An older friend of mine preaches, “Always see your next six steps.” It’s good advice, and I follow it when I’m rushing to catch a trolley or heading upstairs. But what about our next six steps in life?

This year, I’ve found myself at some emotional and financial tripping hazards. Let’s face it: the longer we live, the fuller we live, or the harder we live, the more potholes we’ve got to dodge.

We can face a lot over the years. Divorce, death, financial ruin, public embarrassment, unbearable pain, betrayal by a friend, debilitating injury… the list is endless. Add in little stuff like lost car keys, burnt bacon, even an annoying hangnail. Sometimes, it feels like life ain’t on our side.

It’s Not If, It’s When

Fact is, the more prepared we are for any of life’s blips, the better we survive her relentless storm and enjoy the sunny days. That’s why I was feeling pretty good about being prepared with a purple Crown Royal bag of quarters the hot Florida night my clothes dryer unfriended me.

Lucky for me, the coin laundry is right next door to a friendly, authentic beach bar. Not so lucky? Authentic beach bars aren’t air conditioned.

I grabbed a secondhand book from the laundry’s magazine rack – Dr. Phil’s Real Life: Preparing for the 7 Most Challenging Days of Your Life and I nabbed a seat at the open-air bar.

An artistically-tattooed barkeeper asked what I was drinking and reading. She plopped down a sweaty draft, and the conversation went like this

“So”, what does Dr. Phil say these seven most challenging days will be?” she asked. I started through the list.

  • The Day Your Heart is Shattered
  • The Day You Realize You Have Lived Your Life as a Sellout
  • The Day You Realize You Are in Way Over Your Head
  • The Day the Body Breaks Down
  • The Day the Mind Breaks Down
  • The Day Addiction Takes Over
  • The Day You Have Lost Your Purpose and Have No Answer to the Question “Why?”

One guy raised his high ball and said, “Been there, done that.” Everyone laughed; an assorted group of beach bums from very different life paths.

We’ve all been victims of life’s whimsy. Some of us have done okay in “real life.” Some of us go to bed feeling like we’ve failed. Some of us will never recover from one single devastating day or event. That’s a sad ending.

“So, what’s Dr. Phil say we should do about it?” High Ball asked.

I skim and find it: “Bottom line: I’m telling you to stand up in the face of adversity and be a player, be a survivor in this game of life. Sitting on the sidelines with sweaty palms is a waste of precious time.”

Consensus around the bar: “Amen.”

Problems Start Small but Spread Quickly

It took just one day, one event, to mark a major detour in my life. I’m sure there was a gradual shift. But I felt broadsided and completely unprepared in every single way. After a 35-year relationship, I did not know how to act.

I barreled right over the falls into a big exhausted mess. After an expensive little trip to the hospital and a stern talking to from my doctor about hydration and nutrition, I went to bed for a couple days to lick my wounds.

A friend brought my mail, which included an insurance policy stamped “Cancelled for Non-payment” and the most dreaded notice of all: “Insufficient Funds.” I needed to get back on track fast. Dr. Phil, I confess, my palms were sweating.

I’m lucky I had the funds to get my bills under control and the courage to call people I was late paying. A good friend reminded me: “One day at a time; one thing at a time. Write everything down and cross it off as you go. It will take the dizziness away and help you stay focused.”

He was right, of course. Since spending is a big issue for me, I took the Latte Factor Challenge and recorded every item I bought, how much it cost and, the most telling column of all, was it wasted money? X for YES!

I don’t have great grip on my retail therapy problem yet. Those of us who have it know just how addictive it is. Even buying special little gems in secondhand stores adds up.

I should be embarrassed, because I already own far too many special little gems. We won’t go into handbags or shoes. Right now? Triple X. I have not gone so far as to cancel my standing nail appointment.

When I “fell behind” in real life over the past few months, I was ashamed. Even worse, I didn’t want to face all the details. But now I know that getting a thumb on those details is what had to happen before I could feel better.

When it came to choices like paperwork Monday night or meet friends for happy hour, I’d suggest a place with good WiFi and arrive half an hour early with my iPad to hit it hard. There’s almost always a good compromise with work and play.

Baby Stepping Back to Rock ‘N’ Roll

After the chewing out by my doc, I started with the basics of self care: watching what I eat and drink, taking my meds regularly, and working on better sleep. Then I went to work on my head. A few years back, when I developed a stress-related skin rash, the good doc prescribed meditation.

“Any way you want,” she said. “Just learn to clear your mind before you start your day.” I do better with eyes open, listening to music either outside or looking out a window with a timer set for 5 minutes. It’s as long as I know I will sit still on a regular basis.

You can do 4-7-8 breathing, a good yoga class, contemplate a situation, soak in the tub, or practice a more formal sort of meditation. But we need to find our peaceful spot. Like Buddha said, “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.”

After self-care and meditation, I looked at everything I was doing that was not an obligation but was sucking dry my time, energy, and money. Committees, fund raisers, picking up too many checks for lunch: all out with the bathwater.

One place I did not cut corners is time with friends, which is where I’ve cut too many corners most of my adult life. But I’ve made a real effort at getting my friends acquainted with one another so we can get together in groups – quite time-saving if you have a lot of friends!

Eventually, I went from getting better in every corner of my life to actually being better – feeling in control again and optimistic about what comes next rather than afraid to answer the phone or open the mail. No more sweaty palms.

Thanks, Phil. I’m going to hold onto that ragged copy of your book, knowing I’ll need it again. After all, this is no dress rehearsal. This is real life.

How do you handle life’s tough situations? Do you sit on the sidelines with sweaty palms, or do you stand up like a player and do something about your circumstances? Have you tried the Latte Factor Challenge? What did you find out about your spending choices? Please share your thoughts and stories with our community!

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