The Next Decade

© 2016 Astoria, OR by Laura Riggs

“One of the hardest things in life to learn is which bridges to cross and which bridges to burn.” —Oprah Winfrey or David Russell (take your pick)

Along with many others, at the start of the new year, I have spent some time taking stock of my life over this past decade.  Thinking both of the moments that changed the course of my life, as well as those that passed by virtually unnoticed.  The past decade was chock-full of change and set-backs.  Looking back, losing Jack near the end of 2009 seems to have been foreshadowing of the challenges the next decade would have in store.  There were certainly some really bright and beautiful experiences that materialized throughout, but currently in the midst of a stressful point in my life, with my depression swirling, I tend to lean into the darkness and forget all of those bright occasions.  

Nonetheless, when one is reassessing their life path, I find one of my favorite quotes from Alice in Wonderland of help, “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”  Another way of looking at it: if you are to decide where you are going, you must first clearly understand where you are.  After Jack passed away, I began the last decade enduring being laid off from my “dream” job, ending one of the worst relationships I have ever had the pleasure of being a part of, regrettably selling my adorable little condo in Denver, and moving to Florida to live with my mother (I love my mom deeply, so that part definitely did not suck!).  The following year I traveled, intending to not only heal from the previous year’s trauma, but various childhood traumas as well.  

Nearly ten years after the fact, the tell-all book is still in the works, but life keeps getting in the way of me finishing the damn thing.  While the previous statement makes it sound like I resent the book, I really don’t.  On the rare days I can carve out time to work on it, I am immensely grateful for the good fortune to dig through artifacts, delve into my journals, and reminisce on taking the journey of a lifetime.  Not only did my quest lead me to some amazing places in the world, but it afforded me safe passage to process my suffering and grief.  I’d be remise if I didn’t point out that it is in those moments I’m able to remind myself how proud I am that I was able to claw my way from the depths of depression, which means I can do it again.  

After that year of traveling, I planned to return to Denver and reconnect with life, but the universe presented me with a conundrum.  Christmas of 2011, I attended an “orphan” Christmas dinner at a friend’s house, where I met a wonderful man.  We had an immediate connection, but if I were to investigate further, this meant staying in Florida longer than intended, nor was I apt to trust my choices in men. My track record had proven to be terrible thus far, so I was a little skeptical that this relationship could turn out any better than previous encounters.  Call it “wisdom”, “fate”, or the prodding of my mother, I opted to stay in Florida, and S and I just celebrated 8 years of partnership.

About six months after we began dating, I finally found meaningful employment, when my mom and I were in a serious car accident.  We were rear-ended by a UPS semi tractor-trailer.  It was S’ birthday, so we had gone to the grocery store to pick up some items in preparation.  Driving home, the car ahead of us began driving erratically while trying to merge onto a major bridge.  Thankfully, the UPS driver saw this and began to slow his vehicle down just as the driver in front of us suddenly slammed on their brakes, so my mom did the same.  We didn’t hit the car in front of us, but the semi rear-ended my mother’s vehicle and the car in front of us sped off.  My mom was virtually unharmed, but the truck was now in the back seat and I ended up with severe whiplash and a concussion.  Luckily, the UPS driver wasn’t going full speed, or we’d both be dead.  My job was understanding to my rehabilitation process, but I had to withdraw from the college classes I was attending in order to take time to heal.

For two years, things were a bit of a jumbled mess.  My brain was foggy, I couldn’t practice yoga, nor was I able to go running.  Most of my physical activity was limited to strength building exercise with no impact.  Without cardio to “burn out” an overactive mind, I dropped into another state of depression (although far less intense than previous).  Somehow, I found enough drive to fight for the expansion of the Human Rights Ordinance in our city, extending equal protections to the LGBTQ community for housing and employment.  At the same time, the national debate was raging over Prop 8 out of California, so a small group of us capitalized on the opportunity to win the hearts and minds of people at the local level.  Side note: before I moved to the South, I had heard/used all of the stereotypes about the South, but I guess I was hopeful that (like most stereotypes) they were wrong.  Not so.

The truth is that much of time has seemingly stood still in the South – racism, misogyny and homophobia run rampant.  The stain of slavery and the legacy of reconstruction and the Jim Crow era plagues public policy, while continuing to contaminate the DNA of everyone whose families have lived in this country pre- and post- Civil War.  Each city council meeting that allowed for open comments from the community, weighing in on whether expanded protections were needed, required counseling.  No matter how mentally prepared you are, or how strong your boundaries may be, listening to hate-filled rants from other human beings, centering solely on the fact that someone else was born/lives differently from themselves, will dishearten the most resilient of souls.  When the HRO expansion finally did pass three years later, I decided I was not cut out for advocacy work on a long-term basis.  Now, I just donate to causes that do the pain-staking work to further our country forward.

In the meantime, S and I moved to Portland, OR, after I was recruited for an incredible job opportunity.  Most of my career, I had worked at small to mid-sized ad agencies, so when I got the offer to work at an in-house agency for a large company, I eagerly accepted.  It was a chance to enhance my experience, in a place that when we visited the year before, so we decided why not? (plus, it was a break to get the f**k out of the South), The job was demanding, the cost of living is high, it rains 8-9 months out of the year, and S couldn’t find meaningful employment, that’s why not.  The food, wine and public transit were exceptional, and I learned so much more than I would have staying at small-sized firms, but we struggled financially for two years and our relationship strained as a result.

After my mom and stepdad were transferred back to Florida, we also floated the idea of returning, but neither of us was overly delighted about the possibility of living in the South again.  “It’s easy there, though”, S said, “you will get to see your Mom more often, and they have a perfectly good airport.”  And so, we put our stuff into a moving truck and drove the 3,500+ miles back to the opposite corner of the country where he would then be laid off twice in one year, and I was hired at one of the most toxic agencies I have ever worked for…I’d go so far as to say it was worse than my experience at Core Power Yoga (at least with CPY, I had the chance to meet all of my fabulous students), but then I found a job at a different agency in town which is now exponentially worse (I’ll get to that one in a minute).

In the three years I worked for Toxic Agency, I was back and forth to Atlanta more times than is necessary in an era of Viber, Skype, Zoom, GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, Slack, and the list goes on, to not only keep their largest client, but help win the business when said client decided to consolidate the work from 14 agencies to a few. And how did said agency show their appreciation for helping to save everyone’s jobs?  Nothing, of course. There was no bonus,  no raise, no promotion, no hiring additional staff to aide in said work, just an insincere thank you note from  a CEO who could barely muster the courage to speak to me approximately 10 times over three years.

It seems as though I’ve gone from picking bad boyfriends, to picking bad employers, but I am not sure I can shoulder all of the blame.  This country’s business sector functions on the Peter-principle.  Those of us with an extreme amount of competence, who should be leading, are often the ones overlooked because the incompetent yet overtly narcissistic ones are threatened by our brilliance.  While it this isn’t true of all of the companies, it’s damn well true at most.  And us competent ones are real fucking tired of shouldering the one-percent’s ineptness, but I’m not going to get into politics today.

Instead of the acknowledgement that was earned, my company promoted people with zero ability or skill to culminate a strategic thought in their brain, people who would rather gossip about their teammates all day, because they were the CEO’s “favorite” after all, whereas I [annoyingly] wanted to ask clients questions to help us better understand their business which would aide in formulating said strategy to achieve their goals (oh, the shock and horror!).  Furthermore, I speak and understand “digital” better than any of those on their leadership team, so I was considered an “enemy of the state”, a threat to the status quo.

If this comes across as feeling overly entitled, let’s just leave it at this: my first day on the job culminated in me finding quite a stash of pornographic photos that my predecessor had buried in a client folder on the computer they gave me.  When I reported it to aforesaid CEO, his response was “Oh, well that’s why I didn’t have his emails forwarded to you.”  That speaks volumes towards the amount of Peter they have applied to the principle vision for their agency – it also explains why they needed so much assistance with rebuilding trust with both their clients, and the market in general, when I accepted their job offer.

The only positive was that I had the flexibility to fly back to home to visit my new, most adorable niece from time-to-time, and to care for my Dad when he had back surgery, while working remotely.  On my most recent visit home, I was grateful for the chance to have a completely honest, vulnerable conversation with him.  He shared the hurt and trauma he still carries forward from childhood, and I encouraged him that it might be time to unpack all that baggage for his own peace of mind (my family likes to talk loudly, so his wife thought we were fighting and left to hide at the neighbors, but I wasn’t emotionally attached to his suffering/drama, and was just able to stay present for him to process… I was real proud of myself for that.)

After three years of exceptional work, when I finally got a raise, it was more than insulting.  While I may not often know my worth when it comes to personal relationships, or believing I deserve small indulgences; I damn well know my worth when it comes to business.  So when a new opportunity to move from media to marketing came up a few months ago, I gladly accepted.  And here I was again day one, entering into yet another bait-and-switch scenario.  Immediately following my orientation, I learned the new company was switching my supervisor, changing the client/product I would be working with/on, and moving the office from a beautiful shared campus (think mini-Google) to now house their staff out of a former State Farm call center with office furniture from the 80s (and yes, everything is fucking mauve). Yes…it was official….I just went from one burning house to another.

Not only is this “agency” unclear in the vision for the company, the client is just downright nasty.  This marketing firm is led by people who have not one day’s worth of marketing experience.  The ONLY bright light is that many of people I work are lovely, more than capable individuals.  They get beat down every day by lack of clarity, process, goals, or transparency from their leadership, but they still try to do right by their clients.  None of us has a clear job description, and the agency re-orgs annually, but we support one another as best we can — those of us who haven’t bailed ship yet, that is.  It’s an unnecessary battle to fight every day, and every day I come home depleted, lacking any energy for self-care, joy or creativity.  (Even for those with a strong constitution and solid boundaries, it’s difficult to stay afloat when you’re battling lying, narcissistic bitch-ass clients, who keep trying to poke holes in the hull, all day…seriously, y’all.)

In the absence of balance, I’ve been trying to resist the desire to meet up with my old friends- regret, sadness, anger, loathing…the very notion of entering into a conversation with any one of them seems illicit.  Still, they continue to call in hopes that I’ll invite them to dinner.   And then tonight, while standing in the shower, I realized again (because it usually takes us/me more than once to really learn a lesson) that avoiding the inevitable rarely moves us forward in life.  I’ve been avoiding the fact that I really don’t like my chosen career any longer, and I owe it to myself to get the fuck over this fear of failure, or fear of lack, or whatever fear it is, and just start over.

Nearly ten years ago, I went back to school with the intention of getting a degree in Psychology.  While it was necessary to pause my education, there was no reason to walk away from it altogether (other than the fact that most college educations are a waste of time and money – they are overpriced and do not teach a damn thing about the real world, or real business, but that’s a conversation for another time, as well).  It’s time to give my brain something else to think about, other than the constant reactionary state that media/advertising requires these days.  I need to let go of the idea that I need to fix the shit that is broken – especially when it is shit that I don’t own, nor did I break.  I need to return to the idea that maybe this new career path won’t work out, I’ve failed before, I will fail again, and I have risen from the ashes to rebuild a good life for myself (and for S, too).

It’s high time that I burn one bridge to the ground, in the hopes that I can build a better one that leads me back towards my sweetness of mind…one that brings me home.

Mental Health Month

“With everything that has happened to you, you can either feel sorry for yourself or treat what has happened as a gift. Everything is either an opportunity to grow or an obstacle to keep you from growing. You get to choose.” –Wayne Dyer

May is Mental Health Month and even though this year marks the 70th anniversary, it seems as though only recently that I’ve seen/heard more people talking about mental health than in years past.  I think people are finally starting to understand that people don’t choose to be depressed, or anxious, or sad.  It just….happens.  For so many different reasons, people are stricken with a mental health disorder, and it seems as though society is slowly catching on that we need to treat disorders with less stigma and more empathy.  The problem is that we are never taught how to care for ourselves, or recover from, depression once it’s hit us.  Only recently, have I heard more people discuss treating mental health illnesses like we would a body illness – proper medicine, rest, therapy, etc.

The cynic in me thinks that mental health disorders are getting more play in the news because there has been such a dramatic spike in suicides amongst older, white men. But, whatever it takes for the winds of change to sail in, I’m good with that because, over the past 15 years, the US is now one of the few countries experiencing an increased rate of suicide not found in other developed nations, and a majority of these can be attributed to firearms.  It’s no coincidence that you’ll also notice a disturbing increase in mass shootings during the same time frame.

In more than half of all cases, the perpetrators had prior history of mental health issues, and in about quarter of the cases, it’s somewhat unclear.  When you compare the data prior to 2004, against the data after 2004, the percentage of shootings committed by someone with prior history of mental health issues actually decreased from 61% to 48%.  To me, that negates the ongoing argument from the NRA that mental health is the problem and not the increased amount of weapons available, nor the impact of the expired assault weapons ban.  They are likely factoring in those where it’s unclear if they had a prior history of mental health issues, to keep the percentages fairly flat.

Regardless, we need to commit more resources to help people cope with dis-ease.  Without the ability to see a way out of the “rabbit hole”, as I have often referred to my own bouts of depression, people turn to a variety of methods to “self-medicate”.  Here again, we see sharp increases in drug related deaths, with the US having the highest mortality rate from drug overdoses globally.  

Yet, we continue to chip away at funding for mental health services.  In the 1970s, 11.1% of federal funding was allocated towards mental health services, down to 6% in 2011, and the number has decreased ever since.  Other developed countries spend less on mental health services, yet don’t seem to be in the same crisis as the US.  I agree with the theory that closing mental health institutions had a negative impact on treating people’s illnesses, because instead of getting the help they needed, people ended up in jail, homeless or dead.

    • 50-80 percent of the youth entering the juvenile justice system have a mental disorder;[5]
    • Untreated and mistreated mental illness cost American business, government and taxpayers an estimated $113 billion annually in 1997, more than $200 billion in 2016.[6]

Dis-ease touches every facet of our daily lives, and if we don’t provide a clear way out of the rabbit hole, people will turn to any and every option to end their suffering – sometimes only hurting themselves, but most often by hurting/killing those around them. For years, I didn’t realize that I was masking my own pain with distractions like work, yoga, sex, and bad relationships.  Depression expresses itself in sometimes nefarious ways, so to those around me I seemed “fine” on the surface.  Hell, I thought I was doing “fine”, but then I lost my job and house of cards plummeted.

I am grateful to have had a support system there to catch me, who were also willing to see the state of suffering I was in.  Although this was a collective of two people, they were enough to save my life.  It took me a year of dedicated work to recover – a year of meds, weekly meetings with a counselor, a committed meditation practice, and A LOT of self-reflection.  In order to alleviate my anxiety, I worked to reframe my thinking and change seemingly instinctual reactions to keep negative thought patterns from causing me so much harm.  That meant I had to be willing to look deep into my past, and see that I had been carrying this hurt for so long, it had become a part of me.  Letting go of the anger was going to set me free, but, in ways, it felt like I lost a limb initially.

It took me a long time to get there, and a lot of work, but I finally realized that not only was I fighting against forgive, I was fighting the idea that I could be “happy”.  I didn’t grow up with an understanding of what that really meant, so I had to rely on other people and resources to teach me.  I had to learn to let go of fighting with myself, to be kinder with myself, to accept that our perceived “flaws” are sometimes our greatest strengths.  Children need to be taught coping mechanisms, especially the ones who aren’t provided a lot of opportunities in their every day lives – or the ones whose parents aren’t present in their lives – or the ones who are bullied, so that they can accept themselves despite what the internal, or external, critic may say.

The best place to teach children is in school, to have time set aside each day for meditation and focused relaxation.  While schools are strapped for all kinds of resources, there is talk about giving teachers guns as the solution to our current crisis.  It’s a short-sighted treatment, symptomatic of a much more long-term epidemic and we seem to have this bad habit in America of weaponizing our approach to even the smallest of everyday problems.  You can’t go to “battle” with depression, any more than you can “fight” a cold.  Arming teachers doesn’t alleviate the cause, and may in fact only end up causing more harm than good.  It’s also counterproductive to think that we can just keep burning the candle at both ends…the candle only melts away more quickly, and we are left collectively with fewer productive members of society.

We really need to rededicate funding and resources to help people recover from dis-ease and addiction.  Schools need funding for mental health professionals, and children need to learn how to cope with so many thoughts, emotions, and problems that arise in their daily lives.  Companies should allow employees more time away from work, to recharge their batteries, so that they aren’t so sleep deprived and burnout.  And we need to be a little more compassionate towards ourselves and others.

Changing policy takes time, the movement of change is slow and often cumbersome, but we can all take charge of our own mental wellness, in the meantime.  And we can help our friends and colleagues who may be struggling to do the same – we just have to be willing to “see” one another as “flawed” beings, and accept that this often just our natural state. Allow some time to unplug from the news, from your devices, and the freedom to explore, read and play.  Meditation allowed me to see the path out of the rabbit hole, and gave me a safe space to cope with all of these feelings, so that when I was strong enough, I kissed my anger kindly and set it free.  I hope for you, the same.




The Summer Day…by Mary Oliver

Maui (C) 2014, Laura Riggs

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper,
I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention,
how to fall down 
into the grass,
how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed,
how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

Travel Log: Notre-Dame de Paris

News came yesterday of the terrible fire at the Cathedrale de Notre Dame de Paris and I immediately thought back to my visit to the city in November of 2011.  I had arrived from Firenze, via an overnight train, to meet a jazz musician friend there on tour.  I was nearing the end of a three month trip, with my next and final stop being London, and I just remember being tired (mostly, I was pouting because I had to leave Italy).  I had traveled thousands of miles with just a back pack, and I was ready to go home, but there was no way I was going to leave without seeing Paris.

The weather was cool and crisp, but leaves weren’t quite ready to fall from the trees yet – they were still bursting with oranges and vibrant reds.  It was cloudy when I stepped off the train – the most terrible, dirtiest train in all of my travels through Europe, but my friend was staying at a nice hotel (contrary to hostels I had been staying at throughout).  I was so excited to take a hot shower, in a real bathroom, and have a fluffy omelette, with a cafe creme for breakfast.  I set out that afternoon to tour both the Notre-Dame and the Louvre (ambitious, yes, but I was only there for four days and needed to make it count!).  By this time, the clouds had cleared and the sun shown brightly over the city.

To my surprise, there was no admittance fee for the cathedrale and the line for entry was quite short.  Obviously, this centuries old building is magnificent in its own right, the rose windows mesmerizing and the relics all had stories of their own, but what stood out for me was the statue of Saint Joan of Arc, with the inscription: “Born in Lorraine, burned alive in Rouen as a heretic and a witch.  The decision to rehabilitate her reputation was made in this Cathedral.” And so it was in 1909, that the fierce warrior was beatified in the church by Pope Plus X, and later canonized in 1920.

Centuries had gone by, but the church finally made things right.  The church itself has also suffered great destruction and continuous restoration over the years.  Progress is slow, but seeing her statue there restored my faith in the idea of forgiveness – of knowing that even though the world spirals out of control sometimes, there are still good people to bring it back.  Even as she burned at the stake, Joan of Arc never lost faith, she never lost sight of what she believed. Without a doubt, the good people of France will, once again, rebuild.  And we too, will keep planting the seeds of change.

Saint Joan of Arc, (C) 2011 by Laura Riggs

Travel Log: Real Jardin Botanico Madrid

Dahlia; (C) 2011 Laura Riggs, all rights reserved

In September 2011, I traveled to Madrid on a one way ticket, alone, with a backpack of clothes, a small laptop, and some toiletries…no phone, no itinerary.  I had a rough “plan”, however…I had sketched a path along the Mediterranean coast, then maybe head north, and at some point, I would go home.  I had lost a child who was not my own, been laid off, ended a relationship, sold my home, and was in the throws of a deep depression.  Basically, my life blew up and I decided it would best for my soul, if I went out and wandered the world for a while.

It had been more than a decade since I’d last visited Europe, nor had I ever been to Spain, so I really had no idea what to expect.  Initially, I (like every other American) mistakenly believed I would “know” how to navigate the city because it would be similar to my own, and that everyone would speak English.  After three failed attempts to get to the city centre from the airport by train, I finally made it to my hotel  Then, I panicked — this was only day one of my adventure in a city where I couldn’t read the street signs, nor the understand the logic as to how the streets were laid out, and I didn’t speak Spanish well enough to ask for help, or get directions.

When Don Miguel Ruiz laid out the criteria for navigating the life through four agreements, he wasn’t kidding about the third – Don’t Make Assumptions.  I realized that nothing would be as I assumed, so I either needed to get my ass back on a plane and go home, or adapt.  I had to remember why I had even decided to come on the trip to start with – my life was a mess, and I needed to believe in myself again.

Most of my time in Madrid was a blur, but I remember sitting in the Real Jardin Botanico, having a full blown panic attack, when I looked up and noticed this dahlia staring back at me.  There was so much beauty I was missing, because I had shackled myself to my past.  I had to trust myself to navigate through the challenge, to let go of the assumption that things would be similar to home.  Bigger still, I had to let go of the assumption that I was not worthy of joy.  It took three more months of wandering before I found acceptance, but this place was where I began to understand that my fear/my assumptions, were full of shit.

At times of stress, I find myself slipping back into this space.  It’s hard work to stay on the other upside of depression, and a continual commitment to keep seeking joyful moments, while also being firm with my boundaries and the need for self-care.  I slip for a few months, and fall into the pattern of criticizing every single flaw, every mistake, every thing I did to miss out on being happy. It’s like crawling out of the hole all over again, although the distance gets smaller each time, as I become more aware of my patterns and relying on meditation to bring me back to the present moment.

Today, I was reminded of this poem by Ariana Reines:

“Come to me whole: with your flaws, your scars and everything you consider imperfect.  Then let me show you what I see.  I see galaxies in your eyes and fire in your hair.  I see journeys in your palms and adventure waiting in your smile.  I see what you cannot: you are absolutely, maddeningly, irrevocably perfect.”

The more you can be at peace with your flaws and imperfections, the more compassionate you are towards others.  If you look closely enough, the dahlia pictured above isn’t perfect, but that isn’t what I see when I look at the photo.  I see the vibrant pinks and I remember the way it smelled, and I remember it drawing me back to the moment and out of my panic.  Imperfections and all, it’s one of my favorite pictures I took while I was in Madrid.