A Life Lesson Learned at the Welfare Office…

My 2-year-old son and I both lived in a tiny, one-bedroom loft in what some would call a “shitty neighborhood.” I was only 22 years old and was struggling to make ends meet on my own. My abusive ex-husband refused to give us a dime so I was waitressing and looking desperately to find a second job.

Our little loft apartment was small but functional. The burgundy front door opened to a narrow kitchen lined with 1970’s Spanish tile and filled with aged wooden cabinets, a small stove, and a puke-yellow fridge. Beside the kitchen was a living room with a wood-burning fireplace in the corner. Next to the fireplace was a flight of stairs covered in matted beige carpet that led up to the loft above the kitchen, which contained a bedroom, bathroom, and one small closet. It was dark and musty with wood paneled walls. The lone “window” in the entire place was a sliding glass door in the living room that opened up to a small, cracked slab of concrete on the back. Directly behind the concrete slab was a wide wooden fence that failed to block the the noise from the busy street behind it.

The only furniture I had at that time was an old dresser, a small TV, and a squeaky black futon. Since neither of us had our own bed yet, my son and I slept together on the futon in front of the fireplace every night. I named our dingy little apartment “The Chalet” and filled the place with tiny little candle votives I got from the dollar store. I would turn off the harsh overhead lights, light all the candles, and pretend we were in some high-end ski chalet in Aspen…surrounded by fresh, unmarked snow and a forest full of elk, reindeer, and friendly wolves who watched over us. 

Looking back I realize how dismal the apartment seems when I describe it, but at that time I was ecstatic to have it. I was so grateful for that little Chalet. It was quaint and cozy, but most importantly, it was ours. There was no more abuse, no more screaming, and no more yelling. There was no arguing and no crying. But most importantly, there was no more fear. It was just the two of us, finally living in peace. Despite the obvious challenges, it was the happiest I’d been in years.

One evening I was at the laundry mat, washing our clothes and reading a book to my son. He was always such a little busy body, so I had to occupy him nonstop to keep him from crawling around the dirty, lint-lined floors. He finally fell asleep in my arms and I sat there watching the clothes spiral in the machines in front of me. That’s when it dawned on me: I was a single mom on a limited income, I should be able to qualify for some government assistance. My pride didn’t want to go there, but I only needed temporary help, until I could get back on my feet. I decided it couldn’t hurt to accept a little help if it was available, especially for healthcare and food. Besides, isn’t that what the system was designed for? To help people who are struggling get back on their feet?

The next day I went downtown to the Social Services Department to fill out the paperwork. I sat in the waiting room and took a look around. The room was packed with people of all ages and races, and kids were running all around the room. It smelled like moth balls and Lysol. I was trying to hold my toddler still but he was fussy and wiggling in my lap.

My name was finally called so I walked up to the clerk and handed her my paperwork. She was a large African American woman with flawless skin and bright, smiling eyes. 

“Hello, I’m Tamara. Please have a seat,” she said pleasantly as she nodded towards the chair in front of her.

She perused my paperwork for several minutes, making notes while I sat there uncomfortably. I felt embarrassed to be there, and wanted to leave. My pride would’ve probably gotten the best of me if it wasn’t for my son. If I was alone, I could afford more time to get back on my feet, but I had to get myself in a better place as soon as possible for him.

“You marked the box that you are married, and gave some information about the identity of your husband, is all that correct?” she asked.

“I’m still legally married, yes, but we are separated. I…I haven’t been able to afford a divorce yet.”

“I see.” 

She started typing something on her computer. 

“And I see here you’re currently employed at a restaurant?” she asked, without looking up.

“Yes, I am waiting tables but really trying to get another job during the day,” I responded.

She finally looked up and took a long breath. 

“Miss Julie, I’m sorry but I cannot approve you for any kind of government help at this time. You are still married and it appears your husband makes a decent amount of money….”

“But my husband won’t give me a dime!” I interrupted, then caught myself and simmered down.

“Then you’ll need to take that up with him in court. Would you like me to connect you with someone?” 

Shame and humiliation immediately ran over me. 

“So you mean to tell me that if I had a baby out of wedlock, and didn’t have a job, then you would be able to help me?” I felt tears of humiliation well up in my eyes.

Tamara put her pencil down and looked up from the paperwork to make eye contact with me.

“It’s a little more complicated than that, but I’m afraid you’re right. You can come back and try again when your situation changes. I am so sorry…” 

My son started to fuss and I squirmed in my seat. I felt my face grow hot with embarrassment. I was better than this. I was WAY better than this. The last thing my husband had told me when I left him was that I would never be able to survive on my own. He told me I was a loser and would always need someone to help me through life. If I accepted a handout now, then he would be right. 

I cleared my throat and swallowed hard in an effort to hold back the tears.

“Thank you for your time, Tamara, I appreciate you meeting with me,” I said.

I scooped up my son and walked swiftly out the door. I couldn’t wait to get out of that place.

As I walked down the corridor in that cold, government building, I made a promise to myself. I was going to immediately file for a divorce, then I was going to work my ass off and be so damn successful that my piece of shit ex-husband was going to ask me for money one day. I really envisioned it in my mind with such crystal-clear clarity that I could even hear his voice in my head, begging me for money. He was going to desperately need my help one day, and I was going to tell him NO.

It took ten whole years before that “dream” actually came true, every single detail of it. The irony is that I was so laser-beam focused on my own personal success that I totally forgot about getting revenge on my deadbeat ex-husband, so when he finally did call me to beg for money, it took a moment for me to even remember I had ever wished it to happen in the first place! And even though I told him no, it didn’t feel nearly as exonerating as I’d imagined it would. But that’s the interesting thing about goals. You work so hard to achieve them, and when you finally do, you realize the end result is never as satisfying as the journey was getting there.

That’s why I’ve learned to embrace the journey, it’s where all the real fulfillment lies. Our dreams and goals are meaningless without the work it takes to get there.

Exterior photo of the actual loft apartment I shared with my 2-year old in Greensboro, NC.

How My Biggest Failures Helped Me Find True Success

My entire life I’ve always dreamt about becoming a self-made millionaire. I’ve read so many books by Donald Trump, Dale Carnegie, Tony Robbins, and Barbara Corcoran. When I was a kid, I would line my stuffed animals up against the wall and practice motivational seminars in front of them. I never really knew what I was going to do in the long run, but I always knew it was going to be something sensational, something spectacular…something that would help a ton of people and make me rich and famous in the process.

Becoming a single mom at the age of 21 put somewhat of a halt on those dreams. My son’s father refused to pay child support and I suddenly found myself worried more about putting food on the table and less about getting rich and saving the world.

When my son was about 9-years-old, I finally flexed my entrepreneurial spirit and started my very own business. I had developed a truly spectacular herbal supplement and it was helping tons of people. Business took off relatively fast and before I knew it, I was flying around the world promoting my company. I was featured on national television, satellite radio, and suddenly rubbing shoulders with celebrities and the uber rich. I was making more money than I ever had before, and it looked as if it was only going to get better. My dreams were finally coming true.

Just as I started achieve the success I had only ever dreamt about, I got into a nasty lawsuit with my business partners. I also got hit with a class-action lawsuit from a lawyer who was famous for suing supplement companies to get a pay-off. Then I ran into a huge supply-and-demand issue, and since I had to spend so much money on legal bills, it eventually drained me of my resources and I could barely keep the company afloat. The stress was killing me, so I decided to sell the company and walk away before I lost everything, including my health and happiness.

Starting over wasn’t easy, and eventually I decided to move to Los Angeles to marry the man of my dreams and give myself, and my son, a fresh start.

It wasn’t long after we moved to California that I was introduced to some people who wanted me to use my experience to help develop CBD/hemp products. I had access to more funding and a larger team, resources I did not have when I started my last business, so I decided to roll up my sleeves and dive into the world of entrepreneurship once again.

As successful as we were in the beginning, we barely survived the legal issues that saturated the entire CBD industry. We also were victims of a huge stock scam that left us virtually penniless and struggling to survive. Then, just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, we were fraudulently sued by someone who turned out to be a con-artist (we were actually warned about this person due to a multitude of other scams he conducted on others). The market then started to really halt CBD companies everywhere, and the devastation continued to tear us apart. After spending every penny of our savings to keep the company afloat, we finally decided to accept our losses and close the company down.

So there I was, walking away from yet another business that I had poured my heart into. For three long years I had devoted all of my energy and resources into helping make the best products ever, and even had published clinical trials that proved these products were unprecedented in their ability to help people. Yet here I stood, watching it all go down in flames.

This was when the depression kicked in. My dreams had been crushed yet again, due to my own inability to navigate through the roughest of waters. I had failed again, only this time it was ten times worse as I wasn’t able to sell the company and walk away with a chunk of money to ease the transition.

I made a knee-jerk reaction and decided it was time for me to start over and prove to myself that I could succeed at something big. At 42 years of age, I decided I was going to to get accepted into law school and become an attorney! That way I could use my experience to help other people avoid all the mistakes that I made, and I could embrace the shark that was brewing inside of me.

I spent the next 8 months studying relentlessly to finish college and get my Bachelor’s degree, then gathered letters of recommendation, wrote a gut-wrenching personal statement, signed up for the LSAT, and started working for a law firm during the day to learn everything about the law and be mentored. I was only making minimum wage, so I went back to bartending at night to supplement my income like I did in my 20’s. I met with several local law schools and applied for student loans. I was working 2 jobs and only getting about 4-5 hours of sleep every night, but still studying 3-4 hours every day and managed to increase my score from a 158 to a 170 on my practice LSAT tests, (the highest score one can get is a 180).

Then something incredible happened.

I was driving back from my 2-hour commute to the law office where I was working during the day and I suddenly started to cry. Tears poured out of my eyes uncontrollably and soaked the front of my blouse. I continued sobbing hysterically and I didn’t know why. I felt compelled to call my son (he’s now 21) and told him I needed to see him right away. I drove straight to his house and he came running out to make sure I was okay.

I hugged him and sobbed into his big, broad shoulders. He squeezed me tight.

“What’s wrong, mom? You’re scaring me,” he said.

“I’m so sorry,” I sobbed.

“Sorry for what? What are you talking about?”

“I’m so sorry for failing. I really tried so hard to create something big for us, something that I could give to you when I retired. I had two incredible opportunities to do just that, and I blew it. I chose bad partners, I made bad decisions. Now here I am, killing myself to get into law school and I don’t even know why. I think I’m so used to running on the hamster wheel, I just don’t know how to stop. I feel like I worked so hard your whole childhood to build something for us…for you…and it was all a waste. I failed us, and I lost myself in the process. I’m so exhausted from it all….and I’m so sorry!” the words just poured out of my heart and the tears continued to flow uncontrollably.

“Mom, what are you talking about? You didn’t fail. You never failed! You always did your best. You are the strongest woman I know and you are my inspiration. You’re my rock until the end of time and YOU are more than I’ll ever need!” he hugged me tight and I melted into his arms.

It was at that moment I decided it was time to get off the hamster wheel. I quit working at the law firm and I stopped studying for the LSAT. I took a break from social media and sat in stillness as much as I possibly could.

Then, as if the universe had ordered it, this crazy pandemic halted the rest of the world around me. Everyone is practicing social distancing, but somehow feeling spiritually connected. We are all staying home and spending time with our beautiful families and neighbors. For the first time in years, I feel at peace on the inside. I know that once all of this Coronavirus madness is over, we will all be okay…and maybe even a little closer than we were before.

Life is flying by, and sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the rat race of trying to “succeed.” But what is success, anyway? How does one measure it? For me, I have realized that true success is having people who will be there for you no matter how much money or notoriety you have. Success is about letting go of the stress of attaining it and appreciating the things you already have. It’s about spending less time trying to prove yourself to people who don’t matter, and spending more time with people who do.

I have experienced making products that generated millions of dollars in sales and helped lots of people. I’ve experienced traveling the world first class, 5-star hotels and fancy parties full of celebrities…and I’ve also experienced losing it all…twice. I’ve been through fraud, frivolous lawsuits, manipulation, deception, betrayal, and defeat. And while I’ve persevered beyond what I ever thought imaginable, I still lost the companies that I sacrificed so much to create.

But in light of the current events going on all around the world, I feel blessed that I still have my health, a husband who adores me, a home that I feel safe in, and family and friends who are loyal and dear to me. I have a passion for life and a newfound appreciation for NOT working so hard, and that feels pretty damn good…

Oh, and it turns out that my greatest creation ever, the actual human being that I brought into this world, is now a grown man who is inspired by me.

I haven’t failed at all.