Bankruptcy, Blogging, and Believing
Going through bankruptcy in 2017, at age 41, with a wife and four kids, is the hardest thing I've ever done.
It was the most gut-wrenching, disorienting, soul-searching time of my life.
You could call it, an "identity-quake."
Major parts of who I thought I was, and where I thought life was going, were taken from me.
But the worst part, was...
THE WHITE-HOT LIGHT OF INTENSE EMOTION
Bankruptcy robs you of that feeling of control we all long for, and then highlights how little control you really have.
It bluntly points out areas in need of personal growth.
It makes you feel powerless.
It makes you feel ashamed.
It makes you feel like you're a disappointment to (at least in my case) so many people when your business has to unexpectedly close and many are still owed services.
In short, bankruptcy serves up emotional whiplash that often turns into emotional paralysis.
It can make you question things you never questioned.
You start to doubt, or even distrust, your own judgment.
You fear big decisions because you don't want to "make wrong decisions anymore."
You wrestle daily with needing to keep moving forward, yet the omnipresent, emotional pain of the unknown affords you little reserves.
Normal parts of life feel harder than ever.
PAUSE THE STORY...CAN YOU RELATE?
Chances are you haven't been through bankruptcy, but...
Maybe some of the above sounds like your experience going through the life-altering, COVID-19 fallout?
I had the idea for this article over a year ago, and while (three years later) I probably still have some emotional healing to do, I've seen so much emotional pain from COVID-19 that it seems like maybe it's time for me to write this blog post.
While I don't come close to "having all the answers" what I do hope to offer in telling this story is a perspective of someone who recently went through an unwelcome, unexpected, emotionally-traumatic, life-altering upheaval...and didn't let it break me.
YOU'RE STRONGER THAN YOU THINK
For anyone anxious or hurting from the fallout of COVID-19, let me say this...there is life, a good life, on the other side of intense struggle.
Hopefully something in my humble story below can give you the spark you need to make it through today, and maybe even carry you further than that.
No one knows what the future will look like, but I believe you can write a great story despite what's happening.
BACK TO MY STORY...CLARIFYING WHAT'S TRULY IMPORTANT
Bankruptcy has a way of forcefully slapping you in the face (daily) and reorienting your compass toward the question of who and what is truly important.
Upheaval like that also has a way of rapidly draining your emotions like an old cell-phone battery.
For me, that meant I found myself "on edge" in ways I normally wasn't.
I was harsh to my wife and kids in ways I never had been before.
Bankruptcy demanded a quick and dramatic recalibration of my expectations and priorities.
It demanded I face myself, my failures, and a cacophony of mixed emotions.
It demanded I sleep...a lot more than I had been.
Vices fell away quickly.
Preferences mattered way less.
FACING THE COLD, HARD REALITY
Filing bankruptcy means, if you have any savings, you don't get to keep much of it.
We got to keep possessions that had no resale value--clothes, old furniture, 12 and 14-year-old (dying) cars, and roughly 2.5 months worth of cash in savings--not including money for rent.
It felt like not only had our life been radically simplified, but we also had no visible path forward.
ALMOST FINDING WORK
I pursued options for work and only had one job offer that was even worth considering--a GM role at a big, chain gym.
Promising as the career path might have been, the salary would hardly cover rent for a family of six. Furthermore, I wouldn't be allowed to work any other job to make ends meet.
Nina and I wrestled for days about that offer.
I turned it down, and bet on myself.
WHERE WE LANDED
The other option we had was to go live an an old farmhouse owned by a friend, in a small town of about 14,000 people.
Our friends, who were too busy to take care of it, gave us an open-ended invitation to live in the house in exchange for caring for it.
Like us, the house needed a lot of TLC to come alive again.
With deep gratitude, we accepted their offer.
We didn't know it at the time, but by caring for this house, we were also caring for our own broken hearts.
I guess you could say the Elliots and this house were made for each other.
I had never lived in a small town, but it turns out this change of pace was just what I needed.
THE HUMBLING CONTINUED
During the week of our move, one of our two cars officially died leaving us with only a five-seater for our family of six.
Not only did we feel stripped of everything we once had, we felt stranded.
A few weeks later, a wave of disbelief swept over us as friends showed up in our driveway with their old minivan, handed over the keys, and left an open-ended window to pay for it when we could afford to.
The lifelines kept coming.
When money got tight, checks from old friends "randomly" showed up in the mail.
Our checking account got down to double digits, and the low triple digits several times.
We bounced a few checks.
We cried a lot...but we never went hungry.
We ended up on food stamps for about three months.
That was a conflicted emotional mix of embarrassment, emasculation, and deep gratitude.
Then there was the food bank.
Since Nina was working as a checker at Target on the weekends, it was up to me to pile the kids into the minivan on Sundays, and drive an hour away to get recently expired food.
To my delight, not only did the food sustain us that first winter, it exceeded our expectations with castoffs from our favorite, organic, grocery chains.
The best part however, was the people who worked at the food bank.
After our first visit, they started setting aside a box for us since I had trouble corralling the kids AND competing with the mad rush for food when the doors promptly opened at 11am.
Those kind people not only made sure we had food, they also welcomed my children with a kids table, place-settings loaded with snacks and drinks, and supervised them while I learned the ropes of "food-bank, speed shopping."
There is good in this world folks.
There is evil too, for sure.
But there is good.
People do care.
Life will humble us all at some point.
That humbling can make you softer, or it can make you bitter.
I could have been bitter that all I could feed my family was expired food, but instead I experienced waves of intense gratitude I still don't know how to capture with words.
Look for the good, and you will see it.
Contribute to it, and you will see more of it.
SOLVING THE ONGOING PROBLEM OF MAKING ENDS MEET
That was the hardest part.
Nina and I had been full-time entrepreneurs for 14 years.
While we had a long-successful run, we didn't have amazing resumes.
Stable companies didn't offer us much because we weren't "proven," and start-ups couldn't afford us.
Although the cost of living is lower in a small town, there is also not much of a job market.
Given that, we had to balance the realism of:
Being open to a job that could take us anywhere...yet realizing we might not be able to afford the cost of moving.
Both or either of us taking entry-level jobs that might required years to hit a reasonable salary...all while potentially forcing us to need expensive childcare.
Investing our time to create something to sell which could generate income, rather than just sending out resumes and trusting "the right job" would come.
Desiring to continue homeschooling our kids and remain entrepreneurs--i.e. fighting to not give up those dreams because we realized if we did, they might be gone forever.
PROCESSING OUR OPTIONS DIFFERENTLY
Nina and I processed the bankruptcy trauma quite differently when it came to what we were ready to do to earn a living.
For a while, Nina understandably wanted nothing to do with using our health, fitness, and life coaching skills to earn a living.
It brought back too many unhealed wounds, and she wanted to do everything possible to avoid recreating a life where our business runs us, rather than the other way around.
She needed time away from our broken dream to heal, and grow into a new vision for herself individually, and for us collectively.
Since I had no solid job prospects, Nina did the only thing she felt she could; go get whatever job would take her.
She interviewed at coffee shops, and dropped off her resume at the only gym in town.
What she ended up with was a house-cleaning gig, and as mentioned above, a part-time, seasonal job as a checker at Target, for $12/hour.
For me, I felt trapped
I didn't know where to find work.
I had the strange emotional mix of eagerness and reluctance to build something new.
I knew I still had skills that could really help people.
I still loved coaching, but how do you coach people when you're the one who feels like you needs it?
There's probably nothing that will get your creative juices flowing like needing to feed your kids.
I HAD to sell something.
It's amazing how resourceful you can become, how deeply you can face yourself...when you have to.
Side note: Entrepreneurship does something inside you.
Succeed long enough and you become almost unflappable during a crisis.
You develop an attitude that says "OK, that happened, now what?"
You learn to see opportunity everywhere.
Every shower you take, every workout you do, tends to overflow with new ideas.
The challenges are: 1) sorting the good ideas from the bad, 2) being able to quickly learn from your mistakes and adapt.
Knowing that I had to come up with answers...I doubled down.
I was determined to see what I could make of this clean slate I had been handed.
HONORING THE GRIEF...AND PUSHING ON ANYWAY
I could probably have used some more time to heal from my own emotional trauma before helping others, but that was one other luxury life wasn't affording me.
Sometimes I had the space to face strong emotions, and other times they had to be stuffed so I could get through the moment and live to fight another day.
That, I learned, is a really fine line to ride.
What I realized was, perhaps like you in this COVID crisis, that there was no path in front of me that didn't involve some type of suffering.
I was able to accept suffering in one hand, and in the other not allow it to disable me.
It was all about both accepting what is, and about...
It's second nature to me to create something helpful and sell it.
When we closed our business I had already been studying digital marketing for about a year.
Could this be a viable path forward?
I believed deep down I could build an income working from home...but man did I have a lot to learn.
And ugh, it took way longer than everyone tells you.
It's even harder when you have no money (or credit) to hire anyone to teach you.
I had to wade through tons of free content from countless experts.
Side note: Almost all experts lead you to believe that what you're missing is their little piece of a puzzle. In reality, it's more like each one gives you one or two puzzle pieces, but no one shows you what the box cover looks like.
You have to figure that out all by yourself.
Truthfully, if I didn't have a wife and kids waking up each day needing me, I don't know if I would have pushed myself hard enough to learn all I did.
But I think somewhere in there...is the point.
What was my alternative? To throw up my hands and quit?
Nope...instead, my only option, was...
I eventually stopped letting my fear paralyze me.
I saw what could be rather than what was.
I became determined to bring it into reality.
I didn't have a choice not to.
Trap a man with his back against the wall...and innovation beckons.
The fighter comes out.
The problem solver goes into overdrive.
Your limitations show up, and you are forced to face them.
Every. Single. Day.
I lived every day for almost two years with the tension of "am I focused on what's most important, or am I spending time on something that will bear no fruit?"
That daily gut check sharpened me. It still does.
I believed in what I was doing, so I didn't quit.
And every month, our needs were always met.
IN RETROSPECT...WHAT AN OPPORTUNITY I HAD
I was plopped down in the middle of nowhere, with 1) over a dozen years as an entrepreneur who 2) also had been in trenches every day helping people build their health.
I had skills, but best of all, I had space to think, space to unpack my brain.
I slowly found a few people interested in my personal training, and health coaching.
I went to work developing the business we now run.
For over two years there was no long-term planning, just a string of days that ran together, as part of a "what-can-I-do-to-move-life-forward-today" reality.
A SECOND GRADER, TEACHING A FIRST GRADER
But we're not to the happy ending yet...
Since my coaching skills weren't paying all the bills, and with Nina working part time, I had to find other ways to work remotely so I could be home while she worked.
As the months went by, I was slowly developing quite the skill set building a virtual business, and a friend (thanks Alex) suggested I get on Upwork and see if I could find anyone a little further behind me on the path who might pay me to help them with what I know.
I approached it as if I was a second grader teaching a first grader.
I didn't need to pretend to be a fifth grader, or ultra successful professional.
I just needed to find people I could help.
And so I did.
It turns out, that little side hustle made all the difference.
Somehow, in getting this PhD from the Digital University of Hard Knocks, I got really good at building websites and helping people clarify their message, while also coaching them through the strategic and tactical realities of building a 100%-online business.
That little venture became a strong and personally-fulfilling income stream.
It suits me, and I still do it today when I find project that fits my skills.
WHAT'S THE POINT IN ALL THIS
Hopefully by now, you've teased out some of your own points.
Perhaps like I was, many of you are now on the non-optional, personal-and-professional-development fast track via unexpected suffering and loss.
It's not the track you would have chosen, but here you are.
I can't tell you what's ahead will be easy.
I can't even tell you it will be easy anytime soon.
But, I can tell you if you lean into it, you're likely to develop unshakable character.
If you can lean into this time and embrace it for what it will make of you, I'm one of a million stories proving that humans can overcome just about anything.
There are so many life lessons this process has taught me, but here are some of the gems.
Fiercely protect your inputs - i.e. the kind of people, news, and information you expose yourself too. If you're exposed to too much negativity, you'll probably crack.
Fight the battles you must - There are more big problems than you can fix. Pick your battles well. Let others handle the ones you can't. Show up for what's important.
Don't sweat the small stuff - Will what's bothering you now even matter in a month or two? If not, let it go and focus on what will matter.
The obstacle is the way - Not only is that a cool book title (which I haven't read...yet) the obstacle points out exactly what skills you need to develop next.
Embrace a season of intense learning - When your hands are busy, but your mind is free, have educational audio on. Whatever problem you have, someone has solved it.
Develop new skills - At some point you gotta put down the audiobooks and go practice something you stink at--the sooner the better.
Deepen your emotional intelligence - where there is relational tension, realize YOU are part of the problem. Be more fascinated with that, than eager to correct someone else.
Give grace where it's not deserved - Deepen your empathy. Everyone is going through something. Walk a mile in someone else's shoes, and know you don't know everything.
Blog, or do your equivalent to blogging - Writing is a fantastic way to process strong emotions, and it's also the best way to learn and organize information.
Look deeper at your core values - You'll probably find how you've been living isn't matching up with what you believe is most important. What needs to change?
Consider a life-work pivot - what would it be like to start with (or imagine) a clean slate, where you build the structure of the life you want, and fit your profession inside that?
Don't pretend your superman or wonder woman. You still need rest and play. You can't study and work 24/7. If you try to, you'll be a grumpy mess and no one will enjoy you.
Create space for grief - Privately process (with trusted friends and professionals) unresolved grief. Let it out, talk it out. If you stuff it, you'll have to deal with it later.
Pause often, and delight in what you do have. What's ahead may be awful for a while. Stop and savor the coffee, kiss your spouse, tickle your kids, and focus on what's good.
Bankruptcy (and for a lot of people, COVID-19) is a refiner's fire that can produce so much pain, yet at the same time has the potential to result in something pure and good.
Look forward to the good days ahead.
Believe they are coming.
Expand your vision for what can be, and call it into reality.
BE DETERMINED TO LOOK BACK WITH PRIDE
As we were beginning the bankruptcy process, a good friend said to us, "What your kids will remember way more than the bankruptcy, is how their mommy and daddy handled it. What do you want them to remember?"
Such wise words.
Thank you Carolyn for pointing that out. That perspective has guided us as we've gone through this process.
So, dear reader...now I ask you: When you look back on COVID-19 years from now,
What will you and others say about how you handled it?
Did you spread more hope or more fear?
Did you fight the battles that needed to be fought, or shrink back?
What are you doing today that you can be proud of yourself for?
Maybe, most importantly, what do you want your kids and loved ones to remember?
None of us knows what the world will look like in the months and years ahead. What many of us are mourning right now is the loss of our perceived control and our vision of the future, which was never a guarantee in the first place.
Often times, shifting our gaze inward, and onto the things we can control is the first step toward something far better.
We have today. We have this moment. We all have so much untapped potential.
If you have not already, resolve today that this won't break you.
Resolve that this will make you stronger.
Go make a difference...and take a nap when you need one.
Until next time,
PS. This article would not be complete without saying "thank you" to all who helped us through this time. You are many, and you know who you are. Thank you. Those two words feels like such a small gesture. If only they could be as big as the love we feel for you.
PPS. If this crisis has brought you to the point of readiness, even eagerness to get back your health, reach out. We have a fantastically-holistic, personal-coaching program. It's high-touch, high-commitment, and it's built precisely for such a time as this.
Have questions? Email me at email@example.com