Slooooowly but surely, I started regaining my weight–one ounce at a time. And with the weight came more energy and even more hope that I was going to be okay. I felt like I had another chance to live, and I was willing to do anything to make the most of it.
That’s when I decided to take the plunge and officially apply to college. Up to this point, I’d been taking one class at a time 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 try hard enough. It’s true. I gave up after a while, but it wasn’t because I didn’t care. I had trouble understanding 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 after completing my first year in the University of Maine’s Food Science and Human Nutrition program. I had also put on 15 pounds, which was another reason to celebrate.
The fellow standing with me is my stepdad, Bill (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 wasn’t for his unyielding support and encouragement, I wouldn’t be writing this story today.
Before I share what happened next, I’d like to rewind a little bit.
Around the time I applied for college (a few months after meeting Dr. Rachman), I had an unshakable feeling that it was time to move again. As much as I appreciated the security and affordability of my subsidized apartment, I felt like I needed something different for the next stage of my healing.
A few months later, I came across an intriguing ad tacked to the bulletin board at the local health food store. A food-loving, vegetarian couple was looking for a communally-minded roommate to share a wood-heated home with a garden. Images of bountiful harvests and cozy fireside chats filled my mind. It sounded idyllic, 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 make me sick—like eating food prepared by other people, 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 on the fence 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. This keeps us from showing up, expressing ourselves, asking for help, and giving ourselves time to rest and play. And most tragically of all, 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. 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.”
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 I needed to 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 meditation to help make this easier (which I’d love to share with you sometime if I can figure out how to do that). 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.
One forgiveness mission involved my father, who’s standing with me in the photo above.
Dad was a woodsman and a master craftsman who could do anything he set his mind to. And I mean anything. He taught me respect, determination, resourcefulness, and how to stack a stable wood pile. And his struggles with alcoholism (and the toll it took on his health and our family) 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 the more I allowed myself to forgive, the more those old beliefs of being different, separate, and flawed began to shatter—allowing love to make its way through the cracks.
Now, I’m not saying forgiving yourself or others takes away all the pain. But I believe immense healing and freedom are possible if we can find even a sliver of compassion and empathy—or as my father used to say, “to be understanding, even if you don’t understand.”
To be continued…