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September 4, 2022

Where Did My Courage Go?

Once upon a time, I spent 10 days in frigid cold and swirling winds, bundled in layers of clothes, waist-length hair piled up in a wool hat.

When I took it out to shower my body that had not seen soap and water in that time, it looked like I had started growing dreadlocks. I’m not sure how I managed to untangle the knots.

Once upon a time, I trekked through unmarked trails, camping, cross country skiing, hiking and snowshoeing my way through Maine and New Hampshire as I completed this Outward Bound Course in January of 1981. I returned home to New Jersey with a broken pinkie, frostbite on my fingers, a sprained ankle, and bronchitis but with a zest for life that I had not experienced in my previous 22 years. I felt triumphant. I felt unstoppable. I felt like I could take on the world.

I spent the next 41 years attempting to repeat, in symbolic form, what felt like a superhuman feat for a kid who was diagnosed with asthma at four, who had broken both ankles a few times, and who wore clunky, orthopedic shoes in childhood in an attempt to correct flat feet and pigeon toes. The cool thing is that my parents never limited me and what I was capable of achieving. They were my most ardent cheerleaders. The not-so-cool thing was that I internalized the belief that I had to excel to prove that I was strong enough, resilient enough…enough…enough.

At 11, at the advice of our family doc, I joined a swim team to help improve my pulmonary function, and it became my joy and challenge since I had Olympic aspirations, but not Olympic discipline. I wasn’t willing to commit to twice-a-day practice at the expense of a social life. Finding balance didn’t come easily to me. I lived in full throttle mode throughout most of my life. I showed up for everything and everyone. I worked my way through college and grad school, in part to support myself financially, but also—once again—to prove I could.

Never in my adult life have I had just one job at a time. Now, at 63, I have multiple streams of income as a therapist, journalist, speaker, teacher, minister, and PR person. Whenever someone has suggested narrowing my focus, I have frozen in fear and thought, “How can they take my source of success away from me?” I thrived on being seen as Wonder Woman.

That changed, literally, in a heartbeat in 2014 when at the age of 55, I had a heart attack. It stopped me in my well-worn tracks. It had me rethinking everything. And then, it had me deciding that I was not invulnerable and invincible, so I needed to slow my roll a bit. That didn’t last long, and I began to ramp up activity level. Even on a much-needed vacation with friends, I spent time writing articles for my then full-time job as a web content provider for sites connected with drug and alcohol rehabs. I was still deeply entrenched in my own addiction of workaholism.

As I am writing these words, it is a Friday morning in late summer. Dappled sunlight is streaming in through the curtains. Arlo Guthrie is singing “City of New Orleans.” I have a day filled with tasks at my full-time job as a therapist, PR for a film I am promoting, writing articles, and possible time with friends. A full, rich day.

Even as I tap on the keys, I feel anxiety rising and butterflies flitting about in my stomach. The world inside my room feels safe. The world outside, not so much. Unpredictable people who are bent on doing violence. Predictable people who are bent on wreaking havoc and those who enable them. Moment-to-moment uncertainty. I can only control my thoughts and actions, not those of anyone else.

Vivid dreams about people in my life doing uncharacteristic things and the garter snake that appeared outside my door a few days ago and slithered into the garden after posing for a photo, as well as iguanas and a rabbit. A trans man and a cisgender woman, pregnant belly to pregnant belly. Officiating at the second wedding of a dear friend who was widowed five years ago, only to misplace the ceremony and getting lost myself. These are reflections of the whirlwind thoughts in my life.

Since the pandemic began, I have become more internal, more protective of myself and those close to me. Most people I know have had Covid-19, but blessedly, their symptoms have been manageable. When I tested positive in April, I wouldn’t even have known I had it; that’s how mild the symptoms were. I had been double boosted at that point.

The socio-political climate has been chaotic and terrifying of late. I muster the courage every day to speak out about it—much of the time in written form. I get a bit of pushback, but most of the commentary has been supportive of my endeavors.

My world has shrunk in some ways to include just my family and a few close friends. I help take care of my grandchildren, and they are motivation for me to live courageously so that they can have a healthy world in which to grow and flourish. My world has expanded as I am able to reach people in line with my work.

My sometimes not so gracefully aging body and mind remind me that I need to adapt. The woman who could charge through the world at 100 mph with her hair on fire (per a friend’s description) now needs a hiking pole as a companion when walking a distance. The one with the steel trap memory has to remind herself who she was supposed to call and what she went into a room to retrieve. She sometimes stares into space with no discernible thought passing through her brain. She wonders if there will come a time when she doesn’t recognize the person she was, once upon a time.

~

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