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My Little Rocket Ship of Hope and Love (Deep Space Divorce Saga)

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I am hilariously ashamed, and… Laughing at my situation, because if I didn’t laugh at it, I’m sure I’d be freaking out, depressed, or drinking. Something to escape my current grounded state. Ready to laugh? Me too.

Just to set the stage, a woman I was talking to on the phone a few days ago, about my current living situation, said, “That’s amazing. You should write a book or something. That’s hilarious.”

She was talking about the fact that at 52 years old, I am living in my mom’s garage. Damn! Sorry. I even crack up now at the absurdity of the situation. But so it is. And here I am. Like a twenty-something regrouping. Except I’m past middle age, I’ve got two kids in middle school and a nice child support payment to go with it. And I’ve had some serious setbacks. And again, I’m not going to bitch about it. I’m not going to tell you how the world economy has done me wrong. I’m not even going to tell you how my ex-wife has done me wrong. I could, but I’m not. (I’ve done that elsewhere, anyway.)

What I’m going to let you know is this: you can lose everything. And I mean everything. And still wake up on the bright side of the day each morning. Excited about your first and second cup of coffee and all the dreams ahead. Even after great setbacks, like divorce, or job loss, or whatever, with the “bright side” outlook, you can find hope. That’s all we need. A tiny bit of hope.

We do have to backtrack, just for a second, for me to set up the situation.

  1. Economy – yadda yadda.
  2. Divorce/Depression/Job loss – yadda yadda.
  3. Parent with boatloads of money decides what would be best, and it ain’t keeping the house.
  4. Even my storage unit of things, everything, is sold unlawfully.
  5. A fantastic new job, several months ago, hires me with great fanfare and fires me on the second day for my contributions to the Huffington Post.


FINE. I GET IT. Something in the universe, in my karma, in the “future plans” for me, was not working correctly. And for the second time in my life, I got a full reset. The first time was when my then-wife decided she no longer wanted to be my wife. Okay, RE-SET. Start over. And if you blow it, start over again.

When the woman said how funny it was, my situation, I laughed with her. What I’ve gotten out of this morass is a deep appreciation for one thing: me. I’m not ashamed of what’s happened. And while I’m not proud of it either, I am aware of a new internal strength that has come from restarting from ground zero. And, even in the middle of it, taking the serenity now approach to my life, at this moment, I AM the happiest I’ve ever been. Hard to imagine.

And there are moments when I wonder if my positive attitude is some sort of hypnotic delusion that I feed myself, like some NLP self-regulating ritual. But I shake off those thoughts too. I’m just happy.

In my core DNA, I enter the world each day as a positive force. I have plans and dreams and I’m up-and-at-‘m with vigor and caffeine. And that’s what gets me the job, and also what gets me in trouble. Sometimes, the jetpack runs out of fuel. Sometimes, I run out of mojo, fuel, energy, optimism, hope. I’m sure we all do. But when you’re a hard-charger, the dramatic switch from extrovert to an introvert is jarring to most people and absolutely terrifying to some. You might try to label this drop bi-polar or some other diagnosis, but I’m thinking it’s more about jet-fueled optimism and dreams, and the momentary sputtering of the rocket itself inside me.

So I’m a little rocket ship. And when I’m well-fueled, well-balanced, and have a good map in front of me, all systems go, green lights across the board, look out, cause here we go. When the map gets torn in half and the fuel supply is momentarily shut off, I do tend to flounder. Well, I actually gained strength and insight this time. So what’s changed?

I’ve learned to keep a reserve tank of optimism. I’ve packed a secondary map, a meta-map, for where I’m going. And once I established my larger goal, the goal beyond what I wanted, I was able to see the setbacks as mere interruptions rather than disasters.

This is a fairly recent addition to my rocket ship design. And the disasters of these last six months have given me a chance to test all of my backup systems.

When divorce interrupted my interstellar travel plans over five years ago, I did not have any backup plans. I had put my entire dream and fuel source in the family unit we had been working on for 11+ years. When my mission control center went black, I was literally lost in space. I not only lost mission control but at the moment I agreed to try a spacewalk out of the capsule, I began a free fall without precedent. Everything I knew and counted on in my life was suddenly out of view for long periods of time. And at times I did not thrive alone in deep space.

But it was during this long period of holding my breath, conserving resources, trying alternative fuel sources, that I started learning to focus on survival and perseverance rather than the immediate crisis. I learned to be sad about my situation, but not pity myself. I learned that my actions were more important than how I felt on any given day. I took a Radiohead lyric deep into my DNA during that time. “Just because you feel it. Doesn’t mean it’s real.”

And while the divorce and the separation of me from my kids and my house and my primary relationship was real, those losses didn’t actually pose any threat to my life. (Depression might have if I had not found a way back to hopefulness.) If I could learn to breathe easily, even under major duress, I could learn to bring calm and hopeful rationale to focus on the situation. The road ahead in those first months seemed insurmountable. No house. No job. A new monthly child support payment that was supposed to come first, before shelter, food, or clothing for me. And a few times it was easier to give up. It seemed appropriate to sink into depression for a bit. It seemed like an acceptable response. I could hear myself, saying, “Sure, I just got divorced, I’m depressed. That’s okay.”

But I needed to transform that sadness and hopelessness into something else. Even as I was homeless and loveless I remained focused on one priority alone. Even beyond my own self-preservation, I put all of my remaining energy into being a good dad. Sure, my kids could tell their rocket ride was not in service. And I’m sure the loss inside the home I left was also quite tangible and painful to everyone involved. But when they were with me, I simply focused on being a dad. Everything else became unimportant when my kids were with me.

And the kid-first approach worked quite well when they were with me. When the rocket ship had kid cargo I was all-systems-go, even if I couldn’t tell them when I would have a house for us, I couldn’t tell them when we might take another vacation together, I couldn’t tell them, when they’d get their own rooms again, in MY house. I simply didn’t have any answers. And we learned to live together in our alternative rocket ship, the one where they had to pack bags each week and learned to love each other anyway. Even without a map, fuel, or a plan, I stayed with my ability to connect and be emotionally available for my kids. I could fall apart, take on maintenance and repair tasks when they were planetside, at their mom’s house.

And we survived. And in that surviving, we all got stronger. And when we were together we kept the joy and humor flowing. I began to chase and wrestle them again. I began to remember what life was about. I rediscovered the deeper mission within about being a great dad. And yet, that wasn’t enough. When they were not around I could fall back into deep despair. I could spend “off” weekends in bed, not tending to repairs, not moving my plans forward, not seeing any happiness in my future, but when my kids arrived again. This is not a sustainable model. As happy as I was (outside) when they were with me, I was just as dark and hurt when they were away. I needed some deeper fuel source. I needed some way to get out of the self-pity mantras that haunted me during the “off” times.

Even stumbling along in the dark I had a few successes. I was recruited and hired by a startup to drive their digital marketing program. And within months I was purchasing a home and giving my little crew a new command module for the next leg of our journey. Things were exciting. Good. Stressful. And my orbit was still quite wobbly when the kids were away for the long 5-6 day stretches. But at least we had liftoff again and were headed in some direction. The maps might have still been unclear, but we were in motion. Until the company decided they weren’t going to be in the “consumer” business anymore and killed my position along with the line of business.

Then I had a shiny new six-month-old ship that was leaking fuel, money, and hope. I thrashed a bit. The economy was still rough and my job prospects were challenging. I interviewed, I consulted, I did freelance, I sold a lot of my things, all in the spirit of keeping the rocket heading forward. But it wasn’t enough. A lot of things did not work out. Still, our little crew kept our sense of humor and adventure. My ex-wife wasn’t so understanding. Even my mom and sister began to point out the weaknesses and obvious problems they had warned me about when I first made plans to get my own ship again. Lots of people were unhappy. But inside the failing rocket, our little trio, laughed, celebrated, jumped on the trampoline, sailed through a few more years of school and weekends together.

A year ago, at Christmas time it was clear the only way to survive was to abandon the spaceship. In a few short months of hand-wringing and furious activity, I got rid of about 50% of my things, and sold the spaceship and returned to the “captain without a ship” state that I find myself in right now. I put what was left of my things in storage and moved into my mom’s garage. And again, I went back to the drawing board in search of a better map.


John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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image: 1947 Rocketship Galileo, tom voter, creative commons usage

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