A pattern is emerging: even years are nightmare years. 2018 was a nightmare year. 2020 was a real fucking nightmare year. And now 2022 was a nightmare year.

2022 was a year of death, organizing chaos, once again putting our lives on hold to deal with family medical emergencies, cancer surgery, illness, unrelenting stress, mental breakdowns, and doing our absolute damndest to protect our daughter from it all.

Imagine you run a marathon and limp over the finish line. Just as you catch your breath and take a sip of water, someone yells “Alright, time to run the next marathon!” and shoves you onto the starting line. You somehow summon your energy reserves to finish that next marathon. As you collapse over the finish line for the second time, a person points a gun at you and yells “Alright, next marathon!” And so you limp over to the starting line once again…and so on, and so on. That’s what the last five-ish years has felt like for my family.

This year we lost Ziggy. For those that know us, Ziggy was more than just a dog. He was a huge part of our lives, so this really hit home. After tucking Ella in, Ziggy seemed to hover over her as if to say goodbye. Shortly after, he started having a hard time breathing so we raced him to the hospital. In a panic, we pulled into the wrong parking lot, so Ziggy died in my arms as I sprinted down a hill towards the hospital door. I now have that moment permanently seared into my brain.

Six days later, we found ourselves driving 90 miles an hour down I-95 to Williamsburg, VA in the middle of the night because we got the call that Melissa’s dad had collapsed. We raced to the hospital so she’d so she could say goodbye before he died. He passed away a few hours later.

The situation around his death can only be described as complete chaos. There was a funeral to coordinate without any real help, affairs in total disarray, some really lousy drama, an evil financial advisor straight out of a shitty movie, and to top it all off, my in-laws’ deck collapsed right in the middle of everything. It was an absolute mess.

In the aftermath, my mother-in-law and her cat came to live with us in our active-construction-zone house. I scrambled to finish the giant drywall project I was in the middle of, which was adjacent to the kitchen remodel we were in the middle of. After a few months, she headed home.

In August, we finally got COVID, which for me didn’t amount to too much but really laid Melissa out for a solid week. Thankfully, Ella didn’t get it and I’m so grateful there don’t seem to be any long-term effects for us. But what was scarier is that my parents got COVID, and my dad suddenly couldn’t speak properly. He’d try to say a sentence, and just couldn’t get the words out. It was really scary, and the symptoms stuck around for a while before ultimately receding.

Just as things were starting to settle down a bit, Melissa’s mom suddenly was doubled over in pain. After being passed around to different doctors with no progress to show, Melissa went down to Virginia to help get her proper care. Tests were done, and through the mobile app Melissa got the news: her mom had ovarian cancer. (Side note: finding out someone has cancer through test results on a mobile app with no accompanying human conversation is extremely shitty.)

The soonest oncologist appointment she could get in Virginia was a month and a half out (which is absolutely ludicrous), so our sister-in-law connected us with the head of the ovarian cancer center up here in Pittsburgh. After a brief call, my wife raced her mom up to Pittsburgh. We admitted her into the hospital on Monday, had a meeting on Wednesday, and had surgery that Saturday. According to the surgeon, my wife quite literally saved her mom’s life. She stayed with us through her recovery and we returned her back to Virginia just a few days ago.

Throughout these experiences our bodies and minds fell apart multiple times and honestly haven’t been put back together yet. I broke my 38-year streak of staying away from the emergency room because my stomach got super distended, my arms went numb, and I thought I was going to pass out or have a heart attack. Stress response! Unfortunately my health scare triggered a reactionary stress response in Melissa, which caused another breakdown. It’s like dueling banjos, but with scary health shit! Our nervous systems are shot, and the main thing we need is time and space to rest, recover, and heal.

On top of all of this, 2022 made me aware of the real loss I’ve experienced over the last number of years. My life used to entail hatching ideas and executing creative work, traveling to a bunch of conferences, having intellectually-stimulating conversations with friends and fascinating people, and having novel experiences with my loved ones. That’s largely been replaced with handling logistics, endless conversations about mental health in order to keep our heads above water, and a bone-deep exhaustion that makes even the thought of venturing out into the world a repulsive one. While it’s not entirely true, I’m feeling like I’ve lost some of the prime years of my life to these seemingly-endless crises.

The Good

In what’s become a year-in-review tradition, I have to remind myself that the year wasn’t all bad. Despite all the acute stressors and trauma, I am overflowing with gratitude. I feel like I have a crystal-clear picture of what matters in life, and don’t take any of it for granted. Of course I wish I could have arrived at that outlook without running my nervous system through a paper shredder, but I am grateful for the perspective nonetheless.

The big Good, Great, Amazing Thing in my life is Ella. She is energetic, smart, beautiful, goofy, imaginative, witty, and really coming into her own. It’s so incredibly exciting and rewarding to see her blossom into her own person. It’s taken an immense amount of work to shield her from all the shit we’ve had to deal with, so I’m proud of the work we’ve done to create an environment for our daughter to thrive despite everything. I’m so grateful for my family — especially my mom — who’s given Ella so many fun experiences and helped in countless ways.

In addition to a great spring break trip with friends old and new, I also took a mini sabbatical this summer, which provided me much-needed time and space to get my feet back under me. I don’t really know how I would have survived this latest challenging chapter if I didn’t have that break.

Also, music! I played my first live gig in nearly 15 years with my wife, brother, and cousin as a surprise birthday present for my sister’s 40th birthday. We played a mix-tape of my sister’s favorite music, including TLC, Ace of Base, Coldplay, and of course Queen.

My friend and I also helped coordinate an informal 15-year college reunion get together. It’s taken me a long time to realize I didn’t have a conventional college experience; I played music for hours on end for a bunch of hippies in a sweaty basement. So we got those hippies together again! I filled a U-Haul trailer with all of our music gear and set it up at an Airbnb in Virginia. The extraordinary weekend of love and music between great friends is one I won’t forget for a long time.

We also remodeled our kitchen, which entailed knocking out a couple walls and really opening up our space. Our house is starting to feel like our house instead of the one we moved into. Having a great space for gathering and cooking has really come in handy, especially with my mother-in-law staying with us for a few long stretches.

And on the work front, we had a super successful — and busy! — year. JoshJessiIan, myself, and a growing group of amazing collaborators continue to evolve and do great work for our clients. We continue to help big, complex organizations solve big, complex problems with design systems. We dive into the deep end of our clients’ cultures to understand their specific challenges and opportunities. We then collaborate with our clients to craft and evolve design systems that are custom fit for the organization’s DNA in order to solve their thorny problems. And all of this is done through the lens of teaching the team how to fish so that they can continue to be successful long after we’re gone. It’s extremely fulfilling work and I’m excited to continue to help teams in the new year. If your organization needs design system help, feel free to get in touch!

But above all, I’m so grateful for Josh, Jessi, Ian, and the rest of my collaborators and clients for their ongoing understanding, patience, and support through this year’s craziness. They continue to hold down the fort and create the space I need to heal and recover, and I’m forever indebted to them.

2022 by the numbers

  • Wrote 12 posts on my blog, which ties 2021 and 2020 for all-time low blogging output. :/
  • Shared 43 links on my site, which is an improvement from last year.
  • Spoke at 1 conference (Smashing Conf San Francisco), gave 3 keynote presentations at different companies, and gave 7 company and conference workshops
  • Consulted with 12 clients, helping them create and evolve their design systems
  • Built 4 enterprise-wide design systems with Fortune 500 companies
  • Processed 1,567 ebook orders of Atomic Design
  • Traveled 13,735 miles to 8 cities in 2 countries on 1 continent.
  • Read 25 books, a big jump in reading activity compared to prior years. This pleases me.

What’s next?

My natural disposition is overwhelmingly optimistic, but at this point, my body is conditioned to just expect the next tragedy/trauma/terrible shit to befall me and my family. I now view any hope or glimmer of positivity with skepticism, and it’s going to take a long stretch of calm before I can think about letting my guard down. That’s pretty depressing, but it’s where I’m at right now.

As for goals, my overwhelming desire is for bad shit to stop happening to my family. That’s really it. We just need a (hopefully extremely long) stretch of calm in order for us to recover and heal. Here’s where my mind is at for 2023:

  • Get healthy – We’ve been pummeled, so above all we need to focus on repairing our minds and bodies. This will be a long road and will take a lot of work to protect our time and energy.
  • Unapologetic selfishness – we’ve been of service to others for a long stretch at great expense to our own health and wellbeing. Guilt is a powerful force in our lives, but I think 2022 finally gave us permission to shed the guilt and look after ourselves.
  • Ease – If there’s a single word that sums up our wishes, it’s “ease”. We need things to be easy, and need to recalibrate our lives to create ease.
  • Downshifting – I’ve been working towards downshifting in my work life for years, and 2023 is the year to start acting on it. I don’t have a detailed plan in place yet, but the gist for now is that I’m going to shift to a 4-day work week, and will be taking a sabbatical for a few months at some point this year. More to come.
  • Rediscovering purpose – I know I have a ton of potential as a human being and life circumstances have held me back. I’m feeling a strong urge to really dig into my own mind to rediscover who I am and evaluate how I want to operate in life.
  • Music – I’ve been tinkering away by myself for years now, but playing music in 2022 made me realize how incredibly fun and rewarding it is to play music in front of other people. I’d love to play more music with people and have a lot more fun.

Whew! If you’re still here, thanks for reading. I’m wishing you all the best things in 2023.