Tag Archives: Emotional triggers

The Art of Getting to Tomorrow When Everything’s Wrong

(Image/iStock)

It was exactly like those initial weeks after divorce.

I couldn’t describe what was wrong. None of my feelings made sense to me. Intellectually, I thought my body was overreacting. But our insides—all the invisible stuff that makes us, us—have a funny way of not always doing what our brains think they should.

I was robbed on a work trip to Las Vegas. They took my phone, the cash I had on me, and my shoes. I learned after visiting my bank once I got back home that they had cleaned out my checking account through a series of ATM withdraws and Venmo transfers.

I can’t prove that I was drugged. But given that one minute I was with friends listening to a cheesy Vegas cover band before leaving to use the restroom—and the very next thing I remember is waking up five hours Iater in a hotel stairwell several miles away, and apparently providing strangers with the private banking information and phone passcodes they needed to clean me out financially—I’m continuing to operate under that theory.

At the end of the day, some dickbags took my phone, wallet/money, and a pair of shoes.

People have been killed for less.

From a certain perspective, you could say I’m lucky to be alive, and that I’m fortunate to have ended up at my hotel, even if it was in a dingy metal and concrete emergency stairwell.

So why do I feel this thing I don’t have a name for?

On the surface, it’s a ridiculous comparison, right?

Divorce is hugely disruptive. Your person leaves you. Your entire life changes overnight, forever.

This was NOT that.

So why? Why is it feeling the same?

Divorce was my first encounter with inner brokenness. Things were dark and heavy and ugly and painful and scary and broken, and there was nowhere to run.

That was its defining characteristic. That you took it with you everywhere, no matter what. It greeted you in the morning. It sat on your chest as you tried to fall back asleep in the middle of the night. It sat next to you while you were driving around. It poked you and asked you to pay attention to it while you were trying to watch movies or sports. It inserted itself in your conversations with friends and family while you were just trying to have a good time like you always had.

It built and built and built until the only thing left to do was cry like a child.

And you kept waiting for it to go away, but every time you looked in the mirror, you could still see it hiding behind the dead eyes of the stranger in your reflection.

I don’t know what to call this feeling or how to categorize it.

So, I’ve always just called it being “broken.” I was once a certain way. Something that felt normal and right. And then suddenly I was something else. I was a different way, and everything about it sucked more than the old way that I’d gotten used to for 34 years.

Finding my way back from that is one of the most significant things I’ve ever done. It’s perhaps my greatest personal achievement, because I didn’t know the human body could do that, and I didn’t know whether there was any coming back from it.

But You Do Come Back

And it’s happening again.

This robbery thing broke me again for a few days. It happened last Friday. Yesterday was the first day I felt like myself again. It was the first day I was brave enough to have calls with coaching clients.

I was shaken—not just by the incident—but by the idea that I was once again feeling things in the invisible places with no means of fixing it, and nowhere to run away from it.

Feeling 80-percent regular yesterday felt like winning the lottery.

I still have no money, no mobile banking ability, and no driver’s license. But at least I get to be me again.

I’m so grateful it only took a week.

How to Recover from Divorce and Other Trauma in 3 Steps

I’d written it before, and I recognized this was an opportunity for me to try to practice things I’d preached.

When everything is very bad, we’re simply trying to survive. To return to a sense of normalcy.

I reminded myself there was no Skip or Fast-Forward button to push. That the only way anywhere sustainable is the long way.

I remembered that I only had one job. Just one.

Breathe.

My only job was to breathe. Just one more breath. Once I’d completed that task, my only mission was to do that again.

One more breath.

When you breath enough times today, tomorrow always comes.

And after enough tomorrows come, you find yourself further down the trail—finally a safe distance from the shitty, life-wrecking thing you were trying to escape.

Or maybe more accurately, you carried the shitty, life-wrecking thing with you as you continued down the trail, but you finally made peace with the idea of setting it down and moving forward without it.

I don’t pretend to know.

I just think there’s something important about breathing when it’s difficult to do anything else.

To recover from bad things, the three steps are:

  1. Breathe.
  2. Love yourself.
  3. Repeat.

I repeated it like a mantra six and a half years ago when I didn’t know whether I’d wake up the next day, or whether I even wanted to if there was no hope of that feeling going away.

Just breathe. Everything’s going to be okay.

It never happened as fast as I wanted it to. There are no hacks. No cheat codes. No magical workarounds.

There’s just the long way through. Never easy, but always simple.

Breathe. Just one more time.

I’ve breathed millions of times in my life with zero awareness that I was doing so.

So if I do it on purpose? If I try hard? I’m confident I can always take one more.

And after breathing enough times, you get to be you again. You get to wake up tomorrow where the best thing that ever happens to you might happen.

Tomorrow is a gift waiting to be opened.

When you’re ready.

Breathe.

You will be.

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Making Sense of Your Emotions After Divorce and Beyond

guy hiding under desk - the great courses daily

It wasn’t quite this dramatic. ;) (Image/The Great Courses Daily)

I walked into my ex-wife’s house following a quick knock as I do a few times every week to pick up my son after work.

I had a bag of our son’s clothes with me full of specific items I’d promised I’d return, and when I walked into the kitchen to set the bag of clothes on the counter, I saw the red envelope leaning up against the bottle of whatever liquor she had bought her boyfriend for Valentine’s Day. This is their third or fourth Valentine’s Day together.

You feel something when you see something like that. Even six years removed from marriage. You feel something.

Sometimes, I have these conversations with myself when I feel that something. Because, what does it mean?

Does it mean that I love my ex-wife and miss her desperately and wish we were still together?

No. She’s a fine human being and the best co-parenting partner and mother to my son that I could ever hope to have. But, I don’t sit around my house (the one she and I used to share) wishing that she still lived there.

There’s no evidence that she and I could have a good marriage—even now that I understand so much more about my failed marriage than I did back when I assumed all of our problems were her fault.

I DON’T WANT a shitty relationship full of uncomfortable conversations and conflict INFINITELY more than I want to be in another permanent romantic relationship that might be a stepping stone to another marriage. Regardless of who that other person is.

“Given all of the changes and strides you have made in your own growth and understanding of how things went sideways, is there the potential for reconciliation with your ex-wife?” a reader asked me in a recent blog comment.

I’ve received that question many times over the past five years.

There’s a faction of people out there invested in the story—my story. The almost-redemption story.

The shitty husband who is just like their spouse.

And if I can figure it out, maybe they can figure it out.

And if I can figure it out AND want to reconcile with my wife and maybe have a great marriage on the second try, maybe the dream is still alive for them too.

I hope they know their dream can remain alive regardless of what happens with me.

Because a beautiful marriage might be in my future, but there’s virtually no chance my ex-wife will have any part to play other than hopefully having a positive, peaceful relationship with whoever I would invite into our co-parenting inner circle. And that’s more than okay.

I think what I felt when I saw that Valentine’s Day card was shame.

Do I—in a spiritual sense—regret that I was a shitty husband and now we’re not married, and I have to drop my son off in the morning to be cared for by the guy sleeping with his mother? Absolutely.

Am I jealous? No.

It’s more nuanced than that.

It’s not pain. But it is discomfort.

I’m ashamed at who I was.

And just maybe, ashamed at who I am.

What’s wrong with me that all these years later, my ex-wife is in this super-stable relationship, and I’m still ordering takeout with my fifth-grader?

Trigger City Looks Nice Until You Hit That One Part of Town

The next morning my son didn’t have school, so I dropped him off back at his mom’s house before driving to the office. Her boyfriend was the only person who was going to be home with him for the first couple of hours that morning.

I neither hesitated nor thought twice about leaving my favorite little human in his care. I can trust him unequivocally to be good to my son and his mother.

If you don’t know how much that’s worth, you’ve never shared a child with someone who doesn’t live in the same house.

I have what I consider to be a mature, well-thought-out and healthy mental and emotional position RE: my ex-wife.

Married people with children have never thought about what it feels like to wrestle with the stress, fear, and anxiety that you encounter the first time you realize that your ex who you share children with are now in total control of what happens to them whenever they’re not with you.

They can date, live with, marry ANYONE and there’s not one damn thing in the world you can do about it.

When the divorce first happened, I couldn’t breathe.

Not the way normal people breathe.

I couldn’t sit still or sleep or think or talk or in any way behave however I perceive ‘normal’ to be.

Someone at work asked me about it. About the time I was adjusting to a new world where I felt like I had Iost half of my son’s already going-too-fast childhood, and where I felt like I’d lost ALL control over his safety and wellbeing.

If I can’t influence who she sees, how can I protect my son from the bad ones?

A huge percentage of the panic I felt back then was being stripped of that sense of control.

That slice of the Pain & Horror pie chart got tossed into a cauldron with all of the other stuff—rejection, embarrassment, fear, a sense of failure, emotional brokenness, and surely some other bad-tasting things I’m forgetting.

Holy shit, is this really happening? I quietly thought to myself while I recounted that story from six years ago. Because I started to feel it.

I’d just sit at my desk sometimes staring straight ahead on the verge of tears, trying to draw long breaths and hoping no one would notice or ask me any work questions.

Sometimes my hands would shake a little in conference room meetings. Every guy at the table had a wedding band on but me, and they were all super-interested in the work conversations just like I used to be before the world ended.

I didn’t speak. I didn’t make eye contact. I didn’t do anything except hide my jittery hands under the table and concentrate really hard on pretending to be tough and stoic so that I wouldn’t cry in front of my friends and coworkers.

Those were the hardest days I’ve ever known.

Those were the days where I used vodka as a crutch and started smoking again after having kicked the habit. Those were the days were I felt so dark and shitty and uncomfortable down deep where no medicine can reach, I FINALLY understood why some people give up. After a lifetime of not getting it, I finally “got it.”

If every second of your life HURTS—excruciatingly—and you lose hope that you can find your way back to where it doesn’t hurt (or tragically have never known a life without pain), then it makes sense to be more afraid of living than dying.

I wasn’t suicidal. That never happened. But I remember thinking that if some semi coming the other direction crossed over center and pulverized me that it would feel merciful.

That’s when I knew I was damn close to rock bottom.

After a lifetime of being afraid of lots of things, I wasn’t afraid of much.

It’s the super-power of grief. It’s the ONE cool thing about it. Everything sucks. Things can’t get worse. So—boom. A liberating taste of fearless living.

When we have things to lose (the best things in life) it makes sense that we’re afraid of losing it.

When we’re out of things to lose, it’s not super-neat that we suffered a great loss, but you are gifted a healthy dose of perspective that I think most of us need.

There were all of these things in life that I had wanted. That I’d made a goal. A certain amount of money. A certain kind of house. A certain kind of job. Etc. Material-ish things, in many cases, as a measure of having “a good life.”

But then I felt like dying, and it occurred to me that even if I had my dream home and the largest bank account I could think of, I STILL would have felt empty and broken in that moment.

There’s nothing we can buy or acquire to protect us from that feeling down deep inside where the medicine can’t reach. Once I discovered that important truth, I developed a healthier, more appropriate perspective on finances and material possessions.

I felt that feeling return.

The bullshit one that nothing but time can fix.

And all it took was me retelling the story to a couple of friends at work. It all came rushing back. The nausea. The anxiety. That feeling of tears welling in my eyes that I hope no one noticed.

I went for a walk, just like I did six years ago. Just a bunch of quiet deep breaths and the music in my headphones. Maybe no one will know.

The problem though is that I knew.

WTF is happening right now?

Our Scars and Stories

I was fine by the time night rolled around. I didn’t think about it over the weekend.

I’m only thinking about it now because I wanted to write this.

We have all of these souvenirs from our past lives. Maybe they’re tangible objects. Maybe they’re foggy memories. Maybe they’re razor-sharp feelings triggered by things we see or hear or smell or think about.

These souvenirs are comprised of both our scars and stories.

Our scars are proof that they happened. That we’re still alive.

Your ex-husband is seeing someone new, and you don’t like it, even though you left him AND would never choose to be with him again? It hurts somehow but you can’t explain why?

You don’t have to. Scars. Stories. Yours.

Your ex-wife is seeing someone new and it’s totally fine, but the memory of your wife leaving you, and losing control of your son, and all of those nights thinking about how much she was loving being with that other piece of shit while you sobbed at home alone on the couch makes you FEEL that all over again? Several years later? And you can’t explain it?

You don’t have to.

I don’t have to.

Scars. Stories.

Yours.

Mine.

Everything’s going to be okay.

Really, it already is.

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You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave

man pulling luggage by pexels

No matter how beautiful things look up ahead, it’s hard to find a place to set down the heavy stuff. That’s why I mostly keep it shoved away in a closet. (Image/Pexels)

I’m good at hiding it.

The emotional baggage I drag around all the time.

Most of the time, I forget it’s there until something triggers it. I don’t like talking about it, because people sometimes assume it means I’m hung up on my ex-wife and pining for a life that I’m nearly six years removed from and barely remember anymore.

I remember being married, of course. But I don’t remember ME when I was married. I don’t remember what I thought and felt in my everyday baseline emotional state of being.

Those life choices led to the worst thing that ever happened to me, happening. So I’m not sure why pursuing that would make sense to anyone.

I also don’t like talking about it because it makes other people uncomfortable, like all those nights when I was freshly divorced and intellectually aware that no one wanted to talk about it and see me cry in the middle of a bar on a Friday or Saturday night. I used to always say to myself: “Don’t talk about your divorce, don’t talk about your divorce, don’t talk about your divorce.”

And then, without fail, I would talk about my divorce like a massive, undisciplined asshole.

So when I was walking around Las Vegas last week with two work friends, they couldn’t have known that underneath my calm exterior, I was triggered and distracted by more than all the flashing lights.

The past doesn’t always cooperatively stay hidden in the closet.

It was the week of July 6, 2007.

Our close friends were getting married at Bellagio in Las Vegas on that day. My wife and I were the maid of honor and best man.

They wanted to get married on 07-07-07 (because Las Vegas), but a million other people had the same idea (because Las Vegas), so logistically it made sense for them to move the wedding to the day before.

I don’t know what my marriage was back then.

Good? Bad? Average?

She’d have a different perspective, anyway. We decided to start the trying-to-have-children process not long after that trip, which might signal that she was already unhappy at that point and thought having a baby might make things better.

Regardless of how okay I thought my marriage was at the time, 39-year-old me today would have totally pegged us for a future divorce.

She was hanging out poolside with friends at Caesars Palace and shopping in the Forum Shops.

I was playing in a poker cash game at Harrah’s, warming up for an afternoon tournament at Paris.

This past week in Vegas, I didn’t play one hand. Not one. I chose to go out with coworkers and be social, rather than sit at a table with nine strangers.

But when I was in Las Vegas for the first and only time with my wife, I ran away to play cards and do what I wanted to do, rather than invest my time connecting with my wife and friends.

If writing is my thing now, poker was my thing back then.

I was running through everyone at the afternoon poker tournament in Paris.

My wife stopped into the poker room on her walk back to our hotel room to see how I was doing. I was at the final table. Maybe five or six players left out of a field of about 200.

I was on the cusp of victory, and instead of sitting down to cheer for me to win, she said she’d see me back in the hotel room when I was done, and left.

It kind of hurt my feelings. That she had so little interest in this thing that mattered to me.

I was too dense to recognize the 500 times I had made her feel that exact same way over the years, and make that connection that might have saved us later.

I won the tournament.

And I wanted her to be proud of me. I wanted her to think I was good enough.

The tourney winnings paid for the Vegas trip, and then some.

I didn’t know back then that money couldn’t fix what was broken.

I didn’t realize back then how bittersweet it must have been for her to watch me succeed at an activity that adversely affected our marriage because I usually invested more time in watching, reading about, and playing poker than I invested in anything constructive, or proactive, or meaningful to our marriage.

Still. It was a good trip. Fun. Reconnecting with old friends. Making new good memories together, including a fun night with the bride and groom having lots of drinks and laughing at a Lewis Black comedy show at the MGM Grand, and then a memorable laugh-filled walk back to Bellagio afterward.

I hadn’t thought about that moment for years.

And then fast-forward to a week ago, when I found myself walking through the MGM Grand 11 years later.

Even though I LIVE IN THE SAME HOUSE that we lived in together as a married couple, and see and talk to my ex-wife several times per week and it’s super-normal and functional, here I was in Las Vegas on some random casino escalator having a moment.

Then, my friends and I walked north up the Las Vegas Strip. The same walk the four of us had made 11 years earlier on the Vegas wedding trip.

And involuntarily, I felt it.

I don’t know why that mattered.

I have no idea why it made me feel.

But it did.

It just did.

A couple of years removed from divorce, I spent a few days at Disney World and the Daytona 500 with friends, including a woman who liked me.

We were walking around the Magic Kingdom together, just the two of us.

It was cute. I liked her.

But, inevitably, we ended up walking right by the spot where I’d proposed to my ex-wife. We were talking about something, my friend and I. But walking by that spot on the bridge felt just like driving by a place where someone you know died in an auto accident.

Your insides recoil a bit involuntarily.

If you stay cool, it remains invisible to people who don’t know you very well.

The engagement-spot trigger. At Disney.

I don’t know that I’ve ever told anyone about that.

And then a similar thing sort of randomly happened again in Las Vegas.

I’m not sure what to do with that.

There’s luggage—an invisible suitcase—where all of the memories live.

The good and the bad ones. The laughs and smiles and triumphs. But also, the guilt and fear and shame.

It’s baggage. Human baggage. My baggage. But I think everyone else has a little too.

It’s the kind of baggage that single people don’t want to deal with while dating because baggage usually contains or requires a little hardship.

Baggage contains surprises, because it’s full of all the grimy, ugly history that sometimes tarnishes things that looked beautiful just the day before.

The thing about baggage is that you’re supposed to be able to set it down. Just set it down and walk away. It doesn’t matter anymore.

Baggage is something you’re supposed to be able to lose. Or give away. Or destroy.

But it’s like the longer we stay alive, the more things we shove into our suitcases. They just keep getting heavier and more difficult to drag around with us.

Maybe we will be able to set them down someday and walk away. Or maybe we’ll trade them in for new ones.

I don’t know.

And maybe it doesn’t matter. Because it’s always hiding in the closet.

Hardly anyone knows it’s there.

Most of the time, not even me.

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The 4th Wedding Anniversary (That Wasn’t)

Lucky 13 carnival

(Image/Halloween Forum)

Yesterday would have been lucky-number 13.

My wife and I celebrating 13 years of marital bliss.

Only we didn’t. Because we stopped at 9. In large part because the final couple of years were anything but blissful.

Also, I didn’t remember.

I hadn’t noticed until I flipped a daily calendar to today.

And all joking aside about my totally suspect ADHD calendar management, it’s significant that I didn’t remember.

Maybe some people feel completely fine and normal after getting divorced. But other people feel shitty and want to die a little bit and cry a lot more than they’re proud of while feeling like the world’s biggest loser and binge-watching a lot of shows on Netflix and assuming they will spend the rest of their lives celibate and alone while their exes are having orgasm parties with some wildly successful entrepreneur ready to sell their tech startup for a billion dollars and pretty much guaranteeing a lifetime of their children respecting and wanting to be with the other parent more than them.

I was a member of the latter group.

Even my grandma (the sweetest, most-prayerful and non-judgmental person I know) was probably like: “My #1 grandson seems extra-losery lately. If he doesn’t get it together, he’s going to die alone, because no woman will ever want to kiss him on the mouth, let alone play fiddlesticks in his nether regions. I’m demoting him to, like, #4 in the grandson ranking.” It’s difficult to know for sure how she felt and/or whether I’ve reclaimed by spot atop the family grandson rankings.

It’s significant that I didn’t reflect on my wedding anniversary yesterday, because that’s exactly the kind of thing you tend to do when you feel broken and depressed after divorce.

Every major holiday.

Her birthday.

My birthday.

Our son’s birthday.

The Fourth of July (our “engagement anniversary”).

There were all of these things that triggered the most powerful and unexpected emotions for the first couple of years following the end of our marriage. If you’d told me some date on the calendar had the power to trigger something within me that would make my entire body revolt, I’d have called you crazy.

But then I lived it.

I felt in the most intense ways what a particular anniversary could remind you of. If it wasn’t something on the calendar, it was one of those asshole Facebook memories that seem to randomly pop up and try to ruin your day, or it was me driving by a particular building or location, or maybe hearing a certain song, and then I’d feel all the things rushing in again.

It wasn’t just hard because it hurt.

It was hard because it reminded me that I wasn’t fully back yet. I hadn’t recovered. I remained weak and fragile. It reminded me that I didn’t have control over emotions, which meant I didn’t have control over myself.

Once every day stops hurting after a major life trauma, the next phase involves unpredictable and intermittent flare-ups.

Rock-bottom has one perk. NOTHING scares you anymore, because (even if it isn’t true) it feels like it can’t get any worse.

But once the healing begins, some of the fear returns, because the ability to just behave normally during the day without all of the hurt and fear and anxiety becomes this really important and valuable thing that you had always taken for granted until you knew better.

So when something sneaky triggers us into a mini-relapse, it can shake you up because you don’t know if that’s ever going to stop happening.

It’s hard to feel like you don’t have any control about your baseline state-of-being. As if you don’t know which “you” you’ll be when you wake up tomorrow.

I often wondered when these triggers would finally go away.

And Then Something Funny Happens

You don’t really notice because you forget to look for it.

The same way that resentment and shit-festival rides and funnel cake booths sneak quietly into our relationships and go undetected until we finally bite into some funnel cake we overpaid for and it tastes like goat piss, and then we pop three balloons with our skilled dart throwing to win that awesome stuffed monkey, but instead of giving us the awesome stuffed monkey, the carnie gives us the middle finger and divorce papers…

The same way that happens, goodness and normalcy slowly creep in when life feels like it’s beating us down.

I wanted so badly to hack the process.

I researched whatever scientific studies I could find on happiness. I went to guided meditation classes. I drank a little more beer, tequila and vodka than usual.

I wanted a shortcut, and if I couldn’t find one, I at least wanted to know when the terrible pain and sadness might end.

What is the thing or the time I can look forward to because that’s when I’ll know this is mostly behind me?

I took comfort in some of the stories and experiences of other divorcees.

But still. When will it be my turn?

And then the funny thing happens. You wake up one day and realize you’d stopped counting. You’d stopped looking for signs. You’d stopped wondering when tomorrow will come because, holy shit, it’s ALREADY tomorrow and I didn’t even notice.

There was no magic to evoke.

There was no exorcism or major therapeutic breakthrough (not that there’s anything wrong with leaning on psych pros—I’d have done so if I was financially comfortable enough to shell out $250/hour).

There was no one thing I can point to that took me from the painful and debilitating shit-festival to today. The day AFTER a wedding anniversary (that wasn’t) that I never got around to noticing.

The path to today wasn’t complex or hard to explain even though I hadn’t realized I’d arrived here. The path wasn’t around. There were no shortcuts or helpful detours. There was only one straight path that could only be traveled at the speed with which I move.

There were unpleasant and difficult obstacles from the get-go. And it turns out, Life doesn’t magically remove all those obstacles to make the path easier to walk. Dealing with each obstacle by climbing over it, or blasting my way through simply made me good at navigating them.

I wanted it to be easy and fast. But it didn’t feel that way. It felt torturously slow.

But as I look back today? Four wedding anniversaries (that weren’t) later? I don’t know where the time went.

But I’m here now. (Hi!)

The path was hard. But then it gets a little bit easier. Then a little bit easier. Then a little bit easier. Then you accidentally get so busy living again that you forget to measure the difficulty.

Hope is the carrot at the end of the stick, and it’s worth walking toward. When you’re emerging from divorce or some other awful life event, how much better tomorrow can be than today is so incremental, we’re unlikely to notice it. But it IS better.

And when you wake up and breathe enough times, you stop, look back, and really see how far you’ve come.

The only path was through.

Never easy. But always worth it.

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