19: My Half of the Sheets

19: My Half of the Sheets

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings

My Half of the Sheets

Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.

Divorced. There I was, after fourteen years of being wildly in love with one person, desperately trying to fall asleep in a strange, rental home on my half of the sheets and pillowcases. I never would have imagined this scenario, after so many years of thinking that we’d be forever. Not only was I a newly single mother of two little boys; I’d also learned days earlier that my soon-to-be ex-husband and I were about four million (yes, million) dollars in debt. My ex is a brilliantly talented entertainer, and the debt was some bizarre combination of bad investments, legal fees and incredible lack of foresight and responsibility on anyone’s part.

This may sound naïve (and it was) but I had lived for fourteen years in the blissful glow of submissive love, allowing my man to lead the way. If he said finances were handled by the business manager and “not my role,” I was happy to believe that the things I brought to our relationship had equal, if not more, importance. My eyes were shut firmly to the whole picture, and I ignored the occasional feeling in my gut that something was severely out of balance in my relationship. Ultimately, my lack of participation in our finances did not in any way absolve me from being accountable for the result. “Ignorance of finances” is no more an excuse than “ignorance of the law.”

As an intelligent, educated grown woman, I was incredibly angry at myself for whatever role (albeit passive) that I had played in creating the whole mess. I felt so much guilt and shame. For years I had allowed being in love to override my own values, and now my children and I were paying the price. I had no idea how we would manage, and I was terrified. To make matters worse, my divorce was far from amicable. It seemed that the great love that my husband and I had shared had morphed into a greater degree of bitterness and resentment. He was furious; it didn’t matter who left whom or why; on some level, I had abdicated the monarchy. The person to whom I had completely devoted myself was now my biggest adversary; my boys were devastated, and the divorce was overriding every part of my life.

The massive debt made me feel isolated from the rest of the world. I recalled years before having to use a wheelchair for a brief time after my car accident. Strangers either avoided my eyes or looked down on me with pity. Being broke brought back those same, dejected feelings of being an outcast. For me, whoever “knew” or whoever found out would either feel sorry for me or imagine me a huge failure. Once again, I felt handicapped; fear, shame and guilt colored all my thoughts and emotions.

I was blessed with incredibly supportive parents, and there was no time for self-pity: I needed to find work, fast. An artist by nature, my role as a full-time wife and mother had pretty much eclipsed my capacity to earn a living, and my prospects were slim. I was doing my best to keep my spirits up, but “my half of the sheets” posed a big problem, since I had to sleep on them every night. They represented “us,” and no matter how hard I tried, I could not wash away the memories of the intimacy we’d shared lying between them. With bankruptcy looming in the foreground, I wasn’t about to buy new bedding.

A funny thing about artists—when we can’t afford something, our next resort is always an attempt to “make” that something ourselves. À la Scarlett O’Hara, I ripped my half of the sheets off the bed, throwing them into the washing machine with some Rit Dye that I’d picked up at Walgreens. By the time the spin cycle had spun, the sheets were transformed, along with a tiny piece of my sorrow. The pillowcases and the slipcovers off the sofa were next, and before I knew it, my refurbished furnishings would have made Martha Stewart proud.

Into the next load went an old suede jacket. The results were phenomenal—as I experimented with the cycle lengths and mixing different colors directly in the machine, I didn’t know what I had, but I knew I had something. My parents loaned me a few hundred dollars, and I began dying different colored pieces of suede. The pieces became shawls and the shawls became skirts. Pretending to be on top of the world, I proudly wore my creations into all of the stores I had shopped in before going broke, and sold my one-of-a-kind skirts to every single buyer, right out of the gate. Before I knew it, celebrities all over Hollywood were wearing my designs, big resorts were selling my clothes, and I couldn’t keep up with the demand.

It happened so quickly; in truth I had no more clue how to run a business than I did to manage finances. After a series of very poor choices in planning and partners, my fledgling business went bust. There I was—creative, determined, single … and now, officially bankrupt. I did my best to make sense of it all, so I could explain it to my sons. Our life was about to change dramatically yet again—while their father helped, his financial situation was worse than mine. The difference was that he had a career, and I had nothing.

When we lost our home and moved into a tiny apartment, it began dawning on me that having “nothing” really could mean having everything—it was up to me to decide. The cramped quarters meant that my boys and I were living on top of one another; it also meant we were together more. The fact that there was little money with which to buy new things meant more forts made out of cardboard in our tiny living room, and more little friends sleeping inside of them. The lack of closets meant I could give everything we no longer used to families who had even less. My business had failed miserably, but through that experience I had tapped into some innate marketing skills that brought me steady consulting work. After long days with little pay, my sons and I played cards, watched cartoons, made brownies and ate the batter. We played outside and started making weekly trips to the library, where we took out books instead of buying them. Slowly, but surely, our lives became uncluttered and unencumbered.

I began to notice my sons’ becoming much more appreciative—because we no longer had very much, they took better care of everything. They were also developing a whole new level of respect for me. I had always been the stay-at-home mom; now my boys saw me working all hours to support our household as I navigated a fulltime job and various entrepreneurial endeavors. They watched as I fell down, and cheered when I got up. My sons became my biggest fans. They saw me cry, they heard me yell; I was no longer “perfect” and they loved me all the more. They witnessed my own parents’ rallying to our side, they brainstormed crazy ideas with me and earned their allowance by helping to clean up the constant mess we inevitably made in our simple, creative household.

At my consulting job, I was learning how to manage a budget—for the first time in my life. I excelled at Excel, although there were still many times my heart pounded as my debit card was declined, I slowly learned to apply my new financial skills to my personal life. At forty-two years of age, I was growing up. My compensation was small but, my education was huge. As my new life unfolded, I began to forgive myself. With each tiny victory, and every moment with my sons, my guilt and shame transformed into gratitude for the new life I was creating. To my own amazement, I began to see my divorce and bankruptcy as a gift. Once again, my parents encouraged and supported me in ways I could never have dreamed of. While my heart ached over the loss of love, I had found gratitude for the wonderful years I had shared with my ex, and I was grateful to him for giving me children. I was learning accountability, living according to my own truths and values, and most importantly, my boys and I had become a tight-knit team.

The blessings in disguise that resulted from this time in my life continue revealing themselves to this day. Had I not experienced “my half of the sheets,” I would never have understood that “nothing” can mean “everything.”

~Elizabeth Bryan

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