Yesterday I held a talk in my community for adults who were preoccupied with how their (and other people’s) children could best manage stress. Prevention is the best way to solve problems, and I hoped to give the audience insight into, and tools for, preventing further anxiety, depression, addiction, etc in their and other people’s kids. I was pleased with the turnout and I received some great feedback, and overall, I am really happy I put myself out there this way. I plan to hold more similar workshops, but in the meantime, I wanted to write about something that I think contributes a lot to the issues I listed above, both in kids and in adults.
A few years ago, I went to a friend’s house. She had just moved into this gorgeous mansion and had invited me to lunch. It was a beautiful spread of super healthy food of various shades of green (my fave!) and we ate at her dining room table, with heavy silverware, all posh and civilized. After lunch, she asked if I wanted a tour of the house. Of course I did! So she led me through room after gorgeous room, everything super tidy. Then we went upstairs and she showed me all of the bedrooms. They were a mess. Her kids were teens, so it was that kind of mess that teens innately know how to create, and somehow seem to survive in without coming unhinged. Oh wait… Anyway, I was shocked. Not because of the mess (my kids weren’t teens yet so I didn’t know this was super normal), but because my friend never apologized for the mess. She never did that thing we all tend to do: “I am so sorry it’s a mess - I’ve asked him to blah blah blah…” Nope, she took me through each inhabited room on the 2nd and 3rd floors and never said anything about how, well, lived-in they were.
That day, my friend gave me one of the best gifts another woman has ever given me. She gave me permission to not be (as) worried about what others think about my domestic diva-ness. Or lack thereof. (Note: I am a never-ending work in progress). By not killing herself over picking up everything, or fighting with her kids to do so the night before, or denying me the opportunity to see the “real” parts of her new home, or apologizing for the lack of perfection - she allowed me to own my imperfection. I became more aware of when I would do all of the above. I began to reflect on WHY I did all of the above. Did I think someone would feel uncomfortable with my lack of domestic perfection? Did I think they would scorn me? Dislike me? And then I thought about the fact she didn’t apologize, which was actually the most amazing part to me. Because I would certainly have good friends over even if the house was a mess, but I would always barricade the doorway until I had blurted out an apologetic warning. What is that about?! My friend, that day, showed me what acceptance is about. Acceptance of herself, of her kids, of imperfection.
At yesterday’s event I did not tell this story, but I told other stories because I know that I connect best when someone shares a story, and if it’s a personal one, all the better. All I really know in life is my own life experience thus far, so when people ask me things like, “How do I handle it when my daughter is so anxious she doesn’t want to go to school?” or “I am really worried my son is falling behind at school and I am overwhelmed, what do I do?” or “I am terrified that life is so crazy and chaotic that I am never going to feel in control again, what do I do?” - I may not have experienced their exact situation. But I do know that our children are feeling lots of pressure from all kinds of places, and the best we can do for them is to be a non-anxious presence, and guide them from a place of love and acceptance (which, by the way, is the intention I set before each meeting with a coaching client). This is where our own self-care comes in. When we prioritize our self-care, and do the things we need to do in order to feel somewhat rested, fit, purposeful, creative, and connected, we are more likely to like ourselves, which then translates into a person who can show up for someone else with love, acceptance, and the patience to not react to every button-pushing moment.
A few of the young adults I have worked with who are in recovery from addiction (and if you don’t know this, alcohol and other drugs are usually if not always a way to avoid uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, which often include anxiety, grief, anger, loneliness, boredom, frustration, fear, etc), have told me, “Something I love about being in recovery is that I get to talk with people who are being real. We talk about the hard stuff. I finally feel like someone hears me and gets me.” I have often told my kids, “I wish there was AA for you guys and your friends and peers, without you needing to be afflicted with anything, just a place where you know you can show up, share your problems and fears, and know you are heard and accepted and no one is trying to fix you. Because the thing is, this stuff you are going through, I guarantee most of your classmates are going through, and you all think you are the only ones who feel this way. Trust me, Little Miss Popular has a lot of stuff going on and you have no idea. If you all had a space like this, AA and NA would be far less needed, sigh.”
“When did we see each other face-to-face? Not until you saw into my cracks and I saw into yours. Before that, we were just looking at ideas of each other, like looking at your window shade but never seeing inside. But once the vessel cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out.”
This type of connection is powerful and it is a gift. And for people in recovery, it is an enormous source of gratitude. It is such a relief to be able to invite someone in without having to make all of the beds and fold all of the clothes and apologize for anything that would be a “Before” segment of the Mari Kondo show, or to have to relate to someone on that surface level that is so exhausting.
The thing is, one of the reasons that perfection and its pursuit is so pervasive, is that it is yet another socially-acceptable and even revered addiction. (Other socially acceptable addictions are workaholism, workout & diet addiction, and to a large extent alcoholism - as long as you don’t go “too far” with it). What is the definition of addiction? To me, it’s when you do something that you know is stunting your growth, your wellness, your relationships, and yet you keep doing it. You experience detrimental consequences yet you do it again. And again.
So what does this have to do with our kids? Well, as I pointed out yesterday, we, the parents/primary caregivers, are our kids’ first and most profound influencers. Studies have proven that when our kids are in certain situations with substances, and there is a choice to be made, their parents’ attitude toward substances will be the strongest filter for the decision. This is the same filter through which many of their attitudes and choices go through, even though they may not realize it and even though it seems like they are not listening to us or all they do is fight us. So, as their primary influencers, if in our actions, we are showing them that we are only satisfied with perfection - with our house, our car, our clothes, our skin, our hair, our weight, our work performance, our friends, our Instagram posts, etc. - it must be terrifying to them when they know (or believe) they are incapable of perfection in our eyes.
We do not do this on purpose. As I pointed out at the talk yesterday, I don’t think any of us gets up and says, “I am going to be Little Miss Perfect today!” I think what we do is we get up, and we do what needs to be done, throughout the day, to keep things going, to put out fires, to avoid the fires, and to (on the good days) look presentable and do a pretty good job. And what we may not even realize is that we are not creating moments to connect with friends and peers, or with our family, in ways that are a tad more vulnerable. Unless we are on a retreat with our friends, or in a self-help meeting, we are probably not often sharing some of our deepest fears and daily frustrations. Not because we don’t want to show that side of ourselves as much as, we don’t want to be debbie-downers or the annoying complainer. And that is probably a good thing, by the way (constantly complaining without trying to change anything is a total turnoff for most healthy people). But it can get to the point where we have erected barriers to real connection, because we may not even realize that we have now created this appearance that we are doing super awesome all of the time, that we never make mistakes, that we can single-handedly take care of what needs to be done. We know that nobody is perfect, that the perfect mom down the street probably has unresolved daddy issues or hates her cellulite, but maybe we are not even aware that others, especially our kids, fear that if they are real with us, we will not like them any more because we obviously worship perfection, and their imperfection is something we would reject and want to fix.
So, you know how on that job application, when you were asked what your greatest weakness was, and you wrote, “Perfectionism” because you believed it was a weakness that your prospective employer would love? Perhaps it is time to update that part of you (your inner critic?) that misguidedly hides behind perfectionism to avoid vulnerability. Notice when, in your day, you are doing what needs to be done, and in that moment, hit the pause button. Does it really need to be done? Does it need to be one exactly like that? Will life unravel if some things are done half-assed or not at all? And when you do this, share it with your family over dinner. Revel in the shocked looks on the kids’ faces when you admit you told your boss you refuse to answer emails after 6pm, and you are no longer going to police their rooms each week. Drop an authenticity bomb next time you go out to lunch with friends who normally stay on the surface. It’s amazing what happens when you share, “I am really scared my sophomore is not making any friends.”
Welcome to the Real World :)
This week at rehab, I felt God. I was completely clean and sober, so it’s not what you think. In fact, this week marked three years since I have touched alcohol. I go to a treatment center for alcohol and other drugs twice a week, because I felt called to bring whatever wisdom and skills I have picked up along the way as a Life Coach, Sober Coach, and Yoga instructor, to people whose collection of choices, whose dis-eased brains and bodies, have brought them to seek recovery. I absolutely love this work. Every day, before I walk in the door, I pray to God: “Please help me get out of your way, so that you can speak through me, so that I may be a bridge for these beautiful people to reconnect with their healthy, powerful selves.” Often, the clients tell me how much they appreciate my coaching - yes, even after they have been grumbling through my planks and hamstring stretches, or after I have in my blunt manner reminded them that it is up to them, today, to rewrite the story of their lives. But in reality, I get as much from them as they do from me.
During each 8 hour shift, I witness first-hand, miracles in the making. It is an intense environment. Underneath the external comforts - a chef to prepare healthy meals, art therapy, private therapy sessions, guided mindfulness, fancy interior decor, loving therapists and other staff - there is the knowledge that this is life or death. And while we can help the clients in incredibly profound ways, they need to make the effort. They need to do whatever it takes. And many of them do. Because I only work there twice a week, I get to see the transformation the way grandparents who only see their grandkids sporadically see the astonishing growth that parents don’t notice as they see their kids every day. Sometimes the transformation is physical, especially if someone was detoxing when they first arrived. That detox phase, especially from heroin, is brutal - I wish everyone could see it, and think of it before popping a painkiller (opiate). The mental and emotional transformation is beautiful to behold, as a client who once was timid is now sharing with the group, or who started off resistant, having been “forced” by a judge or a parent into treatment, has gone from hating the world as expressed verbally and through body language, to “I really want this. I need this.”
This week, as I have reflected on what these last three years of first hesitatingly testing the waters of removing, for a “bit,” alcohol from my life, to now, three years later, having zero desire to ingest a substance that recently was declared by the World Health Organization to be dangerous in all quantities, for every person, I was filled with awe. I have learned the incredible power of transformation that comes by basically just doing the next right thing. It is so simple, not easy, but just doing this, over and over, creates enormous change. And the thing is, everything is changing, Nothing stays the same. And as John Maxwell stated in the podcast I listened to the other morning during my run, if we are not preparing, we end up repairing.
We all have really great examples before us (sometimes in the mirror) of what happens when we live on autopilot. Addiction, depression, heart disease, obesity, autoimmune diseases, cancer, chronic pain, the cycle of abuse, financial disaster, Alzheimers - none of this happens in a vacuum. A lot of suffering develops because we don’t know what we don’t know, or we don’t act on what we do know. At this point, we know that we become what we have eaten, drank, smoked, feared, and identified as over and over, for days, weeks, months, years. Our children are a reflection of all of the above too, as they are the canaries in the coal mine. The other day I was hanging out with a young woman who is newly in recovery, and I pointed out that her choices and her mother’s choices and her grandmother’s choices are having a direct impact on her children. I shared with her how, pain that is not transformed is transferred. “You have the choice, today, to end the cycle, by working on transforming the pain. Do the next right thing, today. And if it works, do it again tomorrow. Everything you do has a ripple, a compound, effect.”
I was also talking with another person, who is still in the early stage of change (contemplation), about the proverbial rock bottom that many people wait for before figuring out what the next right thing is and then embarking on their personal transformation. “You do not need to become a trainwreck in order to start to change. You can choose, right now, today, to not drink. You do not need to waste more money, put more poison in your organs, or crash a car. You can choose, today, to try out a new lifestyle that will make cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and further heartbreak far less likely. If nothing else, at least you know you did your best.” By the way, this applies to anything - you do not need to have a diagnosis, a catastrophic health event, a bankruptcy declaration, a divorce, employment termination, etc., to pivot your choices, your attitude, your life.
Three years ago, I had no idea that my “break” from the most popular, glamorized, money-making, addictive, statistically harmful drug in the world would lead to where and who I am today. In fact, if you had told me so I would have run in the opposite direction. Just like when I ran my first 10k, if you had told me that a decade later I would be doing my first Ironman, I would have told you you were absolutely nuts. In fact, I may never have had the cojones to do the 10k. Future-tripping to an Ironman would have been so overwhelming that my “who the hell do you think you are?” part would have taken over. In terms of alcohol, the part of me who is great at justifying the comfort zone, would have said, “you are only doing what everyone else is doing. Do you really want to leave the herd? I mean, nothing catastrophic has happened. You are an athlete, a coach, you have good self-discipline, you just need to set some more limits.”
But then, as I started to learn more about the science, the health effects, and testing it all out on my favorite guinea pig (me), and simultaneously meeting more people who also wanted to live this way, and deepen their self-awareness and let go of their ego as much as possible - I realized that those parts of me that wanted to protect the status quo had given way to the part of me that lives in love, joy, real connection. The part of me that is a rebel, adventurous, risk-taking, is thrilled to be up front and center because she is the one that reminds me every day, “I GET to live alcohol-free. I GET to pause and respond, rather than react. I GET to hang out with friends who work every day on their own self-awareness and therefore show up in a way that is real, accepting, and loving.” As I often point out at the rehab, being clean and sober is the ultimate act of rebellion.
“There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is a miracle.” - Albert Einstein
I witness miracles all around me every day, and in them, I see and feel something that is far greater than me, than us. I am so grateful to be aware of this, and for the invitations I receive each and every day to hit the pause button and soak it all in. We are all invited, every single moment, yet so often we are so busy looking for the wrong thing we don’t even realize the invitation is right in front of us.
You left a warm, predictable world and were born into an existence where you relied on other humans to keep you safe, warm, nourished and alive. These humans did the best that they could with what they had at the time. They told you stories, and without questioning, because you did not know any other way to be, why would you, you absorbed the stories and you made them your own. You did your best, every day, with what you had, to keep going forward. You learned to crawl, to walk, to giggle when you were tickled and to scream when you needed something - physical or emotional nourishment. You learned that some things hurt - falling off a bike, touching a hot marshmallow, a bee sting. You learned that people help us, hurt us, lead us, teach us, punish us, love us, abuse us, disappoint us, thrill us, challenge us, bore us, protect us, react to us, guide us, run away from us, trust us, need us.
Along the way, you started to learn how to be in the world. Like a baby bird who first tumbles out of its nest, and gingerly begins to take its first steps, and learns to fly. First a few flaps of the wings, then longer flights, looking for food, moving with the gusts of wind. You, too, learned to adapt to the environment you were moving through - at home, at school, in all of your activities, with people you thought of as friends, acquaintances, enemies. Now you look back and realize you were a master chameleon, adapting to the environment in a way that kept you safe. Sometimes blending in so you looked and sounded like everyone else, sometimes invisible because there was, is, comfort in blending in with the background view and noise. Somewhere along the way, you may have lost touch with who you are, because you were so busy becoming what others thought you were, who they wanted and needed you to be, who you thought they wanted and needed you to be.
And then one day, you started to wake up. You started to get this feeling that something wasn’t right. You started to feel that maybe this stuff that you were doing, or not doing, saying, or not saying, thinking, or not thinking, maybe this was not how you wanted to be. Maybe your body started to give you hints - you were more tired, more achy, got sick more often. Maybe you had noticed that no matter how much you ate, you were still hungry, no matter how much you drank, you were still thirsty. Maybe it was a void you were trying to fill with physical things - but a soul-level hunger cannot be sated by ice cream, chardonnay, forbidden lust, pills, JImmy Shoo or Pinterest. So you started to explore the idea that maybe, just maybe, those things were not working any more. At one point, they were working, and you know this, because you are here today. The masks you created and wore, the coat of armor you enveloped your body and heart in, the stuff you built around you like a wall to avoid intimacy - into-me-see - it all worked. Because you are here, maybe broken, maybe a heart that has been pierced, maybe a soul that has been suffering - but you are here.
And in showing up today, you are taking the most powerful step in recovery. Because showing up is the hardest thing to do and you are doing that. You are showing up, for your body, your mind, your soul. You are showing up for your sisters in this room, for your loved ones back home, for your community and the world. Because the world needs you to show up. The world needs you to choose to remove the masks and the armour that no longer serve you. The world needs you to step into your power, the power that comes through acceptance. Acceptance that, who you are today is because of who you were every day leading up to this day. The power that comes through surrender. Surrendering control over other people, over the past, over the future. The power that comes through knowing, that today, you can choose to do the next right thing, knowing that if you do that, and only that, the rest will fall into place. And you are not alone, you are never alone, because it is through whatever brought you to your knees, and to this place, that you are showing up ready to connect, to discover, to remember, to recover. It is in this state of willingness that you realize that you are finally, in this moment, and only in this moment, home.
This morning, when chatting with a group I work with on embracing a substance-free life, I stated, “sometimes people in the news inspire me to be more like them, but sometimes, they inspire me to NOT be like them. I don’t ever want to be the kind of person that people look at and say, here is an example of how NOT to be.”
Life is full of teachable moments. People and situations often help me to work on my own personal development, and they also give me plenty of material in parenting and coaching. The other day I was out with a friend and her ex-husband called. She showed me the Caller ID. It said Teacher. She explained to me that a very wise person had once instructed her to name people in her phone who challenged her patience and overall equanimity as “Teacher.” This way, when she saw their name (“Teacher”) pop up, rather than anticipate a negative interaction, she immediately reset her intention to a more neutral state.
The news these days are full of teachable moments. And my children, bless their hearts, are a captive audience because I still feed them (usually). So while they chomp on veggies, they get to listen to the podcast episodes I have yet to air. Yes, they roll their eyes. We often disagree. The boy fidgets and kicks his sister. Sigh, it would be much easier to just talk about whatever other people talk about who have calm, peaceful, family dinners every night. Right, as if. I have a 9th grader and a 12th grader so my ability to control them is dwindling. I must pour all my wisdom into their precious heads as quickly as I can! Anyway, these are some points I see as valuable lessons to discuss with our kids. Feel free to use them at the dinner table (and as I tell my kids, feel free to throw me under the bus if it gets you out of an awkward situation: “I know this is annoying, but this weird lady Susanne wrote this - what do you guys think?”).
The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
A few years ago, while out running with my dog, I was attacked by another dog. The physical injury was nothing major (thankfully, the attacker had had its rabies shots), but for a few days, I was weepy, reactive, on edge. I was unusually sensitive and every little thing set me off. I was not a fun or nice wife or mom. And I could not understand it. I figured it had to do something with the dog attack but it didn’t make sense to me, since it had not been a major attack. I still ran another half mile afterwards, figuring it would help me calm down. I called a friend of mine who is a professional dog trainer and he assured me that what I was feeling was completely normal - I had PTSD, which is normal from an animal attack - and there was nothing I could do about it. Just just give it time, he said, and eventually the adrenaline and cortisol flooding my body would even out. Unwilling to be weepy and reactive indefinitely, I figured running would help. But that did nothing. (I ran with pepper spray).
I then taught my regular yoga class. As usual, I did the class along with the students, breathing with them, moving with them, connecting with my body, my breath, and the community in the room with me. At the end of class, I was shocked at the realization that for the first time in days, I felt peaceful. I felt rebooted. I was back to myself.
This experience began my journey into yoga as something more than an effective way to strengthen and stretch my body while increasing proprioceptive awareness (i.e. important stuff for someone who at age 40 was training for her first Ironman in 10.5 weeks). I now understood why several people in my classes had told me that after each class, they felt a reprieve from their depression and/or anxiety. I became determined to learn as much as I could about yoga and mindfulness as a way to heal the mind and psyche from PTSD, depression, anxiety, addiction. I devoured books on the subject and finally, this past weekend, I took an intensive training course to become a certified teacher of Trauma-Informed Yoga (DEEP gratitude to Maryam and Heather at Beloved Yoga).
For three very full days, we dove into neuroscience, learning about the brain and how it is affected by trauma. We learned about the different forms and levels of trauma.
“We enter this state - let us call it a survival mode - when we perceive that our lives are being threatened. If we are overwhelmed by the threat and are unable to successfully defend ourselves, we can become stuck in survival mode. This highly aroused state is designed solely to enable short term defensive actions; but left untreated over time it begins to form the symptoms of trauma.”
We may have witnessed or been victims of a violent attack, or have been raised in a chaotic household, or been molested over a period of time, or fought in a war. We may have experienced deep loss of love, of financial stability, of a sense of belonging. In fact, if our parents, and/or their parents, experienced trauma, this can affect us today.
“Pain travels through families until someone is ready to feel it.”
Trauma affects the central nervous system. The human brain and central nervous system begin to develop at about three weeks’ gestation - leading experts to believe that any trauma experienced by the pregnant mother at this point is having an impact on the developing brain. The central nervous system basically takes in cues from the environment via the senses and these cues are interpreted by the brain. A traumatized brain is sort of like a toddler - impulsive, reactive, makes no sense to those of us with common sense. For someone who has endured trauma and has not engaged in healing and recovery, chances are, the rational part of the brain that makes wise decisions (we would hope), and the emotional part of the brain that among many other important things supports relationships through empathy, trust and attachment, get hijacked by the part of the brain whose sole purpose is to ensure survival, no matter what.
“An amygdala hijack exhibits three signs: strong emotional reaction, sudden onset, and post-episode realization if the reaction was inappropriate.”
Do you know any kids who seem to be unusually oppositional, defiant, or completely shut down? Chances are, their brains and central nervous system are merely responding to situations that are activating what at some point worked for them during a traumatic situation or phase in their life (including in the womb). Yes, think of the implications of this - as we castigate and medicate such kids, rather than addressing their behavior in a trauma-informed way, in the school system, the medical system, the family. Do you know people who suffer from anger issues? Who struggle with depression? Anxiety? Sleep disorders? Chronic back/neck pain? Autoimmune disorders? Addiction? There is a very good chance that if you ask them to sit down and write out their life story, there will be trauma there. All too often we dismiss trauma because we had “a great childhood with very loving parents and everything we needed” or “sure, stuff happened, but life is tough, it’s just the way it is.” Simply the act of sitting down and writing out our story and sharing it with someone else, can be enough for us to realize that wow, that was not healthy, or normal, or that was actually very painful. Perhaps our parents were in the military and we moved every couple of years; perhaps our parents got divorced; perhaps our sibling had a chronic or fatal illness, which impacted our sense of safety, maybe even left us, the healthy one, feeling neglected. Perhaps our parents have the news on every day and we are bombarded by images and sound bites about school shootings, potential nuclear wars, rude celebrities making poor choices of word and action. These and plenty of other events and situations can absolutely affect the way our brain is wired to respond to current stressors.
The good news is that yoga is an amazing way to promote healing and essentially bring the brain back online. Phew!!! Yes, it turns out that yoga is not just for bendy-wendies and hippy-dippies in their Lululemons sipping chai and smelling like a vegan restaurant. It turns out that doing warrior poses, focusing on our breathing, and doing this with others can have an incredibly powerful effect on our brain. We used to, not too long ago, think that we are pretty much stuck with the brain we have, but we now know about neuroplasticity, which means the brain is able to heal and change (interesting tidbit: the Yoga Sutras, which have been around since about 300-500 BC, pretty much state this fact). We also know that “the body keeps score” (the title of Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s seminal book), so a practice that combines mindful movement that is linked with reconnecting the parts of the brain that have become disconnected or imbalanced is an effective way to heal from Post Traumatic Stress Injury (a more empowering way to think of what traditionally is referred to PTSD - so I will now refer to it as PTSI).
“The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind - of yourself. This means feeling free to know what you know and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed, or collapsed."
Explaining how yoga can help with brain and body imbalances would take too long for this already lengthy blogpost, but in a nutshell, working with a trauma-informed instructor can help you learn tools for those inevitable times in your day and life where you feel triggered, helping you become less reactive, more even-keeled, less irrational, more tranquil. Which is what happened to me when I felt restored after my post-dog-attack yoga class.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Our class was privileged to have Detective Jennifer “Missy” Elliott talk to us about her own experience with mindfulness in dealing with her job-related PTSI (remember - that is now what we are calling PTSD). Missy had been dealing with debilitating back pain and nobody was able to help her, but a really smart doctor prescribed therapeutic yoga. She reluctantly agreed to give it a try, which is how she met one of my instructors this weekend, Heather. One day she was on the job, at an extremely stressful situation (investigating a murder-suicide), which was a regular occurrence in her line of work , and she realized that she was unusually calm and non-reactive, to the point that a colleague pointed it out. It dawned on Missy that the practice she had learned to heal her back pain had had a powerful effect on her ability to deal with the daily stress she had endured during her decades of law enforcement work. Missy recognized the implications of this and began to spread awareness about the devastating effects the daily encounters with and witnessing of the horrible violence and suffering has on law enforcement personnel, as well as other first responders (EMS, firefighters, ER staff, etc). She has spoken of the lack of support police officers and other first responders receive in processing this stress. She enthusiastically shared her experience with mindfulness and encouraged police departments to embrace mindful practices as a way to support their employees. More police officers die from suicide than in the line of duty, and she knew why, and she also knew she had found a tool to prevent these avoidable tragedies.
1 in 4 Police officers has thoughts of suicide
2.3 times more police officers die by suicide than by homicide
Unfortunately, Missy’s efforts have not resulted in the changes she had envisioned, and as I sat there listening, I thought about the stories in the news about police officers acting in ways that showed they had dehumanized a suspect to the point of attacking them in rage, or fear. From a brain point of view, these police officers were most likely suffering from an amygdala hijack. They very likely could be loving fathers, decent husbands, serving their country in a way that upheld citizen’s safety. The media, and media consumers, may like to paint these “killer cops” as a monsters, but from a trauma-informed point of view, I do not find it surprising that when they are in these intense situations, performing with brains that have absorbed layers and layers of violence, pain, suffering, grief, gore, evil - and often (usually, apparently) having zero meaningful support from their supervisors and leaders (which is absolutely unacceptable and MUST change!), these officers react in a way that can result in tragedy. I thought about the angry public who demonize these police officers without pausing to investigate what it must be like to grow up wanting to be a police officer, usually to keep the good guys safe and put the bad guys in jail, not knowing that they would be signing up for a life of layered trauma and very little if any framework to process it and release it. (Imagine the stigma they must encounter if they show any vulnerability!). It is no wonder that the rate of suicide, addiction, divorce, domestic violence, and depression are so high among law enforcement officers.
Please watch the trailer for this documentary: Code 9
Obviously, yoga is not a magic cure for all of our individual, societal and global imbalances and dis-eases (or is it...?). But I do believe this world would be a vastly different place if each of us took ownership over our individual and collective attention to how our body feels, grounding it into the earth, connecting with our breath, gazing inward, and being mindful of what enters our brain and our gut (our "second brain”), and what we send out via our words and our energy. There is growing evidence that Post-Traumatic Growth is not only possible, but it is vital to our world. It is like a superpower.
“With wisdom, patience, openness and practice, all effects of trauma can be healed. We have the tools… And yet out of the dark seeds of trauma can emerge a healing fountain of wisdom, compassion, resilience, and strength. In the multidimensional healing of ourselves, we rise to the highest levels of our potentials as human beings and become a shining beacon of light for others and for the world.”
If you would like to learn more, I urge you to check out the following resources. YOU can make a difference.
Mindful Policing: The Future of Force
The Body Keeps Score by Bessel Van der Kolk, MD
Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, PhD
The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment (Babette Rothschild)
The Mindful Way Through Stress by Shamash Alidina
How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate, MD
Lost Connections by Johann Hari
The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton, PhD
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter Levine
The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity by Nadine Burke Harris, MD
Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine by Candace B. Pert, PhD
Videos and documentaries:
How childhood trauma affect health - TED Talk by Nadine Burke Harris, MD: https://ed.ted.com/on/iOyQVfhd
Code 9 trailer and film: http://www.thecode9film.com/
Recently, I had the privilege of taking a friend to see an endocrinologist as she needed an adjustment in the medication she is taking for her autoimmune condition. I waited for her in the waiting room and as we rode down in the elevator after her appointment, I asked her if she liked the doctor. My friend hesitated and then quietly said, No. After some prodding, she finally admitted that when the doctor saw the evidence of her drug addiction, which is healing now but still a relatively fresh track record on her arm, the doctor’s demeanor instantly changed. The doctor’s words and tone felt condescending, judgmental, shaming.
When my friend shared this with me, I was horrified. I think she was still in shock, and I think that being so early in her recovery, she is like a timid little bird who is not quite sure of her footing, her view of the world, or most of all, her view of herself. I know enough about the disease of addiction to know that nobody gets to that level of self-destruction (and other-destruction) because they were blessed with good things and relationships and genes and all that stuff. Chances are, they are struggling with some level of trauma, and chances are pretty high they have inherited pain and suffering that their parents, grandparents, and other ancestors endured and never transformed - so they transferred it to the children they raised (or abandoned). In recovery, we build ourselves back up, and this is done with the help of people and a network who operate from a place of compassion. Ideally, this compassion eventually seeps into the blood and soul of the person in recovery, and one day they start to believe that they are worthy. But it is a long process, and my friend is in the early stages.
“Far more than a quest for pleasure, chronic substance use is the addict’s attempt to escape distress… Addictions always originate in pain, whether felt openly or hidden in the unconscious. They are emotional anesthetics.” - Gabor Maté
As we rode in the car I was driving, I helped her process what had just happened. I explained to her that the contempt she had just felt from the doctor was unprofessional, and my friend deserved better treatment. I said, “if you had told her that you had diabetes, or cancer, or heart disease, I am pretty sure she would have treated you with more dignity. The fact that she didn’t is a reflection on HER, not YOU. In medical school, doctors take the Hippocratic Oath, which states that they will first, do no harm. Unfortunately, doctors still are not taught about the disease model of addiction, nor are they taught, or given refresher courses, on how to treat someone who struggles with this awful disease.”
A friend of mine is a nurse in an ER that is on the frontlines of the disease epidemic in the U.S., and she is horrified by the way the doctors and nurses treat, and speak about, the patients who come in with every level of injury, disease, and overdose due to addiction. These medical professionals are exhausted, and understandably frustrated, especially when the “frequent flyers” show up - again. And again. I get it. It must be incredibly triggering of every medical professional’s fear that no matter what, they cannot fix this person. And they are on the front line of a medical establishment that is absolutely inadequate when it comes to addiction and other mental health dis-eases. So, their lack of compassion is in many ways understandable - it is a side effect of caregiver burnout.
And medical professionals are just one segment of the population that is ignorant and ill-equipped to effectively help people in active addiction, as well as in recovery. I have Fakebook friends (just a couple, phew) who share stories in the media that effectively shame people with addiction. Every time I see one of those posts (eg couple overdoses in car, kids in the back seat) I am deeply saddened. How can this be helpful? Again, I return to what I stated earlier - when a person becomes this sick, it is something that is beyond their control. And it is rare that someone is shamed into changing, and I am quite sure that shame does not lead to positive change in systems or in society, but rather, builds up and strengthens everything negative, from the individual to the global levels.
“We cannot grow when we are in shame, and we can’t use shame to change ourselves or others.” - Brené Brown
As we drove, I explained to my friend, that she is basically a Recovery Ambassador. I told her that next time she goes to a doctor, or interacts with anyone, really, she has the opportunity to educate them. Not in a shouty, emotional, indignant way, but from a place of compassion. I do believe that we are all doing our best, and it’s important to always see the other person’s point of view, and consider that their perspective is shaped by their experience up to that point. I told her, “You may be the only person in recovery that someone meets, and you have the chance to show them that you are human, and smart, and worthy, and dignified. And, you have the right to hold people accountable when they are not giving you the same respect and compassion that they might if you revealed you had a more “socially respectable” disease.” I have said this in different forums, that I believe that one of the reasons there is such a fear and misperception of people with addiction and other mental health dis-eases, is that the tradition of anonymity means that most people are not aware that millions of people can, and do, recover and lead incredibly productive, joyful lives. Imagine if the only way we heard about cancer is by obituaries and other stories of the horrors of cancer relapse. Instead, we have all kinds of events and media stories celebrating cancer survivors. I dream of the day when the millions of people in recovery, who are today contributing in meaningful and successful ways to the world, are also mentioning their recovery status along with “CEO/surgeon/coach/mother/lawyer/teacher/senator” etc.
I believe that change begins with you, and me, and trickles around and upward and downward. So, if you are reading this, and you are a medical professional, an educator, a parent, a sibling, a law enforcement officer, a first responder, a neighbor - whoever you are - you can be part of the change. Great change happens with tiny steps taken on a consistent basis. It happens when we become more self-aware. And when we do that - pay attention to our thoughts, feelings, and actions - we may realize how much of what we think, feel and do is based on fear.
When that doctor saw my friend’s track marks, she probably thought, “Oh shit” for all sorts of reasons that boiled down to fear. Which is no different from what drives medical policy, insurance policy, public policy, DARE programs, zero tolerance programs at school, and Fakebook shares. So, once we admit that, we can talk about it, and that is where change starts to happen.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead
When my mom was facing a premature death due to a cancer that was ravaging her body, she told me on one of our drives to her radiation appointments that she had urged my dad to mourn her for a year after she was gone, and then to find another wife. She told me that she was sorry she was so sick, and that they had had a beautiful life together and that he deserved and needed a companion. So, on the one hand, she regretted the pain and suffering that she felt in a way she may have caused (through years of smoking). On the other hand, she so very graciously and generously was giving him permission to honor what they had had, and to start a new chapter.
A couple of years after my mom had passed, my dad met Janet, after a friend urged him to create an eHarmony account. I remember when he created his profile - I think it took about three hours! - and he asked me to read his answers. It was thorough! My dad was a catch - apparently widowers in their early 60s are a hot ticket item in a demographic that tends to be largely female. He communicated and dismissed his share of women who were not intellectually and culturally satisfying to him (apparently “shopping” is a common hobby), and eventually Janet appeared. After a few online messages and phone calls, they met in person (she lived in VA, he in SC). A few months later they were engaged, and a few months after that they married. That was over ten years ago.
I remember during this time, well-meaning friends saying things like, “Susanne, aren’t you upset? Don’t you think this is rather soon for him to be dating/getting married?” Quite honestly, I did not know what they were talking about. Soon after they started dating, Janet flew up on her own to CT just to meet me, my husband and my kids. From the beginning, I sensed and now know that she is kind, authentic, and truly cares about my dad. And she is intimidatingly smart! They have the same obsession for opera, classical music, classical literature and art museums. They both dislike shopping, love to travel, cook, walk on the beach. Janet has taught at various universities including Georgetown and Howard U, and I think this may have been a factor in my dad’s decision to get his Master’s at the age of 69, and embark on a new career in teaching (he is now the head of his school’s language department!).
I realize that my mom paved the way for me to find acceptance, and this was perhaps one of the greatest gifts she could have given me. And my dad. He and my mom had a wonderful, adventurous three decades or so together, raising two children across four countries. And, that part of the journey ended for them, for our family. When my dad met Janet, he started a new journey, that did not take away from his time with my mom. Janet takes good care of my dad and I do not have to worry about him, knowing he is in loving, attentive hands. Sure, there was a transition when his new love distracted him from doting on his daughters and grandchildren, but that was a temporary adjustment and it gave way to a new normal. And they certainly dote on their five grandchildren!
As I was running yesterday and thinking about motherhood, and the often mixed feelings around Mother’s Day depending on where we are as mothers, daughters, wives, and how we are managing our expectations, I was thinking about how this day may feel for stepmoms. I imagine being a stepmom, even when you are entering a family with adult children, the way Janet did, is a scary adventure, with lots of potential for conflict and drama. I am grateful that my dad lucked out/chose well, and that my mom paved the way for acceptance and gratitude. And my hope is that on this Mother’s Day, as I think of my mom with love, sadness, and longing, and I also feel so much gratitude and love for my stepmom, Janet - that if you are a stepmom, or are struggling to accept a stepmom, that you feel love and compassion. In this morning’s yoga class, the teacher pointed out that we most fear external forces, but the truth is that the greatest sources of pain are within us. So, may we all just soften into this messy, brutiful existence, stay present, and accept that we are doing the best we can, right now.
Happy Mother’s Day :)
For the last couple of months, I have been privileged to work at a treatment center for adults (18+) whose lives had become unmanageable due to alcohol or other drugs, and are now seeking to learn healthier, smarter ways to cope with this crazy world in which we live. I was drawn to this place because of its holistic approach to treating addiction and other mental health dis-eases, complementing the individual and group therapy sessions with yoga, meditation, acupuncture, massage, healthy food, art therapy, gym time…
When a new client arrives, and when a client’s stay is coming to an end, a ritual is performed. An opening and a closing ceremony are held, where all of the clients and the therapists and program assistants welcome the newly arrived, or honor the departing client. Each ceremony is unique, and the closing ceremony is tailored to reflect the person’s personality, spirit, and the way he or she has grown, and has affected the others in the facility. It is a moving, beautiful way to honor him/her, while also allowing all of the participants to share how much the connection with this person has contributed to their own journey.
My family and I have been in the Northern Virginia area for eight months, and while we have by now figured out where the light switches are in the house, and discovered with amazement each new flower that has bloomed in our yard this spring, we still don’t quite feel rooted. I know that this takes time (I am working on Radical Acceptance with this fact), and won’t happen as quickly as the mint I transplanted to my garden have taken hold. My son is in 8th grade (I know, enough said). My daughter, in 11th grade, was just sharing with me over lunch how she has met a lot of nice kids at school, but how different this transition has been from her previous ones. Last year (10th grade) she went on her own to South Africa for her spring term, and after extreme homesickness for the first week, she quickly started to feel like she belonged. She was in a dorm with a group of other girls who were hours or continents away from home, and they quickly developed a bond, glued together by the intensity of their common situation. Our conversation about this tied into the themes that have been swirling round my head for months - belonging - connection - community - rituals. And how, when these human needs are not fulfilled, the result is often poor physical health, depression, anxiety, addiction.
I spoke with a counselor at one of my kids’ new schools last week and pointed out to him that while the school does a great job with producing high scores, in my opinion they were missing the boat in terms of social emotional learning. I explained how hard this transition has been on my son, and I cannot imagine how hard it must be for kids who are less self-confident, and I wondered how many kids were falling through the cracks? I assured the counselor that I understand the need to reach certain measurable goals (scores), but I am dismayed that there is not much effort that I can see, to build community. I (diplomatically, I think) suggested that they look at ways to build time into the calendar for activities where the students can do something fun, work toward a common non-academic goal, make connections. I also suggested that they start a program where existing families agree to adopt a new family for a year, so that the new kid has a guaranteed friendly face, and the parents aren’t floundering and wondering what they don’t know because they don’t know what they don’t know. When I was talking to a friend about it all, I pointed out that middle school is a rough time in general, and most educators shy away from that precarious stage, but like any challenge, it can be a great opportunity for positive change (and if we aren’t being intentional about positive change, negative change will easily step in).
When I think of the sense of belonging that my children - that we all - crave, I reflect upon the opening and closing rituals that bookend a client’s stay at the treatment center. Wouldn’t it be amazing to provide and prioritize an activity that provides our kids with peer acceptance and validation? We all, our children and our own inner child, long to be seen, heard, and accepted. Wouldn’t it be cool to build it into our school culture? I see the magic this type of framework works in adults through recovery groups and my place of work. Why wait till dis-ease and rock bottom force a person and family to take extreme measures? As an adult, I have experienced the type of authentic connection that is built through activities that in some ways are like, or incorporate rituals: Ragnar Relay races, participating in marathons and triathlons with a group of friends, attending She Recovers conferences and recovery/support groups and meetings, etc. These events and activities provide an opportunity for authentic communication, creative expression, physical exertion, intellectual growth. In short, they feed the soul.
As I point out in the podcast where I was just interviewed, I believe the best way to solve a problem is to prevent it in the first place, and I think that something as simple as creating rituals that cultivate belonging, will create positive ripples with long-lasting effects. Let’s start to think of ways that we and our schools can feed our children’s souls - because they are starving for a sense of belonging and meaning.
I knew that alcohol was keeping me from showing up for the people I value the most, including myself, and from feeling my best. And yet, one of the main reasons I delayed sobriety beyond the point where I knew it was a poison, was this: based on the evidence before me, people who don’t drink are about as fun as a traditional church sermon. And I may be allergic to alcohol, but I am DEFINITELY allergic to uptight, boring, conformity, rigidity, [apparently senseless] rules. As far as I knew, people who didn’t drink fit into one of three camps. They were either 1) uptight, boring, conformists, rigid, the opposite of curious, not interested in taking risks (ie the opposite of interesting and exciting); or 2) train wrecks since adolescence, making one terrible decision after the other, and basically coming to the realization (or imposed by a legal or medical or social intervention) that they needed to sober up; or 3) they were fun, adventurous, curious, wild, interesting, risk-taking, and similar to #2, came to the realization (freely or forced) that they needed to sober up – and were now living an uptight, boring, conforming, rigid life. I did not relate to #1 or #2, and I did not want to be a reformed fun girl (#3).
Now, 2.5 years after I started my “break” from alcohol, I realize how skewed my perspective had been. I think it’s understandable, because the stigma and tradition of anonymity in the recovery world meant that all I saw were examples of the three “types” I listed above. I had no evidence of someone living their recovery out loud in a way that showed how fun and exciting sobriety can be. In my journey since Dec. 6, 2015, diving into my own stuff as well as what has become a professional journey in the area of recovery, I have learned that living without the poison of alcohol (I heard recently that if alcohol were invented today, the FDA would never approve it) actually does NOT have to mean that we may as well become boring losers. Of course, there are many times that we may decide to skip certain events, occasions, trips and people because if we really think about it, we feel more connected and at peace in another environment – home in PJ’s with a cup of tea, or in a room with a bunch of other people who don’t drink, or sweating it out at the gym. But that is a choice we are now making freely, based on a desire to practice and prioritize self-care, not because it is what is expected of us, or because we are operating automatically and out of habit.
Recently, a sober friend of mine remarked that people in recovery are more fun to her than people who never really drank or used drugs. I found that an interesting thought, as it echoed an impression I had had when I first “took a break” and then started connecting with others in the sober world, online and in person. I found that people in this space were intriguing to me. They were more curious, awake, and authentic, than I had found in other milieu. And I have wondered, what is it about mind-altering substances and behaviors that attracts the type of person I best connect with – the high-achievers, the creatives, the super-curious, the boundless? Is it that our current lifestyle and culture, with its rigid rules that begin when we start school (or daycare) and end on our deathbed, pushes us to seek relief from boredom and restlessness?
Shortly after I initiated my “break,” I wrote a blog about the vacuum. When we give up a habit, we need to fill the vacuum with other activities, because Mother Nature hates vacuums (I don’t blame Mother Nature, nor does my dog-she hates it when I vacuum). You can read what I wrote here: http://www.therebootcoach.net/blog/get-rid-of-the-vacuum . Substance misuse disorder treatment professionals and self-help groups prioritize helping people create a structure in life that fills the vacuum with activities, a network, goals, etc. This seems like a pain in the ass, and there is always the “I don’t have time, I need to work/feed my kids/water my plants…” and especially for non-comformists who like to fly by the seat of their pants and go with the flow, structure and what seems like selfishness (but is really self-care) can be a tough pill to swallow (pardon the pun). I get it. Especially when a lot of this stuff seems soooooooo boring.
My kids are teens now, an age that many people fear and dread, but I actually could not wait for this phase of parenting. Babies are cute but boring, toddlers are cute but I can’t reason with them, and then kids (to me) become more interesting as I can talk with them and ride bikes and play Frisbee. When they are teens, I relate to them. I relate to their curiosity, their desire to explore, challenge, question, to rock the boat. That is my language!
I moved to the U.S. from Mexico when I was entering my 12th grade of high school, and was rather shocked and dismayed by what to me seemed like a very bored teenage population, whose main outlet was alcohol and promiscuity. It was clear to me that they were acting this way because these were their options for having fun: 1. Play sports 2. Play music 3. Be in the school play 4. Eat at Friendly’s (the more interesting restaurant, Bennigans, required you to be 21 to eat there after 8:00pm) 5. Go to the YMCA and workout. Oh, and 6. Find out whose parents were going to be away and go to that house and binge drink and hook up. I came from a vibrant, cosmopolitan city (Mexico City) that did not have many rules (many were ignored or you could bribe your way out of them), had plenty of things to do (social connection was such a cultural priority that many of us didn’t even have time for afterschool sports), and there was this expectation, culturally and from most of my peers, that you were to stay classy. I remember going to Acapulco with my family dozens of times, returning even after we moved to the U.S., and noting that the classy nightclubs were where the Mexicans hung out, while the Americans and Canadians went to the cheesy, trashy bars and clubs where there was no cover and girls drank for free (excess was the name of the game). Totally different vibe.
Now, as someone who is parenting teens, as well as working in the recovery space, I constantly think about all of this, especially because my main interest has always been in prevention. How do we prevent problems from happening, especially today, when the stakes just seem so much higher? How do we go about creating a home, school, lifestyle, society where kids, and adults who relate to kids (impulsive, risk-takers, intense, adventurous, curious, etc) feel accepted, challenged, engaged, connected? My kids are super cool (I know, I am their mom, but still). They are fun, curious, love to dance (as in, with a DJ, not in a class), have good grades, go on adventures. But we often scratch our heads, because it feels like our culture (U.S.) is not really set up for a child to be well-rounded and live a wholehearted life. It seems that that is not really encouraged or supported until they fuck up (and then suddenly, if the kid is lucky, adults realize the child needs to be connected physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually). I often think of the movie The Breakfast Club, with the stereotypes. The jock, the goody-two-shoes rich girl, the nerd, etc. My kids don’t fit any of those stereotypes. They want to go out and have fun, dance, connect, be creative, be challenged intellectually, do sports. They don’t want to specialize in the way that our culture requires, which basically is telling kids, shoot for varsity sports, AP madness, join band, and there is not much room for rest, for doing things just for fun, for dabbling (not to be confused with dabbing). Oh, and the cool kids don’t do church stuff, that’s the socially awkward kids, and if you want to socialize and you’re not on a team (where you have to be good enough to make the team), you have to go to parties where responsible adults are not present. Yikes. And then we wonder why all these kids are suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, vaping. My unscientific, anecdotally-based theory, is that this is a way for our teens to express their desire to be risk-taking, curious, non-conformists. To satisfy their desire to be part of something bigger – which they seem to be getting via the vaping craze and the Fortnight obsession. Of course, we as adults know how ill-founded the vaping thing is because of the health risks, and the fact that they are actually conforming (to wanting to be like their peers). Oh wait – aren’t we doing that too, by buying the Mommy Timeout wine and wearing the Rosé All Day t-shirt? Hmmmm…..
As I have often said, our children are the canaries in the coal mine. We need to pay attention to what they are telling us, and listen, rather than react with punishment. They are mirroring our own hang-ups, issues, sources of anxiety, choices. What does this say about our parenting, teaching, coaching? About how we are structuring our priorities, from the individual, family, and community point of view? And with this question and the gut feelings it evokes, how can I be the change I wish to see in the world?
So, how do I, as a teenager-at-heart proceed in this world, now that I have chosen not to alter my brain chemistry and pickle my liver? How do I continue to feed my need to be fun, adventurous, non-conformist, wild, curious, risk-taking? First of all, at some point I realized that everyone and their grandmother is drinking booze, so the most non-conformist, counter-cultural, badass thing I could do was to say, to hell with booze. Then, I realized that being sober actually feeds my innate need to connect deeply with others, because in my personal and professional connections in the recovery space, I am, on a daily basis, having real conversations and impact, which is far more fulfilling to me than any conversation that could happen in an ethanol-induced cloud. I have continued to do my athletic stuff (teaching Yoga4Sobriety, running/triathlon stuff), which deepens my connection with others in a way that involves my physical senses, and deepens my gratitude for my health and resiliency. It is also a way to satisfy the part of me that longs for intense sensual connection, involving physical movement and challenge, and discomfort. I believe that the recovery world today needs to provide more opportunities to connect this way, and that treatment programs and centers need to focus on this more (ie move away from accepting that recovery entails tons of cigarettes and instead, guide sober people into mindful sweat-and-adrenaline-boosting movement). The possibility of creating a Meet & Run or Meet & Ride group (a group run or bike ride immediately following a 12 step or other self-help group) is fun to me, certainly more interesting than the typical paradigm of a running group that then goes out for beer (canceling many of the running benefits including calorie-burning). Sweat-out trumps blackout.
I do not know how to make this a better place to nurture teenagers, but I figure that if I give myself what I need, and keep showing up in the way that feels right, and authentic, to me, then perhaps things can fall into place on a grander scale. I hope.
Sober really is the new badass.
Several years ago, I was volunteering in a program at a high school, where teen parents could come in with their infants and while a couple of paid staffers and volunteers like myself watched their babies, the teens continued to attend class. It was a controversial program, as its critics believed it was condoning teen pregnancy. Marie, the formidable woman who had never had children of her own and called herself a Catholic Feminist, ignored the naysayers and worked tirelessly to build support for the program, which essentially provided the only loving, stable nest these teens had ever had. She judged no one, and loved everyone. My own mom had died a couple of years before I met Marie, and while she adopted me into her program as one of her most involved volunteers, she became a surrogate mom to me. I would show up a few times a week with a toddler or two of my own, and model healthy parenting to the teens, teach them how to photograph their adorable babies, and chat with them about healthy dating, eating, exercise. I would listen to their problems, which quite honestly, often shocked me. It was incomprehensible how these teens could now be parenting, a role that was so challenging at times to someone like me, with money, a supportive husband, a somewhat confident outlook on the future. Their lives often if not almost always, included past (and possibly present) abuse, violence, cyclical poverty, and pretty much no real sense that things would ever be different. And this was what Marie and her program changed for so many of them. Her friends donated loads of generous gifts for Christmas, the girls were given opportunities to speak with younger students about the challenges of being teen parents, and they were given the honor at fundraising events to address donors and explain how this program had allowed them to stay in school, and think of a future that included college.
The reality is that this program was in many ways the turning point for me. I had lived in CT for a few years and felt adrift. We arrived in this small town in CT about 1.5 hours from NYC with a 2-month-old baby, having transferred because of my husband’s job. We had no family there and didn’t know anyone. I tried the playgroup route but realized that wasn’t my thing. Domestic duties have never been my bread and butter, so diving into window treatments and baking was not going to do it for me. Meanwhile, my husband was traveling constantly. I was lonely, but while I have always been outgoing and self-confident, I had no desire to meet someone at a PTO meeting and suggest coffee. The thought of small talk was unbearable to me and I couldn’t be bothered.
I was training for my first triathlon and while waiting for the pool to open at 5:30am (I did all my training while my family was asleep), I met Marie. She was the only other lunatic waiting in the cold dark. She told me about the program and knowing that I was done with childbearing, I offered to visit and bring all of the baby clothes, strollers, crib, etc that were in my basement. I brought the goods - and never left. Several months later, I was driving through the streets of this edgy CT town, where over 70% of the kids are on a free lunch program, and I realized I finally felt at home. This town was 20 minutes from my own little town that is often referred to as a “little bubble of goodness” and yet as I looked out at the rundown buildings, the row houses where these teen moms often lived, I felt more connected than I had in a very long time.
Marie’s program was created to help children who were in many ways being told that they were society’s rejects. She knew that these children had suffered at the hands of other adults who may have been doing the best that they could, but this best was marred by their own lives of trauma, mental illness, and whatever this harsh life had thrown their way. I think Marie in many ways felt like she never quite fit in herself, that she was an underdog, a reject of sorts. So she created a home for other underdogs. I felt right at home. This was a place where there was no superficial bullshit. When you are 15 years old and holding a 6-month-old baby, you cannot hide the fact that you have broken most of “polite society’s” rules. Other 15-year-olds are wondering who will invite them to Prom, while you are wondering how you are going to get to work, since your mom, who would naturally be the one to watch your baby, is at her third job of the day, and your dad can’t help because he’s in jail, and the baby daddy is out of the picture. I remember thinking, this is reality. And I felt alive and connected.
It’s not programs, but relationships, that change lives.
- Bill Milliken, founder of Communities in Schools (CIS)
This week we had another horrific (as if there is otherwise) school shooting in the U.S. When the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened in 2012, we lived five miles from the school. We became friends with a few of the families whose children were killed, and became involved in a few of the foundations that were formed to honor the children who died, and to continue their legacy by making the world a better place. One of these organizations is Race4Chase Youth Triathlon. In 2010, I had brought the idea to the Waterbury YMCA to start a triathlon program, because I figured this would be a way to give kids some coping tools and sense of agency, so maybe they would not need Marie’s program. I am all about prevention. In 2014 our program was in its 4th year and became Race4Chase, part of the CMAK Foundation. Chase was a 6-year-old triathlete who died in the shooting, 4 months after winning his age group in his first triathlon. His parents Rebecca and Steven wanted to give other kids an opportunity to experience the joy Chase had in his excruciatingly brief triathlon career.
When Jim (the Executive Director of the YMCA) and I planned this new program, we both agreed that ALL kids are “at risk,” so the free program would be open to youth from both underserved, and privileged areas. We knew that children who come from families that don’t appear to be “needy” often suffered in ways that may go under the radar until they at some point reveal substance misuse issues or depression. I have often wondered if suburban kids in “good towns” aren’t in some ways underserved because the assumption is they are getting all that they need at home, so there is no need for a Boys & Girls Club or other programs that provide mentoring and leadership. Surely they don’t have time or a need for it, with their travel soccer schedule and violin lessons and PSAT prep courses.
Feeling disconnected, and stressed-out, happens to anyone in spite of household income or pedigree.
Race4Chase, which began with 1 camp in 2010, this year (2018) will be in 26 locations across three states. I haven’t done the math but I think over a couple thousand kids have become triathletes. But the thing is that while they have learned to swim, ride a bike, run, eat healthy, prioritize sleep, respect others, set goals, always use a helmet, show up, show up on time, show up prepared, solve differences, consider others’ points for view… The greatest thing they have learned, I think, is that they matter. They are loved. And they CAN and they WILL do great things. Crossing a triathlon finish line is just the beginning.
“Grown-ups never understand anything for themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”
- Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I have always said that our children are the canaries in the coal mine. When the average onset age of anxiety is age 11, that is our children telling us that our world is off-kilter. When physical health indicators (allergies, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases, etc) show up in our most vulnerable, our children - this is our children telling us that they are being conceived and raised in a toxic world. When more and more kids are dying to suicide and addiction, this is our children telling us we need to wake the fuck up. When children are bullying, in person and virtually, to the extent that they are today, this is our children telling us that they do not like themselves, because hurt people hate people. When children explode and kill other humans, this is the ultimate sign that the coal mine has hit its toxic limit.
“We don’t have a youth problem, we have an adult problem.”
- Bill Milliken
We are overwhelmed. We know there is a need to enforce existing laws and add a few more. We know there is a need to fix our mental health system. Schools are pouring resources into turning their buildings into Fort Knox. Our kids, who were already nervous because this is a stressful time to be coming of age, are now understandably terrified to go to school. We are unloading our anger, fear and bewilderment on social media, putting down anyone who dares to offer “thoughts and prayers,” posting opinionated statements calling politicians cowards and self-interested, making cavalier declarations of unfriending anyone who doesn’t agree with x-y-z.
I get it. It’s overwhelming and awful and I think we all feel some level of hopelessness and helplessness. There is no clear solution. No quick fix. No magic law, program, or pill. And boy do we Americans love quick fixes! But there are a few things I believe can work, can make a tiny little difference. For starters, we grown-ups need to take a few breaths. I have never heard anyone say, “I read someone’s opinions on Facebook and I saw the light and have totally changed the way I see the gun debate/abortion/gay marriage/football kneeling…” I think it’s a great idea to vent and process, but perhaps there are better ways to do this. Some of the posts and comments I have read have been rude, even cruel. And then we wonder why our kids are bullies? Yesterday my son showed me a post by an adult we know (on Twitter) and he was surprised by the meanness. Our kids are listening, watching. Following.
The other thing I believe can be helpful is to be honest with ourselves. How are we contributing to the disconnection in the world? If we aren’t being intentional in connecting, we are contributing to the disconnect. Are we spending our time with people just like us? We can post links on Facebook about the injustices toward immigrants, refugees, LGBTQ youth and adults, veterans - but is that all we are doing? Because just like your opinionated post did not change my mind if I didn’t already agree with you (I know you were actually just looking for social validation in the form of Likes anyway), it also did nothing to help our canaries, our children. But you can help. You can contribute time and/or money to amazing efforts that build relationships that change lives, that change the world. I mentioned Race4Chase Youth Triathlon. Another incredible one is Communities in Schools. CIS finds the children who are in crisis, or not quite there but certainly on that trajectory, and brings resources into the school, to help them. The teachers are then free to do their jobs and the children thrive. CIS is the top-rated program for dropout prevention, with a 98% graduation rate.
If we are not working toward a solution, we are only making the problem worse. It took a long time to get to where we are, be it the opioid epidemic or the 18 school shootings this year, so far. I have seen several memes that cleverly show the feeling of resignation I think many of us feel. Nothing changes if nothing changes. So, let’s change. Something that I think would be quite revolutionary would be for us to listen.
“Speak only if it improves upon the silence.”
- Mahatma Gandhi
I would go further and suggest, speak if it is to ask a question. And then listen. Listen, to hear, and work hard not to work on coming up with a rebuttal or a reply.
“There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.”
- Simon Sinek
Just. Listen. The programs I mentioned above with which I have been or am involved, the greatest power, I think, was in how the children feel they are being heard. And seen. All of us want that. That is the true essence of connection, isn’t it? When our kids act up, anyone who has taken Psychology 101 knows they are begging for attention, they want to be heard. And acknowledged. Every day we can give this gift of listening, a gift of love. So how about we start there. Remember - our kids are listening. And we don’t need our country’s or states’ leaders to pass any laws for us to take this world-changing action. What are our kids telling us about their school? Friends? Sports? Schedule? Diet? Time to rest? Do they feel connected? Supported? Like what they are doing is meaningful?
How do we answer those same questions for ourselves?
It takes a village to raise a child. Let's build that village, starting at home, and spread outwards. Connect.
“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.
- James A. Baldwin
Wellness coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.