Failure is not an option

We shall go on to the end

We will fight with growing confidence

We shall never surrender

— Winston Churchill

Prime Minister Winston Churchill gives the &qu...
Prime Minister Winston Churchill gives the “Victory” sign to crowds in London on Victory in Europe Day. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been asked many times why, when faced with challenge, I don’t just give up.

Fortunately, I’ve never faced sexual assault, chronic or terminal illness, war, famine or poverty. Some of the people who read Broadside have faced these very real traumas, so I don’t begin to suggest my First World problems are terribly compelling, but resilience and tenacity do interest me.

Who cracks and crumples, hysterical, and who soldiers on?

While at university studying Spanish and starting my journalism career, I volunteered as an interpreter for Chileans who had suffered, and/or witnessed, the rape, torture or death of their loved ones, neighbors and fellow citizens, who had fled to Canada and who were claiming refugee status. In that role, I listened carefully to stories so soul-searing I’ve never forgotten them, even when I wanted to. I went to the dentist with one man to see if the X-rays could prove, (which they did not) that his jaw had, in fact, been smashed by a rifle butt. Another told me, in the detail he had to to prove his claim, about watching his wife and daughters raped in front of him.

My personal challenges have included:

— being the only child of a divorced bi-polar alcoholic mother who suffered multiple breakdowns and hospitalizations, some overseas

— her multiple cancer surgeries

— the loss of both grandmothers when I was 18

— putting myself through college, living alone for three years of it

— being attacked by an intruder in my apartment, at 19

— selling my work to national publications, starting at 19

— three recessions since moving to New York in 1989

— moving to, and adapting to, life in Mexico, France and the U.S.

— getting divorced

— becoming the victim of a con artist

— four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, including full left hip replacement in 2012; 18 months’ of pain and exhaustion before the operation

When single, I didn’t give up for practical reasons —  who would have bought the groceries or made the meals? The laundry and dog-walking? Turning to my family for help was rarely an option, for a variety of reasons.

If you fall to bits, who pays the bills?

I’ve always had health insurance — even paying $500/month for it when I lived alone for six years — and with it, access to medical and mental health help when necessary. I know that’s been a huge advantage for me, as has the freedom from the pressing financial and emotional responsibilities of children or grandkids.

Sent to boarding school and summer camp from the age of eight, I learned young to take care of myself, not to ask for help, not to rely on others for aid or comfort. The hardest part has been learning to ask others for help — and being pleasantly surprised and grateful at how willingly some offer it.

At my absolutely lowest points, I still had my health, some savings, a safe, clean home I could  afford. Maybe having lived in Mexico at 14, or having traveled to a number of developing countries, helped me keep a sense of perspective — I was still deeply blessed with what I had, no matter how tough things looked at the time.

And some people still dearly loved me; their faith in me, and their generosity and kindness, helped me keep it together. One woman, after the con man scared the shit out of me and I seriously considered moving back to Toronto, gave me refuge in her home for three weeks there.

The only time I really gave up, and my body made clear I had no choice in the matter, was three days on an IV in March 2007 , hospitalized with pneumonia. I had never just collapsed, (even when I really wanted to), and allowed others to take very good care of me while I rested and recovered.

Here’s a powerful post by tech entrepreneur Brad Feld about his own physical burn-out:

Finally, I do have a full time job and spent the bulk of my time working on that, so all of this other stuff was the extracurricular activity that filled in the cracks around the 60+ hours a week of VC work I was doing during this time.

I had a lot of time to reflect on this last week after I came out of my Vicodin-induced haze. At 47, I realize, more than ever, my mortality. I believe my kidney stone and depression were linked to the way I treated myself physically over the 90 days after my bike accident. While the kidney stone might not have been directly linked to the accident, the culmination of it, the surgery, and my depression was a clear signal to me that I overdid it this time around.

Do you ever just want to give up?

Have you?

What keeps you going?

Here is Winston Churchill, in his own words.

59 thoughts on “Failure is not an option

  1. Right about lately…but no, its really not an option. Never has been for me, never will be. Not in my genetic code structure to give up… there are many out there that would give an arm and leg to have the safe haven I have at present. Have basically no money, no home of my own, no job, but HALLELUJAH….I have family. 🙂 Just hard right not, not impossible.

  2. Yes, I almost gave up when I was a caregiver, several times. Not my proudest moments but the truth. I didn’t give up because as hard as it was, I loved him too much to leave. Also because I was always telling him to not give up (on himself and life). My mother used to say “never give up” and it stuck with me. I think some people are more resilient than others. And by resilient I don’t mean we don’t lose our shit or never feel fear, we simply soldier on through the muck. You sound like that too.

    1. You have faced a very specific hell and one I fear. I admire your spirit and hope life is getting better for you.

      When I was a really low point and told my (then)therapist I felt I was in hell, he said “just keep walking…one step at a time.” It is sometimes all you can muster.

  3. themodernidiot

    Stubbornness and a great sense of humor. Good and bad are a package deal, so the sun’s always gonna shine eventually.

      1. themodernidiot

        Just saw something on Carol Burnett. She had a pretty hard time growing up, some severe losses. Explains a lot about her sense of humor. So blessed that she shared her gift with the world.

      2. Some of the funniest people I know come from some very dark places. It’s a powerful coping mechanism because it means you can find and create alliances with lots of other people quickly by making them laugh/happy. I do it, too.

  4. This should be an insightful and helpful story for a lot of people. Sorry, but a lot of times I disdain it when I hear a person talk of failing. By definition failing is being “unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal”. In most cases, that’s only possible if you tried to do something and immediately died after the attempt. Failure, fortunately, only exists under a few rare sets circumstances. So, if you’re not dead, not physically or mentally impaired, then you haven’t failed. Get off our self-pity and get back to trying like Brad Feld.

    1. Some of it is also how much emotional support you have…if you have no one in your corner at all (unlikely but possible), it can feel pretty bleak. But “failure” is subjective in many ways. I “failed” at my first marriage…but so did my ex-husband!

  5. I want to give up daily most of the time–both on life and on my job. I soldier on, as you say. I cry a lot. That helps. I retreat sometimes, and simply do pleasant or mindless things until I can cope again. I find small successes to dwell on. I smile, because that makes me feel better. I talk to the people who care about me and who being around cheers me up. I help the kid who really needs it on my own time, I ask someone how they are and listen for the answer, I give someone a compliment. I try to just be for a while. I do everything I can think of to do. Because, really, what is alternative? Suicide is a nasty, nasty business and it upset everyone else.

    1. Having read some of your blog, I’m in awe that you’re standing, lucid and functioning. I was wary of writing this post, as I thought of you.

      Have you done (or can you access?) therapy? I have found it a lifeline, literally. I know it doesn’t work for some people and I know your situation is very specific.

      I wish I could offer you more than silly words.

      1. Thanks. I’ll take that as high praise. I enjoyed this post very much. It was something I felt I could relate to quite strongly.

        I do see a therapist regularly. That is part of the hard slog forward. From time to time, I even feel better afterwards, but mostly I do it to feel more alive, even though a sense of aliveness is not always actually more pleasant.

      2. Seriously. I feel lucky to have not experienced some of the things you’ve written about…and wonder how one would survive it all.

        I hear you on therapy. It can be ridiculously painful to discuss/confront/analyze the nasty stuff we’ve each been through. I spent many years denying the effects some of this had on me, and still does. Oddly enough, blogging (and reading people’s comments here) has been helpful as well. Nothing I expected.

        I never used to admit to anyone that this stuff had happened to me. But then people don’t understand why I react certain ways to certain triggers; we all have them. I may have survived but I still have sore spots.

        I wish you the best…and hope you’ll find (more) peace soon.

      3. I once cut my hand on a broken glass in the sink, washing dishes and needed 7 stitches. They had to irrigate it thoroughly before stitching it back up again, and the ER was so busy, the doctor was called away to another patient before he could start on the stitches, so they had to irrigate all over again. This was before the stuck a needle in the wound to What has to be done to get better is kind of like that. Over and over. It’s being with the pain that starts to help.

        I do think it helps to share what we’ve been through. As it turns out, we are never alone in it. And being reminded that we are all in this business of life together helps.

        Take care and thanks.

      4. It is humbling, and comforting, to hear others’ stories of resilience and fear and survival weakness. We so often think no one could possibly understand or care, and then someone does, and it feels just a bit better.

        I only finally went to an Al-Anon meeting about two years ago. I didn’t find it very helpful, but it was the first time I had said out loud what this had done to me, and heard others say it.

  6. I’ve a feeling that it’s incredibly difficult to give up – that somehow the survival instinct embedded in our DNA just won’t let us lie back down and close our eyes and not open them again without a struggle …

  7. I’ve always had an intrinsic motivation to keep trying, an optimism that it will all be worth it and enough encouragement from supportive friends and family. But there have been times when I wish I could!

    1. Optimism is huge. I never used to be very optimistic, but my husband is, and it’s really changed how I think. We’re fairly cynical, but not negative, if that makes sense. I think it’s a challenge to balance out optimism with disappointment.

    1. 😦

      Sorry to hear that. I have days like that, too. Freelancing in a dying industry, earning less than I made 13 years ago? Holy shit. But I still have bills to pay and new bras to afford! The $$ has to come from somewhere and much as I love the hubby, he does not earn enough to support us both and allows us to save for retirement. So, on we go!

  8. evanescentmatter

    All too familiar at 24. One thing I learned though is to keep pressing on no matter how insufferable life and its minions seem. Another is that exposure can help desensitize a sensitive soul. Escapism will only make things worse. Trials hurt, no s***. Failure, even more. But time and again, I’d always remember that I live not only for myself. Giving up at this point, no matter how tempting, is rubbish. Others need to fight for their life while all I have to do is live it. That should be a fist-full reminder that I can make the most of what I have and no problem (at this point) predetermines the end of my life. The same goes for many.

    Again, wonderful entree. 🙂

    1. Very true indeed — I never used drugs or alcohol to escape the shittiest moments, and there have been some REALLY bad moments. At 19, I had three really bad things all happen to me within the space of about a month — the same month I began writing for national magazines. Frankly, my ambition saved me because I had major editors waiting for me to be an adult — not a blubbering baby (no matter how I felt.) I took anti-anxiety meds to get through a few weeks, and started my career.

      I met an editor for a major magazine about 3 days after my husband walked out of our home and 2-year marriage. It was a much better choice to Get On With It than sit around having a pity party. He was gone and I needed a life of my own, stat!

      Every single day, there are people dying of cancer, starving for lack of food, dying from lack of access to clean water or medication they cannot afford. My “problems” are a joke in comparison.

      Perspective is huge. Two men my age in my apartment building have brain tumors — one now in diapers. My “problems”? My “problems”? Bullshit. You must keep a perspective or you will not get through life effectively.

  9. I’ve wanted to give up many times, I think the urge to walk away and say F*** it and give up is common in a lot of people, but I just keep pushing forward. I’ve never given up on important things in life, made adjustments, absolutely. But in the end I just keep pushing forward because if I don’t who will? What keeps me going? Good question, probably because I don’t like leaving things half done and even though this world is one screwed up place it has it’s moments… Besides, I have a dog that needs to be fed and walked and a nephew and nieces who still need and seek my council… 😉

    1. Thanks for this…I think it’s rare to admit that we DO want to throw in the towel, but it’s really not an option for most of us. So the larger challenge is figuring out (as you say) how to “make adjustments” and squeeze every bit of joy we can while we can.

      Hugs to the dog and the nephew and nieces! You’re a fortunate and wise man to have people seeking your wisdom.

  10. An inspiring post! And timely, for me. I’m faced with major change and upheaval in my life right now. Fancy writing a post on how to tackle decisions?! I’m just kidding, but really you are great; I sort of feel like I could come to you for sensible advice 🙂 I am finding reserves of strength I didn’t know I had, though. And I read a book recently “healing without Freud or prozac” by Dr David Servan-Schreiber (I hate self help books, but this one is good). It made me realise how everything is connected; your emotional and physical health, I mean. Great stuff, thank you.

    1. Thanks!

      Sorry you are going through so much — and yes, a post on decision-making, sure thing!

      Having gone through a few years of intense physical pain with my damaged hip, I’m very aware of the mind-body connection; everything was an exhausting battle, from buying groceries to visiting (shriek) a museum. I could not believe the tremendous emotional and physical energy I’ve had since my surgery, but it’s fairly obvious that being in pain 24/7 for years WOULD be draining. 🙂

      Major change and upheaval? Ugh. Been there, done that. Some of it done to me — husband bailing, parents divorcing, mother (and now father) deciding not to speak to me. Please! It’s one reason I’ve stayed in the same apartment since 1989. The rest of my life has been chaotic enough!

      Best wishes as you wrangle your life…

      1. Thanks, I’m getting there I think… I used to find change so exciting but as I get older I just find more and more I want security and stability. Still, seems those things were not meant for me so I must seek to find them in other areas of my life, and hold on to that. I hope you’re pain free now? I’ve heard hip ops are a long recovery. Thanks for your sympathy!

  11. Honestly, no, I’ve never felt like giving up, but that’s because I (due largely to external forces and nothing having to do with me at all) have not really been slapped with anything truly crippling. And I know exactly how fortunate that makes me. My four best friends collectively have/had eating disorders, sexual assault, domestic abuse, body shattering injuries, and infertility. I sometimes feel like the control group in an experiment while they are dealing with the test factors – and it’s horribly unfair. At the same time, working at the PD, I know what my statistical chances of any of those things happening to me over my lifetime.

    Honestly the worst things I’ve had to deal with have been delays (personal and academic) and some disappointments (some pretty bad but none of them terminal). I have dealt with my mother’s depression and some attendant abuse, but coming out on the other side of that made me stronger and did not even come close to breaking me. I think I’m a pretty resilient person, able to adapt to changes and disappointments well, but I know someday I’ll come up against something really bad that will send me to my knees – we all do at some point I think. I’m not anxious to find out what that is.

    1. I think the stuff you lived through with you Mom has steeled you, as has the PD work.

      Life is insanely unfair, and anyone expecting “fair” is going to have a hard time with it all.

      I live in terror of a bad diagnosis for me or Jose, I admit. Or being widowed. Other than that, I think we can get through it. Fingers crossed. He is also a highly resilient and optimistic person, and that has really helped me. I still can’t believe he would clean my 12-staple incision and tell me (!) it was beautiful.

  12. Thank you for sharing Winston’s quote. At 26 I’ve put myself through college, battled Crohn’s disease and nearly died from one of three bowel surgeries, married a man with four kids and a psycho ex who is living with an alleged pedofile. My husband is military so I kept all four kids by myself during two tours to the Middle East, and they continue to love with us full time. And yet I feel so blessed. I have a sweet husband, four fantastic kids, I’m still breathing, I have a job I love, and I’m not homeless. When things get bad I instead force myself o find the positives in my life. There is always something to live for; you just have to make yourself find it.

    1. Good for you!

      Taking on four kids is enough in itself, and dealing with multiple surgeries is terrifying. I admire like hell your spirit and determination — your husband and stepkids have a great role model.

  13. Through all the years of dealing with my own pain and dealing with the memories of my abusive upbringing (I was diagnosed with PTSD), I realized that everywhere I look, there are people in pain and so it is necessary to be mindful of that when we think we are unique in the world. Someone spoke of resilience and I had read that even in the same families, some children still thrive and others don’t. I have not figured out why yet but it may have something to do with being good at something and building on that (with me it was my art). I also read books constantly and realized that there is another way of living out there, that you have a choice in how you want to be.

    1. Glad that you survived, and thrived!

      I am fairly certain that knowing, from a very young age, that I was creative and talented (writing, art, sports) helped me through all kinds of stuff. It also helped to get external validation, (like prizes and awards for it), which boosted my morale (huge) and made me see that the rest of the world might be a lot kinder and more appreciative than my own family (sad but true.)

  14. Every day I have a moment where I want to give up. I suppose the only reason I don’t is because I feel I can’t. Who will pay the bills? Who will keep food on the table? I have a partner, but I’m the breadwinner. The same questions plays on repeat: if not me, then who? It can be a shame to take on so much self responsibility, especially when we aren’t able to step down unless under severe medical conditions. I often wonder if women feel this way more than men, because so many of us take on the role of ‘fixer’ and ‘doer’. Thank you for sharing your story… It sounds like you’ve faced some challenges, but came through stronger on the other side.

    1. Sorry to hear that…

      If your partner is unable or unwilling to help, that’s a heavy burden for sure. Things have been hard as hell here with the recession, (I made more in four months this year than pretty much all of 2007), but my husband knows I work my butt off for both of us. If you are carrying the entire burden, you will be worn out, for sure.

      I’ve never been one to let people off the hook. I had to pick up too much slack too early as it was.

      1. Oh no no – he’s very supportive and works, my pay is just higher because of my job / education. He’s wonderful. I just know that if I gave up, we wouldn’t have enough money to pay for everything we currently do. So I stay doing what I’m doing because there’s no secondary option. Having a strong relationship and support system can surely assist with getting through rough periods and periods of wanting to give up.

      2. Right now, my husband out-earns me significantly. He has a staff job, union-protected. I work freelance in an industry in chaos. So no matter how much skill or talent or sweat I bring, it’s extremely unlike I will ever match his earning power. It’s frustrating to us both,(and he gets tired), but that’s the way it is. I could possibly find a staff job that would earn me 50 percent more, possibly twice, but it’s unlikely at my age.

        We also enjoy the flexibility my work allows me, and us.

  15. On CNN they often ask guests for their advice for young people. Recently, actor Aiden Quinn gave this advice: “Persistence often wins over talent.” So I have to remember that there are people with less talent who are accomplishing more than me just because they have not given up.

    1. So true.

      What they never really add — and equally true if not more so — is that without (enough) social capital, forget it. At least here in the Northeast. You can be both persistent and talented and starve until or unless you meet and impress the right people who will help kick-start your career. The meeting I have next week with an editor is a magazine I’ve been trying for years to penetrate; through luck, connections and being at the right party, I met one of their editors who made the introduction for me. I see this all the time and it drives me nuts.

      1. i don’t believe in luck – but the best of luck to you. and me.

        i told you recently how you gave me “kick-start” a while back by telling me to cut back on blogging and put those words into more substantial writing, which i have done.

        i’ve dropped from 150 views a day to maybe 50, 50 “likes” to 20, and from 50 comments to 10. however, those 10 comments and readers are giving me such excellent feedback and reading into my writing with such precision that it is greatly improving my novel. so i am learning about quality over quantity.

  16. My take is that failure happens; but giving up is not an option – things sometimes just happen to people, beyond their control. And if one tactic doesn’t work then another usually becomes evident. The trick is to keep learning from the failure. Sometimes, too, things just have to be done. Churchill’s defiant speech didn’t come out of isolation – the War Cabinet seriously discussed capitulating on terms. If they had, the last democracy in Europe would have fallen, cementing the Nazi grip on that side of the world. That wasn’t acceptable to Churchill. The cost, as he knew, was likely to be the British Empire. But it had to be done, whatever it took.

    That’s true on a personal level too – in my own experience,in the last couple of months, I’ve had to get a lot of quite difficult dentistry done without benefit of local anaesthetic, because I can’t tolerate the stuff. Not pleasant at all, or anything I want to go through again – but the alternatives were far worse. Sometimes, things just have to be done. And I think that’s generally true at all the scales of the human condition, through all our many activities and lives.

    1. Half the battle is not panicking so you can think with a clear head. I trained as a lifeguard and we were taught that it’s the panic that will cause people to drown; there are ways to stay afloat even if you do not know how swim.

      Ouch! Sorry to hear that about the dentistry. Hope you are feeling better now.

  17. Personally, I think it is human nature to feel like you want to give up at times. That’s acceptable, but when you live in a British society, it’s very easy to have an OPTION to give up. The welfare state, including benefits, free health care, free education and support of all kinds are available pretty much whenever. Therefore, however cheesy it may seem the priceless things in life are what keep me going, like family, friends, I think everyone should have a supprt unit of some kind.

    1. While some people take advantage of a social safety net, I’d rather have more of one than less. It is very tough in the U.S. You have to be very self-reliant, even if you have few friends and little income.

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