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No Kidding! It Was The Worst Day Of My Life

As I sat there — literally in the gutter — it occurred to me that I’d been stripped of everything that once defined and empowered me.

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illustration of woman having nervous breakdown
Delphine Lee
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This single mother of two lost her marriage and her job, and was about to lose her house. But now she's the happiest she's been in years. Here's how it all started. This is the first part of a four-part series.

I was rolling out of Ikea when I saw them. Two scruffy dudes idling in a black dented SUV. We made eye contact, but I looked away quickly. My mind reeled with the day’s chores as I pushed my cart to my car. I had just lost my job after 17 years and was putting my house on the market in two weeks.

I was shoving my purchases into the trunk, congratulating myself on my willingness to embrace change. As I bit off the head of a Swedish fish, I noticed the black SUV pulling up in the next aisle. The passenger — hoodie, bearded — got out and lumbered toward me through the parked cars.

We stood facing each other for a second. Surely, this guy didn’t have the nerve to ask me out. Even if I hadn’t had a date in months, I still had standards.

Suddenly he yanked my handbag off my shoulder and bolted. “Hey!” I screamed, swallowing the fish whole.

I lunged at him. He ducked.

I chased him sideways through the parked cars, but before I could catch him, he was back in the SUV. The driver hit the gas.

I chased the getaway car on foot, screaming. “Stop! Help! Stop that car!” I shrieked. “I need help! Help! HELP!”

An elderly man raised his cellphone to snap the license plate. He missed it. “Too fast,” he apologized. He smiled broadly at me as I whizzed past him.

Just like that, the thieves escaped into the oblivion of the Washington Beltway.

I stood there bewildered, as people started to gather around me.

A woman pulled up in her Range Rover. “Here, honey,” she said, handing me her phone. “Call 911.”

Within minutes a squad car pulled up. Out popped a cop so young I was surprised he had a driver’s permit.

The Doogie Howser of law enforcement started The Interrogation. “Did you get the license plate?”

“What state was the license plate?”

I don’t know.

“What was in the bag?”

That one’s easy.

“Everything,” I said.

“My entire office was in that bag.”

Officer Howser pressed me for details.

“Five hundred dollars in cash, credit cards, checkbook, my brand new iPhone and iPad, prescription glasses, files with severance papers, and an IRS refund check that took two years to get,” I dictated, as he scribbled.

It got worse. Because I had been laid off, I had to change 20-plus logins to my new email address. And because I had the memory of Nemo’s friend Dory, the passcodes to everything from PayPal to Citibank were conveniently located on a cheat sheet in my wallet. If the muggers got bored maxing out my credit cards, they could update my Facebook status and even swipe right to get dates on Bumble.

A young woman handed me her cell phone. “Call someone,” she said kindly.

I thanked her, but looked at the phone in confusion. I didn’t know anyone’s numbers because they were all in my phone. I handed it back to her.

“How are you going to get home?” she asked. Right. I had a car, but no keys.

Then it occurred to me that the thieves had my address and house keys. That night they could silently let themselves in, rob me blind, and then drive away in my hybrid, since they had that key, too.

“Call the locksmith right after you call the credit card companies,” Doogie instructed before driving away.

My legs started shaking as I absorbed the enormity of this inconvenience. First-world problem. Still. I collapsed on the dirty asphalt.

There was a time when I had it all: an adoring husband who looked like a movie star; a senior position at a national magazine; and a big, beautiful home. As I sat there — literally in the gutter — it occurred to me that I’d been stripped of everything that had once defined and empowered me.

There was only one thing to do, and that was to go home and have a nervous breakdown. A gluten-free nervous breakdown. And the next day I would embrace the blank canvas that is my life and start again.

Oprah once told me when I was interviewing her for a magazine article that everything in life happens for a reason and to look at each setback as an opportunity to learn.

I recalled another bit of wisdom I had gleaned when I least expected it. Years ago, when I was gainfully employed, the two divisions I led had their most lucrative years to date. The entire staff was going to a Mexican restaurant to celebrate our year-end success.

I was alone, heading up 17th Street, when I noticed a tall, elderly woman with wet hair leaving the YMCA. She was blind and seemed to be having trouble navigating with her cane on the ice. I crossed the street and offered her an arm, which she took as if she was expecting it.

We fell into conversation. She told me she was 96 years old, swam a mile daily, and had been one of the first female journalists at The Washington Post. She seemed fearless, then and now. For some reason, I felt compelled to ask her the secret to life.

“Just keep going,” she practically barked at me. “And adjust as you go.”

Deep down inside, that’s who I am — someone who keeps going and adjusts as I go. By trusting that still, small voice that always steers me in the right direction, I’ll get there, learning what I need to know along the way. My real job in life is being true to myself. Change, adjust, and simply keep going, not forgetting to enjoy the ride and appreciate the view along the way.

Now I just had to figure out a way home from Ikea.