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From Sh!tshow to Afterglow
Putting Life Back Together When It All Falls Apart
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AN UNWANTED INVITATION TO THE WAILING LODGE
I KNEW I HAD ENTERED MY SHITSHOW WHEN TIME AND SPACE BENT AND I STARTED tripping balls.
A shitshow has a way of doing that—one minute you’re living through the pleasant tedium of the life you’ve known, the one that you’ve crafted, the one that might not be perfect but you’ve got it sorta figured out… and then the next thing you know, it’s a Tuesday afternoon and you’re sitting on the living room floor being informed that your marriage is over.
In that moment, I vortexed. Time slowed down. My vision got strangely sparkly. It was like I’d taken acid, except it was a heroic dose of abrupt life-changing news that challenged my core sense of identity. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I was in a hallucinogenic state of shock, my mind bent by emotional disaster.
I mean, it had been a tough year, but that moment was the official shitshow on-ramp. When you experience that trippy, sparkly, time-warped feeling? That’s your brain struggling to comprehend that life as you’ve known it is over. There’s no going back.
On the third night after my shitshow officially began, I called my father in tears at 3:30 a.m. (I never called people in tears. I was not a crier. I took care of myself. On this side of the fissure in my life, though, I didn’t know what else to do.)
My father picked up on the second ring because he’d had the phone next to his bed, waiting.
“I’ve never known this level of pain,” I sobbed. “I had no idea how physically excruciating something like this could be.”
“I know,” my father said on the other end of the line, and he does know because he and my mother split up and went through their own shitshows when I was in college. “It’s awful. But I’m also excited for you, in a way. If you can work through this, I mean, really work through it—this’ll be a breakthrough.”
“Excited for me?” I whined. “Fuck, Dad! That’s brutal.”
“Daughter, this stuff’s the meat of life,” my father said. “You’re right on schedule to break through a ceiling and step up to the next level. You can do this.”
A few hours later, I got out of my bed having not slept, but at least having spent some time horizontal. My son, Tavi, was with his father. I’d now be spending 50 percent of my time without my five-year-old.
I was alone.
I opened my drawers to get dressed and everything smelled of heartbreak and disbelief and panic. I wobbled through the empty house to the bathroom to find a sunken-cheeked, red-eyed, snot-crusted wraith staring from the mirror.
“What should I do?” I whispered to the reflection in the mirror, a haunted woman living in some other metaverse where there was no joy. Here in this new universe, this new woman? Things were the darkest gray and would always be gray. There was no meaning. There was no momentum. I had no idea what to do. I was alone. Panicked. Crushed. Broken. And confused—so, so confused. The screaming inside my head was so loud that I couldn’t think or function. Functionality had always been my jam, but now I couldn’t even figure out how to brush my hair.
How was it possible to have done so much in life and yet find myself completely demolished? All my various career defeats, interpersonal rejections, the five years of infertility, the various surgeries and medical emergencies—none of these felt as difficult as this moment. How was my oh-so-special offbeat life going off the rails in such a stereotypically pathetic way?
I shook my head and tried to focus my eyes on where I was. What’s next? My manager brain desperately tried to step up. Surely there was a checklist or a schedule to lean on. Through the dense gray fog, I remembered that my friend Ellen was coming over to help me get myself together, to take me out to my mother’s house.
I didn’t trust myself to drive. I didn’t trust myself to do anything, really.
Clearly, my brain wasn’t functioning normally. During a shitshow, shock and loss aren’t just mental and emotional experiences—they can come with physical symptoms that add extra confusion to the disorientation. Here are a few physical expressions you may encounter:
Fatigue and feeling physically wobbly and weak
Physical aches and pains, especially headaches
Chest tightness and shortness of breath
Digestive problems and lack of appetite
Immune system suppression
Insomnia (or sleeping for days)
Sexual function weirdness (zero sex drive or amped-up horniness)
Hypervigilance, where your body is on high alert, looking out for warnings of potential danger
Of course, knowing these symptoms are normal won’t make them go away (sorry ’bout that), but hopefully it’s reassuring to know that, nope, you’re not losing your mind or actually dying—both things I wondered for myself during various dark moments.
The physical symptoms associated with shock and profound loss can last for days or weeks (or even longer) and totally exacerbate any emotional and mental symptoms. In the early phase of a shitshow, you must truly take things one day at a time.
Just know that in your darkest, most painful moments, you’re never ever alone—I’ve been there with you. So many of us have. Please hear this and feel it in your belly: you are not alone right now. That isolated feeling is your mind playing tricks on you, trying to tell you you’re separate when the gallows-humor joke of life is that what unites us most as humans is our experience of suffering. Basically, when you feel your most alone and miserable? That’s when you’re the most like everyone else, because we’ve all wrestled those beasts. We’re all together in this isolated misery.
That truth feels so backassward, and it’s damn near impossible to wrap your brain around it when you’re feeling alone and broken and panic-stricken. The truth that things will feel different someday is damn near impossible to understand when you’re mid-shitshow.
I certainly didn’t feel like things would ever get better. Staring into the mirror, all I knew was that I was the most broken I’d ever been, and that life as I’d known it was over. Both these things were in fact true, but what I didn’t know was that both those painful truths could lead to a new existence that felt expansive and filled with so much more meaning.
I brushed my teeth, got dressed in my heartbreak-smelling clothes, and sat on the couch to fidget and stare at the wall. Everything hurt and my body felt like it was burning inside my flesh, like if I listened hard enough I could hear the crisps of skin falling off as the monkeys in my brain shrieked in chorus.
I tried to remember what was going on. Right… I was going to my mother’s because I couldn’t take care of myself. Ellen was taking me. That was the plan.
“What should I do?” I’d asked my mother on the phone the day before. “I can’t face this weekend alone and without Tavi. I don’t know how to be in the world.”
“Well, you could come out here?” my mother had said. “We’re hosting a grief retreat…”
Of course she was. For the past decade, my mother and her wife have opened their property for use as a communal retreat space they call Sacred Groves, a land of work-trade transients and millennial artists. My childhood home has been turned into a hippie retreat destination, and I’ve mostly adapted to the fact that on any given weekend, there might be a bunch of girls singing around a campfire at a coming-of-age ceremony or a group of boomers discussing conscious aging as part of an elders circle. Sometimes when I’ve visited, I’ve heard people through the woods participating in something called a “wailing lodge,” part of the weekend-long grief retreats.
“But I’m not grieving, Mom,” I’d said into the phone, trying to find the energy to argue with my mother like I always did. “No one died. My husband just walked out, and now I can’t keep my shit together. That’s not grief.”
“That’s loss,” my mom had said. “Grief is just an acute experience of loss, and it seems like you’re feeling this loss pretty deeply. Why don’t you just come?”
I wasn’t sure what else to do, so I’d agreed.
I heard Ellen let herself in my front door, and she led me like a child around my own home. She handed me my bag and a coat. She pointed me toward the door and walked me through it. She helped me get in the car and drove me down the west face of Seattle’s Capitol Hill to the waterfront, where we waited to drive onto one of those picturesque Puget Sound ferries that’s really just a floating bus.
I sat perfectly still for the half-hour ferry ride, silent stony panic in the passenger seat. Catatonic, dissociated, and disoriented, the only movement I could muster was a slow drip of snot down my face while Ellen patted my hand. She’d wrestled through a bipolar diagnosis and her own divorce, surviving her own high-grade shitshows, so she got it.
“Thank you for being my crisis doula,” I managed to say.
Once docked on Bainbridge Island, Ellen drove me the ten minutes through the forest, over the glacier-carved hills, and down the one-lane road that leads to the ten acres of second-growth forest where I grew up. The driveway was filled with Priuses and old Subarus, and I could hear people crying before I even walked through the door.
That’s what happens when your mom runs a retreat facility: when your life abruptly falls apart and you try to go home for some consoling, you end up attending a grief retreat.
Shitshows take you all sorts of places you never imagined.
WHEN AVOIDING THE PAIN STOPS WORKING
Generally speaking, Western culture likes to deny pain. We try to avoid and ignore illness, death, poverty, and grief to bypass the difficult associated emotions. Author of The Other Side of Complicated Grief: Hope in the Midst of Despair Rhonda O’Neill says that this cultural predisposed alienation from our own misery only amplifies our suffering.
Instead of retreating into isolation or distraction (which is what our culture expects—The Man wants you to hide your pain!), it’s mission critical that you find people who can be with you in your suffering.
I’m not gonna lie: this can be HARD. Your friends and family might want to help, but sometimes they can be too close to the situation to effectively provide the support you need. Sometimes your pain triggers their pain and then you’re in a shitshow echo chamber, which, needless to say, isn’t an especially comforting environment.
If your shitshow involves grief (either because someone died or because your loss is so intense that you’re having physical symptoms), you may want to investigate grief support groups in your area. Groups dedicated specifically to assisting people through this kind of experience will have the tools and strategies you need and help you combat the isolation that so many of us experience when we’re in pain.
It may feel awkward to seek out these groups, or they might seem like they’re not meant for you, or the folks at support groups might not seem like “your people.” Part of this process is understanding that loss is the great equalizer. It can be hard to let that information in (especially for those of us who have prided ourselves on our offbeat-ness), but it’s true: when you’re grieving, other grievers are your people.
I never ever thought I’d go to a grief retreat (again, no one had died—what was I even doing there?), but when you’re ripped open and torn down, comfort shows up in different shapes than your previous self might have expected. The dominant cultural aesthetics of loss may not match your vibe (religious quotes and fuzzy pictures of candles, anyone?), but for your own survival, you must find and allow comfort.
Speaking of cultural aesthetics, I may love my moms and Sacred Groves, but it’s not really my scene.
The hub of Sacred Groves is a yurt-like roundhouse that’s almost forty feet across with a huge circular skylight in the center. Filled with a mix of discarded Goodwill furniture, the structure’s decor includes a four-foot drum made from a tree stump, a bison skull, and multiple swaths of prayer flags painted with goddess vagina art. The main room is anchored by a woodstove to the east and a huge bank of windows to the west that look out on the permaculture garden and the two smaller yurts rented out on Airbnb.
It’s lovely, but I lean more toward the tidy modern lewk, y’know? I thought of myself as an urbanite, a media maven, an internet obsessive… or at least that’s who I had been. I had no idea who this sobbing, wobbling woman was now.
I said my goodbyes and thank-yous to Ellen and walked into the roundhouse. The thirty retreat attendees were milling around the large room, with folks ranging from shaven-headed twentysomethings to suburban dudes in sandals with socks, and more than a few wild-haired middle-aged women. Several of us were already crying, myself included. There were cedar boughs and twinkly lights and an altar with candles.
Even in my catatonic state, my inner bitch was rolling her eyes. I know how these kinds of workshops go, with lots of talking circles and mending times for broken people. Growing up with hippie parents, this kind of new-age stuff was what I spent my youth rebelling against. It’s lovely and valuable for some people—it’s just never been my thing.
Then again, being in a state of emotional pain so intense that I could feel it eating away at my body’s tissues and warping my sense of time had never really been my thing either, and yet there I was.
The workshop attendees gathered into a circle to talk over the weekend. I learned that, traditionally, the social aspects of loss have always revolved around ritual. In Grief and Loss Across the Lifespan, Carolyn Ambler Walter and Judith L. M. McCoyd discuss studies showing that grievers get a sense of control over their mourning when they engage in specific behavior and performance involving other people, symbols of the loss, and activities that are “out of the ordinary.”
Out of the ordinary. Like a grief retreat in a yurt, I guess. I learned that we were going to do something called “keening,” which is basically wailing for what’s been lost. Keening also felt solidly out of character for me, but it would be the first of dozens of out-of-character things I would eventually try in my attempts to heal from the catastrophe of my life.
Sitting in a circle, we were asked to introduce ourselves. There were people who’d had parents die recently, and a young woman who was mourning the death of a friend who’d been tortured and killed while doing international aid work. There were sexual assault survivors, parents of stillborn babies, and folks dealing with losing a job while also caring for adult children with disabilities. A couple people were there to mourn climate change. My loss seemed so small, and yet it was hard for me to focus on anything other than the shouting inside my head—all the details! All the unfairness! All the things that had gone wrong!
When you’re in the thick of a full-life face-plant, your mind desperately wants to focus on all the little details—who said what and why, how could you have stopped it, what did you do wrong, why is this so unfair, how can you fix it?
But those little details are traps. That’s your brain trying to make itself useful, telling you that if you could just figure it out, you could change it. That’s your mind bargaining: if you review the details of what happened just a few more times, the result might be different.
For now, see if you can set aside the little details of what went wrong.
For now, just see if you can allow the feelings to be felt, separate from the story.
For now, just see if you can allow yourself to understand the depth of the loss.
I know it sucks and it hurts worse than anything, but you can’t skip over this part. You must feel all the feelings so you can heal all the healings.
FIND YOUR AFTERGLOW
At the end of each chapter, I’m going to hit you up with some questions. These are the true meat of this book. Reading is cool, but in order to transmute the pain of your shitshow into a new life, you have to make the effort to get real with yourself, face some pain, and hold yourself accountable for how you’re going to find your afterglow. Then—and only then—can you find that light, the glowy feeling of knowing you’re good in the world again. It exists! You can get there! But there’s stuff you’ve got to do first.
Think of it this way: You’ve fallen into a hole. You can curse, haul yourself out of the hole, and run for the hills, but unless you take the time to figure out what’s down in that hole, how it got there, and what you can learn from it, you’re probably going to keep running in circles and falling into that same damn hole.
So, here come some questions. I know some of these are uncomfortable, but, hey, guess what? You’re already uncomfortable, and avoiding it just prolongs the pain, so let’s dive in together.
What’s the physical sensation of your loss? Separate from the story of what happened, just tell me this: What’s the shape of the pain you’re in? (Is it sharp and searing? Dull and aching?) Where do you feel it in your body? (Is it a panic in your chest or a sinking in your stomach?) I know you don’t want to feel, but just for a moment, see if you can allow yourself to experience the sensation of pure loss, without resisting it or making a story about how it happened or where it might be going.
How disoriented and confused are you? You’re in a transitional state, which can be upsetting if you’re a person who likes things feeling settled and secure. What if being in transition is exactly where you’re supposed to be right now? How does it make you feel to know that you might be entering a transitional period that could start a whole new phase of your life?
Who in your life do you trust to witness your shitshow? Often, a crisis leads to surprising social shifts—folks you expected to be there for you just don’t quite know how to handle the situation. Meanwhile, people you barely know may randomly step up in ways you never expected. Who in your life now do you feel safe enough to be vulnerable with? Who might be able to be a crisis doula, witnessing without fixing?
If you don’t have anyone in your life whom you trust to support you, what small steps could you take today to start to establish the kinds of connections you want more of in your new life? In adulthood, friendships and community don’t just happen. They take daily effort, which often can be as simple as looking up from your phone and saying hello to the people around you. Or you might want to google a grief or loss support group in your area.
I’m not going to offer you any easy Band-Aids or glib assurances here, sweet friend. The simple reality is this: you’re entering a new life. There’s no going back. The details of how you got here matter, but what matters more is how you’re going to use the experience to move yourself forward, toward contentment and feeling the lightness of life again.
We’re going to help you find your afterglow.
GOING FOR GOLD AT THE PAIN OLYMPICS
SO THERE I WAS, IN A COUPLE PLACES I DIDN’T WANT TO BE: GOING THROUGH A SHITSHOW, attending a grief retreat.
The second night of the retreat, one wall of the roundhouse was transformed by huge cedar boughs curled against it, creating an open tent of sorts. Kneeling cushions faced an altar that we had decorated with reminders of what had been lost. Photos of dead mothers and friends, letters from lost lovers, drawings of unborn babies… and one of my wedding pictures. I’d built a whole business on those dang wedding pictures! They are all over the internet for godsake! Now they were part of a grief altar? Fuck my life.
We were instructed to drum, sing a repetitive folk song, and dance in the empty half of the room. Then when we felt called, we could come forward, kneel on the pillows in front of the altar, and loudly do whatever wailing we needed to do while everyone else kept singing and drumming. I like karaoke just fine, but this sure as hell wasn’t karaoke and I wasn’t into wailing.
And yet somehow, when the drumming began, I felt compelled to be one of the first to the altar. This was unlike me (um, you guys, I don’t really do ceremonies?), but I hadn’t slept in days and had lost track of who I was, and I couldn’t remember how to be the person I was supposed to be (i.e., the kind of person who’s super NOT into this kind of thing).
So I stepped up and knelt at the altar and started swaying as I sobbed. The drums and singing got louder. I swayed harder, and cried harder. I lost myself.
My sleep-deprived mind filled with the image of being on my knees at a deathbed. My eyes slid closed and rolled back as I fell forward onto all fours, rocking, seeing myself at the bedside of the life I’d known.
I saw my life up until this point embodied as a separate entity, a person I’d nursed and nurtured, celebrated and shared, built a life with… and that life, that person, had died.
The beloved body was stretched out in a bed in my mind’s eye, and I could see all the hopes and dreams and future-schemes, and as I held the gnarled hand of my former life, I could feel the body cooling. I felt myself holding on to the stiffening flesh as I sobbed, “Don’t go. Stay with me. Stay here with me. Just stay. Just for a while.”
But this body of my previous life was already dead, and all I could do was sit and watch it cool and gently collapse into itself.
I was only half-aware that I was on all fours at an altar, in a round room, in the woods where I grew up, and that I was keening and growling, pleading and ugly crying. The round room was filled with the sound of the drums and singing, so all my wailing barely registered. It was a relief to be drowned out.
Shit, maybe this was grief. Someone had died, and it was me. I gritted my teeth and bore down, screaming. I pushed hard. The visions crystallized, and I lost my grip on reality completely.
I was at a deathbed, on a deathbed, but I was also birthing something. Screaming on all fours, pushing something new and pink and tender into the world and it hurt worse than anything I’d ever known. The pain was blinding, and I started rasping out the breathing exercises I’d learned in preparation for my son’s birth.
Time passed or didn’t pass. I couldn’t tell.
Eventually, I rocked back a bit on my heels and blinked, trying to clear the hallucinations. My body was in so much pain. Was I having a heart attack?
No, wait, I thought. Maybe I’m dying, doubled over on a dirty zabuton at some hippie grief-ceremony thinger at my mom’s. This is not the way I wanted to go.
But nah, I wasn’t dying. I was just ugly crying my face off, drowning in the loss of the life I’d known. I wobbled myself to standing and stepped back from the altar. I tried to take a breath into my new lungs.
WHY YOU SHOULD GET STOKED ABOUT CRYING HARD
Since you may be crying way more than you’re used to, let’s nerd out on this for a second. There are three types of tears: basal tears that lubricate the eye, reflex tears that flush out irritants, and emotional tears. These tears have different stimuli, but emotional tears also have a different chemical composition: they’re way richer in hormones.
This is to say that hard cathartic crying feels drastically different from crying over chopping onions because it’s not just emotionally different—it’s biologically different.
Beyond releasing hormones, hard crying serves another purpose. Evolutionary psychologist Oren Hasson at Tel Aviv University believes that crying signals shared emotional attachments and solicits sympathy and aid from bystanders. Crying may be your body’s way to physically express to others “I need help!” (And, oh, you do. I’m glad you’re here with me.)
Again, we get a lot of cultural messaging telling us to keep ourselves together and stay strong—but screw it. Part of this process is fully embracing it and allowing yourself to be completely undone. You must be dissolved. You must let your tears flow. You must empty yourself over and over again so that you can make room for different emotions to come through.
Psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes said that in times of intense loss, “the familiar world suddenly seems to have become unfamiliar… and we lose confidence in our own internal world.” This knock-you-on-your-ass uncertainty marks the start of your path of rebirthing your new self.
In the moment, grieving doesn’t feel profound or productive. You might obsess over strange things, get profoundly angry over seemingly unrelated events, have anxiety spikes that feel petty, or catch yourself looping over trivialities.
Personally, my favorite thing to do when I was miserable was hate myself. It would go like this: something would hurt, and then I would rip myself apart for being hurt by it. This self-abuse had the lovely side effect of making me hurt even more!
Buddhists call this phenomenon the “second arrow.” The first arrow is the initial pain, the injury that just happens. Then the second arrow is you resisting the pain, hating yourself for somehow allowing it to happen, railing about the injustice of it all, berating yourself for bleeding, and making plans for how you can exact revenge, etc. Even if you’re not a fan of beating yourself up like I am, you might still wrestle with believing you don’t have a valid reason for feeling as awful as you do.
According to Grief and Loss Across the Lifespan, this type of disenfranchised pain is a result of a culture that acknowledges some forms of loss as more legitimate than others. There’s nothing illegitimate about what you’re experiencing. No matter what caused the feelings, they exist, and you’re suffering and hurting as a result. Your emotions are valid. Your loss is valid! The idea of competitive Pain Olympics or loss hierarchy does nothing but make what you’re going through even harder.
“Grief is visceral, not reasonable: the howling at the center of grief is raw and real. It is love in its most wild form,” writes Megan Devine in her remarkable book It’s OK That You’re Not OK.
- "Look: I'm not saying anything bad will happen to you, but if it does, From Sh!tshow to Afterglow is the only book you'll want to see on the bedside table. Ariel Meadow Stallings is no-bullshit -- and all kinds of funny, frank, and smart. I'm glad this book exists to help readers pick up the pieces"—Sarah Knight, NewYork Times bestselling author of Calm the F*ck Down
- "Ariel Meadow Stallings' compassionate insights, wicked sense of humor, and sharp, self-deprecating writing make this book a balm to soothe even the most raging of shitshows. Deftly addressing the mental, physical, and metaphysical impacts of trauma and heartbreak, From Sh!tshow to Afterglow is a raw, honest, and accessible tool for healing in these wildly uncertain times."—Kristen J. Sollée,author of Witches, Sluts, Feminists
- "This is the perfect book for anyone who's been metaphorically thrown from the horse of life. With intense honesty and wit, Ariel Meadow Stallings guides us through the darkest shadows of her (and our own) fears while sprinkling in just the right amount of scientific research and practical tips in every chapter."—BusterBenson, author of Why Are We Yelling
- "A much needed book for anyone who has ever dealt with loss at any level. Ariel is the friend with the exact advice and reassurance you've been searching for. You'll laugh, cry, and finally feel at peace with life's constant changes that are out of our control."—Samantha Matt, authorof Average is the New Awesome
- On Sale
- Jul 21, 2020
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Seal Press