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 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 <>.

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.


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.