Sunday, September 21, 2014


Of all the gifts that trauma brought me, the greatest is the ability to be present.

When my children were younger I was rarely present. They would chatter on to me and my mind would be a million miles away. I would realize, mid-conversation, that I had no idea what they had just told me. My body was there, but my mind was projected into some imagined future, far away from the mundane, discordant and often painful reality of the present moment.

Today, when my children talk to me, I stop what I am doing and focus on them. If I’m in the middle of something that requires my attention, I ask them to hold on for a moment until I’m done and able to be present with them. I don’t want to miss anything.

The shift was not a sudden one, but happened gradually over the past couple of years. The more I healed from the shock and injury of my ordeal, the easier it became to relax into the present moment.

My son is at a beautiful age where he is gaining his independence, but still loves to spend time talking to me. Sometimes he will accompany me to the grocery store and we will walk down the aisles and chat about everything and nothing. He drinks in my company like a thirsty traveler and I drink in his.

My daughter is now in the tween years and is often lost in her own world. I crave conversation with her where she isn’t distracted by a book or video. I find myself planning what I might say to her that will capture her attention for a while. I wonder if that’s how she felt all those years when I was never fully available.

Sometimes, I am struck by their beauty. A gentle smile, a unique idea, a witticism, the curve of a cheekbone, a spray of freckles over the nose. And in that moment I am overwhelmed with emotion.

Every day I wake up and I am grateful for their presence in my life. I write these words with hesitancy, as I know how they sound. Parenting is hard. It can be relentless, exhausting, thankless. But I also know that for a period of several years, I worried daily that they might be taken from me or, more likely, I from them. It was the stark reality I lived with.

Today, I can’t be in their presence without feeling a keen sense of gratitude. It is an honor to make their meals, battle with them over homework and awaken to comfort them in the middle of the night.

If I was granted one wish, it would be to reel back time so that I could be present, really and truly present, with my kids when they were younger. I would give anything to sit again with my four-year old daughter and play mind-numbing board games, or simply sit in the silence of an afternoon and hold my sleeping son, feeling his breath rise and fall against my chest. I did these things with my kids, of course, but my mind was far away. So focused on a distant world that I missed the bounty before me.

I realize that this was my way of coping. To be fully present, I would have had to experience all that was untenable in my marriage. I would have had to listen to the persistent voice of my intuition, telling me all was not right. I would have had to acknowledge, and then act on, the discomfort and fear. I wasn’t yet ready to do that.

Now, the present moment is not such a scary place. It is calm and unexpectedly beautiful. It is sometimes sad, sometimes lonely, often joyful, but never untenable.

It is a place that feels like home and one I don’t want to ever leave again.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Hope in a 30-second sound bite

I have an app which serves up posts I wrote on Facebook on the same date in previous years (Timehop). It can be amusing and at times cringe-worthy to see what I wrote in years past. Yesterday, it showed me a post I had written four years ago, Sept 13th, 2010: “Wondering if there’s ever going to be an end to this, truly. I want my life back.”

I shook my head when I saw this. This was one month after the assault and just two weeks into the criminal investigation. Two weeks! I’m so grateful that 2010 me didn’t know that it would be another three and a half years before all was said and done. I would have crumbled into a heap and cried uncle.

What got me through that year, and the next, and the next, was an unwavering and perhaps unrealistic optimism. I always believed that it would all end soon. I held onto a vision of what my life would be like in the after, and I believed this new life was just around the corner.

I’ve done a lot of reading on the psychology of trauma in the past couple of years and one thing I know is this. Of all the things that promote resilience and healing, perhaps the most important is hope. It can help heal mind, body and soul.

Today I came across something called Project Hope Exchange. It’s an interesting project that allows people to either leave or listen to a 30-second message of hope. Curious, I clicked through to the website to learn more.

Once you are on the website, you can choose to either Get Help or Give Help. If you are experiencing a life challenge, you can scroll through their directory and find audio links to a number of short messages of hope left by others who have gone through something similar. Categories include depression, cancer, OCD, domestic violence, addiction, grief & loss, and many others.

If you want to give help, you can call their toll-free number and leave a short message of hope for someone else.

I decided to call in and leave a message myself. I was nervous about the 30-second limit, so I wrote out my message and practiced it several times, editing it to keep within the allotted time. When I called in, it took me three tries before I had a message that I was happy with. In the end, it probably took me half an hour to leave a 30-second message, but it felt good to have done so.

I’m sharing the site here because I know so many of you have gone through difficulties and have wisdom to offer someone else. I also know that some of you may need an infusion of hope yourself.

If you’d like to leave your own message of hope, or listen to someone else’s, you can find their website here. If you do leave a message, let me know. I'd love to go listen to it once it's up on the site.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Do you want to know why? Here is why

Love, guilt, religion, children, shame, hopelessness, embarrassment, loyalty, exhaustion, denial, institutional bias, compassion fatigue and family pressure.

Lack. Lack of money, lack of friends, lack of family support, lack of confidence, lack of energy, lack of transportation, lack of concern shown by law enforcement and/or the justice system, lack of belief in one’s ability to go it alone, lack of a healthy perspective.

Depression and anxiety resulting from years of psychological abuse. Depression and anxiety caused by living day in and day out with a partner who relentlessly blames, minimizes, denies, makes excuses, lies, condescends, withholds and threatens.

Fear. Fear of being alone, of hurting the kids, of not being able to provide, of losing face, of losing everything. Fear of being hurt, ridiculed, litigated, stalked or killed.

Everyone is asking why Janay Palmer didn’t leave Ray Rice. Why did she marry him and why is she still defending him.

Here are some additional questions I think we need to ask about situations like this.

Why is he hitting her? Why does he not show compassion, restraint or remorse? Why are we focusing so much attention on her response, as opposed to his behavior? Why does our society not throw more resources at a major health epidemic that affects 25% of all women? Why is our government not outraged by this threat that results in 2 million injuries and 1,300 deaths in the U.S. each year?

I’ve written before about this very topic. I was a victim of DV. I left immediately after being assaulted. Bully for me. But every woman faces different choices, and often those choices feel impossible.

Right now Janay Palmer is fighting two battles. Once is the fear and abuse she is subjected to in her marriage. The other is the relentless attention, judgment and abuse she is receiving from media and the public. She has to decide where to put her energy and I imagine right now, it’s going towards the latter. Maybe we should all just lay off and give her some space to heal.

#WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft are two important hashtags trending right now. Read them. Tell your friends to read them. They are giving victims a voice.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A conversation with author Deborah Shouse

A while back I had the notion that I would begin a series of interviews with authors. I wanted to talk with people who had written about themes I found compelling – love and courage and growth and self-awareness.

I connected with a couple of writers whose works had resonated with me and asked if they wanted to do an interview. My life is pretty full-on at the moment, so I won’t go as far as to promise this will be a regular series, but you will probably see some interviews from time to time.

The first of these is with Deborah Shouse, who has written Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey. The book chronicles her mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s and Deborah’s very personal response to her mother’s disease.

I have some experience with the topic, as my father suffered from dementia before he passed away, and many of my peers are dealing with similar issues with their loved ones. However, what struck me most about Deborah’s book was not necessarily the subject of Alzheimer’s, but her own personal response to dealing with a frightening and emotionally-laden loss.

Instead of feeling burdened by the experience of caring for someone who had previously cared for her, she used it as an opportunity to further open her own heart and accept without judgment each stage of the disease. At its heart, this is a story of courage, connection, deep humanity and unconditional love.

 * * *

K: I understand you kept journals throughout your mother’s illness; however, at what point did you make the decision to write a book and what prompted that decision?

Deborah: I started turning my journal entries into essays. I read one of these essays at a literary event and so many people came up to me afterwards, saying: “My mother has dementia… My father…My aunt…” I felt an immense connection with these caregivers and wanted to continue sharing my stories.

K: Each scene in your book is written with such immediacy and detail that I feel like I am right there beside you, experiencing everything along with you. How did you manage, as you were writing this, to put yourself back in that space and capture the emotional and material intricacies of what had happened years earlier?

Deborah: I used my writing to help keep me sane, balanced and enjoying the present moment. I would take notes of what Mom said and I would often journal after I spent time with my parents. For me, it was a way to focus on noticing the gifts and lessons I was so abundantly receiving. It was also a way to record Mom’s last years and share these meaningful experiences with family and friends.

K: You do a beautiful job of describing the effects of Alzheimer’s and, in turn, the effect of those changes on your family. Your mother gradually loses the capacity to perform the simplest of functions we take for granted, such as dressing herself or recognizing her loved ones, and her personality begins to change. While you mourn each loss, you also show an amazing capacity for accepting the changes and simply staying present in the moment and loving your mother as she is. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Deborah: This became my spiritual practice—accepting Mom for who she was right then. Of course, that’s what we all want—it’s the essence of unconditional love. Each time I was tempted to feel sad or upset, I allowed myself those feelings of loss and also looked for something positive. I always found it!

K: In one scene you give your mom a blanket and she stares lovingly at it and coos, “what a sweet baby.” This reminded me of when my own mom was dying of cancer and was heavily medicated. We gave her a teddy bear and she held it to her chest and spoke lovingly to it, calling it Trevor (her grandson’s name). It was both beautiful and heartbreaking. You then go on to say something that really resonates with me: “Maybe this is the lesson we are all to learn eventually. In the end, only love is left.”

Deborah: I learned so much about love from being with my mother and father during those days. My father showed me how to truly love and my mother let go of her rational rules and was really able to receive affection. Being with her, looking into my mother’s eyes for 30 minutes was a deeply connective experience.

Q: I’m a big proponent of the healing power of storytelling, and you mention this in your book as well. In fact, it has influenced your career to some degree, has it not? Can you share your thoughts on some of the gifts of storytelling?

Deborah: The more we share our stories, the more we realize how connected we all are. Caregivers often feel isolated. Ron and I have been able to share our stories all over the world and we’ve learned how deep our similarities are. In Turkey one man said to me, “Your story is my story.” That kinship, that sharing of the heart, means so much. Plus, there’s often a social stigma with dementia. The more we share the richness of this journey, the more support we’ll get for those who live with Alzheimer’s.

K: I know that many people who have been through challenging experiences, such as the complicated loss that occurs with Alzheimer’s, report that the experience changed them in some positive ways. While living through your mother’s illness and death was clearly very painful, did it leave you with any gifts?

Deborah: I feel so lucky I got to travel with my mom on this journey. My gifts include widening my understanding of love, opening myself to slowing down and patience, surrendering into accepting a person just as they are, learning to be in the present and appreciate the gifts of the moment.

K: Writing and publishing a book is a monumental journey. Now that this is behind you, what is next?

Deborah: I am working on a book about creativity and the caregiver's journey. The book will focus on creative activities to do with your loved one who has Alzheimer's and will also offer ways for caregivers to creatively frame this tender and challenging journey. I welcome ideas from your readers. What creative activities have you explored with a person who has dementia? And how do you keep yourself connected and creative?

K: Thank you, Deborah, for taking the time to share your thoughts with us today. I wish you all the best on your next endeavor.

* * *

You can find Deborah’s book here. She donates a portion of proceeds to charity and to date has raised over $80,000 for Alzheimer’s programs and research. 

In addition to her book, Deborah writes a weekly love story column for the Kansas City Star. Together with her husband, Ron, she travels all over the world to perform her writings to audiences in places as far flung as New Zealand, Nova Scotia, Puerto Rico, England, Ireland, Chile, Costa Rica, Italy, Turkey, Ecuador, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. An amazing lifestyle, to say the least!

To learn more about Deborah’s work, visit her blog or follow her on Twitter @DeborahShouse.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The ties that bind

In the fall of 2011 my life was in a shambles. It had been blown wide open by domestic violence and the ensuing child pornography case. I was in the full throes of PTSD and walked around in alternating states of fear and numb disbelief.

It was during this tumultuous time that I went out on a routine errand and came across two animal control officers manning a makeshift adoption clinic. They stood in front of the entrance to Walmart, flanked by a folding table and a crate full of kittens. They asked me if I wanted a kitten.

I made the spontaneous, and somewhat dubious, decision to adopt and bring home two kittens. It was perhaps not the wisest thing to do at a time when my life was in upheaval, but as it turned out, it was fortuitous.

The kids fell head over heels for the cats. Their kitten antics brought a levity and joy to our household that had been sorely missing. It was like the clouds parted just a bit and allowed the sunlight to pour in.

The kids loved them in the rough and tumble way kids do -- they hugged them and dressed them in doll clothes and rocked them in the crooks of their arms. The kittens were tolerant of all of it but I half expected, as they got older, they would begin to give the children a wider berth in the interests of self-preservation and dignity.

What happened instead, surprised me. The female cat, Lulu, became closely bonded with my daughter and the male cat, Sebastian, did the same with my son. They stuck with them like glue.

I would often get up during the night and walk the halls. I was too anxious and frightened to sleep. Every car passing by, every creak of the house settling, would put me on high alert. I would walk down to the kids’ rooms and look in on them. Every night – every single night – the cats would be sitting there on the foot of their beds, like sentries.

One night, it struck me. They were watching over my kids. They knew. Somehow, in their cat senses, they knew. My eyes welled up with tears of gratitude for these two protective souls. I began to think of them as guardian angels sent here to help my children navigate this difficult journey.

In May of 2012 things had escalated to the point where I felt we had to leave our home to ensure our safety. I still remember the panic I felt when I had to try to sort out not only a safe place for us, but one for our pets as well. I was fortunate in that the family who took us in was gracious enough to also take in our cats. A neighbor took in the kids’ goldfish.

However, only a couple weeks into our stay in our new “home”, my ex-husband found us. I will never forget the drop of my stomach when I was told that his car was idling out front of the home. By the time the police arrived, he was gone.

The result was that we had to leave again. We were fortunate to find a new safehome, but this time we were not able to bring the cats with us. Sebastian and Lulu stayed behind, in the care of a friend. It felt like an amputation and we all mourned the lack of their presence in our daily lives. I remember my kids, curled up asleep at night, and the empty space at the foot of their beds.

Two years have gone by since then -- two years that feel like a lifetime. Since then, I have learned quite a bit about the connection between pets and domestic violence. I know, for instance, that almost half of pet-owners will delay or refuse to leave a violent relationship because they are unwilling to leave behind a pet. I know that for some, this decision proves fatal.

Many of you know I now work for a domestic violence services agency. I don’t talk a lot about it here on my blog, because I want to keep my professional life separate from my blogging life.

I work for an agency that provides services to several thousand victims every year.  We get calls to our hotline all the time from women who want to leave an abusive situation, but don’t want to leave behind their pets. It has helped me to see that my situation was not an exception, but is unfortunately an all too common dilemma.

Because this is such a significant unmet need, our agency has made the decision to build an on-site pet shelter so that women and children who have to flee their homes can bring their pets with them. It is a big undertaking, but a necessary one, we believe.

For the past several months I have been immersed in the planning of the new pet shelter. And for the past week, I have been working furiously, with the help of some talented colleagues, to prepare for the launch of a crowd funding campaign to help raise money to build the facility. It has been a bit like birthing a baby -- intense, nerve-wracking, but very exciting. I have all fingers and toes crossed that the campaign will be successful.

Today, I am stepping across the invisible boundary that separates work from blog, and I am sharing with you the results of that labor. I want to share it because, despite the fact that this is a professional endeavor, it is also a deeply personal one for me. My heart is invested in this.

On our site, there is a short video that gives some information on the connection between violence and pet ownership. You may recognize one of the stories (and a few of the faces) in the video. If you would like to support the campaign, that would be wonderful, but please don’t feel a sense of obligation. More than anything I want to simply share what has been an immensely gratifying project.

You can find the campaign and video here.

It is my hope that this pet shelter will help families, just like mine, who have felt the impossible bind of having to choose between love and safety. It is my prayer that it will offer comfort, safety and hope to those whose lives are impacted by abuse and violence.

Note: If you are yourself needing refuge, please contact a local or national domestic violence hotline for information about shelters in your area. A small percentage of shelters can accommodate pets, but even those that do not can help you locate resources to keep your pets safe while you are in transition.

If you choose to donate to the cause or share the campaign, please know that the funds go 100% to build the pet shelter and in no way impact my job or my compensation.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A heart-shaped hole in the world

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Godspeed Maya Angelou. You are gone, but you have left behind your wisdom, grace and phenomenal beauty in the form of words. We can follow them, like a trail of crumbs, so that we may rise as well.


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