This could be your great regret, your demise, your self-demolition; it could also be your starting point.
We arrived in the in-between hours, the quiet gray of night fading into morning.
We were all exhausted. I was nervous. We hadn’t even seen where we’d be living for some untold number of months, our short-term house. We found it online.
Turned out to be lovely. We could see the ocean from the balcony. There was a pool. We could walk to the beach.
We settled into our new life, hundreds of miles away from family and friends and community. Our kids had never lived anywhere but a few minutes from their grandparents.
We’d lived in the same ten-mile radius our entire dozen years of life together.
You don’t know for sure when things start to change.
Sometimes you can point to a moment, a word, a conversation or experience when you made a decision.
Took a step.
Revealed a truth or became aware of one.
Awareness is the point of change, but you don’t always know when the awareness comes. It can grow slowly inside of you for years, decades. Then one day, you take the giant leap.
To everyone else, it seems sudden. Unexpected, unforeseen.
But it’s been growing inside of you for so long. It is the natural next step. It is your only possible move.
It is the blooming of a seed that was planted long ago.
It is growth.
We were in a long-imagined world, all of a sudden: working together, a dream we’d had for a long time. And working for one of those snazzy tech start-ups. Living on a fucking tropical island.
And we were having an amazing experience.
There was loneliness. There was confusion. There was uncertainty. There were a lot of emotions, in other words. I won’t list them all individually.
There was a lot of work.
Start-ups are hard. So hard. Did you guys know this? Were you aware?
Not really. I’d been a freelance writer in my previous, boring, Midwestern life. Now I was working full-time for a start-up. Handling content and marketing and human resources. Feeling important. Feeling completely overwhelmed.
Another thing about start-ups is that they’re filled with uncertainty. (This is not just start-ups, as it turns out. This is life.)
You don’t know when things start to shift, internally, in a way that gets you to that point of revelation, understanding, and change.
By the time you know you’re changing, you’ve already been doing so for some time. You might not notice until things have shifted (past tense, see?) enough that you start to get uncomfortable.
You’ll notice when the changes start to freak you out.
When you think maybe I need to slow things down. This is freaking me out. I need to step back. Put on the brakes.
I think of the last year as the year of coming undone. That isn’t accurate, though. The coming undone thing has been going on much longer than a year.
When did it start?
I have no idea. Maybe it was when I got married. Or graduated college and had no idea what to do next. Maybe when I had a child. When my mom died. When I turned thirteen, or thirty. When I realized nobody knows what the fuck they’re doing, and it’s okay.
Probably none of those moments.
The most important moments, the life-changing ones, happen quietly and inwardly. In that inner room, the place we go in secret, that’s where the real power is and that’s where the real changes start.
Start-ups can go well or not. Start-ups can be led or they can be dictated. Start-ups can be first to market or not even get to market. Start-ups can get funded or not get funded.
That’s all an oversimplification. It’s not a clear-cut dichotomy. It’s not black and white. It’s complicated, as our founder would say.
And he was right. It is complicated.
Especially if you want it to be. Especially if you need complexity to hide issues. Especially if you depend on manipulation to control outcomes.
It’s complicated, until it isn’t.
And it isn’t when you take a deep enough breath and a big enough step back.
When it was time to go, we did.
We hung on for much too long. We waited. We justified. We overlooked.
We stretched our finances, week after paycheck-less week. We stretched further, into black-hole territory, the place you never want your finances to go.
It was ugly.
But the ugly part wasn’t the financial mess we allowed ourselves to get in. The ugly part was that we had all been friends. At least that’s what we thought. Then we were enemies.
When you’re in the middle of growth — halfway or more through enormous change, or maybe (you think, you hope) all the way through some terrifying transition — you can begin to see the causes, the patterns, the catalysts.
You grow enough to look back and see the evidence in real life, in memories not too far away to be fuzzed out. The view brings clarity. Sometimes clarity will scare the shit out of you.
You get scared because — even though you’ll deny it — you secretly know your own power and fear it.
You crave comfort, but you know that you crave growth even more. You see and feel (as if through a mirror, dimly) the inner force that will discard your cries for comfort, certainty, predictability.
Like so much trash.
So much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
The hand of God within you collects all your tears in a bottle, then tosses it out the window. You are more than your tears. You are more than your pain. You require more of yourself. You demand the changes even as you cower from them.
The seed was planted. That’s why it works this way. The seed is small. Innocuous. Can’t hurt that much. So you allow it. You plant it. You lower your defenses.
And the seed grows. It vines in and out of your heart, your mind, your memories, your desires, your choices. The seed blossoms and fruits.
It happened fast, as slow-growing things often do.
One morning, we were talking about what to do. We knew we couldn’t stay any longer. We knew there were issues we couldn’t overlook, issues worse and more upsetting than not being paid for months.
We didn’t want to be the first to go. It’s hard to be the first to go.
We didn’t want to be the ones to accuse. It’s hard to be the one who speaks the ugly truth.
We didn’t want to let go of our investment. It’s hard to realize you’ve sunk a lot of money, time, and energy into something that is failing.
We didn’t want to attack. It’s hard to initiate conflict with people you care about.
We didn’t want to make things worse. It’s hard to pin down the noise and smoke of narcissism.
Not an hour after this discussion, we got a call. Anger! Accusations! We answered the questions. The anger became confusion. The accusations turned out to be misunderstandings. We weren’t the first to attack, after all. We’d been pre-empted.
Was it strike or counter-strike?
We didn’t know anymore.
We had hesitated to speak, to strike, to lay down lines, because we didn’t want to become enemies. And while we hesitated, we were turned into enemies, anyway.
It was already over, but that was the official time of death. For us, anyway.
Growth is change. Growth is unfamiliar. Growth hurts. Growth changes everything.
Growth is life.
Growth only happens when you enter in the cycle of life, which includes birth, growth, fruiting, decay, and — yep — death.
You — like all of us — shy away from that decay and death part of the cycle. You like to focus on the birth and growth and fruitful part of the cycle.
The pretty part.
The interesting, comfortable part.
The part we take photos of and put on calendars and show off when people ask questions like, “So What Do You Do?”
But the decay and death part is as important, beautiful, and necessary to the cycle of life as every other part. You’ll go through many small versions of this cycle in a single lifetime.
You live the cycle as you move from infancy to old age to the final letting go of death.
(Is it final? Or is it the necessary step toward the beginning of the next cycle?)
Most of us, most of the time, whirl through these cycles hardly aware of them.
We talk about “seasons of life,” sure. But we prefer parts of the seasons, and we ignore the other parts.
The shadow part. The painful, letting go part. The decay and death part. The part where we come undone, so that we fade into nothing and then rebirth ourselves into the next cycle.
The coming undone scares us.
But coming undone — all that it entails, however you word it — is release.
It is freedom from baggage that weighs us down. It is letting go of burdens we no longer need to carry. It is freedom from identities that no longer belong to us, and perhaps never did. It is release from obligations, issues, psychic clutter that does not serve us.
Coming undone can happen anytime, to anyone.
It will happen to you.
It probably already has, and you might have gone through it kicking, screaming, flailing, and generally being a brat. As a result, you’re thinking about how you can prevent that experience from ever happening again.
This is trouble, this type of thinking. A self-defensive approach will make you brittle and hard, and when the next shaking happens…
Well, friend, you won’t just come undone.
You’ll burst, you’ll explode into fragments, and what’s left of you will wither into dust.
That’s okay, too, though. Nothing eternal can be permanently lost.
I thought Christmas of 2016 was tough.
It had nothing on Christmas of 2017.
We had left the start-up and begun rebuilding our lives.
I started freelancing again, and just as I had built up something kind of regular, September came along.
And it brought a hurricane.
With thousands of others, we lost power, and water, and Internet access, and the ability to work.
Our friends and family helped us. My sister set up a GoFundMe. Complete strangers sent us boxes of food and supplies. Our landlord was patient.
The water came back right before Thanksgiving. We had a meal with friends, but the water went off again that day, so we still had to haul water for toilets and dish-washing and, well, everything.
But that was okay. It came back again soon after.
The power came back, on our street, on December 1. It was all the Christmas present I needed.
But we couldn’t afford to buy any presents for our kids.
We told them the week before Christmas. They said, “It’s okay.” I sobbed, because I knew it was our choices — mine, and my husband’s — that had created this lack, this pain.
Every risk we took, we took freely.
Every time we chose not to run back to a safe place, we chose freely.
That moment was one of the most painful.
It’s one thing to endure your own pain, isn’t it? It’s another thing to cause pain for someone else. To value yourself enough that you make a choice you need to make, knowing it will disappoint, or confuse, or upset.
To choose, knowing that your choice will wound.
But you know what? It was also okay. They are okay. And they are watching us.
Sometime in those first, stressful, broke months of 2017, I started asking myself new questions.
I quit asking myself, “How are we going to survive? How are we going to make it?”
I started asking myself, once again, “Who am I? What do I want to be? What do I want to do? What matters to me? What do I desire? What do I need to do, what crazy thing is beating in my heart that won’t leave me alone?”
What is this seed I planted, and what fruit will it bear?
Finding the answer has been the work of a year. A long, slow, nonstop, crazy, terrifying, amazing year. When you’ve spent twenty years or so thinking in terms of survival and being reasonable, it takes time to be honest about what you really want.
But we’re getting there.
And our kids are watching us. I hope they will see and learn what I am learning. I hope they see that I value myself and my desires enough to sacrifice comfort, and the illusion of stability, and a steady paycheck, and the approval of others.
We couldn’t give them Christmas presents, but I give them this truth, every day, as we live it:
You are valuable because you are. You don’t need to justify yourself to the world. You are your own reason for existence. You can value your own desires just as much, just as hard, just as long, through any amount of pain and coming undone, and you can live them.
Every single one.
You don’t have to shift priorities, like everyone else does to make it in the system. You don’t have leave your Self behind. You don’t have to put survival over joy.
The universe will have its way.
You cannot fight the cycle of life successfully. All you can do, with your fighting, is make going through the cycle slow and painful instead of beautiful and exhilarating.
What if you could let go of that fear?
What if coming undone became something beautiful, something you accepted and experienced with joy rather than fear?
It can be.
Coming undone, like all the messy necessary chaos of life, is a gift. @AnnieMueller (Click to Tweet!)
If you’re in it — one of those heavy-duty phases when everything you’ve relied on seems to be absolutely falling apart and you are reeling, dizzy, spitting mad, helpless, trembling, wondering what you did wrong and how you’ll ever feel safe again — if you’re in that, here’s a word.
A secret. Advice, if you’ll have it.
Don’t hold on so tight.
Let go so hard that the universe trembles at the power you release.
Shake it all off, shake it fully, shake yourself free.
Throw your hands in the air.
Cry, scream, curse, moan, sing, sway and rock and huddle into yourself, throw the dirt in your hair and rub the ash on your face. Mourn for all that has been, all that has been killed, all that is undone before you. Howl into it, lean into all of this tumbling spinning falling that you’re feeling, and let yourself come absolutely, completely, utterly, beautifully undone.
And realize that what you’re doing is the cosmic equivalent of taking off your grown-up pants and curling up with your favorite blanket for a nap.
Coming undone is you — at the end of a phase, at the turn of a season, in the moment of change — letting go. Let go of all the safe, grown-up, reasonable, system-driven, seemingly important habits and markers of identity and security that you’ve accumulated along the way.
You don’t need them anymore.
Drop it all: the clutter, the labels, the safety nets you wove around yourself, the boxes you shut yourself inside, the blinders, the assumptions, the dogmas and creeds, the worn-out, well-paved step-by-step guide to a predictable life you don’t love.
Close your eyes. Fall in, fall deep. Unwind yourself from these trappings.
Drop down into deep sleep, free from all those dreams of identity, so that your soul can be renewed and refreshed and enriched and, in the morning, rebirthed.
Annie Mueller is a writer, reader, seeker of growth, and transplant to Puerto Rico, where she lives with her best friend and their four children. Her crash course in self-discovery came from experiencing job loss, financial devastation, Hurricane Maria and its aftermath, and major surgery—all in less than a year. She writes about creativity, personal growth, and spirituality; runs Prolifica, a content management consultancy for small teams and solo professionals; and sends out a popular weekly newsletter about feelings and freelancing. You can find more of her work on her website.
Image courtesy of Patrick Langwallner.