Day on the Lake

My worrisome mind chatter is often a precursor to more creative horror stories. On a recent day boating on a lake, “Does Mackenzie have on enough sunscreen?” soon gives way to violent visions of my cousin’s 6-year-old son flipping overboard before getting pulled into the propeller. At this point (largely due to years of healing and expansion work) I remember what’s happening and can break the spell.Boat on a Lake

My overactive fight or flight response began wiring while I was in utero as my mother struggled to defend herself from my biological father’s physical abuse and sexual assaults. A series of traumas further carved neural pathways and it has taken a huge amount of strength, determination and support to transform my relationship with this mind state. I can still create fantastically dramatic and unlikely scenarios with which to terrorize myself, and this has contributed to a slew of physical ailments that I continue to navigate.

However, my intuition informs me that my highest self “prescribed” this life and its resulting anxiety so I could progress along my path of TRUST DEVELOPMENT.

I’m not suggesting that we have all chosen our worst pain as a method of growth. When I consider the suffering on this planet I can become absolutely overwhelmed by how cruel and unjust some lives appear. But…Sometimes pain can open a portal to grace.all-things-of-grace-and-beauty-such-that-one-holds-them-to-ones-heart-have-a-common-provenance-in-pain-their-birth-in-grief-and-a

This is a proclamation as old as time itself. The classic story of the phoenix describes a mythical bird that, at the end of its 100-year life, burns ferociously until reduced to ash. And from those ashes, a fledgling phoenix emerges-–rising in brilliant rebirth.

Navigating my greatest struggles has opened up a reminder of this truth: I am, in the ultimate sense, held in love and SO ARE YOU.

Sometimes I minimize the negative experiences of my past, telling myself that the tough parts must not have been that bad if I am able to say such a thing. This is my way of making myself small so others can be sure I am not judging them if their pain is not resulting in a similar unfolding. But I’m done denying or shrinking for fear of being judged or misunderstood; both are inevitable.th76ZHIXGF

Of course, no matter how much I believe in love, being completely ‘zen’ is an ego-generated perfectionistic pipe dream.

Life remains full of challenging circumstances. I am not “OKAY” every time I’m faced with anxiety. Instead, I’ve accepted that experiencing anxiety (or grief, depression, anger…) is OKAY and this trust is a doorway into the vortex of radiant energy in which we can create the magical life of our dreams.




What to do when Fear is Winning

Fear is inevitable. It is a basic human emotions that we cannot avoid. Untested, fear often leads to shut down, defensiveness, anger and hate.

clown-fear-horror.jpgSuccumbing to fear, however, is a CHOICE. Thankfully, LOVE is also a choice.

Considering the many avenues for fear, inviting myself and others to grow in love is not always easy. But there is no other time to address this issue then NOW; we are at a critical precipice in our evolution. It is easy to see where aligning with fear leads; just look at a news headline or take a peak at our country’s leadership—we’re swimming in the manifestations of fear.

The fact remains that it is only through choosing love and trust that we will heal ourselves and our planet and it is not too late.

As a therapist I am often asked, “HOW DO I GET A HANDLE ON MY FEAR (anxiety, stress…)?” Here are some tips:

  • Step 1: Bring AWARENESS to the fact that you are in a state of anxiety, panic, stress or fear. When we are noticing our experience, there is a part of us (the one who is noticing) who is not all the way in there consumed by the whole thing.  
  • Practically Speaking: SLOW DOWN and get curious about what’s happening. Consider starting a conversation with yourself; “Woah, Val, you’ve been edgy all day.  What’s up?…Oh! You’ve totally convinced yourself that your son’s upcoming medical procedure is going to be horribly painful and have lasting consequences to his mental health…So that’s where those hives came from.”

  • Step 2: CONGRATULATE yourself!  No, really. We have to become AWARE of what is happening in order to make change. That makes the noticing a real victory.
  • Practically Speaking: “Nice work, sister. You just caught yourself being consumed by fear. Now we can address it (and where is that hydrocortisone)?”

  • Step 3: Offer yourself a moment/gesture of KINDNESS! When we are in pain, we are deserving of comfort. Be your own sweet friend.
  • Practically Speaking: A few loving words of encouragement, a hand pressed tenderly over the heart…check out Kristin Neff’s brilliant work on Self-Compassion

  • Step 4: HONOR your experience. Ask yourself “What does my distress need right now?” The outcome will likely involve some kind of expression (keep it healthy, folks) as well as some kind of self-care.
  • 150303-F-HA880-017Practically speaking: Talk to someone you trust, have an exasperated cry, write down everything that’s freaking you out and burn it to ashes, put together a collage that depicts your fear, nourish or tend to yourself, make hot tea, take a warm bath, shoot some hoops, wrap yourself like a mummy in a blanket, snuggle with a special someone, read a joke book, prepare a favorite snack, make a lavender foot rub…you get the idea.

  • Step 5: Create a BOUNDARY! You’ve addressed your fear, now draw a line. Do not give fear permission to control your life. It doesn’t get to be the leader in your parade or the director on your cruise ship. Sure, fear can be very compelling but you are a grown up and the grown ups call the shots.
  • Practically speaking: Pretend you are a parent to your fear. You might imagine saying, “Okay, fear, you’ve told me all about how doomed things are and I’ve kindly listened. But you aren’t helping me and we are done for now so take a seat.”

  • Step 6: “Can we focus on the LOVE?” (shout-out Selena Gomez). Find the evidence of love/trust in your life. Deliberately seeking the good doesn’t negate the ‘tough stuff’ of life. But it is evidence of what is also true: LOVE EXISTS in ABUNDANCE. Affirm, grow, connect with demonstrations of love in the world.
  •  Practically speaking: Are you physically safe in this moment? Have you eaten in the past 24 hours? Has a child ever drawn you a picture? Did you felt the sun on your face today? Did you have correct change? All of this is evidence!  Two of my favorite ‘sure thing’ reminders of inherent love are GRAVITY and BREATH.                      Here’s how it works:5091-FX-6-0-12-6-8-0
    • GRAVITY: Sit or lie down somewhere comfortable and notice the sensation of the weight of your body gently pressed against the floor or ground.  Translation: you are inherently held against the heart of the earth with the perfect amount of pressure. You are so precious that you are tenderly being cradled at all times by mother earth.
    • BREATH: Pause for a moment and notice yourself breathing in and out. Without you having to do a single thing, your body is literally breathing you at all times. Translation: The energy of the universe loves you so much that it is breathing vitality into your being. No matter how you are showing up, you are loved and worthy moment to moment.

Don’t overwhelm yourself, just start at Step 1. When you become more practiced at bringing awareness to your fear, then move on to congratulating yourself for noticing and so forth. No need to criticize yourself when fear takes the reigns, just forgive yourself for being human and recommit;

love or fear.

The choice is yours.

The Patriotism Test

I wasn’t psychologically prepared for lunch.

Not that I wasn’t hungry; all I’d eaten for breakfast were two Hershey kisses from my colleague’s chocolate stash. But I definitely didn’t realize that meeting my husband for a mid-day meal was going to be a political experience.

As we sat down at our corner table in “Mission BBQ”, an intercom chirped above our heads, “Ladies and gentleman, please join us in honoring our country as we do every day at noon with the singing of our national anthem.”  My chest swiftly dropped and I muttered under my breath, “Are you f$#king kidding me?”

Don’t get me wrong, I love America.

I love this beautiful land. I love the diversity of its people and I definitely love apple pie. When my Russian Jewish ancestors arrived to Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay in the 1800’s, they were desperate to escape a series of deadly riots, “pogroms”, aimed to persecute and massacre them. I love that my Jewish ancestors found safe refuge here from the violence threatening to extinguish them. And I fiercely love my grandfathers, both war veterans, who fought alongside their American brothers in hopes of securing these freedoms.

The reality is that of the 55 Delegates to the Constitutional Convention, 49% of them were slaveholders. That is not meant to overshadow the many and heroic ways they worked to establish independence, freedom and liberty. It is just that, at the very same time they were opposing British rule, of the nine presidents who owned slaves, only one, George Washington, freed his.flag.jpg

In a recent visit to Colonial Williamsburg, I spoke to a young woman acting in the role of niece to Peyton Randolf, a colonist slave owner. She explained, “If you asked me who in a court of law would be better able to advocate for themselves in a dispute—the slave girl or this table, I would tell you there is no difference. They are both property.” I openly cried.

When we love someone, we want the absolute best for them. Those who truly love America want it to be and do better. When the announcement came through the speakers at Mission BBQ and the music began to play, I felt cornered. I didn’t know what to do…I stood up…then I sat down for a second…then I stood back up and put my hand over my heart…then I looked down at the floor…I looked around for people of color to see what they were doing…then I looked up at the flag and clasped my hands behind my back.

Once back in our seats, I looked around and really digested the military memorabilia covering the walls. I let out a loud “Ohhhh….Mission Barbecue! It’s a military thing.” My husband replied, “Yes Val, the mission is barbecue and I accept the mission.” He then dove back into his plate of miniature meat mountains.

I am embodied on this planet as a Warrior of Love. That is my mission. Those of us for whom this is true must be willing to allow our compassion and trust to be bigger and brighter and louder than fear and hostility. When we are not voicing opposition to that which is unjust, we are helping to maintain a status quo by default. And this status quo is flooded by inequality, oppression, and injustice. Our silence says that the ways humanity is being ruled by fear, anger and hate are acceptable. Silence is not an option for a love warrior.

My discomfort at Mission BBQ made me consider this; as long as we are in open dialogue with one another about how to be useful, supportive, and helpful in furthering the movement towards greater love, the “how” and “in what circumstances” we act is a personal decision based on tons of factors invisible to the naked eye.

A colleague recently showed me a Facebook post written by a Caucasian woman berating her “liberal hippie” friends for not taking action in the way she believed honorable. I found it curious and confusing. Making assumptions and judging each other on how we ultimately show up  still feels like part of the problem to me. Looking at each other and saying, “You should kneel, you should stand and salute, you should write letters, you should post, you should march…” feels counterproductive and short-sighted.

What I fear most is that it might also be hurting the mission.

The Story

Everyone has a “story.” 

Our stories are created from personal experiences collected throughout our lives. Moments and memories serve as scraps of paper that, when strung together by our own hands, become a blueprint of emotional reactions.

Through our stories, we attempt to to make sense of the world; to create a deeper understanding of ourselves and find meaning in our lives. These narratives also offer us a sense of familiarity. We become comfortable flipping through the pages, the previous scene serves as a compass, pointing to our next line. But, when too rehearsed, even great stories lose their spark of aliveness and limit the players

My story both troubles and humbles me. It helps me explain the choices I make and the way I feel. It speaks to me of grief as well as resiliency and it sounds something like this:

“My father, ‘Stanley,’ was violent and abusive. When my mother was six months pregnant with me, Stanley picked up his round-bellied wife and hurled her against a wall in their home. Later, in the delivery room, he became so belligerent that the doctor threw him out and he missed my birth.

The abuse escalated as I grew into a young girl. Though she was fearful Stanley may kill her for it, my mother found the courage to leave him when I was four. During the next several years of unsupervised weekend visits, my father began grooming me for one of his other despicable behaviors; pedophilia. He would later serve multiple prison sentences for his crimes against children.

During my childhood I was seen regularly in my pediatrician’s office for chronic stomach aches, headaches and chest pains. I am told that it was my sweet disposition and charming sense of humor that masked the blooming depression and anxiety which would be left untreated for two more decades…”

The spiel goes on from there, often with a bit less sensationalism. It speaks of how deserted and ashamed I felt when my father disappeared from my life altogether and how my mother’s own trauma history manifested in panic driven rages. My story points to the severe bout of postpartum depression that shattered me and the awakening that brought me back from the brink.

Compelling? Maybe. Dramatic? Sure; it has been for me. 

And all of that did happen, but to know who I really am I must be willing to put the story down and live beyond its pages. Continuing to read from a worn out script obscures who we actually are. Our tendency to over identify with our stories negates an important fact.


The real “me” exists in the only moment that counts; THIS ONE. Without my story, all there is of me is who I am right now. The embodied me is not the naive, dewy, free spirit I once was or the successful author I hope to become. In fact, I am a wildly radiant, sparkling spirit brimming with hard-won wisdom, intuition and compassion. I am a dancer, singer, artist, writer and healer. I am a best friend and champion for my husband, Craig. I am a playful and solid parent to James and Mackenzie. I am inspired and am also an inspiration. I am regularly exhausted by life. Often I am either wound tight with anxiety, tense with agitation or overcome with inexplicable gloominess. There are patches of time when I bum cigarettes from my neighbor after the morning school bus has whisked our children away. I go on carb frenzies, use too many words, and often opt to read a book instead of go for a hike in the woods.

Heart pancil 12Some of us work so hard to make our human lives on earth “count,” or are so in fear of judgement that we forget that our story doesn’t actually tell us who we are or demonstrate our degree of worth. We forget that:


So why do we hold on to the story of ourselves rather than embrace what truly is? Perhaps we have not had an adequate opportunity to process and honor all of the chapters. Maybe we do not know how to exist without our story or are conditioned to never slow down long enough to wonder about it. Or maybe we are afraid of the vastness found in truly knowing our magnificence.

Regardless, if accepting ourselves as we are is the path to illumination; if knowing our “enoughness” is the doorway into freely living the lives we imagine then what do we really risk in putting down the story?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Valerie R. McManus, LCSW-C is an intuitive psychotherapist practicing in Howard County, Maryland. She is the author of “A Look in the Mirror; Freeing Yourself from the Body Image Blues” and is seeking literary representation for her memoir entitled, “The Boy who Birthed me,” currently being published on <>.

The Passing of an Empath

Written December 29, 2016

Emily was a few weeks away from 20 years old. She left behind two younger brothers, an incredibly dedicated team of parents (her own as well as two step-parents), and a group of friends who are as crushed by her death as they are inspired by her life. 15698370_10210594017501933_6544357064343592404_n

I was well aware from her mother, my friend since childhood, that Emily was spirited, creative, and brilliant. She was also described as critical, opinionated, and fierce. Her mother, being one of the most authentic women I know, did not hide Emily’s struggles with mental illness and addiction. What I did not know about Emily until today was how deeply empathic she was. And I am reminded that the weight of an unprotected heart can quickly become crushing.

Often times when we meet someone who is seemingly brash or biting we imagine them to be distasteful people. We label them in harsh and judgemental ways; “asshole,” “toxic,” “bitch,” “jerk”…What we fail to consider about their outwardly repellent attitude is what may be the ultimate purpose behind it; protection. 15727009_10210594025102123_1799435233916369854_n

When one has the ability to feel everything being experienced by those around them, but has not mastered the ability to safeguard their own energetic boundaries, loving other people becomes a threat.

Today’s tribute to Emily was evidence of her tender heart; while attempts to numb her pain were hugely destructive, Emily’s drive to deeply connect with those closest to her was bigger still.  It was in her ability to push through her own defenses and melt into moments of vulnerability that Emily’s willingness to love overpowered the risks she took in doing so.


Going Deep with Fashion Makeovers

Recently, a dear friend (shout-out to Holly Katz of invited me to raise my style game.

Body/weight stuff has been a psychological block for me for 10 years or so. Ultimately, I know in my soul that my body is not some kind of cheap ornament for others (or myself) to critique and deem worthy or unworthy. I know that my body is truly an incredibly capable vehicle allowing me to both experience and express all this love and creativity into the world.

So would losing weight increase my health? Would it improve my vehicle performance, allowing me to do more and create more and be more? Yes, probably. But so far that hasn’t happened. Yet, if I look around at the life I’m creating while in this body what I recognize is that I’m (lovingly) kicking life’s ass.

I’m doing a great human job, not a ‘perfect’ job (cause that’s not based in reality anyway…even skinny, wrinkle-free people have problems, ha). In my present body I’m balancing some major karma, deeply and mindfully supporting others in healing & growth, creating beauty through art, writing and music, and helping to end a cycle of generational trauma in my own family. This physical package I’m showing up in has served me well so far; so it’s time to say “F@#k you” to this obsession with shedding the 20 pounds for a second.


The bottom line is I’ve been downplaying the value of my exterior and the potential role it could play in raising my game in business, in connection to myself and others, in overall self-love for the last ten years because I’ve failed to meet the societal beauty ideal (and, Omigod, what sadist constructed that ideal anyway, right!?). I forget that this body is my vehicle for a life well lived, not just some failed attempt at an arbitrary cultural construct. And, ultimately, I’ve been hiding this truth behind the idea that our exterior presentation is superficial and unimportant to me. 

My grandfather (who worked 50 years in the car wash business) always said, “A clean car is a well-running car;” the idea being that somehow when the outside is cared for, it impacts the whole vehicle, the inside responds. While I heard him say this my whole life, something didn’t connect; I missed the “impeccably put together” gene my grandmother, mother and aunt so readily possess.

Thanks to Holly’s inspiration, I’m starting to get it; it’s time to more fully honor the vehicle I have; time to lovingly shine up the car and see what she can really do. Now, might I go through this “fashion upgrade” process and find additional motivation/inspiration in terms of physical health? Might I go Paleo, learn to mountain bike, hike regularly again or eat 7 -11 servings of fruit and veggies every day? Sure, maybe. But maybe not.

Either way, the body I’m in is already worthy of owning herself as beautiful. It’s already killing it in life which is the whole point. I can raise my game from exactly where I’m standing right now.

This life I’m living is worth it.


The Bridge

When, in 1983, Brownie troop 2476 had their “bridging” ceremony to Junior Girl Scouts, I was not present; and perhaps my old troop never “bridged” at all.

In Girl Scout language, a bridging ceremony honors the transition girls make from one level of Girl Scouting to another. Often times family and friends gather to witness as each girl sheds her former vest or sash in exchange for her next one, symbolizing her entrance into the next stage of Girl Scout growth.

Between my 3rd and 4th grade years my family made one of many moves; this time from a beloved D.C. neighborhood to suburban Maryland. What made this move far more significant than any of those preceding it was that this time, I actually cared…a lot. For the first time I felt part of a loving, grounded, inclusive community, one where I experienced myself as a special and integral part. Considering the place from where we had come, this was not simply a fortunate accident, it was a critically needed gift.

The significance of my mother, sister and I having landed among such a vibrant network of people came after years of turmoil and chaos. My mother endured unspeakable torment and violence at the hands of my biological father before leaving the marriage with two young girls in tow. Though “Stanley” was granted regular visitation with my sister and I for several more years, he willingly consented to the termination of his paternal rights. My mother recalls, “When he heard he would no longer have to pay child support he asked, ‘Where do I sign?'” Incidentally, this legality also freed my sister and I from the clutches of a sadistic pedophile. With great relief and a new-found sense of freedom, my mother and her new husband were ready to make a fresh start.

At my last Brownie meeting before our move, I sat unusually quiet as we wrapped up the afternoon’s activities. “Mrs. Tanner,” my best friend’s mom and our brownie troop leader, hushed the others in order to present me with a special going away gift from the 20160614_082232_resizedgroup. When I ripped into the paper I found a small rectangular shaped box covered in soft red fabric. Brown teddy bears and white heart balloons dotted the special keepsake. And contained within its soft padded insides were hand written notes of good luck from each of my ‘sisters’ sitting in the circle.

20160614_082106_resizedDespite my ongoing intention to release “stuff” (both physical and mental), the box presented to me that day remains safely tucked away with my own 34-year-old Brownie vest. The bears smiling faces are faded and worn, but they fill my heart nonetheless with my Brownie family…my safe harbor amidst confusion and trauma.

I was happily present today when my own 3rd grade daughter crossed the bridge into Junior Girl Scouts. Only now, in part thanks to troop 2476 of years ago, I am on the other side of the bridge, ready to welcome her.