When I look at pictures of myself from the first few years of my life I see a child who feels safe, loved, easy-going, curious and—above all else—joyful. I have a photo album that offers a poignantly graphic version of my story. Just after the snapshots documenting my third birthday in 1962, the pages fade to black. It’s not that my story ended, but that I abruptly lost my storyteller.My parents, who met and fell in love during college in Idaho, had been married for less than 7 years. My dad Morris was a pastor of a tiny church in Connecticut 1,400 miles from our nearest relatives, my mom Pat served as pianist-soloist-music director-program organizer-Sunday School teacher all rolled into one. A few weeks after the birth of my first sibling, our mother was diagnosed with an aggressive, untreatable cancer focused in her small intestine. Less than a month after open-and-shut exploratory surgery, the most important person in my life was dead of starvation, all nutrients hijacked to support a basketball-size tumor.
In the narrow window between diagnosis and death, my mom helped from her hospital bed to navigate a bewildering thicket of considerations before deciding to accept an offer from her older brother and his wife—3,000 miles away in Oregon—to adopt Faye Anne. Born in April, my new sister disappeared in May, my mom in June, a two-month-wide tornado that roared through my life and ripped half its contents away.
The year after my mom’s death, my dad remarried and we moved to a new home in another state, minimizing the evidence of our loss, forging a new family unit in which old frames of reference and familiar rituals dissolved, with strange procedures and stressful expectations taking their place. I do not remember talking much about my mom again during my childhood. The subject felt closed for discussion, an unspoken taboo that I would not dare to question for decades. I did not see my sister again until I was 12, and then only for a brief visit.Like many children who experience trauma, I recall little of this. I can draw an accurate floor plan of the house where I last saw my mom, even correctly placing furniture in the diagram. I can cite surprisingly lucid details about random, mundane events that happened two days before her death and in the week after the funeral. But my mother is nowhere to be found. She has been packed away in an unlabeled box in a memory-hoarder’s dangerously-cluttered attic.
These few paragraphs are a synopsis of the first volume in the library of my life. Elsewhere on the shelf is a book describing the debilitating weight of unresolved grief I carried for 30 years. There’s a dark memoir that details how to numb pain with drugs, alcohol, work and perfectionism. Another volume tracks my gradual loss of self-esteem and trust in my own instinct and intuition. The biggest tome in the set is all about trying to control what cannot be controlled. Recurring themes are sorrow, shame, self-destructiveness, anxiety, neediness, and over-compensation, all signs that hint at their roots in trauma.
I started deliberately shifting themes and writing a new story twenty years ago. I awakened in some kind of soul‐darkness one February morning in 1995 and lay there in the grip of an existential terror so paralyzing I wondered if I might already be en route to some hellish afterworld. Gradually the panic began to give way to resignation and I became aware of a tiny light in my field of awareness. I understood that the light represented what remained of my once‐indomitable and radiant spirit. I suddenly saw with dramatic clarity that to continue on the same trajectory was a form of slow suicide. I recognized that I had the power to choose whether to extinguish my light or nurture it back to full illumination.
Three words came into my mind that morning and rang like a bell that continues to reverberate in my consciousness two decades later: I choose life.
My life is now my most convincing evidence for the power to change one’s story. That I, who never expected to live past the age at which my mother died—28—am writing this at the age of 56 is more remarkable than I can say. By all rights I should have died a dozen times or more, taking into account the many dangerous circumstances in which I made crazy bets with death simply because I didn’t care if I lost.
Slowly and deliberately I began reinvesting in myself after emotional bankruptcy. I stopped daily self-medication with alcohol. I’m convinced the single most healing step I took was to find someone to listen and hold my story with me, an objective professional who shocked me by crying. “What happened to you,” she said, “was a tragedy.” Mute with surprise at this pronouncement, I felt something novel wash over me, not a familiar wave of shame, grief or despair, but something new: compassion for myself.
These are the redemptive messages my therapist Gail willingly repeated as often as necessary for me to finally begin believing them: You are lovable. You have the right to feel sad and angry. If you allow yourself to feel these emotions, you will not fall apart. Each of these were prisms of insight that allowed me to recolor my entire context.
Facet by facet, I slowly salvaged the diamond of self‐love. I was astounded by the relief of being allowed to speak my own truth, to tell my version of my life without excusing or defending. I believe it is possible to save someone’s life by the way you listen to their stories.
Just as my mental health challenges did not all arrive at once, but arose at intervals as my unaddressed grief and unfelt feelings accumulated, so my return to wholeness did not happen in some instantaneous turnaround. Five years of therapy, self-help groups, journaling, body work, anger work, forgiveness rituals, meditation, reconnection with nature, support from family and friends, and learning to trust myself and others again—all of these are part of the task of writing a new story that eventually brings me to this grace-filled chapter of my experience.
My life feels deeply purposeful these days, not because of what I’m doing, but because of who I’m being—my authentic self. After years of fear, mistrust and isolation, I am deeply embedded in my community in a variety of courageous ways, offering myself as living inspiration to others. This week I heard the news that I passed my state certification exam to serve as a peer support specialist, positioning me to give back to others the kind of non-judgmental, compassionate listening that encouraged my healing as I brought my story out into the light for transformation.
If I look at pictures of myself these days, I see a woman who feels safe, loved, easy-going, curious and—above all else—joyful.