Who in the world is this woman staring at me? I thought. I was in a public restroom in a Minnesota Caribou Coffee, and there she was, right in front of me. She was a mess, shaking, tears running down her face. What was she doing? How did she get here? And, even more pressing, where the hell was she going once she left?

I took one last look at the woman. Then I wiped the tears from my face, turned from the reflection in the mirror, and walked straight out the door. I didn’t know a lot, but the one thing I did was that I couldn’t die. A good friend helped me realize this and urged me to visit the emergency room.

There, I learned I had a panic attack. And after describing my home life to a social worker, I realized if I didn’t get out of my marriage, I wouldn’t survive.

For months, I had been coming to that Caribou Coffee location to study. Chai tea in hand, I would sit at a table by myself, cramming for the Minnesota bar exam, which was now days away. Except on this day, I didn’t have a cup of chai tea. I couldn’t afford one. That’s what my husband told me when he called moments earlier to inform me he had emptied all of our bank accounts, what was left in them anyway. If I wanted to make a purchase for our four kids or myself, I would have to ask for his permission. I was pretty sure a chai tea wouldn’t be an easy sell.

Moving to Minnesota, however, was the day my husband sold it to me. When we left New Orleans, the idea of a clean slate was appealing. Hurricane Katrina had leveled us in every way possible. I honestly didn’t think things could get any worse. Yet, there I was, in a public restroom having a panic attack, penniless, which is how I walked into the bar exam two days later and some 15 years after I first sat for it in Louisiana. 

To say I was petrified would be an understatement. Despite all of the studying, I was unsure I would pass. Holding down a day job as a substitute teacher, raising four school-age kids who I also homeschooled, and never having enough money in my wallet or my bank accounts were, by my estimation, a recipe for disaster.

Fortunately, I was always a pretty good cook, the hallmark of which was knowing I had the power to change a recipe, even if I had gotten used to following it. Remembering my pantry back in New Orleans filled with canned goods I knew we’d never use, and how those cans, if I returned them to the store, would total enough money to throw together a meal all of us would like, I recalled how resourceful I could be when I set my mind to it. I had already done a lot, under the most challenging of circumstances. 

I had paid for all of my kids’ extracurricular activities by selling the diamond engagement ring I no longer wore and whatever I could to pay for their signup fees. I got my kids to sleepaway camp by getting a job as a director there. And I financed my kids’ college educations by having them apply for every scholarship and grant I found. If I did all that, I reminded myself I could pass the bar exam, too.

I can do this.

And I did. Once I got on my feet, I decided to leave my marriage. My husband and I divorced. I moved to Seattle with our children, remarried, founded my law practice (after sitting for and passing another bar exam!), and started a new life, one I wouldn’t trade for anything. What I also wouldn’t trade are the hardships I experienced to get where I am now.  

It’s been nine years since I moved to Seattle, and 10 years since my divorce. Today, I am debt-free.

Being able to write that last sentence and mean it feels weird and kind of insane. If you had said to me back in the public restroom at Caribou Coffee that I could one day put that sentence down on paper and have it be true, well, I don’t even know what I’d say to you. But it would probably be something along the lines of “No way,” followed by me laughing you out of the room. 

What I’d tell you now is that anything is possible. Because, as I discovered with a little elbow grease and a lot of enthusiasm, it is.