My best friend died at 15 and it was my fault. Well, she died of leukemia, and still I believed I caused it; crazy as that sounds. This became a defining moment for me that I didn’t really understand. It was also a factor that played heavily in my life for years to come.
For the first 50 years of my life I felt like I never belonged. My sister and brother are 8 and 12 years older than me, respectively. I was told that I was an accident, I was told I wouldn't live past 30 days, and if I did, I'd be a vegetable and blind by the time I was 6. Not a great start for building self-esteem. My life, my choice.
I find it usually takes a whole bunch of small events and decisions to change your life. Yet, when you recognize that your life has changed, it seems like it happened in an instant. What I know to be true is that it's a process. Nothing really changes unless you're engaged and intentional. Your life, your choice. Anyway, that's how it was for me: all my life (at least as far back as I can remember) I felt like I didn't belong and seemingly the very next day things shifted.
“If you don’t change your life you’re going to die or you’re going to kill someone.”
WHAT??? I didn’t know whose voice it was and I knew it was true……the jig was up.
Every one of us comes to these intersections in our life; this was obviously one of mine. How the hell did I get here? Was this the first time I had been at a crossroads? NO! This was the first time I listened.
But, wait, I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s take a walk down memory lane.
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, 30 miles east of Seattle in a small town of 900 people. My parents moved there when I was 2. My sister was 10 and my brother was 14 when they were pulled out of their city school and thrown into small town USA. I can’t imagine how that move changed their lives or my parents’ lives. Their life, their choice.
I don’t believe my childhood was filled with any more trauma than most kids growing up in the 50’s and 60’s: air raid practices at school, the president being assassinated, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights unrest, and on and on. Everybody was affected. I was lucky really; my parents didn’t fight, my brother and sister weren’t mean to me and yet something always seemed out of balance.
When I was 15 my first personal trauma happened; Cass died of leukemia. The year before we had been at the ocean riding motorcycles in the surf, it was fun and cold. When they first diagnosed her with leukemia the doctor told her mother he believed that cancers lie dormant in all of us until there is a shock to our system which makes the cancer come alive (oh my God, the cold ocean water!). Consequently, I believed that I was responsible for her getting leukemia and ultimately dying from the disease.
The pain, anger, hurt and guilt were so consuming that at the ripe age of 15, I learned how to anesthetize myself with nicotine, alcohol, and drugs. My life, my choice. Statistically, it is said that 1 in 10 Americans are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol; unfortunately for me I turned out to be that 1. The first time I drank and smoked I drank myself into a blackout and had hallucinations about Cass. For some pervasive reason it also gave me a sense of confidence. I felt bold and courageous and indestructible. Which is really a joke since I was on a self-imposed path of destruction. My life, my choice.
I was a junior in high school and 17 years old when I found out I was pregnant. This was not my first sexual encounter. My parents really didn’t want me to have the baby but I believed the father loved me. So I packed up my things and moved in with his family. Odd, now that I reflect back on it, he had an apartment so why was I living at his mom’s house? Long story short: I had a miscarriage; relationship over. I found myself living in the projects alone and scared with a woman I really didn’t know that well. She must have sensed I was truly out of my element and called my parents. My dad immediately came and picked me up. I think she was my first guardian angel.
I wish I could say that that incident woke me up and my life changed……not so much. I finished high school 6 months before graduation in December 1969. I got my first fulltime job in March, 1970 which became a 30-year career. I now had money, a car, and freedom. I was building my own mouse trap.
When you don’t have any self-worth you tend to attract people into your life that get their self-worth through abuse. So, of course, I was attracted to misogynistic men; bad boys if you will, who mostly had a love ‘em and leave ’em attitude. My first real relationship moved quickly into full on physical abuse. There was nothing healthy about our relationship from day one and it just got progressively worse. In street terms he was known as a player. He made promises, let other women pay for the privilege of spending time with him and then came home to me. When I finally got tired of the cheating instead of just leaving, I thought “an eye for an eye”. The only difference was I could and did get pregnant from my one night stand. My son was a god-send in many ways and to protect him I found the courage to leave. My second guardian angel. While my abuser was at work, I packed the two of us up in my car and moved back home to my parents. I was 22; he was 1. I left the house I was buying, the furniture, and everything else just to be free. If it couldn’t fit in the car it didn’t come with us. As Kris Kristofferson so aptly wrote, “Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose and nothing ain't worth nothing but it's free.” I had dodged another bullet and yet I was still lost. Thank god, my parents provided my son with stability. I was busy building a stronger mouse trap.
I was really good at advancing my career which meant more money to spend but it’s hard to fill a hole of emptiness. It really doesn’t matter if its drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, sex or credit cards; if you’re not happy and you don’t know how to be happy, all you’re really doing is hoping that the next “thing” will fill the void. So, the next “thing” for me was a supposed one night stand I met in a bar. He seemed charming and we had a great time. Funny thing was I found out the following Monday, we worked in the same building on the same floor. It’s hard to have a one night stand with someone you see every day. Soon we were dating. Then he bought a house and asked me to move in with him. My life, my choice. I really thought I had broken the cycle and life would be different. We even had a child together. Although he was a doting father to his son, he was emotionally abusive to my older son and to me. He was never physically abusive however, sometimes emotional abuse is far more insidious. It took me a while to realize he was not faithful; boy I can pick ‘em! Again, instead of leaving, I decided, two can play that game and I had an affair with a married man. My life, my choice. BAD CHOICE. I ended up leaving and moving back in with my parents.
I now have two boys by two different men, never married and not yet 30. I am as messed up as the men I attracted. I never believed I was a victim but I did allow myself to be victimized. I went back to my old behaviors of trolling bars looking for the next Mr. Right and there he was. This time the physical abuse had escalated and was terrorizing. And something in me believed I deserved to be treated this way. There is something about living with a predator; they are brilliant at keeping you off balance and in fear. It’s true what others have said; it’s like walking around on egg shells ALL the time. You never know when or if or why the outbursts are going to happen. He was obsessed with me and insanely jealous. Oddly, he was a cheater. It never dawned on me someone so worried about me cheating would actually cheat. I never did cheat on him, the threat of death seemed much too real. Not only did the physical abuse escalate so did the drugs and alcohol. In January, 1989, I came home from work and found my house literally surrounded by police cars. My first thought was “run”, my second was “what the hell are they doing in my house?” and my third thought was dread and recognition. I was arrested for possession with intent to distribute. They were partly right. I used to get so high I would beseech God that if I did not die I would quit. I would always pull through and then not keep my end of the bargain. This went on nightly. Today I honestly believe if I had not been arrested, I eventually would have overdosed; I have always believed my prayer was answered. My third guardian angels.
This was an opportunity to re-focus and start over. I went to treatment once a week, attended two AA meetings a week, consulted with a therapist and went to church every Sunday. I finally ended this abusive marriage BUT I did not change my beliefs about myself nor did I change my friends. So………….
Three years later I am married again. This time to someone I had a crush on when I was in Junior High. He graduated with my sister. His mom was my mom’s best friend. WINNER, WINNER, WINNER! I did what any person in recovery would do when they don’t understand the program. I married a drug addict, dealer. I believe he really adored me in his own perverse way. What I learned was emotional abuse is harder to define. Sometimes it takes a really good friend to sit you down and say, “I love you and you are welcome in my home anytime; but not your husband.” My fourth guardian angel.
When I moved out and bought a house on my own, I believed my life had turned a corner. It hadn’t! I was still using and drinking and putting myself in dangerous situations. And then one night “THE” incident happened; something that brought me to my knees in shame. I went out with a girlfriend who like me had an appetite for self-destruction. We were taking college classes together. We were both 20-25 years older than the rest of the students. We went to a party that some of the students were throwing. The minute we walked in we started doing shots of tequila and smoking pot. I immediately blacked out. I do remember walking to a park with a young man and sitting on a picnic table. I later woke up in bed with a couple having no idea how I got there or why. Even though I was fully clothed I was horrified. I literally dropped out of school. And that’s when I heard the voice: “If you don’t change your life you’re going to die or you’re going to kill someone.” My life had been screaming at me and I wasn’t paying attention! The illusion that something “out there” was going to fix me or fill the void was like the preverbal mouse spinning on a wheel thinking it was actually getting somewhere. I was ready to release myself from this trap of self-destruction. I had to step off the wheel. I had to deal with all my negative self-talk. I had to have the courage to know that I was not only enough; I was more than enough. I was desperate to break the pattern. I was desperate to find myself, to maybe even like myself. This time I not only listened; I took action and responsibility to change my life. My life, my choice. GOOD CHOICE!
Baby steps. It didn’t happen overnight but one Sunday I walked into a Centers for Spiritual Living where their motto is “Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life” and I thought, HELL YES! I can think and I can change. Why not me? This was my path out of hell. This was for me. This was my lifeline.
Six weeks after walking into the Center, I went out on a Friday night with a friend. We drank, we snorted coke, and we smoked marijuana. You might be thinking that doesn’t sound like much of a change. And you would be right. I was still dealing with the demons in my head but there was also the faintest of lights at the end of the tunnel. I went to bed that night and when I woke up in the morning every fiber of my being knew I was done. Done with drugs, done with cigarettes, done with alcohol, done, done, done. My personal epiphany. That was October 19, 2002.
Did my life change? Absolutely!
If you had told me on October 18, 2002 that my entire life was going to change tomorrow, that someday I would become Rev. Gayle, that someday I would lead a Centers for Spiritual Living community of my own; I would have thought…what are you smoking???? Can I have some Evidently there was a bigger plan for my life than even I was aware of because it all came true.
Was it easy? Absolutely not!
I was thrown the lifeline but it was up to me to grab it. I instinctually knew this was my way back. I was hungry to change so I immersed myself in the classes. I volunteered. I jokingly say I would have pushed a penny across a busy street if someone had said to me “that is your way back to sanity”. It was time. It was my time. I was committed. The classes were not only about the teachings, they were about returning to a sense of self: self-respect, self-love, self-confidence. The more classes I took, the healthier I became. The healthier I became the more I realized it was time to stop letting my past and my negative self-talk continue to define me.
Today, I am married to a wonderful man that doesn’t have an abusive bone in his body. We have been together since 2003. I still confront insecurities. What I won’t and don’t do is give up ME to make anyone else happy and neither does he. I have learned to love and respect myself. I have learned to look at every situation in my life and ask myself: what part am I playing in this play today. I am always at choice. It’s not an easy pill to swallow and yet the biggest gift I give myself is the realization that I AM responsible for MY life. My life, my choice.
Life happens to all of us; it’s how we react to what we have been dealt that helps us to heal or keeps us stuck. Your Life, Your Choice. I can’t change my past. I can’t predict the future. Each and every day I am given the opportunity to be the best me I can be. Sometimes I knock it out of the park and other times I strike out swinging. What I do know is I am always in the game. I don’t waste time beating myself up for mistakes I made in my past. Even if that past is as close as yesterday. Do I make amends, absolutely. I have come to realize my past has brought me to this moment. It wasn’t pretty. It’s been a roller coaster ride and I probably could have got here differently but I didn’t. I’m just happy I arrived.
I believe each one of us has opportunities in our life to change; in fact I really believe we are given these opportunities daily. It took me 50 years to begin to believe that I have a purpose and drugs and alcohol kept me anesthetized from living my life to the fullest. My life work now is providing people with the tools to make the necessary changes in their lives. No one can do it for you. I can’t even do it for you but I can share my story to show it can be done. We individually have to decide we are worth it. AND it’s not easy. If it were easy everyone would be living their best life.
YOU ARE A MIRACLE. Scientists estimate the odds of your being born at about one in 400 trillion. Think about that – one in 400 trillion. You are not a mistake. You are not bad. You are not unworthy. Yes, the odds might be stacked against you. Life might appear tough. And you are here; against all odds. Why waste time, wasting time and money on doing anything that isn’t for your highest and best good. It is your life and it is your choice.
Can you do it? Yes! Are you willing to roll a penny across a busy street? You might need to.
"And tell me what it is that you see A world that's full of endless possibilities And heroes don't look like they used to They look like you do” The Alternate Routes, Nothing More