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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.