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?
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.
It’s just been so much fun to dive into these books with you. Here are the two writing prompts I came up with from the second half of Inheritance by Dani Shapiro:
Are there things we know, subconsciously, before we know them? Why do we put of pursuing the truth or acknowledging what’s happened?
If we are striving for understanding and healing, maybe we must revisit our stories time and again. What story of your needs revisiting?
I’m teaching a new, free class next week. It’ll be different than these Facebook live videos - I’ll have slides (ooh la la), be a tad more organized, and I created a beautiful workbook to go along with the class. If you can’t attend live you can sign up to get the replay. Get all the details and sign up: https://www.orchidstory.com/
What a treat to have the pleasure of meeting author Dani Shapiro several weeks ago when she was in town to promote her new memoir, Inheritance. I’ve loved all of Dani’s books because she dives headfirst into the pain and shows us how crafting a narrative helps to get to the other side.
Inheritance is fantastic for me because there’s a lot about genetics and ethics in the book, along with some big philosophical questions like Who am I? In this video I explain the genetics behind how it was determined that Dani’s half sister was not actually her half sister. Plus I get into the Who am I question and how it might prompt some exploration in you.
If you are considering at home DNA testing for health, ancestry or any other reason it would behoove you to meet with a genetic counselor first. Find someone here. If you have specific questions about your test results, check out my friend Brianne’s site, Watershed DNA. She’s the absolute expert and my go-to for all of this.
Underwent testing and now have a story like Dani’s to tell? Reach out to me - I’d love to help you find meaning in the experience as you weave your new identify into your life.
I’ll be back next week with my second video on Inheritance .
Me with Dani Shapiro in Reston, VA. (queue heart eye emoji!)
This one’s for my sister.
Every inch of my body screamed, "I can't do this again. I need to leave. I can’t handle One. More. Moment.” I felt agitation running through my veins, anxiety rising in my chest. Resentment and anger came bubbling up as I thought of all the families sitting down to their Thanksgiving dinners while I found myself in a room alone with my mom, inside of the assisted living facility we had moved her into two weeks prior. She was downright refusing to get dressed and come with me to join the rest of our family for the meal. Or maybe it was her disease, the PCA, that was refusing to come.
I took a step back and tried to breathe to stop myself from yelling. I wanted to yell all the time, at anything and anyone. At the squirrels who got in my way on the sidewalk, at the aide who should’ve had my mom dressed already, at my kids to put their shoes on. In that moment I wanted to yell at my mom. Then my sister, Dani. “It isn’t fair that you get healthy grandparents”, I would scream. “You get to leave for the holiday and go on date nights with free babysitters and have someone cook for you while here I am, stuck in this room.”
The thing was, I really couldn’t convince my mom to come with me. While I was seeing red inside of my reptilian fight or flight brain, I knew enough to know that I was not mentally in a place where I was going to be able to connect with my mom, get on her level, empathize. Get her dressed so I could be with the rest of my family who were already together, waiting on us. So I called Dani.
Isn’t this what we do as siblings? I would do this to no one else on earth (well, except maybe my husband - sorry babe). I’m so resentful in this moment, I’m letting my emotions get the best of me by attacking my sister in my mind, I know she already feels horribly guilty about leaving me alone to deal with the situation, and I decide to call her?
And, you know what? She answered.
Thinking back on it now, I have tears in my eyes. Tears of deep gratitude for Dani. Put yourself in her shoes for a moment. After months of crisis, I mean crisis every damn day for weeks on end where you are pulled from meetings at work and bedtime with the kids to take care of our mom. Off to the neurologist, the psychiatrist, the ENT. Off to the emergency room. Off to a meeting you’ve been called to with the director of the facility. It is only us. Her and I. We moved her here away from her village and so it is us and only us who are responsible. Dani has finally gotten an opportunity to take a moment to breathe. A few days where she can be with her two little kids and focus on them with her full attention because she knows that even if she gets called she can’t physically come. It’s a huge weight lifted for a few precious days. And I evidently wanted to sabotage it for her.
Not only did she answer the phone, but she answered it free of hostility, even though she had to know it was an SOS call from me before she picked up. We had been answering each other’s calls with, “What happened?” for the past two months. But on Thanksgiving she sounded happy and peaceful when she said hello. Immediately upon hearing her voice I started to relax. I put her on speaker and she spoke to our mom in the way that I wasn’t able. She soothed and listened and comforted. After we hung up, I got mom dressed and off we went.
For years people have told me, “It’s good that you have your sister.” For a long time, I wanted to respond by saying that having a sister doesn’t make the pain go away, you know. It’s still the hardest thing I’ve ever faced. “You’re reminding me of my sister because you want to create distance between yourself and this hardship I’m in; it’s easier to sugarcoat it with my sister rather than acknowledge the pain, isn’t it?” I wanted to say.
This year though, a deeper level of gratitude than I have ever felt before, came into my life. We have walked through the hardest days together, Dani and I. Facing the depth of this disease together, the stripping away of the woman we both love dearly has bound us together in the most beautiful way. We have chosen, time and again, not to scream at each other. Not to take our pain out on each other. But to support. To be the other person’s person. To love.
Now when people tell me how lucky I am to have my sister I close my eyes and say a prayer. Thank you for Dani. Please keep her safe. Please protect her energy and bring her peace.
Once upon a time, there lived a woman with an enormous spirit who served as a primary school counselor, healer and teacher. She loved children completely and the children loved her too, so much so, they nicknamed her, ‘Golden Head,’ after her long golden tresses and warm smile. Each and every day, Golden Head gave herself to the neediest of children and, in return, the children were drawn to her, delighting in her love. But her co-workers were bitter and jealous, and tried all they could to cut Golden Head down to size.
“You’re not following the rules,” a teacher scolded, with a finger in Golden Head’s face.
“You’re not using the lesson plans,” jeered another, even more furious.
“You’re not teaching to the test,” scoffed a third, certain the children would fail.
The more her colleagues protested, the more the children were drawn to Golden Head-- to play with her, to listen to her stories, or simply to be in her presence. Until one day, Golden Head felt something break inside. Although she treasured the children, she could no longer give herself to a community that didn’t appreciate her work. So, frustrated, Golden Head spoke her truth, telling her co-worker, Ninny, exactly how she felt.
“I do not understand,” Golden Head cried. “Why do you begrudge me what I do best? Let me serve the children, for they are comforted on my lap. This is what I am called to do, care for the young. And you, Ninny, continue to serve the adults, for this is what you are called to do.”
Ninny did not take it well. “You are wrong-minded, Golden Head. You indulge the children so. As teachers, we need to be in charge, set the rules!”
“Yes, I agree,” Golden Head said. “You set the rules and I will tend their hearts, together we make the perfect team!”
“You are not fit to be a teacher. Leave my room at once!” Ninny slammed the door in Golden Head’s face.
Heartbroken, Golden Head packed her belongings and set out, hoping to find a new community of like-minded teachers and caregivers. But as she was leaving, her colleagues waved excitedly, “Goodbye and good riddance,” they sneered.
Forlorn, Golden Head ventured home where she shared the sad news of her day. “I’m sorry, my dear husband, I couldn’t take it any longer,” she cried.
“My love, I am with you,” Chief Redwood said, embracing her.
Then her sweet daughter, Big Hearted, spoke up, “I am with you, my sweet mother!”
And finally her son, Insightful One, chimed in. “It’s your turn mother, to do as your heart delights.”
Weary, Golden Head went to bed, hoping she might feel better in the morning. And there, in the space between wakefulness and sleep, Golden Head heard a familiar sound. It was the sound of the Grandmothers’ drumming, a drumbeat she had heard so many years earlier in her Shamanic Healing Circle. The rapid drumming carried her deeper and deeper into a dream-like state. Moments later, a Native American woman appeared before her, her face shrouded.
“Come, take the baby,” the woman insisted, thrusting an infant toward her. “Take her, she’s yours!”
Golden Head accepted the babe, holding her close. She was a newborn, searching for her mother’s breast. “What’s her name?”
“Emerald, of course,” the woman said.
Instantly, the babe grew sleeves of soft, green grass, verdant as spring time. Sprigs of leaves burst forth from a plume of wispy, brown hair. A crown of roses sprouted about her tiny head. The babe’s features reflected every race and nationality.
“Come, follow me,” the woman insisted, spinning round. Two long, black braids trailed down her back.
Golden Head raced after the woman through the darkness, clutching the babe, the rapid drumbeat calling her deeper into the vision. Suddenly, they were in a luminous meadow, clusters of elder woman chattering happily. It was a homecoming of sorts. Golden Head searched the crowd hoping to find a familiar face.
“Come, hurry up, you old crone!”
“Crone?” Golden Head protested. “I’m not old!”
“Yes, yes you are. You’re one of us,” the woman said, facing Golden Head. “You’re a wise one and Mother needs your wisdom now more than ever.”
“Do I have a tribe?” Golden Head asked.
“Yes, of course--you know your clan. You’re one of the Sisters of the Shamanic Healing Circle, the circle of thirteen young mothers you initiated so many years ago.”
Golden Head burst into tears of joy and sadness for she hadn’t thought of her spirit sisters in ages. Now the woman leaned in, allowing her features to come into full view. She was beautiful and ageless, seemingly Maiden, Mother and Crown at once.
“Are you my Spirit Mother?” Golden Head had a Spirit Mother in the spirit realm that had been reluctant to reveal her face, until now.
“My sweet daughter,” she said, gently touching Golden Head’s cheeks. “Mother needs you to do your work, you and all of your sisters. If you don’t step up, well the earth is in danger. She’s hurt and ailing, and she needs all of her daughters to give voice to their wisdom, visions, and life work. The men have gotten it all wrong—because, my love, they thought they could do it all alone. So, they need us, they need you, all of you, to step up.
“It is the time of ‘The Great Turning,’ when women step forward to join men, to bring balance to all things and all relations. And honestly, the man at the helm, he’s nothing but a big baby, throwing tantrums, for he’s frightened of the change that’s upon him.”
Abruptly, all went dark, and Golden Head woke lying next to her husband, Chief Redwood, who was sleeping peacefully. Yet, she could still feel the grandmother’s drumming, reverberating throughout her bones.
The drumming continued, rapidly beating all day and well into the night, once again calling Golden Head into her dream time. Indeed, when Golden Head lay her head to rest, Spirit Mother was already there; revealing her beautiful face. As Golden Head reached out to touch her face, it disappeared, like sand through her fingers. Spirit Mother took Golden Head by the hands and sat down on damp earth.
“Please, Mother, tell me, what is my life’s work?”
‘My silly girl, why do you think you are married to the Chief?” She chuckled. “My dear, you are a medicine woman, a shaman, a priestess; you have your own flock to tend.” Spirit mother draped a white shawl around Golden Head’s shoulders, and braided two white feathers into her hair. “One feather comes from your White Owl and one from White Dove, signifying your gifts of insight and love.”
Golden Head remained silent, attentive.
“Yes, the young ones love you, because you’ve loved them so absolutely. And now, you’re being called to help all young women find their voice and their spiritual path on this amazing Earth walk we call life. You’re also an important guide for your own lovely children, Big Hearted and Insightful One, for they too need your guidance.”
Suddenly, Golden Head saw the face of a new friend, Sheila, a local Native American elder woman whom she had met at an antique shop nearby.
“Go, go back to Sheila,” Spirit Mother said. “Join her for The Sleeping Bear Ceremony. Remember, you are Mama Bear; you’ve become one with your spirit animal.”
Golden Head now saw all of her spirit animals dancing around her, many from her ancestral home in the north woods of Minnesota--Bear, Wolf, Horse, Deer, Moose, Owl, Red Cardinal, Turtle and Whale. Then, a second circle formed around the animals, filled with her spirit guides, her most beloved Spirit Father and many ancestors, all celebrating Golden Head’s initiation as Crone and Priestess.
Spirit Mother kissed Golden Head on the cheek and vanished, as quickly as she had arrived. Once again, Golden Head woke to her husband, Chief Redwood, sleeping soundly next to her. She wrapped her arms around him. He’s my sleeping bear, she thought, nuzzling his neck.
Golden Head fell asleep, grateful for the vision and pleased that Spirit Mother had finally revealed herself. Yes, Spirit Mother had initiated her into this new stage of life—maiden, mother, and now, Crone. Although, Golden Head preferred Wise Woman, she was comfortable knowing that her task would be shown to her in good time, in God’s timing, in Mother’s timing.
A few weeks later, Golden Head took a scenic drive with Chief Redwood to view the fall foliage. On their journey, she visited her friend Sheila at her antique store. Sheila plopped down on a soft cushion and invited Golden Head to sit down next to her. Golden Head shared the story of her vision; Sheila listened attentively, her smiling eyes shone against her bright, white hair. Afterwards, Sheila invited Golden Head to an upcoming Animal Spirit Dance. When Golden Head departed, she felt contented knowing that the two would soon meet again. As they drove home, Golden Head envisioned herself dancing with Sheila as Mama Bear and Great White Elk.
I opened the email and scrolled. Here's what you should do. Here's why that's not the right decision. Here's where you should look and who you should talk to.
When I first started getting these emails from people who do care about me and my family a couple of years ago, I would feel the need to consider and explore all the options presented. I didn't want to overlook something important or fail to consider an option.
Over the years, I've gotten much more clear about who has a say in the decisions I make for my family. Instead of "Thanks for your input!", I'm turning to "Thanks, but this is a personal decision and we are not looking for outside opinions."
I know some of you reading this today are in the middle of a big decision. If not a decision, perhaps a time of transition or a time of hardship/messiness/distress. Everyone and their mother wants to give you advice about what to do. Does this ring true?
I've made several huge, even life or death decisions for my family, and I'm currently in the middle of another big family decision. I thought I would share what I've learned in the event that you too feel like a sailing ship at the mercy of the waves and weather.
1. Who's on your team? You know, the decision-making team. It should be people you trust 100% without a single ounce of doubt. All other voices get shut out. Be ruthless. My therapist taught me a visualization where you picture a safe. Open up the safe, put all of those outside opinions in there, close it and LOCK IT.
2. There isn't a right decision. I mean, maybe sometimes there is, but in my experience, there is often not a perfect solution or an obvious right one. You are not allowed to beat yourself up for making the "wrong" decision later. I've been stuck in this trap before and it can lead to dark places that are hard to pull out of. I continue to work on untangling myself from the idea of a right or wrong decision.
3. Make peace with yourself and let go of the outcome. Even when we do all of the research and have the absolute best of intentions, sometimes it doesn't work out the way we want it to. Sometimes the decisions we make go against the wishes of the person we are making them for. Your job is to look at the absolute biggest picture, the eagle's view, and ask yourself no matter what the outcome is, will I be able to live with this decision?
I hope this brings you a little bit of comfort. I'm over here, in your corner.
I've had a rough week full of disconnection with my nine year old daughter. Today I noticed she was getting dressed without prodding, brushing her hair and doing what she needed to do to get out the door on time for school. I was so proud of her and she seemed so beautiful and precious to me in that moment. I made eye contact with her and smiled. Not a huge wide-toothed smile, but I felt my facial muscles move into the place they go when I smile.
She stopped in her tracks when she saw me staring at her and said, "What?" Let's just say I sensed some venom in her voice.
I just love you and I'm proud of you.
Then why are you giving me that look?
I'm smiling at you babe.
That's a frown trying to be a smile.
Here I was showing up with the absolute best of intentions trying to connect and she still didn't see it this way. How bad must it feel when I'm reacting out of a place of anger or irritation? It was a reminder of perception and how much our kids feed off of our energy. We have to literally ask them the question to make sure we are on the same page.
This applies to all relationships in our life. With our partner, at work, with our friends. Unless we have the courage to check in, "You seem a bit off today, did I say something that upset you?" we could be two ships sailing on different rivers, in opposite directions.
I wrote today's post in response to a podcast interview question from the amazing Maria Alcoke of The Engine Mom podcast. Use this question that Maria asks all her guests as your writing prompt for this week:
What is one thing that motherhood has taught you this month?
For those of you without kids, simply substitute partnership or yoga or nature or life for "motherhood". I’d love to read your response - email it to me!
I think and write a lot about living in the “and” of life. That’s the place where seemingly conflicting or contradictory feelings arise and the idea is to allow them both. Just because a feeling feels icky or maybe not what you “should” be feeling, you still allow it to be there and co-exist with your other feelings. I think we often stuff our feelings so quickly that we might not even notice them. We were told as kids, “It’s not scary” or “Stop crying, there’s nothing to be upset about” or “Everything is fine” and we ingest this for life.
My version of embracing “and” is about acknowledging and allowing the feeling. I think this is one of the paths to personal growth. I need some teachers along the way because this stuff is hard. I love to listen to Megan Hale’s version of this on her Wild & Holy podcast. Episode 12: The Underbelly of Expansion was all about how parts of us contract in the middle of expansion.
You know I always use myself as the guinea pig when I’m trying to figure something out, so I am going to use a recent anecdote to illustrate.
Back to School Night happened recently. The day of, I worked at my genetic counseling job, ran to the parking garage at 3:30pm, had my usual two hour long commute home, picked the kids up at their after care, brought my daughter over to gymnastics and then found myself in my kitchen with my husband and son. It was time to go to school for the event, but all I wanted was to sit down with them and rest. Going to school events can be challenging for me. No matter. I left with 10 minutes before the start of the session I was attending, plenty of time given the school is one mile away. Except I forgot about parking at school events. You would think we lived in Times Square. I parked about five blocks away, got out in my heels and started running. My good girl reflex kicked in and I didn’t want to make a bad impression on the teacher that might reflect poorly on my kid.
By the time I got the classroom I was dripping sweat and panting. Great first introduction. The teacher was lovely and calm, which eased my stress and I was feeling good by the time I pulled into the driveway back at home 90 minutes later.
Then my phone rang. I looked at it and saw the name of one of my mom’s caregivers. My stomach dropped, quick and hard. A very big part of my wanted to throw the phone into my bag and stride into the house to start the bedtime routine with my family, ignoring the call. Having been on the receiving end of these phone calls for the eight years since my mom’s diagnosis of a rare dementia, I have a strong hit of intuition when something is wrong. I just knew that answering the phone would lead to more action that evening. I didn’t want more action.
Let me pull apart here some of what I was feeling right in this moment:
Utterly exhausted from this marathon day and stimulated from a big shot of adrenaline knowing something has occurred with my mom.
Shameful that I wanted to ignore the call and proud that I can handle these moments of extreme stress.
Gratitude for having helpers that lovingly take care of my mom and resentment towards this disease that has taken over our lives.
I could go on. I think it’s so helpful to acknowledge and, as I’ve done here, write these feelings down. I don’t feel any shame now about these feelings. Processing them in this way is so helpful to me.
I did pick up the phone. There was an emergency. We dealt with it. Until the next phone call.
Your turn: Describe a scene where you had conflicting feelings. Then write out the actual feelings.
I don't consider myself a mommy blogger. In fact, I tend to feel on the outside of most groups of Mom peers. At a writing workshop I attended we were each instructed to write a one line response to "What I know" and I wrote: I know how it feels to stand in a group of moms and feel utterly alone.
What I also know is that this is more about me than the other Moms. It's my attempt to shield myself from the judgement of the Moms. For a while the only coping mechanism I could muster was to hold up the shield and crouch down behind it. I've spent a lot of energy trying to understand that other people's opinions of my parenting choices or my children are their business and have nothing to do with me. I've also spent a lot of energy trying to be the mom my child needs me to be in all settings, not just when it's most comfortable for me. These continue to be works in progress.
All that said, when you find a beautiful soul who understands your motherhood journey, it is such joy. Sharing openly about the challenges and the hard times is crucial for who we are at our core. One of the greatest gifts of Orchid Story is that the women who feel compelled to join this community are kindred spirits who also believe in this. You all are the moms I want to stand beside and I want to open up to.
It is with this energy that I joined forces with the amazing Kristy Rodriguez of Pure Nurture to offer a FREE community event for moms. Our salon, Your Motherhood Narrative, is happening the evening of Friday September 7th. Go here for more info. I know firsthand how important it is to have spaces and people to share our motherhood experience. This is one of those. I hope you'll join us.
In the spirit of serving, creating community and engaging with like-minded people, I will also be participating in an Open House at the Insight Shop on Saturday September 8th. Have you ever thought to yourself that you think you would like to attend one of my workshops or classes but you aren't sure? This is just for you. Come get a sense of who I am and how I teach. It's FREE and no registration is required.
Ok, if you made it this far clearly you are interested. I have one ask of you, depending on your location:
- If you live in the DMV: Come to one of my free events this week. Registration is required for the Your Motherhood Narrative salon and there are only a couple of spaces left. The Open House does not require registration. Both are FREE. Give yourself the gift of investing time in yourself and I have a feeling you won't be disappointed. This is the perfect way to sample what I'm offering.
- If you live outside the greater DC area: I believe so strongly in creating space for these conversations that I will host an online, video format of the Your Motherhood Narrative for FREE if I have at least eight people email me and tell me they want to attend. Share this with a friend if you really want it to happen!
I have lots in store this fall and I am SO excited to kick it off with these events. (My in person class is coming soon... go here if you want to make sure one of the spaces in class is yours.)
My response to the exercise: pick one photo you love from this summer and give yourself 15 minutes to write a reflection on it.
It was a gorgeous day on the shores of the Outer Banks, NC. Day seven of our vacation; the last day. I was sitting in my beach chair next to two of my dearest friends drinking cheap, too-sweet wine from the snack shack up by the parking lot. The kids, seven of them in total, fanned out around us. A couple were in the water with their boogie boards, a couple digging in the sand, a couple digging for M&Ms in the trailmix. Every 30 seconds or so one of them would come over to the three chairs to whine about their brother stealing their shovel or to ask for help with a towel.
In between the stop-bys, it was heaven. My portable bluetooth speaker hung from my chair playing the beach party playlist and I was reading "The Execution of Noa P. Singleton" by Elizabeth Silver. Just two weeks later I would actually get to meet the author and I was thrilled about the prospect. My kids happened to be among the eldest of this gaggle of children, which meant that I was actually reading my book, one to two pages at a time. After many years of barely sitting on the beach, this was exhilarating. Just being near my girlfriends made my heart sing since busy schedules meant getting together back at home a challenge.
As one of my friends sat back down in her chair and sighed, Ahhh, this is awesome!, I thought back to my own childhood, where we went to the lake, instead of the beach. My mom was also with her best friend on these vacations, similar to our annual Outer Banks trip. Each morning, after coffee and reading on the porch, my mom and her bestie would head down to the dock to set up for the day. They "owned" the two lounge chairs on the lower dock. The kids were allowed to use the lounge chairs on the upper deck. I don't think any of us kids ever even attempted to sit in a mom chair. The five of us kids, all girls, occupied ourselves all day with little involvement from the moms. Our Barbies went bungee jumping off the high deck, we rock-jumped, sailed, created plays and performances. We made our own lunch and our own fun. It was simply understood that the moms were not to be bothered while they were in their chairs.
This was a pretty stark contrast to my own vacation where us moms packed enough food for an army and were constantly jumping up at the whim of our kids. My own kids were definitely at the age where they could be doing more for themselves. Gosh, was I more of a helicopter mom than I realized? Was I setting my kids up to be entitled?
My thoughts were interrupted by my nine year old, Carly, who bumped the big red gummy bear float into my chair and asked me to go into the water with her. I'd said no a lot of times in the past week. Despite loving the beach I don't have a fondness for going in the water. I almost shouted, The moms are not to be disturbed right now! Instead, I paused for a moment, remembered it was our last day and thought about how I try to say yes to her when I can, since she gets so many no's.
Ok, let's do it, I said and followed Carly and the gummy bear float towards the water, the sound of my beach playlist fading behind me.
I'm getting ready for my Hero's Journey workshop this Saturday in Vienna, VA (we still have a few spots left! come join me!) and in doing so I've been thinking about both the literal and figurative journeys I've been on this summer. I had a deep realization in recent weeks what a privilege it is to be able to travel. Take a second to be filled with gratitude for the the places you saw, the foods you ate, the conversations you had.
I'm sure it's the same with you. Lots happens over the summer - we travel to new places, we spend more time with people we love, we read lots of books (I read a ton of books this summer - maybe I'll do a roundup for you soon). Then, we get to the end of August and school is starting for the kids, we are rushing around trying to get everything ready and before we know it we're celebrating Rosh Hashanah and attending weekend soccer games. The summer feels like it was years instead of weeks ago. You don't need kids to understand and live this phenomenon. We are wired to be thinking ahead and planning for what's next, constantly.
Taking a moment for reflection fills your soul. It reminds us where we've been and what we learned. Or why that trip was so important for you to plan and take in the first place. One fun and simple way to access this journey of yours is to open up your photos on your phone. Pick one you love and give yourself 15 minutes to write a reflection on the photo.
Like the idea but know you won't actually carve out the time to do it? Check out my new calendar of events to see how I can support you in telling your story.
The number one question I'm asked is: how do I find time to write? Well, I'm so glad you asked because I created a worksheet for that! Sign up for my newsletter and you'll get it tomorrow in your inbox. My Create Your Own Writing Ritual Worksheet is a one pager designed to get you inspired to start your writing practice today.
I met today's co-author in mothering, Jessica Lindberg, during my pregnancy with Griffin. Back then her foundation had a different name, but today it's known as the Ethan Lindberg Foundation, named in memory of her son, Ethan, who died of congenital heart disease. Jess was a mentor when we entered the scary world of pediatric cardiology - a place no parent wants to find themselves. She led with love and showed me and many other heart moms what it looks like to walk this path.
I learned most from Jess during the last months of Ethan's life. She wrote often during that time and took her readers on the journey of what it is to walk to the end of the earth for your child. I often talk about taking a flashlight to the dark, unknown places in life and Jess did this beautifully. My heart broke open for her. It was the first time I had been close to the intense mother's struggle for a child's life and what comes after for the survivors. What a gift this was to allow me and others into her journey.
Jess is one of those people in my life who I feel I was destined to meet. We have other connections too, that have to do with her youngest son, Bodey. There are too many commonalities for our friendship to have been a fluke.
Though I've known Jess for many years it was not until 2018 when we finally met in person. This picture is from that weekend. I can't imagine going through life and not connecting with Jess - and I never would have met her if Griffin had a normal heart. Another example that life-giving connection can come from the darkest places.
I'm honoring Rev. Julia Jarvis on Day #5 of my co-authors in mothering.
I first met Rev Julia, as she is affectionately known by her community, when I was pregnant with my son. My daughter was just over one year old and I was trying to grapple with the diagnosis of congenital heart disease in my unborn baby. If this wasn't divine timing to be introduced to the most welcoming spiritual community, the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP), of which Rev Julia is the spiritual director, then I don't know what is.
We had been floundering around, looking for a spiritual home, for a couple years at that point. The churches and synagogues we visited didn't sit quite right and we weren't interested in the shame game that many of them played when viewing Interfaith couples like us. I first came across IFFP in a Washington Post article and it felt a little too good to be true.
It wasn't. I knew from the first five minutes of attending the first time that we had found the place we belonged. The years of wringing our hands and trying to pick one or the other religion simply melted away when we discovered IFFP. This may sound a little extreme, but if you spent time with Rev Julia you would get where I am coming from.
Every sermon she gave during my pregnancy with Griffin brought tears to my eyes. I was in a delicate place, yes, but I was also legitimately moved by her words. She was speaking directly to my most fragile place. She saw it and didn't turn away. I felt that in the presence of this wise woman, everything would somehow be ok. There were not many other instances during my pregnancy when I remember feeling that kind of clarity.
For years and years growing up, I attending the same mass at the same time every week. The priest never knew my name. Rev Julia learned our names that first time we visited and has embraced me and called me by name every week since. This image is a little snapshot of what this woman is made of. She collected over 100 of these aspen leaves on a trip to New Mexico, brought them home to Maryland and created these touching "We are all in this together" keepsakes for each IFFP family.
For Day Two of honoring the co-authors of my mothering experience, I have chosen Patty Wipfler of Hand in Hand. I found Hand in Hand, a non-profit that teaches and supports parents, about seven years ago. I signed up for their newsletter and hungrily read and listened to anything I could get my hands on. The content was exactly what I needed - their method teaches a mix of warmth and limits - but perhaps even more important for me was the style of founder Patty Wipfler. Her calm voice and the rhythmic cadence of her speech was like a balm to my flaming and fiery being. I remember listening to her in the car and feeling like she fully understood both my parenting experience and the experience of being my child. I've never met Patty, but I am so grateful to her organization for giving me what I needed at a crucial time in my life.