I was excited to turn 40. I felt none of the anxiety or sadness of losing my youth that I had felt back when my odometer clicked 30 years. I was so excited that I planned a party trip to Las Vegas with my amazing husband (of now 22 love-filled years) and a dozen or so of my closest friends. After the Vegas party, my hubby and I went on a breathtaking road trip through Utah. It was a vacation filled with all of my favorite things. 

Re-entry back to “real life” was tough. I didn’t want to leave my dream trip to go back to the stifling boredom mixed with anxious frustration that was my everyday life. Although I believe most anyone who knew me would have said I had the best life, which outwardly I did, internally, I was miserable. I was stuck in a job I hated, and I was insecure about leaving. Rather than try to make a change, I woke up every morning greeting the day with the thought, “I hate my life.” Although I knew in my heart that I actually loved my life, I was solely focused on what made me miserable.

And although I didn’t feel any negativity towards turning 40, I think it was manifesting in different ways. Two years prior, we experienced our third failed IVF attempt, effectively closing the door on our 16-year journey of trying to be parents. I think subconsciously I associated turning 40 with the final closure of that door. If I couldn’t be a mom, then I wanted to find my passion for something else that could fill my life with renewed joy. Yet I was too stuck to figure out what that could be — stuck in the fog and sadness of where I was, I couldn’t see the light of where I could be.

Finally, I hit my miserable rock bottom a few months later, when my oldest brother passed away unexpectedly. Though we had been close at one time, we had difficult childhoods, and responded to those obstacles in very different ways, so we had grown apart and out of touch. His death brought up a boiling stew of bad memories and feelings, and sent me into an emotional tailspin. Then, a week later, my miserable job was made worse when I found out my boss and entire team were being let go/disbanded. I cracked. I spent every day ignoring all the many beautiful things in my present life, and instead was suffocating in memories and feelings from the past, allowing that and the cloud of job stress to darken my days.

As fate would have it, this job change would be my happiness wake-up call, as I ended up reporting to the person who changed my life. Darrin Tulley was my new boss, and realizing I was in job crisis at the very least, he graciously and quickly became my mentor. His interest and authenticity invited me to be honest with him. It started with declaring my displeasure with my job, and my intent to leave at the earliest opportunity. As we began to work though that, I started opening up about other things. I began looking to him for guidance and advice — really, I was looking for help. I am someone who would rather do almost anything than ask for help. I didn’t even think I needed help. I prided myself on being very self-aware, and was stubborn in my certainty that I could take care of myself. My past, and my previous triumphs over adversities, had led me to have a smug confidence that I didn’t need anyone. I had survived all the times when I had no one, so I certainly didn’t need someone now, I thought. I was fine. Except that the truth was, I was nowhere near fine. I was a hot mess served on a plate of lava.

So I continued sharing my emotional mess with Darrin. Then I started sharing truly vulnerable pieces of myself, scared and certain that my truths would send him running. After all, I barely knew him, and he was my new boss. Surprisingly, he didn’t run. And he didn’t fire me. Instead, he leaned into the discomfort, and created a safe space for me to connect with him in a truly open and vulnerable way — the way I needed to in order to uncover the layers I had to expose and eliminate in order to get back to my core of happiness.

One day, he sent me a Ted talk about a 30 day challenge to write a book. I told him I had always wanted to write a book about my life, yet never did. As is his way, he challenged me on the why — if I wanted to do it, why didn’t I? This was my chance. So I wrote it — a book filled with all of my shameful stories. I wrote it in the hope that if I ever released it, my successful overcoming of my painful history could inspire others to know that they could overcome theirs, too. Once I finished it, I did the unthinkable. I shared it with Darrin. And he read it — every painful and embarrassing word, every vulnerable truth. After overcoming the sickness I felt in the moment, I began to feel liberated. By writing and sharing my pain, I had also freed myself of it. Even if the story is never read again, that experience changed me. And by completing that challenge and subsequently many others, I built belief in myself. I trusted myself. And now, having relieved myself of so much of the shame I had carried for years, I began to feel like I was worthy of more — like I was worthy of letting go of the burden of my history and allowing myself to be humbly confident of who I am, and to seek out what I was actually capable of doing.

Finally, with my heart and eyes opened, Darrin suggested I define my purpose. In doing so, my entire life changed. Starting as one 30 day challenge with Darrin, I began working out every day. And I haven’t stopped. As of this writing, I have lost nearly 60 pounds, and have worked out nearly 1,200 days in a row. I even took a boxing class, something completely outside of my comfort zone. I took on a new project at my company, confident I could be the lead, and in less than six months, successfully launched it. As I grew, I became aware that I wanted to do something bigger — having reignited that flame to fill my time with things that fill my heart. Ultimately, I left my job and took on a role at a company whose mission and values are aligned with my own. I bring my full and best self to work every day, and am the happiest and most fulfilled I have ever been in a job. I also began volunteering with a local charity, Little Smiles of Florida, whose mission is to bring happiness to children going through tough times, something very close to my heart and a cause that brings me the fulfillment I desperately wanted and fills my heart with indescribable joy.

I am now on fire with happiness, the happiest I have ever been, and it all started with someone caring enough to invest in helping me get there, and me being open to going there. Darrin was able to break down my barriers, and show me that I could be happier if I chose to be, and if I took steps to make it happen. It wasn’t easy. I had to call myself out on the excuses and crutches I was using to justify allowing myself to be miserable. I had to work on myself, and I still do, every day. The choice to be happy isn’t a one time decision — I make it over and over each day. Yet it is worth it. I spend time each day reflecting with gratitude and connecting with where I am — whether that is spending time with loved ones or in nature, my happiest place. I am not happy all the time, nor is that my goal. I want to be as happy as I can, as much as I can. And in the moments when I’m not, I want to know that happiness isn’t far away, and to be certain I can always get back there. This happy state rewards me each day with more happiness, shining back at me from those with whom I share my happiness light. Happiness truly grows brighter as it is shared.

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  • Donna Skillman

    Tableau Enthusiast, Writer and Happiness Champion

    Donna Skillman is a happiness champion, photography junkie, nature explorer, lover of life and seeker of experiences. She is the Lead Reporting Developer for a women’s health company and a proud Board Member for Little Smiles of Florida, a charity that delivers happiness to kids who need it the most. She is also a volunteer happiness ignitor for Ignite Happy, the book and happiness program authored and founded by her friend and mentor, Darrin Tulley.