It should be easy to say what you really feel, and do what you really want, right? To say no when your plate is already overflowing. To set clear boundaries that don't allow others to take advantage of you. To stand up for yourself when the situation calls for it. To know your limitations, or at least respect yourself and your health and well-being enough to let things go, or say no, without worrying what others might think. Easy, right?
Umm, not so fast. For me and a host of other perfectionists, I'm afraid the answer to that question is a resounding, "NO!" At the very least, it's far more complicated than a simple yes or no. In fact, for me, finding my voice (because, let's face it, when you filter out all the noise like guilt, perception of others, and perfection finding, your voice is what allows you to set the boundaries that ultimately lead toward true happiness) was an extremely painful rebirthing process that ultimately took the death of my father, a decline in my health, the death of my brother, the near death of a relationship with a close family member, AND the death of my mother (all within a two year time frame) to accomplish. Through the agony of nearly unbearable heartache, I think I cried a crater of emptiness so large within myself that I finally began to hear the echoing of my own voice screaming at me to wake up and listen!
I’ll never forget the phone call that truly started my journey to enlightenment (as I like to call it). It was an ordinary chilly, autumn day in November, and my niece was on the other end of the phone telling me that her dad - my 54 year old brother - had just found out he had colon cancer and probably wouldn't live more than a couple weeks. In that moment, everything in my world stopped. Literally. The cortisol dump from the shock was the final straw to my already overstressed and overworked adrenal glands, and it sent my body into what I now believe was total adrenal exhaustion...a health crisis that sent me to several specialists, and one I'm still slowly, but successfully, working to resolve.
We’re blessed that my brother didn't leave us until a little over two years later, and in that time frame our entire family was fortunate to be able to gather in Ohio for our first (and last) Christmas together in well over 20 years, as well as in San Diego for the wedding of my oldest brother. Within 10 days of returning home from that wedding, though, my father passed away unexpectedly.
One of the most defining moments in my journey came as I was following the ambulance carrying my father to the hospital. It was during a pretty significant January snow storm in 2015, one that made travel on the 2-lane highway between Oxford and Cincinnati extremely treacherous. I remember worrying that one of us was surely going to die before we could even get my father to Christ hospital to try to save his life. Mere moments after that thought, I was suddenly overcome with emotion, goosebumps, and an overwhelming sense of calm as I felt the presence of my paternal grandmother (who died when I was age 3) reassuring me that she was with my father and everything was ok. The feeling was almost euphoric, and I remember feeling guilty for feeling such joy when my father was in critical condition and very likely dying.
When he was taken off life support a little less than 24 hours later, surrounded by his family, I watched him take his final breath and immediately felt the presence of angels who I believe had come to guide him "home." It was one of the most beautiful moments I've ever been witness to, and I know now that it was the beginning of ‘new eyes seeing’ for me. I felt my father's presence ALL around me after his passing, and everywhere I looked life seemed to be more vivid, as if someone had turned up the volume on all my senses and repainted the world in more intense colors. I was transformed.
A mere two weeks after my father's passing, out of nowhere, I was compelled to write a poem about the life altering feelings I had been experiencing since his death. I had never written poetry in my life! Where this compulsion sprang from is a mystery, though my family likes to joke that it was my dad channeling through me since he enjoyed dabbling in poetry too. Whatever the cause, I now know that it was the beginning of me finding my voice - a voice I had squelched for too long, in large part I suspect, because of my critical and authoritarian father who I was always trying to please. Too often, I'm afraid, pleasing him and keeping the peace meant keeping my thoughts and opinions to myself, lest I be judged as less than in some way for what I had to say, or start a war for not agreeing with him. It disturbs me deeply when someone doesn’t like me for any reason, and my father was at the top of that list. Pleasing him meant I often sacrificed myself to do it, no matter the cost.
In hindsight, I can see this pattern in our relationship from the time I was very young, and I now understand the tremendous impact it had on the rest of my life. I understand how my inability to always speak up for myself, my intense dislike of altercation, my unhealthy desire to be perfect, and my desperate need to please led to me being a perfect victim for sexual abuse by a high school coach in my middle teens, and also for rape in my late teens while in college. I do not blame my father for these situations; he helped to instill in me many other wonderful qualities, and ultimately was -though unbeknownst to us both at the time- grooming me for this voice that I do currently have, so please do not misunderstand my intent here. I own these situations for what they were and for the role they played in who I was to become. However, I now understand why my father’s passing left me feeling free to be wholly me, and free to let loose the voice (and victim) within me that had been stifled long ago out of fear. It took me a full year and a half after his death to make this profound connection, and to fully grasp the magnitude of the powerful gifts he had left me. I am so very grateful!
Were it not for my father's passing first, at exactly the time it happened, and were it not for the voice through writing I found as a result, I honestly don't know how I would have survived the hardship and grief that came in that next year with having to place my mother in nursing home care, cleaning out the contents of my parent's home for the second time, seeing my youngest graduate college and traversing the end of empty-nesting, struggling to mend a broken heart from some unexpected harsh words from a family member, holding my sister-in-law's hand through those last months after my brother chose to walk away from chemotherapy, and the final blow when he passed the day before I was to be in California to say my final goodbyes.
Despite the beauty through which I felt I was seeing the world after the loss of my father, and despite the incredible interconnectedness that I came to feel as a result, the months leading up to my brother's death were extremely dark and difficult for me. I struggled enormously with the life of "such a good man" being cut short, the suffering he had to endure, and the loss of the brother that was nearest in age to me (we were 14 months apart), and my hero while growing up more times than I could count. My writing became my lifeline – literally - and with my voice slowly returning, as well as the help of a wonderful counselor (a story of the universe putting the right woman directly before me so I could stop resisting help and know, with absolute certainty, that she was the person I was meant to talk to), I managed to make it through the darkest time of my life stronger, more acutely aware, and more vibrationally in tune with myself and my needs than ever before. And I learned to forgive...myself mostly, but also others whom I had allowed to hurt me so profoundly, and even God for "taking away" one of the dearest people in my life. I was awake again, and welcoming every emotion, every thought, and every sign from the world around me. I was learning how to love all over again, starting with myself!
I was fortunate to have my mother for a little over a year after my brother's passing, and though that time was filled with ups and downs in her health, some of our best conversations and joyous moments occurred during this time, including the birth of my second grandchild (and first grandson) and the marriage of my middle daughter. My mother was the greatest champion of my writing, and the greatest advocate of me finding my voice (in both written and expressive form) and turning that voice, and my experiences, into a passion for healing. I miss her unwavering support, her unsurpassed wisdom, and her gentle guidance, but I know the timing of her passing was as it was meant to be, for all of us. For me, her passing was the final piece in letting go and embracing me - alone, without parents - and fully welcoming the journey and direction my life was taking without worrying about what anyone else needed or what anyone else thought. It was a new chapter in my life - a chapter about me, without caregiving strings pulling me in every direction, and it was about what I needed to learn and what I wanted to say. I was free to be. And even more significantly, perhaps, there was time to just be!
In the week after she passed, I struggled a great deal with not being able to "feel her" the way I had so profoundly felt both my father’s presence and that of my brother after their deaths. As if I had voiced this concern out loud, she "heard" me and I was awakened in the middle of the night with the words to a poem meant to reassure me...her words, coming through me, I believe (see poetry section).
What a beautiful gift I was given from both my father and my mother through their deaths, and what a beautiful spiritual awakening came from so much loss and heartache. I feel as though I have been reborn. There is no other adequate way to describe all the remarkable changes in my life, from my spiritual growth and my understanding of self and what’s beyond self and how we all connect, to my understanding of, and ability to give love and forgiveness to myself and others, to the voice that now writes to heal and lives to comfort through words. I miss my family members dearly, but my heart is at peace and I am so incredibly grateful for the journey their deaths took me on. Because of them, I am living a more present life, a richer life, and a life centered around giving better care to myself so I can more fully give of myself and my gifts to others.
I'm still a work in progress, and I still have difficult days where I am immobilized by grief, but the difference is that now I am kinder to myself when I have those days. I recognize them for the gift they are, and for the rest and cleansing tears they provide. And because I now allow myself to be stilled in the comfort and reassurance of meditative quiet so I can write, I am also better able to welcome what the universe is placing before me, even when it frightens me. I'm embracing the journey in a way I heretofore could not. I welcome the process and all the beautiful, complicated pieces that continue to lead me, ever closer, to the real, authentic me...the me who still struggles to say no, but is doing it ever easier; the me who wants to be liked by everyone, but is caring less about appearances and more about self; the me who wants to be the best at what I do but is learning that it's ok for my best to vary from day to day depending on what and how much is on my plate; the me that still works too hard, but is learning to set limits, and play more; and the me that likes things to be predictable, orderly, and consistent, but who is welcoming the butterflies, the goosebumps, the insecurity, the excitement and, yes, even the fear that comes with change.
It seems almost heartless to say I am happier now than I have ever been, but it’s only because I’ve learned that struggle, loss, grief, and hardship have a way of opening you to life's lessons, if you'll listen, and teaching you more about love and self and beauty and joy than any amount of happiness could possibly teach you. I love this person who is blossoming into an even more beautiful version of herself! I'm finally loving me!
So, embrace the journey. Trust that everything is unfolding as it should. Take the good with the bad, the joy with the sorrow, the highs with the lows, and enjoy every single second of the roller coaster and exquisiteness that is life. Life is too short and too precious to put on the back burner. Put yourself and your health and your dreams at the top of your list because as my mother always told me, if you don't take care of yourself and your needs first, you have nothing to give to anyone else, and that’s a darn shame because you are a gift! Be you in all your glory, and make no apologies for the trail you blaze along the way!
I am woman.
I am love.
I am passion.
Hear my voice.
Hear me roar!
September 6, 2017