Five years ago, in January 2013, shortly before I was to turn 40, I experienced something of a seismic shift from which I’m still feeling aftershocks.
In the space of just a few weeks, I had the opportunity to interview three amazing people and be present to the same message told from three different perspectives:
Childhood matters. It matters how we feel as children, how we’re loved, how we’re held, what we learn about how to interact with others and with the world.
Our future depends on our past.
Our children’s futures depend on our now.
It was uncanny how I got the same message from three different people in one month. They have continued to come from others!
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First I got to participate in part of a weekend workshop at Reston’s Beloved Yoga with Claudia Welch, a woman who has combined the traditions of Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine with a Western understanding of health.
Claudia’s book, Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life: Achieving Optimal Health and Wellness through Ayurveda, Chinese Medicine, and Western Science puts forth what is, for some, a paradigm shift: How you feel is directly related to all of the choices you make with your body: how and when to eat, to move, to rest.
When I tried to ask her top tips for mothers for an interview for The DC Moms, her reply was nothing short or “Change your life.” I’m still working with what that looks like – to be a mother with creative and advocacy passions and chronic illness and the desire to be present for her children and model presence.
Another conversation I was lucky enough to have was with Alfie Kohn, who was giving a talk sponsored by the local Montessori community. A few months after becoming a parent, I read an essay of Kohn’s in Pathways to Wellness Magazine that was adapted from his book Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason Unconditional Parenting in Pathways magazine right after becoming a parent …
Talking with Alfie Kohn about parenting and education choices deepened my thoughts about my own upbringing and what I wanted to provide for my children.
Also in January 2013, I connected with Katrina Kenison, who was giving a talk at lil omm yoga, a studio owned at the time by my friend Pleasance Silicki. It would be the first time I was going to miss a Holistic Moms meeting since I had founded the Arlington/Alexandria chapter four years earlier! I knew Katrina’s work from her lovely Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry and her editing of the Best American Short Stories series
Katrina was going to be talking about her book The Gift of an Ordinary Day: A Mother’s Memoir
and Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment at a talk at lil omm.
This was the first time I was going to miss a meeting of the Holistic Moms chapter I started, but I was not going to miss the opportunity to meet Katrina in person. I had learned so much from her work about parenting, presence, and self-exploration.
In our interview, Katrina shared some of the touchpoints of her early parenting that she was glad for – quiet times, nature exploration, Waldorf education, no screen time in the early years and many meaningful rituals and connections in her immediate and extended families.
Katrina also told me about a book that changed how I thought my past, present and future.
Donna Jackson Nakazawa
An early reader of The Last Best Cure: My Quest to Awaken the Healing Parts of My Brain and Get Back My Body, My Joy, and My Life, Katrina told me she thought the book would be helpful for me.
Reading this book was profound. The author, Donna Jackson Nakazawa, recounts her health struggles and how she went through a healing process to reclaim her life. Her father died after a car accident when she was eight years old. In this book, she marries an explanation of how Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs) affect health later in life with the telling of the year she spent integrating meditation, yoga and many other healing modalities.
I later read Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal with rapt attention.
Reading this book, I realized I really needed to deal with my shit. I thought, If I can just go away for a week and cry and journal and do yoga and walk in the woods and cry and write and maybe draw, maybe I can finally change things.
Then my mom had a heart attack and quadruple bypass, so I flew out to spend two nights in her hospital room. She eventually went home and improved some, but she’s also backslid. Ditto me.
Shortly after meeting and talking with Claudia Welch, Alfie Kohn and Katrina Kenison – when I was feeling the most inspired and enlightened – I got really sick and lost my mojo for weeks. I managed to celebrate my 40th birthday with yoga, but I almost bailed. Donna’s The Last Best Cure was a saving grace.
Now five years after that amazing January of 2013, I am still turning these ideas over in my head. My children are older and come with new interests and concerns, all of which compel me to rethink my childhood in yet another way, presents new parenting challenges, and pushes me to think differently about priorities.
My friend and healer
Just this morning, I invited in a contractor to work on my kitchen. I was shocked when he introduced himself as the ex-husband of the person who got me started on my healing journey back in 2003.
His former wife suggested major diet changes and gave me so much guidance that has influenced my path, including introducing me to essential oils and later suggesting I test for gluten intolerance.
And she also wanted me to read and work through The Inner Child Workbook: What to do with your past when it just won’t go away
I did a little but couldn’t – or wouldn’t – commit to finishing. I was in therapy, I had been doing yoga and took up tai chi, I was getting acupuncture, all of which helped me reverse Graves’ Disease. I felt like I was doing plenty.
But maybe really taking on the journal back then – in 2003 – would have set me on a different course. Because here I am, still working on this stuff!
I can try to believe I needed the intervening 14+ years. Brene Brown – who I encountered later but want to write more about – explains in Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead you need to go through struggle, after all! Transformation doesn’t happen without challenge.
But half of those past 14 years have been pretty rough on a lot of levels, even as my children get more independent and I get more sleep! Some days I find myself in a place of optimism and possibility, but, at least as many days, I find myself losing measures of hope, for my present and future.
And I am realizing how deeply and profoundly I need to deal with my past.
Karen Maezen Miller
The insights I gleaned from those above also intersected with the work of Zen Buddhist priest Karen Maezen Miller. I first learned of the author early in my days of parenting from a friend who read Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood.
I attended a talk she gave at lil omm upon publication of Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life
and then saw her again when she spoke about Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden
I achieved some moments of profound clarity meditating with Maezen, as her students called her, and I enjoyed many insights of her work. And yet, I got stuck with a description of her childhood and the summer weeks she spent at her grandparents’ house. “I felt adored. I didn’t question whether or not I deserved it,” she writes on page 18.
She goes on:
“Why are childhood memories so vivid? So real and lasting? Perhaps because as kids we pay attention to what’s in front of us, undistracted by things we haven’t done and places we have yet to go.”
I absolutely could not relate. I don’t recall ever not questioning what I deserved or not feeling like something was missing.
There are several factors that contributed to my childhood not feeling like the foundation Miller describes. None of them have to do with abuse or early trauma or poverty or with stigma, disability or racism. I realize I grew up with a lot of privileges. That doesn’t change how I felt as a child, which is informing how I feel as an adult.
Position in the family
My parents had four kids in five years, and then I appeared nearly nine years later. Ever since I can remember, I have felt left out and unimportant. They all had a whole life before me. Memories, photos, stories. I could never shake it.
On top of feeling like an outsider, I also felt like I was always trying to catch up to the older kids. I wanted to get to where they were. There were no cousins my age and we didn’t have much in the way of neighbors, either. It was just me. The fact of me being a child while they were in high school and going off to college was inconvenient for everyone. I couldn’t keep up. I felt like a burden.
My mom acknowledges that even though she was excited to have been able to conceive and that I made her feel “like a woman again,” she experienced pretty profound depression while carrying me. She also smoked and drank a lot of Pepsi and took a good bit of Excedrin, all of which I think contributed to a challenged system and to tired adrenals, as well as candida.
I was on an anti-fungal steroid cream from the time I was born until I was potty-trained. Photos of me as a child show consistent dark circles under my eyes. I didn’t know until I was 31 that I had the genetic marker for celiac disease and was intolerant to – and highly reactive to – gluten and dairy. My malabsorption levels at that time were incredibly high. That was the beginning of my learning about the gut-brain connection, which now has been explored in numerous books and media.
Even though I now eat next to no sugar or processed foods, my gut-brain and immune system foundation was shoddy at the outset. I never slept well as a child – or as a baby, I’m told, which was, I’m sure, a stress on adrenals and which set me up to have a poor response to stress. Given the situation with my digestive flora and leaky gut, and my hyperactive sympathetic nervous system, I was not wired for positive outlook or an ability to shrug things off. Everything meant so much and felt so hard. I had suicidal thoughts at least as young as six, and, though I never learned the cause of my brother’s suffering that led him to kill himself, never once wondered how it was that someone would want to take their own life.
Environment & Belief Systems
So I came into the world wired in a way that made it much easier to be sad and regretful than happy and open-hearted. And my position in the family played perfectly into my default settings, giving me more fuel for feeling bad about myself. After reading the section in Childhood Disrupted on Resilience, I now understand how some things might have helped to interrupt the cycle.
But the message I got at home was not about perserverence or hope. My parents had both expressed regret and disappointment about their childhoods. Rather than impart the message that things would be okay, what I heard – and even sometimes still hear – was/is the message that things that hurt once will still hurt 30+ years later.
It is frightening to feel like I am falling into that same spiral years after having thought I had made my way out and established new ways of being. That is the gift of child-rearing: it brings things back to be worked on again and again!
I now have new respect for my father spending his weekends running. He was rarely around during the week – often traveling – so being gone for hours on the weekend felt like an extra abandonment, but by choice. Now I see his actions as self-preservation. He did what he needed to do to feel whole. And it had a positive impact on his future; he is 81 and still moving around and working.
(It makes me miss running all the more but I still have issues with my c-section scar that prevent me from doing it safely.)
I think it would have made a positive difference for me developing coping skills and a sense of self-esteem if:
- we had pursued any kind of spiritual path or been part of a faith community
- there had been other adults in my life – grandparent, aunt or uncle, coach, special teacher – or any kind of mentor who took me under their wing
- if I had felt like my interests and talents – singing, acting, playing music – were genuinely okay to pursue and not a burden
- if I had been been part of a team or another ongoing supportive community through my childhood and adolescence
- if I had been taken to a therapist at a young age and certainly after my brother’s suicide when I was 14
- so that I would not have
Had these factors been in place, I might have gained some tools that could have compensated for the physical issues I had and helped me find ways to treat them sooner than at age 30.
What happened after my brother’s death was that I turned to unhealthy behaviors, including substance abuse, to cope with the pain and thus weakened my body’s resilience and landed me with mono, which was reactivated several years ago. Although I cleaned up my act by the time I was a junior in high school, the scars of my abuse of my body/mind/spirit were already in place.
I started this blog post about my amazing January 2013… in July 2014.
I’m not kidding. Shit takes a long time around here.
Now, in January 2018, I have decided it’s time to clear out the many items I’ve been wanting to give away for much of the life of my website, Mindful Healthy Life. So I’m finally writing this companion post to tell the whole story behind the two books I’m giving away over there and the company they have kept in my head.
And even just this morning, in my In box was a post by Kelly Brogan, “Holistic Psychiatrist.” In the spring or summer of 2016, I read her book A Mind of Your Own: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim Their Lives.
It all made sense. In fact, most of the wisdom there – at least the general ideas, if not the specific studies and experiences with clients she cited – was familiar. I had come to similar conclusions over the years through other study and collaboration with practitioners. And yet, when I read her book about people making great changes after 30 days on her protocol, I wanted to shake the book and say, “I have eaten like this for years! I take these supplements! I still feel like shit!”
But this morning, I read her blog post, “All in the family: 4 steps toward healing adverse childhood experiences.” I am writing about that right now! I do know that writing is important and is often healing and joy-giving. But there are other paths I need to pursue toward healing, and sometimes other writing I do is a distraction from that healing work.
Nearly exactly two years ago I wrote some musings on what success would look like followed that spring by some more musings and a list of what I’d been up to in the intervening months. It looked kind of decent.
What about in the past two years?
- I have experienced and improved from a major reaggravated Lyme episode and have improved my experience with chronic Lyme and reactivated Epstein-Barr (mono).
- I have tried to learn how to support my oldest child in new ways that are ever-evolving.
- I’ve stepped down from a few things and up to others.
- Writing-wise, I’ve had a story published and another accepted for publication and have made some progress on my novel.
- I have shared a story on stage at Listen to Your Mother.
- I’ve had a few appearances on TV and as a speaker and discussion leaer.
- I won an award for a piece of writing and had it published on the Huffington Post.
- I’ve done some work on wellness in my school district and have continued to write for and publish my website, Mindful Healthy Life.
- I now start every day with yoga and am feeling better and stronger in some ways but still pretty unsure and even a little numb in others.
Writing that helps. It’s not nothing.
But still, something needs to change. I want to feel differently two years from now, on the verge of 47. I want to feel either okay about not being accomplished or happy with what I managed to do and how I managed to show up and make a difference.
I felt shattered in 2017, but I think I still need an earthquake in 2018.
The giveaway of Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment and Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden (plus a roller bottle of an essential oil) is over here.
For a more in-the-moment reflection on some of these earlier readings and conversations, see my 2013 post about yoga on my 40th birthday.
This post includes affiliate links. I may receive commissions from purchases made from this post. Click here for more information.
Thank you for sharing your story and so many book titles.
Wishing you healing.
Thank you, Corinne. I appreciate you reading, and I appreciate all your support!
Thanks for sharing this, Jessica. Had I not Been home recovering today I might Have missed this. It is a brave thing to share your journey so openly. If anyone is committed to healing, I know it is you. Sending you peace and strength in this coming year.
Wow, Christy. Thank you for your kind words. I’m sorry you aren’t well today but hope you have been able to soak up some of this warm weather and vitamin D and that you feel better soon!
Hi Jessica, I relate to so much of this. Your ability to uncover the uncomfortable layers through writing is so inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing your pain because it helps me identify my own. Sending healthy and happy vibes to you <3
Catherine Myers says
Jessica, thank you for writing about your healing and your struggles. You’ve done much so good in your community, and you have many years to look forward to! I appreciate the many resources you listed – some of which I know, others are new to me. While reading your story, I thought of what I’ve read about childhood trauma and healing. In case you don’t know about this:
ACES Connection – http://www.acesconnection.com/
I am fortunate in not carrying the burden of childhood traumas. I’m sorry that you have to struggle with this.
I want to share a resource that helped me recover from significant stress (due to more than a decade of difficult elder care responsibilities). For me, among the most powerful healing experiences: play – silly, unstructured play. This is a great resource:
National Institute for Play – http://www.nifplay.org/
And finally, an invitation to read a few essays on the website of Family and Home Network (I’m the volunteer executive director, and just getting back ‘to work’ after years of being too overwhelmed by elder care and moving etc to get much done). I know some of the books you’ve listed here address some similar ideas. These essays were written years ago.
What About You? by Nelia Odom – http://www.familyandhome.org/content/what-about-you
Depth by Nancy Vazquez – http://www.familyandhome.org/content/depth
all the best to you, Jessica! If you ever get to Durham, NC, I’d love to see you!