Surviving divorce taught me how to survive 2020

Updated Aug 21 2020
arielmstallings
Surviving divorce
This is me at my crying altar back when I was surviving divorce. This also could have been me yesterday, as I'm learning to survive 2020.

When my 18-year partnership abruptly ended in late 2015, my life completely fell apart. Everything changed. My home life, my work life, my financial security, my social life, everything. I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep, couldn't work, couldn't think, had trouble doing simple shit like walking down the stairs, and threw up randomly.

It was a complete shitshow.

My doctor diagnosed me with something I'd never heard of called "adjustment disorder," where you're so shocked by a major life event (divorce, death of a loved one, job loss, natural disaster, etc) that you start having physical symptoms.

I wrote a book about I got to the other side of that shitshow, but then 2020 happened.

2020 is a shitshow on a collective, global scale — pandemic, quarantine, economic collapse, long-over racial justice awakening, unprecedented political and social unrest.

Again, everything changed. My home life, my work life, my financial security, my social life, everything.

…And yet, oddly, while 2020 has been a monumentally challenging year, I've been able to eat. I've been able to sleep. I not only continued working, but I pivoted and worked even harder.

I did not, in other words, experience adjustment disorder.

Why? Because surviving divorce taught me 9 lessons that are helping me survive 2020.

1. Life blindsides you (and you can be resilient)

Back in 2015, I still had a youthful innocence about life — I felt like if I did things "right," life would ok. Sure I'd had challenges and frustrations, but I hadn't ever felt blindsided by life as I knew it suddenly ending.

When my marriage abruptly ended, suddenly I came to understand that life can change in an instant. Doesn't matter if it's fair. Doesn't matter if you did things "right." Life as you knew it is over.

When your life changes in an instant, it can feel like things will never ever feel ok again. And yet somehow, you adapt and grow and learn you're more resilient than you ever knew.

It's a lesson I'm learning again this year.

This is a lesson a lot of us are learning this year.

2. Shitshows come in clusters (it's never just one thing)

Yes, my divorce was the main ingredient of my shitshow, but there was also a terrifying medical crisis a few months prior (exploding ovary and emergency surgery, HI!), the major milestone birthday, and a remodel that had my family couch surfing for almost six months.

I learned that it's never just one thing — shitshows come in clusters.

This year, it's not just a pandemic and a quarantine, it's ALSO an economic collapse. Oh AND a racial justice uprising. Oh AND murder hornets. Oh AND wildfires. Oh AND an election year. Oh AND… you get the idea.

It's always a cluster. Always.

3. Prioritize grieving (if not now, then when?)

Surviving my divorce, I learned that I had to consciously make the time in my day to grieve my losses. I learned that unattended grief doesn't go away — it just bides its time and waits for you. If you ignore it long enough, it will wait for your children.

During my shitshow, I learned that I had to create space every day to just be sad. Sometimes being sad felt like a job. I created special places in my home for grieving, designating a corner of my bedroom to what I called "the crying altar."

Here in 2020, I'm remembering yet again that you can't steamroll the loss. You have to just sit and cry sometimes… for all the plans dashed, all the losses piling up, all the new horrors unfolding. You have to make the time to grieve.

If not now, then when?

4. Long-standing issues need attention (and you can do it)

I may have felt blindsided by my marriage ending, but the reality is that everyone who's been married knows that every relationship has its long-standing issues. There are power dynamics that are out of whack, arguments that keep showing up, old systems that were put in place years ago that no longer make sense.

After my marriage ended, it was excruciating to wake up and realize that some long-standing issues had been broken for a very long time.

Like, decades.

Sort of like how, this summer, it's been excruciating to wake up and realize that the long-standing issues of system racism have been broken for a very long time.

Like, centuries.

Turns out, healthy relationships and healthy societies both demand constant re-examination so that you can see how long-standing, systemic issues may be rotting things from the inside out.

It's painful to look at what's not working, but it's crucially important. Once you practice doing it for a while, it's less painful.

5. All your foundations can crumble (and somehow you will adapt)

My divorce felt like it took away everything: my identity as a wife, my identity as a mother (50/50 custody felt brutal), the person who'd been my roommate and best friend, my domestic systems and established divisions of labor, my financial arrangements, my sense of comfort and stability.

It felt like all my foundations had crumbled. ALL OF THEM.

…Sort of like how this year many of us have many foundations crumble: loved ones are socially distanced, kids are home from school, jobs have been lost, travel has been canceled, health protocols have drastically shifted, trust in legal enforcement and our federal and city governments have all been rocked.

And yet somehow, even when all the foundations fall out from under you… you still manage to wake up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other.

Resilience is fucking amazing.

6. When you think you can't go on, you can

Five years ago, I remember waking up some mornings and just being absolutely sure there was no way I could go on.

There was NO WAY I could function through the heartache. There was NO WAY I could parent alone. There was NO WAY I could handle my home on my own. There was NO WAY I would ever trust anyone ever again, and certainly NO WAY I could ever fall in love ever again.

I felt broken and like I would always be broken.

…And yet somehow, I went on. I survived heartbreak. I parented my kid. I managed my home. I relearned to trust. I relearned to love. I learned. I changed. I grew. I healed.

When my son's school first closed in March (for two weeks, they said!), I had no idea how I would juggle work and childcare for two weeks.

Somehow, five months later, our family has adapted so completely that now my son and I debate whether maybe we should just switch to homeschooling, regardless of whether schools reopen this year (or next year, or ever).

You think you can't go on, and then somehow… you do. Because adaptation. Because resilience. Because you must.

7. Dancing every day helps (…really!)

This might sound silly, but it's true. As part of recovering from my divorce, I started dancing at home, every morning. Just for a song or two. Sometimes I was so depressed that "dancing" was just swaying and crying, sometimes I woke up with a flare up of a chronic health condition and "dancing" was laying on the floor stretching my legs. Sometimes I flailed around and cried, or bounced around and laughed. Mostly, I just tried to notice and celebrate not being dead.

I jokingly called this daily devotional practice "lapdances for god." It felt silly, but I kept moving.

Five years later, it's not just me who's figured it out. All of TikTok agrees: dancing at home is fun and feels great.

As quarantine settled in, and my gym closed, and the dance studios shut down, and even neighborhood walks felt fraught with disease and fear… I kept dancing every day, and it kept helping, just like it had when I was surviving my divorce.

8. Everything changes (thank god/fucking tragic)

When I was in the thick of my shitshow, it felt like the heartbreak and grief and depression and overwhelm and trauma would last forever. Truly, I believed I was permanently broken.

But, weirdly, things changed.

Then they changed some more.

Then they changed in a different way.

When I loosened my grasp a bit, I stopped being able to tell when the changes were good or bad… some changes that felt tragic ended delivering overwhelming blessings. Some changes that seemed good ended up being fraught and full of challenge.

It got to the place where I'd just look at every new change and be like, "Huh, everything's always changing — thank god, but also fucking tragic?"

Here in 2020, I notice things that are awful (quarantine) but also wonderful (time to be quiet and restful). I see things that are fucking tragic (police brutality) that come with odd blessings (a cultural awakening about how many of us have been complicit in systemic racism, and how we all need to make changes).

My divorce tangled things for me — I see grief and love as the same, now. I feel a strange joy even in loss. Happy moments have deep hues of bittersweet awareness… everything's always changing.

Thank god, fucking tragic.

9. You're not alone (especially when you're hurting)

This is the lie that both divorce depression and quarantine isolation whisper in your ears: you're alone. No one else has it this bad. No one understands. No one is as fucked up as you. No one gets it. Your misery is The Worst Misery Ever.

But the reality is that those dark moments? Those isolated moments, whether they're the darkest bleakest loneliness in the shadow of divorce, or the interminable tedium of social isolation… THOSE are the moments when we're the most united.

When the voices in your head scream that you're alone? That's when you're swimming in the soup of shared human experience. We've all felt suffering.

When you understand that we're all in it together, like understand it truly deeply in your bones, it allows you gain compassion for your fellow humans in ways that can help you feel deeply, truly, profoundly connected.

Look, I'm not here to talk about silver linings. There's no denying that the shitshow of divorce and the shitshow of 2020 are FUCKING AGONIZING.

But part of what I learned by surviving divorce (and what I see us all collectively learning through 2020) is the power of adaptability. The sensations of resilience. The remarkable shared strength that we can all tap into, individually and collectively, to do the hard things that need doing.

We can adapt.

We can be resilient.

We can learn.

We can get through this.

How are YOU surviving?

If you're facing down the shitshow of surviving divorce OR surviving 2020, my new book From Sh!tshow To Afterglow is here for you.

Filled with raw, personal stories and practical, research-backed advice, Sh!tshow will help you overcome personal trauma through creative self-development. It covers everything from sleep hygiene to epigenetics to spanking therapy to attachment theory. And yes, it includes lapdances for god.

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