“There is a surrendering to your story and then a knowing that you don’t have to stay in your story.” – Colette Baron Reid
Your Brave Life is a philosophy that has I have come to live by and I hope you will too. When we think of bravery we often think of grandiose things but for so many of us bravery is needed in the littlest of thing. Not only in the looming challenges but in everyday life too. It sparks from a conversation that I had with my 11 year old son in the weeks before he passed away from a rare form of pediatric leukemia. I asked him what brave meant. It was to be our “power-word” to lean on when times turn towards the inevitable worst. His answer was profound and life changing. “To never give up and to know that you don’t have a limit to how hard you can try.” But that is jumping too far ahead, so let me go back to where the concept of a brave life actually took root in my life.
I had the typical all American upbringing. A child of divorce and the oldest of my brood yet somehow I didn’t notice that. My biological father was battling and eventually concurring his own demons but was not around for my youth. A quiet toll on me that I would not realize until later years it would weave its way into my own insecurities of being loved and accepted. But at the time I didn’t realize it as my mother remarried and I was lucky enough to be surrounded by an intact family that included three kids, cats and dogs. I was raised by middle-class hardworking parents in the tiny Oregon town of Rogue River. It felt like a prison then but now I look back a realize it was a protective bubble that housed my youth in a primarily unjaded and quaint little way. A place I could roam the streets as a child making my way safely to the park to play with friends and then wandering my way back home at dinner time. So small, I swear my father could stand on the front porch of our house and holler my name to come home or my mom’s whistle, you know the kind that requires two fingers strategically placed in your lips to create a loud piercing sound that carried its way to the playground and beckoned me and my twin sister home.
But even there where the streets were safe and the sheriff knew you by name and would drive you home if it got to late, bad things still could happen. I was fondled by a friend of the family. A man that I called uncle even though he was not by blood. He was a friend of my grandfather whom I never knew because he died when I was very young. He handed me a few dollars afterwards which I accepted and that in itself would lead to layers of self-hatred and loathing that I would face later in life. The molestation caused me to throw myself into an abusive relationship my senior year in high school. Verbal and violent my high school boyfriend took a toll so after I tossed my graduation cap into the air, I proceeded to pack up my Datsun B210 and drove to California with my twin sister. We were going to be movie stars and put Rogue River and all its dark corner behind us.
But wait, earlier you called your hometown a protective bubble? How can a bubble have corners? Ah, my first lesson in life is that; it is not always what it seems and it is simply just that. Sometimes it is both. Rogue River was a beautiful basically harmless place that I encountered two bad guys in. For the most part it was safe. There weren’t vagrants sleeping on the streets or begging at the corners. There wasn’t crime or really the need to lock your front doors at night. People waved to you on the streets and asked you how your parents were doing. Everything you imagine a tiny small town on the river to be.
California was short lived as breaking into Hollywood is not all that easy. We plan to stay with my grandfather who turned out to be a drunk and kicked us out on the streets. Because my mother was from California we had some family there and our Uncle took us in. But it wasn’t permanent and we honestly had no clue what we were doing in such a big city. In part because of that protective bubble I thought had corners. Suddenly I realized really how sheltered I had been. Giving up on dreams of stardom, I let my guard down and returned home and back into the same bad relationship that I had once tried to escape. It didn’t take long for me to remember why I had run that day so I ran again. Only this time with the help of my family, I did my best to stay in hiding from him. Going into hiding proved to weigh heavily on my feelings of security.
In hiding, I met my husband of 15 years and yes, you guessed it, once again in a controlling and abusive relationship. I stuck it out for the kids but as things progressed from mildly intimidating to police showing up at our front door, I realized staying would do more harm to them than growing up in a divorced home. So I ran again.
For a brief spell I felt in control of my life, taking it back and starting over. This peacefulness was short lives and came to a crashing halt on 3-26-10 when my youngest son, Tucker, was diagnosed with a rare and incurable form of leukemia. I have always danced around bad odds. You know, like the one where the pill is only 99% effective. That is how I conceived my first son. But these odds? Only less than 1% of all pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia cases were Pre-B Cell ALL with t(17;19) Translocation. One of the most curable kinds of pediatric leukemia with an incurable mutation. Can you imagine the cruelty of that? Keep in mind that there are 4 main subsets of leukemia that further breakdown into specific mutations and my son’s, it was less then 1 percent of one of the categories. Not all of pediatric leukemia, which has a 90% survival rate, but one subset and less than 1% of that. To say that we were doomed was an understatement. A reality that kicked me in the face and then proceeded to beat the ever-loving shit out of me.
I remember sitting cross-legged in the chair next to Tucker’s bed. There was a knock on the door and the doctors began to file in. The doctor that had handled most of our admission into Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, did most of the speaking and I knew it was going to be bad when she took a seat to meet me at my level. That and the room full of strangers lined up against the wall behind her with their hands neatly clasped in front of their white coats. Some boldly look right at me and others looked at the doctor seated in front of me. I can’t explain the stillness that came over the room other than to say even the dust in the air stood suspended in time rather than dancing in the sunlight that shown through the hospital window. Her words echoed inside of me. Ricocheted like a bullet until it lodged squarely into my heart. Yet I stayed steadfast drinking in her bitter words and holding back vomit.
Tucker’s treatment would prove trying and difficult. In the end treatment is what killed him as he went into full kidney failure. On 2-16-11 at 2 a.m. he died. Bloated and bald with dark circles under his eyes. His skin speckled with pink dots that proved to be a raging fungal infection brought on by having suppressed counts for too long. I remember the corner being sharp. One minute we were preparing for a transplant with a nearly perfect match who was actively taking the steps to have his bone marrow harvested for a transplant to Tucker. The next I was following his casket down the hall of the place that had become our home over the last year and he was gone.
The years after my son’s death found me gulping down my grief and powering through my days only to find myself drunk on wine in a puddle of tears in my front room at night. My oldest son found himself trying to graduate high school and keep his mom from falling apart. In a bipolar way, I had so many things from the outside looking in pulled together but from the inside looking out the mess was unable to be hidden. And my son was the only person who really saw from the inside looking out. Guilt and shame became my best friend as I lived a double life. I just kept telling myself that I didn’t have a choice. I had to. I couldn’t fall apart. So instead, I crumbled apart slowly.
Not at work, surprisingly. Work is where I continued to excel. I threw myself into building my nonprofit and I was being successful. A faults barometer of how I was handling it, to others and to myself. Meanwhile my personal relationships were falling apart, PTSD was drowning me in flashbacks and a constant hypervigilance, and I was starving myself unable to eat. I found myself in a ball in my closet realizing I was on the fast track to a nervous break down or an anorexic induced heart attack. I could see it in the distance like the sunset and I knew only darkness would follow.
So not we pause and adjust our pity party hats because that is not what we are having here. Really?, you are thinking as you have just read my one disaster after another in black and white before you. Ah, my next lesson in life is one that I instilled in my children and spoke often to my son, Tucker, in the year of cancer. You own your life. But somehow I no longer owned mine. In thinking about it, I am not sure that I ever did. Instead of staying curled up in my closet, even knowing many would take pity on me and allow it because after all, her kid died, I called a therapist and began two years of regular counseling.
The layers peal back slowly but what I have discovered is that I have always been brave. I re-look over my life and instead of focusing on the one disaster after another, I am fixating on what I did to survive them. The brave and bold steps I took to change my circumstances when I could and endure them when I couldn’t. So why didn’t I feel brave? The answer was simple. I wasn’t accepting.
I stood firmly in my victimology and stacked up the disasters and violations in tightly woven bales of self-loathing and hatred. I fenced it off with insecurity and mistrust, as if caging it in would keep me safe from my own thoughts. What I didn’t realize is that I didn’t need to gather, bind up, stack and organize my disasters. I didn’t need to gate them in behind security fences and stand guard with a loaded gun of self-preservation at all cost. Even my happiness. How can that be? Wasn’t all of that effort to protect myself from the sky falling? Wasn’t it to keep me from another disaster? Instead, I was creating my own new disaster called misery. What I needed to do was let go, to remember that I have always been brave and that I had a choice to be brave still. I had a battle to fight and most of the battle would be with myself. I have found the only way to let go of anything is to accept that you are actually holding on to it white knuckle style. Gripping it tightly for fear of change until your muscles ache and a numbness covers you.
Who are we without our disasters? When we have become so accustom to their presence lurking in everything we do. Dragging our heavy luggage with bare feet through gravel. To what, prove a point? To whom? But for most of us it has become so familiar that we do not even accept that our arms are loaded down with bags. We have to accept that bad did happen. Acknowledge it for exactly what it is and then choose to let it go. Not until you look the monster in the face can you tell it to fuck off and then you purposefully make the choice to slay the dragon and bravely leave it behind you.You no longer identify yourself with it. You are not that guilt, insecurity, self-loathing or foolishness. You are not that fear, anger, betrayal or loss. You are no longer the victim of it. It simply just happened to you. Just as good things do. So has the bad.
If you must think about it, chose to fixate on how you survived not what you survived. Even if what you went through was your fault of bad choices. We have to accept the outcome as permanent and unchangeable. It happened and there is nothing, nothing at all we can do about it. There is no going back and denial just holds us hostage to it. Somethings you simply have to stop yourself from thinking about it. Remind yourself that you have already had that conversation. You have already made peace with it. You accept that it happened and that the outcome cannot be altered and that you survived it and are here today in this moment and you want to choose happiness over heartache so you bravely let go. It doesn’t need to boil over the rim and hiss and steam on the red hot burner to still be real. It is not going to ever be nothing. It happened. It just doesn’t need to keep happening.
Your Brave Life is about boldly make those hard choices. To choose you over your life events and outcomes. To recognize that happiness is truly housed in your own thoughts about yourself and your experiences. Your Brave Life is about seeing yourself though a new looking glass and knowing that if you have survived so much already, image what you can do. It is about daily making choices to move you in the direction of your dreams and believing that you have a right to your goals. You are worthy of them no matter what has happened. Your Brave Life is about acceptance. It is about owing your own life. It’s about never giving up and knowing that you do not have a limit to how hard you can try.
I want to encourage you to overcome hardship and tragedy to live Your Brave Life
So there you have it, my brave life. Instead of looking to my disasters as well, disasters, I am using them to remind me of my strengths. Instead of feeling defeated and like a failure, I am reminded of how much I have overcome. Instead of feeling cheated, I am reminded of how much I have gained. The proof is there. Just as plainly as I laid it out in sob story format, it can be retold in warrior style about a woman who is still here even after all of that. Living Bravely. I kinda like the sound of the latter. Don’t you?