Category Archives: Personal Growth

monicahall

When I hung up the phone after my 40-minute radio interview with Valerie Okunami, host of KCOR’s Bizi Yogi show (listen here), I had a sinking feeling. I had talked about my shame on the air. I knew what I’d be discussing when I agreed to be a guest—the day’s topic was healing from toxic shame. So why did I feel bad? Had I confessed too much? What would people think of me? Then it hit me. I was ashamed, the very feeling that had been at the heart of the interview.

A week later, I listened to a recording of the show. To my surprise, I didn’t cringe at all. I’ve listened twice now and felt the same way both times. I shouldn’t have doubted myself—before the interview, I had set the intention to leave my ego behind and speak words that would be of the highest good for all who listened. I planned nothing and went with the flow while talking to the show host, and it worked.

I’m not sure if my interview inspired others, but it certainly inspired me. While listening to my own voice, I was reminded of the many gifts that arose from my most painful “failures.” An old friend once told me that he records himself speaking inspirationally. He said that listening to his own voice is powerfully uplifting I didn’t believe him then, but I do now.

I spoke about my shame and guilt when I was on the radio, but I didn’t talk about the underlying disenfranchised grief. Dr. Ken Doka defines it as “grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.” Disenfranchised grief can be caused by anything—abortion, death from AIDS, death from suicide, death of the partner in an extra-marital affair, loss of one’s home, loss of a pet, grief that other people think has gone on for “too long,” having a child in prison…

My grief began at birth when I was given up for adoption. In my interview, I touched on the shame I felt from being abused as a child, being sexually assaulted, being adopted, and giving up my own baby for adoption. All of these experiences caused disenfranchised grief and, subsequently, feelings of deep shame and unworthiness that took decades to access and heal.

When I hung up the phone after my interview, I sat silently for a moment and looked onto my deck. I noticed the soft melody of the chime, the bluebirds hopping on and off the feeder, and the shadows cast by the beams of morning sunlight. Just outside my window was a metaphor for my life: shadows amidst melody and light. In that moment, I let go of feeling bad about my shame, my disenfranchised grief. It’s part of who I am. Like the shadows on my deck, it will continue to ebb and flow, and that’s okay.

 

My Easter Gift

Change sometimes happens when I’m not paying attention. For example: What triggered the writing slump I’ve been in for the last few months? When, exactly, did my shins turn to lizard skin? And when was I appointed as the matriarch of my family to host all the holidays and events?

I delight in entertaining my loved ones, and my 33-year-old daughter, Becca, always attends. She is a bright, creative soul with an altruistic nature. She also has a healthy self-esteem, which I lacked as a young woman. Her friends refer to her as “The Golden Child.” And, truth be told, this nickname isn’t entirely off base. I indulged her a bit when I was a guilty single mother.

I think it goes back to one of my favorite childhood movies, Swiss Family Robinson. The film is about a family that, after being shipwrecked on a desert island, works together to build the coolest elaborate tree house. I suspect my fascination with this movie was rooted in its fairytale family environment, which was one of total security and trust. I wanted to be part of a family like that—and I so deeply wanted that type of environment for my own daughter.

Throughout my childhood, I had longed for Daddy to build me my very own fort or playhouse. He wasn’t that kind of dad, but I decided to be that kind of mom. For Becca’s third birthday, she became the mildly impressed recipient of an adorable cottage-style, Pepto-Bismol-pink playhouse. I also painted the trim, shutters, and Dutch door white as an accent, and I made the sweetest white eyelet curtains for the windows. (A seamstress I am not—but I tried.) When Becca was little, I wanted more than anything for her to have the kind of family life I lacked growing up and hadn’t provided for Mary Claire, the daughter I gave up for adoption when I was 15 years old. Becca was my second chance, and in my mind, I had failed her by being a single parent.

Becca’s friends call me “Momnica.” It’s probably because I have an open door where they can dump their troubles and get unsolicited advice. With all the crap I’ve gotten myself into over the years, I can match just about anything they’re going through with a similar experience. In my twenties, my life decisions were a field of domino rows in a windstorm. One problem caused another, which caused yet another, and I was always picking up the pieces. I like to think that my destiny was to transcend my trauma so I could be the sounding board and mentor I never had. The more love I give, the greater my capacity grows to give more.

Getting out of my own head and working with others has helped me so much during these last two years of writing. I feel that I have finally emerged from a swamp. I didn’t realize it, but I had been in a funk. It crept up on me—a lot like my lizard legs did. (I’ve since started exfoliating and moisturizing.) “Depressed” is not a label one would use to describe me, but it might look that way. I gained a shit-ton of weight while I was working on my memoir (half of which I have now taken off), and the once-outgoing Monica turned inward like a roly-poly bug that curls into a ball when poked. Introspection was never really my deal, and neither was writing. I have always been a talker and a doer, not a thinker. But I have had to turn inward in the process of writing my memoir, and it’s dark in there.

In the days following the recent Easter holiday, I have turned inward in a not-so-dark way to reflect on the occasional friction that I have had with my “Golden Child.” I also remembered the confusion I felt when I found out that I was pregnant with her. I was 26 and, as they say, I was not wrapped too tightly. I had been clean and sober for about 60 days and had known her father for a whole six weeks. In my naivety, I assumed that sobriety would be a magic wand. I thought life would be perfect since I wasn’t drinking and hanging around with lowlifes. I would have a white picket fence with my handsome prince, and we would ride off into the sunset with our sweet baby angel.

That’s not what happened.

I held a shotgun wedding and married Becca’s father, Kenny, in 1984 when I was six months pregnant. We drove to Reno, home of the quickie wedding chapel. As we parked in front of a tacky storefront chapel, I saw our blurred reflection in the filmy window and thought, “I gotta get him in there before he changes his mind.” A little gold bell rang as we entered.

We were a pair of plastic wedding cake figurines, Big-as-a-House Barbie and her handsome Ken perched beneath a rickety arbor, draped with a dusty vine of white plastic roses. My keen pregnant nostrils didn’t miss much. All this elegance was punctuated by the faint scent of stale beer wafting from the red carpet. I stood alongside Kenny, my hand in his, with a smile plastered on my face in an effort to trick myself into believing this wedding was the joyous event I had dreamed of. It had seemed like just yesterday when I said goodbye to Mary Claire at the hospital, and this was my do-over. I felt the vibration of Kenny’s toe tapping through his clammy palm. I knew he loved me, but he was clearly terrified by the responsibility the day represented.

While a rotund man in a preacher getup read the vows, I realized the stale beer smell might be coming from under his ’stache. Each of his embellished words further emphasized that this was a cheap and tacky union to a man who didn’t want to be there. The only thing I truly heard was Kenny’s “I do.” I was a girl with unrealistic dreams, trying to make right her sins from 12 years ago.

I internalized a huge sigh of relief when Kenny squished the 10-karat gold band onto my fat finger. I had purchased it at a discount store the day before with the last few dollars in my bank account. I remember how disappointed I was that I couldn’t afford the 14-karat band and how humiliated I felt looking into the glass case as I tried to hide my girth, hoping the other couple looking at rings didn’t notice that I was buying my own.

A few years later, after the divorce, I had a jeweler cut a slit in the band and pull it apart to set a mate-less ruby earring inside. It’s not a great ring. It looks pieced together to me, but even so, Becca has worn it on and off over the years. I guess it symbolizes what she, too, always longed for—the security of a complete family with a daddy and a mommy. Daddy moved out for the final time when she was only one year old.

Thirty-two years after Kenny left, I am still trying to create that rich sense of family for my daughter—most recently, I did this by hosting an Easter celebration. I had been asking for a few weeks if Becca and her two-year-old son, Miles, would be coming over on Easter Sunday, and if so, when. They were recovering from a virus, as were my mother and brother, and I hadn’t heard whether any of them were planning to celebrate the holiday. Easter was on pause. There were no baskets with chocolate bunnies; no plastic eggs filled with lotto tickets, cash, and candy for the adults; no food and goodies for Miles.

Then, on Saturday night at 10:00 p.m., Becca told me she would be coming over at noon the next day. I was literally the last person out of the grocery store at 11:00 p.m. as I frantically loaded up on supplies for the family celebration. The manager had the look of a lost child longing for home as she followed me around while I threw the last few items into my cart. She eagerly locked the door behind me, and I had to make a second trip in the morning.

I was relieved when my mother picked up the phone at 9:00 a.m. and also agreed to come to my house for the Easter celebration. Unfortunately, my exceedingly brilliant and handsome son—who lives two hours away—couldn’t make it.

When Becca and Miles arrived, she was tired and hungry. She felt crappy because her allergies were bothering her. She also had PMS and very little patience. (Her visits always seem to coincide with her time of the month.) She wanted to know why the food wasn’t ready right away at noon. When Miles could search for eggs. Why they had to wait for me before they did so. Never mind that she and Miles are the only vegetarians in the family and, because she is the “Golden Child,” I made her and Miles a special pasta salad. All of this while preparing the rest of the food, arranging appetizers in spring splendor on my pink and green depression glass, and setting out a vase of bright yellow tulips (my favorite flower).

I had bought plastic eggs for my grandson that were patterned like an assortment of baseballs, basketballs, and soccer balls. Early on Easter morning, I hid them with delight for his first formal egg hunt—all in plain sight inside of plant-less, dirt-filled flower pots, atop blooming pink azalea bushes, and nestled inside the crags on the trunk of my huge sycamore tree.

While preparing the meal, I quickly stuffed the “adult” eggs with cash and lotto tickets. Some I hid so well that they will likely become gifts for the gardener. I did this while cognizant that Becca would arrive early and be outside with Miles, scoping out the hiding places. And indeed, while Miles ran around the backyard, Becca asked. “Did you get a chance to hide our eggs?” I knew she would start her hunt early if I told the truth. “No, I’m sorry honey. I didn’t have enough time to do that, too. It was all I could do to get the food prepared.” I had just finished with my lie when she bent over and brushed some leaves out the of the hose basket to discover a pink plastic egg. Guess who got most of the cash and lotto tickets.

At day’s end, after everyone had gone home, I was cleaning the dishes and putting things back in their places. It was around 6:00 p.m., the time when the setting sun cuts above the fence and my patio. I turned in its direction as it shined warm, golden light, which was filtered through my patterned curtain sheers. It created a soft glow that illuminated my living room. I stopped what I was doing to breathe in the light and take in the melody from my porch fountain, which sounds like rain falling on a pond. That moment brought forward remnants of conversation and laughter from a few hours before, and I realized that I felt wonderful. It wasn’t the kind of wonderful I feel when I get a new pair of shoes, lose weight, receive praise, or win an argument. It wasn’t a worldly feeling—it was different than that. There was no pitter-patter of my heart, and there was no sense of the peace and gratitude I feel when praying or meditating. It was a completely new feeling.

It dawned on me that I was experiencing joy.

I once read that most people spend their lives regretting the past and fearing the future; therefore, they are unable to experience joy in the present. I suffer when I live in my head, like I did when I was newly pregnant with Becca—I created my own suffering by reliving the humiliation I felt when I was a child who was pregnant with a child. And how isolated and alone I felt keeping the secret of my virgin rape. On the rare occasion that I was seen in public during my first pregnancy, I shrank from each look of shock, pity, and disgust because they reaffirmed what I knew people thought of me…and what I thought of myself. My belly was proof of my low self worth and poor choices. This was a humiliation that I couldn’t repeat. When I was pregnant with Becca 12 years later, my mind vacillated between two opposites: (1) my vision of walking hand in hand with my handsome husband and protector, Kenny, as our daughter’s laughter filled me with absolution for my past and (2) my fear that this secure, happy family wouldn’t become reality.

I can see now that my long-time fear of life and circumstances has really been a fear of my emotions. It’s not the facts themselves that I have feared but my feelings about them. While writing my memoir during these past two years, I have dug out and swept away many of the painful remnants by naming, feeling, and releasing my emotions.

My compulsion to purge and write my wrongs had lessened. I have cleared away much of the shame and guilt in my subconscious that used to filter out the light of my joy—joy which, I realized, has been there all along, patiently waiting to reveal itself. Perhaps this is my destiny. Whether it is or isn’t, I am committed to writing and I’m eager to find the gifts that it will bring to me, still waiting to be uncovered—like pink plastic Easter eggs—whether I’m ready or not.

They Called Me Ugly!

There is a saying that “beauty is wasted on the young.” This is so true. Over the years, I’ve looked back at old photos of myself from a time when I thought I was too fat, short, crooked-toothed, thick-waisted. Holy crap—I was gorgeous! Even now, when I look back at photos from four years ago, when I was a size 6 and at least three bra sizes smaller, I think, “Damn! What was I complaining about?”

My beautiful thirtyish daughter is going through something similar right now. She had a baby 17 months ago. Disappointed that she doesn’t look the way she did before her pregnancy, she has recently been bemoaning her perceived “mom body.” Maybe the fear of being outdated and out of shape is a universal phenomenon among new mothers, or possibly it’s hereditary, because it sure plagued the hell out of me.

I was 26 when I gave birth to that daughter. She weighed in at 10 pounds 14.5 ounces, and when I stacked her up next to her Cabbage Patch doll, they matched like a couple of book ends. Not knowing I had developed gestational diabetes, I gained 50 pounds during my pregnancy. The weight hijacked my face, leaving me looking like a squirrel with nuts packed away in its cheeks. Not only that, but my ankles were as thick as piano legs. Yes, I developed kankles.

I felt miserable and invisible, and I needed a quick fix. My hairstylist was a former roommate and a good friend, and he assured me that all I needed was a fresh, new, un-mommy hairstyle. I have always been a slave to fashion, and—I’m reluctant to say—also a bit vain. I was feeling immensely fat and frumpy, so the thought of looking cute again was exciting. All I needed was a new ’do. I was clearly under the delusion that a simple new hairstyle would fix me.

 

My First Nations heritage meant that I was born with dark, straight-as-a-string hair that lacks even a hint of a bend or cowlick. It was the mid-’80s, when spiked hair was in vogue. My friend had been my hairstylist for years, and I trusted that he knew what he was doing. Excited to be fashionable again, I let him go to town, but to my utter horror, he cut off my entire perm and gave me a short punk style that accentuated my squirrel cheeks. Pat Benatar meets Mama Cass.

I had an appointment for my new baby’s first checkup the following morning. I jumped out of the shower and attempted to spike my bangs with gel, like my friend had done at the salon.

I was mortified by the result.

There in the mirror was my high forehead jutting skyward beneath a wall of hair that shot straight up, like a rocky cliff on a sandy beach. I panicked. I was going to be late if I tried to fix it. My only other option was to wet it down and go to the doctor with my hair plastered to my head like a drowned rat. I opted for the sheer cliff look.

I entered Kaiser Hospital and went straight to the appointment without making any eye contact. I went up the elevator and down the long hall to the doctor’s office, cursing my former friend under my breath and hoping I didn’t see anyone I knew. I felt the stares on the back of my neck like a cool breeze.

My embarrassment reminded me of a similar humiliating experience from a few weeks before. I had been getting situated in the hospital room I was to share with three other new mommies. My husband was sitting just outside the door when one of the mothers rushed into the room gushing like she had just spotted Jon Bon Jovi. She looked at her friends and said, “Who’s that hot guy sitting in the hall?”

“That’s my husband,” I said.

All incredulous eyes turned to me. They didn’t believe that I, the bloated one, could have such a good-looking husband.

The witch said, “That’s your husband?”

They had completely ignored me when I’d entered the hospital room about 10 minutes earlier. It was obvious that they had already formed a new mommy click and I was an unwelcome addition. They didn’t want anything to do with me—that is, until they spied my husband. I felt like Cinderella, being shunned by the homely stepsisters who assumed I would never have a chance at the handsome prince. I wanted to say, “If you had only seen me nine months ago, bitches!” But really, I was just humiliated. I kept my head down and said nothing.

I drove home from my baby’s check-up, bangs still sky-high, in what was probably the ugliest car on the planet at the time, an AMC Spirit. (Its only competition might have been the AMC Pacer.) Not only did it look like a space ship, but it was also beige, the color of an anemic mannequin—the most uncool color known to automobiles. I was sitting at a traffic light, probably thinking about how stupid my hair looked, when I heard and felt a ping as an empty pop can bounced off my car and rolled across my hood.

At first I paid no attention. Then I heard yelling. “Hey you! Ugly!” There was another ambush of pop cans and laughter. I looked over my shoulder. Behind the vehicle next to me was a car full of teenage boys hanging out the windows and yelling, “Yeah, you! Ugly!”

They were yelling at me! I was incensed. How dare they, the little bastards. I’d been a babe just a few months earlier. If they’d seen me then, they would have been gawking instead of mocking my space mobile and Joan Jett impersonation.

I raced home and called the police because a serious crime had been committed. A very understanding highway patrol officer came to the house, where I explained that I had been assaulted and insulted. I can imagine how hard it must have been for him to keep a straight face while looking at me in all my gel and indignation.

“They called me ugly!”

He kindly agreed that it was wrong for the teenagers to throw cans at my car, but it didn’t go much further than that. After I gave him the plate number, what else could he do but assure me that he would call the little pricks’ parents? But I think that he really did pity me. After all, I had a new baby and I was ugly.

 

Knee Deep in Drama

OK, I’m going to tell on myself. Something has been on my mind all week, eliciting a cringe every time I think about it.

We’ve all known people who go on and on about the drama in their lives, getting so wound up in talking about it that it makes you wish you could pole vault into another state to get away from them. I don’t ever want to be that person. Unfortunately, I have been that person—as recently as this week.

When I was at my favorite lunch spot, I ran into a woman who had been my neighbor twenty years ago. She is one of those artsy, slightly reserved, seemingly grounded, natural types. In other words, my neighbor is my complete opposite. She holds workshops and art classes for Empowerment and Freedom Through Emotional Healing in her home, for Christ’s sake. We quickly caught up with the “what are your kids up to?” pleasantries. I asked her questions about her life because I was genuinely interested, but then she made the mistake of asking me what I’ve been doing.

If you’ve been reading my recent blog posts, you know that I’ve been working on a memoir that includes a chapter about being the victim of an abduction attempt when I was fifteen, an event that followed right on the heels of my rape. I have rewritten it about eight different ways during the past year, dissecting and investigating what happened, approaching it from all different angles in an attempt to discover who my abductor was and what he planned to do with me.

So basically, I’ve been in obsession mode for the better part of a year. While speaking with my old neighbor, I started out in a slow roll, telling her about writing my memoir—and, of course, the abduction chapter. I felt the wheels of obsession gaining momentum, but I ignored them. It wasn’t until I was knee deep in the drama that I caught a glimpse of panic in her eyes. It might have been there for a while, but I don’t know for sure because I was too busy talking.

Horrified that I’d become that person, I quickly snapped out of it, muttered that I probably needed her services, and asked for her business card while I tried to excuse myself without further invading her personal space and increasing my humiliation. I can’t clear from my mind the image of her slowly opening her purse, retrieving her card, and handing it over like she was parting with a winning lottery ticket.

I hoped to never run into her again.

But then I called her. I learned decades ago that if someone or something is bothering me, I should write about it and examine my role in the situation. Where was I at fault? Did I owe her an apology? Ugh.

To my surprise, my neighbor sounded genuinely happy to hear from me and was very sweet. (She may have been hoping I would sign up for her Cellular Release Therapy.) I apologized for invading her space and she assured me that it was fine, not to worry about it, that she had just been distracted at the restaurant.

At first, I wondered why I cared so much about what she thought. I hadn’t seen her in twenty years and we had never been close. But, after spending this last year writing, I’ve learned that what I feel influences what I think, which in turn changes what I feel. My feelings are then overlaid with a myriad of invisible layers of crap, most of which have no basis in reality. There is a well-known saying: “Don’t believe everything you think.” I think I should practice that more often.

When thinking about the incident with my neighbor, I searched through twenty years of my memory banks and wondered why my perceived intrusion on her personal space bothered me so much.

I recognized that the judgment I felt from her at the restaurant was familiar. I recalled that I hadn’t liked her twenty years ago and had felt judged by her even back then, but I couldn’t remember why at first. A while later, I remembered that my then-twelve-year-old daughter and I had taken a Coming of Age workshop from our neighbor, complete with a moon circle and the crafting of medicine bags.  It was in that setting that my daughter revealed some of her painful personal history. I also flashed on another incident—my neighbor didn’t want her kids, particularly her son, to play with my daughter based on that personal history. Never mind that her son was the same little shit who shot my darling angel in the leg with a BB gun. This all happened during my Birkenstock and hairy-leg years.  Maybe that’s why it initially slipped my memory. It’s no wonder I hadn’t liked this woman. I realize that she is probably a nice enough lady and that I may very well need her Cellular Release Therapy, but I won’t be calling her any time soon.

I know that self-awareness is a good thing. As I write and revise, I peel back the flaky skin of the onion to reveal what may turn out to be a sweeter onion, like those Vidalia onions that you can eat raw. The onions that don’t make you cry when you chop them up and put them in the quesadilla you’re about to eat because your now-adult daughter has put you on a diet to help you lose the twenty pounds you gained while writing your memoir and the only things left in your fridge are two corn tortillas and some Parmesan cheese. And maybe an onion.

 

 

 

Why I Gained 20 Pounds While Writing My Memoir

Monica Against Wall

Anyone who knows me well can tell you that I’m pretty much an open book. That’s what I thought, too—until I started writing my memoir.

I’ve told my kids many crazy, entertaining stories from my past, but I’ve also told them about some of the bad things that happened to me when I was a teen. Initially, it was my daughter who urged me to write my memoir. I have kept a journal on and off since I was twelve, and I’d published some industry papers in my entrepreneurial years, but never had I considered writing a book, least of all a memoir. Even so, my daughter insisted that my life would make fascinating reading. I thought, how hard can it be?

I began writing and almost immediately felt an urge, like the bearing-down pains of childbirth. This story wanted—needed—to come out, and nothing was going to stop it. As I wrote, I discovered that some memories stay buried for a reason.

I had been working on the memoir for almost a year when, through a series of seemingly unrelated events, I happened upon a developmental editor, Signe Jorgenson, who earned her master’s degree in Anchorage, Alaska, where I grew up and where much of my memoir is based. She lived there many years after the wild oil boom that was the backdrop for my eventful childhood and teenage years, but she had heard the stories.

I’d been told that if I wanted to publish my memoir, I should create a few standalone pieces and submit them to magazines and literary journals so I could accumulate some publishing credits and develop an audience for my work. I wasn’t quite sure how to do this, so I sent my editor one of the more difficult and painful chapters, the one about the 1972 rape that I had kept secret for fifteen years, and worked with her to turn it into an essay.

Working on the essay was like therapy, only deeper. I did about five revisions, each of which was met with six or more pages of developmental notes and a corresponding annotated version of my manuscript. I once asked my editor if she had a background in psychotherapy. She didn’t, but because of her training and years of teaching writing, she knew the deeper questions to ask. An example: When I wrote, “I hung my head in shame,” she asked me to write about why I was feeling shame. Strangely enough, the why had never occurred to me. Deeper and deeper I dug, uncovering memories that I had buried in my subconscious for decades.

My meditation practice, spiritual connection, family, and recovery friends were not enough to get me through this process. I quit drinking thirty-three years ago and I don’t take medications. Instead, I ate many, many times when I wasn’t physically hungry while working on this essay. I knew what I was doing as I sat on the couch with a fat bag of chips, temporarily numbing my pain, but I did it anyway. I would tell myself, “It’s OK. You’ll get a handle on the eating and lose the twenty pounds when you finish the essay.”

Memories are funny things. When I began writing about my rape, I still felt the shame and guilt I had felt when I was a fifteen-year-old girl. I was transported back to that time and place, and to that mindset. I would write my memories and then talk them over with my sweet 91-year-old mom, then write some more. Once I had it all on paper, every single detail of that night, from what the room looked like to the way my rapist smelled and the words he used to shame me, my mom walked me through it from an adult’s perspective.

Gradually, I began to see the rape with my grown-up mind and not my fifteen-year-old feelings. I discovered that I had never directed the blame, rage, and judgment toward the perpetrator. I had placed it all on myself, the victim.

I doubt that I will ever mend completely, but the writing and revision processes have allowed me to gain a much deeper level of healing. I’ve also found compassion for the fifteen-year-old girl who was forced to grow up way too fast.

Now I’m at work on another essay, this one about an abduction attempt that occurred just months after I was raped. I’m going through that same process of mining my memories and reconciling my teenage perspective with my adult understanding. But this time, I am not eating my way through it.