Loosening the Grip on the Big Life Plan

Erin Zammett Ruddy

By Erin Zammett Ruddy

About a month into my sophomore year, my mother came down from New York to visit. She offered to do laundry for my roommate and me.

“Where’s the detergent?” she called.

“It’s right there,” I said pointing to the bottle on top of the machine.

“Erin, that’s fabric softener!”

Turns out we’d been washing our clothes without detergent for weeks. Whoops!

By the time I graduated, I did know the difference between Snuggle and Tide, and I’d picked up a few other skills, too. I felt ready to go do big things and make my beloved journalism professors proud. I had a Plan. I moved to New York City and started working at Glamour magazine, which was a lot like the magazines you see in movies except the people were much nicer and my clothes were mostly from the Gap. I was living the life I had always dreamed of, and anything seemed possible.

Then, just a year after I’d left Knoxville, I was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia, and it brought my world to a screeching halt. I went from researching articles on love and relationships to researching doctors and treatment plans and, yes, Googling my chances of survival (five years without successful treatment).

Ultimately, a new drug saved my life and continues to do so. Nearly 20 years later, I’m not just surviving; I’m thriving. (My oncologist likes to tell me I could run a marathon if I wanted to—I don’t.) Those early years when my cancer was all encompassing seem distant to me now. But I look back to remind myself what I endured and how I pivoted and persevered. I shared my experience as a young cancer patient in the pages of Glamour. I became a patient advocate and traveled the country, raising tens of thousands of dollars for research. I loosened the grip I had on my Big Life Plan and allowed other, completely unexpected things in—honing life skills that are way more important than laundry (sorry, Mom). Rolling with life’s inevitable punches became a go-to tool for me, one that definitely came in handy last year.

Am I saying I was prepared to face a global pandemic with three kids at home and a book to launch? Not exactly. Like everyone else, I was sad, frustrated and worried. I felt unproductive and helpless and watched a lot of Netflix and ate a lot of bread.

But I also knew what it was like to feel like all the things you’d worked for were taken away, and I remembered that sometimes Big Plans need to be rewritten. Most importantly, I was kind to myself. I let myself off the hook and lowered my expectations for a bit. And I shared these lessons with my children (when I wasn’t yelling at them to log onto their Google meets). They may not always have perfectly washed and folded clothes at the ready (I still haven’t quite nailed that skill), but they do know how to reframe a negative situation, how to find the silver linings, how to give themselves grace when needed but also how to keep going. And they know how important it is to hang on to hope that better days are ahead. Because they always are.

Erin Zammett Ruddy
Erin Zammett Ruddy (Knoxville ’00) is the author of the new book The Little Book of Life Skills: Deal with Dinner, Manage Your Email, Make a Graceful Exit and 152 Other Expert Tricks (yes, laundry is one of them). She lives in New York with her husband and three kids. Follow her on Instagram @erinzruddy.