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That Time You Didn’t Force It -- A father’s advice in the midst of a nightmare

Lately, I’ve been waking up with clenched fists from a recurring dream.

It usually starts with me searching for a bathroom in random places -- schools, gyms, shopping malls. When I finally reach the bathroom, I can’t find a clean toilet. I enter one stall at a time only to discover that each one is filthy -- like run for your life, Lysol your body, next-level disgusting. The gross situation repeats itself from one bathroom in the building to the next until I finally bolt up in bed and stumble to my own clean toilet at home, relieved that there are at least three toilets in this world within my control. And that’s what I used to think the dream was about (control) until I came across a dream encyclopedia and read that nightmare toilet encounters symbolize a need to flush toxins from your personal life.

Well, crap. (pun intended) Toxins?

I have demons, yes: I’m a perpetual people pleaser, a chronic foot-in-mouth inserter, a fluent hot mess maker. But toxins? Aren’t those for people in bad relationships and abusive work environments? I brushed off my google diagnosis as typical twenty-first century hype and went back to my regularly scheduled google searches of “when will the next season of The Handmaid’s Tale be released” and “easy chicken breast recipes for lazy home cooks tired of feeding their family.”

Then the dreams got worse. They became nightly, each one grosser than the one before. I’d wake up and scrub my toilet, wondering if the problem is that I think my toilets aren’t clean enough? Then started waking up with indentations in my palms from where my nails cut into my skin as I slept with clenched fists. The dreams have now become particularly tortured toilet tales that last night culminated with me screaming at some guy in a suit who wouldn’t listen to reason.

“Don’t you see how disgusting all this is?” Dream-Annie gestured to clogged toilets and puddles throughout a vast warehouse. There were women doing yoga on soaked mats (new characters--who were they supposed to represent?), wads of wet toilet paper stuck to the cement floor, and sewage seeping everywhere.

The jerk in my dream just shrugged in response to my accusation, and in reply, I made fists and yelled at the top of my lungs until I woke up, sweating, thirsty, and really confused.

“Yoga mats? A dude in a suit? What cause in Sam Hill are you fighting, Annie?”

My upper back ached, my head throbbed, and I fumbled for the compact electrotherapy massager my husband bought me at a conference expo years ago. As I pulled the little machine out of my drawer, I noticed that the wires were tangled and the electro-pads were stuck together. In a fit, I tugged on the chords and cursed their knots, my rage at the unruly coils and muscle discomfort bubbling to the surface. And then, like one of those Star Wars holograms that seem to bring sudden clarity to tense circumstances, my brain quieted and I heard a familiar voice.

“Don’t force it.”


Pop, my father, was famous for encouraging us to “not force” that which our impatience might break. We could be fussing with a plug in an outlet, bending the metal to our will. Or, we could be assembling a new toy with grooves that wouldn’t align without a struggle. It could be something as simple as trying to open a vegetable bag in the produce section. Just before I’d tear the sucker open, ripping it down the middle and wasting the bag completely, Pop would say, “Don’t force it.”

He was the most patient man I’ve ever known. His patience worked from business dealings right down to a pill bottle with a jacked-up lid. “Don’t force it.” Take a breath, try again, learn how it works, and let it work properly without the added negativity. He was the Nelson Mandela of annoying daily conflicts that eat away at peace: an ink cartridge that won’t fit in a printer, a spatula that always jams up the kitchen drawer, and cling wrap. And inevitably, if I took his advice and put my energy toward solving why something wouldn’t fit or how it was stuck instead of giving into frustration and breaking the damn thing before I could use it, I always ended up happier in the end.

But back to my poop dreams.

There I sat in the pre-dawn light with fussy chords and fingernail marks in my palms. It’s been a long year. It’s been a long two years. I’ve looked the ugliest cancer in the eye as it stole my father from me. I’ve added elderly care to my daily routine as my mother moved in with me. I’ve taken on additional work while simultaneously building a writing career because health insurance is damn expensive. I’ve gained seven pounds from just being in my forties. I’ve worried about a virus I can’t control killing family businesses. I’ve mopped up tears on my children’s faces because graduations, recitals, and championships were cancelled. I’ve panicked that one slip of a mask or one too many football games in the park will bring the virus home to my mother and kill her. I’ve grieved. I’ve lost. I’ve complained. I’ve hidden myself away. I’ve been misunderstood. I’ve driven my family mad as I’ve tried to make what isn’t normal, normal. I’ve screamed at politicians. I’ve trolled social media posts. I’ve argued. I’ve backed up good people who said ignorant things because they simply didn’t know any better. And y’all, I’m so tired of the noise, of trying to make a round peg fit in a square hole, and of the damned spatulas of this world jamming up drawers everywhere.

Maybe I need to move to a quiet spot in the countryside or move onto a sailboat and slip away. Maybe I need to pray more, watch less news, sign off of Facebook, and read a good book about kittens. And, maybe I need to also listen to my father when he appears in my mind after a bad dream.

“Don’t force it, Annie.”

Grief is a journey. It’s personal. It has no expiration, and it can destroy the lives that remain after a loved one leaves if we don’t allow ourselves to heal properly.

Don’t force it.

Worrying about the future -- professional accomplishments, money, and success, will consume my days if I focus solely on a timetable I alone must control. Take a breath. Take a step back. See it from another angle.

Don’t force it.

My children are playing more video games and have their noses stuck in a device more than I ever would normally allow. It’s testing my OCD, something fierce. Their summer is a mess -- a disaster -- if I focus on everything they aren’t able to do. I can drive them and myself batty, trying to douse this shit show with too much potpourri -- if I try to gloss over our collective disappointment. Let them feel the loss and let them witness the cream rise to the top. Let the laughter, when it happens, be so bold we remember it and not the sorrow. Don’t push an idea before it's ready to be received.

Don’t force it, Annie.

I refuse to buy a personalized mask because I don’t want to normalize something that could harm my mother. So I keep buying disposable masks in defiance. It’s a mini-tantrum that is about as dumb as it sounds because if I try to explain it, I’m already losing. I can’t hate coronavirus away. Or force peace of mind. It is scary. Buy a damn mask and have faith in your choices, Annie.

Don’t force it.

It may take me a year to work off these seven pounds. Or they may be here to stay. Don’t force it, just keep working at it. I can’t go wrong there. People will discourage me every day with judgments, assumptions, and what I think is the wrong side of history. I can’t force my opinions on them. I can only pray my example moves whatever obstructs progress. My children might grow up to be mathematicians, and I’ll have to learn to appreciate trigonometry. Or they may play ice hockey and I’ll have to get cozy with cold temps. I can’t force my future for them on them. I can just try my best to not raise future assholes. My home may never smell as good as the next person’s. My dogs may never be perfectly trained. I may have weeds in my garden for the rest of my life. Don’t force it. Try again and again and in due time, the pieces will fit into place.

Forcing it is the stuff of nightmares.

I know enough to know that often the most toxic voices in our life are the ones in our head -- the whispers, urges, and temptations to rush the perfection of something that is complicated. I can’t force a spatula to lose its shape. I can’t force every plug to fit in every outlet with ease. I can’t force people, time, or the future to bend to my will. I can’t even force myself to change. But I can force myself into misery and my impatience can force me to break before I learn to function. Pop had another saying: “Garbage in, garbage out.” If we take in enough toxins, all we’ll ever emit is toxins. If we fill every breath and every thought with that which angers us, then all we’ll ever contribute is anger. I don’t know how soon my dreams will go back to normal or whether or not I’ll ever find a clean bathroom, but there is at least one voice in my head that is pure and healthy and one that remained positive until its last breath in this world. I think I’ll listen to that one from now on.

Keep praying for us, Pop.

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Annie D. Stutley

the short story

Back in 2017, “That Time You” took its first steps—a blog that humorously and inspiringly chronicled the chaos of everyday life. It was a canvas for what I referred to as “gaffes with glory” (what others may call hot mess success tales) and also resolutions for how to tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges, plus personal victories within the daily hustle. I've never had all the answers, and truth be told, I still don't. Yet, I spoke the language of the Hot Mess and Walking Disaster, understanding that we don't need to have it all figured out or succeed at everything to truly grasp our purpose.

However, 2021 brought a drastic turn: I faced a Stage 3 cancer diagnosis and tragically lost my mother during my sixth round of chemotherapy. My path forward seemed impossible. Stumbling took on a whole new weight—it became a burden I struggled to carry in a place where trust felt elusive. “That Time You” evolved at that point because I evolved. Stripped of my plans and the future I had envisioned, I found solace in my one constant: my faith.

Since surviving cancer (and the loss of a parent for the second time in a two-year period), I transitioned into a full-time editing role and also poured my energy into contributing monthly to three different magazines. “That Time You” was put on a purposeful pause—two years for recovery, rediscovery, and revision. I'm gearing up for a relaunch. This time around, whatever I share with you will be rooted in the wealth of experiences I’ve gained over the past three years, because sometimes stumbling becomes an essential part of our path, forcing us to dust off our fuzzy socks and bravely venture forward, wiser.

“That Time You” lives on, on this site, and I do promise to continue to share my misadventures with meaning and celebrate blunders alongside triumphs. Yet, I’ll be chronicling the certain enlightenment amidst life's darkness—a testament to faith and, hopefully, a guide for uncovering God's presence in every situation, whether it's the mundane or the profoundly challenging.


Thank you for being a part of this journey.

Much love,


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