How Looking For The Gift(s) Can Change Your Life

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find the gift, change your life

Sometimes life hands you a box of darkness. Here’s something I know to be true: the fastest way for you to find your way back to the light is to look for the gift in that box, even if that gift happens to be the size of a pinprick and heavily camouflaged and takes some serious excavating to find.

THE BOXES OF DARKNESS

It all started with BOX NO. 1:

My dad passed away with many things between us left unsaid. Not long afterward, while I was still grieving, I moved to a new state some 450 miles from anyone I knew. Ten days later, with nearly all our belongings still in boxes, my husband got life-threateningly ill. He was unwell for nearly ten months. So for all those months, I worked 16-to-20-hour days, taking care of everything. I didn’t know anyone nearby. I didn’t have time to build relationships. I was sad and stressed and exhausted and burned out and overwhelmed. I often sat in the corner after the kids were in bed and cried. I put on a cheerful front and mostly kept my feelings to myself. I kept plowing forward.

Not all too long after that, I got BOX NO. 2:

I sent a manuscript I’d spent about five years working on to a person whose opinion I respected. I was expectant and exhilarated and trying my best to shove my self-doubt back into the shadowy, cobwebbed, damp corner where it likes to hide, waiting for me to wander too close so it can strike. Long story short, this person shredded my work with comments and suggestions then sent it back. That person’s verdict: 2% good; 98% bad. (Sigh, this is not an exaggeration.) I wasn’t prepared for the depth and breadth of everything that seemed to be wrong with the work. The self-doubt reared its head, gnashed its teeth, made this gleeful high-pitched squeal, and came flying at me hard. I put the work in a drawer and left it there.

A short time later came BOX NO. 3:

Someone I loved deeply and trusted implicitly lied to me. Not some small white fib but a real whopper. A lie so big you could call it a scheme, which was what my best friend did when I told her. A lie said as this person looked me in the eyes. Repeatedly. Convincingly. And then, as these things usually go, I found out the truth quite by accident with all the force of a Louisville slugger to the skull. I slumped back in a stuffed chair, holding my head in my hands, trying to catch my breath. I didn’t move for nearly an hour. And then, when I finally managed to get going, I wandered around shocked and pained and duped and betrayed and shattered.

Then, sadly, I gave BOX NO. 4 to myself:

I turned all that sadness and exhaustion and anger and disillusionment and frustration and loss and sense of betrayal on myself. How could you let that happen? How could you be so stupid? How could you not see that coming? And then, to make matters worse, I dredged up my history, dragging it into the present moment, tearing myself down even more: this kind of thing always happens to me just like [this-or-that-or-the-other-time-before] because I’m not worthy, I’m nobody, I’m nothing, I don’t matter.

The turning on myself led to BOX NO. 5:

Depression. I felt (I imagine) much like I was being buried alive in an avalanche. Dark. Cold. Confined. Pressed. Suffocated. Disoriented. Windowless and lightless and seemingly exitless. You can’t see. You can’t help but take sputtering gasps of air. You can’t stop the melancholy from swamping you. There’s a kind of panic at first, seeing yourself sliding further and further, and you try to make it stop, but you don’t have the right gear, or any gear for that matter, nothing to anchor you at all. I tried to dig myself out. I did. But I couldn’t tell which way was up, which way would lead me out, which way would have any effect at all. Then the panic turns into full-blown fear. You’re never going to get out. It’s always going to be like this. You’ll never be yourself again, ever. And then you’re digging, raw and wild, your fingers numb and your muscles aching, but no matter how hard you work, you reach nothing but more snow and more snow and more snow. It plugs your eyes and ears and nose and mouth. It packs itself against you. And then, you realize that there’s no point anymore. That no matter how hard you try, you can’t even make a dent. That there’s no escape. And so you lay back and curl into a fetal position and wait for it to be over. God, just let it (your situation, your helplessness, your life) be over soon. That’s what depression did to me.

A side note:

What I realized later is that each of those boxes triggered an avalanche. No. 1 was medium-sized, survivable. No. 2 was smaller, also survivable, but it hit just as I was digging my way out, seeing a tiny sliver of light, I’m almost there, and wham! I’m buried again. And then on the heels of that, when I was still reeling from the predicament I found myself in, boxes No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5 hit in quick succession and just up and dumped the rest of the mountain on top of me. My point is this: often depression happens because of a culmination of events in your life. And you’re one person; you can only handle so much. It’s okay if you couldn’t handle all that you thought you could. Hear me: there’s no shame it that at all. None whatsoever. Not even a little bit. So tell someone you trust and ask for help. Take medicine if you need to. I promise you it’s not always going to be like this. I promise you better days are coming. Help speed them along: look for the gift(s) in your darkness.

THE GIFTS

GIFT NO. 1:

You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of anybody else. This one is non-negotiable. If you don’t put yourself at the top of your to-do list, meeting at a minimum your own basic needs, you will end up a burned-out husk of who you once were in no time at all. You are allowed and need to have boundaries. You are allowed and need to say no. You are worth admitting that you just can’t do it all. You are worth whatever it takes to get help. Time to rest and relax and rejuvenate are not nice ideas; they are vital requirements. Finding something (a hobby, a career, a lifestyle) that makes you come alive and doing it is imperative to your well-being. I know people need you. But you need you too. So make yourself number one on your list of priorities. If you need permission to do that, I hereby give it to you.

GIFT NO. 2:

You have to be true to yourself and the vision you hold, first and foremost. After I had some distance and time to look at those comments, it occurred to me that almost everything wrong with the work had its origins in one single thing: me trying to please someone else by pretending to be someone else. Here’s the thing I came to fully understand: presenting a façade as the real you will never make you happy, will never fulfill you, will never give you the meaning/success/acceptance/love/insert-whatever-it-is-for-you that you’re so desperately searching for. The only thing that will give you all of those things is honoring yourself by staying true to who you are, respecting yourself enough to present the real you to the world, and letting go of the expectations of others. And as for the work, well, the good news is that the bones are still there, which means I can build a new work, one based solely on my own vision, around them.

GIFT NO. 3:

You determine what you want for your life, make goals based on those wants then reach them solely for you, and be positive that whatever you choose to pursue deeply matters to you. People are fallible. Sometimes they steal your joy, stab you where it hurts the most, push your most painful buttons, don’t love you back. There are two perils if your motivation is someone else: 1. you are confined by their wants/needs/wishes/fears/limitations/and-on-the-list-goes, and 2. if/when the relationship crashes and burns, you and your goals will go down in flames along with it. You will end up feeling rudderless and adrift, bitter and resentful, angry and likely suckered (but I did all this for you!). You will also feel like you’ve wasted your time, which can easily have you stabbing your finger at them in blame, and that (I can tell you without a doubt) will stick you fast and keep you stuck for as long as that finger is jabbed in someone else’s direction. The only way to get your power back is to take it back. So take it back.

GIFT NO. 4:

You don’t ever ~ hear me: ever ~ turn on yourself, no matter what happens. You are with you 24/7. You, yourself, are the closest and best friend you’ll ever have. So you take responsibility for your own life and how you treat yourself in the good times and the bad. You make sure the blame lands squarely on the person to whom it belongs (whether that’s you *sigh, because sometimes it is* or someone else). You don’t cause other people’s bad behavior. You don’t need to make excuses for it. You don’t need to take the blame for it. The only thing you need to do is enforce your own boundaries and defend yourself. Stand up and roar, refuse to take any blame that doesn’t belong to you, then get the heck out of there. No matter how hard you try, there is just no getting away from yourself. So choose to befriend yourself and have your own back always.

GIFT NO. 5:

You have to save your own life. It’s the only one you can save anyway. And you’re worth the effort, whatever it takes, to save it. I know sometimes we wait around hoping someone will come swooping in and fix everything (yes, sigh, my hand is raised). But, in the end and no matter how many people are physically around you, there’s just no one coming to fix your life. Nobody. Not a single soul. There’s just you. The good news is that you’re strong and courageous and tenacious and more than capable of handling anything that gets thrown at you. You know how I know? Because you’re still here, reading this, and you didn’t give up when it would’ve been so much easier to do so. So it’s time to take some action. Answer these: what is/was happening in your life when you’re at your happiest? What makes/used to make you feel alive? If you weren’t afraid, what would you be doing with your life? What do you, and you alone, really want (and don’t worry about the how of getting it right now, just answer the question: what do I really want?) Then get busy creating a life around your own answers.

Have you ever been given a box of darkness? If so, what was the gift inside it?

16 Responses to "How Looking For The Gift(s) Can Change Your Life"
  1. My goodness, Shelli.
    I’m almost speechless but I have to admire your determination to work though these issues. As for #2, you and I both know you’re a darn good writer.
    I offer my condolences for the loss of your dad. It sounds like you are immerging from that overwhelming darkness. Going forward my you live in the light and continue to do so. Writing this took more courage than I can imagine. and that courage took a lot of intrinsic strength.

    As always, wishing you and yours the very best my friend. 😉

    • Hi Rich!

      Well, I never want you to be speechless as I love hearing from you. 🙂 Thank you for the compliment about my writing and for the condolences about my dad. Yes, I came out of all that darkness late last year. Parts of it truly were gifts (& things I needed to learn so I could grow), I see that now. Would I want to do it again? No. But I wouldn’t trade the experience either. Thanks for stopping by and brightening my day. Cheers, my friend. *hugs* for you.

  2. Hey… Shelli,

    I knew whatever you were going through was deep and dark. It took such bravery to share your story. But then again. You are a warrior.

    I believe it is as simple as this: “You have to put your oxygen mask on yourself first and then help those around you who need the help.” By applying this approach to life (although yours is clearly more beautifully worded!), you can save yourself when the avalanches hit, and they will. Invariably.

    Few people get a pass, and those that do are the shallow ones, I find.

    Last night, I was just telling my beautiful daughter that everyone has “something”– some kind of dark burden–that they carry that influences how they respond and interact in the world. Everyone fears something and that “something” is generally being rejected|unwanted|unloved at some point.

    My daughter is an old soul (at 16) and she sees this “something” in people. It doesn’t mean she yet understands it, and her empathy level is much less than mine, but she is gifted in so many ways. I’m just trying to help her learn to wield her power.

    I want to share your blog post with her when she gets home from school today because there is so much insight in your words. You are a GIFTED writer. Don’t forget that. Ever.

    I know we meant through the interwebs, but I hope you know how much I admire you as a person, as a writer, and as the lovely, lovable, extraordinary human being that you are.

    I’m sorry for all your avalanches of pain and the suffering you endured, but I know you are a survivor, and I think you might agree you are better for having gone through all of it. Believe it or not, I find eventually the “avalanches” feed the work.

    Love to you,

    KO

    • Hi lovely Katherine!
      I love this: “You are a warrior.” Thank you for saying that. I’m going to write that on a sticky and tack it up by my computer. I don’t often call myself that, but I believe it’s true of anyone who keeps going when it’d be so much easier to quit.

      I had to learn the hard way that I had to save myself first. But I did. And now, I want everyone else to know it too. Because you’re right that the avalanches (for the vast majority of us) aren’t a matter of if but of when.

      I’m so glad you’re talking to your daughter about the burdens people carry and how it changes them. I also love this: “I’m just trying to help her learn to wield her power.” I want to hug you for that. Compassion is so vital. There’s so much hurt in the world, and often people carry their dark burdens alone while others don’t try or care to understand why they are the way they are.

      Thank you for all the compliments, which warmed my heart. Thank you too for being there when I got back to blogging. It meant so much to me to hear from you and to have your support. You too are an amazing individual and writer; one I am happy to have the privilege to know and read.

      You know, the avalanches were things I needed to go through so I could learn what I needed to learn. I see that now. I can better see that “something” in other people who are hurting. Now that I can see it in both them and me, I can better help heal it. And yes, the avalanches have already fed the work, so I’m grateful that something lovely is coming out of all that darkness.

      A big giant hug for you. And love to you right back. xoxo

  3. Heather says:

    Shelli,

    It took a lot of courage to write this and being the talented writer you are, it made me feel each period of darkness with you. There is something called, The Dark Night of the Soul. Many go through it and sadly never find their way out. Yours is a message of light and healing and finding the gift in the darkness. The healing started while you were still in the dark, which is so important because it tells others who are still stumbling in their own dark situation that they can start climbing out while things are not yet good.

    I especially loved how you said that it wasn’t one or two things but how small or medium size things can build up and crash down on you while you are still digging, and that can be what gets us. Depression is not weakness (Ding! Ding! Ding! I finally get it!). Having compassion on myself is a lesson I have not taught myself, and I suppose I never gave myself permission to have or do for myself, but after reading what you have written I realize that it is the only way to make it out whole.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Hey lovely Heather!

      Thank you for the compliments. You made me smile today. 🙂

      Sometimes it’s hard to find the way out, especially when it seems like there’s nothing but the solid dark. But you’re right that you can (and need) to start climbing out while things aren’t yet good. There’s such a stigma around depression. People believe it’s a weakness, a personal failing. It is not. It takes strength to keep going even when everything in you wants to give up. It takes strength to have self-compassion, which is the only thing (I’ve come to learn) that will help you heal. It takes strength to ask for help. I’m glad this post helped you see that. Cheers, darlin.

  4. Wow Shelli. I have to agree with Kathryn (She shared your post in FB and that’s how I found you.) You are a Warrior! As I read your post, I couldn’t help but identify with your feelings. I too have suffered through many losses and trials, one on top of another with no time to catch my breath. Wrote a book only to have it ripped apart. It just about tore my heart out. And you don’t think things will ever change. I am still forging through an ongoing heartbreaking situation. I’m just not as brave as you are to openly share the specifics with the world. In which you write about it so eloquently. All I can say is to keep on keeping on. Surround yourself with those who will support you. Your writing will carry you through.

    • Hi Karen!

      Thanks so much for the lovely compliments. Made me smile. 🙂

      I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been through so much and that you’re still going through some darkness. This line you wrote is so full of hope: “I am still forging through.” Yes, you are. You have the strength to keep going. And you are brave because you haven’t given up. It will change. I don’t know when, but it will. I do know that better days are coming. You just have to hold on until they get here.

      And keep writing, no matter anyone’s opinion, because you will learn who you are and what you want and what it is you have to say. And I promise you this too: what you have to say matters and someone in the world needs to hear it. I am in your corner rooting for you. Big *hugs* for you.

  5. Hi Shelli, I am so happy to wake up this morning and find your website thanks to a Google alert I have for the phrase “finding the gift.” Ironically it was in one of your comments. I deeply believe that in everything we will find a gift if we look for it, and I love to connect with other people who feel the same way.

    As my heart ached for your successive losses and devastating blows, I celebrated your triumphant spirit and all the lessons you learned walking through the darkness. You write beautifully and I will be following you.

    My heart is singing also because I feel we are soul sisters and it’s always a joy to find someone like-minded. I recently published a book, “Finding the Gift: Daily Meditations for Mindfulness.” In a very dark time, metaphors with profound life lessons started showing up in the strangest places (trees, water, animals, trash on the curb, birds on a wire). I ignored them first as bizarre, random spiritual experiences and then I realized it was my obligation to write them down and share. I am blessed to say that many people are finding the gift with me. Please check out my community of FTG Friends at http://FindingtheGift.com.

    Thank you for sharing your heart– struggles, victories, vulnerabilities. It’s beautiful and a privilege to honor your journey! I am very hopeful we can stay connected. I met one of my strongest allies through a Google alert when she wrote about finding the gift in negative thinking. I love watching universal gifts in motion!

    To your gifts!
    Angela Howell

    • Hi Angela!

      I’m so happy too that we found each other. I am always thrilled to welcome a soul sister into my life. I have come to believe that there is a gift in everything we go through, no matter how dark we might think it is. Somewhere buried in there is a gift to help us grow.

      Congratulations on publishing a book! I have also come to know that messages with profound life lessons come exactly when we need them even if they don’t always show up how we think they should. I love this line: “I realized it was my obligation to write them down and share.” I love that because you heard the call and you said yes. Saying yes to a call on your life is one of the biggest gifts there is.

      Thank you for sharing your website. I will drop by and help find the gift(s) with you and stay connected. Thanks too for stopping by and sharing your kind words and brightening my day. 🙂 Cheers, darlin.

      • And here we are almost a year later! Still connecting! I loved that I was brought back to this to remember how we met. No matter how much work we do, the boxes will continue to show up because that’s life. My baby brother ended his life last year and depression enveloped me. I am amazed to look back and see I reached out to you in my darkness. But our beautiful writing compelled me to. Thanks again for being so vulnerable and always bringing it back to the gifts. We find them when we are expectant and looking! Much love…

        • Hi lovely Angela,
          It’s so good to hear from you again. I’m so sorry to hear about your brother and your depression. A big virtual hug for you from me. 🙂 I’m so glad that you reached out and that we met, and I’m glad too that you turned your darkness into a beautiful gift. Your book will help so many people find their own gifts in whatever they’re going through.

  6. Sandy Coelho says:

    Hi Shelli!
    So glad you’re back – what a heart-wrenching read. It takes a certain courage, and strength to lay it out there, and I admire you more than ever for your candor. I think may people can relate (on some level), life can be a b*tch at times; you’re a strong, beautiful, worthwhile woman who has done exactly what she needed, in order to come out the other side of this, and your post is an inspiration to those who are mired in the muck; you’ve just thrown them a life-line.
    So happy to see you back – mumwah!!

    • Hi lovely Sandy!!

      It’s so good to hear from you, darlin. Thanks for the warm wishes. Thank you too for the fabulous compliments. They (and you) made me smile. I’m glad to be back. I’m also glad to be on the other side. I wrote it to help since I know how it hopeless it feels both to be mired in the muck and to believe that it’s never going to end. Cheers, my friend. And *hugs* for you!

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