The Anniversary of Change Built From Chaos

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Ten years ago today, I was standing in a bathroom stall at church feeling overwhelmed and trapped. It was my father's funeral, and the chaos of the four days prior, combined with the chaos of the moment, had me standing in the tiny bathroom stall off the narthex craving a moment of silence to steady myself and breathe before I had to go back into battle again. 

I wished it were a closet and I could just sit there in the dark silence for a week. 

I feel exactly the same way today as I did on this day a decade ago. 

I spent twenty four hours total with myself (which is a lot of time to be alone with your thoughts) in the car driving back and forth from Atlanta to Chicago, and I had this craving to completely unplug from everything and go off the grid for a week. 

In 2008, I was a stay at home mom to an 18 month old and a three year old with a little AOL blog about my day to day life. I was hungry for more in my future, and thinking that maybe I hadn't gone down the path I was meant to travel, so I started writing and worked two part-time jobs to plan for my unknown future, so to speak. When my father died, I was very involved with my parish where I lived, cleaned the library at night, and spent many hours speaking with Deacon Tom. 

Deacon Tom was the first person in my life who objectively got me. He was the one who said, "There's nothing in the bible that says you have to like or speak to your mother if she's hurting you. Love her and let her go." At this point in my life, I was very isolated, and it was good to have a friend. I think he was my only friend besides my childhood friends for a couple of years. 

I was locked in a bathroom stall that morning, trying to breathe and hold it together at my Dad's funeral, because it was once again up to me to herd the lunatic cats in my family. My step-sister was coffin diving and screaming, "Daddy!" and I wanted to throttle her. The step brothers were being dicks, as usual.  My brother was crying like a baby, completely and utterly useless when I needed him. He and my father hadn't spoken since his wedding a couple of years prior, and Dad dying without closure rattled him, and I hated him for his display of emotion. Where were you, asshole. I still hate him for it. My stepmother was just...there. She and my father had been separated for years, and she was just...I don't know... meandering? My Grandmother treated it like a family reunion and paraded me around like it was a Miss America pageant, "Look how beautiful Jenni has gotten!" 

My father, now her second son lost to complications from alcoholism, was laying in a coffin 100ft away, but let's talk about my figure. Sure. Not that I'm a mother, working on a new career, grieving my father... no let's focus on the important things... TALL, THIN, AND BLONDE. 

My mother, who had been causing scenes for four full days over a man she hated for 25 years, didn't show up for her children. 

My stepfather didn't show up for the children he raised for 20 years.

My half-brother didn't show up for his brother and sister. 

My husband didn't show up for me. He opted to stay home with the girls. 

OG and Lisa came and they were simply broken hearted and stunned. I was handling everything, and purposely not engaging too much, because I had potential fights to break up, and a eulogy to give. 

Yep. I gave the eulogy. It was a fucking good eulogy. My father deserved it. I got a standing ovation from a church full of people, and my grandmother still listens to it on the recording of the service. Thank you anger and adrenaline for making me do great things, I guess. 

After the service, as we filed out, Deacon Tom and his wife waived to me. 

That's when the dam of my tears broke. Someone showed up for me. They knew he had died suddenly because I needed time off, but I didn't give them any details about the service or anything. They didn't know my father. Deacon Tom knew my family was a shitshow and came simply to make sure someone was looking out for me

In a world of, "Jenni will handle it, she's fine," someone valued me enough to show up. 

Sitting in my car for 14 hours yesterday, I felt like I was in the same emotional place, but under different circumstances this time. 

I spent the weekend with my childhood friends who are traditional professionals, and I found myself in the middle of the usual snark about my chosen profession I always get. Things like, "I can't believe that's a real job," and "blaaaaaaggghhhhher" followed by the requisite giggling. It's not mean spirited, it's just no one understands what I really do. There's another writer in our group who freelances for major news outlets, but has a mundane day job in retail. Everyone in the room defers to him with the, "as a writer..." questions. 

I'm not viewed as a writer. I'm viewed as fluff, because no one understands what it is I do. That's fine with me on that level, but you do get a little down in the dumps when something you're passionate about and work around the clock pursuing has little or no value to most of the people in your life. 

While I was on my way back to Atlanta, my phone started blowing up with everyone's chaos and the expectation I would fix it. There was no empathy for my situation and how hard it was on me emotionally to leave Chicago for the 104th time. Things aren't exactly kittens and rainbows in Atlanta now, either. Like, maybe give me a minute to process, grieve, and decompress. I can help you fix your life fuck ups on Tuesday. Let me get back to Atlanta without full emotional collapse, first. 

So there I was sitting with an iced tea at a coffee shop in Tennessee, fighting an overwhelming urge to delete my social media apps and go off the grid entirely for a minute. I can't, because I'm contractually obligated to put out a specific amount of content everyday. For the people who pay me, content is king, and this is a year long brand building to dovetail into projects as they come to fruition. I can't just bounce and go dark. 

But in that moment, I felt like a dancing monkey doing something that pays well, but contributes nothing to society, really. In the stark contrast of what was going on in my life at that moment, I resented it. People in my life think that I live a free and easy life of posting memes, laying by the pool, hanging out at the gym, and taking selfies all day. I write around the clock. I'm managing 100+ social media accounts, brands, and blogs. I am constantly documenting. I am constantly on. I've just traded my shitty family for social media. 

I decided to take a longer break than usual and relax outside at the coffeeshop for a while before getting back on the road. I took some time to check messages, emails, and accounts because things were really starting to pile up. 

The first thing I saw was a comment from one of my childhood friends. She said some sweet things about what I post on Instagram, and how on that day in particular, she needed a laugh, and I did that. 

There were a handful of DMs, one referencing my post on Kate Spade's suicide, and thanking me for saying what I said because her own mother had taken her life, and I was able to validate how she felt about it many years later when the world treated her mother like a martyr. 

Another message was thanking me for talking about tough stuff, honest life stuff, and being up front with how hard I work instead of making life look breezy and effortless. 

There was one particularly poignant one I'll keep private, but it was the Deacon Tom of the day. I guess you never know who you inspire.

I know what I do is fluff. I write fluff books, fluff TV shows, I blog, I podcast... I'm as deep as a puddle. But I truly feel like it does have value. Not everything is supposed to be an intellectual exercise that changes the world. If I can make a bad day a little brighter, encourage a positive change through sharing my real life, then that has value. 

You guys showed up for me yesterday. Thank you. 

I've had my phone on Do Not Disturb since I stopped in Murfreesboro. That's the difference between Jenni then and Jenn now. I didn't just drop the 'i' - I dropped my availability. If no one has time to value me? I will value myself with some firm boundaries. There's still a part of me that wants to shut down completely for a week, but just like ten years ago, a terrible, chaotic time birthed a major life change that made me who I am today. It's another, terrible, chaotic time, but this life change will be even better. 

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Jennifer Gulbrandsen