Thursday, September 27, 2012

Truthful Thursday - An Artist Tells Her Truth

**A note from Ellie: every Thursday I will be posting a submission from someone writing about their shame, vulnerability or guilt.  The idea of this exercise is just to write about it, in its purest form, whatever it is that you've been carrying around all by yourself.  And remember - even if you can't identify with someone's particular truth, it takes GUTS to submit here, so please do comment.  If you can identify, PLEASE comment, because one of the most powerful things in reducing shame is learning you aren't alone.  Thank you.  If you'd like to submit, please read this post here

***Submitted by Anonymous

I am currently looking for ways to boost my career (artist, writer) and am working with an amazing creative career coach.

I just failed,  spectacularly, at a task he gave me. an essay to write. a week to do it. 

I should have been able to do this task, it would only have taken an hour. but no amount of false starts, promises to myself, made it happen. 

I am humiliated, and fear the coach is going to dump me because I didn't try hard enough. 

Deep down I think I have not tried enough, because I didn't get up every day at sit at my desk and write, even though I am on the computer half the time, I feel as though I did nothing.

I felt terrible shame (and guilt, sorry) when my elderly cat yawned and I saw she was missing a canine tooth.

I knew she needed dental work, I hadn't wanted to pay for it. I didn't really think it through, that she might be in pain.

I should have known. It broke my heart. 

i don't have children, if that matters, just this elderly cat I adore more than life itself. I failed her. Maybe this is more guilt, because I didn't try hard enough. or, like my first story, I didn't make it a priority till it was really bad. perhaps I'd have felt more shame if my vet had been harsh with me about not doing it?

i don't know that there is anything useful here. Self deprecation, not shame?  But it deflects shame, I think.

Also? I feel shame about feeling I need to justify how much I love my cat. 

Especially when i tell people who have children. 

When I'm all by myself, I feel no shame in this.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Creative Alliance '12 - Leaving My Hammer At Home

I love this rumbling anticipation I'm feeling.

In two days I'm heading to Los Angeles, and then north to Ojai for the Creative Alliance conference.  It's not really a conference - more like a retreat - where creative women get together to fuse our energies, prop each other up, listen to our dreams and fears and walk away having forged new friendships that, by default, become a hybrid of a creative alliance and support group.

I went two years ago, to the last one, and my life hasn't been the same since. No exaggeration.

Before that conference I was a jumble of nerves, but for a completely different reason.  I had a bad case of the "smalls"; I didn't feel worthy to be there, in the presence of some powerhouse social media types, creative geniuses and bloggers I had admired from afar for years.  I didn't think I had anything to contribute, but 2010 was a year of a lot of firsts for me, so I went anyway.

Creative Alliance '10 cured me of the 'smalls'. Thanks to Creative Alliance '10, I put my hammer down.  You know, the one I use on myself?  Every now and then I'll pick it up again, and then one (or several) of my Creative Alliance friends will tell me to put the damn hammer down, remind me I'm worthy.

I found my own creative voice; realized I did have dreams and ambitions, and was already on my way to achieving them, through ventures like Crying Out Now and my jewelry.   I had wasted so much energy comparing myself to others, falling into that old behavioral trap of looking for ways I didn't measure up.  I didn't know 95% of the women there, and I had no idea what to expect.  I didn't exactly picture them pointing and laughing at me - I already knew they had too much soul for this type of behavior - but I did picture lots of heads cocked in confusion, thinking: you're doing what, exactly?

OH, my precious ego.

As we sat in the circle introducing ourselves for the first time, I felt my hands shake in nervous anticipation of my turn. I had a tendency to tell people about my business, my blogs, with a self-deprecating interrogatory slant, like a question:  I write two blogs?  And I run a small business?   Almost like I was asking their permission to exist.

When my turn came, I squared my shoulders and did my best to drop the question mark. Hearing myself articulate not just my accomplishments but also my dreams (saying your dreams out loud is hard, and vulnerable-making), to a room full of women I previously considered intimidating, was so freeing.  Hearing some of the biggest names in the social media world voice their own fears, or neuroses, put me instantly at ease.

We're all the same inside, I thought, us creative types.  Balancing on that beam of creativity and ambition.  Juggling mission and ego.  Creating from inside but still needing some kind of validation, especially from within our own community.

Those bigger, crazier conferences (that I shall not name) are so loud, and crazy, and full of egos clamoring for attention. Those conferences bring out the worst in me, and I won't say my own ego isn't tossing its hat into the fray, hoping to be noticed.

That's not what Creative Alliance is about, not at all. It's about finding your inner light, articulating your dreams, obstacles and fears to safe people who get it - man, do they get it - and forming a community that will pool their ideas and resources to help you achieve those dreams.

This year, I can't wait.

About half of last year's attendees are coming back, and there are many new women whose dreams, accomplishments and ambitions I can't wait to hear about.  I will leave inspired, filled up.

I have to push through some fears, though. I'm still not a big fan of flying, although I'm much better. The tools I'm learning to cope with cancer fear apply to flying, too, interestingly.  I have to land in LA, secure a rental car and spend one night by myself in an airport hotel. I used to do these things almost robotically, when I traveled for work in my previous life. Now I'm up at 2am rehearsing in my head how it's all gonna go down, as if I have any control over it.  That crazy brain squirrel is hard at work on his wheel, huffing and puffing away in the wee hours of the night.  Damn squirrel.

Before I know it, though, it will be over, and I'll be filled up again, full of dreams and ambitions and new friendships.


A little bit of business:  Truthful Tuesdays is now going to be Truthful Thursdays, so I can participate in Heather of the Extraordinary Ordinary's Just Write link-up, which occurs every Tuesday.

Also - I had to switch to a new email/RSS feed service (I barely even know what that means, so forgive my lack of technical expertise). Long story short, if you think you should be getting my new posts in your Inbox, but you're not, please sign-up again (right hand sidebar, just below BlogHer ads).  If you don't already get my new posts via email but would like to, that's where to sign up, but please be sure to activate your subscription by following the link sent to your Inbox, or else you won't get the updates.

Thank you.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Blogging Shame

The other day I was somewhere (won't say where to protect the innocent) with a bunch of people from around town - some I knew, some I didn't know at all.

A woman was taking me around and introducing me to people. I couldn't place this woman's face,  but knew we must have met before in some context because she was so comfortably friendly with me, and was asking after the kids, how I was feeling, etc. I was embarrassed I didn't remember her, so I was hiding that the whole time she was taking me around I was thinking; how on earth do I know this woman? 

We approached one woman I was certain I had never seen before (I would have remembered her stunning beauty) and as we shook hands the 'introducer' said to the other woman, "you know her - she's One Crafty Mother".

"OH!" said the stunning woman. "It's so nice to finally meet you in person!"

Some strange, strangled noise escaped from my throat, and I mumbled some pathetic response, "Um, yeah, yes! That's me."  She proceeded to talk to me about how much one aspect of my blog has helped a family member of hers, and said she was a long-time reader but never had "the guts" to comment.

I never, ever know what to do in these situations.  I instantly feel ashamed - which I find really intriguing. You'd think I'd be flattered, maybe, or grateful that someone likes my blog?  But the first feeling to leap to the surface is a gut-sinking shame.

Who do you think you are, the shame tells me. Here she is saying how much she likes your writing and you don't deserve a word of it.

Why? Why is that? Is it because as women we are all too often programmed to fade into the background, keep our secrets and feelings, even our accomplishments, neatly tucked under our skirts (or yoga pants, as the case may be).  How can I feel so passionately about vulnerability, spreading the word about addiction, recovery and speaking about my cancer journey and then have this strong shame reaction when someone says it helps them?

Usually, when I'm face to face with people who know me as "One Crafty Mother" I'm at a blogging conference, and referring to people as their blog or twitter name is a common, if not bizarre, tactic.  It's how we know each other, and it doesn't feel weird at all.

When I'm around town, though, it feels really odd to be known as "One Crafty Mother".  I know lots of local people read my blog - I want that, and I don't get to pick and choose who reads it.  It's my choice to put myself out there, and when I push past shame of course I'm glad people are reading, of course I'm glad it's helping.  So why do I feel like making myself so small when confronted with it face to face?

It was the same after I lost all the weight - people would tell me I looked great and I'd feel shame.  Like I was showing off or something, instead of pride that I had worked damn hard to shed over 65 lbs.  Instead of saying "thank you", I'd mumble some idiotic lie like 'it's not that big of a deal', or 'I still have a ways to go', just to minimize my accomplishment.

That shameful, embarrassed person resides in me as much as the writer who feels passionately about being open, honest and vulnerable about her journeys - whether through addiction, weight loss, grief, cancer or spirituality.

It's a dichotomy I'm having a hard time getting my mind around.  I wonder if I should have blogged anonymously - kept my identity a secret - but then I realize the fact that people know me, as a real person, makes it easier to identify with my story.

Sometimes I get into a spiral where I think: why are you doing this? why are you out there writing about all this if you feel this shame when you meet someone face to face and they COMPLIMENT you? 

I think, when I'm able to be somewhat objective about it, it's because I never, ever want to appear like I'm grand-standing, showing off, or acting like I've got it all figured out.  When someone compliments me - even though they're not saying "Wow, Ellie, have YOU got it all figured out" - I feel like somehow I am making a bigger deal out of myself than I deserve.  What they are saying, usually, is "I identified with what you wrote; I feel the same way".

And THAT is why I write. To cultivate a sense of togetherness, community, a we're-not-in-it-alone-ness.  Women can be hard on each other.  I hear more gossipy talk putting other people down than I hear people building each other up.  I like the cracks in people, the fragile parts, the human-ness.  We don't usually sit around having coffee and talking about our fragile parts, the ways we feel we don't measure up. To compensate, we either put others down or we brag.

I am so fearful of appearing like a bragger that I don't even know how to take a compliment.

If you live around town and we meet, it's okay to refer to me as One Crafty Mother, or tell me you know me through my blog.  Clearly, I need some practice simply saying "Hello, nice to meet you!" or how about just plain "Thank you!" when you tell me you like my writing?

If you don't like me or my writing, though, please feel free to keep it to yourself, or just gossip about it with others.  I'm not THAT healthy, yet.



And speaking of vulnerability, if you haven't read Jane's post below for the first installment of "Truthful Tuesday", please do.  And comment if you can - it means so much to get comments when you bare your soul so bravely, like she did.   Thank you. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Truthful Tuesday - Vulnerability Writing Part One

A note from Ellie:  This is the first of a weekly series I'm starting called "Truthful Tuesday".   

Last week, I did a post about vulnerability and truth telling and asked for submissions - thank you to all who sent one in.  I'm always looking for more, so if you are interested in sending a submission first read this post and then email me at This post happens to be about addiction/recovery, but that is NOT a requirement - any topic, as long as its YOUR truth, is good. Thank you.

A final note:  It takes a lot of guts for people to write their truths, their vulnerabilities.  PLEASE comment, especially if you can relate to what you read. Even if you can't, please recognize their bravery with a comment.  Thank you.

Submitted by Jane

The Day After My Last Drink

I woke up to a grumbling kind of snore coming from across the room. As my eyelids fluttered open I could see the sunlight coming through a wire mesh in front of the window. The place smelled like a hospital, it was. I slowly began to put together some of the puzzle pieces of the night before.

From what I could remember it all started with a handful of Xanax, then beers, then I remembered the zip-lock bag full of pills I had put in my purse. I remembered telling the ambulance driver I didn’t need to go anywhere, and I remember him telling me “We can do this the easy way, or the hard way, but you’re going to the hospital either way.” I had tried to escape, and ended up here.

I flung my legs over the side of the bed, looking up at the source of the snoring. A young heavy brunette with curly hair was cocooned in a cheap hospital blanket. A little woozy from the night before and not thinking much of it, I figured I would find out who she was sooner or later.

I walked out of my room into a larger room, half was set up like a living room and half of it looked to be a nurse’s station. Several patients sat around a coffee table, munching on a breakfast that had come straight from a Styrofoam container. They looked tired, or drugged, maybe both.  I had a flash from the night before of the police officer telling the nurse “It looks like this one is going to be a 51/50.”

 I walked up to the nurse’s desk, noticing the ruffle of my new clothes as I made my way over. I was in scrubs, a nauseating color of teal, the same my friend would later deem, “Hospital Hallway”.  I was greeted by a tired face, an older African American woman, her hair the color of Texa’s toast, a poor attempt at achieving strawberry blond.  She grumbled “What can I do for you?” my immediate response was “When can I get out of here?” “Honey, you came in last night on a 72 hour hold, now that means that you have to stay here for 72 hours, then if the doctor gives the ‘Ok’, you can go home.” “Okay, so when do I see the doctor?” She sighed, “She’ll be in later on today, so probably a few hours. Why don’t you go get one of those breakfast trays and try to eat.”

This information hit me in a shock wave of panic. I felt like a rat as he watches the door of a trap slam behind him. 72 hours, that’s like three days, three days in here? What have I gotten myself into? I need to get out, right now. Okay, chill out, don’t act crazy, if they think you’re crazy you’ll never get out.  You’ll end up with a lobotomy in some state asylum forever, so just act cool.

I walked over to the couch and sat down next to an old woman. Her petite frail frame seemed to hold up the side of her head, which was permanently cocked. He voice surprised me as she spoke with squeaky tones of chipmunk or a small bird, “Have some breakfast?” I looked at the mushy colors which sat at the bottom of her tray, “No thank you, I’m not hungry.” She looked alarmed for a moment, “You have to eat, if you don’t eat they’ll keep you here for longer, you don’t want that now do you?” Another wave of panic hit me, but I wasn’t about to let it show. “No, definitely not.” I grabbed my own styrofoam container and a kid size carton of orange juice, placing myself in plain view for the staff to take notice. I felt like saying “Look, see? I’m eating, can I go home now?” I paused for a moment in sadness, realizing “home” didn’t look very appealing either at this point.

My train of thought was startled by a tremendous hacking noise from one of the bedroom entrances. It sounded like someone who was coughing up an organ, or at least tearing his esophagus to pieces.  A plump man with greasy hair looked up from the meal he was inhaling, “I swear to God he just coughs that way to get the room all to himself, guess there won’t be a cigarette break for him today.” My ears perked up, “When do we get a cigarette break?” I asked eagerly, my limbs were begging me for a nicotine drag at this point. “Every 5 hours, the next one is at 11.” He replied. “So then what do we do until then?”  “Well, there’s group, and otherwise we sit here.”

 I sat back against the sofa and looked over at the large clock on the wall. Staring at the seconds as they ticked by, I waited for them to come and pass like a dying man in the desert waits for droplets of water to spill one by one onto his cracked lips. 

A minute seemed like an eternity. I spent that next half hour loathing myself, wondering how I could have possibly gotten myself into this situation, “Why can’t I just stop fucking up?” Wishing I could tie up my drunken self and hide her from the rest of the world, shake some sense into her. Then wishing I could just get some sort of pill to escape again from this mess that had become my life.

My train of miserable thought was interrupted by a nurse’s voice, “Jane? You have a phone call, just go over to the pay phone by those chairs.” She pointed and I walked towards the phone wondering who in the hell was calling me.  I lifted the blocky receiver up to my ear, “Hello?” “Hi Jane, its Mom.”  

My heart tripped over itself and a flood of childhood panic took over my body. “Mom? I’m stuck in a psychiatric ward for three days, I’m so scared, please Mom, you have to help me get out of here, can we call a lawyer or something?” There was an unexpected pause, one I hadn’t anticipated. Anyone who knows my mother knows how kind, loving, nurturing and protective she is towards her kids. 

The woman who spoke next sounded cold and scorned, “You know what Jane? Today is my birthday, and I’m having a miserable fucking time because of you.” My jaw dropped as I heard her cuss, it came out of her mouth like a venomous snake. She continued “ Jane, I can’t protect you from these people, the police and the law are out of my control, if you can’t get yourself together, you’re going to end up in a situation where you can’t be saved.” “Mom, I’m sorr-“

She cut me off “If you were sorry you would take this seriously.” I could almost hear the tears well up in her eyes, “But I just can’t talk about this right now, I’ll call you later.” I began to say “Okay, I love you, I’ll talk to you later.” But I heard the click of the receiver before I could finish my sentence.

I felt a wave of raw emotion; fear, shame, panic, guilt tumble over me. Dizzy in the spin, trying to catch my breath, and realizing how lost I really was.  How had it come to this? What do I do with myself? How do I find my way out? Can I find my way out? Am I just too far gone at this point? There’s no hope left…. Who can I call? Maybe a lawyer to get me out of this place? With what money am I going to pay a lawyer? He might just do pro-bono or something, take pity on me… no that’s stupid….Call that guy, the one from the meeting, he said I should call if I needed help.

The whirlwind of thought had brought be over to the couch at this point. I sat slumped, running loops in my mind. A tall lanky man with a big black mess of hair and wide eyes sat across from me. I would later find out that he had ended up in here after threatening a casino manager because “They  stole his money”. 

He looked at me, “Excuse me nurse?” I looked up at him with a combination of humor and cynicism. “I don’t belong here, and I would like to get out of here right this minute, this is an atrocity, you people can’t just jail me like this!”

Really wishing I was one of the staff at this moment in particular, I simply said “Buddy, I’m one of you, I’m in here too, and I want to get out too. I don’t know how to go about doing that, but maybe you can ask one of the people at the nurse’s station over there.” 

As he got up to walk over to give the nurse an earful of the injustice he was enduring, I chuckled to myself. “So I seem normal to the crazy people and crazy to the normal people… I really just don’t fit in anywhere.”

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Spiky Shadow

Some days I wake up with a hole in the middle of me; my brain a tangled, jangled mess of thoughts and nerves.

 Image found here
Usually it passes after a while, but it dogged me today like a spiky shadow, a hollow feeling topped with edginess, like a scooped out cake frosted with thumbtacks.

My head was pounding; it felt like I was hungover.  Ironically, feeling hungover is a trigger for me, because my former hangover cure was a drink, of course.

The day is spectacularly gorgeous; clear blue sky and fluffy white clouds. Apple cheeked kids playing in soccer games, parents cheering on the sidelines. Finn played in his very first soccer game today, and while I cheered along side everyone else, I could feel that itchiness crawling across my scalp.

They told me this may happen, I thought, as I tried to pinpoint what was wrong. The chemo has kicked me into a chemically induced menopause, or pre-menopause, or something.

I know, though, that it is something deeper, something darker. I don't want to deal with deep and dark, so  I take a nap and wake up feeling edgier and itchier than before.

At 6pm the kids start whining for supper.  I shoot Steve a helpless look. He raises his eyebrows at me and suggests I take a walk while he feeds the kids.   He can feel it, the edgy darkness, and he knows I'm struggling.

I don't feel like a walk; the sun is starting to set and I'm coming up with excuses in my head like contracting the EEE virus or being abducted by weirdos in a carpeted van, even as I'm pulling on my running sneakers and strapping on my iPod Nano.

I eschew my usual workout play list "Run, Ellie, Run" for something more soulful.  This isn't a power walk; this is a 'shake the cobwebs' walk.  So I click over to the play list "Keep Coming Back", crank up the volume and head out the door.

As I round the first corner, into a wooded area, I'm hit with the scents of changing seasons: citronella, freshly mowed grass, wood smoke and the faintest tinge of decaying leaves.  The air has a bite to it that wasn't there a week ago. The sun is sinking low on the horizon, although it isn't yet 7pm.

I close my eyes and inhale deeply, and I'm instantly transported back to my childhood. For me those smells carry the promise of new beginnings: the clank of my locker slamming shut, the sound of leaves crunching underfoot, the smell of a new pencil eraser.

Sometimes I have a hard time identifying emotions, especially tough ones like anger, sadness or regret.  But the scents in the air hit me like a brick wall and I know what it is, this dark thing that has been crawling around inside my head all day:  I miss my Dad.

It is a gorgeous fall day, and all these new beginnings are happening and he isn't here.

My iPod plays the opening bars to "Windows are Rolled Down", by Amos Lee, and I have to stop, sit down for a moment and breathe deeply to keep from crying. He wrote this song about the loss of a close friend.

Look up child, 
The world is born.
Shoe's untied,
And your soles are worn.

I'm sitting in a cemetery, of all places. I always cut through the cemetery on my walk, usually so absorbed in the infectious beat of Flo Rida that I don't give mortality a second thought.

I think about how I walked through this same cemetery with my Dad, two weeks before he died.  We strolled passed the ancient graves, quietly, each thinking our own respectful thoughts of the deceased.

Window are rolled down,
Sun is setting high.
Window are rolled down, 
I'm fixing to die.

I shake my head clear of these maudlin thoughts, and think of his beaming smile, of the bandanna he tied around his neck for his frequent power walks, of the walking stick he used to truck up steep hills and trails.

It brings a smile to my face, and I walk on.

Is it what you'd dreamed it'd be?
Are you locked up in this fantasy?
Oh, these miles that have torn us apart,
My new found faith, and my broken heart.

I pass a gaggle of pre-teen girls, practicing back bends in their front yard, their lithe bodies stretch impossibly.  A group of young boys ride by on their bikes, casting furtive looks their way.  The girls pretend not to see, but their giggles betray them.

As I head into the final stretch of my walk, to the opening bars of Phillip Phillips' "Home", I feel lighter, freer. The sun has all but set, and the warm yellow lights glowing from the windows of my house soften my heart, clear the final strands of cobwebs from my jangling brain.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Let's Be Vulnerable Together - Write With Me

I know a lot of you out there love Brene Brown (pronounced Bren-nay, but I don't know how to do this little accent over the last "e" in her name), and I'm no exception.

Click here for a Q&A interview with Brene Brown
I'm reading her most recent book - just released - entitled "Daring Greatly; The Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead".  Like all Brene's work, it has my wheels turning. It follows-up on the theme of "The Gifts of Imperfection" (one of the most dog-eared books in my collection), and builds on the themes of shame and vulnerability, taking it steps further to discuss building shame resilience and how getting past vulnerability leads to living the greatest life possible (note: NOT the same thing as doing "great" things the way society would view it; quite the opposite in fact).

I'm not going to try to paraphrase her message, but I can say without reservation that if you haven't read either of these books, you're missing out. They are transformative. (If' you've never seen her Houston TedX talk, go here to see it. I haven't been the same since I first heard her message).

I know many of you connect with my writing because of my vulnerability; my willingness to speak my truth even when it's ugly, or flawed.  To show myself at my not-so-great moments.  Already the gremlins (as Brene describes them) in my head are saying that's bragging; who do you think you are?  That statement isn't guesswork, though; I know it's true because you write or email me and tell me it's true.  You tell me that reading about my less-than-perfect moments, my trials and tribulations and how I'm muddling through them, bring you a sense of being "not the only one", of connection.   Of course my ego loves this, but mostly it fills my soul with a sense of being connected, of being not-the-only-one - just like you.

But do you want to know one of the main reason I write about my vulnerability and shame?  Because it helps.  Giving voice to my shame, vulnerability and fear makes it smaller, takes some of its power away.

Crying Out Now is a good example of this - I'm not fixing anyone, I'm just giving them a platform to safely (and anonymously if that's the only way they can do it) give voice to pain, to feeling less-than, to the shame of addiction.  Maggie and the incredible women over at Violence Unsilenced are doing this, too (that incredible site gave me the idea for Crying Out Now).

So I woke up this morning with an idea; I want to issue you a challenge.  I want you to think of a moment, or period in your life (maybe it's still happening - even better) where you were feeling shame and vulnerability.   There is a difference between shame and guilt - just to clarify - shame is feeling badly about who you are, guilt is feeling badly for something you've done.   Vulnerability is that feeling we have when we've placed too much power in the opinions of others (oh, if they only knew how _______ I am) and shame and vulnerability feed off each other in very toxic ways.

Once you've identified a time when you have (or are) experiencing shame and vulnerability (almost always accompanied by their evil cousin fear) - I want you to write about it.  If you don't have a blog, crack out pen and paper, or a word document, and just let it pour out.  Try, if you, can, to write about it in narrative form.  Close your eyes, picture yourself in that moment, or in that period of your life, and write it like a story.  Tell the truth, every part of it, especially the little nuggets of shame, fear or guilt you've mentally edited out because thinking about them makes you feel small.

To illustrate what I mean, I'll go first.

Greta has a fear- no, a phobia - of missing the bus.  Over the summer I forgot how toxic this phobia is to our mornings. It's always worse at the beginning of the school year, but  this year it seems particularly bad.  She has to be awake and hour and a half before she needs to be outside to catch the bus, and insists on being in the driveway at least twenty minutes before the bus arrives.  All of this sounds diligent and responsible, I know, but trust me - it's phobic and it fills her with fear.

Our mornings go something like this:

"Momma! Wake up! The bus is almost here!"

I grumble and mumble and glance at the clock:  7:00am.  I give the usual soothing words that we have plenty of time as I swing my feet to the floor.

"We DON'T! Finn isn't even up yet and he has to get dressed and eat breakfast and you have to pack lunches and backpacks and ohhhhhhhh...." she buries her head in her hands either in tears or near tears.

I jostle Finn awake and he dresses to the drumbeat of Greta's voice saying, in an increasingly high pitched voice:  HURRY UP!!!

We stumble downstairs and I give Finn breakfast (she already ate at 6am, when she insists on getting up), pack lunches and backpacks.  It is 7:45am.

Greta starts a kind of paranoid countdown:  'Momma! Only 14 more minutes!  Do you have your coffee?' 'Momma!  Only ten more minutes, did you pack Finn's backpack?'  "MOMMA! (panicky now) Only three minutes WHERE ARE FINN'S SHOES!"

I am not exaggerating when I say this is what every morning is like.

My inner dialogue, at this point, goes something like this:

Why is she like this?  Where did I go wrong? Did I plant this fear in her somehow?  We've never missed the bus, am I enabling her?  (Notice how it's all about me?)

I have tried everything I can think of to help. Soothing (it's going to be okay, honey, I promise), reasoning (what do you think is going to happen that is so awful if you miss the bus? We live half a mile from school - I'll just drive you!), empathy (remember how we talk about anxiety? Your brain is telling you missing the bus would be disastrous, but it's just your brain in overdrive. Take deep breaths, and tell yourself it will be okay, that it's just the anxiety talking) and boundaries (you can go out at 8am if you have to, but I'm not going out until 8:15am and not without my coffee).  ALL of these are met with "MOM! You're making it so much WORSE!"

The other day I had had it.  We're only on the first week of school, and I was envisioning a whole year of these panicky mornings.  I got right up in her face and hissed, "STOP IT.  What is WRONG with you?"

Her eyes got wide, brimming with tears.  Somehow this was worse than hysterics.  She silently turned and walked out to wait for the bus, her little key chain collection attached to her backpack jangling cheerfully, as if to emphasize my cruelty.

Now my inner dialogue went like this:

"You are a bad mother, a bad person.  You know the worse thing to say to someone with anxiety is 'what is wrong with you'.  If your friends could see you now they wouldn't be telling you what a great Mom you are.  If your readers knew about this the supportive comments would stop."

Notice how my first thought wasn't "Oops.  I made a mistake", but rather "I am a bad mother, a bad person". THAT is shame.  I also went straight to 'what would other people think?' - fearing the opinion of others instead of going inside, where the truth lies in my gut:  I know I'm a good Mom. I just made a mistake.   Seeking validation or fearing judgement from the outside are shame's greatest co-conspirators.

I won't write about how Greta and I worked this out, because that's not the point of this exercise.

So, I'm hoping some of you will try this with me.  Think of a moment, a phase in your life (even if it's still going on) where you felt shame and vulnerability.  Where you thought "if only people knew about this they'd think I was _______".   Try to write from a narrative perspective, like your living the moment now (and maybe you are).  Talk about your inner shame dialogue; what did it tell you? How did it make you feel?  Writing about it - seeing your words out there - will take a lot of the power out of what is, essentially, holding you hostage.  I promise.

It doesn't have to be a big thing, either. Sometimes small moments that shame me dig under my skin, take root, and I don't realize how big they've gotten until they seem so large I couldn't possibly share them with anyone.

If you have a blog, do a post about it and send me the link so I can post it here and link back to you.

If you'd rather write it anonymously, type it on a word document and send it to  Tell me how you'd like to be known:  as anonymous, with a pseudonym or your first name (and if you want to link to a blog or twitter account).  Change names or places if you have to, but don't change facts; especially those deep down nuggets of truth you mentally edit out because they make you feel small.

I want to give you the gift you all give me; seeing your vulnerabilities and fears out there in the world and getting resounding "ME TOOs!" and compassionate, understanding comments.  To give you that 'I'm-not-alone' feeling.  Shame and vulnerability hate the truth; they hate compassion.

Especially mothers - we spend so much time caught in the web of comparison and perfectionism and so much of this stems from fear of vulnerability, fear of judgement.

By sharing our not-so-pretty moments, by experiencing empathy and understanding, we are beating back shame and building a compassionate community, together.

If nobody participates, my shame voice (otherwise known as Ego) will whisper to me for a while: see? you're nobody.   But I'll get over it, eventually.  Either way, I'm out there swinging, you know?

But I hope at least some of you will.  I'll post them once a week if there is a response. Maybe I'll call it "Thursday Truths").

Thanks for hanging in there with me through my vulnerability, shame and fear, and helping me build shame resilience.  I want to help you do the same.

So - please - get writing.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Gift From The Woman Who Jumped

I happened to be home on September 11, 2001, instead of at my job as an Associate at a global Executive Recruiting firm, because my puppy had just been spade and was recovering from surgery.

I was standing in line at PetCo, buying doggy treats, when the cell phone of the woman in front of me in line rang.   She listened to whoever was speaking on the other end in stunned silence, then burst into tears and ran from the store, leaving her purchases unpaid on the cashier's counter.

Poor woman, I thought. Somebody must have died.

When I got in the car and turned on the radio, the usually jocular DJ was saying we normally joke around on this show, but I'm deadly serious when I report the story of some kind of plane hitting one of the world trade center towers.

My heart plummeted into my feet. I knew people - many people - who worked at the World Trade Center towers, because I was in the financial services industry.  I had clients there.  Candidates, people I had placed into jobs who worked in those buildings.

I raced home and turned on the television just in time to see the second plane hit.

By the time the reports of the Pentagon strike and the fourth missing plane were coming in, I was calling my assistant and my husband, sobbing, and begging them to leave for the day and go home.

I called my Mom, nearly hysterical, as the first tower fell, my mouth agape in horror, as I thought of all the people I knew who worked there, all the people I didn't know who worked there.  I assumed they were all dead.

When the second tower fell, I was lying on the floor, all cried out, and the horror of the day was just beginning to sink in.


We all have our "where I was that day" stories from September 11th; it is a day etched into our collective consciousness.  I only think about it a few times a year now, though - when I'm in New York, or on the anniversary of Sept. 11th.  I have that luxury, because all the people I knew got out of the buildings.  Some of them just barely.

I went back to work two days later.  As executive recruiters, it felt barbaric to make any phone calls, to try to recruit anyone anywhere.  So we mostly sat at our computers in a kind of stunned numbness, made phone calls checking on the people we knew.  I found out about one woman my husband knew who had died in one of the towers.  I found out about another woman and her child, my father knew them; they were on the plane that hit the second tower.

I went through my Rolodex, systematically pulling out all the cards with a World Trade Center address.  Gone, gone, gone, I thought.  Those building are just GONE.


About a week after 9/11, a colleague forwarded a slide show of pictures from that day in an email.  I didn't want to look.  But then I thought:  the people directly involved in that tragedy had to look. They had no choice.  

I clicked open the PowerPoint slide show; it was mostly horizon shots of the burning buildings, or the ash and debris filled streets with people running from the toxic mushroom cloud as the buildings fell.

But one image is emblazoned on my brain forever.  This image I do think about often; more than I think about 9/11 itself.

It was a woman falling through the air, captured by a zoom lens.  She was in a reverse pike position, bent at the waist, arms and legs above her head.  She was wearing a fashionable off-white pencil skirt, a tucked in black blouse, and one shoe.   And she was falling to her death, preferring to end it that way than stay in the burning tower.

I imagined her the morning of 9/11, carefully picking out her outfit, finding just the right jewelry to match, kissing her husband and kids goodbye as she headed off to work on that spectacularly beautiful day.  I imagined her sliding her graceful feet into those leather pumps as she smoothed her skirt and stepped out the door to start her day.

I stared at that image for hours, pulling it up on my screen over and over.  I became a little obsessed with it, as maudlin as that seems, and it took me a while to figure out why.

9/11 shattered a lot of what we believed to be true about our world.  A lot of innocence was lost that day, along with thousands of brave souls.

At that time in my life I was feeling on top of the world: thirty-two years old, married, no kids, successful job, traveling the world, presenting to Fortune 500 companies on a regular basis, kicking ass and taking names.  Gratitude was not a word that entered my consciousness.  Ever.

That woman falling through the sky, that woman who could have been me, gave me the gift of gratitude. Through her, I realized that we never know, as our day begins, how it will end.  Through her, I learned that we can live our life in fear of this, or we can push past the fear and find gratitude in the small moments.  Like kissing our kids in the morning, or at night as we tuck them in, or the flash of our loved one's smile, the smell of autumn in the air, or the feel of our baby's downy head.

When I think about 9/11 I don't think about politics, or war, or terrorism.   I think about how you just never know, and you should be grateful for every. single. day.

I think about the families who lost loved ones, who live the nightmare of 9/11 everyday.  I'm sure they do. They don't have the luxury of thinking about it only when they are in New York, or on the anniversary of 9/11.

They can't forget, and I won't, either.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

On Caterpillars And Not Taking Over The World

Day One.  New beginnings.  Two kids in school full time.

I shuffle my newly minted 4th and 1st graders onto the bus, come inside and wipe a few tears away.  I don't know what the tears are about, exactly.  Nervous anticipation of what comes next?  Gratitude that I'm back, from cancer, that I get to be the one to put them on the bus and meet them at the end of the day?  Fear of the booming silence in my house?  Relief?

Probably all of the above.

As they were waiting for the bus, Greta turned to me and said, "Mom, I have the caterpillars".

Usually they are described as butterflies in the stomach, but Greta calls them caterpillars in her
throat. Much better description, I think.

"I have them, too," I told her.  "And I had them every first day of school, ever."

She gave me a tentative grin.  "They're wiggling.  A LOT," she said, and giggled.

"I'm not nervous at all," Finn chimed in. "At least I don't think I am.  What's my teachah's name again? What's my room numbah?  Oh.  I think I have the catahpillahs, too."

Greta put her arm around him, glad for a little brother to comfort.  "Stick with your friend Tim*", she said. "He's on your bus and in your class. If you stick together you'll be fine."

I watched from my perch on the porch, sipped my coffee, my heart swollen with gratitude as Greta wrapped her arms around Finn.

Of course, as the bus approached, she gently pushed him away and whispered, "Now, don't talk to me."

I always seem to see milestones as endings.  No kid at home to take care of, lots of empty silence where before there was constant noise.  My identity isn't totally wrapped around my kids, I'm grateful for that, and I have jewelry orders to make and the gym to go to and phone calls and emails to return.  I can focus on my other life for a while.

I'm trying to see this as a beginning, not an ending.  But, truthfully, it's both.

And today? I feel their absence in a semi-scary, semi-grateful way.  I'm learning that opposite emotions can co-habitate in my mind.  Scared and grateful.  Nervous and excited. Empty and full.  Closing and opening.

Today begins my regimen of self-care. My promise to myself that I won't try to take over the world in these first few months of two kids at school. That I'll take small bites - do something healthy for myself every morning - write, exercise, meditate, do yoga, read - before I start my day. That I won't go nuts cleaning the house, or spend hours messing about on the computer trying to create a new website for my business (something I have no business trying to do but it would get me out of my head for hours), or exercise like a fiend.

It's my time to spend some time with me. Maybe that's why I have the caterpillars. Spending time with myself can be scary for me, because I get all crazy nutso about what it all means, who I am supposed to be, have existential crises.

I'm dialing back, not up, and that's different for me.  I'm giving my body and mind time to heal from the last year.

I'm all talking smack today - here on Day One.  So call me on it, friends.  Let's see how I'm doing on Day 15, or 21 of my non-world-domination campaign.

Right now, though, I'm off to sip coffee, stare out at the rain and listen to the booming silence.

*not his real name

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Unchecked Box

When I was about 10 years old, I read a book by Lois Lowry, called A Summer To Die.

In the book the protagonist describes her 10 year old sister's battle with cancer.  Leukemia, I think.  I remember gripping the sides of the book in fear, wanting badly to put it down, look away, but unable to force myself to do it.  I had to know - does she die?

She died.

And my life-long fear of cancer was born.  When I was twelve I had some stomach pains and spent a week barely functioning, convinced I had stomach cancer.

Even as I grew into adulthood, cancer terrified me. If I saw someone bald, someone clearly sick, I had to look away. I never read about cancer stories; I did everything in my power to avoid thinking about it.

My friends would tease me, because every little ache and pain I had was - in my mind - a symptom of cancer. It became kind of a running joke: oh, there goes Ellie, she has cancer again.

Even when my father was diagnosed with Lymphoma (which was a 'watch and wait' kind of cancer and a splenectomy successfully put him into full remission for seven years - he never had to have chemo or radiation) I didn't really think of him as a cancer patient.  Maybe because he didn't look sick - ever. He never lost his hair. He didn't lose weight.  When his spleen got enlarged they removed it and that, we all thought, was that.  His sudden death last June (because he didn't have a spleen to fight back an infection, which led to sepsis) still didn't feel like a cancer death.  Or, perhaps, I was too scared to think of it that way.

Then, last November, it happened.  My lifelong fear: I got cancer.

I expected to fold up like a lawn chair, give into the fear.  That didn't happen.

Instead, during the fight, during treatment (as awful as it was - and it was awful) I wasn't scared. I'm good in a fight. I'm scrappy, and I follow instructions well.  I knew I had a world-class team of physicians, and they were optimistic, so I was optimistic, too.  It was all about getting through the grueling treatment.  Finishing chemo and radiation was the total focus of my world.  Even in the pain, I felt full of gratitude, and grace, and my priorities were instantly aligned for me. I appreciated the small things that usually went overlooked.  This is the gift of cancer.

It wasn't until I was given the "all clear" that I folded up like a lawn chair.

I spent two days crying, almost non-stop. I couldn't function, sleep or eat, I was so paralyzed with fear.  That was four months ago.

The past four months have been their own journey - different from treatment, but scary all the same.  I realized that all of my attention had been focused on the fight. I wasn't thinking about after the fight - I just wanted to get there.  In my mind, if treatment was successful, I'd get to check off the cancer box: did that. DONE.

What I learned is that the end of treatment is the beginning of another journey into my new normal.  I learned I don't ever get to check off the cancer box.  Just like recovery from alcoholism -  I don't ever get to check off that box, either.

The fear that came after treatment was my denial - my fighting the truth of my new normal with every cell in my body.  I didn't want it to be true - a lifetime of wondering if it will come back.

When I stopped struggling against that truth and reached out for help, the fear got better. I joined a cancer support group.  I started therapy with someone who specializes in cancer patients.  And I'm writing about it, here.

Through talking about it with other patients and survivors, I learned that trying to get rid of the fear is impossible. I need to find a way to accept it, lean into it, even.  The more I push it away, the bigger it gets.

I have my first set of scans next week. A whole day of doctor's appointments, check-ups.  I admit that I'm scared, but I'm learning to embrace the fear as normal. I am only human; of course I'm scared sometimes. I'm a cancer survivor.

It's like when I crave a drink. Of course I crave a drink sometimes.  I'm an alcoholic.

Trying to be stoic about it, or a super-hero, gets me nowhere.  I'm told by others that have walked the path before me that I'll get used to my new normal as time goes by.  The appointments will be less scary.  I trust that this is true, because I see the grace and strength in them, and it's something I want for myself.

Just like with early recovery from alcoholism; I trusted the brave women who had walked the path before me. They told me it would get better, and even though it felt like it never, ever would - it did.  I believed because they believed.

I will believe the graceful, brave, amazing cancer patients and survivors - that it will get easier - until I can believe it myself, and I'm getting there.

Day by day.