One Crumb at a Time
by Debbie Clarke
Change . . . it’s something that can occur in the blink of an eye, or it can be something that happens so slowly that it’s not until you wake up one day and ask, “How did I get here?” that you even notice the change. This can be either change for the better or for the worse, on the scale of, How’s your life working for you?
My experience of change has been the slow, subtle type. It wasn’t until my life had tipped to a very low point that I woke up and began to realize that I couldn’t continue on the path I was on. Even my awakening to the fact of how bad I felt was slow. It was as if I couldn’t have tolerated noticing it all at once, so I become aware of each aspect, one little bit at a time.
Let me describe what my life was like back in October 2006. I was a month away from turning forty-six years old, and I was in a longtime relationship with my spouse, Dan. We had just celebrated twenty-four years of being together, and our relationship had grown unhappy and unhealthy in many ways. In my eyes, at that time, it was all because of Dan. I blamed Dan’s discontent, his choices, his moods and unhappiness as being the cause of our problems and ultimately my own unhappiness. I felt so sad most of the time, as well as alone, isolated, stressed, frustrated, hopeless and unloved; the list was endless.
To make matters worse, I had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis nineteen years earlier. This disease had, at times rapidly and more often slowly and insidiously, accelerated to the point that eventually I was no longer able to work. Despite the evidence that something was very wrong, though, I had lived in denial from the time I had first gotten sick.
My jaw was the first area to be affected. Within two months I couldn’t open my mouth more than enough to fit my baby finger between my top and bottom teeth. I would force myself to go to work every day, and I remember that, while sitting at my desk, it would take me the entire morning to eat a muffin, one crumb at a time.
Surgery repaired my jaw somewhat, but then the disease began in earnest as one joint at a time began to inflame and swell. Soon my breastbone was swollen and protruding, and it felt like someone was sitting on my chest at all times. If I coughed or sneezed, the pain was unbelievable, almost as if someone had ripped me wide open. My shoulders were painful, and I couldn’t reach over my head. In order to get myself out of bed in the morning, I would grab the front of my own pajamas and pull myself up. To wash my hair in the shower, I would need to bend forward and bring my head down to where I could reach my hair. Both of my knees ached, and I limped; my neck barely turned, and each movement of my head was agonizing. My low back was stiff and very painful. There were almost no spots on my body that didn’t hurt. Each morning it was only after hours of struggle and incredible pain that I would be ready to start the trip to work via public transit.
I read an article once by a woman suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, and she said that her life was about planning. She had to preplan every step she took and every moment of her day. I had been doing exactly that, and such was the depth of my denial that I had not even been aware of it! I would plan ahead what hand I would hold on with when I boarded a bus, and make sure not to carry anything and always to have a hand free. I would pray that there would be a seat available, and one that I could get in and out of easily and not make a spectacle of myself.
As I write this now, I’m still amazed that even with all the pain and suffering that I endured, not calling attention to myself
was foremost in my mind. I have to laugh, because the visual I have of a female version of the Tin Man of Oz making her way through her day and not calling attention to herself is so ridiculous. The good news is that most people around me were so “asleep” in their lives that they didn’t notice me in mine.
Even when I did stop working, only my closest friends were even aware that there was anything wrong with me. People who worked beside me every day had no idea. I was the master of disguise. I kept a smile on my face and hid my pain, because that is what I believed I was supposed to do.
I was the consummate people pleaser and had to give 150 percent at work and be the best social worker ever. At home all I wanted was for Dan to be happy, because I believed if he was happy, then I would be. I ignored and denied my pain in an attempt to keep everyone else happy.
My family lived about four hours away, and I traveled there as much as I could, because I needed to be close to them and please them, too. I always felt split: there was my family and my life in my hometown, and there was Dan and my life in Toronto. Whenever I was with my family, I felt I should be with Dan, and when I was with Dan, I felt that my family needed me. I remember a toy called Stretch Armstrong that my nephew Keith had back in the ’90s. The toy was made of a soft rubber; you could pull Stretch’s arms, and they would extend to abnormal lengths. I see my face on the Stretch Armstrong toy, being pulled until my arms can stretch from Toronto to the Ottawa Valley. There is sadness here as I realize what I expected from my body, and yet I can laugh because it really is a funny visual.
It’s all so obvious to me now that the outer struggles were being reflected in my body. Playing these games and using these strategies to fulfill myself—and looking outside of myself to others to give me value and meaning—was causing my joints and my body to be in a metaphorical tug-of-war that week by week, month by month was becoming physical. However, at that time I was so busy planning my every movement and just getting through my day that I couldn’t see the big picture. I was like a workhorse wearing blinders and plodding along through what felt like wet concrete. I felt as if I carried the weight of the world on my shoulders. Every step and movement was a struggle.
I continued like this for thirteen years, until I needed to have a second surgery on my shoulder as well as surgery on both my knees. The doctor told me that they could do a few more surgeries and then they would need to start replacing my joints; but if the artificial joints wore out, there was nothing that could be done. It was all very difficult because I was so young. Usually people are getting joints replaced in their senior years, and I was only in my forties. The cold, hard truth finally hit me: my body was deteriorating, and I only had the one body. I had better wake up.
With a heavy heart and incredible fear I agreed to leave work. I will never forget the day that I read the doctor’s report that my rheumatologist had completed in order for me to receive long-term disability benefits from my employer. I opened the envelope that he had given me and read “Permanently Disabled.” I felt like someone had pulled the bottom out of my world.
At the time, I was sitting waiting to have my blood tests done, and as much as I wanted to sob like a baby, I felt I had to hold it together, just as I had always done. The technician called me in, and I stuffed that sadness down inside me and smiled brightly. When I got home, I cried to Dan, at first, but whenever I cried, it seemed to physically hurt him, so eventually I held it in.
My family was the same. I didn’t want to worry them, and if I cried, they appeared to be so uncomfortable with my sadness. The worst thing for me is to see someone else uncomfortable. It was less painful to hold it inside than to risk making them feel uncomfortable.
I realize now that there was a deeper deterrent: I feared that if I dared allow that sadness, it would be like the Hoover Dam letting loose, and the tears would never stop. All I wanted was for people to be happy and have fun around me, and there’s nothing that stops a party like someone crying an ocean of tears on you. I’m having another visual of the doll I used to have, one that you filled with water and it would cry and wet in the diaper. I see myself with my tear ducts releasing a never-ending stream of tears. That could get messy!
So at the age of forty I found myself unable to work, trapped in a body that the doctors predicted with certainty would slowly and steadily deteriorate. I was taking forty pills a week to manage my arthritis and the related conditions, such as stomach problems from the heavy-duty anti-inflammatory medication. At least once a week I would vomit in the middle of the night. One medication had the possible side effect of damaging my stomach lining and causing ulcers. Another medication could cause liver damage, and yet another could cause irreversible eye problems and loss of vision. The double-edged sword was that if I didn’t take medication, I could not get out of bed. If I forgot to take my medication in the morning, then by noon I would start to feel my whole body becoming even more stiff and painful, and it would remind me to quickly take my pills. I cannot even fathom what my life would have been like without that medication.
I had always struggled with who I was, and when I worked, at least I knew myself as a social worker and had a purpose, a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Now who was I, with no career and no purpose? I felt worthless, weak and so afraid.
I looked to Dan to fill me up, and this caused him to pull further away. The desperate need was more than he could cope with. I felt like a victim, like this had happened to
me, and each night I would pray to be stronger physically, emotionally and spiritually.
I began reading self-help New Age spirituality books and began journaling. I took a meditation course and spent the next six years searching for answers to what had gone wrong in my life, wanting someone or something to fix it.
I remember in the summer of 2006, I picked up a book by Doreen Virtue, who does Angel Readings and connects with angels as guides. In this particular book, Doreen was writing about her life of traveling, doing workshops and attending spiritual events and ceremonies. I said out loud to anyone that would listen, “This is the life I want.” I felt it resonated so strongly in every fiber of my being; I had never experienced such certainty about anything in my life.
Of course, my mind checked in with its fear, doubt and judgment, and it started to question how this could be possible. Who did I think I was, comparing myself to the likes of Doreen Virtue? My mind was successful in having me doubt myself, and yet for a few moments I had really felt a glimmer of excitement and hope in my body.
My interest was piqued, and a few months later my sister and I went for an Angel Reading in Ottawa. I was told that my angels were showing the reader that I would be a coach for women and children; she asked me if I had ever heard of The Journey.
I came back home to Toronto and checked the Journey website. As grace would have it, there was a Journey Intensive weekend in Toronto a few weeks later. Dan and I went together to the weekend, and I immediately knew that this was what I had been searching for. Here were the tools to tap into my own body wisdom; and that’s where I found the “ME” I had seemingly lost connection with.
When we were instructed to find a partner to do this process with, I immediately panicked, and the old fear of being picked last rose up in my mind. Again grace guided me, this time to turn to the wonderful soul next to me, named Sheila. Together we guided each other through our first Journey process. We instantly connected, and the next spring we traveled together to complete all the courses in the Practitioner Program. This is when I realized that when you open your heart and speak truth, you connect to people at a deeper level, through truth, and I immediately formed a connection with another being in a way that previously would have taken me years to develop.
During that first weekend I did two processes that both took me into a deeper consciousness and into my internal body wisdom. My experience has been that when I do work at this deeper place, it is difficult to recall the details of the process. I will explain what occurred as best I can.
In most of our Journey processes, our body wisdom allows us to feel an emotion and then takes us back to a time when we first felt that emotion. The emotion I felt then was a blend of fear and anxiety, and the memory that came was when I was about seven years old, playing outside. One of my siblings came running outside and said that our dad was freaking out. We all ran inside, and I remember that he was yelling at my mom, who was standing wordlessly listening and watching him as he yelled and cursed and kicked the cupboard door and picked up the end of the table and dropped it again. He banged the table and counter with his fist and kicked and roared some more. I stood in the doorway, frozen in fear and yet somehow forced to watch. It was like seeing an accident on the side of the road and not being able to look away.
I believe this was the first time I had ever seen my dad so angry, and I was confused and afraid and curious as to what had happened, and angry at him for scaring me and for scaring my mom. (I don’t know if she was afraid, but that is what the younger me thought.) I later realized that I also took on a belief at that time: If you didn’t control your anger, you could scare people, or people would think there was something wrong with you. I also later discovered that right then I made a vow never to show anger.
In my process, when I invited my dad to sit with me at a campfire of unconditional love and acceptance, I was able to tell him exactly how this made me feel. I was able to see the pattern that I developed to never do anything to upset my dad for fear of a reenactment of this scene. I was also able to speak to my mom, and I realized there was anger at her for never speaking up for herself and for never teaching or encouraging me
to speak up for my
The beauty of this process was that in it both my mom and my dad had an opportunity to respond and explain to me what they were feeling. My dad was a truck driver, and every week he was on the road from Sunday evening until late the following Friday night. He was home with us for less than two days every week. When I saw how he felt like an outsider in his own home, I felt a newfound compassion for him. I also saw how my mom was exactly the same as me; all she wanted was for people to be happy, and she did that by always complying and pleasing others and never making waves. They both were doing the best they could with the emotional understanding and resources they had at the time.
I honestly can’t recall the second process that I experienced that weekend; all I know is that something shifted inside of me. I walked away on Sunday night feeling so peaceful, aware that a memory that I had stored for forty years could be looked at with clarity; it could be changed, I could forgive them both for their actions, and I could forgive that younger me for creating my own pain about the memory and the people involved.
Within the first week following the Journey Intensive weekend, Dan and I sat down to talk. He told me that he could see I was in a “good place” and that he felt our relationship had run its course and that we should go our separate ways. I calmly replied, “Okay,” and it honestly was okay. This, coming from a person who had done everything to hang on to Dan, as he did everything to push me away! The more he had pushed, the more I hung on. I had made my life around Dan and had no idea who I was without him. Dan is such a big, beautiful personality, and I had identified myself through him for twenty-four years.
I am still in awe that one weekend at the Journey Intensive shifted something in me and created a knowing: that this was the right thing to do. In that moment all fear fell away, and there was only peace and acceptance.
Dan and I cried many times about the loss of the good parts of our relationship, and Dan said more than once, “I don’t know why I am doing this.” I truly believe that on some level he did it for me. I know that I could not have done what I have done or experienced what I have experienced, if Dan and I were still together. I needed to break free of the codependency that we had created in order to find my own path.
I went on with my Journeywork, completed the Practitioner Program and qualified as an Accredited Journey Practitioner. I then completed the Visionary Leadership and Conscious Coaching Programs, and the awareness, growth and emotional and physical healing have continued.
These past six years, Dan and I have remained friends. This transition has at times been painful as I let go of Dan and the old patterns. Dan has been a wonderful teacher for me, and each time I am triggered by something that he does or says, it shows me what I need to look at within myself. Many times when I have returned from a Journey event where I have gained new insights, I will contact Dan and say, “I am so sorry for the times that I blamed you for my pain.” It feels so liberating to be able to cut the energetic cord to that old hurt and pain and the victim story that I told myself. I realize it was my pain that I projected and blamed on him; when I acknowledge and accept that pain, that is when the healing can occur.
My physical health has improved dramatically. I cannot pinpoint one process or Journey event to which I can attribute my physical healing. When I clear out old pain and hurt, as I “let go,” my body slowly responds as well.
I do recall a couple of incidents that left me in awe: the improvement was very obvious, without a doubt. The first “before and after” scenario involved the morning yoga I participated in at two different Journey events. I had never done yoga before because it was such a challenge for me to get down on the floor and stand back up with the limited movement that I had. However, I was willing to participate and do what I could. At the first retreat, Manifest Abundance, in April 2007, I remember vividly that at one point I was attempting to do a Downward Dog pose, leaning over with hands and feet on the floor, and my right wrist wouldn’t bend, so I made a fist and used the side of my hand to support myself.
When I attended the No Ego retreat three months later, I was again participating in morning yoga. We did the Downward Dog pose, and at first I didn’t notice, but then I realized that my wrist was bent and both palms were flat on the floor. My eyes welled up with tears, because this was the first time in years I had experienced physical improvement.
The second step forward happened at another weekend retreat, called Healing with Conscious Communication, also in April 2007. On Saturday afternoon during a break, we went outside to enjoy the sunshine. The only place to sit was on the curb of the driveway beside the hotel, so my friends all crouched down and sat on the curb. I considered it but knew that there was no way for me to bend enough to get down there and even less possibility of getting back up. I remained standing.
On Sunday, we did the same, only this time I looked down and thought, “I can do this.” So I turned and sat down. I was thrilled. I said to my friends, “I sat down!” They were a little perplexed by this seemingly obvious statement. “You have no idea. I haven’t been able to do this in over twenty years!” Then I was able to get back up on my feet again. It truly was a miracle! Sometime in the previous twenty-four hours, my body had become less rigid and allowed me to bend and sit on the curb in the beautiful sunshine with my friends.
I have realized so many things, and the biggest one is how I had lived in my head, as if my body was just along for the ride. I see how I always hated my body and felt that it was unattractive. I recall at the age of eight, I thought I looked fat in a swimsuit, was self-conscious about my body and kept it covered. I took my body for granted, didn’t listen to it and totally disconnected from it. I see how it rebelled against me, and how I rebelled in a quiet and self-destructive way against myself. The arthritis was my way of expressing the anger that I so long ago had vowed never to express. It was me screaming a big “Fuck you!” internally, and the fire in my inflamed joints was certainly a testament to that. No one got hurt except for me, and the rage got to be released internally rather than externally.
It has been over four years since my first Journey weekend, and my life has been forever changed. It has been an incredible time of opportunities and experiences that I had never thought possible. From the moment that I decided to follow this path, everything has been unfolding as though divinely guided. I had the realization just a few days ago that my life is easy and effortless until I
decide that it’s not; then I
can make it a struggle. When I become aware of the struggle and again let go and allow the magic, the easy and effortless life appears again.
It is truly empowering to know that I can decide how I want my life to look and feel. I used to say, “I have to,” and now I say, “I choose to.” I’m not saying that it’s always easy; everyday life offers a double bind, or two ends of that proverbial tug-of-war rope, that I can choose to pick up and pull, or I can just notice and allow the emotions to present themselves. By “double bind,” I mean the simultaneous “I want to” and “I don’t want to,” the “I should” and “I shouldn’t,” “I could” and “I couldn’t,” “I have to” . . . the list goes on and on. I don’t know about you, but for me these binds are exhausting, energy stealing and mind-boggling. I understand that this is the cost our ego exacts, and that heart, mind, left brain, right brain can choose to work in harmony or in disharmony. And I have found some techniques that are very effective for me to regain this harmony within.
One day I was at my sister’s house doing my income tax. However, I couldn’t concentrate, and I was having sciatic pain down my leg. I tried to keep working and ignore it and it got worse. Finally I stopped and asked, “What’s here?” and instantly I realized that I was feeling guilty. I had left my dad at home, and he had wanted me to take him out for a drive, and here I was doing something for myself. The moment I named it and acknowledged the guilt, the pain went away, and I was able to focus and get clarity to do what I needed to do.
The same is true for any physical pain in my body. I had suffered from huge, painful cold sores on my lip in the past. Now as soon as I feel one starting, I go right into the consciousness of the cold sore and ask, “What’s here?” or “If there were words or emotions inside, what might they be?” Every time it has been unexpressed anger, and by allowing and acknowledging it, the cold sore never develops. I usually either say the words out loud or journal. I write, “I am angry that. . .” and fill in the blank or blanks. This also has worked for a sore throat that I am usually convinced is a cold starting. Every time it has been unexpressed anger, and when expressed, the sore throat is gone the next day.
This is such a gift that I have given myself. To be able to reconnect to my body and really listen to it is amazing. As I said earlier, my physical health has vastly improved. Under my doctor’s supervision I have recently reduced my medication down to nothing. That’s right—I went from forty pills a week for my arthritis down to zero. I am left with the damage in my joints that occurred when my joints were inflamed, and each day I trust that they will continue to heal. My neck is still stiff and my arms cannot (yet) extend over my head. And if bending forward to wash my hair in the shower is the toughest thing I have to face, I will accept it with love.
I have made peace with my body and with the rheumatoid arthritis. I am truly grateful for everything that has happened to me and for every pain I have felt. If that was what was needed for me to wake up and pay attention to my body and my life, then I am eternally thankful for all of it. I am now practicing being accepting of my body, just the way it is. I want to honor my body by eating to nourish it, as opposed to filling it to avoid hunger, to comfort myself or to avoid feeling an emotion.
I believe that every situation that comes to me is an opportunity to learn and grow, and when I step out of my comfort zone, any hidden limiting beliefs or triggers are revealed to me. The way that I lived my life before was to deny and avoid and put up a false front. I also looked outside myself for happiness. I pretended that I was fine and that my life was great. I hid my physical and emotional pain, and when Dan and I separated, except for a few close people who knew the truth, most people in our life were shocked, as they thought everything was wonderful between us. The fact that I am sharing my truth in full exposure here is a testament to the power of this work. I choose to live in truth, and when I open and expose, it gives me a connection to myself. All that I searched for outside myself is here within me.
I truly love this work and believe in it. I lately have had the great honor of sharing this work with others and traveling from Labrador to British Columbia and many places in between. I have been able to participate in sweat lodge ceremonies and meet and learn from the wisdom of the First Nations people. Magically, I am living the life that Doreen Virtue described in her book. Somehow my dream was sent out into this generous and loving Universe, and it came back to me easily and effortlessly.
My family has been a true blessing to me; they have never stopped loving me. I never had my own children, and my nieces and nephews have been a true light in my life. I joke that I am busy spending their inheritance, with all my traveling and Journey courses; and all kidding aside, the best gift I can give them is not money. The greatest legacy I can pass down is to walk the walk and show them that life is to be lived and embraced.
When my aunt Florence was near the end of her life and reliant on an oxygen machine to breathe, she told my sister and me as we were leaving, “Live your life to the fullest.” That is my intention: to live my life fully and to share these tools with others, so that they can choose to do the same.
The greatest gift that The Journey and Visionary Leadership have given me is awareness: awareness that I create my own reality and that I have the ability to change my life and heal my body. And I have! As I have opened in this awareness, the rheumatoid arthritis that once held me captive has loosened its grip. As I welcome long-suppressed emotions and uncover and clear limiting beliefs, my body thanks me by moving more freely. Hope replaces hopelessness and trust replaces fear. I have gone from a life that was filled with emotional and physical pain that made every day a struggle to a life filled with possibilities, ease, excitement and so much gratitude.
I have been fortunate to have longtime friends who bring me so much joy, laughter and love. And the new friends I have made through The Journey have opened my heart even wider. If you see me now, I will likely be smiling, only now it’s a real smile, not a mask for the pain. As I write, there are tears here that flow freely, and they are tears of joy.Debbie Clarke lives in Toronto and is an Accredited Journey Practitioner and Visionary Leadership Coach. She has spent the past few years focusing on her own healing. An important aspect of this healing has been to support Journey and Visionary Leadership work across Canada. Debbie can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.