Let’s Hear from an Expert: Nicole Christina, Eating Disorders Psychotherapist

We often think of eating disorders as afflicting teens. How much of an issue is it with women in midlife or older? 

It is an issue we are seeing more and more with women in midlife. For the sake of clarity, let me briefly define the three major eating disorders, because there have been some changes in the last revision of the DSM. Binge Eating Disorder describes eating much more than one would typically eat in a discreet period of time, and there is a feeling a lack of control around it. My clients describe it as a sort of fugue state—they are not really tasting the food. It’s more about relieving an uncomfortable emotional state.

 

Anorexia is about feeling fat, and restricting calories. It’s what we think of when we see extreme dieters. It’s the most difficult of the disorders to treat. Many times, the client has almost a delusional belief that they are overweight, and nothing can change that. Bulimia is when there is some sort of compensatory behavior after eating—usually vomiting, exercise, or even using laxatives. Bulimics can be average weight.

Sometimes the disorder has been dormant since adolescence and reemerges during this very tumultuous time, sometimes it develops in midlife. The Renfrew Center—the gold standard for treatment facilities—reported that in the past decade, there has been a 42% increase in the number of women over the age of 35 who sought treatment at their clinic. Eating disorders are partially about managing anxiety and often emerge during times of transition. So you can see why they would develop around midlife as well as adolescence.

 

Why is midlife a time when eating issues can linger, resurface, or even present themselves for the first time?

As you know, there’s a lot going on during midlife. There are often major transitions and losses. For example, mothers who have spent so much of their time and energy parenting are sending their kids off. Parents and friends may be ill and need caretaking. One’s identity is in so much flux.

Eating disorders are a great distraction from uncomfortable feelings. They let us put our lives in a safe container; instead of allowing ourselves to feel invisible, sad, or jealous, for example, we can focus in on carbs, points, calories, or pounds. It’s really not about the food. And if there has been trouble in the marriage, women might start dieting in attempt to be “healthy,” or even to compete with younger women. We see that what starts out as a diet becomes an obsession. To make matters worse, initially the woman may receive praise and compliments like, “You look great! How are you doing it?” That’s hard to resist for anyone. All eating disorders initially start out as a well-intentioned diet.

Recording my podcast, Zestful Aging

 

How do you approach treating disordered eating with older women?

I see it as a way to solve a problem. Unfortunately, it has dangerous consequences. I explore what is distressing in her life. I ask how the eating disorder is working for her. What would she miss without the eating disorder? How is it helping her cope? I take a non-judgmental approach. Nobody wakes up one day and decides to have an eating disorder. It’s a really awful way to live. It sucks all of the pleasure out of life.

I remember watching a Dr. Phil episode where he supposedly cured an anorexic patient by describing all of the physical harm she was doing to herself. In real life, there’s no sense trying to scare people out of these behaviors. You can talk about physical damage all day long. The psychological and physical power of an eating disorder can be intense. Women have to be sick of having an eating disorder in order to start recovery. Some are pushed into treatment by their loved ones; but if they are not ready, it can become a power struggle that I, as the treating therapist, can never win. It can be heartbreaking because I know they are suffering and doing extreme, sometimes irreversible, damage to their bodies. Recovery is not a straight line, either. Clients, as well as clinicians, have to be very patient and celebrate small successes.

 

What is your best advice to women who are struggling with food issues in midlife? 

To be compassionate with themselves and ask what they really want. I would have them ask themselves what they think will change once they are a certain weight. Often there’s a fantasy that everything will be great, life will be perfect. Recovery is tough in a society that tells us thinner is happier and healthier. Turns out neither of those is true. It’s so interesting to see women post-bariatric surgery. They are surprised that life is still challenging and confusing, even if they are wearing a smaller size dress.

But that being said, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychological disorder. So it is important to intervene before the eating disorder really get its claws in. The longer it’s been active, typically the harder it is to recover.

Women might ask themselves how rigid their diet and exercise routine are—as a way to uncover how stuck they are in obsessional thinking about their bodies. I had a client who could only eat one type of yogurt because she thought it was “diet friendly.” It really became a problem when she traveled. The thought of not finding the exact brand really interfered with her ability to concentrate at work. That kind of rigidity is a red flag that you are no longer in control of your diet—the obsessional thinking is.

What resources do you recommend for these women?

I have a whole list of resources on my website, including an online course called Diets Don’t Work, But Mindful Eating Does. 

I would highly recommend Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works by Evelyn Tribole. She’s a powerhouse nutritionist who is passionate about intuitive eating. Geneen Roth is excellent as well, and very relatable. Some clients were put off by the title of her book, Women Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything but it’s not religious. She does a beautiful job describing what it is like to be in the throws of an eating disorder.

Additional recommended books, pictured above:
The Joy of Half a Cookie: Using Mindfulness to Lose Weight and End the Struggle with Food by Jean Kristeller
The Mindful Diet: How to Transform Your Relationship with Food for Lasting Weight Loss and Vibrant Health by Ruth Wolever and Beth Reardon
Nourishing Wisdom: A Mind-Body Approach to Nutrition and Well-Being by Marc David
50 More Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food: Mindfulness Strategies to Cope with Stress and End Emotional Eating by Susan Albers (and her first book in the series: 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food)

Another great resource is NEDA, the National Association for Eating Disorders.

 

Connect with Nicole Christina
Email: NicoleChristinaLCSW@gmail.com
Website
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Podcast: Zestful Living

 

Nicole Christina, LCSW, is a published author and psychotherapist of 25 years. In addition to her private practice, she develops presentations on wellness topics, including living optimally after age 50. Her work is based on the 75-year-long Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest and most rigorous of its kind, and her talks offer immediate and practical tools which enrich and prolong life beyond middle age. She has taught at OASIS, Syracuse University and has presented at the New York State Conference on Aging. She authors a monthly wellness newsletter, BreatheTasteSavor. Her online course is entitled Zestful Living: Simple Habits to Improve Health and Live Longer. Her podcast, Zestful Living, can be found on iTunes.




Let’s Hear From an Expert: Dr. Stephen Snyder, Author of Love Worth Making

You have just published this book, Love Worth Making, which you subtitled How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship. What need did you see that you were trying to address through your writing?

In our sex-saturated era, I noticed sex advice just kept getting edgier and edgier — bondage, threesomes, prostate massage, and so on — and all this relentless pursuit of sexual adventure struck me as misguided. The key to sexual happiness in a committed relationship is to take care of your sexual feelings. But there was very little sensible advice out there about that. So I knew I’d have to write that book myself!

I’m biased towards a more inward approach, since I’m a fairly inward-looking person. In addition, my wife is disabled from a stroke she had 26 years ago — not long after we were married.  So I’m glad it’s not necessary to get really edgy and adventurous to have great sex, or there’d be little hope for us.  As it is, we’re doing just fine.

When it comes to my women in midlife and older, how would you describe the challenges and opportunities with maintaining a vibrant sex life?

If you’re part of an established couple, by midlife you don’t have as much to prove to each other. You’re freer to engage with your own erotic feelings, without having to worry whether your partner is going to be OK with that.

If you’re single, you have less to prove to yourself. If you a find nice erotic groove with someone, you can just enjoy it. If that groove just isn’t there, you know enough not to try to force it.

 

What should women be aware of when it comes to their male partners and their challenges and desires in midlife or older?

The biggest male challenge in midlife tends to be erections. A woman in midlife can use a lubricant, but until 1998 a man didn’t have many options. Now, since Viagra and Cialis, it’s a whole new ballgame. I think ultimately people will think of Viagra and Cialis the way they think of lube for women — just an accommodation to the fact that biological response in midlife isn’t as immediate or predictable.

With my wife

What are some of your best tips to reinvigorate sex in a long-term relationship?

I’m a big fan of mindfulness practice pre-lovemaking — which for many people opens them up again to sexual inspiration with their partner. Mindfulness is a quiet, inward practice, but a mindful encounter between two people can be the most erotic thing imaginable. There are several recipes for this in my book. Emily Nagoski’s Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life and Lori Brotto’s Better Sex Through Mindfulness: How Women Can Cultivate Desire have many others.

 

Besides your book, what are some of your favorite resources on the topic of sexual intimacy?

Your ability to stay erotically alive in midlife is strongly influenced by how much you’ve managed the adult process of differentiation — which means validating your own needs, even when they conflict with your partner’s needs. Two writers on this whose work I’ve found particularly helpful are Harriet Lerner (Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships, and others) and David Schnarch (Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships, and others). My own article, “Dining and Differentiation,” is a quick guide to the subject for people in a hurry.

 

Connect with Dr. Stephen Snyder
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STEPHEN SNYDER, M.D. is a sex and couples therapist, psychiatrist, and writer in New York City and the author of Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship. He is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai in New York City, and chairman of the Consumer Book Award Committee for the Society for Sex Therapy and Research (SSTAR). He has treated patients at his practice for 25 years, is a guest on major media outlets nationwide, and writes for Psychology Today and Huffington Post. He lives with his wife and children in New York City.

 




Helping People Heal from Eating Disorders: Holly’s Story

After early years of East Coast luxury, Holly suffered neglect and abandonment, and coped with her loneliness by turning to eating disorders. She is now a survivor and determined to help others recover from the trauma of addiction.

Tell us a little about your background.

My given name is Hilary Whittaker Curtis, of English descent. I have been called by my nickname, Holly, my entire life—I was born in the ‘60s when “Holly Go Lightly ” was popular. I was a very gregarious and high-spirited little girl so the name was fitting.

My second nickname was “Holly Pops “because I was always flipping and dancing and popping about all day long. I loved dance and gymnastics. When we attended weekly Catholic Mass, I would pop up on the pew when the song, ” Holy Holy Holy ” played and belted out “Holly Holly Holly.” No lack of self-confidence in my family!

I have two brothers, Billy and Trip. We were born with golden hair, great looks, genetics, and talent. We were raised in Manhattan with extreme privilege, at least in our early years. We lived in a duplex on Park Ave, attended the finest private schools, belonged to the best clubs, summered in the Hamptons, wintered in Palm beach, Florida—a real Town and Country lifestyle.

Summer photos in matching Lily Pulitzer outfits, Southampton, NJ

My parents were “To the Manor Born,” both socialites—my mother from Greenwich/Riverside, Connecticut, and my father from Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan. My mother resembled Lauren Bacall, was fabulously stylish, social, and a great dancer. She had legs that would stop traffic and was never without a stylish hat to complete her divine outfit. She was simply the life of the party. My father was Rhett Butler handsome, went to Yale and then raised his family in NYC as a successful NYSE Stock Broker.

My parents, circa 1960s

Life was idyllic until age seven when my father walked out, my parents divorced, and my mother committed suicide seven years later. My brothers and I were away at summer camp when our mother ended her life. Our relatives packed up our apartment, then sold and donated most our belongings. We felt our life as we knew it vanished in the blink of an eye.

My siblings and I were separated and traveled back and forth to various relatives’ homes until school began.  We were all sent away to boarding school—new schools, new state, new friends, new room, nothing familiar. Totally traumatizing! We had no idea where we would live or with whom.

Very shortly after I was at my new school, I became overwhelmed by the lack of control in my life and the traumatic events that had occurred. A fellow student at the school was throwing up all her food and this is how I became familiar with an eating disorder. She was causing quite a stir, but receiving lots of attention. I was starved for attention and sadly, eating disorders took hold of me and my life. It would be 13 dark, painful years of torment suffering Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa before I began my road to recovery.

With a friend at Miss Hall’s Boarding School

I graduated Miss Hall’s School in 1981 with many academic awards and achievements. I was awarded the coveted “School Spirit Cup.” I tried to perfect every area of my life to mask the imperfections. I attended Northwestern University for college, joining Tri Delta Sorority and becoming a Big Ten Cheerleader. The Midwest tempo and values were just what I needed.

From my Northwestern days

Shortly after college, I married a wonderful man from Northbrook, Illinois. His parents reminded me of Fred Rodgers and Mary Poppins/Fraulein Maria. It was the stability and normalcy I needed. I had a short successful sales career in Chicago working for a telecommunications company and later a graphics/document packaging company. We moved to Glenview, Illinois and later Lake Forest, Illinois and raised two daughters.

I got divorced after 13 years of marriage and went back to work to become a realtor in residential real estate and a part-time dance instructor. I loved the sales world and missed my years dancing. I am still teaching dance today and very involved at many studios. I am remarried and reside in Chicago.

Teaching dance

When did you start thinking about making a change in midlife?

In my late 40s, I had been selling residential real estate for about ten years and no longer enjoyed it. My sales days needed to end and I yearned for more internal fulfillment. I had a wonderful social and emotional connection with all the parents and children I taught dance to over the years, but I needed to expand my social network.

Given my early life trials and tribulations, I am very centered and self-assured and am often the one friends come to for advice or comfort. By then, I also had many years leading successful support groups providing hope and coping skills to help participants navigate the world. I felt that now was the time to make this a full-time job.

I wanted to become a Life Coach. Leading, cheering, and motivating others has always been so much a part of me. I’d held many leadership roles in high school and enjoyed being a Big Ten Cheerleader in college. I felt so happy with my life and had so much gratitude about being recovered. Helping others recover from eating disorders and other addictions rang out clear in my mind as my next act .

Speaking for ANAD to inpatient eating disorder sufferers

What is your next act?

At age 54, I am a support group leader, speaker, mentor and advocate with ANAD, National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. I am also a Life Coach, specializing in eating disorders and addiction recovery. Finally, I am the author of Large Fry Small Fry Medium Orange, my story of recovery.

Over the past 25 years, I have been very involved with ANAD, the oldest eating disorder organization in the United States and speak on their behalf at many venues. After attending support group meetings, I began leading groups myself. I love seeing the relief in sufferers’ eyes knowing they are safe and welcomed to the group. Sharing my story is also very powerful in groups. Group members feel unconditional trust and no judgment from me. Mostly, sufferers are so happy and relieved to know someone who is recovered long-term and willing to share all aspects of their eating disorder.

I am thrilled to be a Life Coach to many eating disorder sufferers, but also to many teens and adults who need a person in their life to help them navigate the triggers and downfalls in their daily lives. It lifts my spirits so high to restore hope to someone.

I am also EDITTM certified by Dr. Dorie McCubbrey. EDIT stands for Eating Disorder Intuitive Therapy. It teaches us methods and techniques to help us listen and be guided by our intuition. It helps us discover our “True Self, which is the Intuitive Therapist” inside all of us. Our intuition/gut instinct never lies to us. We create addictions and a “false self” to numb out what our gut instinct is telling us—usually due to fear of facing our trauma or an experience or situation that has become toxic or unsafe. Through EDIT, we fill our self from within and set healthy boundaries to protect us outside in the world.

My book appearances and speaking engagements have all been so rewarding and empowering. I have been overwhelmed by the positive responses and reviews of my book. People stop me on the street and in stores to thank me for my bravery in writing my book. So many have reached out to me to share their addiction story or eating disorder story. They want advice and motivation to get their lives in control. Food, diet, and weight issues are a critical social issue and much education and awareness is still needed.

I have never felt so happy and fulfilled helping support those in need of navigating their broken lives. The human spirit is tenacious and capable of making miracles happen.

Hug from a client with a year of recovery and now working full-time

How did you choose this next act?

I majored in Psychology at Northwestern and often thought I would pursue my Master’s in Social Work or Clinical Psychology. I was the product of traditional therapy for many years, but was always bothered that there was little or no daily support or after-treatment care to help me navigate my day-to-day struggles with my eating disorder. A weekly one-hour therapy session was very isolating to me and I often felt anxious and alone in the world. I attended a weekly eating disorder support group, but really needed day to day consistent help to achieve balance in my life, learn self-care and coping techniques and how to set healthy emotional boundaries. Quite frankly, I needed someone to help me live life! I needed a life coach.

We spend 21 years in school to become educated and then spend our lives pursuing a career.  In most of our jobs, we have coaches, mentors, bosses, and teachers. Who helps us navigate life? I feel I have been navigating my life alone since I was seven years old and my father left. I became in charge of my younger brother of four years and watched over my mother who suffered from Bipolar Disorder. My older brother went away to school and I essentially became the second adult in the house. I cleaned the house, did laundry, went to the grocery store, and walked my little brother to school.

My eating disorder helped me numb out my erased life. I was in emotional agony. I had two parents—one I was not good enough to live for and the other barely acknowledged I existed. I was slowly killing myself with my eating disorder and I had no idea.

My childhood years of survival opened my eyes early to the many trials and tribulations of life. From this experience, I have been able to help so many of my friends in my adult years and wished to make a huge impact in the eating disorder community.

When my youngest daughter went off to college, I felt it was the perfect time for me to tell my story and help those suffering to navigate their lives.

Three years ago, I received my Life Coaching certification from the Life Purpose Institute and opened an office in Lake Bluff, Illinois. I had been leading eating disorder support groups for years and now offered my life coaching services to those individuals who attended my weekly group. I would be their daily support or sponsor/mentor after inpatient or outpatient treatment.

Tell us more about your book and how it came about.
I had always thought about writing a book about my early childhood, mostly because I always got such an incredible reaction from friends when they heard my story. They found my survival fascinating and inspiring. Despite massive loss and abandonment, I prevailed and turned my life around and got back on track after 13 dark years of despair. Our broken family had such tenacity and the laughs, when we were able to muster them, saved me from not giving up.

With this book, I also wanted to help the world understand an eating disorder sufferer’s mindset. No academic book on this subject can capture real-life experience. I had lived through a personal war and won. I wanted now to share every detail of my story in the hopes of helping others. I had always been an extrovert and a spirited person and lost that all to my eating disorder.

Unlike with other addictions, with this one, you can’t abstain for the remainder of your life. You have to eat to live! My story would provide knowledge of an eating disorder to help calm families’ and loved ones’ fears and give them tools to help their sufferer and understand this insidious, devastating disease. Mostly, I wanted to help the public understand how an eating disorder can make its toxic way into someone’s life and takes hold—and kill if not treated.

The title and cover sketch of my book come from one of my most vivid childhood memories. My younger brother Trip and I were often left alone to fend for ourselves. We lived three blocks from the Metropolitan Museum and found it great fun to jump in the fountain and collect money for our dinner. Our favorite spot was The McDonald’s on Third Avenue and 85th street. We always ordered, “Large Fry – Small Fry – Medium Orange Soda.” We would watch free cartoons until they closed at midnight. We thought  we were having the time of our lives.

How did your family react to your book?

My daughters were thrilled about me writing my book. They knew bits and pieces of my unconventional and painful childhood and were so proud of how I survived it. They wanted my story to be shared so others could find hope and peace and know they too could survive and become a loving, supportive, and present parent. They also know how prevalent eating disorders are and wanted my story to be known. They did not feel embarrassed or worried at all. I raised them in Lake Forest for the last 17 years and my reputation in the town among parents and children has been, “Hurry to Miss Holly’s dance class…she is so high energy, bubbly, and fun.” Last, my girls were filled with love and joy that I dedicated the book to them.

I do not think my Father has read my book yet, but he did know I was writing one. My book stirred up a lot of emotion for all my family members, especially my younger brother, Trip. It seemed surreal to him reading it, almost a dream of sorts. It brought up memories of painful loss and abandonment. It is bittersweet now to be beyond the pain. I think the biggest shock to my family members was how long I really was in the dangerous abyss of my eating disorder and to what degree. I kept so much of my suffering hidden. They love seeing me thrive now and share this dark period of my life with light and strength.

 

Where did you find support?
My friends and family were 100 % supportive and knew my big personality, spirit, and voice would be very effective in educating the public.

I always knew I would write my book after my girls were in their late teens. I never discussed my early childhood in detail with them because I never wanted them to worry I would commit suicide or relapse in my eating disorder. I kept my story hidden and healed my heart by being present for them and raising them with structure and love. Their father and I were always available.

Watching them both graduate high school and be so filled with excitement about college and be completely independent—I knew I had achieved victory! I had changed my family pattern and story for their lives. I was so filled with love, joy, and peace in my heart and mind that I was busting at the seams to tell the world of my success and recovery.

Thank goodness I found ANAD Organization in 1986 and attended weekly eating disorder support groups. I found my people and felt understood and not judged for the first time. The group was the mirror I needed to see my eating disorder for what is really was. It stole my life and turned me into a very unhappy, antisocial person. I was very lucky to have a few people in my life I trusted, including my Psychiatrist, Kathryn Schoenbrod. Their devotion to me saved my life. They never gave up on me.

My daughters

Did you encounter any challenges?

I was a bit hesitant when first writing about my story because I would be exposing my darkest secrets and struggles to the public. But I pushed right through the hesitation because I now know I am much more than an eating disorder. I have 26 years as a successful mother, employee, dance instructor, devoted friend, beloved family member and wife. It is not about weight, but what is weighing on you. We must help sponsor and support one another. We help each other through sharing our struggles, experiences and taking off the stigma and shame of eating disorders.

I began my book process by writing a factual timeline of events and recording any memories or thoughts that came to my mind. This took about three months. I then committed myself to writing three hours a day in the Lake Forest library. There was never a day I felt like not writing or blowing it off. I was so hyper focused on my task that my fingers twitched aching to get back to the keyboard and write. Little did I know it would a full year before I would go to print and publish my book.

Editing, editing, and more editing!

The biggest obstacle was putting all my facts and life events into a provocative, moving story. I was not a creative writer, nor editor or English major. I could rattle off stories to friends and loved ones, but now I had to put all that chaos into a readable, worthy story.

I relied on a few amazing friends with great writing and editing talents. My sorority sister from Northwestern really made this book happen. It has been 30-plus years since we graduated and when we were in the library together trudging through this immense task, if felt like finals week all over again. It was actually really wonderful to have the time together. We lived together after college and there really wasn’t anything she did not know about me. She was the perfect person to assist me in my endeavor.

The technical part was really a push for us both. Setting a book for print and publish is a far cry from a college thesis paper. It was a real challenge and to this day I am still in shock I actually self-published a book.

Social media was another learning curve. In order to gain excitement and momentum, interest and publicity for my book, I embraced sharing on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Yelp. I also launched my website, Holly’s Healing Heart.

I am also learning how to promote my book. I called various eating disorder organizations and treatment centers and offered to speak about my recovery and my services as a Life Coach. I have been very lucky to have my story featured in Forest & Bluff and Make it Better. Any opportunity I can get to tell my story and give someone who has fallen hope, I will take it.

I search the web daily and reach out to share my book and services everywhere and anywhere. I will be a guest speaker for CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children, on November 2nd. I will be speaking with the foster parents and advocates about my trauma and mindset as an orphaned child in order to help them create the best environment in their home for their foster child to succeed. Never underestimate the power of your voice or story. I hope to co-present with renowned eating disorders expert, June Alexander, at the International Conference on Eating Disorders, in Chicago in 2018.

Alcoholics Anonymous has done a remarkable job of educating society about alcoholism. They have an extraordinary network of support, meetings, and sponsors. My goal is to help achieve this for eating disorders.

With my friend who helped set my book

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I learned that I can be way out of my comfort zone and be okay. That my recovery is still rock solid and that telling my story was cathartic for me, not triggering. As a life coach, group leader, and speaker I really help motivate and inspire people and they feel my love and dedication. My journey has brought me such abundance of love to share and give back.

 

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

Not really. I was not ready to share or write my story before this time. I did not want it to be available to others until my youngest daughter left for college. Navigating my girl’s lives was most important to me.

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention?
I encourage anyone who has something they really want to say to the world or to do in this life to do it! A crucial component of my recovery was learning I could take control of my life and make my own choices. I took back the personal power and confidence I had lost.

I encourage any woman considering a new career or journey to go for it. Let it lead you and reveal itself to you. It is in your heart and soul and true self. Taking risks and embarking on new chapters keeps us mentally alive, challenged, and fulfilled .

I am thrilled I listened to a nagging voice in my head in my mid 40s telling me to write and tell my story to the world. I am in my early 50s now reaping the rewards of pursuing my next act!

What advice and resources do you recommend for those struggling with eating disorders or who wish to help a sufferer?

I have many books that inspired my next act. I never want to stop learning and filling myself up with new self-care and daily coping techniques.

 

If you’re looking for inspiration, I recommend these books:

The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACTby Russ Harris

Life’s Greatest Lessons: 20 Things That Matter by Hal Urban

The Easiest Way to Live: Let Go of the Past, Live in the Present and Change Your Life Forever by Mabel Katz

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel

The Road Less Traveled, Timeless Edition: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth by Dr. Scott M Peck

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron

Self Matters: Creating Your Life from the Inside Out by Dr. Phillip C. McGraw

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson

A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck

A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles” by Marianne Williamson

 

If you’d like to learn more about eating disorders and get support, I recommend the following websites and organizations:

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders

National Eating Disorders Association

Binge Eating Disorder Association

Eating Disorder Hope

Eating Disorders Anonymous

Mentor Connect

June Alexander

With my husband

What’s next for you?
The premise for my book and the successful ingredient for recovery is “Leading Life with Love.” Love always wins. I have applied this so many times with my clients in my Life Coaching and I hope to develop a teachable methodology for “Leading with Love.” I also would like to pursue dance therapy for my clients.

 

Connect with Holly Curtis

Email: hollycurtis63@gmail.com

Facebook

Twitter: @HealerHolly

Book: Large Fry Small Fry Medium Orange– also available for purchase from Lake Forest Book Store




Becoming an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach at 50: Linda’s Story

With her kids growing up, after decades of practicing Massage Therapy and teaching Pilates, Linda felt she was ready for the next challenge. Having witnessed the power of nutrition and wellness on herself and her clients, she got certified to share that transformative knowledge.

Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in Wilmette, Illinois. I have a sister, a brother, and seven stepsiblings. My parents were divorced when I was eight years old, and both remarried. My family now: I am married and have three children: twin boys who are 22 years old and college seniors (one at the University of Miami in Florida, the other at DePaul in Chicago), and a daughter who is 12 years old and in seventh grade at Lincoln Elementary in Chicago.  My husband, Richard, is a Chiropractic physician and Functional Medicine doctor.

With my family in Cancun

I also attended University of Miami and graduated in 1984 with a degree in Elementary and Early Childhood Education. I taught Learning Disabled children for three years in Coconut Grove, Florida. During my last year as a teacher, I attended Educating Hands Massage School and met my husband just after I sat for my Florida License exam. We moved to Chicago in 1994—since it’s where I grew up, it was like coming home for me. Together, Rich and I opened our own clinic, Arrandt Health Care, in the Lincoln Park community and ran it for 22 years. I also received my Pilates Certification in 2003 from Power Pilates in New York City, and teach Pilates part-time at Club Pilates in Lincoln Park.

A year and a half ago, Rich and I moved Arrandt Health Care over to the Balance Health and Wellness facility, located just up the street in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago. The Balance philosophy is that through multi-disciplinary care, the team approach and services help clients to return to a state of balance, relieving their discomfort, restoring their functionality, and helping them sustain wellbeing in body and mind. Joining forces with Balance has been great. Balance has everything under one roof and offers so many more services than we were able to have on our own, including Chiropractic, Naturopathy, Physical Therapy, Acupuncture, Biofeedback, Neuro-feedback, Pilates, Massage, and Integrative Nutrition Health Coaching. I love the environment and am able to utilize my multiple skillsets there.

 

When did you start to think about making a change?
I started to think about making a professional change when my boys were in high school and more self-sufficient, and my daughter was equally occupied between school and nine hours of gymnastics a week. This allowed me the time to furthering myself professionally. I have been a practicing Massage Therapist and Pilates instructor for 25 and 14 years respectively. My husband and I partner to help our patients heal their symptoms, pain, and inflammation. The majority of our patients were getting therapy along with changing their diets and seeing direct results. Since I was counseling people for lifestyle change during sessions, becoming a health coach seemed like a great fit for me.

We noticed that once we had addressed and resolved underlying problems—through improved nutrition, manual therapy, supplementation, and lifestyle changes—patients noticed the removal or lessening of longstanding pain, along with weight loss. We watched how the patients who followed through with dietary and lifestyle changes not only lost weight, but healed through better nutrition. Those patients did not need as much manual therapy or manipulation. As a Massage Therapist, I even felt patients’ muscle tissue loosen and change over time right under my hands through good nutrition. It’s really not a mystery.

The culmination of the “aha” moment was when I saw and felt my own personal change in health and weight loss following an Intestinal Permeability Program—also known as a Leaky Gut program—and a year later I did a five-week Candida program. These programs helped heal my joint pain, skin irritations, brain fog, hormonal problems, thyroid issues, excess bloat and weight issues, among others.

What is your next act?
I began my new career direction almost five years ago on the beach at my sister’s house on the Jersey Shore. I signed up for school at The Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) in New York City on my 50th birthday. I went back to school to become an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and received my certification a year later.

I am extremely passionate about helping people and feel blessed to have been led to this career. I also received certification through an additional Health Coach training program through the Dr. Sears Wellness Institute and am certified to teach their life stage programs—Family Health, Pregnancy, and Prime Time Health for adults and seniors.

I fully believe that health care reform needs to begin in our own kitchens. I can attest to this from watching patients and clients make appropriate changes as well as see it in my own personal transformation and that of my family. My son did our 5-Week Candida program as a sophomore in high school, lost 35 pounds, cleared up his skin as well as knee and joint pain. His testimony can be found on my website.

I can also see and feel the transformation through food, lifestyle change, functional-movement and from a tissue/muscular perspective under my hands as a therapist. I think the majority of our food should be prepared at home, so we know what goes into it. I think it’s important for people to get tested for food sensitivities so they can learn what they need to remove from their diet to feel their best. It’s not all about weight loss. While working with clients and patients, my husband and I often put them on modified elimination diets. When people begin to add foods back, they can feel the effects directly when focusing on one food at a time.

Shopping at a farmers’ market

The majority of my clients are women, over forty, dealing with hormonal imbalances and battling excess weight. They are stressed out, tired, overweight, and want to have more energy. Most clients come to me with a laundry list of symptoms that they have tried to heal for years. Many clients already exercise regularly and already eat pretty well. They have gone from doctor to doctor and diet to diet to try to lose weight and heal their pain and symptoms. They are smart, educated, and have read and tried many different dietary programs.

I do not have a cookie cutter approach with clients. We begin by discussing their health history with a discovery session. It is an organic, highly individualized process. I have found that clients who commit to a three- to six-month program get the best results. Changing long-standing habits takes time. There are several success stories posted on my website as well as some videos. I do work with men and teens as well, but they do not make up the majority of my practice. I also work with clients by phone or Skype. Many clients actually prefer working this way even though they live locally, as they don’t have to commute to my office, and we can still keep to regular scheduled calls while they (or I) are traveling.

Last year I took a The Roll Model / Yoga Tune Up course. I use this method to teach clients to do self-massage and I absolutely love the work. I use it with my Pilates clients and my husband uses it with patients as well. I use the balls for my own regular self-care and find that they work great when I use them with regularity (as with any tool, if it sits in the corner, what’s it worth?). This training complements the other work I do, as self-care is the foundation of the most important aspects of the health coaching work I do. Here’s a video of me demonstrating this method.

Working with a Pilates client

You also work with groups?
Yes. While I really enjoy working with private clients, I feel that there is a large need for group programs. Having support from a community of like-minded individuals is an important aspect in getting healthy—so you don’t feel so alone. This community model was important for me when I lost weight in the ‘80s. There is comfort in knowing that there are others going through the very same thing as you.

I launched an online group program called, “Eight Weeks to A Healthier You.” It allows people to go at their own pace. They can listen to the live call or on their own time frame. I have made the price affordable for people at $289 for an 8-week group class, whether locally or online. I believe that having group accountability and support is key. This is why my clients and husband’s patients who do our detox programs are so successful.

My 8-Week program is not a detox, but a lifestyle program. My private clients get the very same material within their 3- or 6-month program and pay me $1150-$2400. However, with one-to-one coaching, we get to dig deeper. We work on underlying issues, both mentally and in the gut, that stop people from changing and moving forward. This process goes way beyond counting calories and tracking exercise to move clients beyond a long-held mindset that has kept them stuck in old patterns.

Again, my 3- and 6-month program looks different for each person as it unfolds during the time we work together. Also, I only accept two to three new qualifying clients per month as I spend a lot of my time and focus on the people who are committed in time and finances and believe in the process. I am generally a warm and friendly person, but I am also a tough coach who gets results. 

Preparing lunch in Mexico

 

Why did you choose this next act?
I have a background as an Elementary School Teacher and have always had a love of teaching, so educating people on simple, small steps to get healthier is a great fit for me. I chose this path because both my husband and I live this as a lifestyle. Might I add, not perfectly either. I am not the Yogi who has arrived on the mountaintop. I struggle with the same issues as many of my clients. I do indulge and give into cravings at times.

In my past I was forty pounds overweight and it was painful to live in that body. I lacked confidence and felt self-conscious and fat. I did a weight loss success story in New Body Magazine in the mid ‘80s and at the time I created a community of support to help me reach my goals. When I look back at that time, I felt so proud of myself and loved the new body I worked so hard to get. I thought that I would be a great coach to help others with my own experience.

For me today, I choose to do a detox program with each changing season. By detoxing my body, I find it helps me clean out my intestines and liver, get off of sugar cravings and to feel great in my body. After my seasonal detoxes, my muscles and joints feel great, my energy soars, and my clothing fits so much better. I wanted to share the excitement of feeling great in your body with other people. My goal is to help people lose weight, lose pain, feel vibrant, energetic, and wildly alive.

Me at 155 lbs.

 

How hard was it to take the plunge?
It was easy for me; I had a lot of support. The coursework was all online and amounted to 6-10 hours a week of work. I felt ready to use my brain and learn. I knew a few friends who had used Health Coaches or had a friend who was a coach, so I got some names and numbers of the ones who went to the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN), the school that I was considering signing up for and would end up attending. It seemed like a good fit for me when I spoke to some graduates. I also spoke at length to the enrollment office about what to expect. My husband was supportive, so I signed up to begin when the kids returned to school that fall.

Hiking with my husband Rich in Arizona

 

What challenges did you encounter?
The juggle of having three kids in three schools was a challenge. My twin boys, Jake and Zack were in their junior year in two different high schools and my daughter, Sydney was in second grade. Running a household, along with work, and now school, was a challenge, but I was so excited to hear the next lecture for the program that I would listen while cooking, folding clothing, or traveling in the car using my iPad. When a lecture was really important, I would watch again when time allowed and then sit to take notes. I found I was able to keep up with the workload required as it was online and I could go at my own pace.

My kids

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up?
I can’t say that I wanted to give up, but I just wanted more time to be able to focus on the path. I thought about stopping and re-enrolling when my mom became ill, but kept it up and graduated on time. Luckily, we were able to hire a caregiver for my mom and she recovered and got her independence back. I was proud of myself for finishing on time.

I began my private practice while I was still in school. I was lucky to work along with my husband and be able to work with many of the patients in our practice.

My passion to help others overcome health and weight challenges was my real driving force to keep going. Also, I felt a strong desire to help my own family with the knowledge I was gaining. When I began working with clients during school, the work felt so natural and rewarding. It felt amazing to see the magic that happens for people when they start to implement changes, feel better, get more energy, and lose weight. I believe that this work is my life’s calling.

Talking to a client

 

Have your kids embraced your and your husband’s lifestyle as well?
Yes and no! My kids have a great understanding of how nutrition affects their body and brain. My daughter probably eats the most like my husband and me. All of the kids clean up their diet when their immune system is off. They eliminate, sugar, dairy, and wheat until they are better. The boys eat a pretty typical college diet, but they know the benefits of good nutrition and clean up their diet when they have to function their best for school, such as during finals. They do not eat gluten free in general—although Zack has said that he’d do the program again when he comes home this summer, with my support. My daughter is very mindful of what she eats before important tests and her gymnastics meets.

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I learned how capable I am and how it is okay not to do it all or do it perfectly. Some things have to give, like a clean house or a workout. I learned that my intuition when I work one on one with a client is much better than a scripted program. I also learned that I have valuable wisdom and knowledge that really works to help people with goals and lifestyle changes. I see the proof firsthand watching clients transform.

Client success story

 

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I don’t think I’d do much differently, as I was led to this work through everything in my past and everything that I have learned about my own body throughout the years. In my past, being 40 pounds heavier than I am today was painful.  After the weight loss success story, in the mid to late ‘80s, I moved to the city and gained all of the weight I lost back, and then some. I didn’t lose the weight overnight; I lost the weight in increments over time. I kept resetting my body weight through harsh amounts of exercise and watching my calories through a lowfat diet.

Now, I have kept the weight off through personal lifestyle change and eating the right fats in my diet. I no longer burn out my adrenals through crazy amounts of exercise. I eat a varied diet consisting of lean organic protein, a wide array of colorful vegetables and fruit and small amounts of carbohydrates such as brown rice and rice cakes. I also eat plenty of good fats, such as olives, olive and avocado oil, avocado, macadamia nuts, etc.

What I’ve learned about the body as a Massage therapist and Pilates Instructor has helped me become a better health coach. I’ve learned so much from my clients/patients in practicing with my husband.

At work with my husband

 

How do you collaborate with your husband and the other practitioners at Balance?
My husband and I have worked together on patient care for years. He helps people figure out the puzzle of their chronic conditions through his practice of Functional Medicine. He may order blood, saliva, or stool testing. Once he has the data, we work together with supplementation and I work with patients on lifestyle and emotional awareness to help implement change.

The best part of working at Balance Health and Wellness for my husband and I is the philosophy of multidisciplinary care under one roof. The practitioners coordinate patient care based on individual patient need. For many of our patients, it is a one-stop shop.

Last week, one of my clients received an adjustment, saw me for care, and had acupuncture. She walked out feeling on top of the world. I have also worked along with the Physical Therapist and have seen healing through the corrective exercises, dietary changes, and massage.

I saw the coordination of care work first hand as my daughter was ready to quit gymnastics with a back and knee injury. Through getting adjusted, having regular physical therapy sessions, massage, and a change in diet, she healed. The one thing that may not have been thought about was the timing of the injury. It happened right around Halloween. What kind of diet do most kids have that during that time period? They eat a lot of excess sugar and junk food. She was so inflamed by the excess sugar that it landed in her muscles and joints. She is a testament to success of the group approach as she did not quit her sport due to pain, persevered, and did the regular exercises, took supplements, improved her eating, especially good fats, and in turn has been steadily improving throughout each of her competitions.

Giving a health talk

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Go for it! Take the time to invest in yourself and find your passion. It’s much easier to wake up in the morning and be excited about your day. For me, I find a great satisfaction in helping people go from wishing and dreaming about making changes in their health and weight to actually accomplishing and sustaining it, once and for all!

 

What advice do you have for those interested in becoming Integrative Health Coaches?
I loved both of the schools that I attended and both of them gave me very different skills that I implement in my practice. My advice is to go online to learn about each school and decide which curriculum is the best fit for you. Also, seek out other coaches who did the programs and get as much information that you can before making your final decision.

It is a rewarding career, however you will encounter clients who are gung ho at first, but can’t get out of their own way, no matter how hard you try to help them. The best way to find clients is, first and foremost, to walk the talk of what you teach. Align yourself with doctors and fitness centers, and do speaking engagements in the community.

It is important to figure out your target market. Make sure you work on your own health issues. It is easier to be of help to others through sharing your own health story. Once you sign up for school, the program will let you know when it is time to begin working with clients.

At first work for free, then begin to charge for your time. Look to other coaches as mentors, but develop your own style of coaching. Remember to set boundaries with clients and keep in mind that you are a business owner and not doing this as a hobby. Know that what you have to share is valuable and that you deserve to get paid for your knowledge.

 

What resources do you recommend?
I enjoyed both Health Coach training programs. I would recommend them both highly.

The Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) was very different from The Dr. Sears Wellness Institute. I suppose it depends on the person. Dr. Sears is a science-based approach that teaches life stage programs in preparation for pregnancy and throughout the childbearing years, family health and primetime health. IIN teaches over 100 unique dietary theories and concepts that I am forever grateful to have learned and to be using to help my clients. I also thought about attending the Eating and Psychology Institute, and may in the future as I love learning and being a student. This school teaches more about the emotional aspects of food and why we eat.

I am a member of the American Association of Drugless Practitioners (AADP) and The International Association for Health Coaches. There are also programs that you can enroll in to further your education, where you can use credits from the IIN program toward a Bachelor or Master’s degree. One is through the Goddard College. I have a resource page on my website that can help you on your path.

 

What about resources on the business end?
I was lucky to find Victor Wykore of Kore Creatives International for web design. I found him when I came across one of the sites he designed for a college student who was a public speaker empowering kids. I really think he did a fantastic job on my site and we work really well together.

As far as branding, it has been a metamorphosis for me. I wasn’t sure whether to use my own name or not. I originally formed an LLC (limited liability corporation) and called it Partnering for Your Health. I secured the web domain, paid a designer to make a logo for me, and spent a lot of time and money on it. I chose this name because I partner with patients to change habits and I partner with my husband to help patients on their wellness path. But when I was discussing my future business development with my sister, she thought it sounded too clinical.

I have a passion for cooking simple, healthy soups and salads, and teach meal preparation methods, so together with my son Zack who did one of the programs successfully, we came up with Simple + Well. My next step was to get branded. I really liked the Balance Logo, so I hired the graphic artist that did their branding. I was lucky to have secured the time to work with her as she is not currently doing graphic design.

With my sister and makeup artist Bobbi Brown

 

What’s next for you?
I am currently working on growing my Health Coach practice and give lectures in the community, however I still get pretty nervous. I feel that I have a lot to share with people to help them heal and lose weight. I feel so inspired when I make a difference in their lives. I intend to do a public speaking course next year called “The Art of Public Speaking.” I am also considering going back to school to get a Master’s Degree in Nutrition, however I have not made a commitment at this time.

 

Connect with Linda Arrandt
Email: linda@simpleandwell.net
Website: www.simpleandwell.net
Facebook: Simple + Well
Twitter: @Healthcoach312
LinkedIn
Instagram: simpleandwell

 




Becoming a Reiki Master and Teacher: Susie’s Story

When she needed a change, Susie listened to the calling of Reiki and its healing energy. She launched her own business, White Sage Spa, to provide her Reiki services along with traditional spa services, yoga, and life coaching.

 

Tell us a little about your background.
I was raised in Greendale and Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, the youngest of seven children. My parents were conservative “good Catholics,” and my mom wanted twelve children; six girls were born, then finally the prized boy, and then they planned to have the seventh child. My mother was convinced she could conceive another boy, a playmate for my brother, Billy, but I was a beautiful, curly blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby named Susie. While I was the youngest, my brother was treated more like the baby of the family. I was fiercely independent and loved to roam outside with my dog, my pony, my duck, and climb trees.

My father was a banker and worked at the Savings & Loan that my great-grandfather had started. I began to model my career after his. Something with stability, longevity, and that was accepted as a “good job” by society. As a child, I remember longing to be an entrepreneur. I got my degree in Business & Marketing from UW Milwaukee. I was a resourceful, hardworking child: I began to babysit at twelve and always worked; I even ran a small business on campus as I put myself through school.

I got married at age 22 and graduated from college a few months later. I started my first career with Kohl’s Departments stores as a Management Trainee. I quickly progressed through the various Assistant Store Manager positions. As the company was expanding, I too increased my level of responsibility by moving to the corporate office and becoming the manager of customer service, store operations, and communication for over 150 stores. I continued with Kohl’s for thirteen years of growth and promotions. I remember observing my boss and thinking “His stress is so high he’s going to die of a heart attack.”  Is that what I’m aspiring to? NO!

Moving from Assistant Manager to Corporate Offices for Kohl’s

 

When did you start to think about making a change?
My husband and I took a three-week trip rafting down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Our children were three and five and we left them at home with family. It was on this trip that I did some serious soul searching of what my next act would be. I knew I was attracted to natural methods of healing, but I had no education or experience aside from two of my favorite classes in college, taught by a Native American medicine woman, about philosophy and how to use Great Lakes plants for food and medicine. These were elective classes which had nothing to do with my business degree, go figure… I still have those class notebooks 30+ years later.

Rafting the Grand Canyon

I began to allow my mind to play with possibilities of a next act. I didn’t know what it would be but I created a list of desires, keeping in mind that I was the main breadwinner of the family. My husband was a stay-at-home dad who worked part-time on weekends and evenings.

One day, my brother invited me to look at a day spa with him. He is a massage therapist and was looking to rent a room in a beautiful spa on the North Shore of Milwaukee. I walked through the spa and immediately felt this was a business that excited me. Within six weeks of that day, my brother and I went into business together. I remember a conversation with the Russian esthetician who we inherited with the business. I naively stated, “You know, I’ve never had a facial or eyebrow wax,” to which she arrogantly replied, “I know.”

I remember thinking, I may not know this industry, but I have a passion to learn it and I do know is how to run a business, manage people, and excel in customer service—while always being willing to learn. It was very scary to take the plunge but because my brother and I made the decision so quickly, there wasn’t much time to overthink it.  In hindsight, this was a gift. I prepared by taking a three-month professional leave of absence from my corporate job in order to continue to provide health insurance for my family and provide a safety net to see if I could support in this new venture. My husband was very supportive and for many years helped with weekly operational tasks.

The early days: My brother is on the left, my husband on the right

During this time, I went back to school to become a licensed esthetician through the Institute of Beauty and Wellness and found out that I really enjoyed being in the treatment room and working one-on-one with clients. At that time in my life, I prized myself on my ability to multi-task and so I did it all. I managed all aspects of the business and offered facial services too.

Our most intriguing service was Reiki, healing energy touch, offered by a woman in her 70s. She worked on an on-call basis, which took a lot of coordination with scheduling—not a very efficient way to run a business! The businesswoman in me wanted to make Reiki more accommodating and the spiritual muse in me was intrigued with the idea of learning to do Reiki myself. Still, my overwhelming thought was, “Who am I to offer Reiki? I don’t have magic healing powers.”

As any Reiki practitioner understands, the Reiki energy and healing is independent of the practitioner. The Reiki flows through us for the client’s highest good and purpose. As Reiki practitioners, we are commissioned to be clear, conscious conduits and invite our own ego to step out of the way. I was certified to Reiki level I with Nancy Retzlaff in October 2001 and went on to complete my Reiki Master/Teacher certification in Sept 2008, at the age of 45, with Laurelle Shanti Gaia and Michael Baird at Infinite Light Center in Sedona, Arizona.

During this time, I chose to dissolve my business partnership with my brother and move into my next act.

What is your next act?

I am a Reiki practitioner with my own business, a Healing Center I named White Sage Spa. I worked with a life coach specializing in holistic business owners (Jaya Savannah) and structured my services to reflect inner and outer beauty along with wellness.

I offer Catalyst Life Coaching, Emotional Empowerment workshops, anti-aging facials, Reiki services & classes, Raindrop therapy (a balancing massage from Lakota Indian tradition using essential oils), and even officiate weddings, occasionally. I work in a beautiful shared space with other solo-wellness practitioners who offer services including massage, acupuncture, nutrition, and counseling.

Credit: Abigail Kathleen Photography

It wasn’t until age 47 that I had the courage and confidence to begin teaching Reiki. Reiki is an amazing self-healing tool that was the catalyst to my own journey in the importance of self-care. During the early years of running a business with my brother and raising two daughters, I strove to balance being a working mother and wife and business partner. Yet I was not the balanced zen-like healer I aspired to be. I recognized the stress and dysfunction in my business relationship with my brother. The grounding energy of Reiki led me to see the imbalance within me and harness courage for my true next act. Since then, I have become a Reiki master and teacher.

Reiki students

I have continued to up-level my education. At age 52, I completed an additional coaching certification with the International Institute for Emotional Empowerment and am also a teacher/mentor to others going through this certification process. I now understand that coaching/teaching and modeling self-love are my life’s purpose. It fills my heart to watch my clients make choices toward their desire vs. what they think someone else wants them to do.

I teach and model a life of balance and self-care. As I take care of myself at a high level, it allows me to hold space for others to learn the benefits and gifts available to each of us through the consistent act of self-care and nurturing. I’m in a business where I hold a safe and nurturing space for individuals to experience their own inner and outer beauty. I believe one of the greatest ways to teach others is through modeling the joy and happiness that flow naturally when we listen to our own needs versus living a life reacting to what we believe others need. I have lived both ways and I know the gifts that are available to each of us when we honor our desires through consistent self-care.

Coaching session

Why did you choose this next act?  

When I evolved my business from a bustling multi-faceted seven-room spa to a simple one-woman show, some folks asked, “Why would you downsize?” I looked at it as simplifying and stepping into what made me happy—not what society was telling me to do. i.e. bigger, better, more.

It was a great opportunity that excited my heart and spirit. I remember thinking,

“This is one of those meaningful points in life where I either take the risk and go for my desire or stay on the safe path that is draining my life force and happiness. I’m young and if it doesn’t work I can do something else.”

Teaching a workshop

 

What challenges did you encounter?

The most overwhelming challenges were rooted in poor communication with my business partner/brother. I chose to dissolve the business partnership with my brother because we were not in a healthy relationship. I could see and feel the dichotomy of being in a healing business—attempting to present a calm, healing environment—while raging inside at the dysfunctional relationship that my brother and I were engaged in. Knowing that he would not be easily persuaded to leave the business, I took a huge leap of faith and sent a certified letter to him suggesting that he buy me out, I buy him out, or we sell the business—because I could no longer be in a healing business with a partner whom I was not in a functional relationship with. Reiki taught me to increase my faith and let go, trusting that the outcome would be for each of our “highest good.”

This was a very scary time since I was the main breadwinner for our family. I loved the healing industry that I was in, however, I recognized that if I didn’t shift to take care of my own needs, I would burn out. My husband was 110% supportive of me separating from my brother. He’d watched the toll it took on me to not only run the business but also to navigate the various roadblocks that were created by having a non-communicative/non-supportive partner. The biggest challenge was that when my brother and I went into business, we never created a formal business agreement outlining what would happen if we wanted to dissolve the partnership. If I’d taken the advice of my lawyer friend who encouraged us to create a legal document of partnership prior to beginning the business, this would have made dissolving the business easier.

My brother was initially shocked by the letter. He hired a lawyer and we began the negotiation process. We continued to run the business together and kept the conflict completely confidential from our staff and our family members. We came to an equitable solution within four months, where I paid him a sizable amount of cash to buy him out. Even though this put my husband and me in a financial crunch, it was a situation where I knew my freedom far outweighed the cost.

My brother continued with his massage practice in a different location. Years later, when I re-structured my business into multiple practitioners working collectively, but not as my employees, I welcomed my brother back in to rent a room. During those years I had learned healthy boundaries and how to use my voice. While I recognized that I could not be in a business relationship with him, I was open to having him work adjacent to me, running his own business. I’m happy to report that our relationship is better today than ever.

With my brother Billy at a family party

Reiki helped sustain me. The Reiki prayer has been my daily practice to stay focused and grounded:

“Just for today do not get angry, don’t worry, be grateful, work hard and be kind to all living creatures. This is the secret of inviting happiness, the miraculous medicine of all disease for the improvement of body and soul.”  ~ Mikao Usui

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

After completing my Life Coaching certification in 2009 with Patty Jackson, I took a long look at what made me happy. I recognized that I love working with my clients, both one-on-one and in groups. What I was tired of doing was supporting all my employees and managing all the tasks involved with little time for myself. Hence the shift to my own one-woman business.

I launched my original business believing it was my job to support and take care of everyone. As I transitioned this business into my own solo practice, White Sage Spa, and continued on my personal journey by becoming a Life Coach, my greatest lesson was in learning the importance of taking care of myself and trusting that others have what they need to take care of themselves.

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

Get clear on what you desire is and why you seek this desire. Whatever you choose, recognize why you are choosing it and visualize how you will feel while you are living your new re-invented self. Listen to your heart/gut as your main guide and be aware of making decisions from fear vs. love.

With friends (Patty is second from right)

What advice and resources do you have for those interested in Reiki?

Focus on the aspects of the business that you are talented in and don’t hesitate to hire strong support people to help in the areas that you are not strong.  Create a team and empower your team to create for the highest good of all concerned.

If you have an interest in learning Reiki, first recognize who you are learning this for.  Many Reiki students have a big heart and desire to offer Reiki to others. The foundation is that Reiki is a self-healing tool. We must nourish ourselves before we can effectively transmit healing energy to others. Reiki will create deep transformative healing for you and all that you work with. It is important to understand that the Reiki is flowing through you, the practitioner, and is not dependent on your ability. We all have the ability to channel this Reiki love and light energy. Anyone can learn Reiki.

Teaching Reiki

I have attuned three children and their mothers. Attunement is the sacred practice of aligning the student’s chakras to be open and to receive and send the Reiki energy to all.  Ironically, the children understood and got out of their own way easier than adults. Why? The doubting-ego voice is not as loud at age 10 as it is at age 40. As you search for your Reiki/Master Teacher, be sure you connect with them on some level. I do not recommend being certified for Reiki via the Internet. I think it is important to have a group experience, a teacher you can reach out to with questions, a community to come back to for Reiki shares. If you are searching for a teacher, get clear on what your expectations are and ask questions. You will always be energetically connected to your Reiki teacher so be sure that this connection feels good to you. I also recommend waiting a minimum of 30 days between each Reiki certification level.

If you have the desire to learn Reiki, follow your heart and do it.  The mind might be saying, “Who am I to offer this healing touch?” Remember that Reiki is available to all.  The more Reiki practitioners we have in the world, the more unconditional love will be shared.

Recommended books: 
A Modern Reiki Method for Healing by Hiroshi Doi
Reiki Best Practices by Walter Lubeck and Frank Arjava Petter
The Book of Chakras: Discover the Hidden Forces Within You and Chakras and Their Archetypes: Uniting Energy Awareness and Spiritual Growth by Ambika Wauters
F.E.E.L.: Feel Every Emotion as Love by Michelle Bersell

Recommended schools/teachers:
The International Center for Reiki Training
Infinite Light Healing Center
And of course, I teach as well! Learn more here.

With my husband and kids

What’s next for you?

My next act is continuing to teach the benefits of self-care and balance through one-on-one coaching and group workshops and to continue to attune others to Reiki so that our world will become a kinder, gentler place to live.

 

Connect with Susie Raymond
Email: susie@whitesagespa.com
Phone: 414-352-6550
Website: www.whitesagespa.com
Facebook Page




Becoming a Healer in Midlife: Mary’s Story

After suffering from hearing and learning challenges in youth, it would take the loss of her daughter and of her father for Mary to begin her journey of healing, and wake up to her life’s mission.

Tell us about your background.
My family life was somewhat typical of the ‘60s and ‘70s. We lived in Glenview, IL. My mother and father met on a blind date when they were in their early 20s and were married one year later. They showered us, their seven children, with unconditional love.

I was a happy baby, a curious observer of life, and early on believed that all things were somehow connected. My mom says that I was always talking to spirits and trees and bugs, and playing with imaginary friends. But I was also born a “blue baby.” I didn’t breathe for six minutes, and my mother was always convinced that those six minutes caused my hearing loss. (Little did we know that I would one day devote my life to transformation through breathwork and become the founder of a modality called Whalebreathing!)

When I was almost three, my mom became aware that my speech was not developing as it had in my older siblings. I was frustrated and angry when people could not understand what I was trying to communicate. In addition to hearing loss, I was diagnosed with a “perceptual language disorder.” When speech therapy did not provide the expected improvement, I continued to get more and more frustrated, feeling increasingly disconnected from the outer world, having more temper tantrums, and still not able to talk clearly. I know there were probably days my mom was stretched to her limit, but she never treated me as someone broken or disabled.

Family photo in my youth (I’m on the left, standing next to my dad)

At age five, I was diagnosed with a high-frequency hearing loss—when people talked to me, I could hear them, but not hear many of the consonants, only vowels. Trying to understand speech was exhausting and learning to speak was also challenging. I got hearing aids and continued with speech therapy.

In 1964, with the blessing of my mom, my father decided to join a troubled business (Edlong Dairy Technologies) that was going bankrupt. That decision changed all of our lives. By 1970, the company, which produces flavors for the dairy industry, was doing great and my father was part owner; he would eventually become sole owner. The company continues to thrive.

My parents’ marriage ultimately ended and my mother launched her own business as a Jung therapist.

I started school in 1966 when there were far fewer resources for a person with special needs. I always felt like some kind of experiment, as professionals would try this or that in an attempt to see what would work. I really disliked school because I never seemed to grasp what they were trying to teach me. I withdrew into myself, which was easier to do once I chose not to wear the hearing aids—they overwhelmed my sensory world. I had a lot of siblings, and it was very noisy at home. I didn’t realize that not wearing them was allowing me to connect more to my intuition and now wonder if I was supposed to develop that other part of me.

Because I was always in the lowest groups in reading, math, and science, I decided early on that I was stupid and felt a great deal of shame and self-pity. At 10 years old, my parents became concerned because I was not keeping up in school and had me tested again. Because I tested so poorly, the school district recommended I be sent to a school where there was a specialist who worked with the hearing impaired. The school was located about 45 minutes from my home and required me to ride a special bus.

While at first, I was excited about this change, this did not last. Riding the special bus made me feel abnormal and ashamed. My new classmates were mean and made fun of the way I talked. I stayed in that school for three years and became very depressed and introverted.

When I started high school and reconnected with my old neighborhood friends, my social life became more important than the academics. I decided that there was no one who could help me to learn and dreamed of living with animals, ideally whales and dolphins.

My high school graduation photo

Everyone expected me to go to college but I did not believe in myself so I found a residential two-year college where I mostly learned how to party and have fun; I barely got my associate degree. When I transferred to a four-year college, I ended up at a huge university and, at 21, decided to quit school.

I went home and worked at a bagel restaurant, where I had a terrible experience. Sometimes it would get crowded and loud. I had a regular customer who came in daily, and I always made mistakes on his order. One day, he started yelling at me and said, “What is wrong with you, are you stupid?” I was shocked and said, “No, I am hearing impaired.” He said, “Why don’t you wear a sign and warn people?” and stormed away. I felt ashamed and angry, but I also felt a new determination to get an education and change my life.

My younger sister, Paula, who is learning disabled, was at Barat College (now closed), where they had special help for people with learning disabilities. She was aware of my frustration with school and encouraged me to enroll in her program. I was scared and felt like I was too stupid to learn but, as she encouraged me and shared her pain, it helped me to understand my own. She got me to take the next step by acknowledging my talent and strength and believing in me.

At 22, I applied and took three days of testing to help the school determine my learning challenges. When the results came back, the specialist said, “You have a severe learning disability and our goal will be to get your development up to date. Your whole life, they treated you as hearing impaired but did not address the LD issues, which explains your frustration in school. It’s not that you cannot learn; it’s how you learn, which is primarily visually.” The specialist explained that my reading level was at grade two and my reading comprehension was at grade three. I sat there stunned and hurt, but I was also angry and wondered what people had been doing for the past 15 years of my education. How did I get this far with all these challenges and not get the help that would have made such a difference in my life? I cried all the way home.

With a friend in college

Barat College did an excellent job of convincing me that I could succeed there and that they could help me to compensate for all that I had lost. They focused on my strengths. They had a note taker and tutor for me in every class and a person to read textbooks with me. I also met with an LD specialist three times a week for one hour. I was at school from 8 am to 8 or 9 pm and worked very hard.

While others’ belief in me kept me from giving up, I was also frustrated because even putting forth my best effort, I would walk away with a C+ and hear someone else had aced a test having just read the chapter the night before. My LD specialist knew I needed to be encouraged or she would lose me. In those days, very few hearing-impaired students graduated college. When I didn’t think I could make it through the final stretch, she asked me a lot of questions about how I saw myself, what my challenges had taught me, and how I could help others on similar journeys. She gave me the opportunity to see my unique strengths and new possibilities. I ended up finishing school with a 3.0 grade point average, which was wonderful for me. I never will forget what it felt like on graduation day, hearing my name and walking up to receive my diploma. My huge family was there, applauding me. My heart was filled with so much love and happiness; I had reached a goal that I truly never thought I would.

Graduating college

I graduated when I was 25 years old, started working as a lab technician, but soon developed classic symptoms of depression. I had no energy, no appetite, and had difficulty getting out of bed in the morning. The transition to the work world was difficult and I sought out resources to help with the change. I, fortunately, found my way to a Jungian Analyst, where working with the unconscious and the dream world was the primary focus. My analyst also helped me identify destructive inner messages. Through this work, I realized I did not see myself working in an office environment.

I loved the idea of connecting with, and being of service to, people and animals and nature. I ended my time as a lab technician about a year later and traveled across the country by myself. My journey took me to the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a retreat center in California where I lived for about a week. I meditated with the students early each morning, a difficult exercise, but one I was able to embrace. Although I cannot hear birds when I do not wear my hearing aids, during one meditation, I kept hearing the sound of an owl. Leaving the meditation hall that morning, I spotted a huge white owl in a tree, looking straight at me. When I got home, I told my analyst that I felt the owl represented wisdom and that I needed to trust the wisdom of my journey.

Interestingly, in my life today, when I get off track, an owl frequently appears in my path. That initial experience happened about 18 years ago, and in the interim, five more owls have appeared. It seems to me that guidance is present in our lives if we are open to seeing it.

There were times when I desperately needed that guidance. I married in 2002 and my husband and I lost our first baby, whom I had named Catherine Rose. I’ll never forget the night my milk came in and the grief that engulfed me knowing my child was really gone. My husband was very present with me that night and supported me in a way that helped me see what a good man he was. Then I lost my dad in 2007 and went through a frightening time, certain that I had lost the one human being who would love me no matter what. My husband and I had a second child, a daughter we named Elyse, but the losses I’d experienced took a toll on us. We grew more and more emotionally distant from one another, and our marriage ended in 2009.

With Catherine Rose

I had to reflect on a new career that would support my child and allow me the freedom to explore my calling. Working at my family’s business gave me that freedom. I had many jobs there, from scraping paint off the floor, then working in production, operations, marketing, sales, and eventually in Human Resources doing staff development, orientation, and recruiting.

When did you start to think about making a change?
The loss of my daughter, Catherine Rose, in 2003, woke me up to my life’s work. Through my grief, I found a strength and courage I never realized I had. This lesson from my daughter was a gift—I can share strength and courage as I walk beside others and be a companion to their grief. I became whole again, yet I was not the same.

When I was pregnant with my second baby, I was aware of how much I needed to connect with my unresolved grief. I had come to a roadblock in my life after losing my dog and best friend and father all in 18 months. I was also overwhelmed with grief about the baby I lost. I was so afraid and I did not want my second child to feel this.

After my second daughter, Elyse, was born in 2004, I felt somewhat depressed and wondered what to do with my life. I still worked at the family business yet didn’t feel it was my passion. I picked up a book called The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement, by Eliyahu Goldratt and Jeff Cox, that asked me to think about when I felt at my best and most excited about life. I realized that I was my happiest when I taught others about their own lessons and that healing my own grief could allow me to help others.

With Elyse, as a young mom

In 2008, I experienced energy work for the first time. After one session, I felt clear and more present than I had in years and knew I wanted to integrate this work into my practice. As I continued my own healing, I discovered energy work and the power of breath. I thought about how I started life without breath, and how that lead to my deafness and my relationship with silence, and would ultimately lead me to become a breath coach. I started to embrace my challenges as gifts, and my path became very clear as I just kept following the passion.

I stayed at my family’s business until its 100th-anniversary party in December 2014. I was 52 years old. By then it was clear to me that my work was meant to be about supporting women to find their true, authentic selves. I knew it was time for me to make a positive change, and even though I was petrified, my spirit was calling and I had no choice but to follow it.

What is your next act?
I am a life coach and founder of an energy modality called Whalebreathing. I established Blooming Rose Healing (the name honors the memory of my daughter Catherine Rose) in 2013 in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, at age 51. I created this center to support women through the process of transformation, especially those challenged by stress, anxiety, or disease. I help them see the gift of their own personal story and use that knowledge to more fully embrace the authentic person they are becoming.

As a healer, I share the gift of my own story as well. My deafness taught me to be present and intuitive and communicate on many non-verbal levels. These skills benefit my healing work because I have to be completely present in order to hear my clients. By doing this, I teach my clients how to do it. Instead of trying to meet the hearing world, my job is to teach the hearing world to meet me in my presence and focus.

 

How do you work with clients?
I first do an assessment and watch their breathing patterns to get a sense where their body is. Once I understand that, we decide together on a plan to help them become more centered and grounded. My work is about educating people on how to align on three levels: mental, emotional, and spiritual.

As an example, I had a client with lung cancer. She was very distressed with the diagnosis. I did an assessment and we decided on six sessions to help her go through this process. As we connected to her body, we entered a world of deep grief for her father and also a fear of dying. She had been affected by the Holocaust and had lost her father. She’d also been taken from her family at age five, lived in many counties, and didn’t reconnect to her mom until age 18. As I helped her reconnect to her trauma and loss, her cancer went into remission. She told me her diagnosis had felt like a death sentence until she realized it was a gift. We allowed her body to communicate to her, which led to her reclaiming her well-being. She continues to be well.

A client in a Whalebreathing session

How did you go from your vision to making your goals a reality?
First I had to heal the old wounds I still carried as a result of my deafness. People who are deaf struggle with isolation. It’s so frustrating and exhausting to stay connected to others. I was constantly trying to be in a world that was impossible for me. It was like trying to make a monkey into a dog.

One day I heard an inner voice telling me to listen to the lyrics of a song called White Bird. It’s about a white bird who sits in her cage all alone, who must fly or she will die. My deafness and isolation have been that cage, and I knew I had to find a way to free myself. I could only do this by finding the gift in it.

I began my exploration by training for three years in with the Energy Touch School, founded by Tricia Eldridge, eventually earning a certification. During this time, I noticed that when I hit upon areas of trauma when working with clients, they would stop breathing. This increased my interest in breath work and led me to study Transformational Breath Foundation, launched by Judith Kravitz. I’m now working toward a certification in this modality as well.

I pursued my childhood interest in dolphins and whales and marine life by taking whale watching trips and eventually attended a Cetacean Summit in Hawaii. That really ignited my passion and I began volunteering for these retreats.

All of this led to the creation of my practice as the “whale whisperer of the Midwest” and my mission to bring whale energy to landlocked areas.

Petting a gray whale on my retreat

How did you set up and promote your new business?
I started by listening to my own inner voice and trusting, which was not always easy. I did a lot of my own breathing and connecting to myself so I could stay grounded and integrated through my own fears. I believe once we take that leap we also say ourselves, “I am truly ready to meet my fears around worthiness, financial fears, and my authentic self.” I came across amazing people who understand the work involved in creating a business around a vision. I worked with people from Just In Time Direction and One Complete Business who helped me execute my dream. My first client came when I was in training. I still have many clients from those early days and appreciate their dedication to themselves and their growth.

I promote my work through my WhaleBreathing workshops, which are based on Transformational Breath and Energy Touch. I do classes all around the Chicagoland area, blog, write newsletters, and hold events to give people the sense of just being.

What challenges did you encounter?
My biggest challenge was myself. Thankfully, I had people who saw my gifts before I was able to and believed in me before I did. My first encounter with a humpback whale taught me so much about the power of being. Before that trip, I was working with my mentor, who was an Energy Touch Practitioner. She told me to visualize a whale in front of me. She pointed out how much energy this whale had to have in order to hold his body together and swim. She asked me to claim that energy within myself and allow myself to be as powerful. Then I went to Fiji and met my first whale in the water. I was petrified! I jumped on my guide’s back and almost drowned him. That experience was challenging, but today I jump in the waters and dance with these amazing gentle beings, who teach me what it is we need to walk this journey called life.

In the water with whales

Figuring out my pricing was also tricky for me because of my big heart, but I realized this is my work; I have to put food on the table and feed my family. So I researched others who do similar work and came up with packages and a plan.

How supportive were your friends and family?  
I realized I could only surround myself with people who believed in me and in my vision. I was scared and had the voice of “You will never pull this off.” And it would have been very easy to turn back and not do this, but it also would have been more painful. Somewhere in me, I knew it was time to make the change and once I decided, all the love and support fell into place. I could not have done this without the love and support, and for that, I am so grateful.

Current photo with my mother and siblings

What have you learned about yourself in this process?
I learned that it takes a huge amount of courage to walk through fear. I learned that even if I have voices in my head that do not believe in me, I can honor those voices without giving them power. I learned how to become the witness of my own life and watch it unfold. I learned how to breathe and how to heal through transition. It’s not about the goal, but about the journey. That’s where you learn the great lessons in life. I learned that it is ok to be afraid and that it too will pass.

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Surround yourself with love and knowledge and support. We are all powerful beings who deserve to be happy and embrace our gifts.

For those who do not know their gifts or goals, just go back to your own story and remember when you shone, remember when life just felt great, and recall what it was you were doing that made you so happy.

When I was young and innocent, my love was about connecting to the earth and its animals. I wanted to be in the water with whales and be a part of their life. I never in my dreams thought it would be about being a breathwork practitioner, founder of Whalebreathing, supporting others in achieving their own dreams and change. Believe in your dreams, and allow them to direct you to your authentic self.

When you make the decision to change your life, know that it is normal to feel resistance and negativity. Find a great mentor to walk this path with you, one who can be completely honest with where you are. I work with people all the time who have made huge changes in their life, and no one yet has died from it.

I remember an idea that resonated with me. It went something like this, “When we start to experience boredom, the soul life is ready for a change, so be the change you want to be in the world.” I continue to work toward finding my authentic self and allowing that change in my life.  My work is all about that process, and grief lets us know what we need to let go of in order to take the next step on our own beautiful and unique journey.

Going to meet the whales

What advice do you have for women interested in becoming energy practitioners?
Whatever path you are guided to take, you’ll be required to look at yourself and walk through your blockages. People who really want to help others need to start from within and be brutally honest with themselves. The interesting part of my life was that I was a victim first because of my deafness, yet when I chose to see that as a gift, my life changed drastically and I started doing the work I am here to do. Trust your own healing first.

What resources do you recommend?
The books I recommend are:
Bruce Lipton, The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles
Carolyn Myss, Anatomy of the Spirit: The Seven Stages of Power and Healing
Rudolf Steiner, How to Know Higher Worlds: A Modern Path of Initiation
Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

What’s next for you?
I’m always open to what’s next. I’m traveling a lot and studying and watching the whales as they teach me more about breath and the energy field. I’m also feeling a strong pull toward researching the soul and what it really is in the human being. I’m writing and will probably publish a book from this journey. I’m also getting out in the world more, speaking about the importance of harmony and how to access it.

 

Connect with Mary Rondenet:
Email: mrondenet@bloomingrosehealing.com
Website
Facebook 
LinkedIn

 

 




Becoming a Physician Assistant in Midlife: Michelle’s Story

After 16 years of teaching high school wellness, Michelle felt ready for a greater challenge to leverage her interest in health. After much planning and preparation, she is now studying to become a Physician Assistant, and loving the journey.

Tell us a little about your background…

I am a married, 41-year-old mother of two boys, ages 6 and 8. I received my BA in health and physical education in 1996 from Ohio Northern University (Ada, Ohio) and taught in the greater Cincinnati area for four years before moving to Chicago.

I finished my Master’s in Education in 2002 and taught at New Trier High School in Winnetka, IL for 12 years. I taught in the Kinetic Wellness department, which, in most schools, is better known as health and physical education. My primary teaching assignment was health education (sex education and personal fitness) but I also taught team sports and women’s health and fitness. In addition, I was very active in departmental activities: I was the sophomore health course coordinator, sat on the hiring committee and the policies and procedures committee, and more.

My boys

When did you start to think about making a change?

When each of my sons was born, I took a leave of absence from my job to spend time with them in their infancy months. With my second child, I did not feel that magical “pull” to return to work. Teaching had started to feel like Groundhog Day, every day; I could do pretty much anything and everything on autopilot. While this made work very easy, it also made it exceptionally boring.

Compounding this issue, I often felt like a second-class citizen at my high school because I did not teach what they considered a “solid” class, like English or math.

I am very curious about health, wellness, and disease, and if I couldn’t use my skills and talents in the classroom, I felt I should find other avenues where I could make a difference. It doesn’t help that I don’t have a lot of confidence in our state and federal government when it comes to public education—be it classroom funding, standardized assessments, or funding pensions. It was clearly time for me to leave teaching.

What is your next act?

I am a member of the 2017 Rush University Physician Assistant Studies cohort. Upon completion of the program and after passing the licensing exam, I will be certified as a Physician Assistant (PA) and will be able to practice medicine as a member of a collaborative team of healthcare providers.

I will become a PA-C, which stands for Physician Assistant – Certified. In every state, in order to practice as a PA, one must take and pass the PANCE (Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam) for initial certification and also take and pass the PANRE (Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam) every 10 years. Additionally, in order to maintain their license, a PA must accumulate a specified number of continuing education hours each year, as defined by their state licensing board.

Rush’s program is 30 months to complete as it has the unique 6-month advanced practice rotation. Participating in a program structured like this, the graduate is prepared with both strong generalist skills and proficiency in an area of advanced practice. Most other PA programs are 24-27 months (Northwestern is 24, Midwestern is 27, Rosalind Franklin is 24 months).

Despite having very intense academic demands, I can honestly say that I am so happy I made this decision. I love studying medicine and science, learning how disease processes work, using critical thinking and reasoning to arrive at potential diagnoses, and beginning to formulate treatment plans. On the downside, there are days where all I feel I do is study, go to class, eat, study, then pass out from exhaustion – but I realize that this stage is temporary and so worth it! The volume of information and the speed at which it is disseminated is completely unreal; for example, our dermatology unit lasted one week where we spent five days in the classroom, had six Powerpoint sessions with over 650 slides, then had our exam. And, keep in mind that was only for one course! The volume and pacing is just brutal and, at times, I think to myself “how on earth am I going to remember all this?” but then I do review sessions for my certifying exam (two years down the road) and surprise myself with how much I actually know!

Study Carrel at Rush

There has been a huge growth in demand for PAs and in applications to PA schools. Why is that?

Implementing team-based, collaborative care coupled with the influx of more patients to the health care system (likely due to the Affordable Care Act) has emphasized the need for flexibility in care delivery to best meet the needs of patients. PAs are utilized in many areas of healthcare: seeing patients in clinic for routine or acute needs, rounding on patients in hospitals, assisting in surgery, performing various procedures, and providing patient education – often autonomously, but with collaboration from their partner physician.

Becoming a physician assistant, versus an MD, requires fewer years of study while still allowing you to assume a lot of responsibility in the field of medicine and rewarding you with an attractive salary. In addition, job opportunities are plentiful. According to a recent Forbes article, physician assistant studies is ranked the number one best master’s degree for finding a job. Here is a link to the US Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics regarding PA salaries, requirements, outlook, etc. While I can’t speak for other institutions, the program director at Rush did tell us she typically receives six job inquiries from potential employers per student. Currently, 100% of Rush graduates are employed within six months of graduation. Many secure jobs even before they graduate.

With PA Students, in the ER department at Rush

Why did you choose this next act?  What other options did you consider?  

I knew I wanted to do something in medicine, so I initially considered medical school to become a physician. After doing some research and talking to MDs and PAs, it became quite clear to me that the role of a PA was best suited for me. Knowing I would want to start school when I was 41, had I gone the MD route, I would not have begun practicing medicine until I was 50 and then I would have spent the next decade (or more!) paying off medical school debt.

Also, having had the opportunity to gain work experience and learn about the roles various individuals play in team settings, I am very comfortable with assuming a great deal of autonomy within the medical setting but am also comfortable serving as an adjunct in various settings.

Knowing that admission to PA school would be extremely competitive, I had to consider backup options. In the event I did not get into PA school, I also applied (and was accepted) to the Generalist Entry Master’s (GEM) program at Rush University, which would have awarded me a Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) and allowed me to sit for the registered nurse (RN) licensure test. I could then choose to complete further studies to become a nurse practitioner (NP), an RN with advanced training in diagnosing and treating illness.

For me, there were three main drawbacks to this backup route. First, the didactic and clinical preparation for PAs and RNs is pretty different: PA school follows a medical model and approaches medicine as an organ-disease system, whereas RNs are trained under a nursing model and approach medicine as more of a lifespan issue. For the most part it means that PAs are trained like doctors and use basic sciences as a foundation for their diagnostic reasoning in the care of patients: They determine the workup, analyze how the patient presents (signs/symptoms), order and interpret various tests (labs, imaging, etc), create a differential diagnosis list (possible underlying causes for the chief complaint), then formulate a treatment plan. I mean no disrespect when I say this next part, but nurses are trained to care for the patients they receive while in the hospital. A patient is admitted to their unit and assigned to them. The nurse follows the orders as prescribed by the MD/PA/NP and takes care of the patient on a moment-to-moment basis.

Second, after completing the MSN program and becoming an RN, I would have to spend a bit of time as a floor/shift nurse before I could work toward becoming an NP. I was not so keen on this work. As a floor nurse, you work three shifts a week for 12 hours at a time and every other weekend. While the responsibility is great, the opportunity to actually make decisions regarding the care of the patient is pretty low. As a physician or a PA, you look at the data given and use your physical/mental assessments to make decisions about the workup and treatment plan. The nurse follows your orders/plans. If something should change in the patient’s status, you have to call the provider and await his or her decision to modify care plans, and sometimes they’re not so nice about this—especially when you’re calling them at 3 am! When I became a Certified Nursing Assistant to get the required patient experience, I learned that while the majority of the providers who saw patients on our unit were tremendously kind, there were some that were just rude and condescending.

The job of floor/shift nurse can be exceptionally grueling, both physically and mentally. I think nurses must possess a very special skill set of caring and compassion, above and beyond what is typically provided by the MD/PA. Nurses are absolutely brilliant caregivers and the best ones have a knack for knowing what to say, how to say it, and when to say it. I know, this sounds really “intangible” if you will. From my experience as a nursing assistant, I saw so many wonderful nurses be able to provide such wonderful care to patients and their families in this manner. I also realize that they do it so much better than I could ever do it!

All in all, in order to work in the capacity that I wanted to, PA school would ultimately be less expensive and take less time, not to mention give me the intensity and focus I was seeking.

Studying in our driveway, while watching our boys

How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?

By nature, I am a planner. I need to understand processes, chart a course to arrive at my destination, and do lots of preparation to stave off disaster or failure. Once I made the decision to go for it, I began researching, first figuring out which schools in the Chicago area offered PA studies and then learning what I would need to do to present a competitive application.

I had to retake some courses (anatomy and physiology, psychology) and take several for the first time (general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, probability, and statistics). I completed these at City Colleges of Chicago and College of DuPage. Since I hadn’t touched most of these subjects in 20 years, I didn’t mind having to do all this work. Furthermore, my undergraduate GPA was a 3.0 so these additional undergraduate hours (with straight As) would significantly strengthen the academic portion of my resume for my application. Because I had to fit these prerequisites into my schedule, which also included working full-time and being a wife and mom, I took these courses part-time. It took me from spring 2012 through fall 2014 to complete all these class requirements.

As part of the PA application, I also had to gain direct patient contact experience. While there are many ways to do this, I chose to become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) and work at a hospital. Knowing that, I decided to leave teaching in the spring of 2013 so I could acquire as many hours as possible, since most schools really like to see 1,000 hours on the resume.

Shadowing physicians or PAs was another required activity for application. I was able to shadow in internal medicine, infectious diseases, obstetrics and gynecology, and interventional radiology. It was easy to find MDs to shadow but PAs were virtually impossible, as most of the PAs with whom I am acquainted work for medical groups that do not allow shadowing. Ideally, one of the MDs/PAs you shadow should write one of your letters of recommendation. In any event, the experience should shed light on the role that the PA plays in the healthcare team.

Finally, I had to take the GRE, a graduate admissions test, which is basically a math and English test. I had to prepare intensively for the GRE because it had been decades (literally!) since I had done many of the math problems I would be required to solve. I spent 6-8 weeks with a Princeton Review manual to ready myself.

Medical volunteers at Chicago’s Rock’n Roll Half Marathon

What was it like to go back to school to get your prerequisites?

Rarely did I have same-age peers in my classes. I think my background in teaching was exceptionally helpful in forming connections with my classmates. I was often the one organizing study groups outside of class. Also, since many of my peers were taking these classes for the first time, I was able to help them begin to develop good study habits such as creating/using mnemonics and making effective flashcards. I have kept in touch with several of my lab partners and study buddies from my courses.

The other students and my professors were very welcoming. Again, after being on the other side of the lectern, I understand the importance of building good (yet genuine) relationships with my professors. I’m still in contact with two of my instructors, and one even wrote my letter of recommendation.

With other Second Years

When did you possibly find time to become a certified nursing assistant too? Are there other ways to get the patient experience that’s required to apply to PA school?

I took an 8-week course in spring 2013 while I was still teaching AND taking anatomy and physiology 2 as well as organic chemistry. I’m not going to lie—it was BRUTAL. Fortunately, the CNA course wasn’t difficult at all; it was just time I had to spend to get it done and take the state certifying exam. Basically, you pay your $960 fee, buy your blood pressure cuff and stethoscope, pay for your background check, and state exam fee, and you’re done. It was super easy.

Some people come to PA school from another health field, such as being a registered dietitian, physical therapist, pharmacist. In those cases, the individual has earned at least a BS and has had acceptable patient contact. Most people, however, take the “entry level route” and pursue employment as an EMT or paramedic, phlebotomist, scribe, transporter, physical or occupational therapy aide, pharmacy tech, x-ray tech, etc.  Each individual school has their own idea as to what they deem acceptable; it is certainly not uniform across the board.

Practicing casting and splinting (my leg is NOT broken)

Letting a fellow student practice her phlebotomy skills on me

 

 

Tell us more about the application process.

Currently, there are 217 programs that offer academic training to become a PA. I applied to four schools (Rush, Northwestern, Midwestern, and Rosalind Franklin). This is a small number when compared to other students in pursuit of the same degree; because of the competition for admissions, many students apply to 10-20 programs. For example, Rush received 1,200 applications, invited 200 to interview, and offered admissions to 30 (in other words, a 2.5% admit rate). Midwestern, based on what I heard at open houses, receives about 3,000 applications for 86 spots.

All applications must be sent through CASPA.

It’s pretty easy – demographic information, enter ALL your coursework (so your overall and science GPA can be calculated), enter your direct patient contact hours, your shadowing experiences, GRE scores, former work experience, etc. The application fee was about $290.

You must include at least two recommendations but no more than three. Most programs want one from an instructor who can speak to your academic abilities and one from a PA/MD. I got my first recommendation from the infectious diseases physician I shadowed. My second one came from my Anatomy and Physiology instructor who had previously worked in ultrasound/radiology and used to be the director of the radiology tech certification program at her school. My third one came from my manager at the hospital where I worked as a nursing assistant.

The CASPA has one general essay: “Why do you want to be a physician assistant?” I hated it because it was so general and so totally open-ended. I also knew that initially, it would get about 2 minutes of eye-time, so I had to make sure my essay grabbed the reader immediately. Some schools require supplemental questions, like Rush and Northwestern. Basically, for Rush, it was asking, “Are you really serious about our school?”

Whiteboard wall in study lounge at Rush, preparing for an anatomy exam

You were called in for an interview at Rush. What was that like?

The interview went from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The initial session was informational, with the program director. The 20 of us who had been called in were split into four groups, where our activities rotated. My group started with a tour of the facilities, hosted by a first-year student. Next, we had a paperwork session where we had to submit a photo, unofficial transcripts of any outstanding coursework, and fill out a sheet indicating any change in our direct patient contact hours and shadowing since our application submission. Following that was a 30-minute one-on-one interview. After the interview, we all reassembled for a Q&A session with students in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd years. Next up was a 60-minute time slot allotted for a 70-question medical terminology exam. Finally, we had a 60-minute time slot to type responses to two essay questions that we had received upon our arrival.

Observing orthopedic surgery

What kinds of things did they seem to be evaluating?

It seemed to be a little bit of everything. Even though the formal interview was only 30 minutes, I’m not naïve to think that the other parts of the day didn’t matter. Here is my take on what they were looking for during each part of our visit:

Arrival and opening session: How comfortable are you socializing with strangers who are all in the same boat as you? Do you seem like the type who might be a good fit for cohort work?

Three-on-one interview: I interviewed with the director of clinical education, a third-year PA student who was currently in her advanced practice rotation, and a second-year PA student who was doing her clinical rotations. All three of them had laptops and took turns asking questions, then immediately started typing once I began to speak.

Medical terminology test: I purposely took a medical terminology class so I could ace this. Luckily, I passed it. If you do not pass it but matriculate at Rush, you have to retake it.

Essay: We had two essays and were given the prompts at the beginning of the day. They were both scenarios one might come across, one while in PA school, another once a practicing PA. During the breaks in the day, I started brainstorming and putting together my ideas. I believe they are evaluating one’s ability to think critically about a complex problem and convey a thoughtful, coherent solution in a concise manner (considering we only had 60 minutes to write both essays).

After our white coat ceremony

Can you tell us more about the three-on-one interview? What kinds of questions did they ask?

Here are the questions anyone interviewing with a PA school should expect:

  • Why do you want to be a PA?
  • What do you think a PA does?
  • Why do you want to study here?
  • How have you prepared to deal with the rigors of this program (academically, emotionally, and do you have a support system in place)?
  • What unique experiences have you had that you can apply to being a PA?
  • The requisite ethical question (mine was: you believe your attending/supervising physician is under the influence of alcohol, what do you do?)
  • Why should we pick you?

I was not terribly stressed out about this interview. In my role as high school teacher, I was on the hiring committee so I spent a good four years on the other side of the interviewing table. I remember what I liked (and didn’t like) to hear and see and could tailor my approach to better read the needs of my interviewers and give them what they wanted. For example, I’d look at their body language: Are they looking away/yawning as if bored or disinterested or are they leaning forward in their chairs, nodding along with me?

I also made a playlist for my iPod and listened to music on the drive to Rush that morning; it really set the mood for me and got me pumped up.  I also spent a great deal of time preparing for the interview by reading through the college catalog. I knew that I could drop keywords that demonstrated my knowledge of the school’s mission, tell stories that illustrated my skills using “their language,” and show enthusiasm. I wanted to be a good “match” for the school, so I made sure to speak to their mission, values, and vision, all of which were clearly defined over and over throughout the catalog. I wanted to leave no doubt that I a) knew what a PA was, b) knew that I wanted to be a PA, c) knew that I wanted to matriculate at Rush, and d) knew that I would be both a great student and alumni.

Our white coat group

How supportive were your family and friends?

I would never be able to do this without the unconditional support of my husband. He is my biggest cheerleader in this endeavor. When I was still teaching full-time AND taking my prerequisites prior to application, he assumed the bulk of the family responsibilities—sometimes four months would go by and I wouldn’t have done a single load of laundry. As a result, I was able to focus on my job and my studies without having to stress about the house or the family.

My boys were two and five when I started doing prerequisites and are five and eight now, as I’m starting PA school. This is “normal” for them. What I like the most is that I get to model hard work, focus, and perseverance in an academic pursuit; I hope they adopt my work ethic and drive. Although I was fortunate to have done well, this was NOT easy, and I’m proud of what I accomplished. I hope they can see that hard work can take you very far in life.

My friends have been very supportive of my desire for change and, I’ll be honest, it is exhilarating to share with my former colleagues that I indeed DID achieve my goal of getting into PA school!

With my husband

What challenges did you encounter?

I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist and was unwilling to accept anything but an outstanding academic resume to present for admissions, so I probably put myself under a greater amount of stress than was necessary. In fact, now that I am in the didactic year of my program, I am finding that I am LESS stressed than when I was taking my prerequisites!

Another challenge was planning for a decrease in our family income. Rush’s program costs approximately $100,000. All the programs in the Chicago area are private institutions, so costs would be similar but lower due to the fact that they are shorter in duration. I have taken out student loans to cover the cost of tuition. While they may seem daunting, I am in the fortunate position of having a spouse who works full-time (which means I don’t have to take out loans for housing or living expenses, etc.).  This has meant that we had to modify how we live and how we spend, but the impact hasn’t been too great. It makes me feel a little better about paying them back, knowing that we’ve been able to keep the family afloat while I’ve had no income.

Studying at the pool

Were there times when you thought about giving up? 

I’ll share a funny story here. Typically most PA schools have wrapped up their interview and offer process around the beginning of the year. On January 5, 2015, when I hadn’t heard from the PA schools where I’d applied, I decided that I would contact the GEM nursing coordinator and let them know I’d like to matriculate in the fall. I felt as if I had gone through the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief and decided I needed to begin moving forward with Plan B, nursing. I accepted that I could be happy with this decision knowing that I had done everything to try to pursue PA school. The very next day, I was invited to interview at Rush for a spot on the waitlist. Of course, I jumped at it—what did I have to lose? I interviewed on February 6, learned I was on the waitlist on February 17, and got the call from the director on February 19 with the invitation to join their program.

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

Spending 16 years teaching has made me a better student than I ever could have imagined. I understand learning and how to learn, and it’s been a huge help.

I’ve also learned just how supportive my husband is. He is a great partner, father, and my biggest cheerleader.

 

Celebrating the end of a quarter with friends at Coopers Hawk

What words of advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

It can be very scary and risky, so be sure to have backup or contingency plans. That being said, don’t let your fear of the unknown stop you from pursuing something when you know it is the right decision. Before making the leap, grab lunch or coffee with people in the profession to learn as much as you can. Don’t be shy asking them about the grades, experiences, and finances involved. Put together a reasonable plan to accomplish your goals—many of you might have a family that also needs you.  Build a solid support network around you that includes people who are enthusiastic about your choices.

 

What words of advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?

Get good grades, pursue interesting and appropriate clinical experiences to earn the hours needed for application, start networking with physicians and PAs who will let you shadow and perhaps eventually write your recommendations.  Get into a hospital and make sure you see some of the most disturbing things: newly amputated limbs, trauma sites, infected wounds, gushing blood – these are all things that will be commonplace in your future career so get used to them now.  I’m at the point where NOTHING surprises me anymore!

Find the right PA program for you. Currently, there are 217 programs that offer academic training to become a PA. A list can be found here. Clearly, some programs are stronger than others. Interested students should look for ones that offer a masters level of education, as opposed to bachelors or associates. Also, the PANCE (Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam) first-time pass rate should be strongly considered as it sheds light on the rigor of the program.

Be absolutely certain to attend any open houses provided by the schools you wish to attend. Take your spouse or partner with you so they, too, know what you may be getting into.

My final project for my mental health rotation

What resources do you recommend?

­ PA Education Association

CAPSA or Central Application Service for Pas: This is where prospective students apply plus it has a wealth of other information

Follow the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

The Ultimate Guide to Getting Into Physician Assistant School by Andrew Rodican. I bought it and read it cover to cover numerous times.

 

What’s next for you?

Right now I’m focused on surviving my didactic (academic/classroom) year of PA school, which means being in class from 8am to 5pm on a daily basis for the next year. Once I get through the program and settled into a career, I think my next act will be retirement (in about 25-30 years!)

 

Contact Michelle Roush at mrsmichelleroush@yahoo.com

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Writing and Speaking After Her Cancer Recovery: Darryle’s Story

Hit with a cancer diagnosis in her 40s, Darryle found solace and healing in making mosaic art. A desire to sell her art online would lead her to write and speak about her recovery, and to co-found WHOA, an online platform for women in midlife.

 

Tell us a little about your background…

I make mosaics by taking a jumble of different pieces that don’t seem to fit together, and I assemble them into one beautiful whole. That’s exactly how I envision my life journey—a mosaic.

The first piece is Miami Beach, where I grew up in the sixties. It might seem like a very glamorous and glitzy hometown, but in reality, it was a safe, close-knit community. I was the oldest of three kids. We played outside in the street, we could walk or bike to public school, my mom gave us milk and cookies when we got home. My childhood sounds like a cliché of the American dream, and it really was, until one scene spoiled the pretty picture.

Family photo in Miami Beach

My incredible mom died in 1968 at 41, after my freshman year in college. She had been in the hospital for a couple of months; we kids were told it was just a back problem. Her death was a complete shock and it took five years for my father to finally tell me Mom had cancer. This truth reshaped my past and my future; cancer became my greatest fear.

Meanwhile, I transferred to Yale, graduating in the first class ever to include women. My degree was in History, and this extraordinary experience shifted my thinking—from assuming I would find a husband in college, to finding a career.

I fell into the perfect career almost by accident, becoming a TV writer, reporter, and anchorperson in Miami, working on documentaries and news. A romantic twist was added when I interviewed Mel Brooks, who played matchmaker, setting me up on a date with his manager. Four months later, we were married and I moved to Los Angeles, where I worked as a reporter and freelance writer and had two kids.

With Mel Brooks and my first husband

When did you start to think about making a change?

My early 40s brought big changes: divorce, remarriage, and moving with my children from Los Angeles to Carmel, California. Though Carmel is idyllic, my life was stressful, working full time and adjusting to a new community, new marriage, new everything. Making another change was the last thing I was thinking about.

Naturally, that’s when I got hit with my worst nightmare: cancer. I got my pathology report of stage III breast cancer on July 17, 1995, the day of my one-year anniversary with my new husband, V—definitely the most memorable anniversary ever. (We’re still married.)

I wouldn’t call this an “aha” moment; this was a nuclear bomb blast that shattered everything I thought was safe, good, or even possible.

Losing hair during chemo

I had a very bad prognosis, and I truly believed I was going to die, as my mother had, leaving my children motherless. At the start of my cancer journey, just living a little longer was my top priority, really my only priority. I was forced to shift my focus from taking care of my kids to taking care of myself. I had a full year of treatment: two chemos, five surgeries, and radiation. I tracked down every possible option to boost my odds of survival, and I write about that in my book. Today I’m very lucky, grateful, and proud to be a 22-year survivor.

One part of healing was trying to escape emotionally and mentally from the bombardment of stress. I tried everything from music to meditation to yoga but I could not get my cancer, or my fear, out of my head for even five minutes. Then one day I took my 7- year-old son into one of those little paint-it-yourself pottery studios.

I was never artistic or crafty. I had zero talent and even less confidence. It was a good diversion, and I really enjoyed it. So I went again by myself, and something kept me going back to paint at that little studio—really, my sanity. While I painted, I was so focused I didn’t think about anything else, including cancer. That realization was a revelation, one that turned into a reinvention.

My mosaic studio in Carmel

I was one of those people who never really had a passion for anything before. It was a shock to discover any interest or ability to create art. I went crazy for it—painting bowls, mugs, vases, a set of dishes, cookie jars to give everyone I knew. My addiction developed into obsession once I started making mosaics.

I developed my own art process. I would paint a group of different tiles, then break them up and rearrange them into mosaics. So many things about this appeal to me: the jumble of different shapes and sizes and colors, the mixture of patterns, the lack of order. Kind of like my personality.

My real epiphany was when I suddenly realized that mosaics are a metaphor for life. Life can break things that are most beautiful to us. To make mosaics, and to make my life work again, I was picking up broken pieces, rearranging them into something different that is beautiful in a new way. Just like we all do. This is resilience, being the artist of your own life.

I explain this in my TEDx talk and my book, I Never Signed Up for This…: Finding Power in Life’s Broken Pieces. That’s why my book subtitle is “Finding Power in Life’s Broken Pieces.”

My working life was always creative, but everything I had done before involved words. Art was a departure: using my eyes and my hands, not my brain. And I was healing myself. My series of whimsical women’s torsos called Boobalas came right out of my experience losing both breasts.

Mosaics were so therapeutic and rewarding; there was nothing else I wanted to do with my time and my life. I started selling them, making pieces by commission, and I opened my own studio. Maybe my most satisfying moment was being asked to create a piece for the same hospital where I had cancer treatment.

What is your next act?

In addition to mosaic art, my next act has been writing and speaking. Through humor and perspective, I focus on various aspects of my life experience—from resilience to parenting to loss to health to aging—that anyone can apply to his or her own life.

Honestly, this next act doesn’t fit neatly into a category or label. I’ve described it with the tagline and title I’ve used for my blog and my book: “I never signed up for this….” Because of all the times I’ve said those words.

Those words can apply to something bad, like cancer, or something good, like giving a TEDx talk. The common thread is that life takes you in directions you don’t expect, and we all can adapt. A book, speaking, social media, videos, workshops, websites—nothing about my reinvention was on my radar at first.

It started when someone suggested I try blogging to market my mosaics online. This was years ago, and I had no idea what blogging was. When I found out, it intrigued me, so I jumped right in and created my blog called “I never signed up for this….”

It had been years since I had written anything, years when I had experienced so much, and words started pouring out as art had poured out of me. In addition to my own blog, I started writing for the Huffington Post and other sites.

I rediscovered the joy in writing, and I’m still feeling it almost 10 years later. I loved the immediacy, the independence, the freedom to express myself, the wide range of creative aspects that could flow from a blog.

There’s another major reason writing felt so fresh and new, and so right. In my previous career, I was an observer. As a journalist, I told other people’s stories. Now, for the first time, I was telling my own.

What challenges did you encounter?

At first, I had no idea what I was doing. That’s typical of me. I don’t read instruction manuals. I can be impulsive. I often act or speak, and then think. There was no preparation or research; I felt that this was the next step for me, so I leaped, and trusted my instinct that it would work out.

Even so, I was intimidated by the technology and I really struggled with it. It took me weeks to learn how to post a photo on my blog; no one I knew was blogging yet and I didn’t know where or how to find help. I was entirely self-taught and just muddled through. Despite the aggravation and frustration, I loved learning a whole new world. There’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment to figure out how to do something that scares you. Overcoming my fear of technology was a big deal.

This is a new age, the whole world has moved online, everything is evolving and changing so fast. That feeds my creative spirit and suits my sensibilities. I felt lucky to stumble into it early on. There are so many possibilities, my brain could not keep up with everything I wanted and still want to pursue. So my path has a lot of twists and turns.

Another challenge was my age. I was in my fifties. I have never felt defined or limited by my age personally, but bloggers my age were outliers. I had to put a page on my site explaining to my peers what blogging was.

I didn’t realize I wanted or needed a community and there was no community in existence for my age range. Very gradually, I started finding people, by writing for other sites, reading other bloggers, some young enough to be my children. I felt connected since we were all moms, and what might have been considered a negative became a positive.

I was living in a small town at the time and felt isolated. That changed when I attended my first event for bloggers and then my first conference, which was BlogHer 09 in Chicago; and I got to meet online friends in person.

 

How supportive were your family and friends?

My kids were the only people around me who knew what blogging was, and I think they were amused by the whole thing. My husband was supportive; my ex-husband was skeptical—mostly about me sharing my life, and by extension, his. My friends had no idea what this was all about but they loved reading my blog, especially when they were featured in it.

Mother’s Day with my kids

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

Partly I re-learned things I already knew. I learned to appreciate my strengths and accept my weaknesses. I learned I still love to learn. I learned I still hate promoting myself. I learned that I had skills I could dust off and use. I learned that to make things happen, you need to ask, to take risks, to put yourself out there. I learned that I should take the initiative, rather than wait for someone to approach me. I’m still working on that one.

I learned to use my voice, to share experiences and perspective that could be useful to others. I’d been supporting and advising parents and women with breast cancer for years. I had lots to offer and nothing makes me happier than connecting and sharing, and hopefully changing lives for the better.

Over the years, writing brought related opportunities. As an example, a pivotal part of my next act started when I was a BlogHer Voice of the Year. I read my post on stage, about how women over 50 can feel invisible. Afterwards, a woman I didn’t know in the audience tweeted me about my talk and wanted to meet me. We met out in the hallway. Her name was Lynn Forbes; a year later, we co-founded WHOA Network. Women Honoring Our Age is an online platform for women in midlife and beyond—to support and show that we are vital, powerful, and authentic at every age.

With Lynn Forbes

In addition to the incredible, inspiring people I’ve met, and opportunities that opened up, WHOA led to me doing a TED talk when one of our advisors recommended I do it. And the success of the TEDx talk led to expanding it as a book.

In my sixties, the main limitation I feel is time. Not that I’m going anywhere! But at this point in life, I make choices based on what speaks the most to my heart and my gut, what has the most meaning, what can make the most impact. Age is an advantage in that way. You learn how to prioritize and what’s important—it’s not how many people like your Facebook page.

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

Funny you ask. This directly follows from my last answer about choices that matter: I would have spent less time on things that do NOT matter, such as devoting a year to my second blog Cluttercast. Don’t even ask. Related: I wish I had been more organized, especially with time management.

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

I’m not sure women need to seek reinvention. Even if you don’t, it will probably find you anyway! I would say just be open and roll with it. Life is filled with challenges and change is healthy. I would embrace change and practice resilience in all ways you can. At any age, being adaptable is probably the most useful life skill anyone can have.

Our productive working lives span so many more years than they ever did, new fields and possibilities are being created by the minute. Reinvention in careers is already the new normal. And whether you succeed or fail, there’s always another opportunity to do something else.

Reinvention requires a leap of faith for most of us, and the first step is the hardest, just putting yourself out there, taking a risk, and trying something new. But without that first step, you can’t move forward.

Not to imply anything deep about reinvention here—but what just flashed into my mind is the scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where they jump off the cliff. Taking a leap is much easier when someone is there to hold your hand.

Looking back, I wish I had sought collaborators earlier. Aside from my husbands (and that was only 50% successful), Lynn was the first partner I ever had. Finding the right person can be dicey; it can be a risk. But if it works, having a great partner really makes a difference.

Last thing, and maybe most important: DON’T BE SO HARD ON YOURSELF. Particularly for women, striving for perfection is a prison and we should all break out of it. (This is the topic of my TEDX talk and I think most women struggle with this ) There’s a line I saw recently that I love: “If only I had the confidence of a mediocre man.”

Speaking at Hope Lodge

What resources do you recommend?

For me, Suzanne Braun Levine is the guru of women later in life, and I would recommend any of her books. For careers, I would start with Marci Alboher, The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life.

WHOA Network has featured women who specialize in reinventing yourself, so I suggest checking out some of our videos and resources.

As their own second acts, my friend Ann Voorhes Baker has retreats called Women at Woodstock; and Johanna Herman Wise created Connect, Work, Thrive for women re-entering the workforce or reinventing themselves.

What inspires me most are stories of resilience. Since you contacted me, I’ve read quite a few interviews on this blog. It’s a wonderful collection of stories and a fabulous resource. I enjoyed learning more about my friend Helene Bludman and for obvious reasons I especially related to Mary Farina and her gorgeous glass art.

When it comes to cancer resources, there are so many today that it’s actually overwhelming. I think I am reading a book every week with cancer as a theme. I guess the best starting point no matter what your cancer might be is the American Cancer Society. Another resource I wish I had had is Facebook. I would suggest finding a group that fits your needs—whether you are looking for support or information.

What’s next for you? 

One reason I’m reading all these books about cancer right now is that I’m already working on my next next act. I’m deep into research on a book involving cancer.

Taking my own advice, I’m working with collaborators and loving that aspect of it. This book is very different for me, it’s intense research, an important story, and I’m incredibly excited about it. Although sometimes I can’t believe I’m taking on such a huge project at this point in life.

Plus I’m still doing speaking and freelance writing, so I’m busier than ever. I’ll always have a next next act until I stop breathing.

  

Contact Darryle Pollack at DarryleP@gmail.com

Website

WHOA Network

Twitter: @DarryleP

Facebook

WHOA Facebook page

Book: I Never Signed Up for This…: Finding Power in Life’s Broken Pieces




Let’s Hear from an Expert: Dr. Caroline Apovian, Director of the Center for Nutrition and Weight Management at Boston Medical Center

What unique challenges do women face related to nutrition and weight as they enter midlife?

Most women know that the ovaries produce estrogen, but many are not aware that fat cells also produce it. During menopause, the amount of estrogen produced by your ovaries decreases. Your fat cells try to compensate for the hormonal imbalance by swelling and becoming larger. These larger fat cells typically congregate around the waist, explaining some of the weight gain that accompanies menopause.

Aside from unwanted weight gain, extra fat stored in the belly increases risks for serious health problems. These include heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome. Hot flashes, headaches, mood swings, difficulty concentrating, and sleep disruption can also be triggered by the lower amounts of estrogen (and progesterone) produced after midlife.

Another challenge people face in midlife (not unique to women) is sarocopenia. This is the natural muscle loss that begins in our 30s and accelerates in our 40s. Our basal metabolic rate is primarily determined by the amount of lean muscle mass we have, so as we lose lean muscle mass, our metabolism slows down accordingly.

I might also add that stress and sleep deprivation significantly contribute to weight gain, and the pressures and stresses that middle-aged women face are a challenge that needs to be addressed in regards to weight and health.

 

Are there opportunities unique to women in midlife that they can leverage?

I would say so, yes. Women in midlife, as a general statement, tend to be wiser, more aware of their strengths and limitations, and have many years of practice balancing competing responsibilities. They also better understand their bodies and individual needs, and how caring for those needs is essential to maintain their physical and emotional health. This is also a generality, but many women in midlife who have families have children who are older, with a greater level of autonomy. This is a definite advantage when it comes to working in time for ourselves to engage in physical activity, manage stressors, and sleep 7-9 hours per night.

 

What are your best tips for women in midlife with respect to nutrition and weight, and living the second half with energy and health?

It’s difficult to say which aspects of nutrition and health are most important, but here are a few recommendations that patients have found helpful.

Eat a diet rich in protein. Protein is necessary to preserve, protect, and build muscle. I advise my patients to build meals around lean protein sources, such as fatty fish and poultry. As protein is the most satiating of the macronutrients, you’ll feel full longer and experience fewer energy highs and lows throughout the day. Enjoy a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables with your protein sources, as well as limited amounts of whole grains.

Work out with weights a couple of times per week. In order to counteract the process of sarcopenia, work out with weights a couple of times per week. You’ll be improving your metabolic speed and your strength, lowering your stress levels, preventing bone loss, sharpening your cognitive abilities, and reducing risks for cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. If you are new to weight lifting, start with lighter weights and fewer repetitions. Build up in weight and intensity as you get stronger.

Walk whenever possible. Stay active! It helps to burn calories, manage stress, reduce pain, preserve mobility, and improve quality of life.

Sleep 7-9 hours per night, every night. Sleep is crucial for our health. Adults who sleep 5-7 hours per night (or less) are 30-80 percent more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes, or to die prematurely, as those who sleep 8 hours or more. My weight loss patients are often surprised when I ask them about their sleeping habits, but the two are closely related. A chronic lack of sleep increases cortisol (stress hormone) and ghrelin (hunger hormone) while simultaneously slowing down your metabolism and decreasing leptin (a satiety hormone). Cortisol prompts the body to replenish energy in the form of hunger pangs. This is why chronic lack of sleep is contributing to the obesity epidemic.

Try intermittent fasting. Research has revealed that intermittent fasting helps with weight loss, decreasing inflammation in the body, reducing blood pressure, improving metabolism, and decreasing risks of type 2 diabetes.  At the clinic, I combine this principle with the fact that we need to feed our muscles protein to protect them, and the fact that most people who are trying to lose weight will have difficulty sustaining a complete fast as they go about their normal schedules.

Taking a temporary break from solid foods and having high protein smoothies instead achieves many of the same health benefits while simultaneously helping people to feel full and guarding their muscles. Swap out a few meals per week for protein smoothies and try having one all-smoothie day per week. I have developed a protein powder especially for this purpose, which can be found here. It’s a mix of whey and casein protein powders, as one of them works quickly to protect muscles, and the other digests slowly, over the course of several hours, to sustain a feeling of fullness. However, any unsweetened protein powder can work for this. Combine it with water, fresh fruit, and fresh veggies for a low calorie, high protein meal replacement.

 

What resources do you recommend to women in midlife who wish to maintain or improve their nutrition and weight?

Building Strength & Stamina by Wayne L. Westcott. This is an excellent book about strength training for health and weight loss, with plenty of helpful routines, photos, and an included DVD.

Ellen Dolgen for menopause-related advice and articles.

Weight Watchers is a reputable program that has helped many women and men to lose weight successfully.

The Age-Defying Diet: Outsmart Your Metabolism to Lose Weight is my latest book, and contains more information on all of the points I mentioned above. I also have a blog that features advice, articles, and recipes.  DrApovian.com

 

Contact Dr. Caroline Apovian at Dr.Apovian@gmail.com

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Book: The Age-Defying Diet: Outsmart Your Metabolism to Lose Weight

 

Caroline Apovian, MD, FACN, has worked as a leading researcher, treatment provider, and professor in the field of weight management and nutrition for over 25 years.  She is the director of the Center for Nutrition and Weight Management at Boston Medical Center, a professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine, and the vice president of The Obesity Society.  Her federal government positions include acting as a nutrition consultant to NASA and an appointed member of the federal government’s panel on the evaluation and treatment of overweight adults.  She is the author of The Age-Defying Diet: Outsmart Your Metabolism to Lose Weight, in addition to hundreds of papers, reviews, and book chapters on obesity and nutrition.  Her publications appear in the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of Women’s Health, International Journal of Obesity, Obesity Research, Digestive and Liver Disease, and Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, amongst others.  She has also co-founded the company Science-Smart, a provider of scientifically-supported products manufactured under strict laboratory conditions to facilitate healthy weight loss and sound sleep.




Advocating for Mesothelioma Awareness: Heather’s Story

Shortly after her daughter was born, Heather was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Now 11 years cancer-free, she has made it her mission to raise awareness of this deadly disease.

 

Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in a small town in The Black Hills of South Dakota called Spearfish, which has a population of about 8000 people and is home to a small liberal arts university. My mom and dad moved us there when I was in kindergarten, so I don’t remember much before that. I have only one sister who is 4 ½ years older than I am. I graduated high school in 1987, took a year off and was a nanny on the east coast before I decided to go back home and give college a try. After a few years, I decided a regular college was not for me and enrolled in cosmetology school.

Our wedding day, 1999

I loved doing hair. I not only worked in a salon but was an educator for Redken, a color and product company. That job was what brought me to Minneapolis/St Paul, where I still live today. I met my husband, Cameron, shortly after moving here and we got married a short 10 months after. We knew it was right the first night we met. We decided to hold off on starting a family while I pursued my career; I eventually became part owner of the salon I worked in. After two years, we decided it was time to try and get pregnant, after all, I wasn’t getting any younger! Lily was born a little over a year later, on August 5, 2006. I was 36 years old.

After I had Lily, I started to experience some puzzling symptoms. I was losing an extreme amount of weight, and looking back, I had only gained 5 pounds during the whole pregnancy, so that was concerning. I had a low-grade fever that lasted a few hours every evening and I was beyond tired. I was bone weary, that is the only way I can explain it. I was also anemic and had been since my release from the hospital when I had given birth to Lily.

Then in mid-October, it felt like a truck was parked on my chest, I was having trouble breathing and would get out of breath after the smallest of exertions. Many of the symptoms I had were chalked up to being postpartum; I never dreamt it could be anything worse. Only after a very frightening incident—I had gotten a load of laundry up from our basement after I had put Lily in her swing, then sat on the couch and passed out for over an hour—that I knew something was seriously wrong.

Baby Lily

 When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?

November 21, 2005 is the day the bottom dropped out of my world. I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that is almost always caused by asbestos exposure. I was exposed to asbestos as a child when my father worked with it and brought it home on his clothing. I remember wearing his dust-covered jacket to do my outside chores. I would grab his dirty coat to go feed our rabbits, rake leaves, or even just to go grab the mail. His coat always hung on the doorknob in our entry. I’d also run errand with him in his car, which was just as dusty as his coat.

My dad did construction, drywall sanding and clean up, and that joint compound had asbestos in it. He also did a lot of demolition, tearing apart old boilers that were covered in asbestos insulation, which meant he worked with a lot of it. Sadly, he died almost three years ago due to renal carcinoma, which can also be caused by asbestos exposure.

When I was diagnosed with mesothelioma, I was given just 15 months to live if I didn’t do anything. My baby was just 3½ months old and now I may not live to see her second birthday, my doctor told me with tears in his eyes. But he was prepared with a list of options for us. I could do chemotherapy and radiation, hope it would halt the cancer, and maybe give me five years, or try an experimental surgery, assuming I was a candidate, that consisted of removing my entire left lung where the cancer was. It would be performed by the best pleural mesothelioma surgeon in the world, Dr. David Sugarbaker, located in Boston at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Without hesitation, my husband said “Get us to Boston.”

After surgery, Feb 2, 2006

Facing a potentially life-ending diagnosis and dangerous treatment will change you on a foundational level. I lost my career, my salon, and many people who I thought were friends. The early days of my cancer battle were incredibly isolating, terrifying, but at the same time, life altering.

When I was diagnosed, I did what anyone would do. I went online and read up on what I was up against. Boy was that a bad idea. In all my reading, I learned that most mesothelioma patients didn’t make it past 18 months and that the 5-year survival rate was less than 2%.

Just let that sink in for a minute. You have a new baby. You just found out you probably won’t make it to see her second birthday, and the chances of seeing her turn five and go to Kindergarten are even worse.

I had to put everything I’d read aside and get it into my head that these are just statistics and that from the minute I was diagnosed I skewed the statistics. For one, I was about 35-40 years YOUNGER than the average mesothelioma patient. Second, I was otherwise healthy. I HAD to beat it.

Cancer in and of itself is isolating. People don’t know how to act around you. The people I had worked with all but pushed me out the door. I felt very little support from those who I thought would help me the most. Instead, I felt like a burden and a pariah.

After my diagnosis, I went into the salon that I had been part-owner of to gather my belongings and tools that I had bought throughout the years, only to discover they had cleaned out my station and let everyone claim them. I had to go around to everyone’s station and get back the hundreds of dollars of tools that people had claimed. I felt not only unwanted, but as thought they’d already written me off for dead. Who does that to someone? I quickly sold off my share in the salon and have not had contact with many people from there since.

To be honest, having the people I thought were friends turn their backs on me hurt more than getting diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t have many friends outside of my work friends, so I felt really alone. Thankfully, my clients stepped up. I had the best clients in the world. One of them paid my car payments for two months; another came over every week and cleaned my house. I found out who my true friends were and who really cared about me.

in ICU after the surgery

On the other hand, support from my husband and my families could not have been better. I have two sisters-in-law who live nearby in the Minneapolis metro area and they were there for us at a moment’s notice. My mother-in-law, Lois, would make meals and bring them over to us. My sister-in-law Debbie, who’s also Lily’s Godmother, would take Lily overnight every Friday or Saturday while I was going through treatment, to give my husband a break from his caregiving duties. My sister-in-law Karen was always available during the day to watch Lily when urgent medical issues came up, like the time I needed a transfusion.

Our families also banded together with my clients to put on a benefit for us. They all worked to make things easier for us during a tumultuous time. My cancer diagnosis brought us all closer together as a family, both on my and on Cameron’s side. We know what is important, and we are there for each other when it matters. It’s so good to know I can count on them when I need them and I’m happy to help them too, as the need arises.

My husband was my rock through this whole thing. Even though the possibility of losing his wife and being a single parent was very real, he never let that grief take over. I was pretty self-sufficient during treatment and could take care of myself ok, but where he was invaluable was his help with Lily. There were times during chemo when I literally could not get out of bed, so tending to an 8-month old was nearly impossible.

Cam, my rock

When I was done with treatment, Cameron when back to school to get his degree so he could get a better job, knowing full well I would not be able to return back to work. He worked full time while also going to school full time for two years, and graduated with honors. His schedule was brutal. He would get up at 6am, drive a delivery truck all day, go to school at night, study until 1 or 2am, then wake up and do it all over again. He got a job working in IT at US Bank before he even graduated and has been there for six years now and loves his career. So my diagnosis was not only the catalyst for my next act, but for his as well.

I decided not to concentrate on the hurt. I had a much bigger battle on my hands. I had no time for petty people or people who would not support me. I held my head high and put my energy into what mattered, my health and my daughter. My daughter is what got me through the really hard times. Just looking at this sweet innocent baby who was born into this mess and didn’t deserve any of this was my entire reason to fight and rise above. I refuse to play the victim.

My “aha moment” came when I realized I didn’t want anyone to feel the way I felt. If it meant personally reaching out to every newly diagnosed mesothelioma patient, then so be it. I NEEDED people to know they were not in this alone.

With Lily during recovery

 

What is your next act?

I am an advocate for the prevention and treatment of mesothelioma cancer.

I am a patient advocate: a mentor, sounding board, supporter. When someone is diagnosed with mesothelioma, they usually go online and find, like I did, all bad things and very little hope. I wanted to be that beacon of hope in a sea of despair.

It started simply with talking to other patients every time I returned to Boston to see my surgeon for checkups, a trip that will take place regularly twice a year for the rest of my life. After Dr Sugarbaker started telling journalists who reached out to him about me, news stories started cropping up on Reuters and the local newspaper.

However, what really launched my advocacy was meeting a woman by the name of Linda Reinstein at a mesothelioma conference, about four years after my diagnosis. She and I clicked right away. She had lost her husband to mesothelioma a couple of years earlier. They had started a nonprofit called The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. She invited me to speak at their annual conference the next year.

Speaking at Senator Franken 2016 event to raise awareness about asbestos

After that, things just started to roll. I was approached by The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance to be an advocate and blogger for them and I couldn’t say no. The blog has been hugely successful and reaches far and wide. The blogging community has been instrumental in getting the word out and helping me raise awareness. It’s been an amazing journey and my life has been enriched by the incredible people I’ve been able to meet as a result of this.

By sharing my story, blogging, and telling patients and their families that there are treatments that are helping patients with mesothelioma live longer, I give them that bit of hope that they so desperately need. I am available to talk to anyone and help anyone who finds themselves facing a mesothelioma diagnosis. There aren’t many people who are willing to put themselves out there for that purpose. I also serve as a conduit for information; I’ve learned a thing or two in the 11 years since my diagnosis and if my experience can help someone, then I’m doing the right thing.

I help point people to the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation so they can understand all their options. I DON’T offer medical advice as I am not medically trained, but advice from someone who’s been through something similar always helps.

Speaking at the 2016 ADAO conference

 

Can you tell us more about mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the organs, of the mesothelium. There are three types: pleural (my diagnosis) which affects the lung; peritoneal, which affects the abdomen; and pericardial, which affects the heart. There is even a rarer subtype that affects only men and is found in the testicles.

Mesothelioma is almost always caused by asbestos exposure and has a latency period anywhere between 10 and 50 years. It’s a very rare cancer, with only about 3,000 people a year diagnosed in the US. Most people, upon diagnosis, are given mere months to live and are told to go home and get their affairs in order. The prognosis is poor, with most patients not making it past 18 months, or certainly beyond 5 years.

Many doctors don’t understand mesothelioma and therefore don’t know how to treat it. The best thing to do is seek out a specialist who knows how to treat the disease. That is who I credit with saving my life, my surgeon, mesothelioma specialist Dr. David Sugarbaker, who’s now at The Lung Institute at Baylor in Houston, TX.

Treatment varies depending on the type, but surgery is the main way people usually deal with it, along with chemotherapy and sometimes radiation. Treatments vary depending on the severity of the disease and whether the cancer has metastasized (spread to other places in the body). Immunotherapy is now being used as well in many clinical trials. Different treatment centers will gear treatment for each specific case; it is not a one-size-fits-all treatment plan.

 

Why did you choose this next act?

I’d say it chose me. I knew I wanted to help people, I just didn’t know how to go about doing it. Situations presented themselves to me and I jumped at them every time they came my way. It has not always been easy. I have to constantly relive those days of my diagnosis and the most uncertain time of my life, but when I do, it empowers me and takes the fear away. I didn’t know that this is what I was going to do—it was not a conscious decision to take it as far as I have—but I feel like there is so much more to do. I would love to do more public speaking and more fundraising. So many things to do! 

Kayaking for Meso, 2016

 

How hard was it to take the plunge?

Taking the plunge into advocacy and being an activist just feels RIGHT. A person’s story is powerful, especially stories of overcoming obstacles. I feel that my story can inspire others to think “If she could do it, I can too.”  I didn’t prepare for it; as I said before, the opportunities presented themselves and I took them. I still feel like there is so much more to do. I just know how I felt in those early years after my diagnosis and how I felt during treatment, I don’t want anyone to feel that loneliness and abandonment that I felt. Nothing like personally living it to prepare you for something!

 

Tell us about your challenges.

I try not to dwell on those. I have health challenges. Cancer treatment changes you. I don’t have the stamina I used to have. Chemo affected my brain in a way I never thought. I tend to be forgetful and have a hard time staying on task. It’s very similar to ADD and I recently started taking Adderall to help with the “chemo brain.”

I have to be careful of what I eat, how I eat, and when I eat because of stomach and esophageal issues due to my radiation treatments. I’ve lost most of the feeling in my left hand and don’t sweat on my left side anymore due to the surgery. There are all minor inconveniences, though, because I am still alive and well!

When you are involved in the cancer community, you are immediately thrust into a world of uncertainty and constant reminders of how fragile life is. People die. Sometime I lose three or four people I know in a week. Some hit me hard, but it doesn’t change the fact that cancer is an ugly ugly disease.

With Lily during my treatment

I lost my own dad to cancer. I watched him change from a health vibrant man to a mere shell. I held his hand as he passed, after we told him it was ok to go. It was one of the most humbling things I’ve ever been through. That is the ultimate in trust, to let another human take care of you in your most vulnerable state. I’ve been fortunate to be there for a few people near the end of their lives and it is something that changes you on a visceral level. I have a very different relationship with death than I did 10 years ago. It used to scare me, now I see it as part of the circle of life, something greater than you or me.

There are times when it gets to be so incredibly overwhelming. The stories are heartbreaking and the stark reality of being a patient advocate is that people die. Mesothelioma is particularly brutal; this cancer wreaks havoc on your body and you are a shadow of your former self.

I’ve lost more friends than I can count. There are weeks when our mesothelioma community loses 3-5 people. It’s devastating and my heart just shatters every time it happens. I’ve had to take time to take a step back, mourn my losses and recover. But I get up, dust myself off, dry my tears and jump back in. It is those losses that keep me going, as strange as it sounds. I feel like I need to be their voice.

With fellow advocates and women who’ve lost family members to mesothelioma, 2016

The patients’ loved ones are the biggest supporters I have. It’s incredible, really, when you think about it. These people have lost someone so dear to them, whether it be a husband, wife, mother, sister, or brother, but they tell me that they are proud of me. I love to hear the stories of their loved ones, who they were, what they were like. See, I only get to know the people when crisis strikes, after the diagnosis and not before. They are more than a cancer diagnosis. They lived full lives and now we are left with their memories.

The mesothelioma community is incredible and it is those relationships that I’ve built in my 11 years that keep me fighting. In the beginning, though, it was all about my baby girl and my husband. I was not going to give up for them, but the emotions got pretty raw in those dark hours in the middle of the night after I was diagnosed. I couldn’t sleep so I would get out of bed and go into my baby’s nursery. I would watch her sleeping by the glow of the nightlight and vow to fight for her. The tears would silently fall as I thought how unfair it was to her. She didn’t deserve to have a sick mommy; she needed me. That right there was 100% my reason to keep going. She just turned 11 this last August, and I am just in awe of the person she is becoming.

My family, 2016

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

Wow, where do I start? I learned I was stronger than I ever thought I could be. So many people tell me how brave I am, and I sometimes don’t know how to take that. I don’t think I was brave. I didn’t choose to get cancer. I had to fight, I had to live to raise my daughter. I don’t know if that is bravery or just stubbornness.

I learned that the desire to help people feel good about themselves when I was doing hair, crossed over into my advocacy work and that desire is even more ingrained than before. I learned that I have a voice and that I can use it to bring about change. I’ve learned that having faith is instrumental. For me, it is faith in God, faith in my medical team and most of all, faith in myself. I love that.

 

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

Honestly? No. Being diagnosed with cancer was all at once the worst thing that ever happened to me, and the best. It made me who I am today. The people I’ve met since are some of the most amazing people and we connect on a deeper level because of what I’ve been through. There is so much more I want to do that I don’t waste my time thinking of the “what ifs.”  My life is what it is because of what happened to me and the way I chose to react to it. I’ve never played the victim, and never asked “Why Me?” Instead, I took the position of why NOT me? I’m a fighter, I come from a long line of strong, independent women and I draw on that strength to move forward.

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

Ask yourself what is the worst that can happen? In my case, quite honestly, the answer was that I could die. I thought long and hard about that. So, if I do die, I want to leave a legacy. That gave me the courage to pursue this. For most people, reinvention is something incredibly scary. Find people who inspire you, people who have done something you admire, or have taken something awful and turned it around.

There is an author and speaker whom I admire greatly; her name is Glennon Doyle Melton. I was listening to Minnesota Public Radio and she was talking about her life and series of choices and circumstances that brought her to where she is. She says to run TO that which frightens you. Embrace it. I LOVE that! How often do we let our fears take hold and blow things out of proportion? If you face those fears it takes their power away, and lets you conquer them!

This is the whole premise behind our Lung Leavin’ Day celebration we have every year near the anniversary of my surgery, when I lost my lung on February 2, 2006. We write our fears on a plate in sharpie marker and smash those plates in a bonfire in our back yard. In Minnesota. In February! It’s a tradition shared by 100 or so of our closest friends. So, run TO that which scares you and conquer it.

Lung Leavin’ Day, 2013

 

What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing advocacy?

Draw on your personal experience. Speak from the heart and take chances. Advocacy is an intensely personal journey. It is born out of a desire to right that which is wrong, or to help others. It is incredibly rewarding but at the same time really hard. You need to be prepared to have your heart broken and to celebrate. Blogging? Well that is pretty easy, sit and write! Ok, easy may be pushing it. Having a love of writing helps, as does a topic or lifestyle that you want to share. Many blogs have started out simply as a way to document a journey for their kid and it grows into something much larger. That choice is up to you, as to how much time and energy you want to commit to it.

With Dr. Sugarbaker, 2015

 

If someone wants to learn more about mesothelioma, how would she do that?

The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

My blog on that same site: www.mesothelioma.com/heather

The Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation

The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization

Imerman Angels (a cancer patient mentoring organization)

I Had Cancer

 

What other resources would you like to share?

I like inspirational women. Women who overcome, who do things on their terms, despite what people say. These women are strong beyond what they imagined.

Jill Smokler of Scary Mommy: She took a funny web page and turned it into a movement.

Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery and her new book, Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life.

The Bloggess, Jenny Lawson, who speaks often about mental illness—bravo! She has three books out: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir, Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, and You Are Here: An Owner’s Manual for Dangerous Minds.

Jo Hilder, a friend and author from Australia, who is a cancer survivor as well. She has written two books about cancer: Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner and Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer.

Luvvie Ajayi, who started The Red Pump Project, a nonprofit raising awareness about the impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls.

 

What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?

I hope to write a book about my journey. We shall see if that comes to fruition. I would also love to be an inspirational or motivational speaker. TEDX! That is my bliss.

 

Contact Heather Von St. James at heathervsj@gmail.com

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