We’ve all been through change. Some easy. Some hard. But imagine finding out that not only is your husband leaving you for his mistress but that he’s lost all of your money and is leaving you in massive debt. Is it even possible to get through that with your sanity? Today we’re chatting with Lee and finding out how she handled the worst day of her life. Hint…a lot of humor was involved.
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Can you please introduce yourself, tell us what you do and where you do it?
My name is Lee Gaitan and I am an author, speaker and I also teach English as a Second Language to Adults in suburban Atlanta. I love words in any language!
You worked in broadcasting as a writer. Was this what you dreamed of doing when you were younger or something that you fell into?
I majored in Speech and Rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh and knew I wanted to work in media or public relations. I did several internships during college. The first was at a news radio station where I was actually hired as a writer and producer after one day of interning. I did another internship as a writer with the University’s news and publications department where I was hired upon graduation. Part of my duties there included hosting and producing a public affairs show. I went on to host and produce three other TV talk shows over the years (moving around the country for my ex-husband’s career), which I loved! I worked as a public relations writer for health care and educational institutions around the country, as well as for P.R./advertising agencies. Along the way, I became certified as a literacy tutor and volunteered as a tutor for a few months before being offered a job with the literacy organization. That got me hooked on teaching adult literacy and eventually ESL, which I have done on at least a part-time basis for the past 20 years.
In my blog, I write a lot about trying new things and people who start over. Sixteen years ago, you had to start over in a big way when your ex-husband lost all your money and ran away with his girlfriend. Can you talk us through the steps you took to move past this?
As huge a shock as this was, I didn’t have the luxury of time to process the emotional devastation or thoughtfully ponder my next move. With unexpected destitution on my doorstep, I had to act as quickly and pragmatically as possible. I was only working part-time then, so I immediately picked up as many extra jobs as I could, at one point working five part-time jobs Monday through Saturday to try to keep a roof over my head.
I sold everything I could—(my then- heavily mortgaged) house, car, jewelry, the gold in my teeth. One night I even took an inventory of everything I had two of that I only needed one of to list for sale. Things like blenders and can openers, as well as lungs and eyeballs. As a matter of fact, I believe I still have a kidney listed on eBay. 🙂 I moved into a crappy apartment and found a full-time job teaching ESOL and language arts in a middle school. I taught with a provisional certificate and then completed a permanent certification program while teaching. For the next ten years, I never had fewer than three jobs at a time, including my regular teaching job. Most days I started at 7 a.m. and finished at 9 p.m. But I finally paid everyone back and never declared bankruptcy.
The silver lining of my difficult circumstances is that I learned to appreciate “the power of enough.” During this time, I certainly didn’t appear to have “enough” of anything, not money, love or security. But I did get “enough” to get me through day by day—a helping hand, a small refund, or a few well-timed, encouraging words. Each time I was ready to give up, when it seemed all hope was gone, a little piece of “enough” came to me. Eventually, I gave up the fantasy of a big rescue and learned to appreciate each small drop of mercy that sustained me, sometimes just enough to get me from one minute to the next. The lens of gratitude has a magical way of magnifying the smallest bit of goodness until it is enough to cover your need.
On top of everything with your ex-husband, you also lost your father that year and your mother was hospitalized. How do you keep your humor at a time like this?
Some days the humor was rather dark, and there was a lot of crying and cursing in there too, but humor is a powerful tool to release stress and strengthen resilience. It was just about all I had left at that point!
You write humor. Can you tell us what attracted you to humor writing and if you tried other genres first?
I have always taken humor very seriously, haha. Seeing the humor in unlikely situations is something that comes naturally to me and has been a constant in my life, enhancing the good times and mitigating the bad one or more challenging ones. During my decade of “shock and awfulness,” I credit my ability to still find humor to help me survive and eventually thrive again.
Your first book was Falling Flesh Just Ahead, and Other Signs on the Road to Midlife. Where were you in your career at that time and what drove you to write this book?
With the publication of that book, I thought, finally, it was MY TURN. I had been working as a freelance writer for an Atlanta P.R. agency and also coordinating an adult literacy program two nights a week. I returned from my 20th high school reunion and was hit with a compelling need to write the book I’d been thinking about for a few years. I credit my sister with motivating me to sit down and do it. I was moaning to her about what I wanted to do but hadn’t done yet as I approached 40, and she cut me off and unsympathetically told me to shut up and go write a book about it. She made me so mad, I went and did that! I was thrilled to get the attention of an agent in NY (Sheree Bykofsky) who sold the manuscript to Longstreet Press and on April 1, 1998, Falling Flesh Just Ahead—and other signs on the road toward midlife was published. It was a collection of humorous personal essays about turning 40 and loss of perkiness that accompanied that! I crisscrossed the country that summer for book signings and media appearances.
Shortly thereafter, my then-husband was transferred to Chicago where I found an amazing publicist who secured fantastic opportunities for me. The Chicago media were so kind to me! I became a freelance writer for Today’s Chicago Woman and Chicago Healthy Parent (doing personality profiles of local newsmakers). I appeared frequently on all the local TV stations as the “midlife” expert about anything remotely related to women and midlife, from empty nest to depression. I even taught an evening adult learning class about getting your book published at the Chicago Latin School.
I was working on the proposal for another book when the ax fell on me, my marriage, my dream!
Your next book was My Pineapples Went to Houston. Why did you decide to treat some of the most difficult times in your life with humor?
There aren’t a whole lot of laughs to be found in death, divorce, and destitution, not to live through or to read about. I didn’t want to write about what happened in a dismissive, superficial way, yet I didn’t want it to be depressing and heavy. I decided to handle the writing the same way I instinctively handled the situation as it was unfolding—with humor. Even on my darkest of days, I discovered that every time I could laugh at my situation or make other people laugh about something, I felt like my “real” self; it felt like a part of my soul was being fed—and it affirmed to me that the real me was still in there somewhere. I decided there was no more authentic way to write than in that voice, my own.
You refer to your blog as the Bounce Back Blog. Can you explain what Bounce Back means to you and how people can do it?
Everyone is going to takes some bad bounces in life. The real challenge is bouncing back. We will all face some type of struggle, grand or mundane, and the more resilient among us will be better able to survive having all of our plans unexpectedly go south. I believe a laugh or at least a smile can help us gain the momentum we need to not only survive the bad bounce but to keep bouncing back.
Did you get any advice or help from other women who’ve gone through a divorce? What’s the best advice that you received?
You know, I really didn’t know anyone who’d gone through what I was going through. But one of my closest friends is a therapist and she certainly let me bend her ear relentlessly and helped me see things clearly and helped keep me sane.
And to go along with that question, what advice do you have for other women who may be going through a similar crisis in their lives?
I actually have a little checklist of steps or advice to get you through a divorce!
- Change the locks, ha, ha! Actually, I am not joking here. Changing the locks is a powerful symbolic gesture and serves a practical purpose as well. Changing the locks—locking your ex out of your life—sets metaphorical boundaries around you. Your ex can no longer come and go in and out of your life as he chooses. This is now YOUR space and YOU decide who gets to enter and who is denied admission. From a pragmatic standpoint, you do not want him coming in when you are not there, rifling through your drawers or removing things without your knowledge.
- Let it all out…or not. Everyone reacts differently or at different times. Remember that you are grieving a loss every bit as real as a death. At first, you may want to variously scream, cry, curl up in a ball on your bed, eat ice cream, escape into mindless TV shows or stay up all night talking to your best girlfriends. Or you may do none of these things. You may walk zombie-like through the first few days or weeks, numb with shock. All of that is perfectly normal. Be prepared for any of the early emotions to loop back around from time to time—you hear a song or smell a cologne and you are right back there. But you will not stay there.
- Care for yourself as you would a friend. Do all the things for yourself that you would urge a friend to do when experiencing a crisis. Eat well, sleep well, exercise, lean on friends, treat yourself to a new haircut or makeover. And don’t be afraid or ashamed to seek professional help if you feel overwhelmed. A very hard thing has happened to you, and when hard things happen, we ask for help from many sources.
- Get to know yourself all over again. No matter how great any marriage is, there are always compromises and sacrifices to be made. Guess what? You don’t have to please anyone but yourself now. Reacquaint yourself with who you were before you became one-half of a couple. Maybe he hated dancing and you have been sitting out every toe-tapping tune for 20 years. Now is the time to put on your dancing shoes again. He hated foreign films? Well, he’s not here now, so fire up the subtitles. Whatever interest, hobby or just plain way of being you had to submerge for the greater good can re-emerge now. Try new things too. There is no one to judge or question your choices now, so go for it!
- Look at the plus column. And look at it as often as necessary to remind yourself of all of the things you still have going for you—first and foremost, yourself and your survivor spirit. I don’t care how insignificant the positives seem now and how overwhelming the negatives are at the moment, write down every good little thing you can think of. If you’re going to need a new job, think of all your skills and experience; if you feel abandoned, think of friends and family who are there for you; if you feel one-upped by his new squeeze, remember all the beautifully unique things about yourself.
- Seriously, you must remember to laugh. Laugh at the absurdity of the situations you find yourself in. Laugh through your tears. Laugh at a goofy Facebook post. But, laugh. And here’s a special trick when the grins seem hard to come by—remember a time your ex acted or looked like a fool. You know, like when he butchered the name of the wine at the snooty restaurant or when he tried out that unfortunate buzz-cut-and-earring look at 45. See, doesn’t it feel good to laugh out loud?
- Appreciate the Power of Enough. My ex ran out the door just before the destruction he had set in motion became apparent. I lost my house, my savings, my retirement and my health insurance among many other things, and I gained nearly $100,000 worth of debt, from taxes he’d left unpaid to charges he’d made on my credit cards. I certainly didn’t appear to have “enough” of anything, not money, love or security. And yet, in the worst moments, there were still quiet little signs of hope that got me through. I learned to appreciate every drop of mercy that came my way and not to focus on or bemoan the big rescue that never came, but rather to savor the small moments of grace that sustained me, sometimes minute by minute. The lens of gratitude has a magical way of magnifying the smallest bit of goodness until it is enough to cover your need.
This list is certainly not exhaustive, but I hope it gives you a place to start. Certainly, none of us would choose to be the one left behind, watching in disbelief as our spouse walks out the door, but we can survive and even learn to thrive once, as corny as it sounds, we let go of “what was” and learn to embrace “what can be.”
You have a new book out, tell us about it
Lite Whines and Laughter—Mild Rants and Musings on the Mundane. This book is purely for fun and entertainment. I’m all about looking on the bright side to find the silver lining in dark clouds, but sometimes the best way to part the dark clouds and discover the sunshine is by way of a mild rant or musing on the myriad irritations of modern life.
I hope a sip or two of my lite whines will bring you the laughs necessary to survive this crazy world with your health and sense of humor intact. I recently came across this post on Facebook: “One minute of anger weakens the immune system for 5 hours. One minute of laughter strengthens the immune system for 24 hours!” I concur wholeheartedly. Of course, I have absolutely no evidence whatsoever to back up this claim, but I’ve never been one to let facts interfere with my opinions! So, sit back, crack open a lite whine with me and laugh your way to a better immune system!
Connect with Lee through the following links.
FB page for my book:https://www.facebook.com/mypineappleswenttohouston
Amazon: Author Page