I had another chance to live, and I was willing to do anything to make the most of it.

In the fall of ’96, I took the plunge and officially applied to college. Up to this point, I’d been taking classes as a non-degree student–hoping this would help my chances of getting accepted. And I needed all the help I could get.

In high school, I ranked second-to-last in my class of 32 students. My teachers told me I didn’t “apply” myself. It’s true. I gave up after a while, but it wasn’t because I didn’t care. I couldn’t understand half of what I read, and numbers sent me into sheer panic. Nobody talked about dyslexia back then. I just thought I was slow and lazy.

I pretended good grades weren’t important to me, but deep down, I felt embarrassed and painfully insecure. If I hadn’t gotten sick and become so determined to learn about health, I doubt I ever would’ve considered college.

And I never would’ve imagined this…

That’s me holding my first-ever honors award—nine months after my acceptance into the University of Maine’s Food Science and Human Nutrition program. I had also regained 15 pounds, which was another reason to celebrate.

The fellow standing with me is my stepdad, aka “Dad Bill,” a lifelong teacher, advocate, mentor, and one of the kindest, most patient people I’ve ever met. He instilled in me integrity, foresight, playfulness, and a love of gardening and bad puns. And if it weren’t for his unyielding support and encouragement, I wouldn’t be writing this story today.

Communal living

After a few months of acupuncture with Mary-Margaret, I got the feeling it was time to move again. As much as I appreciated the security and affordability of my subsidized apartment, I needed something different for this next stage of my healing.

Soon after, an intriguing ad caught my eye on the health food store bulletin board. A food-loving, vegetarian couple was looking for a communally-minded roommate to share a wood-heated home with a garden. Visions of abundant harvests and cozy fireside chats filled my mind. It sounded dreamy, and I was thrilled when they invited me to live with them.

But things didn’t go quite the way I imagined…

It wasn’t that long ago that my organs were shutting down, and I wasn’t nearly as ready for “communing” as I thought I was–much less chopping wood or shoveling compost.

To make matters worse, I developed a crippling fear of anything that could possibly make me sick—like eating food prepared by other people, dirty kitchen sponges, or anyone with the slightest hint of a sniffle.

I felt ashamed of my physical and emotional state, which I saw as weak and neurotic. I couldn’t bear to be seen like this, so I spent most of my time hiding away in my bedroom. I even ate my meals alone in my room in front of a 12″ staticky television–trying to distract myself from my anxiety and loneliness.

My roommates were very patient, but as we approached the end of my lease, they kindly asked me to leave (about a week before the photo of me with my Dad Bill was taken). I agreed it was for the best, but underneath, I felt like I had failed and that there was something terribly wrong with me.

And then I remembered something my Aunt Irene shared with me when I was bedridden at my parents’ house. In an almost urgent tone, she told me I needed to heal my shame, and she gave me some cassette tapes to listen to (remember, this was the early nineties, long before Audible and TED Talks). I didn’t understand what shame had to do with being sick, so I pushed it out of my mind. But now, I was starting to wonder.

I grabbed the cordless phone from the kitchen table and frantically dialed Aunt Irene. “I want to learn more about shame!” I cried. And she calmly replied in her thick Rhode Island accent, “I’ve been waiting four and a half years for this phone call.”

Dredging the swamp

A few weeks later, I stepped off the plane in Boston to meet my aunt, clutching my pillow and ginger tea. I may have been on the upswing, but I was still teetering precariously between life and death. I didn’t exactly know how, but I knew I was about to learn something that could help me heal and live more fully.

I spent the next week with a notebook in one hand and tissues in the other, dedicating myself to the study of shame.

I learned how unhealthy shame (as opposed to healthy remorse) is a feeling that you’re wrong, flawed, inadequate, different, taking up too much room, unable to do anything right, and just plain not good enough. We may all have self-doubts and unloving thoughts now and then. The difference is that shame makes us believe they’re true. 

Shame prevents us from seeing who we really are and our deeper purpose in life. It keeps us from showing up, expressing ourselves, asking for help, and giving ourselves time to rest and play. Most tragically, shame limits our ability to fully give and receive love and compassion and to feel like we truly belong.

I realized I’d been looking to others for approval and acceptance most of my life. My sense of self-worth was dictated by what people thought of me, so I pushed myself harder, worked harder, and shined brighter—or at least tried to. And when my body could no longer keep up, my shame morphed into feeling separate, different, and weak. I literally made myself very, very small.

Yes, my illness was physical, but I believe shame was like a festering swamp that attracted unwanted pests, disease, and toxic weeds.

Thankfully, I now had some new seeds to plant. The “Seeds of Self-Acceptance.”

This was the reminder card I made on that trip over 25 years ago.

But it wasn’t enough to scatter those seeds into my mind and forget about it. I also needed to pull up those old toxic beliefs by the root and transform that swamp of shame into a place where more loving beliefs could thrive (like how my Dad Bill transformed the swamp in our backyard into an abundant garden).

And the key to this, I discovered, was forgiveness.

Forgiving the why

I used to think forgiveness was about setting the other person free, telling them “it’s okay” and just “getting over it.” But then Aunt Irene showed me a very different way to forgive—one that felt much more honest and satisfying.

Here’s what she told me.

“It’s not about forgiving what someone did, but rather why they did it.”

I’m not talking about excuses or justifications. I’m talking about the real reason why someone hurt, insulted, shamed, abandoned, or violated us—which most folks are not consciously aware of. That’s why it’s usually NOT helpful to ask so-and-so why they did what they did. Instead, we need to go deep into our hearts to find the answer.

Aunt Irene taught me a “forgiveness meditation” to help make this easier. The gist of it is that you imagine yourself standing in front of the person you need to forgive, and after a series of steps, you ask this person (with a wide-open mind and heart), “Why?”

Sometimes, I was surprised by what I heard—as if it came from outside of myself. I may never know what this person really would’ve said (or what the true reasons are), but what I heard in the safety of my own heart helped me connect with a kind of empathy and compassion that was profoundly healing and liberating.

As I listened to the reasons (which often related to not feeling loved or good enough themselves), I could feel my pain, anger, and bitterness melt away. Sure, sometimes I needed to rinse and repeat several times, but the more I did this, the easier it became. And the better I felt.

That year, I went on a massive forgiving spree with family, friends, strangers, and most importantly, myself.

That’s me with my father, Frank, nine months after the top photo was taken.

Dad was a woodsman and a master craftsman who could do anything he set his mind to—and I mean anything. He instilled in me respect, determination, resourcefulness, and a deep appreciation of nature and good, simple food.

And his struggles with alcoholism taught me a lot about forgiveness.

It hasn’t always been easy, but forgiving why (rather than what) has helped me see my father differently. It’s helped me appreciate his strengths and have compassion for his challenges, which I realized weren’t all that different from my own.

And here’s the magical part…

The more I forgave, the more those old beliefs of being different, separate, and flawed began to fade away—making more room for love, hope, and joy.

Forgiving myself and others didn’t take away all the pain. But it showed me that deep healing is possible when we can find even a sliver of compassion—or, as my father used to say, “to be understanding, even if you don’t understand.”

Learn more about Irene’s Forgiveness Meditation here. 


To be continued…
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12 Responses

  1. These views into your journey are so very touching and beautiful, Sharon. I am on the edge of my seat and awed by your simultaneous vulnerability and power!!! Xoxoxo

  2. I love that you are now sharing the emotional side of your healing journey, and I am honored and thankful to be hearing your story. I’m in awe of your courage! And so many other things ;)

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Hey there.

This post is part of a series called “Peeling the Onion” about my adventures healing from life-threatening digestive issues.

To view the full story, click here.