Illustration: Ann Cutting

Behold the Rumble Strip

If you're paying attention to your environment, relaxing and following the road, detours from your mental map may be unnerving but not catastrophic. Maybe you planned to become a dentist and marry your high school boyfriend, only to realize that (1) you hate staring into other people's mouths, and (2) you actually prefer women. So you quit dental school, break up with Mr. Wrong, and find work and love that suit your innate preferences.

Or not. This is a best-case scenario, and such scenarios virtually never happen.

What virtually always happens is that when destiny swerves, we proceed straight ahead. We step on the gas, ignoring the fact that we feel trapped in the dead relationship, stifled by the secure job. We go blind to the landscape and the road signs, steering by our assumptions about what life should be, as unaware of those assumptions as a sleeping driver is of her unconsciousness.

Et voilà: rumble strip.

Suddenly, everything's shaking, jolting, falling apart. We have no idea what's happening or why, only that all hell has broken loose. It gets worse and worse—until we wake up, see through our false assumptions to the deeper truth of our situation, and revise our life maps. This isn't punishment. It's enlightenment dressed as chaos.

My Rumble Strip

I hit my first rumble strip while driving hell-for-leather toward my third Harvard degree. In six memorable months, I was almost killed in a car accident, in a high-rise fire, and by a violent autoimmune reaction to an accidental pregnancy. I had incessant nausea. And fibromyalgia. And lice. By the time the baby was diagnosed with Down syndrome, I was pretty much done for.

It took all that to shatter my core assumption: that achievement and intellect gave my life its value. Only after my world seemed to completely fall apart did I learn the lesson my true self needed me to learn: that no brass ring is worth a damn compared with the one thing that makes life worth living—love. Duh. You'd think I'd have figured that out earlier. There were signs absolutely everywhere. But until my first rumble strip shook me awake, I never even noticed them.

I've had other streaks of awful "luck" since, but none has ever caused as much suffering. That's because I've developed a rumble-strip coping strategy. If your own luck seems weirdly cursed, try this:

Navigating Rumble Strips

STEP 1: Hit the brakes.

When Dorothy told me over coffee that she wasn't sure she could go on, I secretly rejoiced—not because I wanted her to suffer, but because I didn't.

"Yup," I said, trying not to sound smug. "The rumble strip is telling you to stop."

"Stop what?"

"Everything," I told her. "Except what's necessary to survive. Eat. Sleep. Go to the bathroom. Make sure your children, pets, and sick parents eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom. If that's beyond you, ask for help. Not forever. Just for now."

This time Dorothy looked as though I'd asked her to stab a baby panda, but she was too exhausted to argue. That was a good thing. When you feel so beaten down that you can't sustain normal activities, it's time to stop trying. Surrender, Dorothy.

Next: The second key step


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