Scene 4 — Rabbit

child rearing, essay, Memoir, search for meaning, self help, self leadership, short story, theatre arts, wellbeing, wellness

Greg Pickle was the first kid I knew who had real life tragedy strike. We were in third grade when his mom crashed the car and killed his little sister and crippled him. He would forever after walk with a limp. And I would look at him in wonder at how his life had simply changed one day, and now he had this worse one. I wondered what it was like to have a dead sister. I wondered what it was like to have a mother who had killed your sister. And I wondered what on earth it would be like to kill your child.

[NOTE: if you happen to be a newcomer, this piece is the 6th in a story-based series outlining a process framework for the development of self-leadership (even though it might not seem much like it right now). While I hope that each individual story has some interest as a stand-alone, if you’re curious to see how it all works as a concept or just want to read more stories, circle back to the homepage. “Setting the Stage 1 & 2” and all of the “Scene” stories are part of this series.]

Still, while this nearby tragedy was an eye opener to the bad way life can go down for some people, this introduction to potential misfortune didn’t interfere with my own one whit. It wasn’t me and so I continued on with the glorious childhood business of enjoying the great expanses of freedom kids had back in those days to just roam around, untethered. Only later did I see the role Greg Pickle played in setting the stage for fear establishing its ground in me.

In the meantime, living right on the edge of the Purdue University campus in West Lafayette, Indiana opened up all kinds of interesting places to explore, which I regularly did, along with my sister and ever-present partner in crime, Amy. We fearlessly tossed our bodies down a 2-story spiral shoot after discovering this curious cylindrical structure attached to the side of a campus building. Peering up through the kid-sized trap door at the bottom, the amazing slide potential was crystal clear. We just had to discover the entry at the top of it, which we were able to do upon gaining stealth access to the building.

And there was always the school of veterinary sciences where you could drop by the fenced-in field area to gape at the breeding process and the mind boggling sight of the enormous thing that slid out of the stallion, an image which still comes to mind every time I hear the phrase, “hung like a horse.”

Off-campus, our regular rounds included the railroad tracks where we smashed a few pennies, the candy aisle in the drugstore not too many blocks out of the way of our paper route, and the apartment building dumpsters where we dove for treasure. The “Lofty Lobster,” a whimsical piece of artwork in a red frame depicting a playful lobster hung in my parents’ kitchen for 40 years. There was good stuff out there in the big, wide world.

But after moving to Mt. Pleasant, Iowa in sixth grade, the threat potential in that big, wide world began to move in, circling me more closely. Employment, for one, was just plain dangerous. Dogs were a constant concern and being bitten by one confirmed that I, too, could be chased down and hurt by the world. I was not exempt.

And it wasn’t just animals. Mother nature herself was equally malicious. In addition to my dog vigilance, I also had to keep track of the ditches I could jump into should the tornado siren blast out through the atmosphere. I was so unprotected out there, peddling my bike around with no cover under that big terrifying sky, no basement to scramble down into if it should turn that eerie green and yellow. And there were so many times I furiously raced through my route so I could head for home and safety as the black clouds rolled in, the thunder boomed and the lightning laughed as it electrocuted people one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi miles away.

The danger expanded to human beings when I graduated from the paper route trade a few years later at age 13 and started working as a dietary aide in the kitchen at Mapleleaf Nursing Home. Walking over the railroad tracks and through a scrappy section referred to as Lee Town in the 4:30 a.m. early morning dark, I was scared out of my mind. This seemed exactly where killers would lurk.

But the killers weren’t in Lee Town. That’s the thing about killers; you never know where they will be.

It was a kid from school whose father who was the first to die. Walter Wellington, owner of a used car lot, got blown up strapped to the side of the Mt. Pleasant Bank and Trust at the stroke of midnight one Saturday night. At the time, I was having a sleepover at my house with Debbie Murphy. We were in bed, deep in girl-talk, when the blast rocked our house 6 blocks away.

As the story went, Bruce Wellington’s dad was part of a hot car ring based in Chicago 4 hours northeast of us. He pulled some kind of fast business that landed him on the wrong side of the Chicago mafia, so they came to Mt. Pleasant, a town of 10,000, to take care of him. That Monday morning, Sue Green found one of Bruce’s dad’s fingers on the side of a rock and brought it to school in a sandwich baggie. I always wondered what she did with her sandwich.

And then several years later, the killing circled much closer. Karol Beavers, a friend of mine, and her mother, Clementine, were murdered in their home as they watched TV in the basement. I’d been in that very basement for a sleepover just earlier that year. With 4 of us crammed in 1 bed, I’d cracked a joke about our awfully close quarters, laughing hysterically at my own wit.

On the night of their death, her mom was shot in the basement but Karol was chased down and raped in the garage before she died. I was 4 blocks away at Angie Beasley’s house. At the very time Karol was running for her life, I was running home alone in the dark, scared, as usual.

Though there was speculation that Karol’s father, Max, who owned Beaver’s Market, was also tied up with the Chicago mafia, we would find out years later that it was Monty Seger, a drug-head classmate obsessed with Karol who had killed her and her mother. However, this discovery was made only after he’d murdered Susan Wheelock, the bartender at the Iris Restaurant where he was a busboy. Monty had been hiding in the attic after he’d gotten off work, waiting for Susan to cash out the bar after closing the place down at 2 a.m. She was heading with the bank bag to the safe in the business office, a shabby little room off the waitress station, when he clubbed her over the head. But by then DNA technology had been discovered and samples of Monty’s had been collected from Karol and her mother — saved for just such a technology breakthrough.

I didn’t know Susan, but her mother lived 3 houses away so this murder felt close somehow. Then a year after that murder I went to work at the Iris Restaurant, a lucky job to land being the fanciest restaurant in town. Waitress orientation, which I would later lead many times myself, always included an introduction to the blood stain in the waitress station where it all happened, the owner too cheap to replace the carpet.

There were two bad things about this job: going up to the attic when supplies got low and riding my bike home from work late at night if it wasn’t my turn for the Ford Pinto I shared with two of my siblings. The only thing on my mind as I pedaled my bike furiously through the dark was my apron pockets full of cash, dead people, and the ones who killed them.

The cycle of disaster seemed to be every few years. It was the old, Man vs. Nature theme that circled back around the summer I joined up with the Schaffner Players, the last remaining traveling Chautauqua tent theatre from the Great Depression’s WPA. And it was in Danville, Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi River that the midwestern tornadoes I spent my life fearing finally caught up with me the on very second day I arrived on the scene. We were practicing onstage under the 2-ton rigging when the sirens went off, flooding the big open sky. I froze — there is no basement in a tent. The director shouted run for the museum, a 1-story pre-fab building all the way across a field. As we raced across the grass someone shouted look, there it is, there it is! I looked up but my eyes refused to take it in as I ran for my life.

We piled into the museum but there was no basement here either; just heavy display tables which we crawled under. It seemed like a bad plan but that’s the position we were in. Laying on the floor under the table peering out, I wondered what it would feel like to be sucked up by a tornado and fly through the air. I felt unreal, suspended, out-of-body as I waited for whatever was going to happen next. I wondered what it would feel like to be crushed by a museum display table. Then the all-clear blast came and we crawled back out. Across the field the enormous tent we’d been rehearsing in 3 minutes before was a twisted pile of tonnage — an eerie mountain-sized tangle of enormous wooden beams, poles and canvas, reduced to rubble in an instant.

So threat was real and all around. Animals. People. Nature. By that point, fear had rooted deep in my nervous system — disaster being something I now expected and was constantly on guard for. While you never knew when it was going to happen and what it would be, you knew it would come. And yet after graduating from college and moving across the country to Virginia, it was still somehow unbelievable to see Mt. Pleasant pop up on The Today Show a few years later. An old man enraged over escalating sewer costs had waited until the Town Council was fully in session before moving in and mowing them all down with a rifle, killing a number of people along with Ed King, the mayor. Ed King had driven Dave McSweeney and me to prom in his limousine when I was a sophomore as a favor to Dave’s dad. He was the president of MetroMail where Dave’s dad worked.

It was a strange place to grow up, a twisted contradiction of life in a truly pleasant, idyllic midwestern town which also just frequently happened to have a higher crime rate per capita than Chicago, at least according to local lore. This was the stage upon which it was demonstrated to me how the world truly could not be trusted: it’s one thing if something looks to be the danger that it is. It’s another when it seems to be so innocent.

And so what else was I to take but that life is some kind of comic tragedy. Or tragic comedy, whatever the philosophical genre would be demonstrating how danger is everywhere. Every day you are safe is simply a narrow escape, like those horrifying near miss occasions when you step out in the street having somehow not seen the car right there. At the last second and by the grace of god you catch sight of it and jump back in the nick of time. But the sensory experience of the close call was real and has already embedded in your body. Your body remembers everything.


But as Twin Peaks as Mt. Pleasant was, I didn’t really understand true vulnerability until I had Hunter in 1988. Not only did I have no clue as to how to speak the language of newborn babies, let alone keep one alive, I had no understanding of what it meant to be in possession of something so precious. I had no idea you could feel this way. And so from the minute we strapped Hunter into the carseat I had tethered down with all my might, pulling and pulling on the seatbelt to tighten it yet still not able to anchor it solidly enough to withstand even my little force test let alone a real-life violent impact, I became more vulnerable than my body knew what to do with. It felt way too much for my system to handle.

Given that, it turned out to be a big mistake a few years later when Lee and I went off to Norway when Hunter was 2.5 and Ellen was 6 months. Lee’s grandmother was taking a farewell tour of her homeland. This was our one-time, all-expense paid opportunity to share this part of Lee’s heritage with his grandmother who had been such a vital part of his life. With the pediatrician’s blessing, I weaned Ellen and off we went, leaving the kids with my parents, 3 hours away from us up in the far reaches of northern Maine. We would be gone 12 days. The timing was horrible but Lee’s grandmother was old and this was it.

I was nervous but so excited. I put the kids out of my mind and was having the time of my life in Oslo, over the countryside to Bergen, and on the steamer ship through the fyords all the way up to Trondheim at the very top of Norway, our final stop. But then while gathered with a group of people in some historic building in Trondheim, listening to the tour guide, I got the oddest sensation in my legs. They were suddenly taken over by an urgent need to move, a need that was getting more and more demanding by the second. Staying in my skin rapidly became a crisis, gripping me in a wild panic as I marched in place, trying to disguise my distress. I whispered to Lee that I needed to get out of there and was going to take a walk around the grounds.

Outside I made urgent laps around the building as the alarm in my head escalated. I felt-like a wild-eyed animal with the oddest certainty that if I stopped moving my legs I would die. I knew in my bones that if I stopped moving, I would literally die.

Of course this was a panic attack, but in 1990 I wasn’t all that aware of such a thing. I did, however, understand that it had everything to do with being so far away from my children. Oceans away from them, me at the very top of one world and them in another. My body needed to get back to them and wouldn’t stop moving until my children were in my arms. It was as if my legs were trying to bound massive bodies of water and would not stop until my arms were around them.

When Lee finished the tour and came out neither of us knew what to do with me other than go back to the hotel. By then I was so exhausted all I could do was lay on the bed as the world began to spin around and around, which is all I did for the 2 remaining days. I sustained myself with the conviction that as soon as I got on the plane and was pointed for home it would all go away. It did not. Then I thought as soon as we made it over the water and touched down in New York City I would be fine. I was not. Then I thought once we crossed the New Hampshire-Maine border the earth would stop spinning. It did not. Then, of course I thought as soon as I got my hands on my babies everything would be as it should. It was not. I couldn’t get my body to settle back down for months. I was so ungrounded.

My body was becoming unpredictable. After that came a series of moderate afflictions that in and of themselves were a little strange but not that big a deal though they tend to cluster around people of high intensity, sensitivity or emotion. There was a phase of complicated migraines where I got the strange aura and then intense and overwhelming sleepiness but no pain. There were periods in which my eye twitched like an alternate heartbeat and then the random occasions when looking other people in the eye was more than I could tolerate, a connection way too intense to bear, too much to see in other people and too much exposure into me. Then came the head-to-toe psoriasis.

Though certainly the world at large continued to be threatening, danger no longer was a strictly an external situation. It was becoming clear a certain level of disaster potential was lurking within, as well. Of course, by then we all knew that unmanaged or overwhelming emotion can be a destructive force contributing to heart attacks and high blood pressure and any number of chronic conditions often associated with stress; apparently excessive emotion was just taking a bit of a different expressive path in me. But it wasn’t until 2008 when I was 46 that it became clear that I embody emotion in a way that has a secret mind of its own.

At that point I’d been the director of marketing and public relations for a college for a number of years and reported directly to the president. Joyce was a mix of traits, as we all are. Within her was a truly caring person who would hug you in celebration or in sympathy. However, there was also a bully in there who knew exactly where your vulnerabilities were and how to mess with them in order to get you where she wanted you to achieve her goal, whether that be your cowering compliance or a decision she wanted to steamroll without discussion.

Without a doubt my vulnerabilities as an insecure person and a single mother were self-worth and job security. She could get me on both counts by reminding me that marketing is fluff — a nice-to-have but not need-to-have. If we were to go through another year of state funding de-appropriations…..well, who knows where I’d be. Sometimes she’d take the tack that perhaps I could keep my job if I were willing to give up half my marketing budget. Other times she thought she might be able to keep me on if my position were cut to part time. For the time I was safe right but, who knows, maybe later…

My job was dangled before me just enough over the years to keep me in a state of low grade anxiety but not so much that I could get confidently cynical about a wolf who never comes or, conversely, know without question that I’d better get the heck out before the wolf got me first. The problem was, other than this underlying position instability, my job was perfect. I made good money, had great health insurance and as a senior administrator was on a privileged retirement benefit track. This was not the kind of job I wanted to lose nor did I think ones such as these came along very frequently. I loved the environment and the mission and had a lot of creative opportunity and freedom. And, after all, no job is guaranteed. I could go work someplace else and that job could disappear. Plus, I often had doctor’s appointments of one sort or another, so starting over somewhere would be a pain. At the college, the whole, “I’ve got a doctor’s appointment” thing was all worked out and no big deal.

The winter of 2008 the current health problem I was dealing with were my hands and feet: they had started to go numb, a situation that would come and go. The rheumatologist diagnosed me with Reynaud’s syndrome, a constriction of the blood vessels in the extremities, often involving the tips of your nose or your fingers, and making one especially sensitive to cold. My hands and feet were extremely sensitive to cold, but it wasn’t always cold that triggered the numbness. Sometimes they were just numb.

Then that spring two things happened. First, Joyce came to tell me she’d been thinking about my job security and had a plan for a new position that would really help to make my employment at the college more solid. She could develop a new director of communications and strategic planning position and thereby phase out my old fluffy job. Over the next several months we began developing the job description to be ready for consideration at the next system board meeting. She didn’t think there would be any problem whatsoever getting this approved.

At the same time, the numbness became increasingly worse and serious enough to see a neurologist. The neurologist didn’t know exactly what to make of it all. With the numbness inching its way up, I asked her if she thought damage was being done. She said she had no idea. I then asked if it turned out damage was being done, did she think it would be reversible. Good questions, she said. Again, no idea. She thought the next step would likely be a trip to Boston to see a specialist if it didn’t resolve within the next few months.

Summer came. Joyce and I had completed our work on the new job description and it was ready to go. As it happened, the week of the board meeting I would be on vacation but was assured when I returned I would have a new and secure job. Joyce was that confident. At last I could relax. That week on vacation I noticed my numbness had disappeared.

However, the Monday I returned passed with no sign of Joyce. Starting to get a vague sense of dis-ease, I checked with Terri, her admin, to see if she was in. Yes, she was. That was odd. Why hadn’t she come to see me?

Tuesday, I decided to take the lead. I stuck my head in her office door.

“Well?” I asked playfully.

She looked at me as cold as a lizard. “Well, what?”

“Did I get the job? Did the board approve my position?”

“I never submitted it to the board,” she in a clipped voice, her face an impenetrable wall. “It was not in the best interest of the institution.”

Not in the best interest of the institution. Those words seared into my brain. This was the first time I’d heard her refer to the college in that way. Did she mean I was not in the best interest of the institution? Something must be seriously wrong. What on earth had I done? Had something come out about me while I was away? I couldn’t remember doing anything that would put the college remotely in jeopardy. I was shocked.

“What happened?” I asked, my body wired, every nerve ending on alert.

“I don’t have time to talk about it now,” she said in a stiff, almost prissy voice. “I’m preparing for a meeting in Boston and leaving tomorrow. I’ll be back in time for your annual review on Friday. We’ll talk then.”

I thought I was going to be fired.

After leaving her office the first thing I did was contact the union rep on campus. Being a senior administrator meant that I served at the will of the president. I could be fired at a moment’s notice, no due cause required. Could the union offer me any protection and would they even take me as a now-that-I-need-you enrollee? Yes they would. I joined the administrator’s unit on Wednesday and Thursday I talked to their lawyer to get guidance on how to handle my annual review.

During the review Friday I did as I was coached, taking careful notes of everything Joyce said while answering each question put to me with as few words as possible. Joyce finally snapped.

“Do you want a union rep with you?” she shrieked. “We can get a union rep in here right now if you are having an issue!” So she knew.

It was a strange moment of truth. All I could say was I didn’t know if I needed one. Did I? Was I going to be fired? Why hadn’t she submitted the new position proposal to the board?

This broke through something in Joyce and all of a sudden she became human. She admitted that she had decided not to submit the proposal to the board because strategic planning was ultimately the president’s responsibility. At the last minute she’d become concerned that trying to shift this off her plate would not reflect well on her.

So this wasn’t about me. I wasn’t in imminent danger. I wasn’t going to be fired.

This, however, meant nothing to my body. The numbness had returned full force and was edging up. By the following week it was up to my knees and elbows. I was being eaten alive. I called a disability lawyer because there was no part of me that felt able to work. Employment was at the risk of life.

While the lawyer was very kind and very sympathetic, it quickly became clear that proving disability was not something I was likely to be successful in. There were people in very dire situations who were not able to do that and, emotionally, it would be taxing. He gently encouraged me to find a different way to get myself in a safer place.

My body took care of that a few weeks later by simply refusing to take me to work. Usually it was my mind putting up the fight while my body put on a coat, picked up my things and walked out the door. But as I headed for the stairs on this particular day, my body stopped and sat down in a chair. Initially my mind was overwhelmingly relieved to sit down and delay the day, but as the minutes ticked by it began to agitate. I was now clearly going to be late. And yet there I sat. The minutes ticked by. Now I was really going to be late. I commanded my body to move but it just sat there. By then my mind was in a panic, screaming, “Move! Move! Move!” over and over but my body wouldn’t budge. It made it quite it would not be taking one step further until something got fixed.

I was stunned. What now? I guess this is what a breakdown looks like, I thought. I was fascinated at the aptness of the metaphor. I truly was like a car broken down on the side of the road, going nowhere without emergency roadside service.

So I called my therapist. She got me in immediately. We filled out the emergency medical leave paperwork. It would be 4 months before I was back on campus at all, 9 months before I was there full-time, an entire gestation.

I spent those down months in full mind-body recovery immersion, learning everything I could about how we break apart and how we can be put back together. I traveled weekly downstate to participate in special dialectical behavior groups. I read everything I could  about the brain. I meditated, breathed deeply, did yoga, walked for miles. My life became a comprehensive practice of wellbeing. I was fascinated with the mind and the phenomenal process of returning to oneself.

However, while getting well was all I cared about and my mind was all in, as it turned out my body never completely got on board. It now no longer had any trust at all in the world. Threat was all encompassing, even coming from people who hugged you but then ate you up piece–by-piece. In fact, I myself was a threat. Feeling was a threat which I did way too much of. Feelings could explode me into outer space and out of my mind and body. It simply wasn’t safe to be alive. And so while I went about the business of gaining what felt like a certain level of mastery of myself with a whole repertoire of techniques and tricks for processing the stuff of life, on the inside my body continued to quietly store the emotions my mind thought it was managing.

This became a confusion for me in time. After all, I truly was very skillful in many ways and felt better, so much better and able to manage ordinary and even substantial levels of stress. But when the crises became extreme and outside obligations interrupted my need for daily exercise, meditation, a certain level of order and most definitely some quiet time to restore, or the emotional turmoil was too sustained, then I was in trouble.

I could feel myself going after my mother took a bad fall and was in the hospital and then rehab for 3 months. In my frenzy to shoulder my share of her care and companionship, I visited her twice a day over lunch and dinner while working full-time. After 6 weeks of that with no time to restore and the structure of my routine blown apart, I could feel myself slipping, losing contact with the ground, something in my mind slowly unhinging. I had no choice but to pull back.

My body never forgot that slippery edge. Ever since then it viewed my fragile, Parkinson’s disabled, wheel-chair bound mother as something of a threat. I lived in fear of what would be required of me should something happen to Dad, her full-time caretaker, in that gap of finding placement for her. I set embarrassing limits as to what I would and wouldn’t do, how much time I was available, what I could be counted on and what not to expect from me. Even now that she is cared for full-time in their retirement community’s memory unit and I will never be responsible for her care, I am still very guarded about my time and maintaining my routines. The animal inside me simply will not allow for anything else.

However, there is no such true protection or boundaries that can be put up between me and all of life. And while I have been truly lucky to have escaped actual Greg Pickle/Bruce Wellington/Karol Beavers-level tragedy — the kind I have been so afraid of my entire life — I have not escaped occasions of unusual and extreme stress, as no one does.

The first involved my daughter when she transferred as a junior to American University in Cairo where she would spend the next 6 years. Within months of her arrival, violence broke out. As it escalated over the next several days, the State Department advised all Americans to get out, running flights day and night. Ellen downplayed the danger, assuring us she would go when it was necessary. When the State Department announced its final evacuation flight would leave in 6 hours, advising all remaining Americans to report immediately to the airport, I was on the phone at 3 a.m. screaming at Ellen. “You get yourself packed up and you get your ass on that plane right now!”

Ellen calmly replied that she wouldn’t have time to pack and get to the airport, but I was not to worry. She was right at that very moment looking at the Turkish Airways website and was sure she could get a flight out within 24 hours. Plus, there was one more student left in the dorm and they would take a taxi together to the airport. He was a very big kid and had some mace which would get them through the tricky military checkpoints set up at random points along the 1.5 hour trip to the airport.

The issue was Ellen had fallen in love, and so she returned to Egypt within the month. All was quiet for awhile until Arab Spring, the second uprising. By this time she’d moved into an apartment two blocks from Tahrir Square, the primary hub of the first violence. This is where it all went down second time around. After hiding in her apartment for several days as tear gas seeped through the windows, Shuma, the man she was in love with, and a group of his friends, broke Ellen out and took her to his family’s villa in the 6th of October where she stayed until things settled and classes picked back up.

In time, Ellen finished her degree. We went to Egypt to celebrate her graduation on a Friday night and her wedding the next. Until Shuma could gain access to our country, Ellen would be staying in this unstable one.

The unrest reached another fever pitch within the first year of their marriage. With animosity toward foreigners steadily growing, Ellen came home for six months to wait it out. I knew as soon as things quieted down I would, of course, have to pack her off on a plane to re-join her husband in Egypt for the duration, for however long it took for him to be granted permission to live in the states.

That October, 3 months into her time home with us, Ellen let us know that she would be returning right after Christmas. As my gut turned I got her ready with supplies from Sam’s Club and Target the whole month of November and December, buying whatever means of protection I could think of and get my hands on, which amounted to things like vitamins, cans of tuna, and boxes of Annies mac n’ cheese — the fancy organic kind.

Once I put her on the plane my legs began to have trouble walking. I lost strength on my left side and felt imbalanced. On February 22, the day Zoe my first grandchild was born, my arms were so weak I did not know if I could trust myself to hold her.

This collection of symptoms convinced me I had MS or Parkinson’s despite countless MRIs and trips to neurologists and other specialists which found no such evidence. So I became convinced I could heal myself through diet because I’d read The Wahls Protocol, a very convincing book by a doctor who had healed herself from a variant of MS so bad she had been consigned to a reclining wheelchair. Her protocol involved starving your body of sugars and most carbohydrates while eating enormous amounts of vegetables and fat. And so began my extreme preoccupation with food and the conviction that what I ate could heal me or harm me.

And it was true that foods did seem to have a huge effect on me, turning on me randomly. Out of the blue I could no longer tolerate wine. Or certain brands of coffee. Or some form of sweetener. Or a particular kind of grain or vegetable. And then suddenly I was back in business with that particular food and able to eat it.

By then my research had also opened me up to the world of gut flora and the microbiome. It appeared I had leaky gut and possibly SIBO, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. And since 70% of the immune system is within the gut, this probably explained my autoimmune issues, like thyroid and even possibly Reynaud’s and whatever would come for me next. My whole body was clearly inflamed.

Because none of this was sanctioned by my primary care doctors, I had no choice but to move onto a functional medicine doctor who prescribed a million dollars worth of supplements while doing an extensive battery of tests, finding that I had adrenal fatigue, candidiasis and numerous food intolerances. By the time it was all said and done, the functional medicine doc’s protocol for my restoration had whittled my available foods down to fewer than 30. The most traumatizing was the complete removal of all sugar.

I did not know if I could be happy with no sugar whatsoever. I couldn’t even drink black coffee! I pleaded for permission to get 4 grams, equal to 1 teaspoon, which I judiciously divided up between a scraping of jam on a buckwheat scone I made mostly of egg, and a scrap of 95% dark chocolate. I learned to drink black coffee. A gram of sugar had no impact.

While my gut did start to stabilize in a way, the extreme deprivation wasn’t sustainable and I worried incessantly about the nutrition I wasn’t getting. And so I returned to a somewhat less rigid (but still plenty rigid) way of eating while being in constant vigilance of food, clearly a new player in the world of threat.

In the background of this food tangle was always the specter of my disabled mother and her legendary love of sugar, which I shared. I had eaten so very much candy in my life. Books like Grain Brain were coming out every week, putting food center stage as the villain behind so many physically and disabling conditions from MS to Alzheimer’s. Parkinson’s had also been implicated on a lesser scale, but it was there. All I needed was the tiniest suggestion to plant the seed that Parkinson’s was after me.

The years went by and my Parkinson’s-like balance, coordination, fine motor skills and strength issues would wax and wane, along with random food intolerances that would crop up and then resolve. I was managing it all and by then was also something of a seasoned wellness professional, having working in the field for about 4 years.  Though I may well have some kind of nervous system disease that eventually come out, I knew how to take care of my mind and lived a life in total dedication to wellbeing. Then in 2016 Leo, grandchild #3, was born 3 months early.

I will never get over the sight of that 2.5-pound wee bit of life splayed out on the table 30 minutes after he was born, his legs and arms unspooled in a way newborns never are. Babies should be balled as tightly as potato bugs. And I will never get over the sight of Hunter standing beside me with his arms crossed up high across his chest, looking at Leo with a look of wide-eyed amazement, a look I could never quite interpret.

I mobilized all my resources. I was a high-energy machine cooking meals for two households since Ellen, Shuma and Gabriel, my 2nd grandchild, had mercifully been granted access to the States 3 months after Gabriel was born and were living with us. I was a mother and a grandmother and by god I was going to take care of my children and grandchildren. But 3 months later when Leo was well enough to go home and Ellen and Shuma and Gabriel had moved on, I couldn’t slow down. I was convinced the issue was Synthroid, my thyroid medication. It just needed to be regulated. It was either ramping me up way too much or dropping me so low it was hard to move.

Adjustments to the medication were made every 5-6 weeks, the amount of time required to get an accurate picture of the levels. But I could feel the change immediately! I knew instantly that it was too high or too low; there was no way I could wait out that length of time, knowing the level was way off and feeling as I did. I made regular calls to my primary care, once in a panic because way too much had built up in my system and I would have to go to the emergency room if it weren’t adjusted immediately. The nurse finally threw up her hands and said I would just simply have to wait; there was nothing they could do. It was not defensible to alter a dose before the completion of the full 26-day cycle.

This was not possible. I took to micro-shaving my 25 microgram pill, convinced that my system was so acutely tuned, like the Princess and the Pea, that I was feeling the effect immediately. I knew my body and I knew it was the Synthroid. This was physical because I knew how to manage the emotional. I knew how that stuff worked. I had daily practices and techniques. I had the tools and the resources to manage my mind. There wasn’t anymore I could do in that department that I wasn’t already doing.

But then the real trouble came when the minuscule shavings became impossible to splice further with any consistent accuracy. I couldn’t get the dosage under control and had nowhere left to go with it. Late one Friday afternoon there was nothing to do but make a frantic call to my primary care and beg to be seen. They were able to fit me in for the last slot of the day and told me I would be seeing a new resident, Dr. Eric Steele.

That’s funny, I thought. I’d known an Eric Steele years before when I worked in the hospital system in community relations. Eric Steele had been an ED doc and VP of patient care for a number of years before going off to Ohio or someplace to be president and CEO of a hospital out there. He was an extraordinary person, a former journalist who wrote a column for the Bangor Daily about medicine, healthcare and the art of taking care of people. He was as real as they come and a humanitarian to the core. And it was he who opened the door to the exam room and walked in.

“You! It actually is you!” I instantly blurted out, stunned.

Then we hugged. It turned out after some years away he was returning to Maine to be with family and to finish out his career as a practicing doctor. He was cooling his heels in the Family Practice Residency Program — the program’s oldest resident in history, he joked — for a short while until his position in southern Maine started up.

Then it was my turn. I started talking, telling him everything that had been going on. The traumas, my history, all my sensitivities that had me in this position of being so hyper responsive to even just a few shavings of medication. It all came out. He listened and listened. He clarified. He sympathized. He repeated back to me what I said, showing me he understood. And then he gently told me that the 25 micrograms of Synthroid I was on was essentially a homeopathic dose. I could probably pick up the equivalent at the Natural Living Center.

In an instant I got it. I understood that Synthroid was not the issue. I was the issue, stress the language and my body the translator. What’s more, in that clarifying instant Synthroid ceased to be a problem. Something in me calmed immediately in a way that simply could not have been calmed by anyone else. I truly can’t think of another doctor who could have walked through that door and been able to get me to see the problem was me because there is no other doctor I have known and admired for 20 plus years as a human, as a healer, as a leader, as a story teller, as a writer and as a friend. There was no one I knew who spanned this breadth of being all those things. He had my implicit trust and so when he became my doctor that Friday night and told me that what I was taking was barely even medication, I knew from the bottom of my heart that this was the truth. He had gotten the primal animal of my body to trust him.

I don’t know how I got so lucky to have Dr. Steele be the one to walk through the door of my exam room. It would seem near impossible.

The next morning I took 25 micrograms of Synthroid and was just fine.

So that’s Rabbit. High twitch. Sensitive. Fear embodied.

rabbit illustration


Next up:  Scene 5 — Guard Dog, the final cast member. Then onto the actual framework process!


On Rabbit
More than any other cast member, Rabbit is the reason driving the development of this framework for self-leadership to move emotion out of by body where it was doing damage, a common liability. There are some populations who are particularly vulnerable to holding emotion in their body — any person in an occupation where they are subject to extreme traumas, including people in the military, law enforcement and healthcare. Plus everybody else, because no one gets out of life without some suffering and wrenching emotional experiences, both the everyday kind and the big kind.

On the use of real names
I’ve chosen to use real names almost exclusively in my memoir The Organization Project, of which this self-leadership framework component is a part. While there are many reasons for doing this with telling the truth as it was for me being a crucially  important one in the interest of being real and declaring my story in its wholeness, there is another reason, too, which I value almost as much: it just makes for a better story.

This understanding took deep root in me listening to Lee, my former husband, tell me stories about growing up in Cranston, Rhode Island. As a small town midwestern girl, those Italian names were exotic and made the story come vitally alive. Their names were part of who they were and gave the story infinite texture. Of course, Lee could have swapped in other names and presumably I wouldn’t have known the difference, but I prefer to believe that something wouldn’t have resonated as true on some mysterious, bone-deep level. There would have been a hollowness, an emptiness, if only in the feeling Lee would have imparted by moving away from how he knew these people.

The same thing happens when Gary, my partner, tells me stories from The County, way up there in northern Maine where he grew up, a society unto itself, as he put it. Bea Tompkins and her donuts, Ione Ketchum and her famous pies and cookies, Arvella Cook who still chopped her own wood into her 80s. Edwina Whited. And then there were the Lenentine’s, the Hallet’s, the Adelmen’s, the Rossignol’s, the Levesque’s, the Pelletier’s, the Auclair’s, the Pelanger’s, the Beaulieu’s, the Fornier’s, the Clavette’s…a mix of French Canadian and good old Aroostook County stock.

And the same is true for the people who have walked across my midwestern stage. Their name is part of the truth of the story and who they are. And again, even if I changed names and you were none the wiser, it is my soul-deep conviction that something vital would have been lost. You, the reader, would have been cheated. I, the writer, most certainly would have.

That being said, you may have noticed that I chose only to use Joyce’s first name. I did this because my intent here is not to specifically take her down or call her out or make exposing her identity the point of this piece of my story.  The point here is simply to tell the truth as it was for me in so far as this particular storyline of our relationship went. As I mentioned before, she carried contradictions within her as we all do, one of those being a genuine capacity for concern for people. I will never forget her telling me once about an instructor who was caring for his dying wife while maintaining his class load. I was astonished; I’d just been in his classroom the day before. I hadn’t know. Which was her point. “We just don’t know what people carry,” Joyce had said, full of empathy. I have never forgotten that. In fact, I have a variant of that typed out and taped to my monitor as a reminder that everyone we meet is fighting a battle we know nothing about. Joyce included.

At the same time I clearly haven’t protected her identity given how incredibly easy it would be for anyone who had such an interest to find out. I haven’t protected her identity because she is Joyce to me and if I’m writing about my experience with her, that’s who she will be.

The truth is not always comfortable and it doesn’t always feel polite. But it is vitally liberating and has been an essential piece of my coming back to myself and being real, living in integrity with who I am and with life as it is.

[NOTE: if you happen to be a newcomer, this piece is the 6th in a story-based series outlining a process framework for the development of self-leadership (even though it might not seem much like it right now). While I hope that each individual story has some interest as a stand-alone, if you’re curious to see how it all works as a concept or just want to read more stories, circle back to the homepage. “Setting the Stage 1 & 2” and all of the “Scene” stories are part of this series.]

9 thoughts on “Scene 4 — Rabbit”

  1. Sue Gormley says:

    It was a bad position to put you in: “Not go to Norway? What’s the matter with you? Ellen will be fine!” You came home so emotionally depleted that it scared me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I never thought of what it was like for you. What a thing that must have been. Wow. Thirty years too late, thank you so much for being there for me! I don’t know what I would have done without you, Sue.


  2. Nancy says:

    So how is it you don’t have contact with Eric any more? I saved his BDN articles for a very long time. As I read your blog my mind continually wandered back to when our lives overlapped. I hope you know that I still hold on to my memories of our last day, that you orchestrated, our goodbye as my life took me off on many adventures and tests of my own. I also hold tightly to the frequency value, for me for sure, of our online exchanges of soulful sharing from Kansas City when satisfactory employment for me meant trying on jobs that I electively left after short stints. Then Steve moved us again before I ever found colleagues as rewarding as I had known in the past. So much happens to all of us that feels like tests to our general stability. Keep writing because so many of us benefit from the raw honesty aspect of the revelations that are uniquely yours.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I count Eric as a friend because we worked so closely with him for so many years and he is so friendly and therefore how else could I possibly think of him? But we weren’t social friends, though I often ran into him at Angelo’s Pizza on Hammond St once moving to Bangor — it was the neighborhood pizza place. He was out of the hospital system by the time I came back. And on the memories of our time…oh man. That time of our life when we all worked together counts as one of my truly golden times, just unbelievable good fortune to land with the people I did. I love the way you put it — hold tightly to those memories — because that’s right on. Thinking about the direction your life took after you left Maine…it was almost like your “job” at that point became figuring out how to reinvent yourself and find your next purpose. It would be so interesting to know what you figured/found out about that. You are so right; our experiences sure are the tests. And man have you been tested. And are still standing with utter grace and honesty. There is always so much we can learn from each other. You have always been a role model for me. If my raw honesty helps to loosen something up for someone else, that would add so much meaning to my experience. Thanks, as always, for the encouragement.


  4. Pingback: Scene 5 — Guard Dog | Be cool.

  5. Erik Steele says:

    Dear Elizaneth – thanks so much for the kind words. When you are a physician you really are in this work to have a positive impact on peoples’ lives, so it was really heartwarming to read your story. You put a bounce in my step that will last a long time!

    And thanks for sharing the message of your journey – it was brave to do so and your message is is one that can help others.
    My best to your and yours
    Dr Erik Steele


    • Dear Dr. Steele – I’m so glad this meant something to you. I thought long and hard about dragging you to a very long piece of writing for a few paragraph presence at the end. But it’s important to me to thank you because your kindness and patient skill saved me so much continued anguish and was a true turning point. Plus being cared about is healing in and of itself. You are a true doctor, the essence of the word, and I will appreciate what you did for me for the rest of my life. It is stunning what one person give to another. I just wanted you to know.

      Such warm regards,



    • Such is the risk of putting words on a page. I’ve made some doozies. I’ll take your typo for your very kind comments. 🙂


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