My REAL Top Nine for 2022

I had a beautiful wedding in Big Sur, CA.

I drove sobbing into 2022 with my two dogs and two cats perched next to a Vitamix, the rest of my belongings scrunched in the back of my Prius. I was leaving my marriage and the house I had lived in for eight years.

I’ve never experienced a grief more profound than the end of my marriage.

As 2022 comes to a close, I find myself thinking about Instagram’s yearly Top Nine. Just as ubiquitous as December’s Christmas trees and Hallmark movies, kajillions of people (this is an accurate count, just trust me) have taken to posting their “Top Nine’’ photos that received the most likes during that year. Usually these most popular posts consist of smiling babies, yoga goats, and my personal favorite, thirst traps. I couldn’t help but think about what my Top Nine would look like.

I never imagined they’d include photos mourning my dead best friend.

In April, the television producer Mercedes Leanza- my maid of honor, passed away from a rare and aggressive type of cancer. Mercedes was just 39. She fought with every ounce of her being but died nine months after her diagnosis. Before she left this earthly realm, she promised me that if she didn’t make it, she would find a way to show me if there was an afterlife.

And then I was assaulted.

It happened while I was enjoying a Sunday brunch. On my way there, I was feeling myself! I looked cute and was proud of how I’d been handling my grief. I remember the moment the cashier asked if we wanted to sit inside or outside. I quickly said outside. I’ve always enjoyed people watching.

But not that day.

A clearly troubled man approached and unprovoked began punching my head. The blows felt superhuman. I’m forever grateful to the two brave strangers, whose faces I never saw, who pulled this man off of me.

I was transported to the hospital and diagnosed with a concussion and soft tissue damage.

Months later, I saw my attacker again but this time when I was testifying against him in court. The district attorney is trying the case as assault with a deadly weapon.

Looking back, I discovered I have something much more powerful to share than perfectly composed Insta-photos: hard-earned wisdom. Here are the nine most impactful moments and tools that carried me through this year- or, as I like to call it, My REAL Top Nine for 2022.

  1. I took a vow of “conscious celibacy” and embarked on a heart sabbatical.

I got on a dating app for the first time in my life, sweating so profusely from nerves that my friend had to complete my profile. I discovered that I hated meeting strangers from the internet- even if they were well traveled, Laurel Canyon dwelling, Tesla driving fancy schmancies from Raya! I don’t remember the amount of times I cried on the way home from a date, but it was a lot. I had a revelation that, for the time being, I needed to be alone. Me, a woman with a loudly ticking biological clock who is dying to be a mother and surrounded by pregnant wedded friends, needed to spend some sacred time by herself.

I had a vision that I’d be proudly slutting it up in the streets. After all, I’m the type of woman who doesn’t feel shame over antiquated notions like a woman’s “body count” and I’m a free spirit in every sense of the word. I bought myself a gorgeous king-sized bed, got the best bed linens money can buy and topped it all off with framed lithographs of John Lennon going down on Yoko Ono from his famed Bag One series and hung them above my bed. (Subtlety has never been my strong suit.)

But after a conversation with a friend, it dawned on me that being out in the streets was actually not what I wanted. I was finding real power by keeping my body to myself- for now. Ultimately, I knew that if I was really going to heal, I needed to be selfish with every ounce of my love.

Sex had kept me in toxic on/off again relationships for years of my life. Maybe we called it “friends with benefits” or “hanging out”- but it was so much more than that. Refraining from sex seemed like a way to reclaim my body as my own. Healing from the inside out, if you will.

Turns out, using a buzzy word like “conscious celibacy” makes not getting laid a lot more palatable. Friday nights on the couch with just my pets? I’m a powerful woman on a heart sabbatical, honey.

2. I rejected being the strong black woman.

If you’re not familiar with the strong black woman trope, please immediately stop reading my essay and go do some research on the harmful stereotype.

I’m so over being called “strong” and “resilient”. People have been throwing those words around in reference to me my entire life, especially so in the last year. I grew up with pain and dysfunction. I had no choice but to be strong and resilient.

I couldn’t help but wonder if my skin color prevented certain people from seeing the depths of my pain. I wanted someone to kiss my forehead while holding space for my shattered heart. I want and deserve tenderness and softness, a life of round curves instead of sharp edges. I want to be seen as the gentle soul that I am.

I don’t want to have to be strong.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the love that was poured onto me. I lost a husband but I gained a marriage of friendships. The women in my life showed up hard.

I went on epic travel adventures with a friend who became a bestie! On a particularly hard day, another buddy cocooned her tiny 5’0” body into my much taller 5' 9” body and held me as I ugly cried for two hours. An acquaintance noticed on my Instagram that I was putting furniture together by myself and sent me a text that read, “I know a thing or two about building a couch alone, if you ever want to talk”. She’s now a dear friend. Women with whom I wasn’t even particularly close sent me flowers, care packages and pink ice cream glasses.

But most importantly, to me at least, my mom, who has had her own difficulties, said that I was an inspiration to her. She told me that by picking up the pieces of my own life, I give her the resolve to go on when she wants to give up. I will cherish that sentiment for the rest of my life.

There’s another word that describes black women better than strong or resilient: regenerative. Don’t sleep on us cuz we be comin’ back better than ever.

3. I asked for help.

Ain’t no shame in the mental health game! Depression and I have been lifelong frenemies and I made a choice to do everything I could to keep that raggedy ol’ bitch at bay. I called in the big guns, otherwise known as psychiatry, talk therapy, and EMDR for trauma. I also did Emotional Freedom Technique (or EFT) tapping from The Tapping Solution which has been a total gamechanger!

And because I’m an open-minded LA girl with an enviable crystal collection (thank you very much), I wasn’t afraid to think outside the box. I worked with healers of all kinds including shamans and reiki masters. I dove headfirst into inner child work.

My wedding anniversary was looming and I didn’t know how to face it. I was told by an energy worker that “Kauai is where the healers go to heal”. And so I went. On what would have been my third anniversary, an elder played a harp over my heart chakra. I could actually feel the vibrations easing my heart.

I didn’t just survive the anniversary, I managed to even have some fun! (And not just because I also microdosed shrooms for the first time which was… hilarious. 10/10 recommend but I’m not a doctor, just a divorced lady person.)

4. I danced.

One night (or more accurately, many nights), I was alone and sobbing in a Viola Davis snot kinda way. I discovered that sometimes when the body is in too much pain to move, the only thing it can do is dance. Nina Simone’s Feeling Good (which I was not) came through the speakers and I let the groove take over my bod. Alice Walker was correct when she said, “Hard Times Require Furious Dancing”.

My brain could not stop obsessing over the end of my marriage, so I decided that I would force it to via choreography! Every week, I went to a ballet class because who has time to think of their ex when they have a tombé, pas de bourrée, glissade, assemblé combo to master? Today I find myself dancing so often in my new home and for nobody’s pleasure but my own. Well, sometimes I do pretend I’m a contestant on So You Think You Can Dance and my cats are the panel of judges, but that’s besides the point!

5. Hayley’s Healing Haven

I moved into my new home which I’ve officially named Hayley’s Healing Haven. I wanted to make it a place I cherish. I grew up with an abusive stepfather and had to live on and off with my alcoholic grandfather. I would make this the first house that I really loved and felt safe in.

I donated almost everything I owned and furnished my new place in such a way that every corner of it brings me joy. A friend got me hooked on The Home Edit and my house is meticulously organized…except for that spare drawer in all our kitchens that’s stuffed with broken scissors, napkins and Taco Bell hot sauce packets.

I never knew knowing exactly where everything was could be such a turn on, but hey- as we’ve already established, I haven’t had sex in a while. The bar is low.

I always dreamed of having a pink kitchen. So I marched into Home Depot (or more accurately, fought for a spot in the parking lot while wearing stained sweats) and bought the most beautiful shade of light pink paint- it’s even called Funhouse. We love a signature and a statement, honey!

I planted a clover garden and started brewing my own kombucha. Who run the world? Divorced women in their thirties!

6. I accepted it was a process.

I didn’t want to feel this pain anymore. I’m already cursed with being a Pisces, the most emo sign of all! I kept wishing that the new or full moon would take my pain with it. I set my intentions and felt better for a day but then- like clockwork, I was a sad girl listening to Lana Del Rey. Healing is a process and I have to accept it will take an amount of time that I don’t yet know. Sorrow is part of the beauty of life- of having this thing we call a human experience.

7. I learned from Nature.

Ok, hear me out. I know the following is gonna read like this essay was taken over by a new age spirit meme account that sells a stick of palo santo harvested in period blood for $85, but I promise you, I’m about to drop some truth.

Mother Nature is the best teacher.

My new house is nestled under glorious trees. Without fail, my visitors remark on how terrific the energy is!

There are many spiritual practices that find you can heal through the chi energy of trees. I commune with them. When I need stability, I lay my back against their sturdy trunks. For grounding, I place my bare feet on their roots and offer gratitude.

When I visited Kauai, I came back changed. I learned that life is like the ocean’s horizon. We don’t know what’s on the other side, so we may as well enjoy our current view. The moon taught me that life is a cycle of phases and that none of them are more important than the rest. Like the waves, the Universe will bring me what I need and wash away what no longer serves me. I can’t control the tide so why would I try to control life?!

Now you can click the link in my bio to pay $85 for period blood palo santo.

8. I cherished random joy.

I crafted a new life and with it discovered many things I love such as:

  • Hanging out with my animals. I worried I would be a divorcée stereotype as a now “single mom” of two dogs and two cats. Screw that! That’s rooted in misogyny and lies. My pets have brought me so much joy. They’re slices of heaven walking the earth on furry feet. And to my future mate, lucky for you, we’re a package deal, babe.
  • A fridge always stocked with Limoncello La Croix
  • Long walks in my new neighborhood
  • Reading at night by flashlight. Some of my favorite books have been The Tools by Phil Stutz and Barry Michaels, Letting Go by David R. Hawkins, How To Survive The Loss of Love by Harold H. Bloomfield, Melba Colgrove and Peter McWilliams and Acne by Laura Chinn.
  • I always have a candle, sage or incense burning. I feel cleansed by the sacred smoke. My house is a vibe! I installed Wi-Fi lighting and change the color depending on my mood (of which there have been many).
  • When I couldn’t get a wink of sleep, the only way I could doze off was if I had my favorite comfort TV show on- Seinfeld. Those four kooky friends became my trusty nighttime companions. I was clumsily entering my new life like Kramer famously entered Jerry’s apartment. And I too, enjoy holding for an applause.

9. I learned to really love myself.

Leaving my marriage was the most painful act of self-love.

I learned that I will always be okay because I have me.

I will no longer self-abandon.

I’m not a prisoner to past generations or even my own trauma.

I won’t allow people to treat me badly.

I’m forgiving myself. I’m being gentle with myself. I’m really really proud of myself.

A final word.

I reject all stigma and shame about divorce. I know I’m not a failure because my marriage ended. The failure would have been to stay. I don’t even believe I married the wrong person. Things happened exactly as they were meant to. In fact, I feel gratitude for the love that was shared. But even when it’s “for the best” as they say, even when you’re the one who files the papers, it doesn’t make it any easier.

I learned that I am my own best healer. Everything that happened this year was for the greatest good. Often I dive headfirst back into confusion and grief (and that’s okay, too). But deep down I believe there must be a soul reason things unfolded this way. Our human brains can’t possibly understand divinity at work.

Mercedes promised to show me if there was an afterlife. And honey, she has. I feel her all the time. But I also showed myself that there’s an afterlife, one that I made.

Here’s looking at you, 2022. We did the damn thing.

Mercedes and me on my wedding day.

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Hayley Marie Norman

Hayley Marie Norman is an actor and writer living in Los Angeles, CA. You can follow her on Instagram at @HayleyMarieNorman.