There is a book that is by the same name as my post, Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser. When I heard about the book, I knew exactly what it meant. I said to myself, "that's what happened to me last year." She talks about being at the lowest point and broken in life, and at that moment, you have within your hands an opportunity to open yourself up to a new way of looking at things, and really, a new type of life. Despite being broken, you're actually in a powerful position. You have the ability to change. It's about halfway through 2012 now, so I feel like I have a little perspective under my belt for the year of 2011, and what a year it was. It was my broken open year.
I know we all go through "seasons" of life, or it seems like things generally go in one direction or another. They say that bad things sometimes happen in threes. I'm not a superstitious person, but it does seem that there are trends in life. 2011 (or really, starting in September of 2010) was a very difficult year for me (15-16 months, really). I am finally not in that dark place anymore, and it gives me hope that you can get through things. There are some things you'll never get over, and that's okay. In fact, when it comes to some types of grief, you don't want to get over it. You need to acknowledge the loss. And so, I am going to look back on an unbelievable year in my life. A year I never would have or could have predicted. I can say now that I was 100% broken by what happened in my life during 2011. And, I'm not totally healed yet, but I'm in a much better space now. I do think these experiences opened me, made me more vulnerable, more empathetic, more grateful in the end. There were also plenty of days that all I did was navel-gaze, throw a pity party, and cry. But, I gave myself a year to mourn. I needed it, and it took that long to come full circle. In the end, like the title of the book, I do feel that 2011 was my year of being broken open. And, if navigated carefully, correctly, with enlightenment, sometimes terrible things that break you really can open you up to gifts and change and renewal.
So, here is what I was dealing with on the "broken" side:
- Death and loss. Between September 2011 and December 2012, 5 people in my life died. 2 of those 5 were murdered, and they were murdered by someone I also knew. All 5 of the deaths were big losses, in and of themselves. Just when I was able to come up for air, it seemed like someone else died.
- Family drama. During this time one of my sisters married a guy that was definitely a questionable choice (this was within 1 week of one of the deaths). I don't say that out of judgment, but based on what my sister herself said about him (at one point when they were broken up), and based upon the two of them living with me for several months. And speaking of marriage, within months of my sister marrying Creeper McCreeperson, my brother was served divorce papers (wait for it)...while serving overseas in the military. My heart broke for him that my sister-in-law thought that things couldn't be worked out. I imagined him coming home from a year overseas in active duty to an empty house, no one to greet him in the airport, and divorce papers. That is indeed really what happened when he came home. He lives too far away for any of us to be there when he returned from deployment. 16 months and a long legal battle later, they are finally divorced.
- Work drama. This has been alluded to in many of my other posts about work, since I recently got a new job offer. But, in 2011, I was dealing with an obnoxious co-worker who sexually harassed me (I talked to a lawyer, and yes, it was true sexual harassment that was going on). I had already tattled to my bosses on several occassions, documented the incidents, tried to forgive and forget. But after one particular event, I went to a lawyer. At one point along this journey, my bosses told me that they were going to fire this guy. (That's probably against some HR rules.) In the end, of course, they never fired him. He still works there to this day. I don't know if they intentionally lied to keep me on board for a while longer, or if they really intended to fire him when they told me so. By the time I left that job (in February of 2012), unfortunately the dynamic at work was that the co-worker didn't talk to me. However, my bosses began to view me and treat me like I was the problem. I was too critical, too sensitive, difficult to work with. He wasn't lazy, I just was over-zealous to take credit for projects I did. He may be unprofessional or inappropriate at times, but I just didn't know how to take a joke, etc. On bad days, I want to sue the place. I'm not saying I'm perfect, but what he did and how they handled it were really inexcusable. The only way to fix the problem was for me to get a new job. Thankfully, I did. But, dealing with this kind of work situation is exhausting in so many ways. I worked for almost 2 years exactly with this guy. And for a little over 1.5 of those years, the situation was as described. (He managed to be a decent employee during his first 6 months, is all I mean by that.)
- Physical problems. I'm not one of those people who thinks that 30 is old. I hope to live for many, many years, so I've got a long way to go before I can claim "old." However, right at the end of 2010, I turned 30. I also started having some major health problems. I stopped sleeping well, really became an insomniac or having interrupted sleep on an ongoing, regular basis. I know a lot of this was anxiety and fear as a result of the murders. I would be exhausted and unable to sleep, I would sleep well for one day, then terribly for 3. Then, I was diagnosed with a blood sugar disorder. This is going to be something I need to manage for the rest of my life. Honestly, the diagnosis and dealing with it has made me feel better physically, but it's a constant issue (you know, we do eat 3 times a day, or more). I also went twice to the ER that year. And, to top it all off, I had an abnormal growth that had to be removed by my doctor, which resulted in being put on several medications. I've never been a sickly person. I'm not overweight. I workout. All of this, in my opinion, was directly related to the other things going on in my life. My philosophy is that "it's all connected." If my heart was broken emotionally, it's not suprising to me that I had to go to the ER for real, physical chest pain. That might seem a little primitive, but I really do believe that the drama, stress, and emotional turmoil in my life was manifesting itself in physical ways. I'm happy to say I'm off all medication now, and I simply manage the blood sugar by how I eat, which works most of the time. The sleeping is touch and go. I still have days that are bad on that front, but the fear and anxiety are gone.
Maybe that was all TMI, but if you consider all that junk going on all at once, you can get a picture of my "broken" year. I probably could have handled the work situation better if I hadn't been grieving some major losses/deaths. I probably could have mourned better at the losses/deaths if I hadn't been also dealing with family drama. I probably could have navigated the family drama if I hadn't been physically sick and exhausted. But I couldn't put any of those things aside. They were all happening at once. You put that all together, and I was broken. My friends noticed it. They were "worried" about me. They had little talks with me, tried to be there for me, but also told me I needed to do something about the cloud that had taken permanent residence over my head.
So, how can I look back and say that 2011 wasn't just a broken year, but an open year?
Well, I guess that is the beauty of life, the power of the human spirit, the resilience we all have within us. That's easy to say. How do you do it? I think it's different for everyone. I used to hate sayings like "everything happens for a reason," or "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." On the other hand, I grimace as I admit that there is some truth there.
I knew for myself that I had to have a full year of grief. Although there were 5 deaths I am referring to, I told myself I got a year for the people who were murdered. (Only one more death happened after that.) On the days I could barely breathe for the pain, I told myself that it was okay. Feel it. Mourn it. Grieve it. You've got a year, I said to myself. And honestly, not to add another cheesy saying to the pile, but I told myself that the only way out of this was to get through it. "Yea, though I walk THROUGH the valley of death, I will fear no evil..." (Psalm 23)
Anyone's death, especially the death of wonderful people via a senseless murder brings priorities and perspective to life. It's easy to see what really matters and what really doesn't when you're reminded of life and death. It's easy to see that daily struggles and difficulties pale in comparison to the thought of your friend's last moments on earth being ones of terror and pain. I don't want to diminish the importance of the daily stuff of life. That's where most of us live, most of the time. But, I have to say that it made me more patient, kinder, and more empathetic to have a powerful reminder of life and death CONSTANTLY a thought away. It made me more present. Life really is a vapor. And, the daily, small things matter. I don't want to be detached from life, but it made me detach more quickly from the stupid stuff that can bog you down.
Having said that, I also had to move beyond the grief. And it is possible to grieve and move beyond it and learn from it all at once. This is not a science. I felt all stages of grief almost simultaneously at moments. But, in order to heal, especially from the fear I felt after the murders, I had to rephrase my story. I had to reframe my thoughts. I had to see it differently, or else I was re-traumatizing myself every time I thought of the murders, which was (and is) daily. Multiple times per day. You see, the home my friends lived in was much like mine in its layout. I mean, the only difference was a wall I have in my living room (making it 2 spaces), whereas they had one big living room. And, although their perpetrator was caught, I still carried fear after their murders. I imagined their bodies in my hallway and my kitchen because they were found in their hallway and their kitchen. In a house with a layout SO similar to mine. I know that sounds silly. But it's where my mind went. I decided that I could not just remember how they died. I had to remember how they lived. Isn't it wonderful that I knew such people during my lifetime? What could I learn from who they were? Isn't it wonderful that they were so humble, so loving, so giving? How could I be more humble, loving, and giving? Isn't it wonderful that the last words that I exchanged with this woman were literally "peace be with you." What a gift. I remember thinking how peaceful she was and how I appreciated her spirit as we exchanged the sign of peace that night. Isn't it wonderful that she had the name of a flower, and I happen to have over 13 types of that flower in my backyard? I prune the roses and think of her. As a simple dedication. As a reminder of beauty. As a tribute to her beautiful life. Isn't it wonderful that I had one of those visitation dreams after she left us? It was very simple. She was sitting, almost floating. She was wearing her favorite color (pink), and the simple smile she had. She was happy, at peace, whole. It helped me move on. It helped me not define her by her death. Yes, the murder really happened. But, I can focus on who she was to me. And that brings me much more peace. She was such a giving person. And I feel like she spent her first few hours in the afterlife visiting people in dreams to release them from the nightmare of her passing. It really helped me.