Here’s a piece I wrote five years ago that helps inform why Mitchell and I chose to share his story.
My everyday life is immersed in stories. I hear stories from life coaching clients and aspiring authors who share their deepest wounds and the powerful lessons learned from their challenges. Unfortunately, very few people escape childhood and early adulthood without some sort of trauma that alters the course of their life or sense of safety or identity on some level.
In the world of self-actualization and self-development, we put a lot of weight and importance on those earlier stories of struggle. They are the things we are meant to overcome on our hero’s journey, they explain our wounds, and all too often, they can also hold us back from the full freedom of happiness.
The battle between how much to share, how often, who to share it with, and the problem of identifying with and wearing our past stories was obvious to me during a retreat to Kripalu one autumn weekend over a decade ago.
I drove up through the stunning fall colours of the Adirondacks to a retreat I had been planning for and longing to attend for months—a weekend full of yoga and workshops focused on journaling and developing a deeper relationship with myself. This was my idea of heaven on earth at a time in my life when I was a busy single mom trying to find myself again after my divorce.
Our workshop cohort consisted of people from everywhere and all walks of life. And, of course, we all had our own stories, which we were asked to share for a specific writing exercise. Or at least that was the workshop’s intention until Jennifer started to speak.
Jennifer was a rotund lady in her early forties who carried her whole body with the weight of the world resting on her back, on her eyelids, and on her tongue. She moved slowly and spoke slowly, yet for all her lack of energy, she consumed all the energy in the room. She relished attention and if she wasn’t the center of it, she slowly but eventually commanded it.
Her story was an all too familiar one. She didn’t get the love and attention she sought as a child, she’d been bullied in grade school and learned to be invisible in high school for her mere survival. In university, she’d been dating a fellow she adored for about a month when he got drunk one night and forced himself on her and left her half-naked on a park bench in the winter snow. An absolutely gut-wrenching story as she told it, and my heart sank for her. Because of Jennifer’s history of not feeling loved at home and learning to be invisible to survive high school, she decided to pull up her pants and forge through the rest of the semester, keeping, as she called it, her “dirty little secret” to herself. She eventually dropped out of university, never married and worked in a small bookstore back in her hometown. Jennifer’s story stained her life.
Benite, a radiant Rwandan refuge camp survivor, was the next person to share their story. At the age of seven, Benite was forced to watch as her father was murdered right in front of her whole family and spent a year living in a tent community, eating rations and lining up daily for water. When she emigrated with her mother and younger sister to Canada, the whole of their possessions fit into one suitcase. Benite had to learn a new culture and a new language in a new colder climate while dealing with the horrors she had seen in Rwanda replay in her mind at night while she tried to sleep. And yet, she worked hard, studied harder, graduated from law school and today is the director of an esteemed non-profit. Benite’s story served her life.
There were few dry eyes in the room after Benite shared her inspirational story, but Jennifer sat inconsolable in a puddle of tears. The workshop leader spent the rest of the morning focused on Jennifer and her inability to deal with the unfairness of her own traumatic life as they resurfaced again and again while two more people shared their stories.
I decided not to return to the workshop after lunch and instead took a walk in the woods. I found a place to sit down with my journal and wrote out what I would have shared with the group. I sat with my memories, and I cried for the innocent little girl inside of me who was forced to grow up too fast. I wrote and wrote until my hand cramped and brought myself all the way to the present day. The sun peeked through the branches and red and orange leaves at a much lower angle, telling me that I needed to head back to the centre soon. But I had one more question to be answered. How would I use these stories from my life to help me the way Benite’s stories helped her and not have me wear the “victim role” the way Jennifer did?
As I asked myself the question, a chickadee landed on my notebook and just as quickly flew away, causing enough of a breeze to turn the page to a blank one. I took this as a sign from the Universe. I needed to turn the page on my life and write the ending to the story as I wanted it to be and not as a reflection of how the last chapter had been.
I don’t share this to minimize the trauma Jennifer endured. Far from it. There are no small traumas. It’s not that we were slighted or violated that matters – it’s how we feel at that moment that defines the experience for us. There should never be one-upmanship between people who have been hurt in the past as it only extends feelings of victimization. The comparison doesn’t lie in how hurt each person was, but in what they did with the rest of their lives after they were hurt.
People who know of my childhood sexual abuse often tell me how strong I am and ask how I can be so resilient. My strength comes from learning to stand on my story to propel me forward. This is what I’ve learned from processing my own trauma stories and those of the many women I have worked with in my career.
To heal from our stories, we first must Stand In them. We need to face them head-on with our hearts open, sink into their truths, write them out in black and white, cry the cleansing tears, get angry, and laugh aloud. We need to feel safe to stand in our trauma and stay there, and so very often, this is done in therapy or with an individual who is well-trained and implicitly trusted.
Then we need to Stand Beside our stories. Continue to hold on to what the stories mean to us and our life but from a slight distance, creating some space to come between our experiences to allow for an interpretation of what the stories represent. This is a thinking with our head exercise.
And then we need to Stand Above our stories. Become the observer by having a wide-angled meta-view. What did the other players believe and feel? Not excusing, but explaining what could possibly have been going on outside of what happened directly to us. This is where our feelings, thinking, and ego are gone from our stories, and it’s our higher selves or wisest selves that are looking at the situation from afar.
And then we need to Stand On our stories. Use them for the lessons and blessings they have afforded us. How do we see life differently? What will we never do again? What will we always do from this day forward? Let how we behave in the world, as a result of what we’ve learned and lived through, be our calling card and badge of honour more so than having our scars define us.
And finally, we need to Move On from our stories. Don’t let our past be a dark stain on our hearts and a dark cloud hanging over our heads. The best way to do this, as I have learned from all the trauma survivors I have seen thrive in the world, is to take responsibility for our wellbeing and mental health, do the work to heal, and then focus on helping others.
Moving my attention from what’s been done to me to what I can do for others is the secret to freedom from my past. It was the secret to Benite’s success as well. There are thousands of stories of people who have moved on from horrible adversity to lead fulfilling, purpose-driven lives. Look for those stories, and may they be an inspiration for you to do your good work in the world too.
I was the type of child who couldn’t wait to grow up. The adults around me warned me not to wish my life away, but those words fell on deaf ears. I even looked forward to grey hair. It meant that I would be wiser and, as a consequence, respected. I even remember doing the math to figure out what year it would be when I turned 40 and 50.
What would my life be like? What would the world be like? Would we have flying cars in 2021?
Here I am celebrating my fiftieth birthday with silver streaks in my hair, well-earned wisdom, and at the very least some self-respect.
Fifty doesn’t seem that old now that I am here. I am healthy. I am comfortable. I am proud of the life I’ve created. Realistically I have less time ahead of me than what’s behind me, but I am very much looking forward to these years to come—especially now that I have some of those hard lessons under my belt. And there have been many hard life lessons in my first half: Childhood trauma and abuse, divorce, the exhaustion of being a new mother four times, changing careers, blending a family, powerlessly watching a child battle addiction and mental illness, caring for my elderly dad, moving across the country, advocating for a gender-diverse child, losing my mom, losing my dad, surviving a pandemic, losing a young friend to suicide, losing my best friend. If life’s metaphor is climbing a mountain, I reached 50 entirely out of breath with every muscle burning from the exertion.
Each of those hardships was a step higher on the mountain, but they earned me a stunning view. Every difficulty makes us appreciate moments of love and laughter and beauty and awe.
While some might say I’m over the hill, I realize I am far from done learning. Walking down the mountain trail might be easier on your lungs, but it’s hard on the quads and knees and feet. Personal development is not a box any of us get to check off on our to-do list.
So, I look forward to my journey back down the trail to the water’s edge where I started, the hard lessons I have yet to learn and the joy that will be the welcomed contrast that comes with them. I hope the rest of my journey includes writing more books, more advocating and service to the public, more friendship, music and laughter, and with all the longing in my heart, some grandbabies that I don’t have to wake up with at three o’clock in the morning. I’ll meet you on the trail, my friends.
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If you are sensitive to others’ emotions or tuned into worldly affairs, you know all about the fear that is shaking every human on this planet to their core.
Whatever it is that just popped into your mind. That’s what I’m talking about.
A week before my son started school, we had to drop in to sign forms, pick out his locker, and grab his new textbooks. As we stepped up to the administrator’s desk to check-in, she asked Mitchell how his summer went, and his reply was, “boring.”
That one word seared through my skin and bones straight to my heart.
My boys are well into their teens now and won’t want to be around their parents much longer. Summer is short in our part of the world, and the number of summers we have left to make adventurous and exciting for our kids is very few. Yet, what did we do this summer? Nothing. We stayed indoors because of the horrible air quality with the raging wildfires. I worked on my book, and the kids played video games. We didn’t travel because of fires, droughts, floods, hurricanes, protests, and a pandemic. We didn’t explore.
If there is anything that is connecting all of us right now, it is fear. If there is anything that is dividing us right now, it is also fear.
Some of us fear getting sick with a virus. Some of us fear having our freedoms taken away. Some fear governments have too much power, and others fear that corporations and billionaires have too much control. Most of us fear that “the other side” is being brainwashed. I can promise you that if the driving emotion is fear, whatever story you are told will sound accurate. If you look for “evidence” supporting your fear online, you will find it.
Very often, the emotion that rides the coattails of fear is anger. And anger is where the division is born.
Way back in 2008, I wrote a piece about Proposition 8 in California that centred on marriage equality. In that piece, I wrote that it’s not fair to ask for a majority vote on a subject that affects a minority of people. Leadership involves protecting those who are disenfranchised and whose voices can easily get drowned out. Recently, I had to check in with myself to see if I felt the same way when it came to the 25% of people who don’t want to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Do I feel the same concern for anti-vaxxers being in the minority as I did for same-sex couples wishing to get married?
What about my vehement opposition to anyone regulating what one person can and cannot do with their body? From access to abortion to mandatory sterilization or access to gender-affirming surgery and medical assistance in dying, I have strong views on informed consent and bodily autonomy.
I can see how someone might fear they’re losing their freedom if vaccine passports restrict them from going to a hockey game or working in a nursing home. However, it wasn’t until I looked at it through two of my core values that I reconciled this unease. Those values are choice and co-creation.
It’s been said many times by many experts that human beings long to belong. We are social animals who want to know that we matter to our family, friends, and communities, small or large. Belonging for me goes hand in hand with interconnectedness and interdependence. They all have to do with being part of a larger whole. Nothing illustrates that better than a global pandemic where no one country was spared from the virus or the effects of global climate change that don’t care which country is creating the damage to the planet.
Belonging has an upside and a downside. The downside is that when we live in fear and look for control over the things that scare us, we look to belong to a group that agrees with us, leading us to “othering” people who don’t agree with our point of view. “Us vs. them” sentiments are a worse epidemic than the Delta variant and spreading faster than this year’s wildfires. The more fear and anger get stoked in our groups, the more we are divided and the more we suffer.
The upside to belonging is found in seeing the humanity in others. Seeing what we have in common with the people who want vaccine passports and the people who are afraid of getting the vaccine, and the people who don’t believe the vaccine is the answer at all. No matter where we stand on the issue, we need to see that there is an issue, and that issue is divisiveness. Once we can all come together and row the boat in the same direction, we will be free of fear and separation.
Back to my core values of choice and co-creation. I genuinely do believe in choice. I also know that every choice has a consequence. Sometimes that consequence is personal, and sometimes that consequence is societal or even global. I can choose to drink a whole bottle of wine and chase it with a couple of shots of bourbon. My personal consequence will be hugging porcelain before the end of the night and a nasty headache the next day. There would be a societal consequence if I decided to get behind the wheel of my car and jump on the highway and cause a seven-car pile-up. That is why laws are preventing me from drinking and driving. I also couldn’t drink that amount and work as a nurse. These laws are not removing my choices; they are limiting the consequences to society. You can choose not to get vaccinated and live with the personal consequence if you get sick. But masks, social distancing, and vaccine passports limit the consequences of a virulent disease to society—namely, the unvaccinated young and immunocompromised. If you don’t want to get vaccinated after being fully informed, I respect your ability to consent. But everyone must respect societal consequences.
Finally, co-creating is an extension of choice. It is a democracy where we all have a say in making our world together. This requires that we listen (truly listen) and see the humanity in the person sharing their view. But most importantly, the “co” in co-creating stands for joint, mutual, and common—the opposite of “Us vs. Them.”
Our only hope out of our current state of fear is to go deep, see the humanity in others, and co-operate for a better future for everyone. Together.
It’s that time of year where we set good intentions, make resolutions, and are inundated by motivational quotes that push us to be our best selves.
New Year, New You! Rah Rah!
It’s also that time of year when we look back over the past year and measure our success against all the goals that we set for ourselves 364 days ago. Boy, did I fall wide of the mark!
But what if we didn’t need a new you, what if we need the true you?
I have spent countless years in the business of pushing motivation and inspiration. I love self-development. I read all the books, attended all the talks, wrote books and gave talks myself. I hired all the coaches and became a coach myself. This time of year is the cash cow in the business of change and I have cashed in over the years. But things changed for me this year. Drastically. From profit to non-profit.
Do you pick a word for your year?
I’ve done this for several years. I chose a word to focus on and keep top of mind throughout the year. In January of 2019, I attended a mastermind with brilliant businesswomen in a stunning house in Bradenton Beach Florida. I had finished 2018 with 6 figures in sales. My business was doing well and ready to scale even more. At the beach house, in the throws of the entrepreneurial fervor, I chose Profit as my word for the year. After all, I had all the tools, business knowledge, and the motivation to double my income in the next year. I was ready to rock!
Nose to the grindstone, I set to work. But my business was not my entire life. I was writing my book, and my literary agent and I were finalizing my book proposal. I was volunteering, and Airdrie Pride hosted our very first Pride Festival. I was a mom, and my third child was still transitioning. I was busy with everyday life in addition to building an empire. And then my world came to a screeching halt. The nursing home called to say that my dad, who lived across the country, wouldn’t make it through the night. On July 4, 2019, I lost all concept of the word profit.
I thought I had done grief before when my mother passed unexpectantly. But this grief was completely different. This grief was sacred. It was my wake-up call. Not as much in the sense that death reminds us of our limited time, but more that I was losing pieces of me and what remained needed to be preserved. I needed to know who I truly was in order to preserve what connected me to my dad and my mom. I spent months walking my dog lost in thought, trying to figure out who I truly was in a world without my parents, in a world where I was the parent to a transgender child. The gift of that time was that the voice in my head became my voice, not the voice of my parents, not the voices of my business coaches or my therapists, not the self-help authors, not the famous people I quoted on memes. My voice spoke to me.
From Profit to Non-profit
My voice started asking some pretty deep questions. Big questions about every aspect of my life. Did I want to write my book? Did I want to be a volunteer with Airdrie Pride? Did I want to move back to Ontario? If money were no object, how would you change your life tomorrow? That last question I knew the answer to immediately. I would go to university and finish my degree. Luckily, that was something I could do with the money I did have. But that led to another question… what would I study? What did I want to be when I grew up at 48 years old? More walks with the dog, more time in deep thought with only my voice in my head and it came to me. Advocacy work in the non-profit sector.
That realization started the war in my head between my true self and my inner critic, of course. My inner critic invited the voices of all my coaches and therapists and my mom’s critical voice from my teen years to form a formidable itty-bitty-shitty-committee. How could I walk away from a successful business? How could I be so lazy and selfish? How could I add studying to my full plate? What are people going to say about you? So, I flogged myself with those stinging questions for a while. And then my true self asked a wise question: If you want to leave your business for a career as an advocate, you should know what it is about your business that you don’t like first so that you don’t repeat it.
More walks with the dog. More thinking. What was it? What was missing in my business? People. I was desperately lonely. I worked alone, and when I spoke with clients it was business focused. I had no water cooler moments. My business is also a business of privilege. I work with individuals who can afford my fees and have the time to spend on writing a book. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it’s a high contrast to volunteering with people who can’t get a job and use the food bank because they’re experiencing discrimination as a trans woman.
I had my answer. I enrolled in school.
I also started looking for a job in the non-profit sector. The reality was that what I disliked about my business was not going to go away by making more profit. My true self was longing for fulfillment and to be around likeminded people. On December 4, five months after my dad passed away, I signed a contract working three days a week as a communications assistant for a non-profit organization.
From Profit to Part-Time
I work part-time. I study part-time. I write my book part-time. I volunteer with Airdrie Pride part-time. And, I now run my business part-time. My drive is no longer profit, it is people—the people I help write their books and the people who will one day read them.
None of this came to me on December 31st… this was a process. A process of walking the dog and thinking, a process of listening to my own voice, and daring to be true to my own self.
I urge you, as this time of year starts pulling at you to be thinner and more profitable and a better mom and a better everything, to take the time to slow down and tune into what you need to feel fulfilled and not what your itty-bitty-shitty-committee says you should be focused on. Be true to YOU.
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With International Women’s Day on the horizon, I am forced to have a deeper look at my self-identity as a fierce defender of women’s rights. Before my third child transitioned to a boy, I spoke of empowering women and gender equity until I was blue in the face. I purposefully worked with women clients and spent my dollars in women ran businesses. But having two sons today has opened my eyes to so much more than my own experience of “being a woman in a man’s world”.
Last month, my husband and I cuddled up with our two sons and fresh popcorn to watch the Grammy awards. My heart was warm and fuzzy when the opening included five powerful women—Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Alicia Keyes, Michelle Obama, and Jennifer Lopez. They each spoke about what music meant to them, ending with “Tonight we celebrate the greatness in each other through music.” And then Alicia Keys said, “Who runs the world?” and I shout back to the television “Girls!” almost jumping out of my skin with fervor.
My youngest son quietly responded, “I don’t like feminism.”
My son. The offspring of the Wonder Woman idolizing, once Women Talk co-director, card-carrying feminist warrior just said he doesn’t like feminism?! I think my husband actually recoiled to save himself. But seriously, this taught me that I needed to not only define things for my son, but for myself as well.
Feminism is definitely getting a bad rap these days especially among Millennials and Conservatives with traditional gender role values. Some women born into a society that already allows the right to vote, own property, get a job and have access to birth control view feminism as an unnecessary plot to devalue and denigrate men. That is not what feminism means to me. While we are miles ahead of where we used to be, women still often earn less than men, hold fewer senior management positions, and own less of the world’s wealth. Compound all that by the fact that women are more likely to pause their careers to raise children and take care of aging parents. Compared with a man with no workforce interruptions, the average woman cumulatively has earned $1.06 million less by the time she hits retirement age. That’s an enormous wealth gap. That is why I am still a feminist.
This was where my conversation with my eleven-year-old son began. A fish doesn’t know it is swimming in water. My son, like most men, doesn’t know the privilege he enjoys. It is difficult for him to realize that at such a young age. I gave him the example of being allowed to walk to Seven Eleven alone, but I never would have let his sisters go alone in grade six. From his point of view, my son feels that he didn’t ask to be treated special, but more than that, he feels that he doesn’t matter when I celebrate women and girls. We are asking a whole new generation of fish to evolve and breathe air on land. Of course, there will be pain and push back for them! They were happy in the water, we dragged them out!
I am going to be very frank. When my third child came out as a transgender boy, I felt like he was crossing the aisle. I wanted a little feminist warrior working alongside me and I had a tiny bit of resentment that, by becoming a boy, he would enjoy the same male privilege as his younger brother. Privilege I never had. I’ve grown and changed quite a bit since he came out. Thank God! And this has also changed my view on the gender binary and gender equality. I hear what the anti-feminists are saying in terms of not wanting to denigrate men. We don’t need to make someone else wrong to make us right. This is not about right or wrong, good or bad, it has always been about the fact that everyone matters. So, I am changing my language. I now stand for gender compassion. Compassion for women who are striving to have access to all that matters most to them. Compassion for men who are learning to adapt to a new society where they may have to yield access. Compassion for gender non-conforming people who have a right to take up their own space too.
While I am saluting all of my women friends, sister, daughters on International Women’s Day, I am also sending love out to our men who are making an effort to shed their toxic masculinity and love to anyone who doesn’t identify with the prescribed gender binary.
It was meant to be a relaxing bookend to a glorious day. We headed to the hot tub right after dinner, our tummies full and my muscles loose from the heavy pour on my one glass of wine. Though the evening temperature was mild, we had played in the snow chasing moose for photographs most of the day and were ready to melt into the bubbling waters under the starry sky.
When we got to the hot tub, nine of the twelve spots were occupied by young, giggling, gossiping women and my hopes for a relaxing soak instantly vanished. I sat Anderson on my lap, so we could all fit. The young ladies decided to head to the indoor pool instead. I was relieved as they departed one by one and only two remained.
The girl who sat in the corner proceeded to explain why she would not leave the heat of the hot tub, “the pool is too cold, and my leg muscles cramp up. I need the heat.”
“I don’t like cold pools either,” I replied.
She avoided eye contact, though I sensed she was talking directly to me. “I have a disability, it’s hard for me to walk. I’m also small for my age but I’m going to be sixteen soon. I’m a Halloween baby. Well, actually, born November 1st. This bathing suit is a size 8 even though I’m almost sixteen.” She barely took a breath between each staccato sentence. Her hands fidgeted with the bead at the end of the tie of her bathing suit.
Rod and the boys stayed silent and turned towards each other almost to create a bubble around themselves from the onslaught of conversation. They didn’t speak because the girl’s silence was never held for more than a millisecond.
The girl continued to tell me about her family—a family constellation that sounded very familiar—a step-father and a biological father, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents from the step-father side of the family, and her mom, the one who bought her the size 8 bathing suit. They had a family tradition of spending Thanksgiving in Jasper every second year, and in Banff on the opposite years.
A wise woman had recently challenged me to engage in curiosity and be in conversation with someone I would normally avoid, and this situation was certainly the case. Not only because all I had wanted was quiet time relaxing with my family, but also because the girl in the corner of the hot tub reminded me of all that was inside of me that I tried to run away from my whole life. Being from a broken home, being the different one in the family, not wanting to make eye contact because I always thought people could see in my eyes all the shame I carried from my past. But I also knew the pain of being silenced, of having so much to say but terrified of telling the truth. We fill the silence with inconsequential fluff. Don’t stop talking too long or someone might ask you the question you don’t want to answer, the one that will break your life open.
So, I sat in the one-way conversation with the girl in the corner and compassionately let her fill the silence that she dreaded as much as I once had feared, and sometimes still do.