When the Puppet Strings Break: By Lori Armstrong

The Napa Valley was known for many things – exquisite wines, trendy wine bars and hordes of pretentious tourists. The locals were familiar with visits from the rich and famous, the actors, celebrities and millionaire athletes alike that swarmed the Valley as independent and upcoming wanna-be paparazzi snapped and flashed their lives away.

What was it about this small town? Was it the rolling hills, the pleasant weather, the famous chefs who called this place home, the wine bars strategically placed on every downtown street corner or was it something else?

The extensive list of historic wineries was massive and newbie winemakers continued to immigrate to this beautiful yet mystical place.

I was raised in Napa and obstinately disapproved of the crowds, the commotion, and the traffic – the general chaos that swirled in the atmosphere like frozen ice in a high speed blender. It was enough to make me miss the old Napa Valley.

I recalled better days, when the identity of this small community was unfamiliar to strangers. People would ask…

“Napa? Where is that? California?”

I knew those days were something of the past – historic past.  Just the thought of those nostalgic times still make me smile and ponder the past layout of the land in the 1970s.

My opinionated daydream had become an obvious distraction as I could smell the change on the horizon.

I was desperate for any distraction. Exhausted from years of being the typical yes-girl as agreeing with everyone was now a nauseating thought.

Why it is a bulldozer can spot a sucker to bury a mile away before the sucker even sees it coming? I was a doormat. I believed the best in everyone and wasn’t one to start trouble but the bullies were beginning to pile up.

My new career in the legal world was a reentry into the work force, which started off as a celebratory opportunity after my bitter divorce. But the glory of the future was nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

The first year at work was good, filled with goals, hope and expectations. Even though I battled endless threats from my ex, trying to embrace what quality of life was left, I felt a sense of pride, acquiring this full-time job through hard work and life experience. In the beginning, this career boosted my confidence with visions for change of better days ahead.

The office egos and deceit were more apparent through the years as it felt as if my soul was being sucked from my core. Why am I staying where I am miserable? There must be something better for me and my family than this torture. Personally, I wanted no part of the office gossip or the superficial after work social gatherings.

I continued to smile but deep inside of me, it was anything but rainbows and roses.

Even though I was grateful for a decent paying full-time job, my monthly income was nowhere near enough to support all the expenses that were now suddenly bequeathed to me. With an ex in contempt for refusing to pay child support and our teenager in college, while the other was in high school, house payments left for me to pay on my own, my mental strength was wearing thin. The bills were beginning to pile up.

It was a struggle to get through each day as years of the same battles reared their ugly head.

My life was in a pickle and it was time to take matters into my own hands. Thinking back to my original life plan, I knew what it would take to finally have peace… leave the only town I knew. This monumental undertaking would be another colossal challenge.

I was fast approaching my second nervous breakdown as the battles between work politics and a demonic ex pounded my dreams to the ground. 

At work, on the opposite side of my holding cell in cubicle city, sat my co-worker and angel sent from above. She was the epitome of strength, grace and extraordinary work ethic. We clicked, sharing same visions, being about the same age with similar backgrounds as both of us were lifelong Napans. She saved my mental health the last couple years when I experienced my first breakdown.

Some days the daily stress, work drama and court antics from my ex were unbearable. Fighting off the devils can take a toll.

I refused to be stuck in the dead end job that clearly was not for me. You are given one life and there is no guarantee the length of years you are given.

It is not as if the hectic schedule created an unhappy life for me. It was the daily drama and antics from the wolves in sheep’s clothing at work along with threats from someone who could sell ice to Eskimos. Every day was an uphill battle. I continued to pick myself up and envision that rainbow.

I recalled that seven-year-old girl, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, dreaming of being a famous writer. My summer days were spent catching frogs in the creek, swimming at the neighbor’s pool and creating my own book written on scratch paper that I taped together.

I encouraged my kids to follow their dreams, why wasn’t I taking my own advice?

The basics of life got in the way. Bad decisions. Bad relationships. Bills to be paid, children to feed and carpools to swimming, soccer, taekwondo, football – life became robotic. Work became robotic. The love for life was slowly being seeped from my soul.

I wanted to pick up and relocate immediately but it wasn’t that simple. There was still so much to be discussed and sorted out. I knew I needed to make big changes. No one was going to do it for me.

The search for a new zip code and home was on. We traveled to the mountains, discovered Lake County and fell in love with an area a few hours from my hometown.

The majestic mountains, the lake, the country and the fact we could afford to live there. I would no longer financially struggle, living every month having to cash in my paycheck for a cash advance in order to get me through the next month. I was robbing Peter to pay Paul. The vicious cycle was wearing on my mind as being able to afford to live in this small tourist town had become nearly impossible.

I began to imagine what life would be like in the rolling mountains and there was no stopping my imagination when it ran wild. My family grew accustomed to my fairy tale thoughts as they understood it was merely one of my coping skills.  

Call it childlike wonder – call it quirkiness – this was part of my DNA.

After my first reentry vailed no success; my second reentry filled me with hope.  I realized the only person capable of reinventing myself was me. 

Finally. Maybe moving from the only home I had known would be the solution.

I could finally be a full-time writer, determined, persistent, researching writing forums and various jobs that paid writers well. Of course I would need to establish my writing platform, which would take some time but I knew I could do it.

When it came to my realistic and unrealistic dreams, my family was my biggest fans, but deep inside they voiced doubts. They had seen me at my lowest moments – the breakdowns and the constant mental challenges from toxic relationships I cut ties with. They had seen me at my worst. But there was another side of me that they had not seen; my determination grown through pure destitution. It’s amazing how strong you can be when you have to be.

I had no doubt that my quality of life had drifted somewhere with the wind. I began to reinvent myself, while maintaining my full-time job. It was still just a distant thought.

The focus of my attention was desperate dedication – almost to the point of addiction one would say. The thought of a bright new future created an unprecedented pep in my step at work. Our minds are such powerful muscles and mine was no different. While my mind needed a long vacation, that ounce of hope kept me going; kept me motivated and kept me hungry to take my life back.

It was almost springtime when I typed my resignation letter, keeping my words kind, expressing gratitude for the job opportunity as you never want to burn your bridges. I learned early in life that it was best to pick my battles and even though change was worth fighting for, the battle of egos and need for power was not a battle worthy of my passionate energy.

My goal was to eliminate resentment and remove myself from a toxic atmosphere; reenter a new type of workforce. The combination of bad energy was not just within the office but a wicked cocktail of the devil and a day-to-day job leading to resentful toxicity.

I became obsessed to achieve independent success. On the weekends I created resumes for people in need of a new direction – something I could currently relate to. Lately, my life was all about sweet change. I felt incredibly thankful for being able to help others, while also earning a living. Well, I was hardly making a living at it yet but I felt I was well on my way.

The following month I submitted my 30 days’ notice at work, cashing in my meager retirement, which would quickly be depleted by Uncle Sam. The small monetary payout would get me through the next few months as I strategically grew my clientele.

The reentry into the gig workforce entailed my creation of a personal work profile with a professional freelancing platform; a place where other freelancers competed for detailed short-term projects. The gigs varied as some people were in need of ghostwriting while others requested books to be edited.

The beginning was arduous as with most monumental tasks, reviews can make or break you. It wasn’t that I received negative work reviews – my challenge was the lack of work reviews. When you’re the greenhorn within a new work force, you better prove yourself and work twice as hard, so that’s exactly what I did.

I under quoted much of my gig work in order to attain some reviews. My strategy paid off as the five star ratings started streaming in with my first big break on the horizon. Even though I wasn’t paid much, the goal was to land a ghostwriting project from a client, write a book and hopefully make a name for myself.

Slowly but surely, my writing platform was starting to progress. Now I just had one more puppet string to cut.

Reevaluate where you are in your life. If you are not happy, take ahold of your life and make changes until you find your place. No one will do it for you. My first reentry into the work force was not meant to be. My second reentry is beyond my wildest childhood dreams.

It’s never too late to live the life you’re meant to live. Reinvent yourself. If you do not succeed, reinvent yourself again.

I guess this seven-year-old girl knew what was best for her all those years ago.

Lori Armstrong

Lori began her career in the legal field, leaving that position to pursue full-time writing endeavors. Being a criminal court reporter for the Record-Bee, she balances the chaos in her brain by writing children's books and reflective pieces. When time allows, she publishes books for Amazon.

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