A Therapeutic Journey

I’ve had a lot of experiences in my life–some good, many not so good. In fact, recently, my therapist asked me to write down all the things that had a traumatic effect on my life and the negative stories I have told myself about myself because of them. It was 3 full pages, beginning with my trauma in utero, to child abuse, medical traumas, witnessing suicide, experiencing traumatic deaths, abuse from my church, bullying, abandonment, cancer, divorce, sexual harassment at work, and much more. More than that, I have had some pretty repetitive stories I have told myself that shattered my self-esteem. I have experienced the gambit of traumatic experiences, and I am alive to talk about it. However, I had a lot of trouble working through all of it because I would feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what had gone on in my life. This often made me dizzy, and it definitely had me buzzing at a very anxious frequency. Because I am a medical nerd, I now have functional MRIs to show that it substantially changed the way my brain takes in information. In fact, scientists are now using machine learning to predict how different traumatic experiences will impact the areas of the brain. My parasympathetic nervous system has been underutilized for so long that calming down has been a struggle for me. My poor brain–it was only trying to protect me from some very real dangers. I was fed to the wolves more than once.

How did these things manifest? Well, I had a LOT of seizures and migraines, and I could barely hold my bladder, from as long ago as I can remember–which coincides directly with childhood traumas. I’m not interested in focusing on that, though. What I want to say is that my physical health was very much affected by my trauma-based responses. My seizures were even psychogenic in nature. I was rarely in a safe environment, and, therefore, I never actually was able to get my basic needs met as a child. That then didn’t allow me to accept love and belonging. That didn’t allow me to trust the way others were socialized to.

Since age 12, I have been seeing a therapist. First, therapists from LDS Family Services, then I was admitted at 15 to an inpatient facility for suicidal ideation and attempt. Upon discharge, I started seeing a psychiatrist and was heavily medicated. I was told I would have to “manage my hormonal imbalance” the rest of my life. I was a bit of a pill popper to numb the pain, so that sounded fine with me–at least my habit was regulated and paid for by insurance. On and off, I saw some cognitive behavioral therapists after that. And then I met Christie. I was a grad student at Portland State University, and I thought something was wrong with me because I had lost my libido. This opened up the world for me to understand the mind-body connection. At the time, I was married, but, because my husband was a pretty serious addict, I rarely trusted him, perpetuating the environment I had experienced as a child, and, therefore removing any chance of intimacy. Christie helped me navigate through a divorce, not my intimacy issues, for 16 sessions…and then the insurance ran out. That’s called “Solution-Focused Therapy,” and it doesn’t work for someone with prolonged trauma or a chronic mental illness.

After that time, Shelley came into my life. It took me 3 years to even feel comfortable enough with Shelley to even tell her I had been raped at 12 years old, let alone all the other things I had witnessed. But she helped me feel safe at the moment and managed my day to day trauma, which was helpful for me to understand that I could trust someone with my secrets. That I wouldn’t be judged or lied to. In the end, however, Shelley kept secrets from me and ended up very abruptly moving, without me being able to process it. I had been abandoned again. I think after that, though, I learned that I could have a therapist be a facilitator of me navigating through my trauma.

And then I met Sarah. Sarah has a very special place in my heart, as she taught me the neuroscience behind complex post traumatic stress disorder. She taught me to check in with my body. She taught a healthy partner of mine how to be a supportive partner, despite him having trouble relating to my experiences. She taught me how to have coping skills for the first time. Before Sarah, I didn’t go a week without intense suicidal ideation, without feeling like I was experiencing too much, feeling too much. Sarah taught me that it’s okay and even healthy to be angry, that suicidal ideation doesn’t mean I want to die but, rather, something has to die, and she taught me how to begin the journey out of codependency. I spent 4 years with Sarah, and it’s because of her I have become strong enough to create boundaries, to remove people from my life, to add people back in, to challenge my own perceptions…to GET ANGRY…to fall madly and deeply in love. She taught me what emotions were like and how to move through the spectrum of emotions. Not only did she stabilize my day to day interactions, but she encouraged me to dig in and face my faulty perceptions head-on. She helped me navigate a terrible break-up from the partner she worked with to support me, she helped me through the new traumas occurring, and she held my hand through the scary places I had to navigate. Then, I moved to San Francisco. In my last month of sessions with Sarah, she strongly encouraged me to find a therapist trained in a specific modality…not because Family Systems Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy weren’t working for me, but because I was finally ready to let go of those traumas and experience a new life.

On February 9, 2016, I met Linda, a renown therapist in San Francisco and an expert in the modality Sarah urged me to undergo. We worked intensely together from the start, but because I had such a complex case of PTSD, there were so many things that had to be set up prior to actually starting the practice of this modality. On May 24, 2016, nearly 3 months after establishing our relationship, I started a processing technique called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Linda is absolutely not Sarah–she’s a blunt New Yorker who shuts me down when I self-victimize. She balks at my cognitive distortions, and she exposes me to myself. To put it bluntly, she doesn’t take my shit. At first, and some days, I hate it…and her. But she’s an expert in EMDR, with over 25 years experience in a modality that only started about 35 years ago. And not only did Sarah recommend the modality, but there are an overwhelming amount of systematic reviews on the modality saying it’s the most effective for actually healing the brain from those pesky wiring problems that complex PTSD suffers from. EMDR is a way to re-wire and replace faulty wiring in our nervous system, and Linda is my electrician. I may not like the way she approaches me, but she’s the best electrician around–she gets the job done. I spend a grueling 4 hours a week with Linda, processing piece by piece the ugly parts of my life. I intensely focus on painful memories in order to fully grieve them. I cry ugly cries and fume with anger (though that is still painfully difficult for me). I am guided through intense feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, suicidal ideation, pain, sadness, fear, panic, numbness, and discomfort. And, what’s worse, when I get home from EMDR, I am completely beat–like I have run a marathon with no finish line in sight. And, at times, I have to go home and grieve all alone for hours or even days. Sometimes, I think, “What have I gotten myself into? Is this worth it?” And this process has pushed people away from me because I have struggled to predict the way my emotions come out sideways. These emotions hurt unsuspecting victims, they have burdened and terrified friends and lovers, they have caused me to doubt my strength and my readiness to let go of the painful parts of my past. But, one foot in front of the other, every session, every week, I am still slogging through. And in between, I am self-soothing and re-parenting myself and re-experiencing life. And, though tired, I feel absolutely authentic and vulnerable and…CONTENT.

Many people who see me now, after 6 weeks in reprocessing, have stated that I am different–that I’m glowing, that I seem happier and healthier. That it’s like I had this huge change overnight. And I thought so too–after 3 sessions, I felt more free and childlike than I ever have in my life. After 6 sessions, I felt safe enough to wander my neighborhood alone, to meet people, to go to movies and dinner and drinks alone or with new friends. After 8 sessions, I began asking for help, thanking people, and making amends. I have let go of wounds I thought were so deep that they’d never be healed. I’ve begun to stop questioning my worth and start living my life without wondering what others think about it. I’ve become sharper and more effective in the workplace and more vulnerable and authentic with friends and family. I’ve felt the pain of the past but also the present moment, and I have openly grieved. I feel renewed. Even Linda has observed a striking difference, and last week, after a particularly painful session, she stopped me simply to tell me that she is so amazed at my strength, at my bravery. It was, perhaps, the greatest compliment I have ever received.

But to those who have not walked through this full journey with me, which is the majority of individuals in my life, this transformation from larva to butterfly, from cocooned and restricted individual to the free bird I appear to be now, seems like it simply couldn’t be possible. Like it just can’t be real or lasting. I thought that too–that the other shoe would drop and I would be right back to anxiety attacks and feeling unsafe, to seizures and migraines and instability. I thought that too. But then my mother simply stated to me, “Blonde, you have been working on being at this point for 20 years. You have worked so hard at this! And now, you’re ready to let the past go! This isn’t something new–look at how far you’ve come. I’m so happy for you.” This most definitely replaced that last greatest compliment I have ever received. And she’s so right–I have wanted to be in the place where I can love myself fully, where I can be present, where I can love others, where I can accept help and also give it, where I can not feel broken, for so long…and I had subscribed to the belief that I would always be wounded. My favorite Third Eye Blind sing, Wounded, says, “Back down the bully to the back of the bus/’Cause it’s time for them to be scared of us/’Till you’re yelling, how we living cause you got the ball/Then you rock on baby, rock on, you rock on, on and on”. That’s the stage I’m in now-this bullied girl is bullied no more by those things I have shouldered for far too long. I thought I was trapped in this cocoon, only to realize that the cocoon was preparing me to fly.

By the end of the year, Linda wants to graduate me. She is helping me see that once we let go of the hold our past has on us, we don’t need to subscribe to the same triggers. The same line of thinking. Deepak Chopra says, “Instead of thinking outside of the box, get rid of the box.” I had a partner who once told me I was good at “seeing the angles”. The problem is that I never was able to see the angles that didn’t need to be there. I struggled with low self-esteem and always asked for reassurance. This was a difficult issue for us, as I just felt so lost in my footing as I started removing the layers of my cocoon. Now, while that footing isn’t always sure, I am sure of the new path. Chopra also states, “The best way to get rid of the pain is to feel the pain. And when you feel the pain and go beyond it, you’ll see there’s a very intense love that is wanting to awaken itself.” More than I could imagine, that intense love is breaking through, and, boy is it vibrant! I cannot wait to pour my love into work, my family, my friends and their children, myself, and into someone else with whom I can begin a therapeutic journey all our own-hand in hand, with cartwheels and laughter and quiet moments galore.

Thank you for being a part of my therapeutic journey. For allowing me to share in my vulnerability. For being a place where I can process, where I can evaluate all the angles. Where I can reinvent and show up every time authentically. I am excited to share the brilliance in my time as a new butterfly-my metamorphosis-knowing it will not always be easy, but it will be authentic. For those experiencing heartache and heartbreak: don’t give up–you’re nearly through.

Love,

Blonde

PS. It’s ok to ask for help.

Nuclear Tourism, WWF & Old Westerns

On this day last year, the earth lost a legend. He was mostly soft spoken, from what I remember, but I am sure to the troops he led in the Marine Corps, there is a different perspective on that. He served in Korea and Vietnam in the infantry and as military police. He was shot three times, and as a child he’d let me feel the bullets still lodged on either side of his spine. Most notably, in our family rhetoric, he was shot in the buttock diving into a fox hole. He embodied Semper Fidelis, the Marine motto, in all things he did. He served his country honorably, even earning a purple heart, but that’s not why he’s a legend.

Murray McKinnon entered my family in 1948, when my mother was just about a year old. He loved my grandmother fiercely, and he cared for my mother’s children like they were his own grandchildren. I know he and my mother had some trouble at times, but he taught her all the things a father would and protected her against (most) boys he thought were not good enough. He was the perfect model of a stepfather, which then allowed me, as a child receiving a stepfather, to feel confident that I could be loved in the same way, blood or no blood. His love story with my grandmother was absolutely the best I’ve heard and most definitely the best I’ve seen–married from age 20 until death, and hopefully death does not even part them. He was the man behind family trips and wilderness adventures. He took my grandmother all over the world after retirement because, as he once told me, “The purpose to life is to see everything, to do it all.”

Murray McKinnon was my “Papa”. We spent a lot of time together while I grew up, and I was able to have some really fantastic memories with him. It was never really apparent to me that he wasn’t my mom’s real father, as he was the only one around (my mother’s father died in Vietnam). Some of my favorite memories of Papa were when he’d tell me stories about how he and his brother would ride dragonflies on roller skates, how they’d go on wild adventures fighting bears. He was a fantastic storyteller with a wild, hilarious imagination, and I would sit at his feet, playing with Lincoln Logs, enthralled by what would come next. I was fortunate enough to live close to my grandparents growing up–about a 15 minute drive, and I was there to clean their house or for a family gathering pretty often. I struggled getting along with my grandmother even as a small child, but Papa kept me coming back. After I cleaned their house (making probably about $10 for the indoors and outdoors…), we’d sit in the living room, where I learned all about Macho Man, Hulk Hogan, and my other favorite World Wrestling Federation wrestlers. Then, we’d watch Bonanza, Highway to Heaven, and the A-Team after that. He told me he was giving me a “cultural experience” every time we watched TV together. But I think the thing I loved most was watching old westerns with him, especially John Wayne movies (his favorite), where it was clear he’d memorized all the best parts. Half the time I watched the movie, and half the time I would just watch him. He was such a cowboy that the house was decorated in John Wayne pictures, turquoise, landscapes of the old West, cowboy boots, among other things. He even sneezed, “Yeehaw!”, shaking the entire house. At first those things scared me, but then they were the things I looked forward to most. That and being named his “favorite”, which all the cousins competed for over time. He was the heart and soul of my family.

I was the youngest grandchild and came pretty far after the next youngest, which means that my grandparents were quite old when I came around–my mother was nearly 40 when I was born, so that meant they were 60, about to retire, about to plan the adventure into the “Golden Years”. My Papa really did believe in “work hard, play hard,” and the Golden Years were going to be all about play and all about time with Gramma. And then there was me. By the time I was old enough to go on wilderness adventures and road trips, I didn’t have a familial partner (my other siblings and cousins were much closer in age), and my grandparents were struggling with even the thought of going on road trips themselves–all the driving caught up to Papa after a while. But I had been looking forward to it, and he really wanted to give me the opportunity.

In summer of 1996, I was given my opportunity to road trip with my grandparents. Papa was on a hunt for more turquoise from a trading post in Eastern Arizona, they had planned to see a nuclear testing site they hadn’t gotten to in New Mexico, and my cousin needed to be picked up to go home from working in the Grand Canyon for the summer as a server. And, of course, I wanted the opportunity to see how the West was won with the man who taught me to love it. We set off while I was still asleep, with Papa transferring me from the guest room to the car, and by the time I awoke, we were in the Western Arizona desert. I hadn’t seen many national parks, not even Yosemite, so we stopped at them all. That, coupled with all the nuclear testing sites between San Diego and Amarillo, Texas, made for the trip and adventure of a lifetime. With Papa’s stories and jokes leading the way. Most notable:

  • He bought me a bat at Carlsbad Caverns. He enrolled me as a Junior Ranger for a day. We saw the bats leave the caverns at dusk. I fell in love with rocks and understood the difference between stalactites and stalagmites. We made up stories about my bat, and he even helped me with a letter to the new family addition.
  • He took me to Roswell, New Mexico, Area 54, and Meteor Crater. We stayed on military bases and took tours of the radiation grounds. We even got clearance to drive out to where the Manhattan Project first camped while testing the atomic bomb.
  • He added to my beach sand collection with stolen sand from White Sands Monument, where we played for hours, sliding down the dunes and climbing back up them. He told me we were “surfing”.

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  • Not only did he let me have adventures and play like a kid, but he played like a kid himself, pulling out a Mexican blanket from the car and riding down the dunes himself, filled with laughter. This was one of the best things to see–that even when you grow up, you can be playful.

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  • He took me to Lincoln, New Mexico, where Billy the Kid was shot. We went on tours of the town to all the places they chased him. Then, we headed to Santa Fe to look at art and community gardens and where Kit Carson laid his head to rest. We spent a full day looking at art and architecture from New Mexico and marveled over the pottery of such greats as Maria Martinez (my now favorite potter) and carvings from the Anasazi tribes. He giggled at Georgia O’Keefe paintings and made my grandmother blush. He taught me the history of the Southwest that sparked my infatuation with Southwest and Anasazi art and architecture. In New Mexico, I met Kokopelli and adopted him as my guide. Papa solidified this spirit guide with my very own silver ring, welded down to my size, at the same trading post where he found his favorite turquoise ring.

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  • We ended our tour in the Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon, where I was able to have a partner for the last day of the trip. We circumnavigated the Rim and spent way too long in the gift shop. He told me that one day, I needed to hike down into the Canyon and go white-water rafting…something still on my bucket list. He taught me respect for National Parks, the appropriate use of sunscreen while still tanning, and to never leave a trace. And throughout all of this, he made my grandmother laugh and giggle and smile.

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This trip came at a time before much of the pain in my life accumulated. Soon after this trip, I began to withdraw and never gave the trip we had together the reverence it deserved. My Papa lost the ability to have adventures soon after this, with a stroke, and unfortunately, we didn’t have another outing like this again. In all honesty, this trip changed my life completely. Never would I have begun to love Southwest art and art history, never would I have spent the time wondering why he made so many jokes at the Georgia O’Keefe museum, never would I have been enchanted by the New Mexico desert, never would I have fallen in love with camping, hiking, and exploring. Never would I have been ready for my summer the next year, staying on the Navajo reservation with Vanessa’s family. Never would I have kept up my rock and sand collection with so much care.

For a few years, the rift between my grandmother and myself (and my grandmother and my mother), mostly driven by ego, caused me to stay away from my grandparents’ home. My heart had an emptiness and longing for time with Papa. I began to shut off the sense of wonder he had fostered inside of me. While I saw my grandparents over the years, the pain and shame I held inside from not getting help for my trauma cut off the relationship I could have fostered with them as they aged.

Early last year, my mother and I discussed how I would like to be there for them and make sure they felt empowered at end of life. We’d planned a trip to gather my aunt, uncle and grandparents together to really talk. But my diagnosis of cancer pushed out that timeline, and I was unable to even be part of the family reunion that occurred in July 2015 in San Diego because I wasn’t cleared to fly. During that family reunion, Papa died. And I never was able to reconcile, tell him what he meant, or to say goodbye. While I was trying to be happy about no longer having cancer, I felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest. The heart of the family was gone in an instant.

From that experience, I learned so many lessons, but two I think are the most critical. First, you never know how long you have with someone. Be vulnerable, love freely and deeply, communicate, and fight through the struggle you may have. Never put off what you could do today. It’s just not worth it. Second, cherish the ways in which you are fundamentally entwined with another person. Over the last month or so, I have realized that I am my Papa’s granddaughter. So much of what we shared lives on in me, which means that he lives on. Which means that he never really left me at all. There is comfort in knowing that we imprint upon others, for good and for bad, and it’s just so much better to imprint the good on this world. Papa definitely did that for me. Papa taught me unconditional love. He taught me that we all make choices, and that those choices affect others. He taught me to love Duane ‘The Rock’ Johnson, to have great belly laughs, and to play miniature golf. He chose to treat me the same way as my cousins, even though I wasn’t his blood. He chose to love my mother as his daughter, to the best of his ability. He chose to share his love for the world and appreciation for the world freely and without shame, so that others could love it too. He chose laughter, storytelling, and kindness over the intense stoicism he had been taught in the military.

I am honored that his life is something I can teach others, that I can carry on his legacy to share with my friends, loved ones, and especially the next generation of my family. Today, my brother brought into the world a beautiful baby girl–the first grandchild that will never know Papa. We all have the responsibility to share the legacy of him that lives inside of us and ensure that part of their understanding is the importance of WWF, nuclear tourism, and old Westerns.

I love you, Papa. Happy Trails ’til we meet again.

Love,

Blonde

Feed the Ego

This weekend has been a bit of a whirlwind. I was around family for the day and was able to come to a new sense of space in my heart. There is magic that happens when you can let go of things that were never meant to be held onto in the first place. With my family, I was able to draw easy boundaries, be present, and not be so impacted by anxiety or overwhelm. I was able to listen and be a friend. And when a work call started to derail that, I found myself being defensive of my time and presence with my family…so I drew a boundary. And another one. So that I could hear my niece laugh, so that I could ask my sister-in-law how she was feeling, so I could laugh and giggle at conveyor belt sushi with a dear one. So that I could be present and have fun and enjoy life.

For the last 6 weeks since I began stage 3 and 4 of EMDR, I have also coupled that intense trauma work with a meditative practice. It coincided with my getting back to nature during a weekend trip with my partner, and I was able to take a lot of time away to listen to sounds I hadn’t heard in a long time: the wind in the trees, lightning bugs, crickets, rustling of leaves, waves crashing on the shore, sand being moved by the wind…so many sounds of my childhood that broke my heart open into a million pieces…so many pieces of joy and fear and contentment. I found that the more I could listen and sit in the stillness, the more I wanted it. The more I wanted to sit in that beautiful, sacred emptiness. For the most part…until ego crept in where the fear was.

These two things are related–trauma and emptiness. Trauma is held due to the tight connection with ego. Trauma is bound up in a sense of identity (this is MY STORY). In order to let go of that, you in many ways must let go of the need to have a sense of identity. This is where the meditative practice comes in-when you are able to create space to just notice your feelings and feel them right away, then our stories are those things occurring in the moment. And what is life but a series of moments?

Ego is a funny thing; often, the collision of egos halts the development of relationships even before they begin. This happens in our lives everywhere–from the relationship that ended because I didn’t want to ask for help and he was overwhelmed, to the misunderstanding in a business deal between two people I have great respect for who don’t want to meet in the middle because of their strong need to own identity AS IS, to the public displays of violence against African Americans, Muslims, police officers and homeless. Ryan Holiday, author of Ego is the Enemy, states “ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success. It repulses advantages and opportunities. It’s a magnet for enemies and errors. It is Scylla and Charybdis.” How true this is.

I am professionally quite successful. This has not come without some serious bumps along the way, and, looking back, they were tied to ego. I was so blindly invested in my own plans and ideas that I did not consider the feelings of others around the table. Ego puts blinders on us so that we cannot consider others in the way they should be considered. I’ve found that, since doing the work of letting go of the stories I have told myself and shifting perceptions to let go of those things I couldn’t change, the type of work that fills me with significant joy is the work where I either get to highlight the work of others or considerably help others with their goals. And, to my initial surprise, the work I have contributed on has been the most successful work of my (early) career. I spent 3 years banging my head against a wall only to let go these last 6 weeks and have everything go smoothly.

Personally, however, I have struggled with allowing people to help me until I was able to process through the loss of my dear Vanessa. You see, the part of the story I leave out, and the most painful part that I processed through, was the fact that V’s dad asked me to collect memories of her from people at school for her ceremony on the reservation that released her soul. A ceremony in which I was unable to participate. I did that, I collected stories, but I had to have a conversation with myself, divorcing my grief and emotions to become task-oriented. From that point on, asking for help became something that I just couldn’t do. It was more important for me to be stoic and “have it all together” than to be emotionally supported. I even told myself stories that I was not lovable enough for people to care about me. That had to do with me not processing the anger of not having my best friend to comfort me through the death of our other friend. I needed her, and she wasn’t there. I needed comfort, and it wasn’t there. Rather than address the shadowy part of myself (anger and grief), I let my ego win. And, in stressful situations, I have done just that-I’ve become my ego.

In her research, Brene Brown has found that the ego-takeover manifests in a few specific ways:

  1. Chandeliering: “We maintain our prized stoicism in front of the people we want to impress or influence, but the second we’re around people over whom we have emotional, financial, or physical power, we explode.”
  2. Bouncing Hurt: “The ego doesn’t own stories or want to write new endings; it denies emotion and hates curiosity. Instead, the ego uses stories as armor and alibis…like all good hustlers, our egos employ crews of ruffians in case we don’t comply with their demands. Anger, blame, and avoidance are the ego’s bouncers. Often the first hustle is putting down and shaming others for their lack of ’emotional control’.” (this is my go-to manifestation of ego)
  3. Numbing Hurt: “We can take the edge off emotional pain with a whole bunch of stuff, including alcohol, drugs, food, sex, relationships, money, work, caretaking, gambling, affairs, religion, chaos, shopping, planning, perfectionism, constant change, and the Internet (or Pokemon GO, perhaps?)…But no matter what we use, we can’t selectively numb emotions–when we numb the dark, we also numb the light.”
  4. Stockpiling Hurt: “Stockpiling starts like chandeliering, with us firmly packing down the pain, but here, we just continue to amass hurt until the wisest parts of us, our bodies, decide that enough is enough…The idea that we’re ‘only as sick as our secrets’ is more than an adage; there’s growing evidence that not owning and integrating our stories affects not just our emotional health but also our physical well-being.”

Meditation is made up largely of breathwork, which engages our parasympathetic nervous system enough to disengage the ego enough to allow the body to actually feel emotion. So, while the trauma begins to let go its hold, the breathwork allows the individual to process through actual emotion on a much deeper level. In fact, religious rituals from all parts of the world have elements of this breath work and engagement with both our sacrum and our diaphragm. The best examples of this are ritualized prayer and vocal music. These both focus on breathing techniques that allow us to focus, align our values, and feel deeply.

Holiday goes on to relate that, “When we remove ego, we’re left with what is real. What replaces ego is humility, yes—but rock-hard humility and confidence. Whereas ego is artificial, this type of confidence can hold weight. Ego is stolen. Confidence is earned. Ego is self-anointed, its swagger is artifice. One is girding yourself, the other gaslighting. It’s the difference between potent and poisonous.” This is a truly beautiful statement and couldn’t be more what I have begun to feel. Ego lifts your shoulders to your ears, while confidence rolls them to align with your spine. Confidence doesn’t need to be shouted. It is felt. There’s no anxiety in it. And, if you think about it, that is what the parable (or story) of Christ, Muhammad, Krishna, and the Buddha tell us: these men had confidence that came with wholehearted emotion. These men weren’t wealthy; in fact, they regularly gave away what they ended up amassing. They often went barefoot and unguarded. They were potent just as they were. They were completely vulnerable.

Two weeks ago I attended a service at Grace Cathedral. Then, last week, I attended yoga there. And this morning, I attended service again. Since starting EMDR and processing through the abuse I experienced at the hands of the church I attended as a child, and processing through my experience with Vanessa, I have been aching for some type of spirituality or connection to a greater purpose. I have been aching to serve others. Coincidentally enough (or divinely?) I stumbled in to hear a sermon by Rev. Jude Harmon reflecting on our nation’s independence. One sentence really struck me:

“If justice is what love looks like in public, then grace is what love looks like in person.”

Grace removes ego. “The thing about grace, this unexpected generosity, is that it opens our hearts and reorients us to hope.”

Now that I revel in these quiet moments, my laughter is more real, as are my tears. Life is fuller and I am more vulnerable. I can actually give proper awareness to when the ego creeps in, and I am sensitive to it. As this is new practice, I still make mistakes. I struggle. But what I do more than I ever have before is say these two phrases:

  1. I need help
  2. Thank you

And guess what? Not only do I mean those things, but people are much more responsive than when I off-loaded my pain onto them because of ego. Be careful, be cautious. The more vulnerable we are, the less we actually have to guard ourselves. The more I disempower ego, the more I love myself…even the parts of myself that aren’t the prettiest.

Family

As you might imagine, I’ve had some trouble with family and the safety of family in my past. That trouble, that childhood where I was stuck for so many years, has both helped me and hurt me, but overall, it has shaped me into the human I have become. For that, I can begin to have compassion with myself for the sticky spots I still have, for the areas in my past where I am still processing through, with the gentle awareness that I can be whomever I want to be in this moment now.

This weekend is a bit of a magical one for me–first, yesterday was the anniversary of my mother and stepfather. Second, today is my brother’s birthday. Third, tomorrow will be the last day my sister-in-law will be pregnant (scheduled cesarean early Monday morning). I’m acknowledging that these three events are so much more important to me this year than any other time. And I’m excited to share why.

In my previous post on Father’s Day, I talked a little about my stepfather. 27 years ago yesterday, he married my mother, and he married all of us kids too. 27 years ago, I was gifted an amazing gift that only recently have I been able to fully appreciate. The gift of presence, the gift of kindness, the gift of stability, the gift of unconditional love, the gift of family. While my stepfather not only got my mom but all of us, I also got my stepfather’s inspiring and loving family to call my own. Only very recently have I been able to realize that the only one standing in between my relationship with these amazing individuals was me. I felt so much pressure by my biological father and my siblings to stay separate from my stepfather that I never fully integrated. But they have always been there to love me, to care for me, to inspire me.

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My stepfather came from a wonderful home, with a mom who chose to be a mom even though she had a master’s degree and was a concert cellist. She taught her children to achieve, but not at the expense of enjoying their lives. She taught them to have a full spectrum of emotions. She taught them love.

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When my stepfather came into the picture, this was foreign to all of us. But because I was so young, I remember that my favorite times in my childhood were around him–playing bocce on the beach, playing croquet in the front yard, attending baseball games, cheering on local sports teams, learning new card games, playing handball, running in three legged races at company picnics, and hula hooping. We watched TGIF together, and he always imitated Steve Urkel. We rapped to the Fresh Prince together, we went to tons of movies. He was the best part of my childhood… Until I was told not to love him. Until I was told to choose him or my siblings in loyalty. Looking back now, I made the mistake of not choosing him. For their 27th anniversary, I choose him back. I choose him, I choose fun, I choose unconditional love. Because it chose me all those years ago… And it’s still there.

Two things have opened up my eyes to this experience even more than just my trauma work: I met someone whose traits mirrored those of my stepdad and I found myself profoundly grateful for the man who was my father the more I fell in love with that man I was dating. It really empowered me to grapple with those narratives about why I felt I needed to choose all those years ago. It empowered me to be curious about the choices and perceptions I have had in the past. It’s hard work, but I was so curious about the patterning between these two very important people in my life that I just wanted to dive deeper and deeper into my trauma to ensure that nothing could get in the way of enjoying the fun, silly parts of life.

The second reason for my increase in gratitude is that my brother, whose birthday it is today, married my sister-in-law a couple months back. She is pregnant with their first child, and is scheduled to have a cesarean in about 24 hours from now. My brother has two daughters from previous relationships, which means that my sister-in-law chose to be a step mom. At the wedding, my brother and sister in law also chose to include my nieces in the wedding, creating a new family, full of love and respect and admiration. The most beautiful, touching moment was my sister in law’s vows she wrote to my nieces. It was the most beautiful, inspiring, loving moment I have ever encountered at a wedding, and it caused me to reach behind me and grab my stepfather’s hand… Something I have never done before. That moment taught me how much of a choice it is for someone to choose a family that already is in place… To choose to come into something broken and make something new, together.

My brother, who doesn’t have the relationship I do with my stepfather, now has an understanding of how it feels to create a new family from something broken, and we’ve forged a bond together in vulnerability and bravery. And we’re not perfect at these new feelings by any means. What it teaches me, though, is that we’re all on such different timetables with regard to the lessons we learn. What’s important is to learn them… At any point. He’s an amazing father, someone who broke the cycle of abuse my father perpetuated. Now, he’s showing again his devotion to family to choose as a partner a woman so loving, so independent, so intelligent to be the mother and stepmother to his children. I’m so proud to be his sister, to be an aunt to his children, and I can only hope that one day, I can bring children and a partner into the family he and I are starting to recreate out of the rubble of the broken family from which we came. While we don’t always agree or get along, I now know that he understands the bond I have with my parents and the love that comes from that. He also is ridiculously supportive of my love for the mother of his other daughter, from whose home I’m typing this tonight. My sister in spirit, though no longer in law, and one of my dearest friends.

Family is what we make. Family is dynamic and fluid and frustrating. But family, at the end of the day, are those individuals who love you when the chips are low, when you need a good belly laugh, who you can trust with your vulnerability, with whom you can celebrate it all. I’m so grateful to be slowly identifying those who are my blood and not who are family. Every day is less lonely, every place more like home.

reckoning

What people don’t tell you about EMDR (properly administered, in the school of Francine Shapiro) is that it’s an eight-phase approach. Phase four, the actual reprocessing of the traumatic event through bilateral stimulation and tracking, gets all the acclaim. Don’t get me wrong, phase four is nothing short of magical (fascinating science!), But the other phases need more love.

Phase one is really a full on curiosity phase, which aligns with Brene Brown’s discussion of the reckoning process in Rising Strong. Ultimately, it’s about acknowledging the facts and not going too deep into the rumination of why something is. When we’re able to be objective about what we’re observing in ourselves and certain situations, then we can remove ourselves from the heart of the situation. Bringing awareness to our shadowy sides–that on its own is a powerful thing to do and not something many take the time to observe. To be curious about why emotions come up when they do, to be curious about why you just acted out some catastrophic story that wasn’t real. But not to to judge why it happened. Too quickly, we want to move through the reckoning into resolve–that we miss the whole point of the reckoning: awareness.

“The opposite of recognizing that we’re feeling something is denying our emotions. The opposite of being curious is disengaging. When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don’t go away; instead, they own us, they define us. Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.”–Brene Brown, Rising Strong

As a pillar of any meditative practice, I am learning, we are taught the thoughts are fleeting–they come, they go. People, including myself for MANY years, fail at meditative practice because they do one of two things: fall asleep or get driven crazy by the fact that they are FAILING AT MEDITATING. In Secrets of Meditation, Davidji says,

“We have between 60,000- and 80,000 thoughts a day. That’s a thought every 1.2 seconds…but we are not our thoughts – we have thoughts. Just like a cell phone is not our texts…it receives texts but they are not the phone. You have thoughts but you are not your thoughts. Our thoughts are not roadblocks to our meditation, they are the divine expression of the universe and the building blocks of infinite possibilities available to us in every moment.”

Really, meditation is the awareness given to the drifting of thoughts without judgment. All too often, we are so focused on the judgment and not on the practice of the reckoning–sitting with the awareness of what just is. A few weeks ago now, I was at a wedding where I really didn’t know many people. I was there with a partner, with whom I care deeply and wanted to impress. But I was going through some reckoning myself that weekend, which gave me many thoughts, many feelings all at once. Instead of bringing awareness to my feelings of grief about my own personal loss, instead of simply bringing awareness to the pain I was personally feeling, I inflicted this pain onto others (both actively and passively). I chose to not be vulnerable in order to not sit in my emotions. In order to not ask for help. My emotional stoicism was a defense mechanism, much like (and psychogenically tied to) my non-epileptic seizures. And there are very real consequences. We hurt ourselves, we hurt others, we realize the worst, we make situations that could otherwise be transformative situations…toxic and anxiety-provoking and painful.

This first phase, this awareness, is really the key to any type of magic in our lives. This separation of awareness and judgment creates a deep, transformative space for compassion, understanding, and love. Davidji calls them “the whispers of the heart”, my childhood called it “the Holy Spirit”, Pema Chodron calls it “emptiness”. Whatever we call it, that is where the magic happens. When we can have thoughts and feelings, feel them, and gently shift our focus from the thought, to the present, to a feeling, to the present.

The moment of transformation, at that wedding, during that trip, where I grieved a deep, heavy, painful burden at the exact moment it was realized, created a space inside of me for compassion. For myself, for my partner, for my family, for those who rush through life, for the person on the motorway who is driving crazy, for my research partner obsessed with grant funding, for those who have wronged me. For those I love, those I know, those I am ambivalent about, those I dislike, and those i hate. When you begin to reckon with how you actually feel and what thoughts you actually think (the stories you tell yourself), you’re able to really dig in…and tranform. The quiet, peaceful, beautiful revolution that transforms larva into winged things, that transforms an acorn into an oak tree. That reckoning–the getting really fucking honest–is where the real magic begins.

Ugly fruit

Yesterday, I received my first CSA box from a local group who go to small farm shares and resell those imperfect produce items that farms usually can’t sell to grocery stores or at the market. It’s a local operation, trying to reduce waste by helping people look beneath the surface.

What a metaphor for life. Here we all are, in this life, some of us with a set of experiences more attractive than others. Here we are, spiritual beings, in a bag of bones, just trying to navigate the human experience. 

I remember being a young girl, looking for the secret to have a quick fix from the grief I felt. It was crippling at the time. I stumbled upon a book by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a book that now I quote from like the bible, because it’s the backbone of my field:

Struggle leaves scars. But, in return for the the aching is  raw reality of life. Is an appreciation for… The light that streams in to wake one in the early morning, the hair on my clothes reminding me that my cat is waiting at home, the ability to lock my door behind me, the ability to pay a bill on time, the ability to sit, to hold hands, to feel real emotions. The cracks are where the light gets in. The small are mighty. 

Don’t underestimate the ugly fruit. It just might taste the sweetest. At least mine did.