Walking Away: The Healthy Thing to Do

They say you should never make a big decision during times of stress.  But what if making that decision is the very key to eliminating stress?

Besides, this decision has been a long time coming.  Out of ego or fear or just not knowing what my next step will be, I’ve avoided making a change that I know needs to happen.  Until now.  My very health depends on it.

Teaching my workshop requires that I be completely centered in the moment, and then afterwards, be able to access the appropriate tools to release all that I’ve encountered.

I haven’t found those tools.  And I am not centered.  Not for a long time.

Within me—what an old friend called both my blessing and curse—is a deep-seated empathy that comes naturally.  I feel between the lines, understanding much more about a person beyond what my ears hear and my eyes see.  I’ve always been this way and I still remember the stories of people—more often than not, complete strangers—who for a brief moment sought me out in the aisle of a grocery store or at a cash register.  Each encounter had absolutely nothing to do with me or my well-being with the exception that I was simply a receptacle for a lot of pain.  Why?  Probably because I listened without interruption.  Because when someone is hurting so desperately they tell a stranger their problems, how could I turn away?  I never did.  And consequently, I took that pain home with me and shed many a tear for humanity.

However, by the time I started my workshop, I had developed ways to protect myself.  I’d shower away the encounter.  Sleep.  Watch crap on the television.  But just as I put myself and my workshop into a public forum, my work was stolen by a person with whom I had a contract.  And out of ego, fear and a need to protect my creation, I worked like gangbusters.  The website expanded.  I began this blog.  I started a Facebook page.  But ultimately, I fretted.  I tried to force things to happen quickly.  My self-esteem had taken such a blow that underneath the busy-ness and strength I was trying to project was actually desperation: This is my creation!  Mine!  See me and what I’m trying to do!

So, I taught.  Not well, at first.  Not with a sense of trust or joy.  And yet, I was connecting with the majority of the people I met in my workshops.  For awhile, I was even able to release a bit of the pain I learned.

During this time, I started to write for a few publications in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  I wrote 17 articles (14 of which were published) in a little over a year.  The articles I wrote were filled with pain.  I took a lot of time in my interviews.  I listened.  And when people revealed too much of themselves, I edited out the parts of their stories they were too afraid to share with the public.  I talked to people so lost they abused their bodies with food and alcohol.  Or people who were incredibly sick from the food they ate.  People who were molested.  Veterans with unspeakable injuries and PTSD; and those left behind when a soldier was killed in war.  Or people whose self-worth had been so shattered that sharing their stories was an act of courage.

I listened to them and I taught my workshops.  I didn’t take the time to protect myself.  I was trafficking in human misery.

And, I did all of this the same time my own life started to implode.  There was job loss and poverty.  Separation.  My cat, my grandma and my grandfather (for whom I wrote his eulogy) died.  There was a lot of illness.  And I said good-bye to people and things that were keeping me in a state of anxiety.  I let go of a friend who I thought would be in my life forever because she created one drama after another for herself and tried to rope me in.  When I found myself thinking about her problems more than my own and dreading her phone calls, I knew I had to walk away.  I quit a writer’s guild I belonged to for a decade.  All of the time and energy I spent contacting writers and trying to set up meetings never amounted to anything.  I belonged to a local women’s group which helped me immensely (and I’m grateful for those women) but as I released my burdens, I picked up the emotional weight of the other women.  I stopped writing my memoir because writing about my life kept me there, in the past.  I walked away from it all.

Unfortunately, I bore a lot of this on my own.  I tried pouring my heart out to friends, only to end up focusing on what they were enduring.  I’ve pulled away from my family, not out of hatred or even anger but because within my family, nothing is ever resolved.  Nothing new happens because none of us can engage each other in the moment.  Instead, hurt piles on hurt and lifetimes of anger, disappointment, grudges and betrayal form every conversation.  The players and the circumstances change but ultimately, it’s the same conversation and we trade negativity back and forth with each other like a virus.  I’m not walking away from my friends and my family…but I am walking away until I am more centered.

Until I am well.

And that brings me here.  It’s not really the workshop.  Or the writing.  It’s not obligations and pressures and other people.  It’s me.

Because I allowed myself to get lost the last four years.  My goal was to help people but I wasn’t ready.  I thought I was.  I wonder if I would have even gone this far with my workshop if it hadn’t been stolen.  Probably not.  That’s being really honest.

I’ve been feeling this way for a long time.

It started last September when I took on projects that I didn’t want and I forced myself through them, hating every moment, angry at myself.  It started, too, with a realization: there are many people in the self-help field—people who have been doing it a lot longer than I and who have made names for themselves—that have gotten really sick and even died.  Maybe, like me, they didn’t know where to put all of the pain of other people.  Maybe they realized that when they created self-help workshops and books, they couldn’t leave themselves out of it.  In other words, teaching what we’ve learned keeps the stories of our past alive.  Keeps that energy—usually negative—alive.

That’s what I’ve been doing the last four years.  I’ve been keeping the negative energy of my own life alive while imbibing the negative energy of every person I’ve encountered.  It’s made me physically ill.

For the first time in my life, I’ve tasted bitterness.  I’m usually a hopeful person but I’ve been bitter because it was me—every choice, every decision, every thought, every feeling, everything I took on when I didn’t know better or took on when I did—that has gotten me here.  I need to forgive myself for the last four years.

I forgive myself.

And I love myself enough, I value my health and well-being enough, to walk away from what I’ve created because I’ve been hurt.

I hope that I’ve helped others.  I truly do.

But now is the time to help myself and create something new and beautiful and joyous that puts my well-being first.

I’m taking a Sabbatical for my Soul.

Thank you to all who took my workshops.  I will leave the website, blog and Facebook page up for awhile.

God bless.

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Compassion, Humor & Honesty or How to Deal with Sick People

On Christmas Eve, I was gifted with another blood clot in my left leg.

Only last week, I wanted to write everything about it.  About the anger toward a returned illness.  The reasons why it happened.  The blow to the ego because how can someone who helps others look deeply within themselves become this sick…again?  And of course, the Fear—not just of death but of fucking up the lessons I obviously still need to learn.

It would have been meaningful.  Beautifully sad.  Sober and resigned.

And it would have depressed the hell out of me.  It would have kept me in a sick space rather than propel me toward true health.  I know why I’m here again.  I’m working through it as each piece resurfaces.  This is where I need to be.

Yet, as I’ve been slowly accepting this illness, I’ve also been hyper-aware of how people who aren’t sick deal with those who are.  Some people are simply assholes.  They see the vulnerability of illness and exploit it, almost enjoying the additional pain their carelessness causes (a particular ER nurse comes to mind).  But most people, I believe, have very good intentions.  They just don’t know how to express themselves well.  And I get it.  When a loved one is seriously ill, we want to make it all better immediately because it’s easy to begin mourning, to fear a future without him or her.  Deeper still, sick people remind us of our own mortality.  Planted in this fear, we say and do things to sick people that don’t always come across as compassionate.  I know I’ve been guilty of this in the past.

With a bit of humor and a wealth of compassion (and if only to serve as a reminder to me), I’ve come up with the following.

How to Deal with Sick People:

Unless I specifically ask you, don’t give me random medical advice about my condition.  And don’t talk to anyone else about my illness either.  It’s great that your best friend’s niece just graduated with a nursing degree but if I’ve never met her and she knows nothing about my health history, I’m not interested in her opinion.  Trust that I know my body better than anyone on the planet and I’ve surrounded myself with the right doctors and practitioners that are helping me to heal.

Don’t tell me about other people you know who have died from my illness.  This happened the first time I got blood clots and again just last week.  I cannot fully describe the gripping anxiety and fear I carried—for several days, I knew intimately what it means to be terrified.  Furthermore, don’t tell me about any other sick people.  I’m compassionate that your postman was just diagnosed with cancer but I need my energy to heal me—not to be sad for him and his family.  Better yet, don’t talk to me about any tragedy or the news.  If it doesn’t affect me or you directly, realize that right now, I can’t handle it.  I cannot heal and mourn the state of the world at the same time.

Don’t try to make me feel guilty for not being able to do what I used to do or for canceling things I agreed to before I got sick.  I don’t know how I’m going to feel moment by moment and if I can’t make your dinner or pick apples like we planned, don’t take it personally.  I’m simply honoring what my body needs to do to get better.

Don’t feel sorry for me.  If you want to feel badly, that is your prerogative, but please keep it to yourself.  Your pity is not going to lift me up to a better place; it’ll only make me angry.  Pity is toxic.  Compassion, on the other hand, is full of light and love.  I’ll take your compassion anytime!

If you can’t be supportive or present with me because you’re dealing with your own drama, then be honest.  You have to come first in your own life.  Also, if sick people make you squeamish, let me know that, too.  You’re not doing either of us any good if you’re preoccupied or uncomfortable.  I understand.  We’ll reconnect when we’re both better.

Don’t assume the worst if I don’t answer the telephone.  I’m probably sleeping.  Or I’ve just had a good cry.  Or I’m dealing with the pieces of my illness.  More and more often, I’m fantasizing—creating a beautiful garden in the springtime or kneading biscotti or pizza dough on a marble pastry board or dancing again in the basement.  I will call you back but when I’m emotionally ready.

Don’t be weird when you see me.  I walk with a slight limp now.  My skin is really dry and there is not enough lotion in the world to moisten it up.  Bed rest has straightened the curly hair at the back of my head into a weird flip.  The pain has me often grunting like a pig searching for truffles.   And, my God, I stink.  Seriously, every part of my body that can emit smells does.  I bathe, wear deodorant, and brush my teeth.  It doesn’t matter.  It could be the blood thinners or the illness slowly releasing its toxins.  The more I heal, the smellier I am.  At home, it’s freeing but with others, I’m slightly embarrassed.  So, please look me in the eye when you see me.  I know how I appear but remember, this dry, limping, stinky state is only temporary.  I’m getting better every day and I’m still me.

If you sincerely offer to help me, be prepared for the unusual.  What I need most right now is for someone to cut my toenails.  My Neanderthal arms can’t make up for the limited mobility.  My blood clot, though dissolving, begins at my foot and ends just under my butt cheek.  And so the nails have been growing for nearly six weeks—yes, before I even got sick.  They’re not quite talons but they’re not cute.  Vanity—and the desire to maintain a modicum of sexiness—have prevented me from having my husband do it.  It takes intimacy to a whole other level.  I might as well ask him to floss my teeth or change out my tampon.  It’s that gross.  But he’s going to have to do it sooner or later.  Or you are!

Finally, don’t ask me about my illness.  Unless I bring it up, let’s not talk about the details.  I live with the details and if you and I dissect them with every conversation, I’m never going to get better.  I’m actually becoming bored by the details—and that’s terrific!

Instead, let me tell you how my husband called me on his way to work to have me look out the window at a rainbow arching over the sunrise.  And you tell me how much your six-year old loves her oatmeal.   And I’ll tell you that I just bought heirloom seeds for purple cauliflower—can you believe it—purple?  And you tell me how you witnessed your teenaged son being kind.  And I’ll tell you that I love you.  And you’ll tell me that you love me, too.

And I’ll tell you, that’s all I needed to hear.  In that moment, your love and positive energy have propelled me further to true health.

Thank you.

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Just What the Hell is “Who the Hell Am I…Honestly?®”

Workshop Background Overview

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Forgiveness with a Smile!

Background Selling Forgiveness

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Veterans Day

Background Veterans

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Another Halloween Poem

Background Halloween

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On Forgiveness: A Daughter Finally Sees Her Father

Maybe it was the workshop that set things in motion.

Last weekend, I facilitated a workshop that examined the relationship between daughters and their fathers.  During a break, one of the participants asked if I would share my story.  For me, sharing my story is a fine line.  While my experiences gave birth to my workshops, revisiting them too often feels dangerous, like deliberately re-infecting me with a childhood disease.  Voicing the past gives power to it and I can easily become lost—for a minute or for days—in all of that pain.

But, I’ve been working with this circle for a year and a half.  I trust them and I’ve learned to trust myself as a facilitator, so when the time was appropriate, I did feel comfortable sharing.  One of the questions I ask in this workshop is, “Did the way your father treat women influence your own interactions with women?”

I then clarified.  “For example,” I said, “My father had an affair with my mother’s friend.  He divorced my mother and married the friend.  But, together, they also deliberately set out to destroy my mother.”  I said all of this without emotion.  Nonchalant.  I allowed myself even a moment of pride: look how far I’ve come!  I continued, “Because of this, I never trusted other women.  If I had women friends, it was never for very long and it wasn’t until I was almost 30 that I had girlfriends.  Sometimes, still, I don’t quite trust couples that my husband and I hang out with.  So, this is the kind of thing I mean by this question.”

That’s all I shared about my father.  I didn’t carry it home with me.  I’d like to say I was even able to release it.  And I may have done save for the fact that this past weekend I attended a memorial for my great-aunt.

During my parents’ divorce and the years of craziness and heartache to follow, my father’s great-aunt and uncle and their kids were the only members of my paternal family to remain in my life.  My paternal family thought my great-aunt and uncle chose my mother’s side over my father’s.  They didn’t.  They chose a 12-year old girl and her 10-year old sister because we were family, we were hurting and they were the kind of people who could never turn off their hearts.  They paid for this choice: like me, they, too, lost an entire side of their family.  My great-uncle lost his big brother—my grandfather.  All of it has been senseless.  Ego and pride and misunderstanding that tore through the family like lightning 30 years ago.

Still, there was some communication between my great-aunt and uncle and a few members of my paternal family.  I knew this.  So, when my great-aunt passed away, I was prepared to see a long-lost aunt or cousin at her memorial.  I allowed myself to really examine my feelings: would I be okay if this happened?  Yes.  Simply, yes.  A lifetime had passed; I was no longer a little girl.  While I could easily access my old hurts or sense of victimization if I wanted to go there, I didn’t.  I knew if I did see my family again, it would only be with hard-earned grace rather than old fear.

I can honestly say, however, that I did not expect to see my father.

He sat with my grandfather, my two aunts and their families at a table across the aisle.  Only a few feet and a mountain of years separated us.  I felt torn, in a way.  I was here to honor my great-aunt.  Yet, right here, right now, was a man I thought if I ever saw again, it would be in a coffin.  Curious.  Why did he come?  To make amends to his great-aunt who he never treated well?  To catch a glimpse of his daughters?  For the free food?  I don’t know.  I was simply curious.  No nervousness.  No sweaty armpits.  No anger.  Just curious.  More curious still as a wave of compassion and forgiveness covered me.

But then, he was gone.  He got up from his chair and left.  He doesn’t know this, but I followed him.  He walked quickly through the foyer and out the main doors into the parking lot.  There, I stopped.  I decided I was not going to chase him down; that seemed familiar and detrimental.  I did wait for a minute or two but he didn’t return. 

I walked back into the banquet room directly toward my aunt.  I said hello.  I think I even occupied the chair my father had been in.  I talked to both of my aunts, my uncles, a cousin.  Despite the years and gray hair and lines, I recognized my memories in their faces.  Without knowing them, I still knew them.  I looked at photos of first and second cousins, all beautiful girls and young women, strangers who shared my blood.  We distilled our lifetimes into a few minutes.  Defensiveness held in the air from some, wistfulness from others.  I realized then: it would be so easy to paint them as ogres and me as the victim, but I couldn’t.  I just couldn’t.  They, too, had been affected by this split.  They, too, had lost.  I could not know what burdens they had carried all these years.  This family was in pain.  I can’t close my heart to that.

Even as I reconnected, I waited.  I waited for my father to return to the table.  I waited for him…until it was time to return to my table and listen to the eulogies honoring my great-aunt.

Then, it was over.  I looked for him again but my father was gone.  It was over.  Again.

I said good-bye to one of my aunts and gave her my phone number.  She and my uncle gave me a hug.  We moved back into our lives.

I returned to my great-aunt’s family.  I finally broke down.  For my great-aunt.  For my own sense of guilt: I thought I would have more time with her.  I think, though, my great-uncle and cousins thought my tears were for my father.  In their grief, with their big hearts, they actually apologized to me; they hadn’t expected him.  I was not a little girl anymore; that day, my tears were purely for my aunt.  For this loss which had begun years before she died as we all grew up and moved away.  I cried for her.

The next day, however, I did cry, on-and-off for my father.

But not in the way one would think.  I didn’t miss my father.  I didn’t fear him.  I didn’t hold any anger even.  I didn’t want to insinuate myself into his life.  I simply wanted to give my father a hug and I cried for the missed opportunity.

Because in my father, I saw a man older than he should be.  All those years of unkindness, especially toward himself, hung heavy like dusty, gray curtains in an abandoned house.  My heart wanted to give him a moment’s peace.

I wanted to hug my father.  And tell him that I love him.  That I always have.  I wanted to tell him I am grateful: if he had not stepped away, I would never have become the woman I am.  I am stronger than I ever thought I could be because of him.  I have come through it all not only with my heart intact but full of grace and magnificence.  I wanted my father to know that it’s okay.  It had to happen this way.

Maybe that’s why the memorial happened the way it did.  Maybe that’s why we were only a few feet apart and yet never connected.  Maybe I needed to see him again just to reaffirm who I am: a woman who has lost a tremendous amount and yet, has blessedly, wholeheartedly, truly learned a kind of forgiveness that cannot be explained or justified to those who aren’t there yet.  It had to happen this way.

This is my new story about my father.

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