentangling ourselves from the wreckage. It's not an unfamiliar story and it's often the story of the rebound relationship.

But this didn't feel like a rebound.

"Sometimes the best love stories don't have happy endings," my sister told me. And it rang true. It continued to ring in my ears for almost a year while we were apart. Until I decided to get him back, of course.

So I chased after that boy and punched him in the arm again.

Wouldn't you know, the sucker came back.

We're coming up on the twelfth anniversary of meeting each other. If you want to get complicated, you can't really say it's our twelfth anniversary because there's that whole ten months where we both dated other people.

*Awkward*

But twelve years ago, I winked at a guy on Match.com and he was funny and lovely and he set my world back to shining again. I felt smart and witty and wonderful and strong. He propped me back up, put a spit shine on me, and set me back out into the world. Not quite a new woman, but back to the woman I was before a bad relationship had stripped me down to nothing.

And isn't that something?



Happy Not-Anniversary, Fred. I love you a lot.



Thursday, February 16, 2017

I Ain't Done Yet.

The manuscript in its present, unfinished state. 

Still working on my memoir. Still working on the edits and revisions. It was one thing to write the damn thing, to steep myself in pain so black and thick I never thought I'd get out of it the first time around, let alone willingly revisit it. Sticky tar memories clasp at my ankles and feet, sink me to my knees and pull me down, down, down.

What madness drives me to put any of this down?

What madness is this?

I've reworked and plumbed these memories for so long and so deep there shouldn't be any pain left. Saw my first therapist at 14, and at 45 I'm still tilling those fields. Fields that should be barren and dry by now, but heartbreak blooms anew like the most stubborn weed. Leave one bit of root and it starts to spread and grow again.

People tell me to let it go. People tell me not to live in the past. What's a memoir but living in the past? Re-submerging. Putting on that child skin. Looking through those child eyes. 

What madness is this?

Maybe if I tell it once and tell it right, it'll all be right. I'll make it right. Fix it. Exhume it. Exorcize it. But first I've gotta get inside and understand it. Relive it. Saturate myself in it. Baptize myself in it. Put it back on this one last time (I swear to god) and cast it out into the atmosphere. Let the gods and devils take it up from there. I don't want this to be mine anymore.

But it's not your place to tell me when I'm done.

I ain't done yet.

Not the manuscript and not the pain. I ain't done yet. I ain't done yet and you don't get a say. None of you. Not one. Not you who left me. Left me to deal with the mess you left behind. Not you who drank yourself into oblivion and left me to fend for myself in a house filled with trash. Not you who tied me to a chair and left me there to call for help that never came. Not you who held me down and took something from me that was not given. Not you who looked in my eyes and lied and called me crazy. None of you. Not you.

I ain't done yet.

It's so hard for me to access any of this pain. Most of the time I run on neutral if not apathetic. I can't cry in therapy. I analyze and shrug my shoulders. But my hands tremble at night.

If I'm angry, I get to be.

If my anger took 40 years to rise to the surface, you don't get a say.

That's right.

I ain't done yet.

This memoir is going to take as long as it takes. This anger is going to take as long as it takes. This pain is going to rebloom until I feel through the dirt and find each root and pick it out with my fingers. Fingers raw and bloody from digging. 

But I ain't done yet.

And you don't get to tell me when it's over. Because for me, it ain't over yet.



Monday, January 23, 2017

Candle. Flicker. Out.



Life is so brief. So painfully brief. The image that keeps going through my head is my finger and thumb snuffing out the scented candles in my house. Just like that. That small. That gentle. That violent, depending on your perspective.

If you look at the time etched in the walls of the Grand Canyon, time seems immense and humanity small. Particularly our own.

If I look at my six-year-old daughter's cheeks, hers seems all the more brief than my own. And so much more fragile. So breakable. I think this thought and snuff it out as quickly as if touching a flame.

As quickly as death. Death. It can just sweep in and wipe out a life. Just like that.

I've written about my friends' deaths before. Oftentimes I don't publish because it feels selfish. It's not my death. Not my lover. Not my brother, sister, love. But each time a friend dies I'm taken aback by the briskness of the thing. Death shouldn't come so easily to those so young.

Another candle was snuffed out yesterday. Too soon. Too soon. I feel my heart beat the rhythm of too soon.

I don't feel right daring to write about it here. It's not my death. Not my husband, brother, son. A friend. A writer. A man.

And now he's gone.

The cancelled coffee date hangs in the air.

The words I wrote in the margins of his manuscript hang there too. Did he even read them? Was he well enough? He emailed to apologize for missing his deadline. I'd been coaching him off and on for the past year and a half or so. The deadlines were his to miss. Not mine.

He apologized in the midst of battling cancer. He apologized in the midst of racing to finish his manuscript. He apologized in the midst of racing to live as much life as he had left. Three months? Six months? A year?

A week and a half.

Cut short.

Too soon.

Just like that.

It leaves me as breathless as if I'd blown the candle out myself.



Thursday, January 19, 2017

Traveling With Children.

Contemplating traveling with children. 

My friends are taking their children to Europe and want my husband and me to come with them—with our children.

My response?

I laughed and laughed and laughed.

And then I *shuddered.*

I don't enjoy traveling with children. Yes, I'm the mother of two children. But traveling with siblings is like traveling with two of your worst Facebook friends. Imagine the two friends who love to argue  and post nothing but long streams of apocalyptic political claptrap from both sides. Now imagine yourself stuck on a plane with them for eight hours. Now imagine you're sharing a hotel room with them. You're eating every meal with them. You're dragging them through foreign streets while they shake their fists at each other and shout statistics and quote Matt Walsh.

*Shudders again*

My kids can argue over anything. They argue over who the cat likes more. They argue over what their favorite color is. They argue over who sat next to me last. They are six years apart and it doesn't matter. They could be one year apart or two or three. The sibling dynamic is strong regardless of the difference in age.

What I'm trying to say is, I don't want them to ruin Europe for me.

At least not while my youngest child is still fluent in Whinese.

The only time they stop bickering is when they are near large bodies of water—chlorinated, salted or unsalted. If there's a beach, they are suddenly best friends. If there's a pool, they play contented for hours.

But city streets and historic sites? Aw hell no.

My youngest mentioned wanting to go to Greece. It's funny, because I want to go to Greece too. I've always wanted to go and then I recently read a biography about Leonard Cohen. He spent a year or so living on an island with other poets and writers. It romanticized it all the more. I even wrote a short story about it.

Greece has beaches.

I might consider Greece. With a nanny.

But they're not going to London and Paris.

No one but no one ruins Paris for me. Personne!