If you feel stuck - there is a part of you that benefits from feeling stuck. When you don't do the things you know you need to do to be well and happy and at peace, it's not because you lack self-discipline. It's because you get something out of staying stuck. You don't have to risk failure to follow through, or making yet another mistake, or being rejected. It's like having an abusive boyfriend, whom you know you should dump, but you prefer bad company to being alone. Because it may be crappy but at least it's familiar. And this story you have built in your head and that is going on and on in a continual loop, serves you. It gives you identity, something to focus on, something that keeps you from getting too close to others.
Once you recognize this, you start to see that you have choices. You can choose to pay attention. To the thoughts. The patterns. You can start to be curious. You ask, how is this "sabotaging" behavior actually serving me? What am I getting from it? You can thank the part of you that is doing this, making these choices, as in reality this part is truly trying to protect you. Maybe getting fit will bring attention to you that a part of you is afraid of; maybe looking for a new job or taking on a new project stresses out the part of you that wants to protect you from rejection or being found out as a "fraud." Maybe giving up the lousy lover or friend makes the part of you that is scared of loneliness want to crawl into a cave. Trust me - as counterproductive as they may seem, these parts really are just trying to protect you. Somewhere along the line, these parts developed tools to cope with things that felt beyond your control. And they worked - because you are here, reading this.
It might be time to update the system. A little "how's it working for you?" moment of honest self-reflection- and then, when you're ready, you start the system update. Slowly. Tiny steps, because you don't want to crash the system. Start by paying attention. Being curious. Breathing, especially deep exhales. Keep going. We live in a rushed world of instant gratification, but this is something that takes time, effort, small, consistent steps. It took years to get to where you are today, and when you look ahead - the time will pass anyway, so you may as well keep taking those small, curious, compassionate steps, one day at a time.
My favorite running buddy just got back from three weeks of bootcamp and for the fifth day in a row, we were running three miles and I was reinforcing what he had learned. Bruno is my two-year-old labrador retriever, whom I am training to be a therapy dog to help me in my work as a trauma-informed coach, yoga instructor and therapist. Because I believe the body needs to be part of any wellness and recovery and prevention program, my furry partner needs to be in good shape, and be totally focused whether we are in a busy school or running on a trail. So while we run, I am using the techniques the dog trainers taught us to correct undesirable behaviors and reinforce the good stuff.
On today’s run, as I was picking up his poop, I caught sight of a fox up ahead. This was a great opportunity to teach Bruno to stay seated and not bark, and when I was ready, to heel, and not pull me toward the now departed fox. He did great. And I started thinking about how the trainer had discussed dog psychology with me. “It’s very simple: we correct undesirable behavior and reward good behavior.” So what that looks like is if he pulls, or doesn’t come when summoned, he will hear a tone on his e-collar. If that doesn’t work, the next correction is he will feel a buzz, like the tens my chiropractor applies to my inflamed SI joint area in my lower back. In the week since he returned from the training, I have rarely had to apply the buzz. He gets it, no discussion or negotiation - he is a dog. Black-or-white. Good or bad. Period.
So I started to think about how in many ways, the way things are with humans right now has kind of devolved into a culture where if we pull a little, we are immediately buzzed (and not starting at the lower settings of the e-collar). I have seen this happening over the last several years. Four years ago, I was part of a friend group that was quite tight. We ran together, broke bread together, prayed and cried and laughed. We did not share the same views on politics and religion, our skin color varied. But we shared a faith, and the belief that love is why we are here, and we had honest conversations that in spite of our differences were able to happen because of the faith and the love thing. Until one day, one of the women sent out an email to us and others that basically said, this is how I stand on xyz issues and if you do not profess to believe the same, you are rejecting me, and we cannot be friends. End of discussion. This was disconcerting to say the least, as there was zero opportunity or offer to talk about it. I remember receiving the email and being shocked, that someone who very publicly talks about love and tolerance, essentially was saying, these concepts come with conditions, and I get to decide what those are. I was dumbfounded. I did not respond for a bit, and when I did, I said something like, can we talk? This concerns me. Her response was dismissive, as she clearly had made her mind up about me and had no desire to actually talk with me - listen to me - and perhaps have some of her assumptions about me challenged (I knew that our views were very similar, but how I chose to live them and express them was different from hers for very understandable reasons, which I think she would have understood if we had met to talk). To her, things boiled down to, you are either enthusiastically and loudly with me, or you are against me. End of story.
I work in mental health. I am currently working toward another Master’s (Clinical Mental Health Counseling) in a program that has a strong focus on social justice, which is why I chose it. My life right now is extremely busy, between my schoolwork, my part-time job as a wellness coach for a medical group, my self-care, which I take seriously and is non-negotiable, and a parenting gig that reminds me to stay humble and not take life too seriously. I love it all. In my schoolwork, I am learning all kinds of theories and skills to help me be an effective, multiculturally competent counselor. In my coaching, I apply much of what I am learning in school, as well as all of the other certifications and experience I have acquired over the decades, as I help patients back off the precipice of dis-ease by building healthy habits, hopefully for the long-term. Some of my clients are 22-year-old college students, some of them are 75-year-old great-grandmothers, some are lawyers, doctors, manual laborers. I am the bilingual coach so I get to coach the clients who prefer to speak Spanish. Some clients have gym memberships and dog walkers, while others use a walker and live in a small space with several generations. I have learned that I cannot assume that someone has food in their fridge - or cooking utensils, for that matter. I meet each person where they are, alert to my biases, aware that I do not know what I do not know, so I need to listen.
I am afraid that this desire and ability to listen has disappeared in our general culture. It alarms me and it makes me really sad. My son, a high school junior, was in a class (focused on social emotional learning) this past week where a presentation was given on microaggressions. The prompt on the screen (he is still 100% remote, since March 2020) said, “you imitate Southern or British or any other kind of accents.” If you said yes, you were accused of a microaggression. The equivalent of an e-collar buzz. Another prompt on the screen was, “your Asian classmates are really good at math.” Yes=microaggression=buzz. My son and I had a long conversation, as we talked about the fact that the delivery of this online lesson was devoid of any opportunity for discussion. There was no opportunity for him to say, my mother and grandfather are British, we love British shows, and we have fun at home breaking into British accents. There is no room for context. “Latinos are great dancers.” Microaggression. No chance to say, I am half Puerto Rican, we love dancing in our family, especially to regetón, and in my worldview, formed by my experience growing up latino, this does not feel untrue or disrespectful. As a friend said when we were talking about this, when everything is a “harm” then nothing is a harm. If I were to correct Bruno every single time he did something, he would not understand what is right or wrong, or why. So I am selective and clear about commands and what to correct and reinforce. We do this with dogs, ask any dog trainer. Are we creating a culture now where there is no room for discussion about context, or listening to where someone else is coming from, that everything outside of a certain point of view or language is a microaggression or worse?
As someone who works hard to put myself in someone else’s shoes, and who believes that most of us are truly doing the best we can, and that we cannot possibly truly know what someone else’s experience in life has been or is right now, so we really do need to as much as possible dig deep and move with grace and compassion - I am concerned by how much censorship, shaming and intolerance I see today. I have worked with veterans, active duty military, first responders and members of law enforcement for a few years. The men and women I have had the privilege of working with in my yoga classes and in behavioral health treatment centers have - every single one of them - impressed me with their sense of civic duty, their desire to help keep other human beings safe and well, and just their decency. Of course, just like the rest of us, they have made mistakes, and they have suffered greatly. They are human.
I was chatting a couple of days ago with a classmate of mine whose husband is a veteran and a police officer. She is white, grew up in very humble circumstances, in a very diverse area, and did not stop to consider people's skin color, just their shared humanity. She shared how hard it has been for her, to be in a counseling program where everywhere you turn you hear about racism and injustice and police brutality, while being married to a man who sacrificed everything for his country’s citizens and residents, no matter what color they are, and now in his job in law enforcement he gets 3am calls from black grandmothers saying they are afraid of their grandsons. Basically, he is an amazing human being doing amazing work, and she is experiencing a very stressful incongruence. She knows there are “bad cops” out there but as she pointed out, there are some really bad doctors out there but we don’t go hating on the medical profession and calling for them to be defunded. In fact, there are some truly monstruous swim and gymnastics coaches out there, but we do not seem to be throwing their colleagues as a whole under the cancel bus. My friend pointed out how when her husband returned from deployment as a Marine, he was given a month of basic recovery. Not nearly enough, of course - but better than police officers get right now. Every day they are dealing with traumatic situations (first responders too) and they end their shift, go home, get back at it the next day. So much needs to happen to support our public servants - and yet this is never mentioned in our school. Just like on social media and in our culture right now in general, there is a sense that if you hint at wanting to discuss the “blue” side, you will get zapped - because there is no room for considering context, other viewpoints, or the fact that nobody holds the market share on trauma. I can tell you from my experience working in behavioral treatment centers, that every single public servant I worked with had layers of trauma, usually stemming from childhood. I don't think I have ever heard this point made anywhere, including in the multiple "community conversations" at school regarding social justice issues. Brene Brown often talks about the danger in dehumanizing people(s) and yet that is exactly what is going on - often by the very people who complain about dehumanization. (If you feel like the world is going crazy, I hear you!).
So, this is something I have been grappling with for a while, especially as I consider how I can be most helpful. I think about this as I parent my high schooler and college student, as I move through my professional and school circles and roles, and as I consider how I will apply my counseling degree. I have often said to my kids, if everyone is saying or doing something, it is probably a stupid idea. At the very least, question it. Who stands to gain from it? Who loses out from it? And does it sit well with your values? Be discerning. Don’t share something without learning who benefits, and who is hurt by, the story. Investigate the facts. Most of all, be kind, and at the very least, or maybe this is the most important and hardest part - listen.
We were sitting on the most beautiful beach you could ever imagine. White, fluffy sand, clear, turquoise waters, no one else around, just us and our young children. My kids were 5 and 8, she had a crawling baby to keep up with and another one on the way. She turned to me and sighed. “I’m so sick of living here. I miss [insert anywhere else]. It’s so boring here.” At the time, what was going through my mind was, omigosh, you are crazy! This is paradise! Life here is calm, relaxed, and yes, there are the inconveniences of island-living but gosh, you have no idea how spoiled you are!
I kept these thoughts to myself though, because they were not helpful for obvious reasons. Instead, I offered, “You’re in a hard stage of life right now. You have a toddler, you’re carrying around a huge watermelon in your belly, your husband works a ton of hours. Do you think maybe your feelings are pretty normal considering this stage in life? And maybe it would be hard no matter where you are?” I can’t remember what she replied, but it was probably NOT “Wow, you are so right! I just need to shift my mindset, take ownership of the things I can change and have a more positive attitude about stuff, and remind myself that this too shall pass!”
This morning, a friend (I will call her Ruth) was sharing how challenging she finds some people in her life, who would fall into the Eeyore personality category. You know the type, they are generally low energy, and can find the negative in absolutely any situation or interaction. This particular person Ruth was telling me about is having a hard time right now with The Shitshow (political polarization, etc.). This woman claims that she has had to withdraw from certain social groups because she has felt others in the groups are antagonistic and clearly not aligned with her own politics etc, so she feels uncomfortable and unwelcome. She went on to say that she and her husband felt the same in the last place they had lived and she was hoping they had left that behind, so she was upset things were the same in their new hometown.
Immediately I thought back to my friend back on the island, as well as to other times in my own life. When my firstborn was 2 months old, we moved from a metropolitan area in the South to a rather provincial town in the Northeast. I did not know anyone, and it was winter and I had an infant, so even though COVID was 20 years away, the flu was enough reason to practice what we now call social distancing. My husband was traveling most of the time, and I was pretty isolated. I was not a playgroup kind of mom, since the thought of chit-chatting while babies made a mess and stole each other’s toys and constantly interrupted was highly unappealing to me. When my baby was six months old, I joined a gym and she enjoyed the nursery there while I ran on the treadmills and picked up the weights, and had adult conversations with other gym-goers. If you asked me then if I was happy where I was, I would have said, “I am happy anywhere - but this area is really hard for making friends. People here are generally not that into stuff I am interested in, and they are happy to stay in their small, suburban bubble so we don’t have much in common.” Eventually I started a little photography business, and became very involved as a volunteer in a program at a high school helping teen parents stay in school. And this was when I finally started to feel like I was growing roots in this new area. We had been there for six years at this point.
In six years, this town had not changed. The people in the town had not changed. What changed was me. I had made efforts to seek out work, people, and communities where I could make an impact. The town where I lived still had the people who had always lived there and still had their high school friends, so they were nice but they were not interested in embracing someone new into their circle. It still had plenty of things and people I would categorize as not being aligned with my ideologies, lifestyle, or future goals. But at some point I started to shift and my time, energy and other resources were dedicated toward what is important to me and is aligned with my values. And not only did I start to feel more fulfilled, but I started to meet others who shared my curiosity.
Talking with Ruth this morning about this particular friend of hers, and how to best handle the friendship, once again brought me back to the theme of as Ruth puts it, no matter where we go, there we are. Today, I think this is something that is particularly important because we are all on social media (which is how you are reading this, I would guess). So you don’t have to move in order to put yourself in a certain area or group. It’s right on your phone. And you can easily and quite justifiably, no matter where you fall on the ideological spectrum, feel insulted, incensed, misunderstood, ostracized, excluded. And I would argue that it is a choice. What we focus on grows, and we choose every single moment, where we place our focus. These days, I am finding it really helpful to focus on these thoughts or mantras:
If people are consistently pissing you off, you could move, or unfriend, or repost, or complain - or you could unplug, go outside, and look for the bright spots. There are lots of bright spots in this crazyass world :-)
Several years ago, on a Thursday morning, I decided to take our dog Penny (rescue, mostly redbone coonhound) for a run. Less than a mile into the run, a neighbor’s dog busted through their invisible fence and lunged at Penny. She nimbly darted out of the way, so the golden retriever’s teeth landed in my hip. I don’t really remember how we got away from our attacker, just that we did, and ended up at the local Urgent Care getting a tetanus shot (fortunately the dog was up to date on rabies shots).
For the next couple of days I was on an emotional rollercoaster. I would cry for no reason, snap at my husband and kids, and alternate between feeling restless and feeling lethargic and depressed. Bewildered by my uncharacteristic volatility, I called a friend of mine, Brian, who trains dogs for a living (check him out - his place proves that doggy heaven does exist, and he is in charge of it!). He immediately knew what was wrong. “Susanne, you have PTSD. The reaction you are having is totally normal. You were attacked by an animal, and even though you know you are safe, your body still has a lot of stress hormones to cycle out. You should be fine in a few days.”
I went for a run (without Penny, avoiding the attacker, and now with pepper spray handy). It didn’t help. Normally my workouts are great at helping me feel calm and happy, but I felt no better. On Sunday I was teaching yoga and I didn’t really feel like it, but it was my gig, with my loyal crew, and I could not not show. When I teach, I do the class with the students. So I showed up, did my usual thing, starting with a dynamic warm-up, working the core, some balancing and stretching, ending in some mindful breathing and relaxation. And suddenly I realized at the end of it that I felt completely back to my normal self! I stayed that way - it was as if the one hour class had allowed my body to flush out the crazy-making hormones and my central nervous system to get back to baseline. I had no idea how this had happened, but suddenly I understood why so many clients had told me that they felt calmer after my classes than they did with anything else in their self-care and/or therapeutic programs.
And so began my voracious investigation into yoga for depression, anxiety and trauma. I read books, took training courses, got certifications, listened to podcasts, watched videos and webinars, and eventually landed in another Master’s program, where I am now (MEd Clinical Mental Health Counseling). I have worked in addiction treatment centers, as well as taught classes that included survivors of school shootings, military combat, abuse. One of the things I have learned is that many people who survive trauma (a friend of mine who works in mental health says that anyone who survives 2020 can be considered a trauma survivor!) don’t think of themselves as trauma survivors, especially when they are somewhere like the treatment center for First Responders, where I have the privilege of teaching. I remember when I first realized this, a firefighter who had been in some pretty awful situations at work, not to mention the stuff he endured as a kid in an abusive home, tried to downplay his trauma. “My stuff is nothing compared to Joe’s,” he said.
My little dog attack was really not a big deal compared to so much else people go through (including myself at other times in my life). And yet, it had a real effect on my physiology and mental health, and I now understand why. I now understand why trauma comparison is actually missing the mark.
“When something happens that is novel, unpredictable, uncontrollable, or threatening to our survival, sense of identity, or ego” (Elizabeth A. Stanley, PhD), the part of our brain that is in charge of our survival kicks into gear.
This stress arousal mechanism doesn’t differentiate between a set of golden retriever teeth in the hip, and something far more catastrophic, or for that matter, going to a job every day where your boss is an asshole. If you are in a situation where you feel helpless, powerless, and you’re not in control, this is enough for your situation to be categorized as trauma. The part of your brain that activates all of those incredible, life-saving activities and processes that equip you to escape the sabre-tooth tiger does not stop and check in with your rational thinking part to see if this is really a life-or-death situation. And this makes sense back when the human blueprint was created, because taking time for a mental board meeting would mean sure death.
This is important to understand (and I am definitely giving a super brief, cursory explanation here; for an incredibly thorough, fascinating explanation pick up Widen the Window by Elizabeth A. Stanley, PhD). Playing the trauma comparison game is not helpful. In fact, it can be really harmful. A few years ago I was having lunch with my friend Jeremy Richman. His daughter Avielle was a first-grader murdered at the Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. Eight years ago today, as I sit here writing this. Jeremy and I met for lunch regularly, as I was helping with some stuff with The Avielle Foundation he and his wife had set up to help understand and prevent violence. I had met him soon after my cousin died by suicide, and we spent hours talking about violence, depression, grief, trauma - as well as really cool stuff like our love for running, how exercise and mindfulness change the brain, etc.. This one day I was feeling really sad. But I felt weird telling him how I felt, and he sensed it. He said, “Susanne, your trauma may be different from mine but it is still trauma. I can’t stand it when people don’t want to share their bad days with me. We all have bad days. Just because yours isn’t because your kid was murdered, and mine was, doesn’t mean I don’t want to be here for you.” I realized then how further isolating trauma can be, when we make assumptions that someone doesn’t want to hear about our stuff, or that we don’t think we deserve their empathy, because it’s “not as bad” as their situation.
Life is hard. For some people, for whatever reason, life is harder. Right now we are closing out 2020, which will definitely go down in history as the greatest shitshow trainwreck awakening of modern times. For many of us, things have been disruptive as work was moved home or ended, school was moved online or in-person but in really bizarre ways, socializing stopped, trips canceled, and toilet paper and sanitizer became black market items. For many, true hardship has occurred, as well as tragic loss. Even if we did not experience anything we consider comparatively catastrophic, this year’s disruptions were novel, unexpected, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and feel like a threat to our survival for many. The good news, though, is there actually are things we can do to recover from this disruption, and the sooner we start, the better. I think one of the most important first steps is to recognize that this has been quite a year, and no matter what, we are all in some way altered by it. The next thing is to consider how we are handling things. Are we drinking booze every or most nights? Are we angrier than usual at our kids? Do we get migraines? Have we gained or lost weight? Are we sharing lots of opinionated stuff on social media? Did we stop working out? Are we being unfaithful in our relationship? Is the Amazon Prime van at our house more often than the regular mail carrier? Have we stopped socializing even virtually? Do we dread Monday mornings? Are we sleeping less than 7-8 hours on a regular basis? Are streaming platforms running out of shows to watch? Does our back hurt? Do we have digestive issues? Autoimmune conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia? Do we snap easily? Are we sure that everyone who doesn’t agree with us is an idiot/asshole and we should unfriend them? Are we avoiding intimacy by working/drinking/exercising/eating etc more? Do we feel disconnected from the people around us? Do we chase intense experiences? Do we take crazy risks? Do we regularly do stuff we know we "shouldn't" and we can't imagine taking a year- or month- or week- or day-long break from? These are all some of the symptoms that it may be a good idea to talk with someone about what’s going on. They can be signs of trauma, from this year and/or from previous incidents and situations. And fortunately, recovery is certainly possible.
To learn more about trauma and recovery resources, here are some places to start:
Widen the Window, Elizabeth A. Stanley, PhD
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Gabor Mate, MD
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter Levine
Robyn Brickel, MA, LMFT has an amazing blog
TED Talk by Nadine Burke Harris, MD: How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime
If you can do some yoga, please check out my videos on YouTube, like this one for a healthy back:
And please, reach out. If you are thinking, “this isn’t real trauma, compared to______” don’t believe that part. It’s the part that is trying to protect you from something, but it hasn’t been updated with the latest information. Reach out to me, a therapist, a trusted friend.
“Someone who drowns in 7 feet of water is just as dead as someone who drowns in 20 feet of water. Stop comparing traumas, stop belittling your or anyone else’s trauma because it wasn’t ‘as bad’ as someone else’s. This isn’t a competition; we all deserve support and recovery.” (Casey Rose)
Running with Bruno in 2020
Today my dog, Bruno, and I each had a PR. Bruno ran 5 miles with me - his longest yet! We started running together this fall, as the weather got cooler and I was curious to see how he would do if I sped up our daily walks and got him running. The veterinarian and the dogsitter had commented on his girth, so I figured he needed a bit more exercise. So we started with some walk-runs and ended up regularly running 3-4 miles. It has turned into an almost daily morning ritual for us, no matter how cold or how rainy. Sure, my MapMyRun average speed has gone down since I can’t be bothered to stop the tracker for his pit stops, and I often end up running with a poop bag in one hand. But especially the last several months, with so much heaviness in the world, I have found that this treasured ritual helps me stay motivated to run. Bruno gets so excited when he sees me putting on my Hoka running shoes! And many of the motorists who pass us can’t help but smile. I have been told that he looks like he’s grinning as we run.
The reason we ran 5 miles today, a mile longer than usual, is because in the first mile of our run I was reflecting on how today marks 5 years since I stopped drinking alcohol, so I figured, today of all days would be a good day to set a PR with Bruno. As we ran, I thought about how 5+ years ago, if you had told me I would have chosen sobriety for 5 years, and would be running with a SECOND dog, I would have told you were nuts. I LOVED wine or IPA’s with dinner, while socializing, while traveling, on a hot day, on a cold day, to make boring stuff more fun, to make fun stuff even more fun, to have something that felt separate from Suburban Mom Identity. Nothing catastrophic happened, it was more of a gradual, creeping removal of the veil over my awareness that in all of the insanity of the world (and this was before 2020!), alcohol was not helping me, if anything it was hindering my physical, mental and spiritual health. On 12.6.15 I was so disappointed in myself, that I realized I had had enough. I wanted a break. I had no idea how it would be for me to interact in a world that is so alcocentric, normalizing and glamorizing alcohol to the point that if you don’t drink, people think you are pregnant, on antibiotics, or of such poor character or genetics that you can’t stop drinking. But I figured, I’d use my coaching tools on myself and learn some new stuff. It would be interesting. And not long-term.
Except that the more I learned about myself, about the brain, about authentic connection, about resentment, boundaries, control and humility, the more I realized I wanted to keep being present and learning more. The more I learned about how alcohol is a toxic poison that we have been brainwashed to believe is fine for people who “drink moderately,” the more I realized I did not want to return to the herd. This past week I came across an article about how public health groups have been trying to push for more awareness about the established link between alcohol and cancer:
"Alcohol’s cancer link is irrefutable: In 1988, the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that there is a causal relationship between ethanol—the specific type of alcohol in booze—and throat, liver, breast, and colon cancers."
But - surprise! - a lot of people would lose a lot of money if these public health groups got their way. Budweiser would be the new Phillip Morris. Anyway, this is another area that I do not have to wait for the legislators and doctors and advertising groups to become more enlightened. I am grateful, on this 5th soberversary, to have read amazing books like This Naked Mind by Annie Grace (and listened to her podcast), which talks about this and more. If you are at all sobercurious, or you are sober, I highly recommend you check it out.
These are some of the thoughts I had as Bruno and I ticked off the hilly miles and I reflected on the last 5 years of Living AF (Alcohol Free):
“I think that guy and girl are struggling.” Bill, my husband, was watching a pair who looked like a father and teen daughter, as they tried to swim back to shore. We were at a beautiful beach in an off-the-beaten path location, where we could easily socially distance from others. There were no lifeguards. We had rented a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) and I had taken it out a little earlier, but it was a windy day and the current made the experience challenging. I decided that my 30 minute ride was it for the day and nobody else would go out, as it felt too dangerous. I had been forewarned by our AirBnB owner that this particular beach, that seemed so innocuous with the beautiful sandbar, had a dangerous rip current and a few people had drowned quite recently.
The girl made it back to shore, but her dad seemed to be getting tired. My son, a lifeguard at our local pool, was watching now too. Suddenly, he and Bill sprang into action. They grabbed the SUP and swam out to the man. Between the two of them, they towed him back to safety. His wife called 911 and the paramedics arrived, and ended up taking him to the hospital. He was exhausted and in shock. His wife told us that her husband had a heart condition, and he should never have been out there. His daughter was understandably upset and in shock over it all. We found out the next day at the local fishing shop that he had been kept in the hospital but he was going to be OK. I kept thinking, THANK GOD Bill had put his book down and seen what was happening, THANK GOD I had the SUP that day, THANK GOD my son is a certified lifeguard so I knew that everything was going to turn out OK.
I was also thinking that day about what you are supposed to do if you are caught in a rip current. It’s not something that most people know. If you find yourself being dragged out, and no matter how hard you swim, you aren’t making much progress, you’re probably in a rip current. And the smartest thing to do is to stop fighting it. Instead, relax, and let it take you where it’s going. It sounds scary, to let yourself be dragged out further from shore, but eventually the current ends. At this point, swim parallel with the shore and then when you feel like you can swim toward the beach relatively easily, do it. This is the safest and smartest way to get back without exhausting yourself and possibly getting into panic mode. Trust me - it’s happened to me. It is a terrifying experience, feeling like no matter what you do, you can’t get anywhere. And when it happened to me I was a kid, and there were sharks in that area. I hadn’t known how to handle rip currents. Now I do, so if I hear of an area with rip currents, I avoid them, but if I am caught in one, I focus on breathing calmly, allowing myself to be carried out, and then when I can swim without encountering resistance, I swim back to shore.
This eventful day at the beach, and the near-drowning that was prevented by my heroic husband and son, often crosses my mind at random times that have nothing to do with the beach or swimming. How many times are we in situations in life when it feels like we are swimming upstream and no matter what we do, the resistance just builds more, and we get more fatigued and frustrated? Maybe it’s traffic; or something in our work, or in our relationships, where we feel that no matter what we do, the desired outcome or goal is always beyond our reach. Parenting is a perfect example of an area where we really want to have control, but no matter how much we push, say, or do, we are continually reminded that we really cannot control other people.
I often wonder, how about if I treat this like a rip current? Focus on my breath, soften - surrender - into the flow that right now I cannot control, and when things get to a less turbulent place, I can build the momentum by doing the right thing, and then the next right thing, over and over, until I get back to shore.
“Always say “yes” to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? what could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say “yes” to life — and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.”
― Eckhart Tolle
When I was in 7th grade (in Mexico City), things got so bad for me that I started to feel that my only and best option may be to end it all. I don’t even remember if “suicide” was part of my vocabulary at that point (I didn’t know what “homosexual” meant until 9th grade; it was the early 80s in Mexico and there was a lot you just didn’t talk about). I sometimes talked with the guidance counselor at school and while I remember him being super sweet, I don’t remember him being in the least bit helpful as I felt my world closing in on me.
The source of my depression was mostly at school. I had 3 best friends - SS, AD and SM. SS and I had gotten closer and SM was threatened by this and she manipulated SS and AD into turning on me. It didn’t stop there. The poison seeped into the rest of the grade and culminated in a scene that still makes me cringe: it was the class Spelling Bee and whoever won would go on to represent the school at the U.S. Embassy, against other schools. The winner of that would go to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC. The competition was in the final rounds and only one other girl and I remained. And then I lost. And the entire grade boo’ed me. It was absolutely awful. At the same time, I was being bullied outside of school, at my ballet academy, by a schoolmate and her younger sister. While I was in class, being tortured by the sadistic London School of Ballet teacher, MN and her sister XN would be in the locker room destroying my precious Hello Kitty stuff that my dad had brought me from the U.S. on one of his business trips. If they caught me in the changing room or headed to the bathroom and no one was looking, they would actually hurt me physically.
It wasn’t bad enough that I had awful acne. And braces. In fact, I had a head gear. The orthodontist told me to wear it 24 hours a day, remove only for meals and shower, and I did. When I returned to him after 3 months, he was shocked and said I didn’t need to wear it any more as my teeth had progressed faster than he had ever seen. He asked me, “how often do you wear it?” I blinked and replied, “24 hours a day, like you told me to do.” He shook his head, “No one has ever actually followed my instructions before you.” So, no more head gear. But then there was the fact that I was in a school where anyone remotely relevant at least had Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. I, on the other hand, had to wear polyester. My dad worked in textiles and his clients made fabric so periodically, we would go to local clothing companies and be able to get lots of free clothes. The problem is they were all polyester, because that is the fiber my dad's company made. I still remember the 100% polyester pants I regularly wore, that were this really sandpapery texture that even today, as I think of them, make my skin crawl. I had these pants in various colors. I think I just realized where my textural issues may have begun (which continue today).
The torment at school continued. As did my growing feelings of loneliness and basically feeling like a loser. Even now as I think back to those times and how I felt, I feel this intense foreboding and instinct to crawl up into a ball.
Eventually, things changed for me. I made a new friend in 8th grade at school (Alejandra) and reconnected with some other girls I had drifted away from. I no longer had suicidal ideations but I still wasn’t exactly loving life. Ninth grade was in the same school (it was a private, K-12 school) but in another building. I remember being very much alone that year. During lunch, I would go sit by myself outside in the shade with a book, or I would go to the typing room and teach myself to type. At this point, the bullying had ended at both school and at ballet (note: my mom, a tiny little Swedish thing who seriously wouldn’t hurt a fly, actually got into a shouting match, almost punching the big, loud, rude woman whose daughters had destroyed my stuff and left a few bruises on me; the ballet academy owner came running into the lobby to break up the fight and later told my mother she couldn’t stand the other mom or her daughters and thank you for standing up to her. My mom passed away 16 years ago and this is still one of my favorite memories of her).
I did have some bright spots at school that year, namely my friendship with a girl a year below me. Sasha and I had been friends since grade school as we rode the bus together. We lived on the other side of the enormous city so our bus rides were typically an hour long. She became my best friend based on those bus rides and our geographic proximity. When I was in 9th grade she was in 8th grade, so we were in different buildings. But during these lonely times, I would sometimes venture over to middle school during lunch and hang out with Sasha and her friends. Being a bookworm, I would read a diverse collection of books and at some point I started to read a book, Girls & Sex. Suddenly I had very important information and the 8th graders were eager to learn what I knew about this mysterious topic. (Remember: I was in a conservative country at a conservative time. And there was no YouTube). I then read the book’s counterpart, Boys & Sex. I became the expert on all things dating, relationships, sex - and I had never even kissed a boy at this point. But this is when my lifelong passion of helping people, especially teens, with all things regarding mental health, relationships, self-respect, matchmaking, etc began. As I helped others, I helped myself, as I began to feel less like a misunderstood loser. These very popular 8th graders were seeking my wisdom and wanted to hang out with me, so I guessed I just needed to find my people.
The summer between 9th and 10th grades was when everything changed. My friend Alejandra had moved to San Diego after 8th grade and I went to visit her for two weeks. This was the first time I had traveled without my family. I loved California! Here I was, on a beautiful beach, and nobody knew me. No one knew I had been this studious, pimply, head-gear-and-polyester-wearing bully target, and it didn't hurt that it was too hot there for my polyester pants. My pimples had cleared up, my braces were gone, and I discovered the magic of reinvention. The cute lifeguards noticed me. One of them even taught me how to throw a frisbee, and this launched a lifelong love of frisbee (and ultimate frisbee in college). I felt so free! It was exhilarating, and I knew I would never go back to how I had been. That same summer I got my period for the first time too (while on a flight to Brussels, actually).
When I think of 10th grade the overwhelming feeling I have about it is that I had stopped caring what people thought of me. I had this deep, warm knowing that I mattered, that I was pretty, and smart, and cool, and no one could take this away from me. All of the people who had been part of the middle school angst were still at school with me, and we were even friends again. I was what I call a floater. I did not hang out with one group, but sort of floated around between groups. The social scene at this school, as I remember it, is that there was the American clique (ex-pats whose parents worked at the U.S. Embassy or multinational corporations); the most popular clique, who were mostly wealthy Mexicans. Then there were lots of other smaller groups. I was friendly with all, but by 10th grade my closest friends were not in my grade (Sasha in 9th grade and Vicky in 11th grade) and I otherwise floated. After 11th grade my family moved to the U.S. so I once again had a chance to reinvent myself, for 12th grade in N.J. (As you can imagine, this was another opportunity to build resiliency skills!).
As awful as 7th grade was, and as awkward as 8th and 9th grade were, I would not change that experience for the world. I know what it feels like to feel like a total misfit, to be deeply lonely, and to feel like there is no way out and no end in sight. I know what it feels like to feel like this is the worst day of your life and there is no way in hell things will get better. (Note: it was not a smooth ride from there on out, as later in high school I began a journey through bulimia, and I thankfully eventually recovered but there were definitely some dark times…). I am certain that these painful years led me to the work I do now, as I instantly empathize with people who feel like a square peg in a round hole and feel like they are stuck. And now, during COVID, when so much of what we took for granted about our life has been replaced by the unsettling realization that nothing is permanent or certain, many of us feel this sense of when will this ever end? I hear it every day, from kids and adults, bemoaning the uncertainty that is the only guarantee as we make plans to return to school, to be employed, to stay healthy. Fluid is the new black. Mental health is declining, especially among our youth. So much feels tenuous to them and they lack the perspective of our grandparents, who have weathered other chicken little times (world wars, Cold War, 9/11...) and figure, this too shall pass.
As I walked my puppy this morning I reflected on these collective feelings of despair and hopelessness, and was immediately transported back to my middle school self. I decided to write about this because I found it comforting to zoom out and feel the pain of my middle school self, while being in the time and place I am today. I contemplated the impermanence of things that seem so certain and intractable, which is a concept that can feel unsettling or can be a relief, depending on how we look at it or what we apply it to. When my son would text me from his 8th grade hell at school, “THIS IS THE WORST DAY OF MY LIFE,” my heart would shrivel up and at the same time I would know, this too shall pass. Of course, by the time he would get home and I would ask him what had happened, because my own middle school self knows what a hostile world that can be, especially since we had just moved and he was having to start from scratch in a new state and school, he would reply with something like, “It got better.” It still sucked - but he would just keep going, and he would come home and share some of the stories of rejection and awkwardness and bullying and ineffective school staff. And I would listen, and inwardly cringe, and he would know that I knew it sucked, because of my own history.
Maybe the most useful thing about middle school is it prepares us to face life shitshows. I recently learned that based on research, hope is actually a skill, which means it can be taught and strengthened. I think I will start to think of middle school as Hope Academy, and if you come out alive, you have a master’s degree in hope. If you are reading this, you probably have this same degree, which means you are fully equipped to deal with all hard things.
If you feel like you need to talk with someone, this website has some wonderful resources:
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Keep going. One day at a time, one step at a time.
The last few weeks, as our country has undergone a collective awakening to the realization that we have been terrorizing People of Color (POC) at least since 1619, and racism is alive and well in every single aspect of our life, I have felt several emotions. Excited - “FINALLY! White people are waking up!” Skeptical - “How long will they be interested in this cause?” Dismayed - “Why are you trying to shame someone out of their racism?” It is this last part that I want to talk about here for a few minutes.
I have never been a fan of shows like The Biggest Loser. You know, where very large people are mocked and bullied because of their size, and then “motivated” to commit to change through some extremely restrictive dieting and torturous workouts. I find it dehumanizing how the participants are yelled at and celebrated if they lose weight, shamed if they don’t. Ugh. I have written before about how harmful I believe so much of what goes on in the “wellness” space, which I see as a way to manipulate people by shaming them. Even the Before & After pictures are a shame trigger, because if you look like the Before, then clearly you are unworthy. Your lack of commitment and discipline is shameful. And yet, what we know about health and wellness (if we are actually knowledgeable about such things), is that trauma is at the root of any behavior that we engage in in spite of knowing that there will be negative consequences (this is basically the definition of addiction). We know that childhood trauma increases a person’s likelihood to be an adult with cancer, obesity, diabetes, addiction, depression, autoimmune diseases, back pain, migraines, asthma, allergies, etc. If you want to learn more about this I highly recommend watching Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’s TED Talk and reading her book The Deepest Well. I think it may help you understand why shows like The Biggest Loser, and coaches and medical professionals and parents who engage in shaming behavior, are dehumanizing and do not lead to long-lasting, positive change.
So what does this have to do with racism? Well, I have seen a lot on social media the last few weeks where basically white people are engaging in a well-intentioned exercise of calling out other white people on their racism. I totally get the urge to do so. Once we realize that we really didn’t know what we didn’t know, and now we know it, and we want other people to know what they don’t know, we are totally pumped up and eager to teach others. It’s that energy that drives people who get sober to want everyone to know how awesome it feels and how stupid they feel knowing that they were brainwashed for all those years to think that pumping their brains and bodies with poison was cool, especially because it was legal. And then you suddenly realize that not only are most people still drinking in spite of your enthusiastic, well-informed, rational explanations and posts, but people now hide their drinking from you. In 12 step communities they advocate “attraction not promotion” and I think it’s probably because nobody likes to be hit with dogma over the head - especially when a part of them reacts in defiance and defensiveness to anything that feels like arrogant authority.
I heard a podcast a couple of days ago: The Trauma Therapist - where the host interviewed April Harter, LCSW. Listening to her, I had a huge “A-HA!” moment. She talked about how much in the anti-racist space is counter-productive because it is trauma-triggering instead of trauma-healing. She described how in her anti-racism work she kept hitting a barrier with people, and finally she realized that it was because the white people she was working with had trauma, even if they didn’t think so, and this was stopping their progress and ability to be aware of their implicit biases and racist attitudes and behavior. She says that until white people are healed of their trauma, they cannot become anti-racist. In an Instagram post she writes:
“One of the ways that white people are abused is if you ask your followers to target one of your other followers for acting in racist ways. The result, is that this white person, who is trying to learn, is getting cyber-bullied. Call-ins and call-outs, can be on average, a catalyst for cyberbullying. The result of this is a shame-based PTSD. This shame-based PTSD can lead to suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts. This happens more frequently than many of you realize... Most white people, in my experience, perpetrate unintentional racism. There is an assumption that all white people are complicit, but they are not. I don’t know where this idea came from, but when I work with white people on their racist behaviors, they often truly act in covertly racist ways. They mean well, but they have no idea how to stop their racism. They read books to learn about microaggressions, but then they continue to perpetrate them. I help them heal so that their cycle of perpetrating microaggressions stop, for good. When this occurs, you can teach more without having to be the target of their racism. Their unintentional racism, through microaggressions and racist defense mechanisms, are the barriers to learning, truly. They cannot learn when they are operating on a feedback loop of racist defense mechanisms. You won’t be able to get through, and in the end, it will only wear you out.”
Listen, I get it. When we find Jesus, sobriety, Beyond Meat burgers, whatever it is that makes us realize we have been an asshole for years and now we know better - it is really tempting to want to hammer our new gospel down everyone’s throat, no matter what it takes, especially if we know it is the righteous way to be. And in the anti-racism work, we are learning that if we are not calling out people, we aren’t really anti-racist because silence = compliance/complicity. So, out of our desire to avoid shame at all costs, we need to transfer our shame to someone else, and fire off a judgmental email, post, comment. Gosh, that felt good, right? But maybe there’s a little bit of ugh in that action, because we are being motivated to act by an urge to rid ourselves of our own lingering shame.
This morning a very dear friend of mine, who is African American and is exhausted, as are many of her black brothers and sisters, shared this post with me:
How about if we start with ourselves? Rather than spending all kinds of time and energy on creating and feeding shame storms, here are some suggestions, that can actually lead to positive change:
Finally, I want to share some great advice from my grad school professor (who teaches Multicultural Counseling at the College of William & Mary):
"I want to share with you something that I have seen in the field all too often, which I feel is damaging. Others speaking for others without first taking the needed steps of advocacy. We are seeing more and more of this right now in our nation...However, no matter how 'good' we think our intentions may be... we cannot speak for others but instead listen to their wants/needs - and then use that to help guide our associated actions." - Eleni Honderich.
While out on a run just now with my son, my son pointed out some fanfare going on. Turns out a young woman who had been training for a marathon that was supposed to take place today (and was obviously canceled), with the encouragement of her mom and I presume husband/boyfriend, decided that if she ran 26.2 miles today, it was still a marathon. She didn't need all the other stuff (crowds, aid stations, medal, swag...) to be a marathoner. We cheered for her - she only had 10k left at that point.
At one point my son gestured toward a trail that was off the paved path. I thought hmmm, it is probably going to be super muddy, and as we headed onto it, unable to see what lay ahead, I thought about my first Ironman. I had trained for a measly 10.5 weeks (don't ask) and just before we left for the airport I asked my coach, what is my strategy? He said, the swim is your warm-up, the bike is more warm-up, and in the marathon, you just focus on running from aid station to aid station - they are spaced a mile apart. My only goal had been to finish before the 17 hour cutoff. Everything was fine until about mile 18 of the marathon, when the fact that I had never trained my digestive system for this collided with the fact that the race organizers had grossly underestimated how much toilet paper would be required for the event and it ran out hours earlier (sound familiar?). My coach's words "go from aid station to aid station" kept me focused in spite of complete discomfort and misery. And I trusted that if he believed I could do this, then it must be so. The marathon was dark, we were all spread out for those last few miles, and I sensed we were each quietly in this together. I finished a couple of hours before the cutoff.
Right now, we have no idea what lies ahead. Three weeks ago I could not have predicted so much of what is real right now. So I focus on right now, and on doing my best in this moment, and even if I can't see my fellow travelers, I know we are all in this together.
And I remind myself that this is my race, and someone else's race may look very different. It is easy to compare and think, "they have it so much easier than me" or "I have no right to complain, compared to how they have it" - but the reality is we all have our challenges and privileges and may be putting in different levels of effort, but it all matters. It all counts. And we each need to remember that we truly do not know what others are going through. So let us remember to show grace, to be kind, and to do so from 6 ft apart. We do not know what lies ahead, but there are some things we can control, so let's focus on that.
I have always said that the children are the canary in the coal mine. So the alarming amount of anxiety, depression, suicidation, addiction, bullying, violence, self-injury, eating disorders, etc. - to me have always signaled that something is incredibly toxic in the world in which they are being raised. Their parents are busy and stressed and shuttling them (via "Muber" and Uber) between myriad activities that they yes (sometimes), love, and also make them more appealing college candidates, and therefore rather than being fun, healthy endeavors are now another way to measure their worth. Their teachers entered the profession wanting to help kids learn and are largely stressed because they are forced to focus on tasks and requirements that force them away from feeding their students' inner spark. Their schools have become boxes that keep them sedentary, indoors, with the occasional active shooter lockdown drills. Their healthcare professionals have been taught to compartmentalize them into parts, divorcing the brain from the rest of the body, pathologizing healthy reactions to their toxic world as conditions that must be medicated and addressed by professionals that are actually not covered to a large extent by their insurance, and that require special accommodations at school. Why do so many kids have 504 plans? Perhaps it's the system that needs to change, rather than the children?
Now our kids are home for a few weeks, possibly longer. Their caregivers are (for the most part, though certainly not all, especially if they are medical professionals - THANK YOU if this is you!!!!) also home. Kids are having to deal with boredom, with finding ways to feel connected socially (turns out they actually do want to see their friends in person). They actually have the opportunity to sleep. Their SAT's have been canceled through at least May.
The children are the segment of the human population who so far are physically unscathed by the coronavirus (with some exceptions if they have underlying health issues). Interesting how nature is sparing them, no?
What if during all of this, which could be a forced global reboot, we look at what we can learn and apply going forward? What if being forced to spend time at home, with our kids and animals, and outdoors, is actually the vacation we really needed rather than the bank-breaking trip to Disney World? What if we start to realize that without the pressures of the rat race, our addiction to "mommy timeout wine" is not because of the stresses of being a mom, but because of everything that was distracting us from connecting us with deep, meaningful work and connection? What if this will finally get rid of the horrible SATs and the increasingly dysfunctional world/industry of education as we know it? What if our children will start to heal, as we collectively slow down and focus and prioritize and connect in more meaningful ways? What if the next round of rap songs are about helping our neighbors, listening to our wiser elders, finding comfort in community and love rather than Gucci and Xanax and meaningless hook-ups (I know, that may be pushing it).
All we have is this moment. There is so much uncertainty around us. The kids are looking to us for signals of how they should feel and be. Maybe we should start looking to them. While we are social distancing or in lockdown, maybe we should worry less about lesson plans and instead look for signs of spring in the yard, reorganize the furniture, make vision boards, teach the dog a new trick, learn some Tik Tok dances, learn how to make a fire in case we ever end up on Survivor, create a new Bucket List that actually does not require a plane ticket, start a gratitude journal or a bullet journal, try out some YouTube yoga practices, find stillness in meditation and prayer...
What if this is really just the beginning, and our children will finally get through to us?
Wellness coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.