By Dr. Howard Samuels
September 11, 2001 started out just like any other Tuesday. Men and women all over the country woke up, showered, got dressed, kissed their kids and sent them off to school, and then got into their cars or boarded buses or trains and went off to work—same as any other day—absolutely unaware that everything they knew about the world was about to change. It was a day like any other. Innocuous. Mundane.
And then, suddenly—horrifically—planes began to smash into the world-famous twin towers of the World Trade Center and, just like that, Everything Changed.
I can remember visiting Manhattan in the months that followed (I’m a native New Yorker, but I live and work in Los Angeles) and walking to what would later be known as Ground Zero and being struck speechless by the wreckage and remains of the two majestic towers; it was upsetting and depressing to say the least, but there was something buried deep, deep inside of me that kept urging me to look forward to the period of growth that must always follow such destructions.
Because I’d walked through destructions like this one before, metaphorically speaking, in my own life. And survived.
If we meditate on this for a minute, I am certain each of us can find truly devastating moments in each of our lives which left us standing amidst our own, personal, “Ground Zeroes;” whether it be the sudden death of a parent; an horrific moment where, as children, we were left alone with an untrustworthy adult; a violent relationship where we lived in terror of leaving; a house fire that left us with nothing but memories and the trembling knowledge that we’d have to find a place to rest our heads by nightfall…All of these things and more can leave us stranded at a place where we are left with no resources save our own desperate will to survive and, barring that, the sudden need to curl up into the fetal position and abandon all hope.
But, there is hope. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve already learned that you’re made of heartier stock than you’ve ever imagined; you just need to tap into that strength—that power—and begin the process of building a new life, one where you are the wholly responsible for what happens to you. And, as a means to that end, I’ve compiled five vital points for you to remember and use as you sift through the rubble of your own “lifequake” and begin the next chapter of your new life.
- THIS TOO SHALL PASS—I have a friend who is a successful single mother of two who usually calls me whenever she feels overwhelmed by situations or circumstances in her life. Despite the fact that she is what many would call a, “Drama Queen,” I look forward to the phone calls because she is always funny and very direct. I recently answered the phone and, without saying hello, she stated, “I’m old and fat and no one will ever love me: Go.” and I knew immediately that it was now my turn to respond and talk her down from the bad thinking she’d been massaging since waking that day. Of course, she had to wait for me to stop laughing, but we made it through that conversation just fine. Still, it was a later conversation that I want to talk about, and this one was more desperate, more dire. One of her children had been struck by a car and hospitalized. Barely 11 years old, she was placed in an induced coma so that her brain could recover from the injuries sustained from the accident. It was a terrifying phone call to receive but we walked through it and, eventually, her daughter fully recovered. It was just one of those things that happen in people’s lives—unexpected tragedy—for which there was nothing to do but wait and pray. A year later, this same friend called me to tell me that she’d been dumped by some guy. She was beside herself with grief—sobbing—but I had to stop her and remind her that her child had at one point in time been hospitalized and almost killed by a bad driver. Her mind, you see, had forgotten that she’d walked through more traumatic experiences than a simple break-up. She’d forgotten that, in the past decade, she’d divorced a man who had beat her, buried her mother, sat bedside at her child’s hospital bed…all in the space of a decade.
She’d forgotten how strong she was.
In assessing your situation, you also need to assess your life and look at what you’ve already survived and know that whatever you are going through cannot hold a candle to your indomitable spirit; that sometimes awful things occur because they are a necessary part of life, but these events—like so many others before them—are transitory and always, inevitably, serve as springboards to the next revelation, the next renewal, or the next chapter. This, too, shall pass.
- YOU ARE ONLY AS STRONG AS YOU WILL LET YOURSELF BE—Maya Angelou (God rest her soul) was an amazing teacher. One of her greatest axioms was the belief that everybody born comes into the world trailing Wisps of Glory. And, I like that. It speaks to my listening. It tells me, even in my darkest hours that I was not meant for whatever awful thing is happening to me; it tells me that I am meant for greater things. And it provides me the impetus to take action and activate my own role in whatever situation or circumstance is defeating me at the time. I am not a piñata; I’m a Human Being. Even better, I am a Human Being living in the 21st Century. I don’t have to put up with anything that I don’t want to. As a matter of fact, the only thing that tells me that I have to endure any malady that’s beset upon me is fear. I have great fear that used to cripple me. It kept me from going back to school and earning my Masters (because what if I went to class and everyone discovered that I was stupid? Orwhat if I started my own practice and everyone discovered I was a fraud?). These are the lies that my own mind was telling me; I’d convinced myself in my fear to not take anyaction! And, if I’d listened to that fear, I never would have become the man that I am today.
We need to teach ourselves to separate the ice cream from the horse poop. We need to re-parent ourselves and turn off the voices in our heads that tell us, repeatedly, that we just can’t do it, whatever “it” is. Because we are all greater than that. Especially when a lifequake hits and we find ourselves at Ground Zero afterwards. You are strong enough to walk away from that abusive relationship. You are courageous enough to change what you think is your destiny. You areworthy of a better life than the one you have now. The lie, sometimes, is in believing it is going to happen overnight. That isn’t always the case. Sometimes, you merely have to accept the fact that you’re going to have to take tiny, baby steps to reach your goal.
But, I’m here to tell you, every tiny, baby step you take away from a bad thing is a tiny, baby step you are taking toward a good thing.
And you deserve good things. I promise you this.
- NEVER LET OTHER PEOPLE DICTATE YOUR REALITY—Grief and loss are part of life. I know a man named John James, the founder of the Grief Recovery Institute, who discovered while walking through the death of his infant son, that every bit of information he’d been given about grief was wrong. “Time heals all wounds,” “You should be over it by now,” “You have to keep busy,” “I know how you feel,” were all the things people said to him as he suffered his own unique grief and sense of loss. Outraged by this revelation, John made it his own personal mission to see to it that these misconceptions be smashed and began to reach out to other people in his community (and eventually the world) and redefine how we deal with grief and loss. What he discovered was that all of this stuff people were putting on us in order to deal with things like death or divorce or even getting fired from jobs that we loved—all of this stuff wasn’t our stuff; it was their stuff. So, you know what, we need to let them have that stuff back, so that we no longer owned it; so that they could no longer dictate our reality.
Because there is no timeline for grief and loss. And there is no right or wrong way to do it. We need only never be so consumed by it that we stop living.
I mean, really, how dare someone tell me that I should be “over” the death of my two dogs by now? I had relationships with both of these beautiful creatures for almost two decades! They were my beloved companions, vital members of my family and unending sources of unconditional love and support for the most important years of my adult life so far. Of course I am going to be devastated when I miss them.
The trick is to not let this profound sadness get in the way of my sitting and laughing with my employees, or loving my children, or, or attending some God-awful show with my wife (Joke. That was a JOKE. I love going places with my wife; I really do. I’m just not as big a fan of musical theater as she is).
My point is that life goes on, sure, but it is My Life, and I am allowed to experience grief in whatever way it manifests itself as long as I understand that there are also things I can do—actions I can take—to insure that I am not crippled by sadness and loss.
During one of his most publicized boxing matches, Fighter Muhammed Ali was knocked down and the attending referee had rushed over to begin the ten-second countdown. This countdown was rendered moot when Ali struggled to his feet and proceeded to beat the crap out of his opponent and win the match. Days later, in an interview with renowned commentator Howard Cosell, Ali was asked what was it that enabled him to get up and rejoin the fight.
He paused a moment, then replied, simply, that the ground is no place for a champion.
- TURN IT OVER—Twelve-Step Programs encourage their constituents to find their “Higher Power.” For those whose interests are organized religion, their higher power is God. The atheists among them usually get creative and ascribe an acronym to the word, substituting GOD with G.O.D., which usually translates to “Group Of Drunks” or “Group Of Druggies” or—on rare occasion—”Good Orderly Direction.”
I’m a huge fan of the latter.
Because one of my favorite sayings is, “You have not exhausted every resource at your disposal until you’ve asked for Help.” This is such a beautiful saying because we are taught that reaching out and asking for help is a sign of weakness or vulnerability. We are taught to keep our own council and—no matter what is happening at home—never let anyone see who we really are. Even when doing so causes more harm than good.
When I say, “Turn it over,” what I am asking you to do is let some outside agency—whether it be God, or just another person or persons—help you. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, saying you should give up and let other people do things FOR you, but I am saying that learning how to ask for help and then letting that help arrive in whatever form it chooses, and then trusting that help, is the spiritual equivalent of a 10-point dismount in a gymnastics tournament. It isn’t easy, but—with practice—it can seem effortless.
In college, I would lose sleep the day before I had to turn in a paper. I’d done all the work, spent countless hours forming my thesis, and then stayed awake with my eyes wide open, worrying about the grade I’d be given. But then someone gently reminded me that I could turn it over; that I didn’t have to live in the result. I’d already done all of the heavy lifting and written the paper to the best of my ability. I had to Let Go of my need to control the result because everything after my turning in the paper was beyond my control. It wasn’t easy, but I did it; and eventually I slept.
In another instance, I was embroiled in a court case and thought immediately that I could defeat my opponent by exposing their shady behaviors and business practices. I ran this idea past my lawyer who advised me against it. A reporter eventually uncovered the truth and my antagonist was publicly humiliated. That never would have happened had I not trusted and followed Good Orderly Direction. Again, for someone as driven by self-will as myself, following someone else’s advice does not come easy. But we learn to do it in time.
Human beings aren’t the only ones at your disposal, either. Prayer and meditation are the wellsprings of spirituality. Both take commitment and dedication, but nothing works unless you take into account that belief is power; you need to know in your heart of hearts that you are being heard and helped and loved by a power greater than yourself.
And that you are never alone.
Novelist Dean R. Koontz said it best when he said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that Prayers do receive replies, but you need to listen closely and believe in the answer. God doesn’t shout; He whispers. And in the whispers is the way.
- YOU MISS 100% OF THE SHOTS YOU DON’T TAKE—When former professional ice-hockey player Wayne Gretzky said that, I don’t think he knew he’d be starting a movement. Because it’s true. The adage, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” specifically applies to many of us who are walking through a lifequake. Believe me, I know what it feels like when the rug is pulled out from under your feet. I know how it feels to be utterly alone in grief and misery. I’ve wandered the streets of New York’s “Alphabet City”—lost and despondent—gripped by the throes of my heroin addiction. I’ve been dumped. I endured the death of my mother, the deaths of my pets. I’ve struggled to make ends meet financially. I’ve wrestled with clinical depression, and had my back against the wall seriously wondering why I even bother to live. All this and more in the six decades I’ve spent on this planet. None of it defeated me because of the principles I’ve outlined here for you, but each of them only work when YOU take the action and YOU take your power back and YOU decide that you’re not going to live like this anymore. Because it’s YOUR life, and I can promise you that if we went back in time and visited the six-year-old version of you, at no point in time did he or she say, “When I grow up, I’m going to be unhappy.”
Because unhappiness was never the goal.
All we ever truly want—all we need—is to be happy and feel connected. None of this is possible when we are paralyzed by fear or isolated by pride. Reach out. Ask for help. Explore your options. And then ACT.
Turtles are fascinating creatures, if only because they are limited by their biology. It is literally impossible for a turtle to walk with its head pulled deep inside of its shell.
Human Beings are exactly the same way: It is impossible for us to move forward unless we stick our necks out.
© 2014 Howard C. Samuels, Psy.D, author of Alive Again: Recovering from Alcoholism and Drug Addiction (Wiley)