transformation

When Life Implodes: A Professional Survivors Guide to Keeping It All Together When Life Falls Apart

Note From Jess: Please welcome Andrea Essenpreis, a very special guest author to the Jess@Work community. I was so excited when Andrea said ‘yes!’ to writing for our site. She is an accomplished small business owner (her shop Q&A Sweet Treats is a decade strong in the heart of La Grange, KY), city council member, and community builder with a degree in Psychology. Andrea will primarily write on topics around transformation and mind shift, themes that follow us all through life but sometimes aren’t talked about as widely as they could be. She is as empathic as she is accomplished and makes the best spaghetti bolognese I have ever had. I am lucky to call her a dear friend, and I am happy to be able to share her voice with you.


Woman hands over face in distress with arrow tattoo

Hey you, out there. I see you. You’re the one who everyone relies on, the one who always keeps a smile on her face no matter what. You’re the one who gets things done, the rock star at work, supermom (or dad). You are unstoppable. You are a change-maker, a powerful influence in your community, the glue that holds everything together. Your energy likely inspires others to be better.

Until one day something changes, an event takes place that turns the world on its axis.

Maybe it’s a dramatic shift – a divorce, cancer diagnosis, a car accident, or something similarly traumatic. Or perhaps it’s gradual, you just wake up and realize that you cannot live the way you’ve been living, and something has to change. Elizabeth Gilbert called it the “NOT THIS” moment – you’re not sure what comes next, but you have to make that jump anyway, unsure if your parachute will open. Your reality shifts to the point where normal feels upside down and you’re not sure what the next day will bring, or even the next minute.

Yeah.

Those of us who get things done aren’t used to life being so out of our control. Yet it happens, most of the time when we’re not even looking.

I am a single mom of two teenage boys. I am the owner of a beloved small bakery, and last year also added a new role as a City Councilwoman in my small town. Some might also call me a professional survivor. Within the last four years I experienced all of those dramatic events I mentioned in the above paragraph: the breast cancer diagnosis actually came the day before the year-long divorce was final. In that same period of time not just one but two car accidents. A grand total of seven surgeries by the end of the whole ordeal. Today I am living my best life – healthy, thriving and doing my part to help transform a town into a mecca for kindness. But at that point I couldn’t see how I was even going to get back to ‘okay,’ much less ‘doing well.’

If you are in a tough season, I see you, and I want to help you get to the other side. I promise it can be done. So, if you will …. I’ve compiled a handy (but by no means complete) guide for surviving the Worst Days of Your Life.

Below are some of the tools that I learned along the way, along with a few anecdotes from my journey. Maybe these tools will help you too, and then maybe someday we will exchange war stories, and I’ll smile and tell you, people with big stories always have the most beautiful souls.

1. EVERYTHING IS TEMPORARY

This probably goes without saying, and yet we SHOULD say it, and we should say it first. If you need to, you should say it every single day. One day is made up of 86,400 seconds. Some of them could be great, many will be average, and some may be truly terrible. Yet one second is over quickly. Maybe the next second will feel better. Or maybe the next hour. Or the next day. Emotions are our barometer of truth. They inform our thoughts, they inspire action, and they can change in a second with one piece of new information.

Dum spiro spero (while I breathe, I hope).

Latin Phrase

One of my mottos is the Latin phrase dum spiro spero – “while I breathe, I hope.” If you are having a truly terrible day, please keep hope that tomorrow will be better. Make it to bedtime, hit reset, and try again. Millions of seconds make up a life, and the only thing constant is change. 

2. EVERYTHING IS FIGUREOUTABLE

May 1, 2016. I had filed for divorce two months prior, just signed a lease for a new place to live, and had gotten to a place where more of that day’s seconds felt good rather than bad. I looked up into the clear blue sky, moments after a hailstorm had passed, and I smiled. Things were turning the corner. Ten minutes later, my van was t-boned by a Volvo, crushing my drivers side door.

The crash left my sons and me miraculously unhurt. A woman showed up at my window, as I sat there in shock, covered in glass, and said, “Andrea, everything is going to be ok”. I didn’t know how she knew my name, but in that moment I chose to believe her.

The next day, the full-time employee I heavily relied upon told me she was quitting, and four days later I moved out of my old house under stressful circumstances. Did I mention I live near the home of the Kentucky Derby? Derby Week is one of the busiest weeks of the year in the bakery business, and I was down a vehicle, down an employee, and operating in a haze of caffeine fueled anxiety. I reached out to my local merchants group and asked if anyone knew of an employee willing to work Tuesday and Wednesdays 6-10 am, even though I knew it was likely impossible. A few days later Sarah walked through the door, and quickly became a best friend, partner-in-crime and the one who kept the bakery running once the real crises hit. And within a week, I was living in my new place, and had a new (to me) car. 

Everything – everything – is figureoutable.

You might not see the solution right now, but if you lean into the fact that everything is temporary, you also know that the universe is going to give you a path through whatever dark forest you are traveling through. Just take the next best step. You don’t have to see the entire path to make progress. Like the mysterious woman at my car window said – it’s going to be ok, even if it feels like it’s not.

3. COMPARTMENTALIZE FIRST

David Strayer, director of the Applied Cognition Lab at the University of Utah, has done extensive research into the construct of cognitive multitasking in the realm of distracted driving. His studies found that “ninety-eight percent of people can’t multitask – they don’t do either task as well.” (If you’re in the two percent, you are called a ‘supertasker,’ and I often wish my brain worked like yours. Alas, I am a 98-percenter).

What this means for most of us is that we need to dive deeply into purposeful mindfulness in order to be most effective at whatever task we are engaged in. This might be one of the greatest challenges a professional faces while in the midst of a personal crisis. There were days when the simple task of decorating a cake was too overwhelming to my anxiety-addled mind. In those moments, I broke down the task step by step, and talked myself into remaining firmly grounded in the present moment. I was surrounded at work by people who knew what I was dealing with, but I also know professionals who have endured personal crises without a single colleague ever knowing about it. Whatever helps you best focus on the task at hand – do that. Work can be a tremendous comfort and needed distraction, assuming it is not a source of stress. But wherever you are, and whatever you are doing – go easy on yourself. Ninety-eight percent of us are not going to be able to do more than one thing well at a time, so lean in to the task at hand, and compartmentalize your life as needed.

4. CULTIVATE YOUR CIRCLE OF FIVE

Motivational speaker Jim Rohn has said that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. In my experience, it could be a couple more or a couple less than five, often dependent on your level of introversion vs. extraversion (you can also learn a ton about yourself by determining your MBTI type, but that’s a whole different topic). Take a moment right now and count your five – who are those closest to you? Who do you turn to when things go south? Who influences your take on the world? Life can feel very lonely sometimes, and we are given others to help us carry heavy burdens and keep perspective on the big picture. In times of crisis, rather than pulling away from that circle of five, lean into it. You would do the same for them, right? I found that in my darkest moments, I tried to extend myself even further in acts of service for my people, just to feel like I was putting some kindness into the world. I cultivate those close relationships, and even though life has thrown us multiple curveballs, we grow through it all together.

Image courtesy VoyZan and Pixabay

Your circle may change along the way – mine certainly did. Continuously check in with yourself and say

Is this person helping me act as my best self?

Is this relationship one that sparks me, or does it drain me?

If you find that many are draining you, I’m sorry. I know that’s hard. Please note I’m not encouraging you to cut all your ties in a time of trouble, that would be counterintuitive. But I AM encouraging you to drop the guilt if some of your relationships fall away during this time. I counted once and I had a total of 22 friendships fall away in a matter of four years. I also had eight forever friends join my circle. Not everyone is meant to walk with us forever, and sometimes we just have to keep moving forward with the ones walking the same path. Often others will catch up to us, and as long as you walk away with kindness and dignity, you must know that self-care means protecting your energy. Invest in people, but remember to invest in loving yourself just as much. Cultivating your circle of five is a continuous process, and perhaps once you’re in a better place, you’ll look around you and say, look at these amazing people supporting me – no wonder I made it through.  

5. PRACTICE GRATITUDE

Many people shake their heads when I tell them I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma within 24 hours of finalizing my divorce. The timing was less than ideal, to be sure. I was losing my health insurance and now had a life-threatening pre-existing condition. I had no idea how far the cancer had spread, what treatment would entail, and how much it would all cost. It was a frightening time. Yet when I look back, I also remember how damn grateful I was that day to have the year-long divorce proceedings behind me. Keeping a filter of gratitude on my mental lens has been the single most effective way to keep the darkness at bay. We can get very frustrated when life changes without our permission. You can be the most cautious, moderated person alive and still face harrowing circumstances that you never chose. So – remember this vital Truth.

Your power comes from the fact that you control nothing except for your actions and your attitude.

Continuously choosing to focus on the small, precious moments within the storm will change the algorithm of your mind to an attitude of gratitude. Technicolor sunsets, the tiny bird that alights outside your window, that extra story that your child begs you to read before bed. Focus on the seconds of the day when you feel a sense of wonder, and you’ll see them multiply. As for myself, I definitely didn’t want to lose my breasts to cancer as a newly-single 40-year-old, but it was better than the alternative. I went to the hospital that spring morning with a smile and 200 pink ribbon cookies for my doctors, nurses and whoever else was wandering through the halls that day. It’s how bakers show love, I suppose. In a time of extreme uncertainty, the only thing I could control was the way I treated others around me, so I went to every medical procedure with as much joy and grace as I could muster. That attitude was a vital means of reclaiming my power from cancer – disease might harm my body, but it would never conquer my spirit. Trauma attacks your mind with fear of the unknown, so let gratitude for what IS known be your shield in that fight.

6. LOOK FOR HELP IN UNEXPECTED PLACES

It’s ironic that this topic is one I struggle most with writing about, because it’s the one that is dearest to my heart, but I will give it my best shot. In the midst of my struggles, I found my greatest inspiration to carry on within God-gifted moments of awe and wonder, when it seemed like the entire universe was condensed into a snowglobe in my palm and I was blessed enough to get to witness it. Modern philosopher and futurist Jason Silva writes about awe as “an experience of such perceptual vastness you literally have to reconfigure your mental models of the world to assimilate it.” I suppose you could describe it as mind-blowing when our neural pathways reorganize to wrap our brain around these two things:

1) The world is far more complex than we could ever imagine

2) We are so deeply loved that we get to witness awesome moments of synchronicity – complete alignment between ourselves and the universe. 

Synchronicity is more than a mere coincidence – it is the “aha” moment when everything in the world aligns to provide you perfect clarity. Perhaps you hop on social media one morning with a burning question on your mind, and the first post you see provides the answer you were seeking. Maybe you see a particular number everywhere, or hear a special song, and every time you see that number or hear that song it gives you some hope that things will get better, that you’re on the right track. I call these moments my arrows, they spark the fire of inspiration. They always point me in the direction I need to grow. Finding and following your personal arrows requires faith – and faith is not something you have to find in a church building, although it can grow anywhere where you find hope. True faith means believing that there is some greater plan; knowing that you are a small part of that plan; and, regardless of your current circumstances, having confidence that you are safe and loved beyond measure. 

Image Courtesy Cristian Escobar and Unsplash

One of my arrows is the number 1111 – I see it everywhere and when I do, I smile and say thanks to the universe for the assurance that I’m in the right place right now. Last year I threw my hat in the ring to run for office, never having done anything like that before, and on election night I was stunned when I was elected with exactly 1111 votes. I was happy to win, but this sweeping emotion was more than joy – seeing that particular number scroll across the screen was an awe-inducing experience that resonated deep within my soul. Perhaps this part is a bit woo-woo and esoteric for you, and if so that’s ok, feel free to take it with a grain of salt. My main point is that help often comes from unexpected places, and keep your eyes set on the big picture. But for those of you who read this and say yes, me too…just keep following those arrows. Moments of transcendence can turn even the worst day around in a split second. 

7. LEAN INTO IT

When I was a kid, I visited Knott’s Berry Farm, southern California’s first theme park. My favorite ride was something called the Wacky Soap Box Racers, and I remember my family of four riding it again and again. There were four different soap boxes on four different tracks, and the idea was that if you shifted your weight, your soap box would go faster and you’d be more likely to win the race against the other cars. My family shifted our weight together, my dad coaching us to lean into each turn, and I swear that car sped up every time we all leaned into it together. It’s one of my favorite memories from childhood, and I kept the wisdom that accompanied those words.

Change is inevitable.

Resisting it can cause immense pain, and when you just stay still, it can take a tremendous amount of time. But with the concept of leaning into change, you are taking your power back throughout that process. You are saying, I did not choose these circumstances, but I choose my response to them. I choose to move forward rather than halt to a standstill. I choose to cry those tears instead of choking them back. I choose to seek therapy rather than another codependent relationship. I choose to hit the gym instead of hitting the bottle. I choose myself and my growth over a painful repeat of the past. I choose my own future. All four of those soap box racers got there eventually, but some of us made it there quicker. Our lives are precious gifts, and no one is guaranteed a tomorrow. Lean into your healing, whatever that means for you, and ask others for the space you need to take the time to do so. It’s not selfish to self care.   

8. PROGRESS, NOT PERFECTION

Say you’ve followed this list so far, and you’re feeling a bit better, seeing some progress. It’s not where you want to be, but it’s better than it was. You’ve reached some goals you set, you are feeling proud of how far you’ve come. And then you hit a wall. Whatever that wall consists of – depression, anxiety, money troubles, illness…it always seems that the strongest warriors face the toughest climbs. I see you, dear friend.

This part is really hard, and I want to tell you that I’m proud of you. Healing is not linear. Throughout our lives, trauma survivors will face repeated reminders of the painful parts of our past. Triggers can come anytime and catch us unguarded, and in those moments, it can feel like those old wounds are ripped open. You may feel like withdrawing, or lashing out, or regressing from your chosen path. In these times, I gently encourage you to remember that feelings aren’t facts – they are simply barometers of our current emotional climate. Give yourself a moment to be still in that storm. You have come so far, and in my experience, the darkest night truly does come before the dawn.

My worst breakdowns always came before my greatest moments of triumph.

Take some time to reset – this is a moment to pause, reflect and take care of yourself. Think of your healing process like the stock market – you’ll have fluctuations, but look at where the market is now versus the year you were born. One of my tricks when I hit a low spot is to go back into my camera roll and see where I was one year, two years, four years ago. I always feel better after seeing physical proof of how far I have come, checking my temporarily distorted thinking against the mile markers of time. No one is asking you to be perfect – it’s our striving and our flaws that make us beautifully human. You are loved just as you are, so be gentle with yourself. Refer back to #1 – everything is temporary, and look back at your progress with gratitude. Whether it’s terrible or amazing, this part will pass soon, as you turn the page to a new chapter.

9. FIND YOUR MISSION

Your life imploded, and you rebuilt it from the ground up. You are amazing! As a result of this process, awakening to a new reality, you will inevitably find yourself changed in a multitude of ways. Your relationships will be richer, your experiences more profound. You’ll often exist in a state of mental flow, where life feels effortless and the universe grants you gifts you could never have even imagined. You’ll begin to have ideas and make connections and feel inspired to create something greater than yourself. Congratulations – you have discovered your life’s mission. Now if you haven’t figured this out yet, please don’t stress! The universe loves to take us through that process slowly, building the puzzle one piece at a time. I used to get upset that I couldn’t see the big picture and tried to rush the process, but none of us get to know what happens next. If we knew that, we wouldn’t ever learn from our past experiences and become the rich, textured human beings that we are.

Your life mission doesn’t have to involve writing a book, starting a company or climbing a summit. Many of our missions will simply be to impart the wisdom we gained along the way to future generations. Every time you think that our world is going in the wrong direction, imagine the ripple effect of the lives you have impacted positively over the course of your own. You will touch thousands of people with your life story, and that is an amazing legacy. 


At the end of the day, I am still a work in progress, and more grateful with each passing day for the privilege of being alive. Every new day presents a new opportunity to be shown another piece of the puzzle, to find another arrow lighting our path, to spark a new connection, to write our life story. When you reflect back on your life, your greatest struggles will become your greatest strengths. There was a time several years ago that reading a piece such as this would have been a lifeline for me, so if you are in that place, know that I’m out here and I’m cheering for you. Professional survivors always stick together.   


About The Author: Hello, and thank you for reading! I am Andrea Essenpreis a small business owner, award winning baker, and local government servant leader currently serving as City Council member in my community.

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