From Pain To Personal Growth
Los Angeles. 2016. I closed out my last customer’s tab and clocked out at 11pm. Two post-shift shots of Jameson sat on the bar. I grabbed one and my manager, Megan, grabbed the other. Megan was always fun, always full of excitement for the evening ahead, always generous with free shots and full pours of wine. The best boss a girl could ask for. We clinked glasses and threw ‘em back, eyes closed. The whiskey burned my throat and warmed my insides.
I ran into the staff bathroom to change out of my all-black uniform and do a line of cocaine.
My other boss, Freddie, waited outside with a huge black SUV to drive me and the rest of the staff wherever we wanted all night. We were a family. We worked together and we partied together. I was making good money, producing silly short films with my friends, dating a guy I was sure I’d marry, and finally down to a perfectly acceptable skinny weight. My life was awesome.
Then my boyfriend dumped me.
It wasn’t a normal breakup. He said he wasn’t good enough for me but never said he didn’t want to be with me so I was left waiting. And waiting. And when we finally had plans to see each other and he canceled with a very short text, I frantically called him and he told me I was acting crazy because he had already broken up with me and in the next breath he still wanted to be friends.
The next few weeks were a brutal crash course to learn exactly what gaslighting meant.
DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
Immediately following the breakup I drank excessively and did lots of drugs. When I finished my waitressing shifts I stayed at the bar. I replayed conversations with my ex in my head, worried about running into him everywhere I went and felt myself drowning in shame. I hated myself for letting this guy manipulate me for seven months. The only way to relieve the pain was to numb myself. Or talk about it with anyone who would listen.
In Blake Snyder’s book on screenwriting, Save The Cat, he says every movie has a moment toward the end called the Dark Night of the Soul. This is the moment when the hero is about to give up. She’s hit her lowest point and it seems there is no way out.
But then she prevails. She figures it out and all is well. In fact, all is better than it ever was. She’s a new person with a new perspective and as the credits roll we know she will forge ahead to live a happy life.
When something shatters your world and sends you face first to the basement floor, you will do everything in your power to not feel the pain. But avoiding pain does not make it go away. It metastasizes.
By sitting with our hurt and loss, no matter how trivial it might seem, we open ourselves up to healing and growth. So after a many-month hiatus I went back to my therapist. I sobbed in her small Santa Monica sanctuary of an office and it was she who told me my ex-boyfriend sounded like a psychopath.
Suddenly the past seven months were cast in a skewed light. I looked at my life as if I was watching one of those depressing indie movies that refuses to have a happy ending. I needed to make changes. I wanted to prevail.
THE SNOWBALL EFFECT
In my darkest moment a friend suggested I read The Untethered Soul to help me get out of my head. It led to a new realization that had nothing to do with the breakup and everything to do with my relationship to food and body image. Which led me to read a book about intuitive eating. Which led to yoga and cooking real food. Which led to meditation and solitude. I quit my job and moved away from LA and my partying friends.
The snowball effect is a situation in which one action causes many other similar actions. One tiny positive change leads to another because with each change, a positive feedback loop is created. In her book Quit Like A Woman, Holly Whitaker explains how her snowball was able to gain momentum:
"I had absolutely no plan, no quick fix, no scheduled way to perfection. I had only the hope and openness that come with facing the music. … I found a therapist, and soon after that Eckhart Tolle, and it snowballed from there. The more I went forward, the more I wanted to live. The more I wanted to live, the more things presented themselves to me."
Once you’ve created momentum and positive feedback loops in your life, serendipity pokes its head up and takes you by the hand.
Three months after the breakup I attended a wedding in Mexico with my girlfriend Leah, who had recently called off the engagement with her fiance. I was surprised by our different states of mind. While I was certain I’d find the most magical love on the other side of this excruciating experience, she feared she’d become an old maid with a slew of cats scurrying around her.
The next day I met my husband.
I wasn’t aware that my snowball was rolling faster and faster into a serendipity vehicle. But with each realization and each positive change came a desire to learn more. And when a person becomes a seeker, eager to learn and grow, opportunities present themselves in mysterious ways.
THE HAMSTER WHEEL
Only after I snowballed did I realize my pre-breakup life was like running on a hamster wheel - moving but going nowhere. It was an unfulfilled life. My priorities were being skinny, making money, and having fun. I was on auto-pilot. Directionless. Purposeless.
When we settle with a job, with a romantic partner, with a way of being, we stay on the hamster wheel. We get stuck in our ways because it’s easier to just keep going than to get off. It’s comfortable. It’s what we know. There’s no risk involved. We think, “This is life. This is as good as it gets.”
I didn’t gracefully step off the hamster wheel. I was running full speed and got shoved off. It was disorienting and terrifying at first, but when I looked over and actually saw the hamster wheel - this cage I was stuck in - I knew I would never go back. I couldn’t.
After descending into darkness I craved alone time for introspection. But eventually, in order to feed my snowball, I also needed a support system.
CRAZYMAKERS VS. TRUEMAKERS
Even though I loved the crew at the restaurant and they were there for me during the breakup, I knew they weren’t good for my well-being. Even if Megan wasn’t leaving shots of Jameson for me behind the bar and Freddie wasn’t calling me into his office to do cocaine with him, just being around them made me want to do those things. Being around them made that behavior normal, acceptable, fun.
In Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, she refers to these people as Crazymakers. They are the ones who enable unhealthy behaviors. They’re charming and persuasive. They love drama and hate order. They block your creative flow.
You have to be able to recognize the Crazymakers in your life and then you have to be willing to cut them out. It’s actually not that difficult to ditch a Crazymaker. They have plenty of other friends they can party with. They don’t need you. The real reason it’s hard to cut them out is because you don’t want to. Because they’re fun! They’re major proponents of your escapism. We lean on Crazymakers to avoid our feelings.
I moved to Long Beach to separate myself and spent a lot of time alone.
Eventually there was space to let people back in. But I didn’t make room for more Crazymakers. I welcomed what I call the Truemakers. These people inspire us to be the best, highest, truest versions of ourselves. They normalize healthy behavior. They’re kind and non-judgmental. They are driven and motivated but at the same time, centered and balanced.
Maybe they seemed like downers to us in our “before” image. They didn’t like to have as much fun as us. They went to bed at a reasonable hour and did responsible adult things like open their mail and pay bills on time. We liked them but being around them made us feel like something was wrong with us.
That’s because something was wrong. And once the Crazymakers are removed, it’s easier to surround yourself with the Truemakers. The more time you spend with them, the more people you’ll meet who are also on the path to personal growth.
Because of the couple who got married in Mexico I met my husband. And because my husband was so supportive of my writing and creative endeavors, he encouraged me to take an online writing course where I would meet hundreds of creative, inspired, and motivated people. It was another snowball effect.
With the removal of toxic influences and the welcoming of healthy influences, I also needed to change my bad habits.
EVERYTHING IN MODERATION?
Drinking three glasses of wine a night five nights a week was perfectly acceptable. Eating two servings of Cheez-its while I watched Gossip Girl was just my way of decompressing. And mindlessly scrolling Instagram for an hour a day wasn’t that much.
While these seemingly innocent forms of escapism might have appeared “totally fine,” they left me no chance of ever living my best life. By not allowing myself to snowball, how much was I sacrificing?
But cutting escapism out of our lives after depending on it for so long is like suggesting to a person who looks forward to her two well-deserved, delicious glasses of French red every night to stop drinking.
It’s not gonna happen.
But you can get curious and add in new, healthy routines, like a 5-minute meditation, reading an inspirational book, taking a walk outside without the phone, learning about something simply because you’re curious.
I started listening to Audible books on long walks. I listened to a book about psychopaths after I realized I dated one. I listened to this woman named Brene Brown talk about vulnerability. I listened to Neil Gaiman as he transported me to another world for the first time since Harry Potter.
What you start to realize is that all forms of escapism are a real time suck. Once you become a seeker, desperate to learn and grow, there is no longer any such thing as boredom. Little by little, you can eliminate escapism from your life and introduce anything that supports a personal growth evolution.
My evolution catapulted forward as soon as I started publishing weekly essays. Sharing my struggles and growth journey connected me creatively to the world. When my time began to fill up with purpose and joy I deleted my Facebook and Instagram accounts. I rekindled my love of books and reading. I watched much less TV. I cut back even more on the drinking. I woke up early and went to bed early.
I finally began to understand what it meant to live a fulfilling life.
The text thread with the LA girls sprang to life and I learned the news of Megan.
She was at a bar when she collapsed and was rushed to a hospital. Her liver was failing. Doctors did everything they could but a week later she was dead.
A month prior, Megan texted me. She was staying with her family in Pennsylvania during COVID. She wasn’t drinking for a month. But when she returned to LA she welcomed the Crazymakers back into her life and was unable to make sustainable, healthy changes. She never got off the hamster wheel.
It took a heart-wrenching breakup for me to make real change and create a snowball effect. But positive change doesn’t have to start with a catastrophic event. It could just start with wanting more for our lives and being curious.
It was only five years ago that I experienced my Dark Night of the Soul. Only five years ago I started with one tiny change at a time.
So much can change in five years.
I want to thank Michael Dean and The Writing Studio for feedback on multiple drafts of this essay. Also thank you to Paul Millerd for his insightful thoughts on a later draft.