Saturday, October 17, 2015

If/Then, Idina Menzel and the power of Theatre

Theatre has always been one of those precious things in my life. I saw my first show when I was 9 years old. It makes me chuckle to remember it now. The theatre was “huge” and there were “so many” people. In addition, the show was “A Chorus Line” which was amazing, and relatively inappropriate for my age, to put it kindly. When the curtains opened that night, the lights came up, and I breathed a deep, expectant breath and suddenly, I was a thespian. I felt the calling in my bones.

There is something, a tangible sense, a warm exquisite blanket that wraps itself around you as those lights come up. What you are about to see will never happen again. Only the people in that room with you, in those moments, will share that experience.

Theatre, without fail, teaches. In that quiet space, a story spills gracefully out onto the canvas we call a stage, and it tells us our story. Theatre reflects back those truths we've missed and makes connections between our heart and our head. It uses the beauty of life to poignantly contrast the tragedy that comes in tandem.

Tonight, I learned a great deal, and so much of it is trapped in the recesses of my heart, evolving. I know the lessons will emerge gently as my deepest parts thaw from the winter that has set in to make way for spring. Yet, others, I was ready for.

“If/Then” is a new musical and my best friend and I are lucky enough to live in Denver, the first stop on the show’s national tour. Two of the stars, Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp, are our absolute favorites. I thought tonight would be a fun way to love on my friend, laugh (and then cry, because that’s how we roll), and then we would enjoy a show and another day would end. Instead, I am deeply challenged, changed and a little bit scared of what might come next.

If, then. If I do this, then this. What if? In a nutshell, that is what the musical is about. A woman lives three different lives, though it is only one, and each life plays out as a vignette of how each choice might have unfolded. Beth, the main character, sings about “some other me” and the life that person might be living. She stumbles through, painfully sorting through who she is, what she wants, where she is going. She wants the answer, the right answer. There are marriages and children, a prestigious dream job, and of course several men to choose from. A chance meeting in a park, a marriage that fails, a war that pulls love away. What if?

Liz sings:

“Tell me what if I'm bound for disaster?
What if I fall off a cliff?
Will I ever just learn how to live and not wonder 'what if?
Tell me how could this make any difference?
How could it matter at all?

We question everything about our lives. We question our choices, our friends, and our career choice. We look at our spouses and we doubt, or we wonder, is this as good as it gets? All the while, the part of life that we cannot control lurks, waiting. While we throw ourselves through the mental gymnastics of “What if”, the very things we complain about or take for granted are in danger of being forever altered, permanently removed from our lives. Sometimes they are, and our lives are dramatically transformed, and we regret what we did not do, what we did not say, and the choice we did not make.

Life is nothing if not change, we have heard this all of our lives. Yet, I still find myself surprised and devastated and in awe of the way life continues to unfold, outside of my influence. Dreams have died and been reborn and realized. Despite my best efforts, friendships have fizzled, great pain has gripped my family, and recovery has had its fits and starts. Yes, we make the choices that build (or destroy) our lives. We are undeniably responsible for what we create. Still, there is an intangible agent of the universe that takes over. Call it fate. Call it God. Call it whatever helps you understand that our agency is not all there is. All things must be broken down and rebuilt into something better and we need the force of fate. As people, this often means our lives or our hearts must be broken and beat up a bit so we can be woken up, so we can make different choices and build something new. We are always starting over.

In the show, after have lost he husband, being left a mother of two children, Liz sings:

“Am I always starting over
In a brand new story
Am I always back at one
After all I've done
'Cause I've burned all of my bridges
And learned every last lesson too
So how can I start new?

I learned tonight how to start new. It does not involve the mental gymnastics, self-criticism and finger pointing we distract ourselves with. It is not about figuring out all of the patterns and formulas that can help us predict how any path we take may turn out. How can we start new?


With all of the doubt and fear, without all of the information, with no promises or assurances: Start. Build the new thing.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Everyone Recovers

2007-2015 starting top left
I have a theory.

My theory is that every human being in this world is, or will at some point in their life, be in recovery from something. Everyone recovers. Recovery is that thing we do when something, anything has knocked us down.  Sometimes recovery is just catching our balance after tripping over a tree root, and other times it’s learning to walk again after a terrible accident. Sometimes recovery is rebuilding our life after disease has riddled our body. Sometimes recovery is rebuilding our life after disease has destroyed our brains.

Unfortunately, only those of us who recover from physical disease, divorce, death of a loved one or like maladies are permitted the badge of Courage and Bravery. Those of us who struggle with diseases of the mind are most often marginalized, judged, distanced and dismissed.  We scare people. This makes telling anyone about being in recovery shameful, forget the actual importance and work of recovering.

I have spent the last eight years learning how to flip the script of shame and stigma associated with mental illness by increasingly and carefully sharing my story, all while trudging the road of recovery.  I have fought so hard for my own recovery precisely because people with mental illness are so often denied the respect and support they deserve due to their illness. It hasn’t been perfect, least of all pretty, but it has and continues to be worth it.

In 2007, in the midst of my then 13 year battle with an eating disorder, I felt the full weight of the stigma, the fear (from others and of myself), the disappointment of failed recovery attempts and I gave up fighting. There was no hope in my heart for health, healing, or recovery. When I awoke from the week long coma my suicide attempt induced, on this day eight years ago, I was angry at the breath in my lungs; it only meant the torture of my mental illness would continue.

For a short time, the torment did continue. Within a few months of leaving the hospital, I found myself in a long-term treatment facility for my eating disorder. The first few months there were worse than the disorder itself. Yet, when poor insurance practices threatened to take away my very last chance at a life of meaning, something banal within me rose up and I began to really fight.  This was the beginning of My Recovery.

I have lived eight years longer than I had wanted or expected to live, and I am more grateful than I believed was possible for a person to feel.  I could write for days about the beauty and grace I have experienced and been able to offer, about the incredible people in my life who have stood along side me as I fought with myself to get out of my own way, the hurdles I have climbed, the joy I have felt, the minds I have opened by simply being the face of this Thing so many people fear. Yet, I find it more appropriate to reflect on my commitment to recover, the real work of overcoming; the choice-after-choice process of returning to health and the lessons and growth those decisions have brought me.

Eight years of recovery, eight lessons learned.

Recovery, like life, is a process, which means the road will not be straight, flat or smooth.

This is one of those lessons a person has to learn the hard way, multiple times. Each time we face recovery, no matter what it is from, new lessons are learned. And when we do not fully learn all we are meant to in our attempts, we are knocked down again, somehow, and must again return to the mindful practice of recovery.

The past is rarely as relevant as we choose to believe.

Who of us does not have a past? Who doesn’t have some embarrassing memory of behaving badly, or of the person they used to be? Of course, we all learn from those experiences, they are necessary teachers. The danger of the past, though, comes when we allow it to tag along behind us like a toy duck on a string, quacking it’s way into our present endeavors. That silly duck belongs back at the Pond of Our Past. What happened, happened. We cannot alter or change our past truths, and so much suffering is born out of the relentless pursuit to do so.  Our history can and does inform our future, but in this, the present moment, our past doesn’t need to exist. In this moment, we just are. Here is where we get to choose.  So, in the words of Elsa – let it go.

Scars are signs of survival and hope for others.

The evidence of what a person has been through is often left behind in the form of a scar. Some of us are lucky enough to have our scars on the outside for anyone to see. Just by looking at us, others know we have a story to tell, that we’ve been through something arduous and come out in victory. Others have scars hidden deeply away that only the most intimate of friends or family are allowed to see. Both types of scars have given me the opportunity to tell my story to others, and in so doing, to learn about myself. My scars have offered proof of my story, but more importantly, hope for others walking similar paths. The full redemption my scars may offer has yet to come to fruition, as I’m still busy with this business of living. It is entirely possible that none of us will ever know the far-reaching effects of the scars we let others see. Do not shame yourself or others because of their scars: Embrace the honor of being allowed to know and celebrate the victories of each and every one.

Your story will be your most powerful influence and profound gift.

Last November, I chose to leave the field of marketing and pursue my dream of becoming a therapist. I started applying to grad schools and studying for the GRE. By pure chance, I came across a job posting for a Peer Specialist position in a behavioral health care company. I had never heard the title before, but come to find out that the main requirement for this job is that you have your own lived experience with a mental illness. WHAT? For too many years my diagnoses was a reason for being mistreated, judged, ostracized and “fixed”. Now it’s a means to fulfilling my dream! Turns out, much of the mental health field is moving to a Peer Based model and I happen to be lucky enough to be a part of that shift. I work with persistently and seriously mentally ill people who are in various stages of recovery. As I continue in my own, I guide others through their recovery by sharing parts of my experience and story at strategic times. My job is to tell my story – the whole truth of it. My story is where the power to change is drawn from by others. YOUR story can change someone else. The risk of vulnerability is worth the chance of honest connection. Pretending to be perfect with the perfect life will never bring you the connection and intimacy you desire – there is a very definitive cost to faking it. So my question to you is, will you risk it?

A lot of people will shame you for your story, but the worst one will be yourself.

The word “Stigma” means “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” Usually, disgrace will come from people outside of us, and it often does. This stigma is painful and dangerous, keeping many people caged in their fear of judgment and exposure. However, more lethal than the stigma of others towards us are the stigmas we hold against ourselves. Members of my own family and select friends, as well as doctors along the way, have been so loudly convinced that I would never be anything worthwhile that I internalized those beliefs and discounted my own value. Every time I had a slip in behaviors or gave into destructive urges I echoed the words of my doubters to myself.  “Personal stigma” a fellow Peer Specialist calls it.

I venture to believe that the best weapon against stigma, both towards myself and from others,  is for us to tell our stories over and over until we no longer have breath.

You are in charge of your life.

There is no magic formula, no “right way” and definitely no Perfect Path in this life. There is only you and the choices you make. You get out of life what you put into it, and your life becomes what you MAKE it to be. There is great freedom in this, at least in America, because all of the choices are yours. And so are all the consequences. So you don’t owe anything to anyone.

Your parents, your religion even, at times, your friends will try to convince you that they know what is best for you. Take caution: No one else is going to walk out your life or its consequences for you. Best that you make the decisions that support your values, dreams and heart. Build what you want, not what others deem worthwhile.

You define your own success.

Unfortunately, we all have a picture in our heads of how life is “supposed” to be. We’re meant to graduate high school, go to college, get married, buy the house, have kids, have a career, retire, play with the grandkids and die peacefully in our sleep at 98 years old.

I mean, that’s how it all happened for you, right?

Success is an individual pursuit and can only be measured as such. What is a victory for one is not for another. Each of our lives have different challenges that we must face and each us comes to those obstacles with different skills and abilities. Therefore comparison of my life to yours as to which is more successful is mutually exclusive.

You define your own success. You NEED to define your own success. Don’t allow anyone outside of yourself to define your achievements.  

Other people are allowed to have their own opinions and experiences of you, and you’ll recognize your own growth when you can listen to these and not feel compelled to agree, immediately change, or defend yourself.

I spent a good deal of my life altering myself at the mere hint of annoyance or dissatisfaction from anyone I came into contact with. I literally became who ever people told me to be just so I could have friends and feel loved.  When I grew tired of that and started to like myself, I felt I had to defend who I was to those who took issue with my personality or world view out of fear that I was actually wrong about finding something of worth in myself. It took time for me to realize that just because someone didn’t like some aspect of me, it didn’t mean there was something wrong with me. Additionally, it took time to understand that people are entitled to their opinions and experiences of me, just as I am of them. I reached the deepest depths of peace when I understood that this entitlement, nor the content contained therein, were my responsibility. Similarly, no one can change anyone else except himself or herself. The mission of influential people in my life to alter me was unfair and I am truly sorry to myself for allowing their opinions to matter so much. The next time you feel someone pushing you to take their advice or to “be like so and so, ” remind yourself that who you are is already Perfectly You. Don’t change for anyone – except yourself.

Thank You

There are many people I wish to thank for their support and encouragement as I have journeyed through recovery and learned these lessons through the last eight years. These people have given their time to listen, their shoulder to cry on, their couch to sleep on, their finances to help pay for treatment, driven my butt to treatment and sat with me as I waited to be admitted, eaten with me, laughed with me, kicked my butt when necessary and celebrated my victories with me. Without each one of you, I could not celebrate the victory of today. Recovery is never a solo sport. These words are so meager and insufficient, but outside of living a healthy life, they are all I have to offer you, please accept my deepest gratitude: THANK YOU.

Linda Gardner
Jerry Gardner
Sheri and Bob Collins
Kristin and Bob Bieri
Marianna Oja and Matt Graham
Steve and Dawn Swan
Claire Moon
Debbie Lamb
Stephanie and Eric Beutz
Robin Newsome
Megan and Chad Buckendahl
Heather Neill
David Lamb
Christie Ward