No one is better equipped to talk about my 8 week online program, Sanctuary, than the women who have actually completed the program. Click the video below to hear why they joined and what they got out of it.
Not a stitch of makeup and just in from a walk - I’m couldn’t wait to hop on to share this with you today. Watch to learn a simple way to start addressing that nasty little belief: I’m not good enough. If it resonates I encourage you to check out my eight week, online program, Sanctuary, now enrolling.
Watch the video to see why this was a pivotal moment of transformation and how it might relate to your life, especially if you have one of these beliefs: 1. The anxiety and uncertainty you carry is going to weigh you down forever; 2. Self-care is not important for me.
These are the exact type of self-limiting beliefs we work to reframe in Sanctuary. I invite you to check out the program to see if you are a good fit - we start in Oct. Click here to learn about Sanctuary.
I like to use a tool called the T-chart with my students. It's a simple way to map out how far you've come past that black-and-white, before-and-after moment when your life changed forever. My student Danielle did an amazing job of this and I wanted to share her chart with you.
You can do this one, I promise. Grab a sheet of paper, draw a line down the middle and label each side. Danielle chose Values Then and Now. You can do Beliefs, Priorities, Habits. Which feels right for you? Writing it down makes it so much more tangible and allows you to experience the benefits of the practice. Share it with me if you try!
I know you feel so alone. I know you feel like the chaos and uncertainty surrounding you has paralyzed you. I know you feel stuck, unsure of how (or even whether) you will get past this season.
It's okay to not be okay. It's ok to be full of anxiety and fear. It's ok to have a bad day(s). It's ok to not be productive.
You are still the ambitious and creative person you are at your core. This trauma does not define you. You are not this loss.
One day you will be able to look back on this time and see your strength, see how resilient you became in the face of this. One day this story will become woven into the fabric of your life. One day you will turn around and be shockingly delighted to see the mountain you have climbed.
Until then, it's ok to take your time. Let this be your seed of hope.
Remember - your story is your strength,
This is an enormous weight you are carrying. The expectation alone is crushing, not to mention the energy it takes to get through the days. This is honorable work and your generous efforts are nourishing those that are closest to you. This is true even if no one notices or says thank you. Especially in those moments where you feel all alone while the rest of the world lives their lives on their own terms.
This is a season of life where it is hard to find time for yourself. Your mind is filled with caregiving to do's; it feels like you couldn't possibly put your needs above theirs because their needs are so great. There are never enough hours in the day.
Remember to breathe. If you have time for nothing else, take 10 seconds to close your eyes and breathe deeply. Light a candle as you get ready for bed as a reminder to do this, to help ease the anxiety a bit.
Remember to rest. When your energy is drained, you have less to give. You cannot serve from an empty cup. Rest is one of the most basic needs to address as we start to figure out how to take good care of ourselves.
Remember the things that bring you joy. Bring them into your days. These can be tiny things - they don't need to cost much (or anything). Play music you love while you are running from one task to another. Use the fancy tea cup and saucer each day. Go outside and notice your surroundings.
Perhaps above all, have compassion for yourself. You are still a beautiful soul underneath the weight of all that you are carrying. You are still yourself. Find a harbor in your mind that you can rest in each day. Allow yourself to set aside your burden and rest for a moment in your harbor.
Remember - your story is your strength,
We entered the oddly shaped room, laid out like a letter “L” at the end of a hallway, away from nurses and beeping and bustle. Just the baby was there, on his belly in an industrial-looking crib, about one year old, and his mom, no roommate. I remember thinking, “I hope we don’t have a roommate either,” but I didn’t voice this worry. I was almost unable to speak, the uncertainty of what lay ahead choking me and stealing my voice. My husband and I were weighed down by several overnight bags, full of supplies we thought we might need.
How do you prepare for what is completely unknown?
You pack leggings, and comfy tees, and bras that you think you can bear to wear overnight because going bra-less might be against the children’s hospital policy. Like submerging into a twilight zone, we entered the hospital that night with no idea how long it would be until we would emerge. Time would stand still for us while the rest of the world got on with their business. The vague odor of cafeteria food mixed with remnants of that rubbery dentist-like smell of the anesthesia mask hung in the air. These fluorescent lights, this unwelcome scent would be our home until our newborn son was well enough to leave.
The one year old baby boy rustled the crib sheet, seemingly content and healthy. Congenital heart disease mostly hides itself from outsiders though the puffiness of his face gave him away to me. I knew that the first three months of his life had been harrowing, so much so that his family of mom, dad and three big sisters had uprooted their lives and moved from far away to be together near the hospital. The idea of three months of hospital living and the implications of what that would mean about my own about-to-be-born son’s heart condition terrified me to the core.
The baby’s mom, Lisa, stepped toward us, emerging from under those lights. She was tall and thin with long hair streaming down her back. I wondered how she looked so good, so put together while living in this place. She had big, beautiful eyes that held the warmth I had been searching for without knowing how desperately I needed it. She seemed bathed in the light; while it reflected harshly on us, Lisa seemed to positively glow. She was happy to see us. We the weary travelers, having lived 500 miles away from home for the better part of two weeks, crashing in a friend’s apartment before moving into hospital housing. This was our journey to give our own son the best chance at life.
Lisa had walked this road and was ahead of us, but not so far away that she couldn’t recognize the fear, see the terror in our eyes that seeped out of our skin. She knew we were carrying the weight of the unknown, equivalent to the weight of the many bags aching our shoulders, but unseen. She had invited us to stop by for a quick visit on our way to Labor and Delivery. I was 39 weeks pregnant and would be induced in less than an hour.
Though it was my first time meeting Lisa in person, we had been connected by email throughout the second half of my pregnancy following a prenatal diagnosis of severe congenital heart disease in my unborn son at 18 weeks. She was introduced to me through the magic of the heart community; dedicated moms of children with congenital heart disease making phone calls and writing emails to strangers who had just received news that turned their world upside down. Having the experience of receiving that news themselves, these were the only moms that had a notion of what I was experiencing. I needed them and I clung to their advice as I tried to navigate being thrown into a new, foreign world. Lisa had been nothing short of a lifeline.
Back in her son’s pediatric hospital room on the 8th floor, Lisa asked us to join hands and pray. I vaguely recalled that maybe her husband was a preacher or minister. Praying together and out loud outside of the confines of a church or temple wasn’t exactly in our wheelhouse, my husband and I. We weren’t even from the same religious background as each other, a topic that had been long discussed in our marriage. But we didn’t hesitate for a moment. I would have done whatever was asked of me in that moment so long as it was in the name of delivering our baby safely into the world. We set down the heavy bags and clasped hands, my husband’s clammy and Lisa’s warm and dry. I closed my eyes.
Slowing down during this pregnancy had been a monumental task. Slowing down meant listening to the thoughts in my head and those thoughts were dark and scary. A woman’s body should produce a healthy baby and mine had failed. I didn’t have what it takes to take care of a gravely ill child, I could barely figure out how to parent my young daughter. And perhaps the most haunting: I did not know how I would survive if he did not. Lucky for me as the pregnancy progressed, it became medicalized and I didn’t have much time to think. I was working full time, traveling across the city twice a week to get hooked up the heart rate monitor, seeing a pediatric cardiologist routinely, commuting, and trying to get my 20 month old to take a nap on the weekends.
When I closed my eyes in that funny shaped hospital room in the presence of Lisa something shifted. The frenetic energy I had been carrying left my body. A calming presence washed over me and I felt the deepest moment of peace. I sensed with certainty that I was going to make it through whatever came next for us. It was a knowing that had been there all along, accompanied by gritted teeth and curled lips, white-knuckling it. In Lisa’s presence I knew I was going to make it through with grace, that we would be cared for, and that somehow, I would be ok.
I cannot recall even one word she spoke in that tiny prayer circle, but the energy and love she poured into my brokenness has stuck with me. It’s been almost a decade since that fateful night and I can still feel the radiance of this woman and the impact she had on our lives.
Isn’t this what we all need in our times of deepest despair? Someone to see your pain, truly see it as their own. To stand up for you, ease your burden, and hold all of your baggage even for just a moment.
Our baby boy was born in a crowded room just 12 hours after that encounter. By some miracle, he left the hospital one week later, after a procedure on the first day of his life and without undergoing the open heart surgery we so worried about. My son is now seven years old and has spent significantly fewer nights in the hospital than Lisa’s little boy had at one year old.
I think about her often and the courage it took to stand beside us that night, with her own baby next to us, his future very uncertain. In retrospect, it was such a small gesture and yet the impact it had on us so profound. I try to channel Lisa as I go deep with people into the darkness of their stories. I remind myself that I don’t need grand gestures to make a difference. It’s more important to simply show up and offer what I already have to give.
Three life lessons from a tumultuous last decade.
1. Self care is no joke.
For a long time I believed that rest was for wimps. In college, I attended class all day, headed to a grueling three hour gymnastics practice, then studied at the library well into the night. I’d wake up for my eight o’clock classes and start all over again. It wasn’t that I was a human machine - one of my professors even called my gymnastics coach because I was constantly falling asleep in class. I simply would not acknowledge that I needed rest. After college, I kept this familiar schedule, working all day and coaching at night. Looking back now, I was running on fumes of anxiety. Down time terrified me. The expectations I put on myself were crushing and no amount of studying was enough.
It took having kids and leaving a job in academia after almost a decade to help me understand that this pace was unsustainable. It wasn’t one moment or even several, but a slow realization that I because I was not taking good care of myself I was not showing up as the person I wanted to be in the world. I had an extremely short fuse, lots of simmering anger, and I didn’t have any clue about experiencing the present moment. I had one speed - GO.
Gradually, I made big shifts in my life. I quit my job that had me commuting over an hour each way (with kids, full time). I started a new job from home. I went to therapy for the first time. I began my writing practice. More recently, after my migraines started significantly impacting my quality of life, I decided to try to get eight hours of sleep each night. I finally figured out how to nap.
I did these things over the course of about five years. There was surely no magic bullet. But I can honestly say that most days I feel really good about what I’m doing with my time and how I am progressing as a person. I have so much room to grow, but I’m also really proud of the choices I’ve made to get myself to this place.
2. Most of the small stuff doesn’t matter. Really.
Not long after my husband and I moved into our first home, a poorly built condo for which we paid way too much at the height of the real estate market before the recession, we had a toilet break. My parents were visiting. All of a sudden water starting coming through the ceiling where the chandelier was hung over the dining room table. I completely lost it. I was screaming at my family as if it was somehow their fault. I couldn’t calm myself down. My dad finally suggested I go out for a walk to cool down. This was my thing - get really mad, really quickly. Why was I so quick to boil over? Who did this anger serve? I guess I got a release and adrenaline rush when I let that anger go by yelling, but this was something I was not proud of.
For me, it took experiencing significant life challenges to fully understand and agree with the idea that most minor annoyances of daily life are not a big deal. When you say goodbye to your newborn, delivered into the world just hours earlier, and watch him wheeled away to undergo a cardiac catheterization under general anesthesia; well, traffic and picky eating and email just seem like ridiculous things to be worried about. Practicing being grateful has helped me too. When I’m struggling mightily with being a caregiver for my mom with advanced dementia I try to recall how grateful I am that my sister and I are a team, almost always aligned in decision-making and having each other’s backs for support. Facing this disease without my sister is unthinkable.
I lose sight of this one routinely, but I think I’m getting quicker in my recovery and I know my anger has decreased significantly. Just recently I arrived at the pool with the kids and noticed a hissing sound when I get out of the car. Turns out there was a screw in my tire. Instead of losing my cool, I thought about how fortunate it was that I noticed it and I quickly got the car back home before the tire was entirely flat. No biggie.
3. Your story really is your strength.
Like lots of new moms, I joined a baby group when my eldest was a newborn. There were probably 20 mom/baby pairs in this group led by a breastfeeding expert. I remember watching with a kind of horrified fascination as all the moms laid out their adorable teal and white chevron baby blankets, placed their baby upon them, and then actually sat back and participated in the discussion. My own dear baby (the one who’s now 10), screamed bloody murder if you dared try to leave her on the floor by herself. She was usually screaming anyway, but the volume was somewhat decreased if she was attached in some way to me. I can’t recall a single positive moment from that group and I think I may have stopped going, unable to handle the feelings of defeat that came in waves as I tried to get through those sessions. My early motherhood was filled with these moments of feeling alone, separate from the other moms, aside from my closest of friends.
We've since learned that this little baby, my daughter, Carly, experiences the world differently than most people you know. When she was a toddler she would often tell me she wished she was still inside my belly. The world was too much for her to bear. She needed parents who could let that be ok. Parents who could handle huge emotional hurricanes that roared through her little body. We were not those parents. Slowly, over the course of several long years, we changed the story of the parents we thought we were to become the parents Carly needed us to be.
Back then I couldn’t have imagined how Carly would have changed my outlook on life, but now I see how she has rewired my entire brain. The experience of feeling isolated as an outsider was new to me and brought along a new perspective, a new compassion for other people and for myself. Seeing my own child struggle in every possible way and trying for many years to help without seeing much success also made me a more empathetic person with a capacity for holding space for heaviness, discomfort, and loss.
This very thing I resisted, the ability to sit with the most challenging of emotions without changing or avoiding or shoving them behind the curtain, is the exact thing I bring to the women I work with in my business. It’s what I am teaching them to do with their own stories; look at the darkest of times square in the face and see the beauty in what you’ve become because you found your way through.
Written by Alison R.
As I pass by the open door, I can hear the muffled, tense voices again – anger, betrayal, sadness…fear, even. I take a deep breath, knowing I should move on, keep walking, ignore the drama unfolding. Try as I might, I’m drawn to the door and to her. I hug the doorway frame and strain to hear the details, knowing full well I won’t understand it all but curious if it could have something to do with me. I wonder when they will ever realize that their muffled tones can still be heard. We hear them every time. Greater still the silence and chasm between the two most important people in my life speaks volumes more than the constant arguing.
“Is she there again” I ask myself, “the little girl?" In her pigtails with the cute pink eyeglass barrettes holding her brunette hair back and the freckles accentuating her innocent blue eyes, she looks brave but she's trembling inside. She always goes there when it starts and quietly yet carefully chooses her spot, close enough to the door to slip away quickly but far enough down the steps so the voices easily convey up the L shaped stairwell.
As I crack the door ever so silently I see her once again.
“Oh, Alison,” I whisper, “not again with this. Come back up.”
“No,” she defiantly shoots back, “I don’t want to leave her.”
And she remained. She remained every time, despite my attempts to get through to her. She stayed there until the day he left and left them a new normal. A normal permanently scarred.
I look back on that time and talk to myself, a part of me forever stuck at seven years old, in that moment. Time and peace and introspection have illuminated what I could not process when I was that little girl.
It was their story; not mine. I have my own story to write.
Every moment has a lesson; the lessons are the gifts; learn.
Pain is not the destination; acknowledge it and pass through.
Look for the joy in the tiniest moment.
Protect my heart; be open but protect from harm.
Certain aspects of the day I was told that the heart of the 18 week old baby I was carrying was not developing correctly are seared into my brain. I don't recall too many of the words that were spoken or what I was wearing, but I remember how it felt to be left alone with my husband in the ultrasound room for an eternity. I remember the feeling of it gradually dawning on me that being left alone for that long meant something was wrong. I can still feel that slow realization; I knew from my prenatal training in graduate school that this was what happened, but it still took several minutes before my mind hatched the thought: "Something is wrong."
My memories of the next two years following that day are similar. I have trouble recalling names and faces, but the feelings that I felt in my stomach, the rising anxiety in my chest, those sensations can still bubble up when I think about going under general anesthesia when I was 23 weeks along for the in utero procedure to open Griffin's aortic valve, or when I picture the cardiac intensive care unit at Boston Children's Hospital.
For many years, I would experience things in my everyday life that set off these feelings in my body. Like, if I saw a family with three healthy teenagers at a restaurant, I would get upset that maybe my little guy wouldn't make it to that age. Or if I drove past a little league baseball game I would be triggered by the uncertainty of whether Griffin would ever be able to participate in sports like a typical kid. Life was a minefield; I could be triggered by almost anything and it would get my heart racing, the tears flowing, anxiety flaring.
This is what trauma looks like. Trauma is the way we recover from a stressful event or loss. It has to do more with how we respond to an experience rather than the experience itself. So, in the immediate time following the event we may have trouble sleeping, eating, going about our daily lives, but typically we figure out ways to cope and recover. If can't get there - if the experience overwhelms our ability to cope - this is traumatic stress. We worry about it because it could lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental health problems.
I think many of us go through our lives, experiencing trauma and not recognizing it as such. We think that maybe the experience wasn't "bad enough" to qualify as trauma. We believe that trauma has to include death or sexual assault. But it's all subjective, meaning that the event itself doesn't have much to do with it and it's all about how you responded.
Once Griffin had arrived and was, in fact, thriving, I found I was stuck in the same thoughts that I had during the pregnancy. I had a hard time enjoying him (happy baby that he was) because of these intrusive thoughts. They were always near the surface, circling around in my mind like a broken record: "he's going to need several surgeries", "what if he doesn't survive", "how can I handle this".
Slowly, I recognized my need for help. Other events in my life actually helped push me to get help, otherwise I think I would have waited and tried to figure out the Griffin stuff on my own. I did lots and lots of therapy. I started my writing practice. I told Griffin's story, at first to small groups of students and eventually to a big crowd at a national conference. I started my creative business, Orchid Story, to help other women cope with their own traumatic events. The uncertainty that threatened to swallow me whole nine years ago is much more manageable now.
It took a lot of hard work. A lot of money. A lot of time. A lot of uncomfortable feelings. This is in no way an exaggeration.
And... there is a happy ending. Of course, the happy ending includes Griffin playing in the pool this summer, just six months after his first open heart surgery at age 7. But that's not what I mean, because remember, that even if things look good on the outside - the experience of trauma is still subjective and about the recovery (my recovery) from the events.
The happy ending is that all the work I put into healing myself has helped. The intrusive thoughts are no longer swimming. I get triggered much less often and when I do, I can recover quickly. I was recently sitting with a new therapist, as I am learning Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) also known as tapping. She was teaching me the tapping sequences and we were going through all of those scenes of trauma from back when Griffin was diagnosed in 2010 and his early years, all the way up to his surgery and recovery in late 2018. When we were done she looked at me and said, "You really don't have much residual trauma related to his heart condition."
She could have told me I won a million bucks and I would not have been more pleased.
Do I have other issues in my life that I am still working on? Yes. Am I still worried at times about Griffin's heart and his future? Yes. The work is not done. The work will never be done. The important thing is that I am moving forward. I've come such a long way from that day back in the ultrasound room.
This science is so powerful because it shows that how we tell our stories matters to our well-being. AND, if we don’t like the stories we tell ourselves, we can change them. Empowerment!
Recently I walked into the dining room of the assisted living facility where my mom lives. As I made my way to her corner table a woman stopped me. She stood up and blocked my path in fact. I knew she was also a resident, I'd waved hello to her on occasion, but we had not had a prior conversation. She was wearing a turquoise cardigan, sporting the same short, blond cut as 75% of the female residents, and she was sitting at the cool kids table. "Your mother keeps going outside by herself," she states, clearly agitated, with a razor sharpness to her voice. "You need to get her to stop doing that."
Woah. It was as if this woman had been waiting for me, almost like she knew I would be there that day, so she rehearsed all morning what she would say. She was a cheetah ready to pounce on her prey, an unsuspecting daughter stopping in for a chat.
I knew immediately that this was the woman I had been told was chasing my mom outside all week and telling her that she didn't belong out there. There's a beautiful outdoor space behind the building; one of the main reasons we chose this particular place. One of the only things that continues to bring my mom joy is being outside and looking at the flowers and birds.
If only I had been practicing my comeback, I'm sure I would've had a good one ready to fire away, but instead I smiled and said that while I'm sure she was simply looking out for my mom's safety would she please stop telling my mother what she can and can't do. Then I walked past her and over to sit with my mom.
So here it is, proof that even in the old people's home, bullies and naysayers continue to exist. They don't magically transform into kind elderly people. I think it's kind of freeing in a way. If there will always be people who don't believe in your dream, people who think you can't do it, people to hold you back in some way, why not do it anyway?
Imagine yourself there, inside of this dining room I told you about. Would you rather be the person who never opens the door to go outside because it's not easy for you and what if someone has an opinion about it? Or are you the person who chooses to go outside to see the blooming hydrangea and lilies in June simply because it makes you happy, even if people are whispering about you doing it?
Often we hold ourselves back from pursuing something we want to do because of other people. Maybe a family member won't approve or a high school friend will see it on Facebook. We could hide from these people (and we would have to do it for the rest of our lives, apparently) or we could simply do it anyway.
What would you do with your life if there was no old-lady-bully to stop you?
(The title of the article is such a mouthful - that’s why you need to watch the video so I can break it down to you). New research on how the stories we tell affect our well-being!
Strong Back, Soft Front, Wild Heart = my fave concepts from this Brené Brown book.
Have you braved the wilderness? What did you learn? I’d love to hear about it.
Links to people and resources I mention in the video:
I’m sharing two pieces of writing by outstanding female writers and why mental health is so important to me personally and in my business. If you want to explore your own mental health journey but don’t know where to start I’d love to be your guide.
Resources mentioned in this video:
It is my great honor to introduce to you one of the most courageous women I know, Cassandra Tillinghast. This is her story.
This is a story about the importance of giving ourselves gifts - you see, I just celebrated my 42nd birthday, and so gifts are front of mind. These days, though, I’m finding that the kinds of gifts I value most are taking on a different sort of patina. For example, last year around this time, I gave myself the gift of attending a week-long silent meditation retreat in West Virginia. My 30-year old self definitely would not have considered that such a great gift (she would have preferred a pair of Jimmy Choos) - but she would at least have acknowledged it as a loving act of self-care. But sometimes the gifts we give ourselves don’t feel that way. And it’s one of those types of gifts that I want to write about today - it’s a gift that I gave myself not all that long ago, one that didn’t feel like a gift at the time, one that I almost never talk about and about which only a very few close friends and family members know. It’s a gift that I’m terrified, and yet feel compelled, to share with the world now. That gift was the night several years ago when I checked myself into the emergency room, and then the psychiatric unit, at Inova Fairfax hospital. At the time, it felt less like a gift, and more like an act of desperation – and in a sense, it was. At the time, it felt like the most conclusive evidence I had to-date (and believe me, I had LOTS of evidence) that I was a complete failure. A fraud. A nobody. A disgusting human being. Not even a human being. At the time, living felt too big, too hard, and basic acts of self-care (such as eating and sleeping) were beyond what I was willing or able to do because of the extreme hate I had for myself, and for the world. I later learned how to peel the layers off that hate, to seek the truth behind it. At first what I found was a deep well of sadness, profound grief, intense fear, and the darkest shame. I later returned to love. And admitting myself to the the psych ward was the gift I needed to begin making the journey back.
You may be asking what was it that happened to me that brought me to that point? The stories that answer that question are complex and go back as far as 35 years. Some of those stories I've shared, and many others remain my secrets to keep (for now - maybe forever). But this story - the story of finding the courage to get help - I’m sharing today, even though the telling is terrifying, as another gift to myself, and also as a gift to others, in the hopes it helps to destigmatize mental health diagnoses and treatment, and maybe even give someone the courage to seek out the help they’ve been putting off getting. So many people are suffering – I know I’m not alone in my story. I don't want to to turn this into a litany of statistics, but the data on mental health is astounding. Some 20% of American adults experience a mental illness each year - including 18% living with anxiety and 7% living with major depression. The impact that mental health issues have on our societal well-being is staggering. If dollar figures impress you, consider that some estimates suggest mental illness costs the U.S. $193 billion annually in lost earnings. Or how about lost lives, rather than lost earnings, as an indicator - 90% of those who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness, and before you file that under the category of the blindingly obvious, did you know that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.? And the ways that our mental health (or lack of it) play into other societal challenges we face - domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault, drug and alcohol abuse, gun violence (and the list goes on) - cannot be overstated. By the way, only 41% of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year - and preventative mental health care isn't even something that we're talking about in a cohesive way. Yet.
So it's actually pretty remarkable that I sought - and received - treatment when I was in crisis. In terms of the immediate triggers that got me there - frankly, the days and weeks leading up to the night I checked myself in are a blur. I remember that I was overseas, traveling on business, when the cracks started to show. I remember, on the morning of a big presentation to a client, receiving an upsetting text from my father (as it turned out, I later learned, he was having a stroke). I remember my already high levels of anxiety, which pretty much was a normal state of being for me at that point, amping up to complete panic. I remember my primary thought being how I was going to get through what I was sure would be a disaster of a presentation, in no small part due to my own ineptitude at trying to transform myself into something other than the myopically focused work-a-holic M&A lawyer I had fashioned myself into over the prior 10 years. And in that moment, I remember judging myself for worrying about the silly presentation when lord knows what was ailing my dad, but feeling trapped into thinking my job assignment first because I was the primary provider for my husband and children. I remember feeling like I was failing all over the place - as a professional, as a daughter, as a wife, as a mother, as a woman.
Memory is a funny thing - I have no memories of the presentation (it must not have been too much of a disaster) or the flight home. The next thing I do remember is being back stateside, gripping my steering wheel, white-knuckled, as I sped down the George Washington Parkway on an early morning commute like an endless series of so many others, still dark out, with NPR like white noise on the radio with the latest unbiased report on…something. As I neared the Key Bridge, suddenly, I wasn’t feeling the vibration of the road beneath me, but instead the breeze in my hair as I stood on the side of the bridge, watching my car accelerate off and over the guardrail and plunge down into the Potomac River below. And then I was back in the car, water all around me – in my hair, in my eyes, in my mouth and lungs. The rush of water turned into the rush of wheels on the road, and the vibration returned as a reminder of the here and now. I don’t recall how I got through that particular day at the office, but I remember that night. I remember being angry at myself for not having retained my life insurance policy after I left my BigLaw job with its BigLaw salary in an effort to reduce monthly expenses now that I was earning significantly less, because I had Googled whether life insurance would pay out in case of suicidal death (the answer was not if it occurs in the first two years of the policy). And so I was crunching the numbers on how long my husband and two children would be able to cover expenses on our current savings after I was gone (I’m the one in the family that is responsible for our financial well-being), and it wasn’t long enough.
Somehow, in that moment, some rational part of me realized that this was insanity, that I was in crisis, and that I needed to seek help. And so I started trying to figure out how to do that. I just want to say that process was not easy and required multiple attempts. If I were not who I am - an educated, empowered, resilient and feisty bitch - with the resources I have available to me - including supportive friends and family, money, a good job, and great insurance - I'm not so sure how things would have ended up. After some internet research and several phones calls to a friend, a therapist, a crisis hotline, and a private wellness center, I learned that my options were to: (1) do some deep breathing exercises (thanks for the tip, but not sufficient), (2) wait for space availability and check myself into a private wellness facility (which would not accept insurance and would cost in the tens of thousands of dollars for a 2-4 week stay), (3) wait for space availability and seek outpatient care from a hospital-run mental health treatment center (that might accept insurance) or (4) admit myself to the nearest emergency room for immediate evaluation and treatment. I chose option 4, and my husband drove me there. The rest of that night, a resident and a nurse took turns holding my hand as I cried what seemed like an ocean of tears I had waited a lifetime to release. They waited with me for hours to find out whether a psychiatric unit had a bed that I could take that night, or whether there was space available in an outpatient facility that would accept my insurance and could take me the next day. As it turned out, the only immediately available option was the psychiatric unit at Inova. I remember a social worker asking me several times if that was what I wanted to do, because maybe we could figure out something "nicer" for me. But I didn’t feel like I could wait – and I wasn’t really worried about making sure it was "nice,” because at that point the alternative was death, so beggars can't really be choosers was my philosophy. So, once my bed was confirmed, the nurse put me in a wheelchair and an orderly took me on what felt like a very long trek from the ER to the 4th floor psychiatric unit.
I have struggled mightily to find a good way to describe my first night on the psych ward. In that, yes, it is an experience that is decidedly not good, and it’s also just incredibly difficult to convey to the uninitiated. It was dark on the ward – it was the middle of the night – but hardly quiet. Patients, inmates, I didn’t know which, shuffled aimlessly around, some vocal, some mute. There was a muffled sort of painful sound as I entered my room and found my roommate asleep, but not peacefully. As she moaned and cursed, I fumbled in the darkness toward the bathroom with no door and flipped the light to find a sink and a toilet, but no mirror (a safety measure, I was later informed). I rinsed my mouth out with water, flipped off the light, and crept into bed. I felt such complete and total exhaustion. But also a sense of sheer relief at having temporarily escaped the torture of being me; at finally being able to rest; at getting a vacation from myself. And I was terrified. I closed my eyes, my mouth felt sour, and pulled the covers over my ears as I tried to drown out the sound of my roommate’s nightmares, and to hide from my own.
I was “on the inside” for a week, and there’s probably a chapter (maybe even a whole book) on what that week looked like for me. I’m not sure what you imagine a psych ward to look like, but if scenes from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest come to mind, at least in the case of the place I was, you would not be too far off from reality. The walls on the ward were a dingy green, the smell of disinfectant and urine and worse – nothing at all like the pretty pictures I had seen on the internet of the private wellness facility that I probably could have afforded, but that I would not have availed myself of anyway because I didn’t value myself enough to think I was worth it. I remember the morning after I checked in going to the showers and looking down at the water that covered the floor, ankle deep and covered in places with frothy grey scum. I had summoned everything in myself to go bathe, to let the hot water strip away the dirt that permeated from my skin down into my very soul. There were towels on the ward, but no soap or shampoo, and I hadn’t been in a frame of mind to pack a bag when I left for the ER the night before. So I undressed down to my socks and carefully tiptoed over to the showerhead under which there was the least amount of sudsy grey. Lukewarm water poured over me, but I couldn't feel clean. I never had. I scratched myself dry with the threadbare towel, redressed, and wrung out my socks. When I returned to my room, my roommate took one look at my bare feet and handed me a pair of pink fluffy socks from her bag. “Take these,” she said, “until your husband can come and bring you another pair.” I still have those socks in my drawer today and wear them from time to time as a reminder of how far I’ve come and of the beauty of small acts of kindness of others. I smile every time I put them on.
And over the course of the time I was there, in various group therapy sessions that all of us (patients? inmates?) were required to participate in, I learned I was keeping company with, among many others, a middle-aged woman (my roommate) with a husband, two children, and schizophrenia; a 9-11 first-responder and career firefighter/EMT with PTSD; a 20-something drug dealer, addict and father-to-be whose pregnant girlfriend was in rehab at another facility; a teenage girl who spoke barely above a whisper to share she was in for the third time, and was now a candidate for shock therapy. There were some of us there who were suffering from severe mental illness to the point of being catatonic, but there were others of us that seemed functionally "normal." As I looked around the ward, I wondered what is it that causes a person to crack. How is it that some seem to be able to endure and endure, while others break under the pressure? And for us broken ones, do we share some common trait, quality, defect? Looking at the statistics again as I write this, I'm realizing that we're all sort of broken, that suffering is part of the human condition - and that "cracking" is simply one indicator of the fragility of our human existence. I guess it's a relief to have discovered that I'm not defective - I'm just human.
After a few days on the ward, I was able to meet with a psychiatrist and tell her what I then understood to be my story (which, by the way, is constantly evolving as I lean in to better understand my past and my present). She quickly determined that outpatient treatment was the appropriate place for me to be. AND she commended my choice to come to the psychiatric unit first, as she noted that sometimes insurance companies balk on coverage for outpatient mental health facility services in the absence of clear evidence pointing to a need for treatment. Time on the psych ward was, apparently, adequately clear evidence. She also told me that a parent’s suicide is psychologically more harmful to a child than physical abuse– a message that I needed to hear. So I spent the week there, before moving on to spend another three weeks in outpatient treatment. And that outpatient treatment led me to an incredible therapist. And that therapist led me to many other things, one of which was the meditation retreat I mentioned at the beginning of this post.
Believe me, there is no one more thankful than me for the treatment I was afforded – I’m not 100% sure I would be alive today if I hadn’t received it. But I think we need to be very very real about the state of our mental health system – what works, what doesn’t, what we think good should look like, and how it can be better. And telling stories like these feels like one way to start that conversation. I have been – and still am – terrified to share this story with the world. But I’m feeling the fear and doing it anyway because mental health is a topic we desperately need to advance on as a society, and I want to be a part of the conversation and our evolution. Of course, it’s also possible that sharing this will affect my ability to “succeed” (in traditionally understood terms) in my current – or future employment. People judge – it’s what we are wired to do. But I’ve decided that it’s more important to me to take that risk and speak freely on something that I feel passionate about as an advocate for change. After all, I’m trained in advocacy. It’s high time I use that training in a way that feels meaningful.
I don’t know what that advocacy looks like just yet. I think it starts with sharing this piece of me with you – many of whom know me and may have thoughts about me that aren’t consistent with what you think about someone who has seen the inside of a psychiatric unit (or maybe they are entirely consistent, only you know). I think it also starts with something simple – and which involves an ask from you. On my last day on the ward, as part of discharge procedures I was presented with a “customer satisfaction” survey of sorts. As I checked through the boxes, rating the unit on a scale from 1 (best) to 5 (worst) on dimensions like cleanliness of facilities and tastiness of food, I wondered who would read my responses, and what, if any, change would result. I wondered if funding was an issue, and thought about the access I had to people in the “1%.” I wondered what the employees on the ward thought were the biggest challenges and needs in providing service that would warrant all “1” ratings, rather than the all “5” ratings I had given. So when I turned in the survey, I asked the nurse – if you could have anything you wanted to improve the level of patient service you are able to provide on this ward, what would it be? She looked at me blank and confused – she obviously didn’t understand the question. So I asked it again, in a slightly different way – if you could wave a magic wand, what would you wish to have on this ward to make things better for the patients here. She still looked confused, but this time she gave me an answer. “DVDs,” she said, “the patients always enjoy good movies.” I remembering feeling really crushed by this answer – just so disappointed as it seemed so mundane and simple and not something that would move the needle at all. And so you know, I didn’t give them that. It’s over four years later and I still haven’t given what she asked for. I don’t know why – maybe because it just didn’t feel big enough. Maybe because once I left, it took until just recently for me to be able to look back at the experience and the ask in a different light. And so this month, in honor of Mental Health Awareness, I’m going through my DVDs. And I’m assembling a box. And I’m taking that box to the 4th floor at Inova Fairfax. And if any of you have any DVDs you would like to contribute to the cause, please contact me and I’ll come get them from you. Because damned if I’m not going to give them what they asked for. And then I’m going to find a way to give something more. And I would love for those of you reading this to in some way be a part of that – whether it’s through donating DVDs, or money or time – because it’s going to take one hell of a village to make our mental health care system better.
So, today on heels of the celebration of my birth, sharing this story is my gift to myself, to you, and to the world. Thank you for reading it. And of course it’s not over yet – this is just the beginning. And so life goes on. Thank God.
On Easter Sunday I found myself on a 4+ hour flight, squished into the middle seat, next to my daughter, Carly, at the window and a 6 foot hefty guy at the aisle. Carly could not get comfortable. I wish I could show you all the positions she tried; head on the tray, legs up on the seat in front of her, sprawled on me, turned around backward. She did not stop wiggling for the entire flight.
For a while, it made me tense. Ironically enough, I was watching the documentary Heal while all this movement was happening next to me. One of the central tenets of the movie is that being in fight or flight activated response is not good for your well-being. As I was observing Carly I could sense my anxieties flaring and, possibly because of the show I was watching, was able to calm myself down. The women in front of us probably wanted to wring my kid's neck, but would she be ok other than feeling annoyed? Yes. Ok, breathe.
Getting myself in a stable state allowed me to look at Carly with more compassion. She was distressed. Dysregulated, for those of you familiar with the mental health term. She needed to move, to run, to be distracted from having to sit for so long. And these things were pretty much impossible 31,000 feet in the air.
Simply by me having compassion for her in the moment, the energy between us toned down a notch and she was able to sit with the discomfort and get through the flight. I was able to speak to her in a normal tone and not get angry or raise my voice.
You guys, this is HUGE! This is such an accomplishment for me! Certain things we do to improve our well-being like weight loss or working out, are easily measured. You lost 10 pounds - yay! You ran a 5k for the first time - congrats! When it comes to mental health though, how do you measure it? Deepak Chopra is not going to pop into the aisle when the plane lands and say - look at you! You practiced breathing and compassion!
It's up to us. If we let these plane moments pass us by without acknowledging them, we may feel like we're not getting anywhere. We may feel stuck. Let's instead make a decision to celebrate these wins, to take pride in finding presence or our breath. Seeing these moments as wins will propel us forward and energize us to keep up the work.
How about this as a writing prompt: What small win on the path to personal growth have you experienced within the last seven days? Have an everyday win you'd like to share? Hit reply and let me know. You're doing a great job.
Nuggets of wisdom gleaned from “Becoming”. This book is so good! I’m nodding my heading with every turn of the page.
Do you miss my writing? I’m still doing it, just sharing mostly with my newsletter list at the moment. You’re on the list right? If not, hop to it - join by clicking here. You’ll get my beautiful guide, Rewrite Your Story, just for signing up.
The doors for Sanctuary close on Monday April 22. If this work interests you, then come check out the program. Presence and self-compassion are woven into every aspect of Sanctuary. PLUS, we will practice how to find the time and then actually incorporate these practices!
Resources from this video:
This week’s video is based on the article, ““The Clinician as Neuroarchitect: The Importance of Mindfulness and Presence in Clinical Practice.” by Baldini et al. Click here for the link to the paper.
I adore these concepts because they help me understand the “magic” that happens when we share our stories together in community. Registration for my 8 week online program, Sanctuary, where we do just this, is open now. I’d love for you to join me in the next round.
Watch this video to learn about how sharing our stories actually changes the connections in our brains leading to higher levels of positive well-being. It’s fascinating!