I'm told that to look at me, it's not obvious that I've had to overcome tremendous challenges. I think that's probably true for many of us.
It's also not obvious to most that I'm an introvert, even though I'm a public speaker. And yet, according to Myers-Briggs, an INFP I am :
'Introverted, Intuitive, Feeler, Perceiver'.
My story is one of having lived a very full and beautiful life but also in having overcome incredible odds of overwhelming loss, injustice, betrayal, loneliness, judgment, abuse and trauma.
I've chosen to share a few of my experiences here in the hopes that it might inspire you or someone you know who may be enduring injustices, challenges or trying to overcome loss or trauma that it is possible to rebuild and to feel whole again if you're patient with yourself .
I grew up living in mostly two bedroom apartments in low-income neighbourhoods. At 13 I began working my summers as a nanny to pay for high-school tuition and books and to contribute towards groceries.
Our home mostly altered between a place of sadness and loneliness or one of aggression and violence. There were happy moments too but they were often overshadowed by the heaviness in our home. The 'rod of discipline' was administered literally in frequent beatings from the time I was a toddler and slaps across the face as a teen. My legs and ass were often bruised and it hurt at times to sit all day at school. To have an opposing opinion, was considered 'abusive' and 'disrespectful'; 'good girls don't talk back' was constantly repeated even if I shared my thoughts respectfully.
Despite the emotional & physical abuse, the isolation and criticism that was commonplace, we all kept a brave face in public and looked like a happy, well adjusted family.
School wasn't much better. I was bullied relentlessly for 3 reasons:
- dressing in hand-me-downs,
- for the faith/community I was raised in that didn't allow me to participate in things the others kids did and for not being allowed to make friends at school,
- for the color of my skin, which was deemed far too pale and ghostlike. 'Get a tan' is the most common comment in my yearbook which was passed around to be signed even though I didn't ask people to.
In my second last year of school I also lived through a traumatic experience when I was abducted by the father of a schoolmate who was angry that I'd declined to be his son's date at his graduation. He threatened me, telling me I would pay for being 'a whore' as he drove erratically and while frozen with fear, I managed to tell him that it was my parents decision and not mine. He eventually slowed down and began to rub my leg creepily and said he knew it couldn't have been me who had turned his son down and finally stopped and unlocked the car and set me free. I'm so glad that I 'talked back' to an adult that day. It saved my life.
~ A Young Marriage...
When I was 19, my former mother-in-law decided to tell a very big lie about me out of jealousy and rage because her son didn't marry the woman she wanted (the daughter of a senior member of our community). Sadly, those with the power to protect and support me didn't. I was harshly punished by the men who were in charge of our church for something I didn't do and this ultimately led me into a deep depression (though I didn't realize it at the time.) Around the same time, my parents separated which caused a big scandal in our community and members took sides and began randomly calling my home and criticizing me for not taking sides with my mom or dad. I was told by a senior member of our church that 'the blood of my father would be on my head' if I didn't take better care of him spiritually even though neither one of my parents were speaking to me at the time for refusing to take sides.
My husband seemed oblivious to my suffering as his focus was on climbing the political/spiritual ladder so to speak (there were ranks he aspired to within the church) and he left me alone to deal with things and refused to stand up for me with his mother (he'd leave me in the car to wait when he visited with her). But what felt worse was that he didn't stand up for me with those in charge who had the power to reinstate my volunteer privileges which was basically my whole life's purpose at the time. I begged him to move away and start fresh but he felt that he'd have a better shot at becoming a senior member of the church if he stayed where we were. (As a woman, I was not allowed to have the same aspirations as women aren't allowed leadership roles.) He also didn't want me to have a career or children as he believed that the world as we know it was coming to an end which may have also explained why he was completely disinterested in intimacy which only reinforced my low self-image. He would sigh in frustration when I would tell him that I disagreed with where our life was headed and he would tell me to 'be submissive sweetie.' Feeling unloved, utterly lonely and bored, I felt like our marriage was a fraud and that I was in the way of his aspirations so I finally decided to leave him and my life behind at the age of 23 and start over. To protect his aspirations, I simply wrote a letter stating that I was leaving the church for personal reasons but for this I was judged harshly and shunned by my family and friends and all members of my former community.
~ Starting over
Very much alone, at 23 I was ill equipped to face the 'normal' world and didn't understand just how much I would be judged in a new way by things that felt unimportant to me; like my face and outer appearance or lack of formal education (which was completely discouraged in my upbringing.) Female peers who were often insecure and unkind in the workplace, made mean comments, refused to train me or micro managed my every move and reported me constantly trying to get me fired. I was later told by other colleagues that my kindness, work ethic and looks were threatening. While some of my managers saw through this and were supportive, I still left many jobs due to the stress and toll it took on me, especially as there was no one to catch me at home. At the time I longed to be accepted and rebuild community. But I just didn't fit in as I was learning how to navigate a world I hadn't grown up in and didn't understand. They clearly weren't 'my tribe.'
About 6 months after I first left my community, I found myself in hospital, diagnosed with PTSD and on suicide watch. I began therapy with a very kind counsellor who helped me to understand things like abuse, trauma and depression and I slowly started to rebuild my life and make friends again.
While my career began to thrive, I continued to struggle with my naivety with men. Long before the 'me-too' movement, I was inappropriately touched by colleagues, propositioned and sexually harassed by many male bosses and even ended up as a member of a class-action lawsuit of 150 women in Chicago which was featured on the Oprah show at the time. Eventually I was dismissed by their legal team due to a glitch of my being Canadian. Having lost my job and my home to work in the US because I stood up to humiliating sexual harassment by my manager was tough to swallow at the time but I'm so proud that I did and I hope for so much better for my own daughter today.
It also took me some time to figure out how to stop attracting unhealthy relationships. Regretfully, I endured both emotional and physical abuse, unfaithfulness, alcoholism and even attempted rape by a police officer I trusted who I had met at a bar one night. Fortunately I was physically strong and escaped but I remain extremely sensitive to how vulnerable and terrified I felt at the time and I support women who speak up. We need to make this world safer for our daughters.
~ The Elk
Eventually, after leaving a very abusive relationship, something broke within me and I longed to end things as I was tired of all the pain and loss.There were a few half-hearted attempts but the one I carefully planned was when I hiked deep into the woods near Banff in Alberta, armed with a lethal cocktail (the formula had been given to me by my former abusive boyfriend). I was sitting on the embankment of the Bow River and took out the formula from my backpack. Tears were flowing as I quietly bid the world goodbye. Just as I was about to ingest my concoction, I heard a noise behind me and found myself looking at the silhouette of a great imposing elk who was looking down at me. It was very still, the soon to be setting sun glowing behind it. Then, for reasons I can not explain, I suddenly felt very very calm and at peace. More at peace than I had ever felt before. I then turned to the sound of a large family of elk who walked into the river before me to water their young and I suddenly became aware of the breathtaking mountains and sunset sky behind them and realized just how beautiful and vast this world is and how insignificant my issues felt at that moment.
Right then and there, I resigned myself to change everything, to live my life according to the values I held dear and not allow others opinions of me to break me again. I turned back around and the elk had vanished. That elk saved my life and is the reason why my company logo bears the elk's antlers as a reminder to never forget that day...
~ Lessons learned
Looking back, I was so desperate for love and to rebuild a sense of family and community that I often accepted the unacceptable from my partners and so-called friends as I bent to please them until I almost broke. I had to learn that I would never attract healthy relationships until I learned to love and value myself first and assert healthy boundaries.
I also understand that we must allow ourselves the time and space to heal from trauma and loss. I later lost a baby boy in the 5th month of my pregnancy and that loss will always stay with me, sometimes there is no sugar coating things or positive spin, loss hurts and I've learned that we all process our trauma in different ways. But I've also learned that if we allow ourselves the time to heal and express what we feel, we can move forward armed with the right tools. Otherwise, we can get stuck.
What's positive about my life story is that my life challenges also became the catalyst to my having experienced incredibly beautiful moments:
- like becoming a mother to a stellar human being.
- overcoming my fear of singing live and performing in large theater productions was probably the most fun I've ever had!
- traveling this incredible world opened my eyes to new cultures, ways of thinking and just how little my problems seem in perspective.
- learning the freedom of forgiveness and how to love from afar.
- rebuilding my tribe with people I've chosen and love.
Everything I've experienced has led to healthy growth. I refuse to settle, still consider myself an ever growing work in progress and will look back on my life feeling like it mattered.
I firmly believe that I am not defined by my past or others behaviours. I alone determine my present, my self-worth and my state of mind. I've learned RESILIENCY, GRIT and DETERMINATION and this is what fuels me in my chosen profession to support others in turning their challenges into their greatest assets.
I promise you that if you're struggling I REALLY GET IT.
I'm not just preaching from a book or my training but from experience. If I can forge a beautiful, purposeful life and career with the obstacles I've faced and without having had traditional family, community or financial support or formal education, you can too.
~ My Story ~