Help!

“Accept life as it is.” I read the words and do a quick exhale, a bark of a laugh that puffs out my cheeks. Some other words, like “easier said than done,” come to mind. Because life caught up with me again recently. It was a sucking mess.

But before that, I spent 2016 feeling strangely, amazingly happy, unstressed, after 50 years of worklife striving/failing/succeeding. After almost 40 years of raising kids and juggling and commuting and paying bills. Then selling the house and, together with my husband, doing a 14-month sabbatical exploring the country in a tin can. Returning to Seattle, we settled into a little townhouse near the beach, and I found time to breathe and make art, read and write. 

And wondering what crap sandwich life had in store as payback for feeling so calm and light.

I’ve always dealt with stress or loss by focusing on what comes out at the other end—not ignoring the hurt but staying open to the flip side too. In the sickness or loss of a friend, finding gratitude for the ways she taught me kindness. In the midst of a big, pivotal project or an absurd deadline, focusing on the accomplishment you can feel from having done your very best, win or lose. The light at the end of the tunnel. I know this is a cerebral way to talk about it; it’s of course not easy to do with heavy emotions.

But when your marriage is troubled and you find you don’t recognize this person you’ve been connected to for going on 40 years—now what? It’s living with the uncertainty that makes it hard to find the upside of pain.

When I shared this with my wise younger sister she said, “get your girls around you.” Until then I wasn’t talking with anyone, it was too painful and embarrassing. Our friends thought we had a successful marriage—they saw the affection and shared adventurous spirit. But the view from the outside is shiny, as we all know; for my purposes that view was meaningless. So I began confiding in a few close girlfriends, and of course their support helped me start to breathe. Just as important, I asked them for therapist recommendations, and found someone that we both felt was smart and intuitive. 

Two years in, we credit our wonderful counselor with paving the way to get where we are, which is healthier than we’ve been in years. Her guidance, along with our leap-of-faith belief that we don’t give up on each other, hard as it was not to for a while. But that’s another story. This story is about the ask for help.

I’m no expert in how to do this, but my experience has opened my eyes in a couple of ways. My shame at having marriage trouble held me back for a while. I always thought I was so self-sufficient, so good at my relationships. Thank goodness that didn’t hold me back for too long

Thank goodness I learned that a real friend wants to help, and can bring valuable perspective to a confused mind. It’s amazing, people really do want to help you—but you have to ask. Just as important, I needed to actually want the help. And I needed to know what I wanted help with. At times it was just a shoulder to cry on, a warm hug, the knowledge that I even had a friend, someone who could just listen. And sometimes, it was such unexpected territory, I wanted direction from friends who had been there. 

One of my fallback strategies for dealing with pain and confusion has always been research and books on the subject. I‘ve read a dozen or more in the past two years on relationships, dealing with depression, dealing with trauma. Whether you’re struggling in relationships or just wondering, “What the heck is he thinking?” here’s one I recommend wholeheartedly: Wired for Love by Stan Tatkin. It’s a real eye-opener on how our brains work, and understanding that can help keep relationships on a trusting and rewarding path. I also found Pema Chodron’s book Comfortable with Uncertainty a calming and bolstering resource, sort of a daily reminder on living with compassion and awareness, with a Buddhist flavor. 

Ultimately, finding a counselor that was right for us was a godsend. This can be so hard to do, even with friends’ recommendations. I would just say: talk to a lot of candidates before you choose, even though it takes time and effort, even though you’re anxious to get started. Make damned sure the therapist you choose is not only qualified but a good chemistry fit for you. There’s a lot riding on it. Of course, once you’ve found someone the hard work is really up to the two of you. 

So that’s my free advice, for all it’s worth. None of it is earth-shaking or surprising. But there must be a reason you’ve read this far, so I hope my experience has been helpful for you. If so, I’m glad to put some hard knocks to use.

Image credit: Edvard Munch, The Scream. © 2019 Susan Cummings. All rights reserved

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