What I’ve Learned From Living My Worst Nightmare
And what you can learn too.
Everybody is afraid of something. And we've all got some kind of idea about the kind of life we absolutely couldn’t live. As a result, we often live some portion of our lives overcompensating for those fears.
We stay in unhealthy relationships because we don’t want to be alone. Or we remain in unfulfilling, dead end jobs because we’re afraid of failing at our own dreams. Oh, we dream, but we avoid acting on so many of our dreams because we assume they're so far out of reach that we'd fail.
Most of us avoid some amount of risk simply because we’re scared of paying for it. Everybody has their own personal nightmare, and nobody wants to live there. Mostly because we don’t believe we could get through it.
Maybe that's why we sometimes get stuck living lives we didn't really want. Lives that aren't terrible, but lives that are also not that great. We tend to assume that something is better than nothing. And as long as it's not our worst nightmare... we'll just deal with it.
Recently, my friend Glenna Gill responded to my story about women needing to put their own careers and futures ahead of marriage or romantic entanglements. When Glenna confessed she’s scared of something happening to her husband that would leave her and her child in the lurch, I realized that I understand the nightmare of being alone.
In fact, only then did it occur to me that I've already been living my worst nightmare... and it hasn't destroyed me like I feared.
Five years ago next week, I was so terrified of being a single mother and raising a baby alone that I took a kitchen knife into the bathroom and locked the door with the full intention to end my life.
It’s with no small amount of embarrassment that I write these words. Just looking back upon that time hurts. I was pregnant with my only child, Sophie, and I couldn’t even wrap my mind around the idea of life as a single mom.
Her father and I lived together for less than half a year when he left me pregnant. He had given me my dream engagement ring just a week earlier, but what perplexed me the most was how... unfair the entire situation was.
The way he could just walk way, unscathed, and move on with his ordinary life. My life, however, would never be the same.
I was instantly tied to the pregnancy and a newfound lack of agency. I couldn’t work--hyperemesis gravidarum made me run to the bathroom to vomit throughout the workday. No one in the T-Mobile call center had been too excited that I was a newish employee with a high-risk pregnancy.
Women with PCOS are susceptible to more complications, and I seemed to experience most of them. I talked to my OBGYN about the anxiety, stress, and depression I was experiencing even before my partner kicked me out. My OB recommended leaving my job, and I knew I’d be let go if I stayed.
I also knew that if I kept the baby, I’d be on my own. I just sensed it. It’s ironic because five years later my daughter's dad is remarried to a woman who doesn't work at all, and they recently had a new baby. Her third and his fifth. Yet when I was having his--fourth--child, he complained about his first wife never working, and claimed he couldn't handle another child or support me if I couldn't work during pregnancy.
It was my worst nightmare. Raising a baby without a partner while I was still new to Tennessee and out of work. My ex told me I was being overdramatic. "Just get a full-time job again. You'll be fine,'" he told me.
Neither one of my ex's wives earned an income while raising their young children. They never needed to worry about things like childcare or juggling their work with parenting. I felt he could never understand the challenges I faced.
He couldn't, and he didn't have to. Men don't have to think about those things when they walk away.
It's amazing, really.
Five years ago, I wanted to die. Prenatal depression doesn't get a ton of press, but I can tell you it's every bit as serious as postpartum depression. I had both.
The only way I felt I could fight back and keep my head above water was to turn my situation into a reason to follow my dreams. During my tumultuous pregnancy (which included numerous trips to the ER and a few hospital stays) I decided I would finally become a writer. Not that I actually wrote a word toward that goal when I was pregnant--because I didn't.
Initially, I just browsed a ton of the successful mommy blogs and kept thinking that if they could do it, maybe I could do it too. And that sliver of hope kept me going when I doubted I could get through another day.
No one was impressed with my aspirations, of course. I still remember sitting in a crepe cafe with my daughter's dad, and telling him that I could only see myself writing to support our child. Absurdly, I was basically asking for his permission. He kept insisting that I needed a stable job, and I kept insisting that there was no way I was suited for working all day in an office and then trying to have something left for my baby at night.
I can't explain why I was looking for other people's approval to start writing, but I can tell you it was hard to find. More than one person told me it was unrealistic and impossible to be a single mom and write for a living.
But I caught a lucky break and began writing for a social media management agency when my daughter was about nine months old. For more than three years, I supported my daughter by writing for other businesses, but I felt like such a hack. I wasn't writing what I wanted to write. There was no time.
I finally began writing what I wanted to write out of sheer desperation because the social media work suddenly decreased and was no longer enough to support myself or my daughter.
I only began going after my dreams when my back was against the wall. And guess what? I'm still here.
The truth is that I've been living my nightmare as a single mom for some years since my daughter is now four-and-a-half. It might sound melodramatic to call this life my nightmare, but the point is that I never thought I could do this. But I had to find a way to do it anyway. So I did.
Of course, I'm still not safe on the other side. I battle real loneliness everyday, and every month it's a mystery as to whether or not I'll make it financially. Somehow, things always do work out, and I have faith that my situation will eventually rise above most of the uncertainty.
See, the cool thing about living our "worst nightmares" is that we learn we're stronger than we even knew. I used to think life wouldn't be worth living, or that I couldn't handle it if certain things happened. If I became a single mom. If I wound up alone. Or if I lost my job.
All of those things happened... yet I'm still here.
I'm still in the midst of my nightmare, but the good news is that it doesn't actually feel terrible. It just feels hard. My life is challenging, and I have a long ways to go, but it's also far from over.
I suspect it would be much the same for you. If the worst ever came to pass, you'd likely be much stronger than you give yourself credit for. And you might even turn your worst nightmare into your biggest opportunity.
Life is hard, but life is short. We're missing out on amazing lessons when we run from the mere possibility of failure and loss. The future may unfurl itself in unexpected ways, but who's to say our suffering won't forge our wings and spur us to rise up like a phoenix out of the ashes?
Turn your devastating blows into your greatest successes. I believe in you. And I believe in me too.