How a tornado literally and metaphorically shredded my entire life.
And how I rebuilt into the person I wanted to be.
I will never forget December 11, 2022
Let me start before that and tell you how we got here. I have a long history in logistics and supply chain. I took my first job in transportation making... well next to nothing and I knew exactly nothing. I was so fortunate to find a company that wanted to teach me, I had a wonderful truckload manager, several excellent examples of strong ladies in the industry & amazing owners. The group, for the most part, functioned well and we liked each other- which we all know is a rarity. I was definitely bull-headed, and I clashed with a co-worker. My manager, who had only tried to help me learn how to bite my tongue, tried to bring me back down to reality. But I wasn't ready for that job, because I wanted to be 10 steps further in life, I wanted to be past where I was, hard to admit now, but climbing the ladder was the only thing in my sights, and once I felt as though I was right and others were wrong, that was it. Was my co-worker right? No. Was I right? No. Was there room for adjustment on both sides? Absolutely. However, as a early 20-something, I certainly did not see that then as clearly as I do now.
I left for a new opportunity, and continued to do so, finding Fortune 400 companies, new positions, new money.
Money ruled my world, financial security was the only goal, it came before friends, family, partners, everything. I had a sense of pride in myself for my climb, but that soon became ego. As I type these words, I can feel the acidity in the back of my throat, it tastes like vinegar to truly accept that I placed my bank account above all, but it's true. I worked nights, weekends, holidays- I bled for the companies I work for, until I felt wronged and began the restart process. I truly was good at what I did, I had knowledge and a strong skillset, but I may not have given myself the opportunity to grow emotionally and in business, your ability to interact with people is your greatest strength. I have learned that every role is a customer service role.
As I continued through companies, I had a wonderful mentor that I followed- a friend, a sister, a role model- a women I revere to this day who is thriving and does it with grace, tact, kindness, and fairness. I had a lot of opportunity to lean into her, to learn from her- but I was young still and thought I knew best. She told me to lower my voice, accept that I wasn't going to change a billion dollar company, learn to do the best I can for my clients and stop expending my energy on trying to change the system. However, I was still young, stubborn, full of pride & ego, and I couldn't hear her clearly. And it bit me in the ass.
April 2020. I received my layoff notification, there was a part of my that knew I was the "squeaky wheel" and the grease was a severance package. MANY of the employees in remote offices were laid off, and it happened all across the industry because of the question mark of the time- what is going to happen to the industry? I was grateful to be able to sever ties with a company where I didn't feel valued, and I still maintain that today, but I let my "justified anger" throw me into unemployment and instability. I left a Fortune 400 for a smaller company, and the changes implemented didn't align with my values- but again, I couldn't admit the amount of pride and ego that fueled me there. I wanted to feel justified in my actions, words, and feelings.
I was fortunate enough to receive severance and had the ability to collect on unemployment- but during my time on unemployment, I fell into a dark place mentally, I let my physical health go, my emotions were a compressed bottle of gas and acid. I didn't want to admit hurt, sadness, feelings of failure, fear of financial insecurity, fear of my mental health, displeasure with my physical well-being, etc. So I ran. I found a position in Bowling Green KY, working with a new trucking company that needed a lot of help. However, they were not prepared to get it off the ground, the finances were out of sorts- they didn't have the money to pay for truck rentals, let alone pay me. Again, ego drove me to believe I could fix a broken business. Spoiler alert- I could not and the company shut its doors in 5 weeks. And I ended up alone, in a city I didn't know, with no money, an apartment I didn't know how I was going to pay for and fear. Lots of fear.
It was time to "fix it." I refused to ask for help, my family absolutely offered to bring me home to Louisville, to help me get back on my feet, even after I refused to listen to sound advice and NOT go to Bowling Green. I started researching how to make quick money, and I found a lead site that allowed me to list myself as a freelancer, and I chose cleaning houses because of the short sales cycle- bookings come quickly, payment comes immediately. So, I listed myself and took $23.00 to Dollar Tree and bought everything I could think of to clean my first home. I took clients anywhere, regardless of travel. I priced myself way under market, and I started booking quickly, as I saw the money roll in, I thought- perfect, this is the answer! I gained repeat residential clients, and I remember the day I got my first commercial client- I didn't know when I arrived, but they were starting to build a web of short term rentals in Nashville. I did a quality job and was hired as the primary company as they grew- but I underpriced myself, I traveled to and from Bowling Green to Nashville daily. I acquired new short term rental accounts, and I grew that business from $23.00 worth of cleaning supplies. In a not shocking turn of events, my ego told me that I had figured everything out. But I was physically exhausted, I was emotionally tapped, mentally unwell because I hadn't dealt with the feelings of failure I experienced just a few months earlier. I ran myself into the ground for my clients, I started seeing physical signs fairly early- carpal tunnel, weight gain- which I believe was a mix of cortisol and terrible eating habits from working 16 hours a day with 2 hours of driving 7 days a week. My emotional regulation was virtually nil, because I was exhausted, I was so tired from manual labor everyday, then coming home and trying to stay on top of my books, estimates, pets, and relationships.
My family saw me struggling- I was making money, but not enough to cover the high cost of operation driving to and from. I had sought employees to help me cover the Nashville area, but in the heart of COVID, I didn't have much to offer, which is again a bitter revelation. I didn't pay the most in the market, no insurance, no PTO, and my exhaustion didn't allow me to give my absolute best to people who needed more training. My heart and business mind conflicted in the hiring process and I ended up making bad hiring decisions. I took on more than I could chew on my own and had a staff that wasn't ultimately equipped to handle the scale of accounts and produce the standard of quality- and I started right back at the beginning, doing more work that I anticipated.
This brings us to the day that I truly don't know how to describe. I worked Friday the 10th in Nashville, and was home in Bowling Green laying in bed with my dogs, watching something trashy on TV. I honestly didn't even know we were expecting rain that night. As I tried to unwind from the day and turn my brain off, my phone sounded an alert. I checked it and read "tornado on the ground." confirmed. Russellville KY. holy shit, that's close.
25 miles close. In a matter of minutes the sky changed, the rain started, the hail came, electricity lost. My heart sank as I realized this was close, really close. I felt the tremors of my dogs as we listened to a mix of rain and metal crashing. A tremble rippled the floor of the dark bathroom we cowered in as my text messaged turned green, every "I love you" text. But in that moment, I didn't even consider sending ONE message to a client.
As the tornado passed, and them the seconds, minutes, hours after- we stayed still. Immobilized by fear that it would turn directions and reroute, another one would touch down, a fire would blaze through; the building would fall. I just didn't know exactly how close. What was hit, what was affected other than power, was there active lines down? For a brief time, it was silent, and then the echo of sirens filled the area around me. The sky was alight with flashers in every direction.
When I finally made my way out, I walked less than .2 miles- that's approximately 400 steps, that's not even a city block to 31W and I cannot put together the words to explain the scene. So I won't even try.
I immediately and completely put those feelings away. Compartmentalized into a very small box stuffed in the furthest corner of my mind. I denied that I was affected, I went back to work as soon as physically possible. I saw the paths carved through the fields on the way to Nashville and back. I rerouted around the devastated 31W. I navigated through the physically embodiment of chaos and attempted to claim calmness. In the days and weeks following, I unknowingly met each of the stages of dealing with a traumatic event, I listened as the news played death tolls, missing person reports, watched the processionals of cars for those lost, watched as a dim red and blue lighting illuminated the next block. Living in what felt like post apocalypse, constantly hearing and seeing signals of devastation and lost subliminally pressed me further into a mental black hole.
One day, like a hydraulic skeleton in a closet in a haunted house: I lost the ability to keep that door shut, and my proverbial skeleton showed itself. Moving back to Louisville, mentally unwell, physically suffering, emotionally overwhelmed, was truly humiliating. My ego was crushed, my self esteem flailed as I made a bed for myself on my dad's couch. The first time I went to a public event was for a funeral. As I was met with looks of pity, I put on a brave face and faked fine. I feigned strong but, not so deep down, I was empty, lost, ashamed, <insert negative adjective here.> I was still trying to keep my fear buried 6 ft down in a self dug hole.
As I tried to navigate a host of personal problems, I started writing. To do lists, journaling, my thoughts, my feelings, goals, desires, wants, don't wants, everything. I sequestered myself from my loved ones. My dad only wanted to help, but my emotions were just below surface level and I knew if I allowed them to come to a head, I would never be able to regain the control I so desperately sought. My writing was my control amidst the world around me. It was my grounding as I felt my own personal tornado swirl around and destroy my insides, I felt purely chaos inside myself. I felt emptiness in my heart, I felt grief, fear, and rage. My writing helped me come to a few realizations, though I may not have felt it was much of an opportunity at the time as a punishment for my mental health, I was able to figure out what I wanted to do. That was absolutely not cleaning houses, I hated it. I hated the work, I wasn't happy; I wasn't fulfilled. I asked myself "Zarayah, what do you love?" My immediate thought was "money." "Zarayah, what do you want?" "Financial stability."
As I reviewed my list I thought to myself: not one time, as I thought I was in my final moments. did I think to check my bank account, or text my clients to tell them what was going on, I didn't care about the things in my home. I thought of my poor, sweet dogs and trying to comfort them. I thought of my family and wanting to let them know that they are loved. And that was the first step towards a different me. It seems so simple, but it truthfully took my world being rocked to ground level to realize that I can, and should, want more from myself. Enter a new list: what do I enjoy, actions, places, things; people. What brings me a feeling of fulfillment?
Well, it's dogs.
I researched ways to spend times with dogs. I certainly know that volunteering at shelters is not the best option for me, but I found an app that would allow me to get paid to watch people's dogs AND get paid. What a win-win. I was off, walked miles and miles a day, petting every dog I could literally get my hands on. I started to get into a healthier routine, I was exhausted at the end of the day and slept like a dream. I sought a therapist that I really connected with, and scheduled standing, weekly appointments that I still keep, every Thursday morning at 9:00AM. I wasn't rolling in the dough, but I saved enough money to buy myself a mattress. I went to Goodwill and bought clothes and a decent pair of walking shoes. I was spending time with my dad- Supernatural was our nighttime show. I briefly worked at a vegan, allergen free chocolate shop- I love to cook and bake and thought, this is a great fit! Then I saw myself doing it all over again -I became addicted to the feeling of money. I overextended myself for another company. I cared so much about my boss thinking I was the best but, I was the only employee. Late nights trying to rush order chocolate? That wasn't what I wanted to do. Back to the journal. I looked back at the things I loved in life. At different points, I had hobbies but there were a few that remained consistent: I love to swim, I love to create, I love dogs, in no particular order.
The goals came, I wanted to commit to my physical, mental and emotional well-being through connecting with dogs. I wanted to cultivate my creative spirit and wanted to quiet my mind through swim. How do I create? What do I create? What do I like? What am I good at? I can tell you, it is not pottery. I like to paint, but I am overly critical of my skillset & feel less than adequate, which is the exact opposite of what I want to fulfill with my creative outlet. I enjoy writing, but how? Write a book? Start a blog? Write love letters to strangers for fun? None of those really struck me. I love making people feel beautiful, hair and makeup would be wonderful, but cosmetology school wasn't necessarily how I wanted to pursue a creative path.
The only thing part of high school I actually enjoyed was being on my yearbook staff. We had an absolutely excellent resource in our yearbook teacher & I learned about the basics of photography, I learned about photoshop, and most importantly, layout and design. Being section editor allowed me to design and approve layouts that flowed, learned the importance of my camera settings when photographing (particularly in sports, football games at night can get tricky.) I was also tasked with the faculty section, which is notoriously the worst assignment, but the drive I've always had helped me push to produce the same quality I'd strive for if I was charged with the senior section. The memory I will always hold the dearest is being able to cultivate an idea for the yearbook cover with my best friend and finding the best way to stage the photo; we learned more about applying layers and color manipulation. I absolutely thrived when I was able to think through the lens. So I thought, I have a camera (which was purchased for my cleaning. company, I provided photos for my clients sites & my own) and I want to see what I can do with it.
It had been years since I had picked up a camera and... the first few shots weren't great. I did a wedding for next to nothing and I look back at those photos now and cringe- they weren't the worst, but they definitely weren't my personal best. I had a few more things here and there, and in the absolutely best worse case scenario- I had an issue with my camera with 2 shoots scheduled and had absolutely no option but to rent one. And rental is way cheaper than purchasing, so I got a good one. Once I saw the subject through that lens, I was in love. I have continued to find a new favorite each time I download each gallery, but then I was at a real cross road- I needed that set up to feel I could produce the quality I had now reached. I made the decision to continue to rent my equipment to have consistency in my portfolio. I set new goals. I took major profit cuts to meet my desire for creative fulfillment. I managed to acquire the camera, the lens, get the spare batteries, SD cards, and much more than I ever could have dreamed of. It didn't start for the money, and though it pays the bills, I can say each time I get into a shoot, I lose myself in it.
Today is a completely different life than I was living last year; I am an entirely different person- and I never considered this for myself. I made the decision to prioritize differently. I was able to lean into an opportunity I would have never been granted without that traumatic event. I was forced to accept help, forced to let my family love and support me in a way I wouldn't have accepted if I had anything to fall back on, anything at all. I was given a humbling experience, I was allowed to swallow my pride and receive a proverbial hug from the world around me as I learned to love myself. Today, I am able to focus on my mental, physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. I have friends and loved ones who support me through my journey to seek better for myself. I have a woman whom I hold very near and dear that helps call me on my bullshit & tries to help me find a better path to serenity. A friend who tells me when I need to maintain the boundary but also when I need to let me guard down and be more vulnerable. I couldn't have ever dreamed of this life. I am trusted with some of people's most precious moments, their tiniest miracles, the happiest days of their lives, and remembrance for those they've loved the most. It's not perfect, I still struggle, I still find myself upset, sad, hurt, but I have found that I am more capable of actually identifying and feeling my emotions, but most importantly, I can actually process and heal through them.
Yesterday, I was a sad sack of potatoes, and that's okay. I'm allowed to have off days. Today, I get to show up and do the work I love, be in the lives of the people I love and build lasting foundations with clients I truly care about. And it's amazing.