64 – The Loneliest Year: A Health Scare, a Lost Circle, and the Power of Rebuilding

What happens when you’re suddenly abandoned by your pack?

Loneliness is a universal human emotion that can often go unaddressed and underestimated in its impact. In a society where the focus is too often on productivity and success, acknowledging feelings of isolation and vulnerability can be perceived as a weakness. In this heartfelt episode, host and childfree Latina Paulette Erato shares her personal journey navigating the complicated emotions around loneliness in the wake of a health scare.

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As she struggled with her health crisis, Paulette faced the harsh reality of toxic relationships that crumbled when faced with adversity. The loneliness she experienced was surprising, and painfully highlighted the stark contrast between surface-level connections and genuine support systems. Through tears and triumphs, Paulette learned the invaluable lesson of diversifying her communities to foster genuine connections.

Through vulnerability and introspection, Paulette sheds light on the challenges and growth that stemmed from these experiences, and why intentional community-building is essential.

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Transcript

[00:00] Paulette: Buen día, mi gente, and welcome to La Vida Más Chévere de Childfree Latinas. The only Spanglish podcast for childfree Latinas y Latines, helping us liberate ourselves from the toxic cultural brainwashing we all grew up with so that we can design our best lives instead. I’m your host and resident childfree Latina, Paulette Erato.

[00:24] Today I’m tackling a topic that’s kind of taboo only because we don’t talk about it enough. And since it’s been coming up in my life a lot right now, and I’m not one to ignore patterns or signals, I figure I’d share it with you too. The way that our traditions and social norms remain toxic is by ignoring them.

[00:44] So let’s not do that. Let’s talk about it. I wrote a post about this for Self-Love Sundays earlier this month over on my newsletter slash blog, called Substack, and there’s a link to it in the show notes. And you can subscribe there too so you can receive it in your inbox whenever there’s something new.

[01:02] So, because I’ve already laid out my thoughts on this once, I’m going to borrow heavily from that post in this episode. I’m also going to touch on burnout, which I’ll talk about at the end of this episode. First, some backstory. Let’s set the scene. In late 2016, just two months after my wedding to my favorite Midwesterner, Ryan, I was on a work trip with my assistant, who was the best, by the way.

[01:29] Kimmy, if you’re listening, miss you, love you. I was an event manager for a professional association, think like American Dental Association, that level of membership driven national organization. And I’d been in this industry of meeting planning for over 12 years. I won awards, I had my certification, the whole nine.

[01:50] On this fateful day, we had to fly up to Oakland for a meeting and then drive down to Monterey for another meeting the next day. This kind of travel was not unusual for me. To illustrate that for you, the week before my wedding, I had to be in Chicago for five days. I got home on Wednesday, I got married on Saturday, and a week later I was in Amsterdam.

[02:10] That was at least for our honeymoon, not work. It was a very high stress job, as most event planner jobs are. I traveled all over the Western U. S. putting out fires because I wasn’t just planning events, I was also babysitting grown ups. Event planning is often referred to as herding cats, and oof, that is bang on.

[02:33] And, you know how Donald Trump seems to get away with everything? Well, imagine the cats are people who aspire to be him. Yeah. Our department was also staffed with a bunch of assholes and mean girls. Even one dude who got caught embezzling last I heard, but that’s besides the point. Kimmy and I worked in a different office 3, 000 miles away.

[02:57] Anyway, that night we arrived in Monterey and my entire world flipped upside down. After dinner and a beer, I was talking to my husband on the phone as I did every night when I traveled. All of a sudden, my ears and my face started getting really hot and my throat started to feel weird. Obviously, I was having some sort of allergic reaction, so I drove myself to the nearest pharmacy and I got me some Benadryl.

[03:24] Well, an hour later, I wasn’t feeling any better. So now I had to drive myself to the ER. If you’ve never been to Monterey, don’t drive there at night, especially after a beer and Benadryl. It’s dark, and it’s spooky AF, but there were no taxis or Ubers, and I don’t know why I didn’t just call 9 1 1. I did ask the hotel’s front desk if they could get me a ride because, again, I had both a beer and a Benadryl.

[03:49] And I didn’t know the area and it was spooky, but they couldn’t help. Anyway, by this point, I was now starting to get bright red welds all over my body. Hives, itchy, burning hives. So I get to the ER and shout out to the staff at Community Hospital in Monterey because they were so nice. I get to the ER, they get me into a room and they shot me up with steroids that they insisted had to be done in my butt and emphasized I had to see a doctor as soon as I got home the next day because this was not normal.

[04:25] And while the hives itched and burned like a demon possessed my skin, what they were super concerned about was my throat closing up. Cause, you know, death. So that was December 2016. By March of the following year, I had quit my job and I was on this monthly biologic gel injection that they had to push through what felt like a huge knitting needle.

[04:48] And look, I don’t mind shots. I don’t mind needles, but these were awful. Not to mention they barely helped with all the swelling and the burning that comes with hives. Also the continued face swelling. Plus they cost like $10,000 a year. Luckily I had insurance and coverage, but the doctor’s office told me they had to jump through a ton of hoops to make it happen because insurance companies are, you know, capitalists.

[05:14] So I’ve had to carry an EpiPen with me ever since. You know that American Express slogan? I don’t leave home without it. The diagnosis ended up being chronic hives with no known cause. Doctors have ruled out about a hundred common allergens, so they just chalked it up to stress. I thought leaving my job would help put an end to it, but it didn’t.

[05:35] The damage was done. I now have an autoimmune disorder for the rest of my life. Yay. During this time, a friend who I’d had for a long time was nominated to be president of our industry association’s local chapter, and he convinced me to join his board. I’d been on this board for three years. I’d served as a director and a VP, and I really didn’t want to go back, but he’s a really good salesman because somehow I ended up agreeing to it.

[06:05] Fast forward to the spring, and I’m supposed to meet up with him, the outgoing president and the outgoing VP who I’m replacing, for a handover. But that morning I woke up worse than ever and had to go to the ER again. Of course I let him know. I was genuinely sorry to let him down, but your health has to come first, you know?

[06:27] My throat was closing up again. He was of course, understanding. But I have never, ever, to this day, heard from him again. And that’s where it started. The loneliest year of my life. You’ve heard about loneliness on this show before and our guest Monica’s TEDx talk on overcoming it. That’s mostly in episode 54, Grief Rides Shotgun, but we also touched on it in episode 55, the second part of it that’s called You Wanna Do What?

[06:58] Monica’s loneliness was born out of losing her family at a really young age and not having friends mature enough to bolster her through it. She was merely a teenager and not many people that age know how to cope with a big loss like that. She said it took her a few years once she was in college to really get through it.

[07:18] That’s when she started solo traveling and became her own best friend, because that’s who she could count on. In my circumstances, we’re talking about grown adults, who you’d think would know a thing or two about helping a friend. Then again, adults say and do some of the stupidest things too. For example, one time I posted a picture on Facebook of how grossly swollen my lips got that day.

[07:45] And someone made the genius comment that they know women that pay for that kind of look. Yeah, that’s what you tell someone who feels like their skin is ripping apart. Here’s a worse one. I have a dear friend who recently overcame breast cancer and I referenced her in that Self-Love Sunday post. She’s amazing.

[08:05] I love her dearly. After she had a double mastectomy, she was going to have reconstruction done. And as you can imagine, that comes with a whole host of heartache and pain, both physical and emotional. And then one of her coworkers was stupid enough to say that she’s so lucky that she’s getting a free boob job.

[08:24] Adults, they say the dumbest things. So, you know, maybe no one is equipped to deal with a friend or an acquaintance in a hard spot. We’re all awkward humans, sure. So, like Monica, I did have to become my own best friend and medical advocate. Man, that’s exhausting. But again, I was and am privileged to be married with really good health insurance.

[08:48] Who knows where this story would have gone if neither of those things were true, you know? I had to quit my job to deal with this. If I’d been single, that would have meant losing my health insurance because the U. S. is draconian like that. How was I going to afford these life saving $10,000 injections without insurance?

[09:11] When you’re deep in the midst of dealing with grief, it’s overwhelming. I’m telling you this story now with the distance, the hindsight, and the growth of the intervening seven years. But even as I’m retelling it now, I can still feel those emotions anchored into the memories, and it’s painful. I honestly do not know what was said about me on that board or behind my back at work.

[09:38] Not that I expected any of the mean girls to ever reach out. Oh man, I could tell you some, uh, interesting stories. And by interesting, I mean horrible. They’re horrible. But I do remember that my boss’s boss was a very cool dude. Total tangent here, but he was something of like, one in ten of an Irish family.

[09:57] Can you imagine? Ten kids? Anyway, he always gave me really great beer bar recommendations for when I was in New York. And he once had flowers sent to me after one of our major shows in California blew up in the worst way possible, thanks to decisions made by people over me. Like I said, there are stories for another time, but he was a very cool chap.

[10:19] Très cool. Bien chevere. Obviously, they were able to replace me both at work and on the board. It’s not like plenty of people didn’t want either role. I didn’t even care because every day I was fighting this horrible condition that made me look like Hellboy, the cartoon character. Yeah. Gross. I’m not kidding.

[10:37] I’m not going to show you pictures because they’re disgusting, but the swelling and the redness were awful. So gross. On top of the pain and feeling like I was burning alive from the inside. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It’s not so terrible that you’d wish you’d die necessarily, at least not the way I experienced it, but the constant itching and the burning could very well make you insane.

[11:01] Not in a hyperbolic way, I mean clinically insane. But when you spend 12 years building a career, it’s hard to let go of that identity. It’s difficult to lose those connections. And because of all that time invested in doing this, a significant portion of my social circle worked in the same industry. We did business together, but we also traveled together.

[11:25] We did weekend trips. We did international trips. I attended some of these people’s weddings and watched some of their kids grow up. It was a really harsh realization that these people who I shared so many happy memories with really only saw me as what, a profit center? I hadn’t realized how fragile these relationships were.

[11:45] How much my position as a buyer of their services was really what was at the foundation of our connections. That realization that our relationships were merely transactional was heartbreaking. I was a client, not an actual friend. It was business, not personal. Despite what we’d been through in 12 years. I felt abandoned, discarded, isolated.

[12:14] To this day, not a single one of those people, except maybe one or two, has ever reached out to see how I’m doing, which is much better, by the way, spoiler alert, I’m obviously still here. And that’s not to say no one checked in on me at this time. I had other friends and once I got the hives under control, I could finally go out and live my life again.

[12:33] I went out, saw people at parties, but it wasn’t the same. I did call one of them out to their face once. He told me he’d just been really busy. You know, it’s the kind of response you give to people you don’t actually care about. Oh yeah, I’ve been busy. How did I deal with this? Luckily, I did still have a small support system, if not a large social circle.

[12:58] My husband, my favorite Midwesterner, bless his freaking heart, he was there every step of the way. I’m not sure what he did or who he talked to when managing his caregiver burnout. But he never wavered. Through all the doctor’s appointments and ER visits, the painful injections, and just the agony of the day to day, he was there.

[13:19] And of course, there was the rest of my family, my parents, my brothers. But 2017 started out bad, and it felt like it was just getting worse. After being on the heavy meds for about four months, nothing was changing. I was in an online support group for my condition and as awful as it was for me, I didn’t have it nearly as bad as other people.

[13:43] So I felt guilty even complaining around them. For whatever reasons, my hives mostly stayed under my clothes, rarely visible to other people and never hit the most sensitive parts of my body. I can’t imagine having hives in my butthole, but hey, it happened to some people. So it turns out that support group wasn’t for me.

[14:05] Instead, I decided to start looking for a different kind of outlet, a positive one to channel all of my mounting frustrations and the helplessness I was feeling. So I joined a kickboxing gym and once again, my life changed forever. This time in a good way. About three or four weeks after radically changing my eating and exercise routines, the hives finally disappeared.

[14:32] I was still on all the antihistamines and the biologic injection, but now they were working. The burning and the itching and the welts, they stopped showing up every day. Over the course of two months at this gym, I even lost 17 pounds. Though I’m not sure I ever want to be that skinny again because I was cold all the time.

[14:54] While all of that was a huge bonus, especially after feeling so alone for months, despite having my really small support system, it was finding a hobby, and a group of people who I could just let my anger out with in a positive way, that made the difference. Punching is a really great conduit for getting all those trash thoughts and emotions out of your head.

[15:18] And I have an episode on that too. Episode number five, A Toilet for Your Brain. I kept up the kickboxing for a long time until we moved from that area, and I’ve managed to keep the hives at bay for seven years except for one short little incident 2021 where we don’t have to talk about. I’m still on a ton of antihistamines daily, but I don’t need the steroids or the injection anymore. And that’s a relief because those shots really sucked.

[15:43] What this time in my life taught me though, is that having one single community isn’t enough because sometimes we can’t rely on even our closest friends for support. They’re just not trained for that sort of thing. My social circle prior to 2017, though, pretty big and diverse, utterly failed me.

[16:06] And I’m not telling you this to get revenge on them or to even cause them shame. I’m pretty sure none of them are ever going to hear this anyway. And I’m not looking for apologies either. What good is that going to do either of us? But while they may not be seeking forgiveness, I do forgive myself for thinking and playing in only this one small pond, when I was destined to swim in multiple oceans, we all are.

[16:32] My kickboxing circle helped get me through this crucial time in my life, but even they aren’t in it anymore. And that is why I am constantly trying to build supportive communities around me. Why I’m so adamant that everyone needs one.

[16:48] Actually, you need multiple communities. I quoted bell hooks in that Self-Love Sunday post and I’ll include it here for you too. She wrote, “whether we learn to love ourselves and others will depend on the presence of a loving environment. Self love cannot flourish in isolation.” You deserve a loving environment.

[17:10] So do I. We all do. Another thing that 2017 taught me was that even though my community was diverse, it wasn’t diversified. Let me explain. I had friends from all sorts of backgrounds who did different things within the industry. But they were mostly all within that one industry. I don’t think I’ll be making that mistake ever again.

[17:32] Here is where my loving environments, per bell hooks, are currently, both professionally and personally. There’s Non Mom May over on Instagram, which, by the way, none of my real life childfree friends took part in. That’s just not what they’re about. Am I mad about it? I mean, I wish they would, but if it’s not for them, it’s not for them.

[17:53] I also joined a local walking group, and a subgroup of us get together to do work together during the week. That one’s key, because what I do, I do alone. It’s very easy to fall back into that loneliness. So it’s nice to get out there and see other people once in a while. Co-workers, if you will, even though we have different jobs.

[18:14] I’m in a Toastmaster group to get better at rocking this here microphone. And I’ve been lucky enough to meet other childfree Latinas through that too. I am also building a community of Latinas in podcasting, an initiative that I hope to launch later this year. And not to mention the friends I’ve made in the neighborhood I live in, the building I live in.

[18:35] That sounds like a lot, right? But I’ve been very careful not to spread myself too thin. There are groups I’ve dropped, others I’ve shuffled around, because they either didn’t make sense to me anymore, or they’re actively wrong for me and where I am in this season of life. Recognizing that has been crucial.

[18:56] And look, am I as close to the people in these circles as I was to the ones from 2017? No. That took 12 years to build. I’ve only been in some of these for a couple of months. I lived in my building for two entire years before we ever socialized with the neighbors, but we can thank lockdown for that one.

[19:15] Ugh. Even if you spend a decade building relationships, though, that doesn’t mean they’re very deep. It takes commitments from both sides. You can’t do it all alone. And you know what? Maybe I wasn’t a good friend either. There has to be a reason so many people wrote me off, right? Maybe, like that Taylor Swift song goes, I’m the problem.

[19:38] It’s me. Yeah, that could be true. So maybe I just got as good as I gave. Sure. I’ll accept it. They just didn’t like me. It’s possible. Earlier this month, I was on a call with Sandra Velasquez, the founder of Nopalera, and she said, you need to teach people how to treat you. And maybe I taught this group to let me go without them. A’ight.

[20:03] So why did I share all that with you? I have no idea why all of this came up seven years later for me to work on now. But I figured I would do that work out loud with you. Because it is work. I feel like I’ve gone through several stages of grief since writing that Self-Love Sunday post a few weeks ago.

[20:24] I’m not going to lie. I cried writing that. I did not cry recording this episode, though, so I’ve seen some growth. Who I am today, though, is a completely different person. I’m not sure I would even recognize Paulette from 2017 anymore. Now I know that I’m more than one thing, and my current communities and support systems reflect that.

[20:47] Back when I was a meeting planner, too much of my life was wrapped into being that person. It was my whole personality. Now I get to be a multifaceted person again because I’ve allowed myself to grow. I was literally forced out of my comfort zone by this skin condition and forced into combat mode just to become healthy again.

[21:08] It was kind of hell. Like I said, I don’t wish that on anyone, least of all you. So I hope that maybe by sharing this, you can take these lessons I’ve learned and apply them to your life. If I hadn’t gotten sick, would I have learned these lessons? I hope so, but I don’t know. And the big thing I would impart to those of you who have also intertwined your identity with your career is to learn to separate yourself.

[21:38] Just like I have multiple interests and I’m a multifaceted person, you are more than one thing. You are not just your career. You need hobbies, you deserve interests outside of work. You know, to be a well rounded person, you have to have an interesting personality. Don’t make this one thing yours. The question remains, could I have done anything differently and not succumb to the burnout which then manifested as hives?

[22:06] You know what? That’s a whole separate episode, which, by the way, is coming up in two weeks. Yep. The next episode, we’ll be talking about burnout. In the meantime, if you have thoughts on community building, if you’ve felt abandoned by yours or you’re trying to build something new, I want to hear from you.

[22:25] You can now text me your thoughts. There’s a link at the top of the show notes that do just that. Click on it from your phone and send me your name and what you’re thinking. If you’re not a texter, that’s okay. You can always DM me on Instagram too. Links for all this are in the show notes. So next time we are going to talk about burnout and what we could do differently before our bodies develop a stress induced autoimmune disorder.

[22:50] Stay tuned. And that’s a burrito.

[22:53] Hey, mira, if this episode made you feel some kind of way, dígame. DM me on Instagram, or send me a text. You can do that right from your phone. If you want to be a guest on the show and put your story out there too, check out the guest form on my website at pauletterato. com slash guest.[23:13] Yep, just my name, pauletterato. com slash guest. Y no se te olvide que hay más perks when you join the newsletter. Todos estos links están en los show notes. Muchísimas gracias for your support y hasta la próxima vez, cuídate bien.

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