The summer of 2011 was known for a tornado outbreak across the southern United States.
In total, 1,701 tornados were reported that year, six of them were rated EF5—the highest rating based on the amount of damage they caused. On May 22, 2011 the most destructive of the tornados hit Joplin, Missouri, leaving the town in rubble. A couple of months later, a tornado hit my life in the form of the end of my marriage, leaving it too, in rubble.
Just like the people of Joplin, I had to learn how to put my life back together.
On the day that I was moving out of my house, I remember standing in my kitchen and thinking that I was standing where my life used to be. While the house was physically intact, my home was destroyed. I was thinking of the people of Joplin. I envisioned them going through the same process I was going through of sorting through the wreckage. I cried for them, and I cried for myself.
Life can change in an instant. The change can come in the form of a weather event, the sudden end of a long-term relationship, the death of a family member or loved one, a miscarriage, a car accident, the onset of mental illness, or the first time you stick a needle in your arm.
There are moments that will permanently change our lives forever, leaving us standing among the rubble wondering what happened. While these moments are filled with fear and uncertainty, they are also filled with possibility.
Three years have passed since the tornado of divorce ripped through my life. I am sitting here at my dining room table in a different home, my life intact and fulfilling. So much has transpired to bring me to this point. As I sit here and reflect on the collection of moments, actions, and events that have brought me to this place, it occurs to me that three years ago my life was a blank canvas; now it is a beautiful painting.
I was blessed with the grand opportunity to redesign my life, and I have learned the art to putting myself back together.
It goes without saying that the first step is to take care of yourself. We all know that we must start with the basics of self-care. Make sure to get plenty of rest, eat healthy meals, exercise, practice meditation, and drink water. It is important to take good care of yourself to prepare for the work ahead.
Sort through the rubble
Just like the people of Joplin, standing in the debris of their shattered homes, my first step was to bend down and pick up the pieces of my life.
I had to physically sort through and choose what to take and what to leave behind. Unlike the people of Joplin, I feel fortunate that my belongings were not scattered or ruined. Although, while they weren’t ruined, they no longer had any use to me. I took a few treasured items, and chose to leave most of my belongings behind.
It occurred to me that I was offered the chance to start with a clean slate, and that it was important that I take it. It felt important to travel light and not burden myself with the trappings of the past.
When you are standing in the wreckage of your shattered life, sometimes the only thing to do is cry. To me it seems a sane and healthy reaction. Tears cleanse the palate and water the soul.
Falling apart is a very important step in the process of putting yourself back together. In fact, by definition, you cannot even start putting yourself back together until you fall apart. Lying broken in a pile on your bedroom floor is a rite of passage in the process.
I spent almost two years crying over the loss of my marriage. I cried while driving. I cried while ordering my latte at Starbucks. I cried in class. I cried at work. I cried pretty much everywhere. I am pretty sure that I was known around town as “the crying lady.” Until one day, I no longer did. The tears had washed me clean.
Transformation is painful and heartbreaking; there really is no way around it. The only way out is through.
Go ahead, scream it out!
When your life takes a sudden turn and doesn’t work out the way that you had planned, it really sucks and it can really piss you off!
As a culture, we are fearful and judgmental of anger; however anger is completely normal and healthy. It is part of the full range of human emotions, and has just as much right to be expressed and explored.
I have never really been good at allowing myself to feel angry. Growing up I taught myself to shove any feelings of anger deep down and not let them out. I never learned how to safely get in touch with these feelings, much less express them.
When my marriage ended, I got mad at everyone and everything. I was mad at the world for taking away my life. I was mad at my ex-husband for not being the man I thought he was or I wanted him to be. I was mad at the sky for making the clouds rain and at the sun for being so hot on my skin—you name it, it pissed me off!
In order to help me express my anger in a healthy way, my roommate and I started the “What the f***?!” practice. It was really awesome, actually. Whenever one of us was feeling overwhelmed or angry at the world, we would yell “what the f***?” This helped immensely. Simply getting my anger out in fits and bursts allowed me to stay present in the moment and deal with the reality of my pain in a productive manner.
Get by with a little help from your friends
Just like the people of Joplin, I was homeless. I was extremely lucky to have a good friend who opened his home up to me and allowed me to stay with him while I was rebuilding.
Allowing yourself to admit that you need help is never easy. It was difficult for me to reach out and ask for help, but I never would have gotten to the place I am today if I hadn’t. I call this process “getting low,” because you have to humble yourself.
I imagined the people of Joplin sleeping at friends’ houses too. I thought of them accepting donations of food and clothing to help get them back on their feet. I felt deeply connected to them, and to the people who were stepping up to help.
My friends showed up for me in the most amazing ways and were by my side every step of the way holding me and shining a light on the path ahead. Along with the friend who offered me a place to sleep, I had many other friends who assisted me along my journey. I am deeply grateful for their presence, compassion and generosity.
There were accidental friends and auspicious friends. There were the friends who gave me work and the friends who offered smiles. Along with my friends, my parents and family also offered me love and support. Nothing of great significance is ever accomplished alone. Nothing.
When things fall apart, it makes room for magic. Be open to the gifts of the universe and be grateful for them.
When things are dark, this is the most important time to practice gratitude. My father chants “thank you” 100 times daily. Simply saying the words “thank you” can change your perspective and shift your mind from focusing on what you have lost to what you still have.
When in the shower crying, I would remind myself to be grateful for the warm water that was flowing freely from the pipes. When I was crying in the car, I would remind myself to be thankful for the fact that I had this tube of metal propelling me efficiently down the road. When I was angry at the sun for shining so hot, I reminded myself to be grateful that its rays helped to grow the food that nourished my body.
Identify your core values
When my world was turned upside-down, it felt like I didn’t know who I was anymore. Taking the time to sit down and meditate on my values and get in touch with what was important to me gave me a path to follow when I got turned around.
The values that I identified as most important to me were honesty, dedication, and loyalty. I wrote them out on the whiteboard that hangs above my desk so that I could see them everyday. Doing this helped me to get out of my head and live in the present rather than the past. It also gave me a call to duty. Once I named my values, I become hyper aware of the areas in my life where I was not be living up to them.
Put pen to paper
When a storm hits, it can leave us spinning. I found that keeping a journal helped me to sort through the s*** to find the pearls.
My brother is working the 12 steps. He was sharing with me the other day that one of the most difficult and useful things that he does in his process is to sit down and write. The practice gives him perspective and sheds light on how far he has come.
Do a little dance
All good stories have a theme song. In the movies when the protagonist is finally coming out of her struggles, there is always a montage of her showering and getting dressed. They show her going out into the world and buying flowers and dancing in the rain. A cheesy song usually accompanies this scene; every victory montage needs a song.
My personal favorite has always been and will always be “Rubberband Girl,” by Kate Bush. Anything by Beyonce will also do the trick.
Take your time and go at your own pace
This time belongs to you. You are in charge. It is liberating and freeing. If you want to stay home in your pjs and watch bad TV and eat ice cream, do that! The time will come when you will be ready to get up and face the day again.
When a home is ruined by storms, it has to be demolished and rebuilt. This process takes time. There is a method to the process. First we must lay the foundation, then construct the frame and lay the bricks. Each step requires careful attention, and if a step is missed, the home will not be sound.
By taking ownership of my process and doing it at my own pace, I was able to come to a place where I could fully move on and let go of my past life.
I was just having a conversation with a friend who recently went through her own process of rebuilding. For many years she was a member of a community that meant a lot to her. Her association with the group ended painfully, and she had to take a few months off to collect herself and heal.
She was sharing with me that she has now come to a place where she feels that she is ready to join a new group. She was practically glowing when she was talking about it. “I have a new posse,” she said beaming.
One of the final steps of rebuilding is moving on and putting yourself out there again. If you have been through a break-up, this might mean making an OkCupid profile. If you have rebuilt your home after a tornado, it might look like hosting a house-warming party. Whatever it is, go out there and find a new posse.
Help a fellow out
When we are finished laying the foundation and building the walls of our new lives, we are in a good position to reach out and offer a helping hand to someone else who is going through the same pain.
At the end of my two-year mourning process, I decided to go through a training program and become a life coach. I wanted to be in a position where I could help other people who were facing the challenges of having to put themselves back together and offer support along the way. This has been the most rewarding and fulfilling part of the journey so far.
In the summer of 2011, along with the people of Joplin, Missouri, my life was rocked to the core. Now I sit here in 2014 so much better and stronger from the experience. My life is rich and full. I have learned the art of putting myself back together.
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Apprentice Editor: Brenna Fischer / Editor: Renée Picard