What happened in my life?
Twelve years ago, every certainty I thought I knew about life collapsed. That sounds so dramatic now, but that was absolutely my truth then. I had to, quite suddenly, create a career that would provide financially for my three little people and myself, and work out what my new version of success would be. I had no idea what happiness was going to look like going forward.
My beautiful life, the previous chapter in my story, had abruptly come to a very definite end. The old story of me was a simple one and I'd loved it. All I had ever wanted was a great marriage to my best friend, to be a mostly-at-home mum and to coach some clients on the side because I had always loved to work.
Yet here I was, feeling ill-equipped to be a single full-time working mum and I was overwhelmed by how much there was to do and learn. I was that woman! The one who seemed to have it all. My family and friends were just as shocked as I was when my husband at the time left me and made it clear he was never coming back. In that moment, I had to find a way to be both mum and dad. I went from feeling grateful for my life and planning a trip to Africa, to sitting on the shower floor hoping the sound of the water would stop the children from hearing me cry. There are days I don’t remember and moments of grief that are etched on my heart forever. I was engaged to him at 19 and married at 21. I had no idea who I was without him. ‘Divorced’ and ‘single mum’ were not labels I'd ever considered I would have to own.
The perspective check
Let me just say, I do have perspective. I’m certainly not the only person who's had to deal with divorce, miscarriage, financial loss and emotional bankruptcy. There are many partners in the world who feel the impact of mental health issues, and there are people who've beaten challenges far greater than mine.
My point is that we all have a story with lessons to learn and challenges to cope with. Bad things really do happen to good people. But it’s what we do in the middle of a crisis that counts. The easy option would have been to go and get a job. But if I was going to build an amazing life, I needed to make amazing choices. Simmering beneath the surface of uncertainty was a voice that I now know was the inner-entrepreneur and woman who was going to find a way to be successful in life. I was quietly determined to draw on everything I had ever learnt, read and experienced. I decided I was prepared to do what was required to be the very best version of me. I needed to attach myself to that goal and my children needed me to as well.
The courts granted me full custody of my children – I reverted to my maiden name and so did my children. We moved house five times in seven years. The children moved schools three times in two years. I found myself so deep in grief that I forgot to eat and I avoided sleep at all costs. How had this happened? It was as if aliens had come and stolen my husband. He was literally gone. There would be long periods of not knowing where he was or if he was even alive. I cried secretly and smiled publicly.
It became abundantly clear that my soon-to-be ex-husband would not take responsibility for our three little people in any way. He was knee-deep in depression. I call it that but neither of us, to this day, is really sure what label to give it. Essentially, he decided that he no longer wanted to be a husband or father – full stop. Keeping us safe – emotionally, financially and physically – would become a full-time job for me.
Some months in, I realised that it was not helpful to think about how we could be happy without him. What I discovered was that my journey was about becoming resilient and strong. By deliberately embracing all the discomfort and change, I started to feel possibility and optimism. I proactively identified opportunities that would stretch me further and guess what? I started to trust myself and feel lighter. The happiness was coming as a result of investing in my ability to be resilient and thrive.
An Italian affair
If only I had known how amazing the ride would be for my children and myself. I set an ambitious goal to take my children out of school for an entire term so we could live, explore and heal in Italy. It took years of planning, dreaming and saving. It was so worth it. We ate pizza and gelati everyday. We slept in late and didn’t have dinner until 10 pm most nights. I woke up with my children every day for three months, which was the greatest blessing – given my ‘normal’ life now requires me to travel regularly. We missed trains, got lost and felt earthquakes. We sat on top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and on a different day we pretended we could hear the tigers in the Colosseum. We went on the ‘canoes’ (as Mabel called the gondolas) in Venice. We caught the chairlift to the top of Capri and went ice skating outside at 11 pm in Lake Como. We avoided riots in Florence and laughed at the waiters serving my 15-year-old wine in Tuscany. We ate dinner in castles and conversed with locals using hand gestures. Watching Italian ladies hand-make pasta brought us joy and the colours of the Cinque Terre still find me in my dreams. This was also when I started writing my book, truly letting go of the pain and realising my children would be OK. In fact, they would be more than OK.
We all have a story
I'm not living the life I planned. The grief over the years has been real and it still comes and goes, but the adventure of my life is so much more than I could ever have dreamed of. I now have three teenagers who are finding their way in the world beautifully, and I’ve grown a global consulting business from my kitchen bench. Life is complex and messy, it’s also full of possibility. If you'd told me 12 years ago that life would be this, I wouldn't have believed you. I love my life.
The questions that are written on the inside of my journal:
- What did I do well today?
- What’s my intention for tomorrow?
- What did I learn today?
- What am I grateful for?
- What isn’t working?
- What did I dream about?
Huge love to you all. I hope you enjoyed reading this personal piece from me to you.
– Lisa Stephenson, Founding Director, The Coach Place Global
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