Challenges and transitions are not so much a part of life as they are the nature of it. Most of us can cope with minor disappointments—the job interview you just knew you nailed that doesn't result in an offer, or the man who goes from being a catch to a jerk in the span of a few dates. But when a major blow comes out of left field, it can turn your life upside down and rattle you to the core. The question is, how do you handle it? Do you fall apart, give up and let the situation wreak havoc on your life? Or do you brush yourself off and find the courage and faith to move on?
"Some people go through hard times, become angry and bitter as a result and stay stuck in that bad place," says Monica T. Campbell, Ph.D., a psychologist in Philadelphia who specializes in depression, anxiety and stress management. "Others get through hard times and look at it as an example of their strength, or they believe that God has seen them through. Both can feel really good and affirming."
Meet three women who found themselves facing life-altering situations but were able to summon the strength to start over and lead even more fulfilling lives:
"Cancer was a gift from God to change my life"
Ricki Fairley was a 55-year-old devoted wife, busy mom of two and partner in a marketing company in Alpharetta, Georgia, when, in September 2011, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. "I was shocked," says Fairley. "I just said, Okay, God, what do you have in store for me?" She elected to have a double mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiation.
While preparing for surgery, Fairley began meeting with a nurse coach who suggested that she needed to manage her stress. "I replied, 'I'm not stressed, just busy,' " Fairley says. But then the counselor surprised her. "She asked how many times a day I said or thought the word a--hole, and told me that every time it happened, I was stressed," she recalls. That got her thinking about the toll her dysfunctional 30-year marriage and imbalanced relationship with her business partner were taking on her health. With her body on the mend, Fairley set about healing her spirit. Over the course of a year, she filed for divorce, moved to Annapolis, Maryland, and cut ties with her work associate. "I started my own company between my third and fourth rounds of chemo," she says. That venture, Dove Marketing, is responsible for the acclaimed 2012 Obama for America radio ad campaign.
With the support of family and friends, Fairley began putting herself first: "I'm finally in control of my life. Well, actually, God is in control." Today she is cancerfree, running a thriving enterprise, spending time with loved ones and enjoying her new passions—spinning class and liturgical dance. "I feel so blessed that I was able to start a new life. You never know what's going to come your way and you have to view it as an opportunity," she says. "I don't like to use the word obstacle anymore, because I think that when God puts something in front of you, it's a gift that you're supposed to learn and grow from."
"You never know what's going to come your way and you have to view it as an opportunity. I don't use the word obstacle, because when God puts some thing in front of you, it's a gift you're supposed to learn and grow from."
"I was functioning but my heart was just broken"
S. Michele Dorsey, 48, was making a six-figure salary as a finance executive at a construction firm. In December 2009, amid the housing market crash, her company went bust. Shortly after, her brother died, and two weeks later, her mother suffered a fatal heart attack. Dorsey was shattered. "I was a functioning depressive," she recalls. "I could turn it off when I was around people, but at home I was battling major depression." She got to the point where she couldn't sleep and would have anxiety attacks throughout the night. Still grieving, Dorsey realized that she had to find a job, but she lacked the energy to look. "I lost my focus and my heart wasn't in it," she says. Eventually, her doctor put her on antianxiety medication.
Dorsey's downward spiral ended in spring 2010, when a friend suggested she start a cosmetics company since she had always been good at doing makeup. Initially Dorsey scoffed at the idea. How could she start a business when she barely had enough money? But something ignited inside her. "I started doing research and I thought, Maybe I can do this," she recalls. Not long after, she saw a TV commercial on becoming an aesthetician, a licensed professional trained in maintaining and improving healthy skin. "I realized it would help me become a credible beauty professional," she says. That fall she enrolled in aesthetician school and continued to research and test products. Fast-forward to 2014: Dorsey now has her own cosmetics company (michele-michele.com) that sells nail polishes and lip glosses. Her goal is to open her own store and to sell her products in Macy's. With the dark days behind her, she speaks of her resilience. "My mother always told me it's okay to be down but it's not okay to stay down," Dorsey says. "I'm rooted in Christ and I knew I wasn't going to stop."
"I gave up on love"
Taryn King, 37, started dating Mark* in 1998 and fell in love hard. For the next seven years King thought she was in a rock-solid, committed relationship. They had even talked about marriage.
Little did the Philadelphia native know that her boyfriend had other ideas about their future. When Mark finally ended the couple's ties, King was crushed. "I just knew marriage wasn't in the cards for me," she says. "I completely lost faith in love. I was done."
For seven years after the breakup, King remained single, going on a few dates here and there but not letting anyone get too close. "I wasn't bitter but I was closed and cynical," she recalls. "I have an excellent connection with my father, brothers whom I adore and plenty of male friends, but I just didn't trust romance." Then in 2010 King reconnected with Dallas, an old friend from Hampton University, on Facebook. They had dated briefly freshman year, but had lost touch after she transferred to another school.
At first King found it hard to shake the reservations and distrust she carried from the experience with her previous partner. But as she and Dallas talked about their lives, she found herself charmed by his open, honest nature and gallant approach. "He's perfected that southern gentleman thing," she says. As their friendship grew, King's defenses came down. "When he said he wanted to be a part of my life again, I was surprised to find that my heart was ready to jump into this thing," she adds. In July 2013, King and Dallas walked down the aisle. "True love seldom comes in the package you imagined it," she says. "Timing is everything. Sometimes it's not right at that moment. But later on, it's perfect."
*Subject's name has been changed.
This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands now.