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?

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

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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The Passing of a Generation

Standing several feet away from the painfully familiar front door, I wondered for a moment through my tears, “Does this make me a stalker?” But no one I knew lived at this apartment anymore and it was simply for the feeling of standing there itself, that I had unexpectedly arrived.

I stepped back, close to the balcony railing and closed my eyes briefly, imagined myself knocking on the door. The images came so easily; the feeling of warm anticipation before my grandfather would pull open the door. His smile would broaden while he stood there shirtless, his skin a deep brown from the sun under fuzzy white grey hairs. He’d rest one hand against his blue and red bathing shorts, in the other he’d have a ripe red tomato half-sliced, juices threatening to run. “We don’t want any!” he’d tease in the doorway, as if poised to close the door just before stepping back to open it wide.

I’d grab him in a damp hug before gliding down the narrow hallway, tossing my wet towel into the dryer on my way into the main living area. My grandmother would appear from the master bedroom doorway, still wearing her brown bathing suit covered in large white peony flowers. “Well, c’mon then and have some lunch.” she’d encourage. By now grandpa would be back in the kitchen, finishing off the thick turkey sandwiches with ruby slices of tomato and crisp iceberg lettuce leaves. “Bernie, did you put out the potato chips?” grandma would bellow from back in the bedroom. “I have the chips but that doesn’t mean I’m going to let you have any!” he’d cajole back at her.

This is where I will be eternally safe, eternally loved. Standing in this living room in my imagination. The smells of Coppertone SPF 4 and men’s cologne, the awareness of my sister and cousin in various states of showering and dressing, the soft peach carpet soothing the bottoms of my feet, tender from the sand. Gazing into the mirrored walls, I was surrounded in an embrace by the ocean herself.

My grandmother died on June 24, 2015, just shy of her 94th birthday. She lived 15 months after losing her 95 year old husband to whom she was married for 72 years (see March 2014: “Life After Pop”).  Her death was the last of a generation of relatives and friends in whose presence I knew myself to be part of something precious and timeless.

Maybe someday soon I will write about her, Phyllis Rice; a woman I adored and admired as my grandma and deeply cherished as my friend. For now, I try mightily to trust that the memories will remain fresh, that the surreal quality that has seemingly overtaken the earth will dissipate in time, and to know that, in that living room by the sea, I will always be able to find them.

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Mackenzie Prison

The first time my biological father went to prison, I was fifteen years old. Perhaps it was not actually his first stint, but it was certainly the first of which I was aware. Since that time, the word itself has taken on expanded meaning; an institution that was once both elusive and alien became alive and threatening.kuyf

My fascination with reality based prison shows didn’t emerge until “Stanley’s” next sentence almost twenty years later. The interest was motivated by a temporary need to understand the full range of ominous horror that is prison life, but ended quickly once I realized I would never understand, nor did I really want to.

Then one night, in place of her usual pattern of bedtime rituals, I found myself in “Mackenzie prison.” Mackenzie prison is simply the title given by my eight year old daughter of the head-lock type hold she now regularly constructs around my neck at bedtime. As we are preparing to say our final goodnight Mackenzie hooks her arms around me with determination, beams a mischevous grin and then wriggles an ankle or two around my back.

“Mom, you’re in ‘Mackenzie prison!” The first time she said it my heart lurched into my throat with a wave of dread. Despite how widely out of context her statement was, and how long it had been since I had entertained the thought, an image of Stanley in an orange jumpsuit immediately flooded my mind. I winced.

“Mom, you can’t escape!” Mackenzie emphasized, hoping to jolt me out of my sudden disengagement.

Over and over again my children invite me to release, to let go, to heal what still needs healing. When I looked back into Mackenzie’s brown eyes, they were wide and expectant, like a fawn looking up from foraging among the grass.

luAt the sight of her, a loud laugh burst from my chest, the muscles now unclenching easily. I inhaled, releasing deeply on the exhalation, imagining the lingering pain and confusion burning up into glittering pixy dust.

“Wow, you are freakishly strong!” I mumbled. Mackenzie roared with satisfaction, pulling my face down against her neck.

I smiled and whispered in her ear, “Mackenzie prison is my favorite kind of prison!”

The Sounds of Silence

 

The Sounds of Silence

August 12, 2014

  vipassana

 

It’s a normal question to ask, “How was your meditation retreat?” Yet every time I hear it I find myself immediately stumped. “It was…hmmm…well, parts of it were…”  Now that I’m two weeks past the 4-day silent Vipassana (Buddhist meditation) weekend, I’m ready to more fully integrate the experience.

So how was it; to be among 100 other people and refrain from interacting; to rise at dawn each morning and spend the next 15 hours walking mindfully or sitting in a meditation hall with no outside distractions? I’d like to say it was pure bliss but I’d be lying.

Several weeks before the Vipassana weekend I began reading Paul Foxman’s The Worried Child. In his book, Paul describes the critical link between the physiological process of birth trauma and the development of childhood anxiety. My son, James’ entry into the world was far from peaceful (hence, my memoir available here: http://www.lulu.com/shop/valerie-r-mcmanus-lcsw-c/the-boy-who-birthed-me/paperback/product-21660301.html ) and, despite a strong support network, he has shown intermittent challenges with anxiety since a small child.

Aside from the day after his birth, there is only one other occasion during which I truly felt the trauma associated with my son’s close-call with death. Two years ago I attended an Infant Loss workshop designed for therapists. The facilitator shared a slide show of families artistically captured in their grief. Images flashed on the screen; mothers and fathers smiling tearfully witnessing their newborns taking their first and last breaths of life. Full-term still born babies, wrapped in blankets as if asleep.  Once back to my car I found myself crying and shaking. Weeping in bed later with my husband, trying to ground myself from the images flashing in my head, all I could say was, “How could I have not realized? We almost had a dead baby!”

As the Vipassana retreat got underway on Thursday, I felt a tightening across my chest. Without the countless distractions of everyday life, all there was for me to do was breathe into this pain; just offer myself love and compassion. re-anchor my experience in my hands, in my feet, ride the waves of emotion, cry silently, breathe again, notice the sounds in the room and focus on the present moment. It was not the peaceful break I had envisioned for but I embraced the work, hopeful of where it may lead.

The next morning I gathered with eight other yogis and one of our retreat leaders, Ruth King, a wise healer and renowned author. Our small group meeting was intended to offer a short reprieve from silence, an opportunity to check-in and share how our experience was going. We all cried. Even the woman who described her experience as one of being cut off from her emotions was in tears as she described her pain. Then it was my turn.

I dissolved into tears, “I’m okay. Really, I’m okay, I just can’t seem to reel this back in.” Ruth nodded and offered, “Can we give this space? Can we just let it be here then for a moment?” I nodded and allowed for a few sobs to leave me unrestrained before quickly struggling to take back what was spilling out of me.

“I have been on a low dose of an antidepressant off and on for nearly 10 years since my son was born. This is the first time that I’m completely free of an SSRI in my system. What perfect timing for a meditation retreat!” My new friends laughed with me. Then I offered a brief synopsis of James’ birth as well as his current challenges.

“He’s starting with a therapist next week. I keep telling myself that he’s in pain because he almost died, that he came into this world dying and was not able to access comfort from his mom. He was just whisked away and taken through a whole slew of invasive medical interventions.” This time, when a sob erupted it was accompanied by trembling—my trauma sign.

At that moment, the man seated beside me turned his body towards me in an invaluable gesture of loving support. Though silent, his posture spoke to me,“Your pain is not too much.” The gesture gave me the courage to continue.

“Omigod. I just realized what’s going on. I think I’m processing more fully the trauma of my son’s birth. I’m so grateful for the medicine. It probably saved my life during the worst of my postpartum depression. But it’s also kept certain things protected from me, behind a screen. I never fully experienced the trauma of what happened and now I’m wrecked—10 years later. Amazing.”

The rest of Friday flowed out in front of me both daunting and curious. How unconscious we are in this culture rich with technology, food, drugs and endless distractions. Even when left to our own devices we are in a near constant state of planning, thinking, remembering, daydreaming, hypothesizing, preparing, intellectualizing. We are almost completely missing our actual lives. With this retreat came an expanse of time to simply be. Simply notice my body, notice my sensations, be present to my surroundings, experience the stillness and wonder, ride the waves of physical and emotional sensation and remember what it feels like to breathe. To sum it up, I cried a lot.

Friday night I had a vivid nightmare. In my dream, it was my daughter who was drowning, trapped in a plastic box full of water. I tried desperately to free her from her prison, unable to bust through the sealed lid, helpless. Finally, the lid gave beneath my prying hands and I pulled her out. She was suddenly small, blue, battered, limp and lifeless–the exact image of her brother upon his entry into the world. Desperately I tried to resuscitate her but she would not be revived. In my dream my body heaved with panicked sobs, still working frantically to save my baby girl, “She might already be dead!” I wailed just before awakening. My breath was quick and my heart raced. I lay frozen for just a moment, “Not real, not real.” I chanted to myself before leaving the bedroom altogether, hoping to shake off the remnants.

On Saturday morning I posted a note to Ruth on the cork board made available to us for communication, “I’m definitely experiencing some trauma and had a horrible nightmare last night. I’m not sure that continuing with the program as it’s outlined is most loving for me right now considering…” Despite my uncertainty, I entered the meditation hall for our morning sit, awaiting Ruth’s response. Tears again came, and I quietly rode wave after wave of fear, horror, grief. Unbenownst to me, Ruth tacked a note to the board, offering to meet with me that morning. I missed both her note and the meeting time while doing a walking mediation on the back lawn.

But in the meantime, something started to change. The waves of distress began to lessen in their height, became less painful to ride independently and the day wore on. My body was calmer, less activated. Mid-afternoon I went back to my room and slept for almost two hours. I woke more peaceful, less tearful and took a walk among the trees. I noticed the rays of light shining through the heavy cover of leaves, pressed my foot into the dirt and rocks, tasted wild raspberries and laughed at my own fears bubbling up, washing over me and floating away.

By evening I was tacking another note on the board, “Thanks for your note, Ruth. I think I’m okay now.” For the remainder of the retreat I found myself mostly in a state of ‘okay-ness.’ It was not one of meditative ecstasy nor was it one of deep pain and fear.  While I have practiced a variety of medication techniques off and on over the years,  enveloping myself in a meditative state for an extended period was new for me. It was a slow and curious existence both pleasant and unfamiliar.

Since the retreat has ended, I do feel calmer and more grounded around James’ mental health challenges. He is surrounded by loving support and guidance as well as harbors many internal resources including wisdom and compassion.  And while I didn’t expect to be catapulted into something so raw, the circumstances of the retreat invited its movement in a much more expedited way.

But I’m also a little angry. Where, in my developing consciousness, were all the pink lotus blossoms, serene smooth lakes and peaceful smiling Buddha surrounded by candles and incense? Is that really a fair representation of what is more regularly experienced by many during meditation practice?

Perhaps, for now, I’ll follow the wisdom of Vipassana and simply let it be.

 

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