What are some of your longstanding, bucket list of dreams or goals? Is it finding a meaningful career or personal life, a fitness goal of finishing a 5K or full marathon, or climbing a mountain, traveling the world, or pursuing your creative interests of painting as your main source of income, or one day writing a book? With each attempt to pursue these dreams, what obstacles have you faced that have prevented you from gaining sustained momentum towards realizing that dream?
For the last 15 years, my goal has been to write my life story, specifically to share with my daughters. I wanted to share my family story so that my girls knew their family history and to know their place in that story. My dream is to one day publish a book. For the past 15 years, I made many attempts with fits and starts to write, but I struggled with what seemed like a persistent writer’s block. Just this past December, a friend who knew of my challenges with writing invited me to join her for a 3 hour writing workshop group, led by Anne Heffron (author of You Don’t Look Adopted and a writing coach). Even with a great deal of skepticism, that a 3 hour workshop would help me with this persistent writer’s block, I signed up, hoping for inspiration out of my rut. In those three short hours I spent with Anne and the other four women, those three hours changed the course of my writing journey. Anne had us do several meaningful writing exercises in the moment and had us then share by reading our writings with one another. I had a visceral emotional responses to these exercises which left me with two very important revelations: 1) I need to write from my gut and harness those emotional responses and to not write from my intellect. When I write from my intuitive place, words flow and the distinctness of my voice is more fully present. The numerous past attempts of writing from my head, have been soul sucking, painful, and waste of time. When I write from my head, there are so many critical voices that are literally editing my work in my head. The critical editor says, “that thought doesn’t make sense or your word choices are not very intelligent, and you need better metaphors and imagery”. The critical editor was stifling my thoughts and inhibited the words from flowing onto the computer screen. 2)For far too long, I have believed the critical editor’s judgment that I’m a terrible writer. Through the writing exercises, I came to recognize there are many thoughts and reflections which matter to me. But if I allow myself space for an unfiltered, stream of conscious writing, it’s so much easier to write and hear my raw, honest, authentic voice. Through reworking and editing later, the clarity of that voice actually can add something stimulating and helpful to conversations but more importantly allow connection with others. I needed to trust the creative writing process and allow it to unfold.
So from that December night, I resolved I would allow myself to just write stream of consciousness thoughts. Editing would occur at some point much later, and I gave myself permission to have grammatical errors, punctuation mistakes, misspelled words, etc, so as to focus on the topics I wanted to write about. It’s been so freeing and so much easier to write. What seemed so excruciating to do about a month before, became something I look forward to doing. Also the beginning of this year, I joined a Write or Die Facebook group as an avenue to connect and to give and receive encouragement from others, and have the accountability to write. Through my monthly coaching calls with Anne, it provides me another avenue to exercise my writing muscle.
Finally there is traction and movement towards my goal of writing!!
What keeps getting “stuck” in pursuing your dreams or goals? What factors help people move toward the change they imagine for themselves? As I have gained traction through my 15 year writer’s block, there are several realizationsthat have brought me more clarity about my “stuckness”. My hope is that it might be helpful for you as you contemplate what might be getting in the way of pursuing your dreams.
1)As I’ve mentioned, whenever one is pursuing change, there are so many “critical voices” speaking. My critical voices often offer excuses as to why it’s better to maintain the status quo because the unknown is unpredictable, to play it safe, there’s too much to risk, I’m not that “kind of person” (i.e. brave, audacious, prolific, etc). I had to face and manage those critical voices as I started writing. The voice that would tell me I have nothing important to say, or that I’m not a very good writer, or that people would find my materials boring or unhelpful. I believe these critical voices are a form of resistance to change and to keep me stuck. Depending on how loud those critical voices are, I either just notice what those voices are saying and get curious about what is being said, or if it’s really loud, I respond with a warm assertive reply to the opposite (i.e. thanks for that information but I choose to believe my writing matters). If you’re wondering..no, I don’t actually say this out loud, talking to myself, but this response generally happens in my head ;-)
2)There have been sooo many moments of exposing myself to the desire to get unstuck. Many different times and attempts where I’ve tried to sit down and write at my computer and the excruciating experience of trying to get something out of my head onto the screen, and feeling stuck. The excuses I would use of not having enough time or enough head space to write because there’s so many other more urgent matters. Although, each time I “failed” to be successful and move towards writing consistently, these attempts could be seen as failures, but I reframed each of those attempts as a way of keeping my dream of writing a book and the desire to get unstuck, as a dogged determination to keep those desires alive.
3)I believe there is a more fertile or conducive soil of our lives, which allows for the change process to take root and grow. The timing of change is important. I was stepping out of the contemplation and preparation stage of change that had been preparing me to take ACTION. This process IS not a linear progression but more up and down, as you have witnessed through my writing journey, many years of attempts to finally take action. I came to a striking awareness, my old defense mechanisms against change no longer worked and there was a shift that had happened in the status quo. It no longer served me well. My call to action, to write, was a compulsion and imperative to overcome my persistent writer’s block and move towards my dream of writing a book.
4) I had to experience writing differently, so that I could feel something different than I had before. That December night, Anne was able to unlock something inside of me, that was keeping me stuck in the writing process. She opened a doorway into the writing process that would work for me. Instead of agonizing over every word that I typed, it worked best for me to write in stream of consciousness and I experienced the free, easy, flow of words when I wrote from my heart. This was a pivotal moment of experiencing and seeing writing differently that allowed for the little crack in the doorway for light to get through and unstuckness to occur. The Write & Die Facebook group and my monthly coaching calls with Anne have helped to seize the momentum to keep writing. The coaching sessions have been a place to explore and to experiment with different forms of writing, my goals in writing, and how to take the next steps in my writing journey.
Here's to moving forward to getting unstuck and pursuing the life you imagined.
It’s been 2 years since my craniotomy. The meaning making of this unforeseen health crisis has been unfolding. As I was recovering from the craniotomy, I did not want to rush into accepting a trite meaning(i.e there’s a higher purpose or this is meant for my good). In a culture that does not promote time to slow down and contemplate, I wanted to give myself the time for the meaning to organically unfold. As I’ve been writing about this experience, I realized that the meaning is just this: the tectonic existential shift had been begging these questions: what it is that I want from my life, what is it that I want more of, what is it that I want less of? This surgery emphasized to me, that I’m definitely in mid-life and moving ever so much closer to death as the years fly by. This tectonic shift was a catalyst to deconstruct and disrupt the ways of my living and being and requiring change.
Requisite of change mainly came in these areas of my life, as I have already recounted at length: to reawaken and bring clarity on how I want to live, my long held views of myself in my immediate family, and finally a shift in my career. Existentially, I want to live more light-heartedly, with more acceptance of myself and others I care about, less agitation towards mine or their idiosyncrasies. As one who is the organizer, the planner, the manager of my family, it’s easy to believe the smooth, functioning of my family is dependent on me. I realized I was taking on too much responsibility either out of maintaining the status quo or not knowing how to let go control and allowing the natural consequences to occur and experiencing the myriad of inconveniences it may cause (i.e. allowing my girls to learn how to do laundry and the whites coming out all pink or red because they forgot to separate their laundry). In order to change the status quo, conversations and negotiations, about what had been expected of my role and my husband’s and my daughters’ roles had to be redefined.
A couple months prior to my tumor diagnosis, I had already been considering a career shift. For 15 years, I had been a mental health therapist in private practice specializing in identity formation around race and culture. I loved my work and found it meaningful, but I began to wonder if I wanted to continue being a therapist or to shift my career in a different direction and what that direction would be. Shortly after my surgery, I was pressed to make a decision about whether to continue subleasing my office space. As I made the decision to let go of my sublease, it was the first step towards a decision that would be reaffirmed in the following 6 months. My work collaborating with people to bring about change in their lives through therapy was coming to end, but those skills would be harnessed in coaching. While in the midst of those 6 months, it was not as clear to me how or where I would land. It’s hard to let go of what gives us meaning and what’s familiar and step into the unknown. But I knew I had to make that internal shift.
Life throws all of us lots of different punches...some we see coming and adeptly recover from and some are so hard, so fast, and so unexpected that we are completely knocked on our backs, figuring out how to get back up. So how do we regain our footing when a sudden health diagnosis, or loss of a job or relationship, financial devastation, initiates a monumental, existential shift? Change, no matter how small or monumental, seen or unforeseen, has a ripple effect and often is destabilizing. Through my unforeseen health diagnosis, asking myself these questions and stumbling my way to possible answers helped me to regain my foothold:
1)What is your expectation of yourself in handling these unforeseen changes?The expectations are not just my own but also from those who care about me or even come from societal/cultural expectations. In the month before my craniotomy, I gave myself the permission to slow my life down and have the time to reflect and process the overwhelming emotions. There were a number of details and decisions which needed to be arranged, not only related to my surgery but also surrounding the care of my family. I could have easily allowed myself to get distracted with these external details instead of focusing on what was happening internally. Our American culture does not champion time of reflection, grieving, being present to the moment. What attitude do I have towards myself? Do I have an attitude of compassion and support as I wrestle with these changes?
2)What helps you to center or ground? How do you care for yourself? Does taking long walks, exercise or getting massages, talking to a supportive friend, partner, or a family member help you feel calm? How does your faith or religious practices: praying, meditating, gathering with others for support in your faith community keep you from being overwhelmed with life? Just on a day to day basis, life can overwhelm us but these centering components can become our life line, when we are going through significant changes in our lives. For me, talking with supportive friends and my husband helped ground me but my faith practice of attending church and praying with my faith community provided a great of deal solace during this turbulent existential shift.
3)Who can support you during this time? My post-operative recovery time was 4-6 weeks. During this time, my family and I, depended on many people to provide care for us. Even before the surgery, close friends established a “bring a meal” calendar post-operation. During my surgery and days after post-op in the hospital, my husband and I depended on my sister and my adult niece and close friends from church to care for our daughters. In these periods when life change is thrust upon us, it’s important not only to identify who we depend on for support but also being willing and vulnerable to ask for support. We are not meant to do this life alone and be self-sufficient but sometimes we’re too afraid to acknowledge and ask for help and support.
Don’t rush through it, don’t bypass it, but PAY ATTENTION & LISTEN to the message/messages this tectonic existential place has for you! I know it’s easier to gloss over this place because it’s easier to manage the emotions that brings you back to the chaos of this period in your life, more comfortable to say it happened and now you’re on the other side. I’m telling you this place matters because it’s what drives you to live, either out of fear or courage. It’s what tells you what you’re living for and what matters to you.. It gives you inspiration to live out the rest of your days.
A sudden health diagnosis comes out of nowhere and blind sides me. I go to see an optometrist because of what I perceived as a “minor” issue. I had been experiencing a weird murkiness in my left eye for a couple of weeks. Because this is the 2nd time this has occurred, the optometrist sends me to a retina specialist. I’m thinking the whole time, this is weird, but you know whatever, I’m sure it’s just a precaution. As I’m describing my symptoms to the retina specialist, she’s very concerned about these symptoms and sends me onto a neuro-ophthalmologist. Again, I’m reassuring myself, she’s taking precautions and following through to make sure that there’s nothing wrong. The retina specialist warns me that it may take awhile to get an appointment to see the neuro-ophthalmologist and to be patient. Within a couple of days, the neuro-ophthalmologist calls to schedule an appointment for the following week.
So, within a span of a week, I’ve seen 2 specialists. Again, as I step into the neuro-ophthalmologist office, I’m telling myself it’s a routine exam. By the end of this office visit, it has clearly moved out of the “routine” into the absurd. I’m completely blindsided and left in shock by what’s been discovered. After an MRI, it’s discovered that there is a GROWTH(i.e. tumor) pushing on my optic nerve. This has been causing the murkiness in my eye and that now I needed to consult with a NEUROSURGEON. In my state of disbelief, I was trying to get my wits about me to digest the word GROWTH and NEUROSURGEON. I’m being asked to see a BRAIN SURGEON about a TUMOR….WHAT??? As I get in the car to drive home, I call my husband to relay this shocking discovery, a tumor is pushing on my optic nerve and that I’m being referred to a neurosurgeon. A couple of days later, we discover from the neurosurgeon that I have a very slow growing meningioma, the size of a golf ball, that has been slow growing for the past 10-15 years. It is pushing on my optic nerve and a full CRANIOTOMY will be needed to remove the tumor, sooner than later. One day, I’m walking around thinking there’s some weird murkiness affecting my eyesight and the next day, I’m told my head will be cut open from ear to ear to remove a tumor!
The surgery was scheduled for Jan 7th, 2016. So for the whole month of December, I spent a great deal of time in shock, thinking to myself how seemingly random this meningioma was. Because I’m the sort of person, who believes in meaning making out of randomness, maybe it’s a way to have a sense of control over and allows me to cope with the often seemingly randomness of life and provide an explanation to why crappy things happen to people. After this initial stage of shock wore off, then there was the stage of “what-ifs”. What if the surgery went south and became life-threatening? Because even under the most skilled surgeons hands, there are no guarantees. The thought of the surgeon drilling into my skull and then handling my brain and moving stuff around to get to the tumor, sounded not only astounding but causing to dissociate. My neurosurgeon performs 350 of these type of surgeries every year and so I had a very skilled surgeon and yet coming face to face with the reality of something going awry and death a real possibility, there’s a huge tectonic shift that happens on a conscious and subconscious level. It was a punch to the gut that inflicted a paradigm shift and demanded a scrutiny of how and what brings meaning to my life. It’s NOT a shift of “oh I’ll think about this and reflect and go back to living my life, the way I have”. No, it’s a tectonic, foundational shift that insisted on definitively altering my existence.
My surgery went well. All the tumor was removed and it was benign. My initial recovery took about 6 weeks but it took a good year to feel fully myself. I have my full eyesight but the residual effect since the initial hours post surgery, I lost my sense of smell (I will write more about this for another blog).