Going through The Muck

Friday, August 13th. I was on the phone with my friend Jodi, who was driving with her 12-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son from JFK airport in NYC to her home in Connecticut. We’d been playing phone tag all week and, with the kids conked out in the car, she took advantage of a late-night freeway drive and Bluetooth technology for the two of us to catch up.

About 20 minutes into our call – and not long after she’d confessed having just shelled out $1,800 to have her car repaired and serviced while she was out of town – Jodi told me all the warning lights on her instrument panel were suddenly illuminated. She frantically wondered aloud what the hell was going on and I told her to pull over immediately and cut the engine. Most likely it was an electrical failure, and she needed to get off the road. I stayed on the phone with her while she pulled safely onto the shoulder (“all the way into the grass,” she reassured me) and then let her go to call AAA. I asked her to let me know when she’d reached them; about 15 minutes later I got a text saying a tow truck was on its way, but the kiddos were awake, and that she’d call me the next day to finish our conversation.

Relieved, I exhaled and turned in for the night.

The next morning I awoke to a text from Jodi. While waiting for the tow truck, she and her children were hit by an 18-wheeler whose driver had fallen asleep at the wheel. Her daughter was unconscious in intensive care with four cracked vertebrae, a skull fracture, concussion, a broken rib, and multiple contusions. Jodi herself had two broken ribs, a concussion, and one hell of a shiner. Her son had somehow managed to escape with only cuts and bruises. In just seconds, her life was turned on its head. Everything was up in the air. As the last line of her text read, “Bad situation. Lucky to be alive.”

I sat in bed, phone in my hand, staring out the window, tears streaming. How had I been on the phone with her one minute and not even a half-hour later, she’d been slammed by a semi and praying for her daughter’s life? I thought about how much kindness Jodi and her children had shown me during my years in New York. They’d welcomed me into their home on two holidays in 2008 – my last in New York, coincidentally enough. I’d spent Thanksgiving with them that year, laughing hysterically, whipping up Bermuda rum swizzles and my traditional “White Trash Broccoli Dish,” alongside Jodi, the kids, her boyfriend Tom, and our dear friend Mary. Then that Christmas, when the Seattle snowmageddon left me stranded alone in NYC for the holiday, Jodi reached out and invited me to spend the holiday in her home. I’d originally planned to splurge and take myself to dinner somewhere totally over-the-top Manhattan, like Chanterelle. But let’s face it – a fireplace and good friends beat that any day.

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that Jodi was a wonderful friend AND an incredibly accomplished woman AND a doting single mother AND was being a responsible driver by pulling onto the shoulder AND was doing the right thing by not continuing to drive after her car turned into a carnival of lights and INSTEAD called AAA – much less the fact that she even HAD a AAA membership, which was above-and-beyond the call of duty responsible. And for all that, some asshole professional (!) driver who knows better than anyone not to get behind the wheel at 2 a.m. when you’re sleepy comes along and carelessly fucks up her life????

Really? REALLY?!?!?!?!?!

That was all it took. I was off on a tailspin. It wasn’t enough that I’d just lost 80% of my income two weeks prior. Oh, and my relationship. And a dear member of my family had written me the day before to tell she was going through rough times in her marriage, in her life. One friend had just lost his mother. Another friend’s mother had been diagnosed with brain cancer and given four months to live. I’d just had the fourth person in my circle die before the age of 40 and the sixth person in my circle get cancer. And how about this whopper: one of my dearest friends was diagnosed with TWO types of cancer in the last 18 months.

What the fuck was happening?!

I just sat there in my bed. Sobbing. Sobbing. Sobbing. What can I say – I’m a Libra. I hate injustice. I hate when things aren’t fair. I hate when I don’t have information. I hate when I don’t understand why things are happening. Aside from chronic impatience and wanting to control the universe, my next greatest challenge in life is learning to live with unfairness and uncertainty. The Not Knowing, the gray areas – that’s where I get stuck in life’s Pool of Muck.

And I. Don’t. Like it.

Believe me, I’ve tried countless times to pull myself out of The Muck by focusing on the positive. And I tried it here too. But Jodi’s daughter is alive! But I’d landed another project that would replace the lost income, if only for a few short months! But the colleague who passed away had inspired so many with his courage and determination! But my other friends have all successfully battled cancer and are now back to living healthy, active lives! And hey – I’m healthy, my parents are healthy, I have a beautiful home and wonderful friends, and….

Blahblahblah. BULLSHIT. I wasn’t even buying what I was shoveling. What I really needed to do to get through this time was just wallow in The Muck.

It’s like this post I wrote last year. Before you can see the silver lining, YOU HAVE TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE CLOUD. You have to admit that where you’re at sucks. You have to say you’re pissed, you’re lonely, you’re hurting, that it’s not fair, that you don’t understand, that you hate everyone, that you hate your job, your boss, your parents, your house, your life, – shit, say you hate yourself. Say whatever it is that’s weighing on your heart and your mind. That’s The Muck. And it’s ugly. And it’s awful. And it makes you feel stuck and hopeless and powerless because that’s what it’s supposed to do. The more you fight it and try to Pollyanna your way out of it, the more it will hold you in its grasp.

And the more it holds you, the deeper you’ll be sucked into it, until you’re fighting and thrashing and being eaten alive. You can try to convince yourself that you’re NOT in The Muck. “Take that, Muck! You have no power over me! I can see the bright side of everything! I’m in control of my life and I WILL get through this and I WILL make it all better and I will NOT succumb to your flesh-eating ways!”

But The Muck will laugh at you and pull you in further. It will prove to you that you ARE in it, that it DOES have power over you. And it won’t release you until you give into it.

Believe me, I hate it too. I hate it because I was raised in a family where showing sadness and vulnerability was a sign of weakness. “We don’t cry” and “I don’t like people who cry,” my mother would say. It was all about Happiness & Joy at my house – happy, happy, we must be happy all the time! But The Muck was always beckoning just outside our Threshold of Puppies, Rainbows, and Laughter. Yet all the way through my twenties, I shushed The Muck away. I was a smiling ray of sunshine: “Yes, I can do that for you!” “Sure, I can help with that!” “Of course, I’m happy to take that on – hey, that’s part of my job/what friends are for/just what I do!”

Then I went through what happens at some point to all of us, especially those of us who keep turning a blind eye to The Muck: I suffered one of life’s most horrific heartbreaks – in my case, divorce – and fell face first into the biggest pool of muck to ever inhabit the earth. And it was awful. And disgusting. It tasted like shit, it felt like shit, it WAS shit.

But it was also a force greater than me and so I wallowed in it. Finally. And while I was there, I learned to own every feeling I had. And I learned it was OK to have all those feelings. Even when they contradicted each other (oh, did I mention I don’t deal with contradiction well either? Yeah.) I could be enraged, sad, confused, relieved, and overjoyed all at the same time. And that was OK. I could have no answers for what I was feeling at all. And that was OK. I could cry and cry and cry. And that was OK. And it didn’t mean I was weak. It meant I cared. It meant I was human. It meant I was feeling a full range of appropriate and completely valid human emotions. It meant I was WHOLE.

Suddenly I was no longer scared of The Muck. It had cracked me open and made me real. And even though being open and vulnerable was scary and I thought for sure a million people would reject me when they saw this side of me – this side that’s moody and frightened and not at all funny or full of life – no one ran away. In fact, my relationships grew deeper. Stronger. You could almost see my friends sigh in relief, “There’s a REAL person in there!!”

And right then – at least for a while – The Muck set me free.

As for Jodi and her family, by the grace of God (and many, MANY prayers), they’re home now – safe, sound, alive and well. Two weeks after the accident, Jodi finally brought herself to look at the photos of her demolished vehicle. She sent one to me, which set off a fresh torrent of tears. And she admitted she was struggling in The Muck.

“These pictures stir up a mix of emotion,” she wrote. “Awe, wonder, anger, gratitude, belief and disbelief, deepened love for my children and all the wonderful people in my life, relief, sorrow. It’s a difficult set to process – to be thankful and angry at the same time.” She told me part of her wanted the whole saga to be over and part of her wanted to wallow in it.

I told her to feel everything. To just let herself be in The Muck and not apologize for it or try to rationalize it. To not only acknowledge the cloud, but sit right smack in the middle of it, and let every feeling flow through her.

“Make like Feist and ‘Feel It All,'” I wrote. “Acknowledge the cloud. Soon you’ll pass through it and see the sun again.”

“Acknowledge the cloud,” Jodi echoed in her reply. “That, my dear, is probably the best advice I’ve ever heard. I promise myself to feel. To be mad. To yell. To be sad. To wallow a bit. Thank you for giving me permission.”

And in that moment, I knew she’d be OK, that she’d find her way out by going through the Muck. And once she’d done so, right then – at least for a while – The Muck would set her free.

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