Facing the Strain: My Story of Personal Transformation

In October 2012 I was preparing to move with my family to New Zealand. It was a turbulent time as we prepared to leave behind our life into the United States, and leap into a new life in a different country. Even though I am from New Zealand and moving there was a long held dream of mine and my husband’s, there was still a lot of angst involved in moving our lives to the opposite side of the world.

We were ready for a fresh start. Like many Americans we were hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis. My husband was in the real estate appraisal industry and his income had been affected by the turbulence of the housing crisis and changes in the mortgage lending industry. We were tired of the struggle to afford health insurance and health care for myself with Crohn’s disease which required me to have colonoscopies, take medication, and hospitalizations. As our emotional endurance was tested amidst all this turmoil it was having a negative effect on our marriage as well. In 2012, I felt like I was in the eye of the storm so to speak, we were desperate for change.

Feeling stressed, on a whim, I took off for Sedona alone for a weekend. My intention was to hike and recharge, just ‘be’, and perhaps find some clarity and peace in one of my favorite places on Earth. One of my beloved spots in Sedona is Boynton Trail, a hike which heads up to a stunning look-out point and home to the towering Kachina Woman rock formation. I hiked up and found a nice spot to ‘be’. I sat and nestled back into a shallow cave of rock, enjoying the beauty of the gorgeous rock formations throughout the valley in front of me. I decided to breathe and attempted to quiet my mind with a meditation. What happened next was one of the strangest, yet transformative experiences of my life. Like a dream, I remember feeling like the rock behind me was reaching out to embrace me and the words I heard and felt in my bones  were “it’s going to be okay, it’s okay. You are supported.” The wind had come up, blowing the nearby Juniper trees. I leaned-in closer toward the rock and it felt as if the rock behind me – Mother Earth herself – was drawing me in toward her in an embrace. I cried. It was unlike any experience I’d had before. The wind died down and the spell was broken. I remember thinking that I must have just imagined it. It had felt like the dream-world had become manifest for a few moments. The memory of that moment will stay with me forever. The experience was a foreshadowing and those words of cosmic wisdom would provide me sustenance in what would become the most challenging year I had ever faced.

In early 2013 according to plan, we shipped our belongings half way around the world and I left for New Zealand find a place to live for my family who would follow in a few months. After some weeks, I was about to sign a lease on a house there but had an overwhelming, sickening feeling that the move wasn’t the right thing to do. With a deep sense of foreboding, I suddenly realized with clarity that I-we were running away from our problems in the United States, and I-we were hoping that our problems would be solved by moving to a different country. I suddenly and completely sensed the futility of this. I was also shocked and disappointed to find that ‘the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side’, as I’d long expected it was.

While in New Zealand, my husband called and told me he wanted a divorce. Feeling like a total failure, The Universe had conspired and I heeded the message to call it quits with the move to New Zealand. I flew back to the States to try to save my marriage and face our problems head on. In her book Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow Elizabeth Lesser references the line in David Bowie’s song Changes, “turn and face the strain…Ch-Ch-Changes”. It was time to turn and face our mounting challenges head on. It was time to stop trying to re-route ourselves around our mounting challenges, and face them head on.

This involved facing all of the hurt, pain and let down of my marriage. The mystique that we were perfect human beings was broken. As our marriage broke open, an opportunity for transformation was birthed. We had an opportunity to learn, grow and mature as individuals and as a couple. We’ve learned – we’re still learning –  that marriage is a continuous, never-ending journey of personal and spiritual growth and evolution. We’ve learned – we’re still learning -that marriage is an intimate incubator to learn, practice, and strengthen compassion, understanding, forgiveness, boundaries, non-violent communication, and true, mature love. The journey of our relationship continues to show me all the ways in which I put up walls around my heart and keep myself small.  Almost four years later, it’s still a work in progress and we’re still together.

For many months I felt like a total failure for my botched move to New Zealand. I felt I had let down my husband and kids, I felt I had let down my parents and sister in New Zealand. I felt like a failure in the eyes of my friends in the United States and New Zealand who knew we had been planning to move for several years. I felt guilt, I felt shame. It was THE exemplary failure of my life.

It has taken several years for me to let go of the shame of that experience, and I have finally been able to re-frame the narrative away from failure and toward lessons learned and opportunities gained instead. There are always consequences involved in any form of change, there’s always loss and there’s always gain. Although it wasn’t easy, I learned to look for the positive consequences and opportunities that arose from my challenges that year.

We faced head-on our financial challenges that we had been trying to avoid by moving to New Zealand. As the world economy had changed and shifted, we were forced to radically rethink our lives. Transformation involved my husband and I doing some serious soul-searching and making changes in our work and our sources of livelihood within the changing economic landscape. We needed to face debt that we had incurred while trying to stay afloat during the depths of the Great Recession. Transformation required adjusting our priorities and spending choices in the context of the changing economy, consumerism and the ecological crisis we face. I have been able to examine my own lifestyle through a historical lens to see that the way I live, and how most of us live in the United States, is incredibly self-centered and short-sighted. I’ve learned that the luxuries and conveniences that I had come to expect, while nice, came at a steep cost to the environment, human rights, and the welfare and treatment of animals. The great opportunity of the recession was to wake up to the harm that I and we all have been doing to each other, other beings and the Earth, all in the name of progress and a better lifestyle. Gandhi said in his autobiography “The very act of his living – eating, drinking, and moving about – necessarily involves himsa, destruction of life…He will be constantly growing in self-restraint and compassion, but he can never become entirely free from outward himsa” (349). Because I am alive I will inevitably cause harm, but I will continue to re-adjust my own and family’s lifestyle and behaviors to limit the harm of others and the planet as much as I can. If the simple lifestyle advocated by Gandhi and written about by Henry Thoreau seems extreme to us in 2016, I have to question whether it’s more extreme than the ecological disaster we are wreaking on the planet with our collective love for comfort, convenience, and an insatiable appetite for the next shiny new thing.

In the autumn of 2013 I started having severe pain in my lower left abdomen that eventually sent me to the emergency room. A CT scan revealed that I had a perforated colon that had developed at the staple-site of a surgery four years prior. An abscess was forming at the perforation. I was told that sooner or later the abscess would burst internally and that would a life-threatening medical emergency. Because I’d already had several feet of my colon removed four years prior, my only choice was to have my entire colon removed. This meant having a permanent ileostomy for the rest of my life. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s as a teenager and this harsh news was the verdict I had been dreading for 20 years. I spent over a month in hospital, missing Thanksgiving and my daughter’s 9th birthday. I realized how alone I was, how vulnerable and mortal I was. I was reminded of the saying “whoever called it a dark night of the soul got off easy”. My month in the hospital was the darkest time of all for me, the icing on the cake of an already dark and challenging year.

Depth psychologist and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin believes that most people in Western industrial cultures get stuck in the adolescent stage of life, despite aging chronologically. In his book Nature and the Human Soul, Plotkin describes a collective patho-adolesence that manifests in society as greed, self-absorption, sexism, egocentrism, racism, dogmatism, nationalism, and anthropocentrism. In order to fully mature and reach true maturity and our full human potential, Plotkin believes that we must enter into, spend time in and ultimately pass through a ‘cocoon’ stage which ”results in the disintegration of almost everything we know about the world and ourselves.” He continues on to say that “Inside the Cocoon…you are preparing to die in order for something new to be born – and to take flight” (242-243). According to Plotkin, time in the ‘cocoon’ is a necessary rite of passage to becoming a mature adult. It’s a time of exploring the ‘mysteries of the soul’ and descending into darkness and most likely contains a period of deep personal challenge such as illness, depression, divorce, loss of faith, or anything that makes us question who we are and the world we thought we knew. Plotkin writes “However and whenever it happens, when you hear the call, you find your nose suddenly pressed up against previously avoided existential questions: What is my life about anyway? What do I live for?” (251).

In 2013 my life as I knew it had fallen apart in order to become creatively re-imagined and renewed. Thomas Berry writes in The Dream of the Earth “Neither the universe as a whole nor any part of the universe is especially peaceful…Conflict is the father of all things…The elements are born in supernovas…while we reflect on the turmoil of the universe in its emergent process, we must also understand the splendor that finds expression amid this sequence of catastrophic events.” I had experienced that unescapable, creative force that flows through the universe. I emerged from my cocoon with more clarity about what’s truly important. I emerged with greater self-awareness, greater confidence and trust to create a bigger story for myself and my contribution to world. I came to see the splendor that emerged from my own personal catastrophe.

Since 2013 I have been completely free from Crohn’s disease which has been the most positive transformation of my life. My ileostomy was the price I paid for the freedom, peace and deep gratitude I feel in being released from a debilitating chronic illness. The move-that-wasn’t to New Zealand allowed for peace in letting go of my homeland in order to feel fully rooted in my adopted homeland’s geography, history, and culture. My marital challenges offered opportunities for self-reflection, compassion for myself and my loved ones. I have learned to live with a more open heart. I learned that forgiving myself is the first step in forgiving others. Finally feeling healthy and rooted I was energized to expand into a different way of serving the world where I find myself today at Prescott College, preparing to become an educator.

As of writing, the United States has just elected Donald Trump to the presidency. My feelings this week have been as visceral and raw as they were 2013, when my world was shaken up in so many ways. As I come to grips with election results that were not what I’d hoped for, I see a parallel between my own hope that my problems would be solved by moving to different country to our collective hope that our problems will be solved by a different leader. Having spent time in the darkness of the cocoon I know that the greatest transformation occurs in the most challenging times. Perhaps collectively we are entering a ‘cocoon’ stage. In the cocoon we will collectively be broken open to ‘face the strain’ of our society’s challenges head on instead of avoiding or re-routing our problems. Collectively we suddenly have our noses pressed up against previously avoided existential questions: What is our life about anyway? What do we live for?’ The challenges we face as a nation and a world offer opportunities to evolve our collective human consciousness. We are primed for a massive shake-up that may force Western industrial democratic societies to “die in order for something new to be born”. I am hopeful that that ‘something new’ is a more evolved and empowered collective human consciousness. The time is ripe for us to collectively realize our own personal power and ability to be change the we wish to see, rather than expecting elected representatives, corporations, and institutions to be the change for us. Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” As I play my part in the continuous unfolding evolution in human consciousness, I know my part needs to involve education and children.

As I think back on the ephemeral and intimate communion I experienced with Mother Earth on Boynton trail in Sedona, Her words have sustained me through my own personal challenges and will continue to sustain me as we face our collective struggles. “It’s going to be okay, it’s okay. We are supported.” I initially questioned the validity of my experience in Sedona. It seemed strange and unreal to me as a 21st century human being, so disconnected from an intimate relationship with nature, an intimacy that our ancestors enjoyed for millennia. I have since come understand that my experience was a spiritual communion at it’s most fundamental. I have come to understand that I was tapping into the Earth’s wisdom, which is inextricably bound with my own wisdom. Her words speak to me now on a larger scale. We are all supported by Mother Earth herself. It’s time for our collective consciousness to understand and treat Mother Earth as the sacred life-giver and sustainer she is and to create new ways of living that are Earth sustaining. Today, as I picture Kachina Woman in Sedona in my mind, I imagine her saying ‘I’ve weathered all kinds of storms throughout the ages and I still stand tall and proud. Life goes on, stand tall, be kind to yourself, be kind to others, embrace the changes, it’s okay, you are supported’.

Gandhi. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. 1957. Beacon Press.

Lesser, Elizabeth.  Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. 2005. Random House.

Plotkin, Bill. Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community and in a Fragmented World. 2008. New World Press.

© 2016 Lisa Weeden