My Life Fell Apart and It Was the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me
I got laid off on Friday. My boyfriend dumped me on Sunday. That hellacious weekend was the best thing that ever happened to me.
When I was on the brink of 40, my life imploded. One spring day, I had a full-time job and a serious—or so I thought—boyfriend. The next day, a Friday, the magazine I worked for shut its doors. Two days after that, my year-long relationship came to a screeching halt. On Monday, I woke up to brilliant sunshine and thought, Now what?
I’d never lost a job, but I’d had my share of breakups. This time, my boyfriend and I were discussing our plans for the week over brunch. I suggested bringing him dessert after one of his business dinners. He was unenthusiastic. “You know the thing about this relationship?” he said. “You think about us. I think about me.” By the end of the meal, we were done, in every sense of the word, and I was back to square one in the love department.
I doubt the breakup itself would have been enough to shake me out of my rut, but combined with the job loss and my upcoming milestone birthday, it made me realize that I needed to change my life. “We’re programmed to get on track and stay on track, as in ‘I’ve been dating him for five years, so I’ve got to marry him.’ We forget that it’s OK to redirect ourselves,” says Deborah Carr, Ph.D., a sociologist at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, New Jersey. “Often, though, we need something to push us into action.” For me, that weekend when everything fell apart was it.
There was a silver lining to my sudden state of flux: “After a major setback, you may feel vulnerable, but a crisis can also generate energy. What’s key is to channel that energy into exploring new opportunities and creating positive change,” says Gary Buffone, Ph.D., a psychologist in Jacksonville, Florida. That doesn’t mean jumping at the first opportunity that comes along, knee-jerk style. “You need to make peace with the idea that you’re entering a new chapter and honor that with a pause—a break from the past,” says Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles. Another reason to give yourself the space to reflect on your situation: “If you act too fast, you’re liable to fall mindlessly into what you think you should be doing or what others think you should do,” Dr. Siegel warns.
I was certainly doing my share of pausing. I’d always been tethered to a schedule; now I was free to do what I wanted. So I booked a midweek vacation to visit friends on the West Coast. I watched movies in the daytime and ate cupcakes for dinner. But after three weeks, my pause began to feel more like paralysis. (There’s only so much daytime movie watching and late-night cupcake eating a girl can do.) When I thought about all the things in my life that needed fixing, I moped and felt sorry for myself. Once, when my mother asked me why I was so grumpy, I broke down in front of Dunkin Donuts. “Because I have no job!” I wailed. “And I’ll never find anyone because I’m old!”
That I was ready to move on to the next phase was a good thing, say experts. If you wait too long to act, “your energy will subside, you’ll fall back into old ways and the window of opportunity closes,” Buffone warns. Living in limbo was fine for a while, but I needed to figure out what my new course would be.
Luckily, I have a circle of friends who not only helped me find my way, but who also responded with fresh outrage each and every time I relayed my saga. One dropped everything to have impromptu cocktails and “strategize” my next move. Another invited me to sit with her in her home office so I had company while composing my online dating profile. “This ‘friend capital’ gives you various angles from which to view the issue, so you can reframe it positively,” says Crystal Park, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.
The only thing more effective than having friends tell you that you deserve better is believing it yourself. That inner confidence comes from understanding what your best talents and skills are, then making the most of them. “Try asking yourself, Who am I when I’m my best self?” suggests Karen Reivich, Ph.D., codirector of the University of Pennsylvania Resiliency Project. As I thought back on my various job experiences, I realized that as a magazine editor, I’d felt constantly harried, but I was also one of the few people I knew who loved my job. Banker and lawyer friends dreamed of early retirement; I felt lucky to be paid to work with talented writers. Yet I couldn’t help wonder about my current career path. Where was I headed? Was this all there was? I wanted more, but I wasn’t sure what “more” was.
Normally, I’m proudly self-reliant, but this time I called Jan Tillotson, a therapist and life and health coach in St. Augustine, Florida. Like Reivich, Tillotson recommended that I zero in on my strengths as a starting point. After taking two tests to assess my abilities and values, I learned that I’m a voracious information gatherer, meticulous, results-oriented and a planner. I’m eager to please, but I need my efforts to be recognized and reciprocated more than most. I’m not particularly extroverted or community-minded. These traits suggested that I should make a career move I’d always fantasized about: becoming a freelance writer. As an editor, I’d always been secretly jealous of writers, but I never thought I could give up the comfort of a steady paycheck and the health benefits. Now I had neither of these things. I was free to move forward without taking a risk. The proverbial window of opportunity was open.
At first, I felt strange working on my own. But Tillotson cheered me on, giving me hints to nix my self-defeating tendencies, such as being too eager to please. “You don’t always have to give yes for an answer. If a deadline seems unreasonable, say so,” she instructed. With practice, I grew more self-assured, landed assignments and relished my freedom.
Tillotson encouraged me to shift my thinking when it came to love, too, though I already had a hunch that I needed to be more open-minded about finding a mate. I’m an introvert and a workaholic. Because I rarely go out, I typically met men through fixups. The candidates were usually work-obsessed, bookish types. (I assumed I’d do well with someone like me, so that’s who friends fixed me up with.) If the elusive chemistry thing was there, I’d think, “Yes, this is it. I will make this work”—even if we had few interests in common. “If the guy looks good on paper but doesn’t share your curiosity and your need to be constantly learning, the relationship isn’t going to fly,” Tillotson told me.
Instead of passively waiting for a setup, I played offense: I went online and opened multiple dating accounts. I tried to be very specific about what I liked in a guy (beyond superficial traits such as hair color and height). I also made a point of accepting every invitation to get out and socialize, despite my natural shyness and general dislike of noise. Because I no longer had a strict “school night” bedtime, I found it easier to make the effort.
Exactly three weeks after my awful weekend, a friend invited me out to dinner with a group of people I didn’t know. I said yes, even though we were meeting at an especially noisy restaurant. I didn’t pay much attention to W at first—I was too busy regaling my friend with my tale of woe. But I did notice that he helped me collect my bags at the end of the night. The next day, he emailed with an invitation to dinner followed by a group karaoke outing. Instead of cringing (too embarrassing!), I thought, Why not?
On our first date, I discovered that W wasn’t at all my usual type: He liked going out, for one thing. He also worked in the television business and loved TV; I barely know how to work my remote. But blessed with my new state of open-mindedness, I actually enjoyed our first date. Over the next two months, we went on a second, third and fourth. Slowly, I realized that despite our surface differences, we had a lot to talk about. I also liked that he was close to his family and that he cared about how my day went. Most important, I could tell he had a big heart.
By summer, I had gotten an offer at another magazine. As always, I craved the safety and stability of a corporate gig, so, in a weak moment, I accepted. Apparently, there are solid reasons I went back to what felt familiar: “Human beings have evolved to continue behaviors that are rewarded with praise from other people, even if these behaviors don’t make us particularly happy,” Dr. Siegel says. “As a result, we conform to expectations—our own and those of others. That means we’re apt to say yes to things we don’t truly desire, letting our core strengths and values go by the wayside.” Sure enough, once I had started my new job, I realized, more clearly than I ever had, how much I enjoyed working on my own. My greatest satisfaction comes from filing a story and closing my laptop at the end of a productive day rather than attending endless meetings. I’m an introvert, after all. In a matter of months, I quit that position and have since created the cozy home office of my dreams.
There were also ups and downs on the love front. When my 40th birthday rolled around, W couldn’t have been sweeter. We went away for the weekend, ate, strolled and ate some more. I forgot about feeling old. Yet I continued to worry about our differences. W has tons of friends and a big family. Every weekend, he had another plan. As we got to know each other, he invited me along, but sometimes I preferred to be alone. Tillotson assured me that it was OK to turn down these invites occasionally. “You have to say no when you mean no,” she told me. “That way, he can trust your yeses.” Tillotson also encouraged me to discuss my concerns with W. “You don’t have to figure out everything by yourself,” she said. When I did, I was pleasantly surprised. W understood. I marveled at how much more relaxed I felt with him once I’d spoken my mind.
A year after we met, W proposed, at the same crowded, raucous restaurant where we’d been introduced for the first time. Without hesitation, I said yes, relishing the moment, the noise, him and the thought that this would never have happened if it weren’t for my worst weekend ever.