My journey towards working in the healing arts began when I was in high school. As a varsity athlete, student counsel member, editor-in-chief of the yearbook for two consecutive years, a journalist for the school newspaper, and as someone enrolled in mostly AP/honors classes, I had high expectations for myself. (I excelled in school with the exception of mathematics and home economics; I never did take calculus and I received my lowest grade in Home Ec. after I hot glued my sewing project together – a green turtle pillow – whoops.)
Despite my intense work ethic and college preparatory life, I went through periods of extreme depression. Not only did I agonize on an emotional level, but I suffered physically, too. I had horrific experiences with my highly irregular menstrual cycle. Heavy bleeding, painful periods and extreme PMS (now referred to as premenstrual dysphoric disorder or PMDD ) defined my life. Though my proactive mother had me in counseling to actively work through all of these issues, the gold standard treatment at the time – the birth control pill – did very little to regulate my “normal” hormonal irregularities.
I lost weeks of my life to extreme pain, terrible anxiety and an overall feeling of hopelessness. I worked myself into the ground, constantly pushing myself harder and harder on my quest for some sense of external validation. The shadow side of my deep need for acceptance acted out as rebellion. When I wasn’t busy with my never-ending list of extracurricular activities, I was conjuring a plan to break the rules. I pushed every boundary that I could, but without much luck. I always, always, got caught, and I ended up grounded … a lot. (Yup! It’s true.)
And, my situation became much worse before it got better.
One month after I graduated high school, my symptoms came to head when I collapsed with horrific pain and crawled to the phone to dial 911 for help. That night I went into emergency surgery to have a massive tumor (my doctors later told me it was the size of a bowling ball) removed from my left ovary. One year later, I underwent a radical hysterectomy as an emergency effort to save my life from aggressive gynecological cancer.
Though my cancer treatments did indeed cure me of any malignancy, and I am extremely happy to report that I’ve been cancer-free for almost 14 years, (Woot-woot!) what happened in the years that followed were as challenging as the disease itself. Having entered immediate menopause at the age of nineteen, my body went into shock.
It wasn’t long before I found myself struggling with extreme symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Panic and anxiety took over my life. I fought to keep up with my schoolwork. Eventually, I broke down and withdrew from my classes to take a long leave of absence from school.
Fortunately, my life took a massive turn for the better. As Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar would say, I went from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder into Post Traumatic Growth Order.
So how did I do it?
A turning point for me happened when I learned that I could not live my life in pursuit of other people’s approval. When I realized that I could self-validate, my life transformed substantially. I stopped seeking outward approval and chose to only do what I really wanted me, even if it disappointed friends and family, or alienated me from who I was “supposed” to be at the time.
I chose to only do what gratified me. If it didn’t feel good to me, and I absolutely didn’t have to do it, I let it go. After that, I spent two years in idyllic San Diego + Lake Tahoe. When I lived in San Diego, I went to the beach each and every day to either walk, surf or stare at the waves. (I am not gifted a surfer, or even skilled in the slightest, but I love to paddle out and pretend.) When I lived in Tahoe I snowboarded my guts out and in the late spring, when the last drips of snow melted, I found my joy swimming in the lake and hiking. From the summer of 1999 through the fall of 2001, following my joy became a strict discipline in my life.
Healing for me meant giving up the fight. If it didn’t feel natural, like something I authentically wanted, I simply didn’t do it. Through this radical action my life became playful again.
When I returned to college, things did however become very stressful for me again. Fortunately though, I had amazing support and hooked up with a really good therapist. Additionally, one of my saving graces became my regular yoga practice that fueled me in ways I previously could not conceive.
Joy became my default, and my life took a tremendous upswing.
That’s not to say that since then I don’t have bad days or times when I question everything. I certainly do. Nor does it mean I am not still totally invested in improving my wellbeing, cause I am. It means that I have turned my wounds into my unique wisdom.
When I boil down how I made this change in my life, I see a few fundamental steps I took that helped me. To sum it up, on a very high level, these were some of the key things I did to heal:
- I acknowledged my body was right. I began to understand that each symptom I experienced, from headache to melancholy mood, had a message for me. I started understanding the language my body spoke and this led me to make changes that helped further heal my body. I worked with a Somatic Experiencing practitioner to actively heal my anxiety, and this did wonders for me.
- I discovered who I was in absence of my habits. For me this involved getting out of my comfort zone. I moved 3,000 miles away from home with a backpack and committed to creating a whole new life for myself. This challenge afforded an incredible growth opportunity, and the chance to meet myself without staying rooted in a habituated lifestyle.
- I connected deeply with my desire. As someone who struggled deeply with depression, desire became a major antidote to my malaise.
- I practiced following my desire with discernment. I cautiously made following my heart an act of radical self-care, and I discerned the very best way I could follow my desire without being reckless.
- I consciously integrated my shadow. Please note: integrating your shadow is not a one-time deal. It’s something I found I have to work on daily. The process began with acknowledging the parts of myself that were less than desirable and bringing them into my awareness. I learned that my criticisms of others were actually criticisms of myself projected outwards. I began to love the parts of me that I denied and refused, and through this process I became whole.
- I stopped fighting. Whether with myself or with life in general, I let go of the battle. I made a conscious choice to lean into life instead of against it. I developed a profound respect for the moment.
Ultimately all of this made me a very compassionate lover of life. I anchored myself into deep gratitude and through this journey, I learned how to ride the nuances of my emotions, and how to fully presence myself with my joy.
Thankfully, life met me along the way, bringing with it an abundance of gifts.
As always, I send you my love.