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.

WE ARE NOT OUR STORIES!

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:

WE ARE ALREADY ENOUGH.  

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?

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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 <www.lulu.com>.

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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 http://hollykatzstyle.com/) 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.

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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.

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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.

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Releasing Shame through Dance

After expertly breaking down the next sequence of moves in hip hop class, our dance teacher asked, “Any questions?” Before I could consider the appropriateness of the words, I blurted out, “I was wondering how old you are?”

I could attribute my occasional impulsivity to having been diagnosed with ADHD, but in fact, we all say and do obscure things from time to time. It’s human. What I was not prepared for was the intense wave of heat that quickly traveled up my body, landing in my chest and head, when the class understandably began laughing heartily. I don’t fault them for their reaction. It was an odd time for such an off-the-wall question, not to mention a bit of a boundary pusher. None of that really even matters.

What matters is where it lead me—SHAME. Immediate, intense, powerful shame. I was suddenly so shame-filled that I lost track of the dance moves and instead noticed the whole slew of harsh criticisms suddenly slamming around in my head:shame

“I’m the old lady in this class. No one else is afraid their knees will hurt from doing the floor work.”

“I’m crappy at this. My moves have no flavor.”

“I can barely keep the steps straight and everyone else has it all down. I look like an idiot.”

The belief is simple, “I’M NOT GOOD ENOUGH.”

Dance has consistently offered itself to me as an invitation to greet–head on–my greatest insecurities. Through it’s raw body-centered expression it nudges out all my old judgements, perceived flaws, lingering fears.  Because my body loves to move, because I found a studio whose teachers profoundly honor their students, because dancing enhances my vitality and creativity, I accept the invitation over and over again.

Having the tough stuff triggered, while sometimes intensely painful, is not a “bad” thing. It’s an opportunity to do the work of life, the work I am wholly committed to from within and as a transmitter of healing in my personal and professional life. Each of us has an internal landscape strewn with golden nuggets of beauty and truth as well as those of uncertainty and criticism.

One day, I just might gracefully dance my way through it all.

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9 year old girls scare me…and now I have one

September 20, 2015

Today my daughter, Mackenzie, turned 9 years old.  A milestone normally celebrated with gusto has left me distracted and with great unease. You see, I have been afraid of 9 year old girls for over two decades.

“What could possibly be scary about 9-year-old girls?” you may wonder. I wasn’t bullied by a crew of 3rd graders and I would have no problem putting a gaggle of them in their place if necessary. My fear isn’t so much OF them as it is FOR them. TOMKID38

My biological father is a twice convicted pedophile (which does not account for all the victims for which he did not serve jail time). In clinical terms, 9-year-old’s are consistently his “age of preference.” And not just any 9-year-old girl, mind you, but ones that fit a particular profile; sweet, artistic, highly sensitive, hopeful, trusting to a fault. Stanley scouts out little girls, deeming some desirable victims and others too clever or judicious to adequately manipulate. It’s beyond difficult for me to stomach.

Growing up, my older sister was, thankfully, one of the sophisticated ones. We joke that Stanley was more afraid of her than anything else. I didn’t quite make the same cut. I was 7 when Stanley began “grooming” me, 8 when his parental rights were terminated. I didn’t survive him completely unscathed, but was miraculously spared the worst of his atrocities. I turned 9 just outside of his reach.

During a time when girls are often deeply exploratory, enthusiastic, and exuberant I have come to imagine them as terrifyingly vulnerable.  Who knows how many other 9-year-old girls were his victims? Most days, I’m no longer haunted by the thought. Today was different.

Mackenzie is incredibly sweet, charismatic and animated. She’s got a clever sense of humor and a sometimes painfully compassionate heart. She’s witty, creative and imaginative. Today, in alignment with her true nature, Mackenzie literally danced her way into her 9th year. She did so encompassing the same innocent and enchanted spirit with which, I too, identified at her age, making it all the more unnerving.

girl-running-through-field-photo-by-Kristin-DokozaBeing in fear is a choice I have made. For, as long as 9-year-old girls are imagined beacons of abuse, than I can focus on ways to control and protect them. The alternate reality has, until now, been much more appalling; that I will never, ever be able to control him.

Choice is a gift; the choice to interpret, the choice to heal…of course, it often requires patience to integrate a new way of thinking.  Today my intention is to release 9-year-old girls from this imagined cloak of vulnerability and, instead, become present to the glowing light that is my daughter; to celebrate her blooming.

On this, my daughter’s 9th birthday, I choose to acknowledge that she is wildly free and, in doing so, I have freed myself.

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Story of my Body

During a rest break at an indoor water park this week, I found myself suddenly awed by the many half naked bodies all around me. So many shades, shapes, sizes, abilities, and challenges. I found myself captivated suddenly by the elaborate stories potentially told by each person’s human form; where they had been, what they had overcome, in what ways they were soft, angry, vibrant, frightened. For a moment the entire beings of these “strangers” surrounding me were completely visible through my simple observations of the skin and flesh making up the human form.Now-Foundation-Love-Your-Body

I hugged my knees into my chest and rested my head there. Immediately my own story began to unfold from my body. My belly, my center–the round cushion of protection with which I most struggle. She tells of a shock to the system, of the fear and desperation endured. She also speaks of a soft, sacred place, a land of wild femininity. Within my belly is a vault of stored up kisses regularly placed there by my children. Their love begs me to treasure the sacred story contained within every inch of this frame.

My body is colored by the brush strokes of experiences captured along my travels. Each stray hair, each crease, line and curve offers information, tells of another territory visited on the map of my life. Some of these visited places grew me warm, open, radiant and smooth. Some nations have proved more treacherous, laced with betrayal, despair and terror.

Our bodies speak of insight and wisdom and simultaneously of terrain still waiting for its time to heal. Our bodies are evidence of all the beauty and time that has unfolded since we manifested into physical form. The seasons themselves are revealed in our cells. Perhaps most amazing, these bodies reflect a commitment we made to do more than simply exist but rather, to live a life.

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