Life kicking your ass? Here’s a survival guide.

There are people out there facing impossible financial challenges and personal situations. They feel like there is no hope, and nothing will ever be ok again. They feel alienated — if not by others, by their own feelings of failure. They are literally struggling to survive each and every day of the week, with little rest. Which is amazing actually — because of all people, they could easily say they have the least to live for. Yet day, after day they overcome challenges most people experience only once or twice a year, if ever. It is both heroic and tragic. If you are one of those people, struggling and fighting, I am here to tell you things will get better…I promise they will get better. This is how I know.

I am the poster child for failure. For various cultural reasons, I married young. Got pregnant, and dropped out of college. As time passed, I discovered my husband had an anger management problem. He became verbally abusive to our three beautiful children and me. He tore us down as human beings and threatened to kill us regularly. Because I had no way to support my kids and was weak and scared, I stayed married for too long. The abuse got worse — it got more and more physical. I finally left.

It was great for a few months. I got child support and was free at last. I worked part-time and bought myself a town house. Because the housing market was bad, my ex and I rented out our home, but it covered the house payment. Things looked up for the first time in a decade.

But because life can be so very cruel, my ex blew up his life and lost his job. The child support dried up. My renters defaulted. I found myself barely making minimum wage at a part-time, commission-based job and solely responsible for feeding three small children and paying two mortgages — all in the course of about three months. I had no family nearby. No money for gas or food. No idea how to find support. No money for childcare. My ex never took the kids. I was screwed.

I found myself in an impossible situation. And, as things go, when you’re down, there is no such thing as rock bottom. Life will knock you to the ground, then the ground will fall out from beneath you, and then as you sit at the bottom of that pit, it will beat you until you’re bloody, over and over again. That is exactly what happened. Every possible thing that could go wrong did. Every bank and business that could rip me off did. I had a car accident. My kids were sick. And, everyone I knew had more important things to do or turned on me when I lost my luster — including some of my own family members. That pretty much describes my life for two years straight and then some. It was a painful, seemingly endless period of suffering of the worst kind. So much anguish.

I share this because I want to show you that if I can do it, you can too. I know things look impossible now, but life will get better. It won’t happen over night, but it will get better. And, as most people find after they’ve survived something only few can imagine, you will not only find happiness comes easier to you, but you will find yourself more powerful than you ever imagined.

I can promise you things will get better. I PROMISE. But it won’t get better if you give up. And, as unattractive as it may sound, you are going to have to claw your way out — but it will be worth it. This is how you do it:

Accept no one is coming to save you. You will have to save yourself.

This was my hardest lesson. For a number of reasons I won’t belabor here, I thought people would swoop in and save me when things got rough. But no one saved me. In fact, I received more hate than help back then from people who didn’t understand what was going on and chose to judge instead of love. But honestly, it was a very stupid set of expectations to begin with. Eventually my parents did what little they could, but by that point, it was like putting a cork in a boat that had just been hit by a missile. My ship was going down and there wasn’t a thing anyone but a millionaire could have done about it. It became painfully clear that no one was going to save me and I better start swimming.

Wealth and personal value are not mutually exclusive.

We live in a world that puts so much value on wealth and lifestyle. So, when bad things happen, it is easy to feel ashamed. It is easy to feel less worthy or less entitled to happiness. Just because your bank account is worthless, it doesn’t mean your personal value is as well. Wealth and value don’t have anything to do with each other. And, so much of what looks good on the outside isn’t anyway–a fast car is fun, but it’s not going to bring you any lasting happiness — neither is blowing a grand on dinner or snorting it up your nose. Those are depreciating things. Are you a good person? Are you a good parent? Are you doing your best? Those are the things that add up to personal value and happiness in life. Money has nothing to do with it — so put that shame aside and instead embrace that fighter within.

This will apply to your social life too. Love yourself as a powerful being and maintain high standards for yourself, but accept that your standard of living and all it’s social privileges’ will take a nosedive. Don’t fight it, it’s ok, and it’s temporary. Don’t feel ashamed by it. Fighting against it will only magnify your feelings of loss.

Gratitude may save your life.

There were so many days I felt so low. At times, I was positive dying would be less painful than living. I felt such deep sorrows, felt entirely alone, and couldn’t handle the pressures that were crushing me. I’d be lying if I said suicide didn’t cross my mind a time or two. But, there were my kids. I would never, ever destroy them like that. And, I was their only chance at survival. No one else cared about them like I did and no one else would be willing to do what it took to help them. So, in my darkest moments, I would wail, and cry, and try so hard to think about what I had left. Not much, but I had things. I had my beautiful girls. I eventually had enough food to live. I had songs I could listen to, birds that sang me songs and breezes that cooled me off. I also had occasional graces that allowed me to survive one more day. And, I had myself. I had already survived more than I thought I could — I could do this. Focusing on those little things buoyed me up just enough to keep on living and keep on fighting.

Get whatever support you can.

I know there is a stigma associated with welfare. I grew up in a very anti-welfare family — so when I was in a situation of needing some help, I didn’t. The thought of it only magnified my feelings of personal failure. However, when I realized my kids were going to starve, my personal feelings didn’t really matter anymore. See my article “Welfare Queen” if you want to know more about it. Find out about what is available to you and take advantage of it as soon as you can. Remember — you’ve been paying taxes your whole life, and, when you’re back on your feet, you will pay them again. It’s your money. And, if you’re worried about the cost to others, according to the White House, it’s about $3.00 a month. Most people pay more for a lousy cup of coffee.

Exploit every advantage, no matter how small.

I was uneducated. I had no real job experience, and no real way to make a living wage. But, I couldn’t let that stop me. You can’t either. Look to your hobbies, your interests, dig around for any untapped strengths. Then, focus on how you can monetize those. For me, it was writing. When my life fell apart, all I’d written were a few articles for a small neighborhood newsletter, a college newsletter and my high school paper. It was embarrassing really. But, it was enough to get me a part-time community relation’s job, which I then used to get a full-time junior copywriting job a year later.

Be willing to start at the bottom.

I know it sucks and can be really hard on the ego — especially when you’ve already lost so much. At this point, you really need to let that go. Humility is a great asset when you are struggling. Besides, if you work hard and learn what you can, you’ll find you won’t be at the bottom for long. And, before you know it, you’ll work your way up, gaining all sorts of valuable skills as you go — skills that will earn you better roles.

Get used to rejection. Be persistent. Be flexible.

I experienced 50 rejections for every maybe. And, from five “maybes”, I got one opportunity. And, it wasn’t a convenient “maybe”. It meant a two-hour commute each way, driving in the snow through a narrow canyon for a temporary position that “might” become a full-time position. With three kids the age of eight and under, that posed significant problems. I was going to make it work. You can too.

Get creative and make a plan.

Nothing will come easy — there are no silver platters of opportunity. At best, they’ll look like leftovers from 2 days ago. But, it’s food — food for you and any little ones you may have in tow. Find a way to make opportunities work. For the scenario above, I found out about a girl who had been kicked out of her house for dating a guy that wasn’t her parent’s faith. I vetted her to make sure she was safe, and then gave her a room in exchange for babysitting while I commuted. I got up before the sunrise each morning and got home after dark each day. I got home just in time to say goodnight to my babies, sleep, and do it all over again. My house was in the early stages of foreclosure at that point, so, I didn’t know how long it would last — but in the meantime, it was a solution that got me by — and it did, just long enough.

You are going to have to work harder than every one else.

When you’re struggling, it’s like people can smell your vulnerability. Instead of offering kindness, they offer skepticism. They don’t respect you, and they will hold you to a higher standard of performance than everyone else. Accept it as the cost of opportunity and don’t worry too much about it. Work hard. Work really hard. If you’re falling behind, don’t let them know — stay late. Don’t make excuses; just make whatever is being asked of you happen. People will notice. And, eventually, it will ease up.

Get the most value out of every opportunity — learn, learn, learn.

There is a chance that your opportunity won’t pan out. But that doesn’t mean you can’t squeeze every bit of goodness out of it while you’re there. Learn everything you can. Get to know people in all parts of the business. Learn from them — get a good picture of the business and how all the pieces work. Then, no matter what happens, you’ll be more prepared for the next opportunity. And, maybe, just maybe, an opportunity that looked like it was going south may start to move in your direction. This is a philosophy I still carry with me — I am continually trying to squeeze all that I can out of every single opportunity.

There is a chance you’re going to have to give up nearly everything.

Because of my hard work, that contract job turned into a full-time job opportunity. I wasn’t going to make a lot of money, but it would be enough to pay rent somewhere and feed my kids. So, I had a yard sale. The signs read: “My ex won’t pay his child support yard sale”. I couldn’t help myself. I sold what I could for nearly nothing. But it enabled me to get a moving truck for what was left and a little money. Yes, it was sad to see all the beautiful things I had go, really sad. I also had to let my house go — it wasn’t selling. I might as well have lit a match and burned it all down. The remains were all that was left anyway. But, at the end of the day, it’s just stuff, and when you’re trying to claw your way out of a pit, the lighter you are, the better. And yes, a financial person would probably say it was stupid because I’d just have to re-buy it at full-price later. But, the rules of finance don’t apply when you’re struggling. What people don’t understand is that when you’re struggling, every day is an exercise in survival. You are just buying yourself time, hoping if you just hold out long enough, you’ll get a break. Commuting four hours each day, paying for fuel, driving in dangerous conditions, etc., didn’t make a lot of sense financially either. But it saved my ass in the end. It’s ok to start over, and, it will likely be required.

Don’t expect your life to get better overnight. It will take time.

Even after getting the job and getting onto things, life was still difficult. My townhome and home were in foreclosure. I had creditors calling me constantly and my credit was demolished — which significantly reduced my ability to get back on my feet. I eventually had to file for bankruptcy. It was horrible. Without going into every boring detail, all told, it took about 6 more years for me to feel like everything was getting back to normal. But, each day was better than before, and while things weren’t easy, I was never a day away from a homeless shelter again. Life will improve incrementally, and along the way there will be plenty of joys. It will be hard at times, but it will be worth it, so worth it. You just have to stick it out. The time will go fast.

When things start to get back on track. Don’t be stupid. Be cautious.

Unless you want a repeat, when things start to get better, you have to be more careful than ever before. You have to make better decisions and there is absolutely no room for error — you are often one mistake away from disaster. I was stupid — like I said, I am the poster girl for failure. I got remarried and married a guy that couldn’t hold a job and stole money from me just as I was starting to make some headway. I thought he was a good person and would make my life easier, but instead, he started to destroy it all over again — and I could have lost it all. But this time, I was smarter and recognized it sooner. I got out as soon as I could. It set me back a little bit, but I was definitely starting to get it. Don’t do that. From now on, the people you allow into your life must add value, not take away from it. You also need to save more, be more disciplined, and more goal-oriented. If you aren’t, your cycle of poverty will continue. Sure, despite this, bad stuff will still happen, but you’ll be better prepared to deal with it.

You will have a happy ending

Today, I’m not wealthy, but my life is rich. My kids are healthy and wonderful people. I have a wonderful job that allows me to live a comfortable life. I finally met a wonderful man, had a fairytale romance, and remarried. And, I feel like I am just getting started — there is so much potential and I’ve never been stronger. I have more than I ever thought I would and I am a better person than I ever thought I could be. That dark place I came from seems so far away from me now.

I know this, or whatever it is that you want for yourself is possible. I know this because I did it and I am not extraordinary in any way. I’m not smarter than anyone, I’m not more attractive than anyone either. By the world’s standards, I am completely average. In fact, in some ways, in large part because of certain aspects of my upbringing, I was probably less than average in many ways — handicapped almost. But I found a way to happiness and stability that isn’t dependent on anyone but myself — and I know you can too. The secret was to just keep going…climbing that mountain, one step at a time.

You will get your happy ending, or happy beginning rather. It will be everything you hope it will be and more. So, please, when you feel most like giving up, don’t. You can do this. And when you do — you will truly understand how powerful you are.

Love, Kristen

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