Category Archives: Inspiration

Pain, Power, and Finding Love on A Mountain Top

       McKenzie Johnson is someone to look up to, though she, herself would be uncomfortable with the moniker of role model, it’s true.  I admire so much about this woman and what she has overcome in her life.  A grief counselor once told me that we need to be good stewards of our grief, meaning that instead of allowing it to swallow us up and tear us down, we can use our experiences to help others facing similar trials. And likewise, Mac is a good steward of her pain, even through the struggle of overcoming addiction. 

       In my opinion it’s the individuals who have been through various forms of hardship who have the most to offer.  It’s one thing to live your whole life on top, but it’s quite another to be writhing in the depths of despair at some point, and to choose to claw your way up to the top instead. That’s just what Mac does, every day.  She literally climbs mountains, and somewhere along the way she found her voice, herself, and even though she wasn’t looking for it, she found love. 

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       “Just over a year ago I wrote my first guest piece here, Numbing the Pain.  In the past year a lot has changed, and a lot has stayed the same.  My mom still has cancer, I am still in recovery, I still find it hard to show emotions to those closest to me, my past still haunts me from time to time. I have climbed Kilimanjaro; and found love doing so, I am building a home, I have become an aunt, I have left my job for the time being. I have stepped into many unknowns, and all my expectations have been blown away, like they usually are.  

       I was reading an interview with Pamela Abalu and her parting statement was, “fear is imagination used for the wrong purpose”. How true that is.  When you have a loved one with cancer, and you yourself have the disease of addiction, there is a lot of fear. In fact, I think fear drives us all in ways we may not even realize.  After almost five years of being sober my fears have evolved from say, wondering if I would wake up the next morning, to am I enough, have I done enough, am I treating my loved ones in way that I am proud of, will anyone find out that I am making it up as I go along? 

       They say addiction is a family disease, and it’s true, I know it from experience.  I know now the many ways in which this disease of mine affected the people I love most. And I only know this after finally being forced to acknowledge it in treatment. I would say cancer is also a family disease, affecting all those around the one with the symptoms.

       Mom has always understood me as a being, knowing things about me before I was ready to acknowledge them myself.  In my teenage years, before I was an active alcoholic, I was deep in an eating disorder, anorexia and bulimia.  One day she pulled the car over in our neighborhood, looked me straight in the eye and said, “I know what you’re doing to yourself, do you want help?” I said “Yes,” I still see my therapist she found for me.  The same one who many years later would look me straight in the eye and say “You would benefit from inpatient treatment.” And I did.  I see her tomorrow.  Mom would hand write me letters in college, saying that if I ever needed help with drinking that they were there.  I would throw them away.  I wish so badly I had one of those now.  Mac6Mom is the type of person who if I cry, she cries, and not just because I’m her daughter.  She’s most empathetic person I know.  She will move mountains for people and causes she cares about.

       She is soon to start her fourth treatment in five years, this time a deadly yet potentially curative cocktail of chemo, immunotherapy and a stem cell transplant.  There is nothing easy about what the next six months or more will have in store for us. There is nothing to really prepare any of us.  There have been days where I thought I would implode. Around treatment time my depression and anxiety flare up, my thoughts of alcohol increase, fear is a constant companion. Work has been hard to manage, a new relationship has helped so much although has its own stressor of distance.  But the process for me this time has been different; I have been more present, going to appointments, helping make decisions, telling mom the sometimes-hard truth that she does not like to hear, and looking at things from a different perspective.  I’m focused.

       Sometimes, the closeness of others and the reality it brings is still difficult for me to swallow so I show my love in different ways, like raising (a considerable amount of) money for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society again this year through the Big Climb.  Events like these help me to channel my energy and desire to help in a positive and productive way, as much for myself as for the one I’m helping.  I cannot say that I am a natural caretaker or the best person to be at your bedside, but I am a good decision maker, can ask hard questions and maybe push my mom a little more in areas others wouldn’t, just as she’s pushed me. She can be tougher than she knows.  I’ve learned that I can be, too, but I still won’t cry in front of her.

       In being more present for my mom and family, work has seen me through more than a few breakdowns recently. Again, being vulnerable in front of people who are not my loved ones is far easier for me than showing those who should be closest to me what I am feeling.  I run a team that does over a million dollars in sales a year, I was assisting on teams doing over six million a year before I got my own.  I have always put immense pressure on myself to be the best at everything I take on, my therapist would say I am a perfectionist, and I am not ok with being “ok”.  I have a hard time saying “no,” and an even harder time asking for help. That’s part of the reason I climb.  To get my mind frame out of focusing on the constant pressures I inflict on myself, to get out of my head, to just breathe. 

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        Having a partner to balance and support me, to point things out that I miss, to have a different outlook on things; a healthy perspective has made a world of difference.  I know that I should not go through this alone, but I have a disease that wants me to isolate, that will creep in through any vulnerability.  If I have learned anything in recovery, it is that we cannot do it alone.  This time I didn’t.  I asked for help, maybe a little too late after one too many things were put on my plate, but I did and I am proud. 

       The last and only other time I took a significant amount of time away from work was when I went to treatment for my alcoholism.  All in all, I was there for five and a half months. I then chose to live in the nearby community for a few months after that.  It was the best, and hardest decision I have ever made. If you would have asked me a few months ago what could possibly take me away from work, my answer would have been, The Pacific Crest Trail or travelling the world for a year, but what has taken me away is that I am taking this time to take care of myself, and my mom.  I don’t want to have to go to treatment again, I never want to have to tell my family I relapsed.  I have a constant fear of this, and it is  truly terrifying for me.

       I was never the little girl who dreamed of finding a husband, getting married, and having kids.  I have always been independent and self-sufficient, almost to a fault, living my life in near protest of it, almost as if I had something to prove.  Or maybe just something to hide. I always knew that if I did happen to find that person it would have to a partnership, and someone who understood my independence, wasn’t scared of my past, could live with my current lifestyle of not being around alcohol, could draw my thoughts and feelings out, allow me to cry, to be the tough one, to celebrate my success and not be intimidated by it, make me want to share my life, and let me climb the mountains I love so much. 

       I found him, on the tallest mountain in Africa.  When we first met I thought he was handsome, kind, quietly confident, self-assured and aware, and I remember not being able to tell how old he was.  Over the next few days I was stuck by his patience, his ease with the locals, culture and language.  He led our group of four incredibly independent, strong, wickedly funny, successful women without so much as breaking a proverbial sweat.  We were on the mountain for seven days. He later told me he knew he loved me at camp two.  But at camp two I was busy trying not to let my feelings show, maybe so I didn’t even have to acknowledge them myself. That day we all took a popular little side trip from camp.  It was very busy and I was having some anxiety being around so many people, and the hike made it worse, I think he noticed that.  When we returned to camp I heard him say to another guide, “I’m going to take her on a separate hike, she’s very active.” That awareness and kindness wasn’t lost on me. Our little hikes became a theme for the rest of the climb.  This is where we really got to know each other, just the two of us, on little side trails on Kilimanjaro.

        Mac3After the climb, we convinced him to join us all on safari.  Following that, we both happened to have tickets to Zanzibar, so there we were able to spend our first time alone together. I have never had something feel so easy, right. In the following months, that has not changed, though so many things have not been easy.  He was working and living at Crystal Mountain, me in Seattle. And now he is in Alaska, and me, in Seattle.  But he has never once shied away from me, as I have with him, first because of our age difference (he is considerably younger than me), then distance, then because anytime I let someone get close, I try to push them away.

       I know I am clearly still struggling with my ability to be vulnerable and at times I have even been willing to lose something that I care about so much because of it.  That part of me has never made sense, and I am working today on why I can’t get over this wall or break it down.  This is a theme not only with my partner, but family as well.  I am never easy, add in my mom’s treatment regimen, the usual family dynamics, significant distance in a brand new relationship, all the opposite of easy. Yet he has never wavered, showing me his emotions, love and support all along the way, and not only for me, but for my family as well. I love him enough to cry in front of him, to ask for his opinion when making big decisions, to make us a priority, above myself. He gives me another reason not to drink, not to stay in my depressive tendencies, or act on them. He may not have experienced anxiety, or any of these other issues personally, but he cares enough to stand by me through them. And now I can let him which to be quite honest, feels foreign and scary and certainly does not come naturally. Just as I have to work on my sobriety, myself, my mental and emotional well-being, I have to work on allowing someone to love me, as I am.  And believing that they will”

 

All photos courtesy of McKenzie Johnson

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Sorrow, Strength, and Seahawks

I’ve lived in Washington state (nearly) my whole life.  As a child my family moved here from Oklahoma, where I was born, when I was just one year old.  My husband and I traveled to Texas for his work and put in a two year stint there.  It was just long enough to get the job done before we came running back up to the Pacific North West.  Both of us having lived on the eastern side of the state before, this time we were one our way to Seattle, just about as far west as you could go.

Eastern Washington and Western Washing are two very distinct worlds all their own separated by the Cascade Mountains.  I grew up in three hundred day of sunshine a year surrounded by desert foot hills covered in sand an sagebrush.  I’ve been told that Rattlesnake mountain, just outside of town is the highest peak west of the Mississippi that doesn’t have a single tree on it.  If you don’t know much about Washington state, you’d probably never guess that we have a vast desert at the center of state itself.  Western Washington, on the other hand is a lush green oasis.  There are rivers and streams everywhere, forests so thick that you can’t see them for the trees, and mountains topped by alpine glaciers, and the cliff-lined vast Pacific Ocean.

Moving to the other side of the state, and back from Texas was an adventure.  It was January, 2008 and on the road home, I discovered I was pregnant with our second child.  New job, new place to live, new baby, oh what and adventure it would be.

Miss Elliott was born on October 3, 2008 and we would live just outside of Seattle for the next six years.  Of course, as it so often does in life the adventure we had dreamed up came to resemble nothing of what we had planned.  Miss Elliott was born with Tay-Sachs Disease and she would die on February 3, 2012.

I despise the winter.  The cold, and death it brings.  The darkness of Seattle, inundated with it’s never ending rain.  Sometimes it’s just too much to bear.  But in 2013 the Seattle Seahawks began a winning streak that was encouraging and uniting the city, giving all of us something to look forward to, and something to be proud of.  That might sound petty, or stupid, or even superficial but being a part of the synergy of the city itself was electric.  It was as if everyone came together for a common goal.  It inspired, and strengthened, and for me, it distracted.

As the Seahawks continued their winning streak and went into the playoffs I was lucky enough to go to the game in which they defeated the New Orlean’s Saints.  You couldn’t believe the roar of the crowd in Century Link field.  The intensity was palpable.  With just one game left in the post game season, if they won they would be on their way to the Super Bowl.  The previous Super Bowl had been held on February 3, 2013, and marked one year since Miss Elliott’s passing.  Some friends invited us to a party.  Loren said yes before he realized the date, but we kept our obligation and attended anyway despite my desire to remain home in bed.  In the end, I was glad for the distraction.  So this next year, as we made plans to attend their party again, on February 2, 2014, I was happy that our Seahawks were going to be playing and it gave us something positive to look forward to.

Last summer we moved away from Seattle and back to where I spent most of my childhood to what I consider to be my hometown.  Here we are in a new house, with new jobs, and a new school for Skylar, and oh yes, finally, the sun.  But now for the first time since we’ve moved, as we circle back on another year and our Hawks have done it again, I find I miss Seattle.  I miss the energy and camaraderie swirling around the atmosphere.  I miss the unification of all Seattleites in a common goal.

February 3, 2015 will mark the third anniversary of Miss Elliott’s passing.  This thought is especially troubling to me because of the fact that she passed when she was three years old.  Meaning that this year there will come a point at which she will have been gone longer than she ever was her here.  I’m happy that we’ll be going back to our friend’s Super Bowl party again this year, to be there in Seattle with the friends who knew Miss Elliott throughout her life and to cheer on our Seahawks as they defend their title of Super Bowl Champions.  I’m happy our boys made it to the big game once again.  And on February 1, 2015 I’ll once again be happy for the distraction that takes my mind off of the sorrow I feel, especially strong, at that time of year, this year in particular.

It may only be just a game, but oh, for so many people it’s so much more.  Go Hawks!