The Gift That Comes from Hitting Rock Bottom
When you're down and out, here's a thought: Stay there—or at least feel free to skip a couple of showers.
Illustration: Keith Negley
About five years ago, I found myself in couples therapy listening to my husband confess he'd been unfaithful throughout our marriage. Boom! Life as I knew it—gone. There I was again in the valley, that place where you end up after receiving the news, whether it involves a betrayal, a diagnosis, an accident or some other kind of loss. You are suddenly no one because you've been evicted from your identity. You fall to the ground and try to remember: Who was I five minutes ago? What did I care about, what did I laugh at, what did I live for? And when will I be able to climb out of here?
A few days after the bomb dropped, I was in the supermarket checkout line wearing my rock-bottom uniform: stained sweatshirt and pajama pants, dilapidated Uggs. It had been at least six days since my last shower, and I was at my greasy-haired worst. But in a way, I was also at my best. What I'd come to learn is that most women do crisis all wrong. They hit rock bottom, and still they clean themselves up and brush themselves off, maybe even put on a little mascara.
Armoring up before facing the world is a rookie mistake. It turns out there's no prize for being she who suffers secretly and in silence, unless you consider loneliness a reward. If you're not okay, you might as well not pretend you are, especially since life has a way of holding us down until we utter that magic word: help!That's when angels rush to your side.
So there I was at the grocery store, emitting SOS from every pore. And that's when I spotted my angel. As I took my cereal, milk and bread out of the cart, I stole a look at the cashier. Something about her face froze time for me. Her hair was downy and white. Her skin was brown, leathery—the face of a native Florida girl. But it was her eyes that stopped me. They were cornflower blue, with deep wrinkles like rivers around them. I wondered: How has she made it this long? What has she seen? What does she know? I need her to tell me. She smiled and her eyes crinkled. I smiled back. She asked my name. "Glennon," I said. "My name is Glennon."
She paused and said, "Glennon. That's a pretty name. I've never heard it before."
I said: "Oh, It's Irish. It means ‘girl from the valley.'" And then I looked down at my grubby self and laughed. I said, "Wow. Girl from the valley. I'm facedown in the valley right now. Come to think of it, that's where I've spent the majority of my life."
There was a pause. I feared I'd said too much, but she didn't look uncomfortable. She looked curious.
She said, "Wait a minute, honey."
God, I love it when an older woman calls me "honey."
"Don't knock the valleys," she said. "Everybody wants to be on the mountaintop, but up there the air is so thin, you can hardly breathe—and all you can do is stand still and try not to fall. But in the valley, that's where the river runs, sweetheart. That's where all the power is."
I stared at my angel and thought: That's why you don't shower at rock bottom. So the angels know to do their thing. Sit. Breathe.
I've lived a life of extreme lows and highs. I became bulimic at 10 and spent time in a psychiatric hospital at 17. I became a drunk at 18 and got arrested a few times. I've written two best-sellers and founded a nonprofit that's raised more than $7 million for people in pain. I've seen my name on marquees and bowed to standing ovations. I've also been called a fraud, a mental case, a heretic. People all over the country wait in line to hug me or curse me. I've come close to killing myself. I've watched my marriage crumble and then fought like hell to save it, only to walk away from it five years later. I've built up, then broken down, then helped revive the hearts of my three children.
My journey has consisted of yawning valleys and soaring mountaintops. And I'll tell you: These days I'm a valley girl.
As my cornflower angel told me, we've got it all backward down here. We want to be on the mountaintops, but we're not called to be victorious. We're called to be wise, strong and kind. We are admired on the mountaintops, but we are beloved in the valleys. All the magic is in the space between mountains, where we have to unbecome everything we thought we were and start from scratch. This is hard to do, because when pain comes in the form of uncertainty, our instinct is to scramble out of it, to grab blindly for the familiar. But when we rush out of the valley, we miss gathering all the wisdom, strength and kindness we need for the next climb. We have to learn how to sit by the river and be still enough to claim its gifts.
Glennon Doyle is the author of Love Warrior, a 2016 Oprah's Book Club pick; the founder of the online community Momastery and the creator of the nonprofit Together Rising.