Make Different Mistakes: A Cautionary Tale From the School of Hard Knocks

by Annie

in managing overwhelm

Collision of an asteroid with the EarthIt’s going to happen.

You will face a shit-storm.

It may be a Cat 5 — like my Cloverfield-sized meltdown about five years back, to which I’ve alluded.

It may be smaller but more personally devastating — like my “I sold FOUR copies” ebook experience.

And, just like Steph did, you may find yourself waking up one morning after a particularly soul-quaking dream with an epiphany blowing your mind.

But before that happens, you will probably spend several days, weeks, months, or even years, struggling to make sense of it all, asking yourself in ever-increasing degrees of frustration and desperation “What the hell happened there?!”

I tell you this not to bring you down, or put a damper on your glowy unicorns-pooping-out-rainbows-and-sparkles dreams, cupcake.

I tell you this so that it will be somewhere in your mind when it happens (and it will).

And on that day, that tiny part of your brain will flick a neurological switch, and seemingly out of nowhere, the thought will bubble to the surface:

Annie told me this was gonna happen.

And on that day, I want you to remember to come back here and re-read this post. Read it many times. Read it out loud. Print it out and sleep with it under your pillow. (Just in case that whole “learning by osmosis” thing turns out to be true after all.)

Because I’m about to tell you the Cat 5 story.

And if nothing else, it should make you feel a whole lot better about yourself and your shit-storm.

How Procrastination, Overwhelm, a Lack of Planning, and a Failure to Call For Help Killed a Career

::::ahem:::::

So, once upon a time, I was a lawyer. I had a cushy job with a government agency, and made over $70,000 a year.

And it was crushing me.

Slowly, to be sure, and not all of it due to the insane political pressure of this job, but enough to make me painfully aware that if I didn’t get out, I would lose some part of myself forever.

About the same time as this realization was hitting home, my family sort of … fell apart. My brother died, which broke my mother’s heart. Shortly after that, she fell and broke her hip. While she was recovering from that, we learned her cancer had returned – and this time, it would kill her.

Full-time care for Mom wasn’t an option for us, so the hubby and I decided to sell our house and move in with mom, where I would then launch my own law practice and be Mom’s caregiver. I should point out here: Everybody thought this was a great idea — yes, even me. I was motivated, it sounded like a challenge that would actually be fun, and everyone around me was supportive. Not once did anyone say “Um, hold up there … ” although it wouldn’t have mattered if they had. My mind was made up. I could make this work.

And for several months, it was working. Or, rather, it seemed to be working.

Then Mom died. Then, in the same month, my marriage ended. Then my ex lost his job.

And the next thing I knew, it was a year later, and everything was in shambles around me.

“What the hell happened there?!”

I asked myself that question a lot. I’ve spent more hours than I can possibly recount examining that time frame, and the precise path from A to ZOMG.

Here’s what I know …

How It All Went Wrong

Since 1999, I’d been coping with chronic pain as a result of an untreated case of scoliosis, as well as a ruptured disk and fibromyalgia. Medication, yoga, and a whole host of other conservative treatment measures had brought this pain under control for the most part, leaving me able to function fairly close to normally.

But when Mom came home, and I became her caregiver, the pain began increasing – mildly and slowly at first, but then dramatically.

By the time we buried her in her hometown in late January 2007, my pain had increased from an average score of 3-4 out of 10 to 6-7. That’s with prescription pain medication.

On top of the pain, I was suffering from a pretty severe case of sleep deprivation. Due to all the combined stress, I began experiencing insomnia. When the pain increased, that sleep deprivation just grew worse.

I didn’t want to add any more medication to my regimen because I was concerned about mixing even a mild opioid like the one I was taking with any sort of sleep aid. I tried increasing the conservative treatments — more massage, more yoga — and then, when that didn’t help, cutting down on the physical activity, which was also unhelpful.

So I was caught in this never-ending, always-escalating vicious cycle of more pain –> less sleep –> more pain.

Now, here’s the part that surprises me even to this day, and it’s something I want everyone reading this to take to heart:

When I was in the middle of the worst of this,
I had no idea I was in trouble. 

Zero recognition of impending doom.

No funny feelings in the pit of my stomach.

No conscious thought of “Hm, maybe I should ask for help.”

No. Clue.

Instead, I kept telling myself something like this:

OK, this is bad, but it’ll get better. And I want to help these people. They’re depending on me. I need to get my shit together and just work harder. I can’t let them down. It’s not that bad. I’ll be OK.

Meanwhile, I was stumbling around like a zombie. And the impact was nothing short of disastrous.

I would be on the phone with a client, making an appointment to meet. Then, somehow, somewhere between my mouth, which said “Sure, Tuesday the 17th at 10 AM is great” and my hand which wrote down “Wednesday the 18th at 1 PM,” things would go horribly awry.

I was making huge mathematical errors in the very simple math that accompanies a bankruptcy filing.

I’d read a one-paragraph statute for over an hour, and have no more clue what I’d just read than before I started.

And inevitably, my “to-do” list exploded almost overnight, as it began taking me longer and longer to perform even the simplest of tasks.

This part of it – right up until the next thing that happened – it’s bad, to be sure, but I’m at peace with it. That’s because my only other option would have been to not help my Mom when she was injured and dying. And that was never an option for me. So yeah, up to this point, I’m OK.

It’s the “what happened next” that makes me want to vomit.

What Happened Next

I hid.

I stopped answering the phone.

I put off those simple tasks that I struggled with, endlessly procrastinating.

I’d spend hours sitting on the couch, staring at the television, without a clue as to what was actually going on there.

That’s not just procrastination, folks – that’s world-class procrastination. And ever so predictably, it led to overwhelm. And for this part, it was all on me. At some level, even if it was subconsciously and in a brain that was addled from sleep deprivation and constant pain, I decided to procrastinate. I decided not to call anyone for help.

And just like that, I was done.

By the time I realized, finally, that the problem was monumental, far beyond my ability to control, and creating significant risks to my clients — the very folks I’d wanted to help for Christ’s sake — it was too late.

The Price I Paid

The sum total of the fallout from this nightmarish two-year period is beyond measurement, I think. But here are just a handful of consequences:

  • I went from barely making ends meet to income-less in the span of three months.
  • My car was repossessed.
  • I was evicted.
  • I had to move into a one-room studio, less than 200 square feet total, with my daughter.
  • I lost my law license.
  • I was homeless, for all intents and purposes — couch-surfing with friends for a little over a year, capped off by five weeks in a dirt-cheap fleabag motel.
  • I had to declare bankruptcy myself.

And, of course, the pain I experience on a daily basis stayed at the new, higher levels.

But the biggest price of all? The hit to my self-esteem. I struggled for months to stop thinking of myself as someone who needed to be and deserved to be punished.

What I Learned

Five main lessons — that’s what I want to leave you with:

  1. We are none of us alone … unless we don’t ask for help.
  2. Procrastination will inevitably lead to overwhelm, if it’s allowed to run unchecked.
  3. And overwhelm can kill a business. Any business. Any creative endeavor at all, actually.
  4. Whatever you’re afraid of — whatever that fear is that’s keeping you from doing the task you’re resisting — it’s nothing compared to what will happen if you don’t do it.
  5. You can recover from any failure, if you allow yourself to learn from your mistakes, then own your mistakes, make it right where you can, and forgive yourself for your part in the failure.

Especially that last one. Because you will make mistakes —  we all will.

Just aim to keep making different mistakes, and stop repeating the same ones over and over. Make right what can be made right. Apologize where you can and need to.

And then forgive yourself. Pick yourself up, humbled and wiser.

And begin again.

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{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

Kellie Leigh July 23, 2012 at 6:26 pm

Amazing life lessons Annie. I just wrote a post myself about ups and downs… you know what they say “the harder the ball falls, the higher it bounces!” :)

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Annie July 23, 2012 at 9:26 pm

I’d like to read that one, Kellie. Thank you for your support. :) It means a lot.

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Sheila Hibbard July 23, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Your story certainly gives one pause. But the good news is you came out on the other side of it and you, we, all can recover. Nothing is insurmountable. Thank you for sharing this very personal story, Annie.
Sheila Hibbard recently posted..Twitter – Add Some Muscle To Your Tweets

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Annie July 23, 2012 at 9:29 pm

We’re all works in progress, and human. Those two things together mean we will eff up royally and then some, from time to time. Neither of those things was news to me – but what was strange was how *surprised* I was, I think, that I had failed so spectacularly. It’s almost as if I was thinking deep down “Well, sure, we’re all human … but I’m different.” Which — WTF?! It’s laughable *now* – of course at the time it was just one more horrifying realization. Ah, life. Thanks for your support, Sheila. :)

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Jennifer Hanford July 23, 2012 at 6:53 pm

Wow, Annie – it’s amazing that one person can go through so much…and then come through it again. Your story is inspiring…I’ll have a day or so where I feel like I’m overwhelmed, but now realize how easy I actually have it.

Thanks for sharing this – I hope others find it to be inspiring as well.
Jennifer Hanford recently posted..Top Ten Tweets Posted by B2B Inbound Online Last Week

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Annie July 23, 2012 at 9:31 pm

Thanks, Jennifer. :) I appreciate your support. What happened to me might be unusually spectacular, but it’s not that far off for a lot of us. I think we skate closer to the edge than we are ever comfortable acknowledging. That’s why I decided to go public with this, as frightening as that prospect was for me. If even one person out there who’s close to his or her own edge reads this, and reaches out for help, or manages to put the brakes on, it’s worth the scariness.

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Tea Silvestre, aka the Word Chef July 23, 2012 at 7:32 pm

Sweet baby lettuce, girlfriend! What a roller coaster of a ride THAT was (..For ME. I broke out in a sweat, just reading it.) It’s truly mind-blowing the things we can endure in this little corner of the universe. I am SO glad you made your way through/over/under/around that one! The world NEEDS what you’ve got and we’re so happy to have you here with us.
Tea Silvestre, aka the Word Chef recently posted..Game-Changers Wanted: I Need Your Advice

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Annie July 23, 2012 at 7:59 pm

LOL – “sweet baby lettuce” – I just <3 your food-related expressions. I need to remember that one. And I thank you, and the other commenters. Hitting publish on this one was just about one of the scariest things I’ve done lately. :)

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Paul Woolley (@MySocialPro) July 23, 2012 at 8:21 pm

That’s f**Kin’ amazing Annie, thank you soo much for sharing! Way to show leadership of self! “You can recover from any failure, if you allow yourself to learn from your mistakes.” Well said!
Paul Woolley (@MySocialPro) recently posted..Social Media Marketing vs. Internet Marketing

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Annie July 23, 2012 at 9:31 pm

I am grateful for your support, Paul, truly. :) Thank you.

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SandyMc July 23, 2012 at 8:34 pm

OMG Annie, incredible. So much pain, so much trauma, so much courage to get through it. I am in awe. Like Tea, my stomach was churning as I read it. It could not get worse and it did. Perhaps the biggest lessons you have so clearly identified are living in denial and not asking for help. Many of us have succumbed to both and neither achieve anything but continuing madness. You deserve much for having pushed through what you have and recreated your life and your business. May you and it flourish for ever more.
SandyMc recently posted..Conversations with my list? A piece of cake.

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Annie July 23, 2012 at 9:34 pm

Thank you so much, Sandy. Your support and encouragement mean so much to me. You’re absolutely right – the denial and the resistance to reaching out for help are what did me in, and it’s a very human tendency. If even one person reads this and recognizes her own situation in it, and does something *differently* as a result, then it’s worth the scary feelings I experience putting this story out there. :)

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Sharon Hurley Hall July 23, 2012 at 10:09 pm

Wow, Annie. I’m in awe – any one of those things would have been a lot for someone to survive. To deal with all of them and come out the other side shows your inner strength. Glad you made it and thanks for the inspiration (which is kind of a weak word for what you’ve shared here today.)
Sharon Hurley Hall recently posted..Contractor Tips: Three Tips for Success on Elance

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Annie July 23, 2012 at 10:27 pm

Thank you so much, Sharon. Your support means a lot to me. I don’t think I’m special in any way, though – anyone can find strength they didn’t know they had, when “giving up” isn’t an option. I just felt as if I had no choice except to walk through it and come out the other side, for my daughter’s sake.

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Sandi Amorim July 23, 2012 at 10:26 pm

As Sharon said, “I’m in awe.” And I can relate to a lot of your experience. The irony strikes me often that while my work is about helping people, I rarely ask for help, and that has lead to a few breakdowns of similar nature (although really, did you have to take them all on at the same time???)

I am sure many people, especially women, will read this and relate, and learn from your tale. That you shared it so honestly makes that much more of an impact and easier for others to get the learning. Thanks for that Annie!
Sandi Amorim recently posted..Peace Comes From Within (and other thoughts on living)

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Annie July 23, 2012 at 10:28 pm

Sandi, I would certainly have preferred NOT to have them all at the same time, LOL! But them’s the breaks – and, to a large degree, the natural consequences. I do hope others find something useful in my sharing of this story. I really, really do. It would make all the squirrelly “eh, should I have done that?” second-guessing worthwhile.

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Michelle Church July 24, 2012 at 8:31 am

What a ride and you are truly going to help others with this. There’s something to be said about inner strength, we ALWAYS come through it…not saying it’s easy by any means…but some unconscious light is always shining and pulling us to the next step. There is a better future for you and you for damn sure are on your way…your energy is incredible and some great things are on your path. Thanks for sharing yourself with us!
Michelle Church recently posted..How Being Productive in Social Marketing Is Key To Attracting Visitors

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Annie July 24, 2012 at 11:23 am

Thanks, Michelle! I truly appreciate your support.

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Rabab Khan July 24, 2012 at 9:25 am

Sandi is right, a lot of women will be able to relate to this and I’m one of them. I have my share of tough times and reading your post made me think about my own mistakes. Thank you for sharing this personal part of your life to help other people.
Rabab Khan recently posted..Best Epic Fantasy books

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Annie July 24, 2012 at 11:24 am

I’m so glad this resonated with you Rabab! You can conquer anything. Keep moving forward!!

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Joseph Ruiz July 24, 2012 at 12:57 pm

Annie I think the best life lessons are worth sharing. Thanks for being transparent and courageous. Some really good advice. So sorry for what you had to go through to be able to offer it.
Joseph Ruiz recently posted..Inbound Marketing: Reminders About Keyword Strategy

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Annie July 24, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Thanks Joseph. :) Appreciate your comment and support, very much.

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Lori Cain July 24, 2012 at 1:37 pm

Wow Annie – very awesome that you choose to SHARE your story to help someone else. What a journey and life lessons. So glad you are back on top and here with us today!
Lori Cain recently posted..How do you select who to connect to?

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Annie July 24, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Thanks, Lori! Glad I’m here, too. ;)

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Carol Lynn July 25, 2012 at 3:08 pm

I’m thinking it would sound wrong to say I loved this story… hm… wait, I got it… I was riveted by this story! You know how you read long blog posts about someone’s crappy life and you think, blah blah blah snore who cares? Yeah, that was not this post! I can’t believe so many things can go wrong for one person. But mostly I can’t believe that one person can go through that many things and STILL get up to work, live, breathe and tell the story. So let’s see if I can run down the laundry list of coolness here.

1. Cool: that you shared this story in its painful unadulterated horribleness. That takes courage.
2. Cool: that you survived and came out the other side. That takes determination.
3. Cool: that you’re doing something positive that you love now and helping others along their journeys, too. That takes passion.

I will print this and put it under my pillow so I can take it out next time I’m feeling crabby about the fact that my coffee is too sweet. Seriously, fantastic post and lessons and so glad you shared.
Carol Lynn recently posted..Small Business, Big Lessons: How To Learn The Hard Way And Live To Earn Another Day

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Annie July 25, 2012 at 5:18 pm

Carol Lynn, I’m really humbled by your kind words. Thank you. Yes, “painful unadulterated horribleness” – that’s the best sum-up of this shitstorm I’ve ever read, by the way, LOL – I guess I feel that if you’re gonna come clean and share your failures, then you’re obligated to do it honestly and fully. Like you, I’ve read a few other posts from bloggers that purport to come clean on horrible mistakes and past failures, but if you read them, many times you get the sense the blogger’s holding back, or not being entirely honest. It’s freakin’ HARD to be this self-aware – to fully acknowledge and take responsibility for such huge and awful shortcomings, especially when the consequences are so far-reaching and severe. But the thing is – I feel so much lighter today than I did Sunday, before I hit that “publish” button on this post. There’s joy in that. Maybe now I can finally and TRULY let it go.

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Clare Price July 25, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Annie, thanks for sharing your story and your heart. Really one of absolute courage and awesome strength. When I’m having one of those down days your story will keep me moving forward. I love the advice to make different mistakes! Yep, absolutely true.

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Annie July 25, 2012 at 5:19 pm

Thank you, Clare. I truly appreciate that. :)

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Sharon July 25, 2012 at 4:49 pm

Oh Annie! You are so inspiring and so beautiful. Seriously, this takes a shit-ton of courage to share (but it’s incredibly important that you did). You are helping so many others! We are not alone (vulnerability = connection = love and support = world changing). I’m so happy to have ‘met’ you <3
Sharon recently posted..“We Have to Break Ourselves Open”: Navigating the Spaces of Uncertainty and Fear

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Annie July 25, 2012 at 5:20 pm

OK you’re about to make me cry, Sharon – and NOBODY needs to see that, LOL! :D Thank you, thank you, thank you – I am privileged to know YOU.

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Nick Armstrong July 25, 2012 at 8:25 pm

Wow Annie.

Someday I’m going to go back through your entire blog and read the crap out of it end-to-end. You’re fascinating as hell and really fucking inspiring.

I haven’t had to face hardship like that. I don’t know if I’d have been nearly as graceful if I had. But, oh my god have I been there with the “I’m so fucked I don’t know how to get unfucked because I’m so fucked” mode.

I took the route of emptying my client roster (refunding where necessary) and started from scratch.

I have so much respect for you it’s not even funny. I can’t wait to see what you come up with next.
Nick Armstrong recently posted..And the horse you rode in on…

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Annie July 25, 2012 at 9:22 pm

I <3 you. (I believe I’ve said that before, but it bears repeating.)

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Katrina Pfannkuch July 26, 2012 at 6:06 pm

First and foremost — thank you for sharing such intimate, insightful lessons. It’s your personal experiences and honesty about them that truly leads others in grace. And although no one will have your exact same experiences, we can all relate to the reluctance to admit how far things have gone south, and our personal inability to acknowledge the truth in the situation and effectively ask for help. Your ability to share the deepest of lessons is a wonderful gift to us all that lives on through your blog.

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Nicole Fende July 27, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Annie if this had been a book I wouldn’t have been able to put it down (high praise when you have a 4 yo running around). First I need to send a big virtual <> to you. What an awful ride.

While I am impressed you hit publish (really I am), the thing that tops even that – you took ownership. We can’t move on in life until we own all experiences good AND bad. That doesn’t mean it was your fault it happened, simply that you own all of your life, learn from it and move on.

For me the the following reminder was a bulls eye that I need to take to heart: When I was in the middle of the worst of this, I had no idea I was in trouble.
Nicole Fende recently posted..Prices & Marketing: What Do Your Prices Say About You?

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miss donna July 29, 2012 at 4:00 pm

you can say that again, Nicole…had it been a book – i’d still be buried in it.

this is the type of writing, or should i say story telling, i enjoy reading. not because of the drama, but simply because it demonstrates what so many of us go through to some degree or another. someone read this and made a decision to cry out for help. someone read this and came to the conclusion that the circumstances around them didn’t define them.

thank you, Annie.

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Annie July 29, 2012 at 4:29 pm

You are entirely welcome, and thank you. “someone read this and made a decision to cry out for help. someone read this and came to the conclusion that the circumstances around them didn’t define them.” – I certainly hope so.

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Liz November 14, 2012 at 10:19 pm

Holy cats, ladypants! I realize I’m reading this a few months later than some folks (I read your post on Erika Napoletano’s blog) but I *felt* the overwhelm while I was reading this. Like in the reach-out-and-yank-someone-by-the-arm-READ-ME-NOW kind of way. As a fellow stress/overwhelm/insomnia sufferer, I send you digital love and chamomile.

Now, to put on my thinking cap and figure out if I’m being an idiot and not asking for the right kind of help when I need it…

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Annie November 14, 2012 at 11:13 pm

Hey there, Liz! Any friend of Erika’s, etc. :) Thanks for stopping by, and for the very kind words. Yes, this one was a real barn-burner, for sure.

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Melanie Kissell @SoloMompreneur November 14, 2012 at 10:42 pm

Murphy’s Law in full swing (times a hundred) is a walk in the park compared to your incredibly and unbelievably spectacular shit storm!!

The fact you’re still upright and taking solids after this series of shitty events is to be commended, Annie. No, strike that. More like REVERED.

Proud as a peacock (in full-feather array) to know ya! :)

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Annie November 14, 2012 at 11:14 pm

Aw … *sniff* I love you, Mel. Thanks for the kind words.

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Melanie Kissell @SoloMompreneur November 29, 2012 at 9:08 am

I love you back, Annie.
Melanie Kissell @SoloMompreneur recently posted..Out With The Trash And In With The Treasures

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Trish Sammer Johnston November 15, 2012 at 3:03 am

(My web site is experiencing major techno-drama at the moment … so don’t waste the click just now.)

Excellent and BRAVE post. I’ve been there a couple of times. I once had the “dream job” that was killing my soul and ended up quitting before things blew up in my face — which was probably only a matter of time. I’ve spent the last two years dealing with divorce and financial disaster. I’ve had to do the cold, hard reality check a few times.

Thanks for writing this. I really related to it and it gave me some comfort. ;-)

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