Archives for posts with tag: trauma

We are always on the verge of something. Sometimes, we are on the verge of great things. Other times, the verge of collapse. Still other times, the verge of sameness. There is always a future, just up ahead, which cannot be known until it gets here. In the mean time, we make our best predictions.

I have been working hard to move my business to another location. Yesterday, a large package arrived containing two small chairs. My new office is smaller than my current one and I’m needing to downsize some of my furniture. The package arrived just as I was leaving the house for work. I decided to carry the package down my front steps, which are concrete.

The box was not heavy but it was large and it blocked my view of my feet, which were at the time, shod in high heels. I missed the step and felt myself falling forward toward our front walk, which is also concrete. In that split second, I knew that I was on the verge of being hurt but I did not yet know how badly.

Fortunately, I was able to stand up right away afterwards. I looked down at the 3 by 6 inch scrape starting on my right knee and could see that I was on the verge of bleeding. So I walked into the house, cleaned myself up, and three Band-aid’s later, stopped the leaking.

Today, I am sore. I twisted my left ankle, which was painful during the night, but I was able to go on my walk today. It hurt a little but I could also tell that walking was stretching my muscles a bit in a good way. Phew! My big scrape may elicit comments from my patients tomorrow (yes, I know it is winter but it is not yet cold enough to wear pantyhose or tights with my dresses) but I appear to have suffered no lasting damage.

Most of the time our lives on the verge are this way. Most of the time, we avert crises. Most of the time, really horrible things don’t happen to most people, at least in this part of the world. And yes, I know that lots of bad things, too many bad things, happen in the U.S., but remember, these bad things are considered news. There’s a reason for that. They don’t happen most of the time.

When really bad and scary things happen, it hurts our foundation of security. It puts us on watch. It puts us feeling on the verge of calamity a lot more often than is realistic. And the thing about anxiety is that it is reinforced when we fret and the bad thing doesn’t happen. Phew, that fretting was so effective at averting crisis! Anxiety is also increased when we fret and the bad thing DOES happen. See, I told you a bad thing was going to happen.

It is no wonder that anxiety problems are so common. And it is no wonder that they are so tenacious for those of us who have had trauma in our lives. Lately, I have been feeling not in the front of my mind but in the back of it, on the verge of something bad happening. I have worries for my family and for my friends.

There are some bad things I can head off at the pass. There are others I cannot. There are others, like cancer, that sneak in like a thief, stealing more and more every day without my knowing. I do my best to choose to live my life, all of my life. I choose to believe that I can be on the verge of many things, many of them joyful and loving.

And if I were on the verge of something awful, wouldn’t it be a waste not to enjoy this short time of calm security?


Maya Angelou died today at the age of 86. She taught me so much.

I learned the power and beauty of the spoken word. Poetry accentuates the music in language. Maya Angelou’s poetry did this to such a great degree that for me, reading her written poetry instead of listening to her read it, was like watching a brilliant jazz combo with no sound. It just wasn’t the same. Her voice was powerful, beautiful, and the words were hers.

Many of us know that Maya Angelou feared the power of her voice so much that she stopped speaking to anyone other than her brother, Bailey, for years. She had been raped as a child, told her brother, who told adults, and the man who had raped her was briefly imprisoned and then murdered after a few days after his release. The then 9 year-old Marguerite Johnson held her voice responsible for the man’s death. Over time, she recovered from her trauma enough to speak again.

Not only did Maya Angelou overcome the fear of the power of her voice but she used the power of her voice as a singer, a poet, a teacher, and as an activist. And when she read her poem, On the Pulse of Morning, for President Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, I got goosebumps that seemed to last for days.

Another lesson I learned from Maya Angelou was the power of telling one’s life story, and further, telling it in installments. I started reading her autobiographies in high school. Although her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, remains my favorite and the most memorable, I loved her life story. I burned through the three subsequent books that had already been published and then eagerly waited for the rest to be written. Her life is fascinating and she was pretty open about her imperfections. I see now that I missed her final installment published last year. How did that happen? Oh yeah, I was experiencing cancer treatment and the resulting chaos.

My blog is, in part, a memoir that unfolds in frequent, short installments. As you know, I get a great deal out of writing this blog. It’s not just the writing, it’s the sharing of my writing, the conversations that ensue, and the miraculous times when the words I write are exactly what a reader needs to think about at that time. Every once in awhile, I have a little nagging thought that my writing is self-absorbed. Maybe I am enjoying the attention I get from writing this blog, a little TOO much. I am no Maya Angelou but I have an interesting story to tell and I write well enough. Someday my daughter will read this blog and I hope it will be something that enriches her life and our relationship.

Maya Angelou also taught me the power of resilience. She was abused, repeatedly traumatized, mistreated, and oppressed. Maya Angelou’s life was a triumph of the human spirit and a testimony to the highest power of resilience. And then she used her life experience to help others. That may seem like a natural thing to do but it is not the case. Think of how many people justify their lack of compassion for others by giving examples of how they managed to be successful despite adversity so everyone else should be. These are justifications by parents for rejecting their own children and for everyday citizens for justifying policies that let children in our country and all over the world go hungry, to be poorly educated, and to live in unsafe conditions. Maya Angelou could have hurt others with her stories, beaten up others with her success, but she didn’t.

And if you have read Maya Angelou or heard her interviewed, you know that she does not take sole credit for her resilience. She talks about the support of her brother, Bailey or her close relationship with her son, Guy. She talks about her neighbor, Mrs. Flowers, who helped her speak again by having her over for tea time and time again and talking to her in the most beautiful way.

Today, I am thinking about the power of my spoken words. I have been short-tempered, as you know. Short bursts of anger and I yelled at my daughter yesterday. She was being a pain in the butt, but yelling isn’t a solution. I am thinking about the power of my written words, not just in this blog but in my work. The reports that I write for children and teens with ADHD and learning disabilities impact their lives. The care that I take in writing them can make an important difference in the kind of support they receive from their parents and from their schools. They can also give them a new, more positive way to understand themselves and in time, lead to strategies to cope with their particular patterns of strengths and weaknesses.

Today, I am going to think about how to be an adult who helps build resilience in others, people both near and far away. What can I do to honor the people who paved the path for me, who helped me along the way, by helping build a world in which children not only survive, but thrive?

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
-Maya Angelo (1928-2014)

I dreamed last night that I packing up to leave my office at the University of Washington because I’d run out of grant money. That actually happened in 2007. I thought I was all packed and then found a bunch of cabinets full of things yet to be packed. I realized I had a plane to catch to go home to Seattle. I walked around the university campus and it was actually the campus of Indiana University. The University of Washington is in Seattle. Indiana University is in, you know, Indiana.

I walked around campus trying to get someone to help my move my remaining boxes before I was due to get to the airport. A couple of men offered to help me. I finally realized that I could not be in Seattle and Indiana at the same time. And how was I going to transport all of my office stuff back home and still make my plane. And then for some reason, the men and I walked into a building. The building exploded right as we walked up to the doorway, but some how we survived. Then I woke up.

In the dream, my assumptions about where I was, what I was doing, and how I was going to do whatever it was I was doing, exploded right in front of me. We live our lives according to assumptions. Those assumptions can be challenged in gentle but persistent ways. They can also be thrown on their head.

Until May 24, 2012, I assumed that I would not get cancer in my 40’s. I assumed as a woman from a long line of long lived women on my mother’s side that I would live a long life. I assumed that I would be alive long enough to raise my daughter and to retire in my 60’s or 70’s. (Note to hubby: Early 70’s, tops, and working part time.)

Then the assumption of health that supported all of my future life plans crumbled. I have worked to pick up the pieces, make new pieces, and reworked the foundational assumptions I have about my life. And all along, I have worked to be true to the person that I was before and not define myself only by fear and insecurity.

The early part of this process focused on physical reconstruction of pieces. Surgeons have subtracted and added in many iterations. When I was home following my mastectomy in August 2012, I was looking on Ebay for clothes. I had lost a considerable amount of weight and I do nearly all of my clothes shopping online. I came across this photo.


The mannequin pieces do not fit together and the arms are placed on the wrong sides of the body. It makes the whole figure off. The large hands in particular reminded me of how drag performers can look. They have many feminine physical characteristics through make-up, body padding, binding, falsies, and good acting skills. But there are almost always clues. Things that don’t look quite right. Some drag performers take advantage of this to comedic effect. Grady West, who developed the character, Dina Martina, is a 50 something year old man with a pot belly and hairy back. He wears over the top feminine glitzy costumes that are several sizes too small and his dresses don’t zip up all of the way. Dina’s make-up makes Tammy Faye Baker look like a model for Pond’s cleansing cream. He uses the mismatched puzzle pieces to great advantage and his shows are hilarious.

Other drag performers aspire for “realness”, to be able to pass as a real woman. I was introduced to this concept when I saw the excellent documentary, Paris is Burning, which was filmed during the mid- to late-80’s in New York City. It was about the “Drag Ball Culture” in the city. (Remember “voguing”? It started there, not with Madonna.) I was fascinated by the communities that were built by the men in this culture. Most of them had been rejected by their families and by society, as a whole. But they made their own families with “drag mothers” and familial living situations. I thought the way that the men found a way to pick up the pieces and make news pieces to construct their own families was inspiring.

I know that there was a short time after my mastectomy when I was worried about “passing” for a real woman. But mostly, I have been trying to reconstruct the pieces of my mental life and to dance to the changing rhythm of my daily life.

Life has pieces that change. Life has pieces that need to be replaced. Life has pieces that are lost and cannot be replaced. But my life is whole and I belong here.

In my last post, Orange Alert, I wrote about another chapter in my complicated relationship with orange. Chapter one involved my unsuccessful attempt color my own gray roots before my mastectomy, since I had to cancel my salon appointment due to my surgery. Some how I thought that having cute hair would buffer the negative impact of losing a breast. Perhaps I was right but since my hair turned out a decidedly not cute Oompa Loompa orange, I will never know.

The second chapter involved two surgeries, the first last September (Wonky Wonka Boob) and the second (Orange River Grafting) in October. As I wrote a couple of days ago, As the orange in question was betadine, which was used as an antiseptic to prepare my skin for surgery.

I was mostly jesting about my fear of orange prior to last weekend when my husband swabbed out ground floor deck with a very orange stain. It was a trauma cue for me and hit me out of the blue.

As a psychologist I know that one of the best ways to keep a trauma cue powerful is to avoid it. (Now, sometimes there are little baby steps and skill building that need to be accomplished before facing a trauma cue head on, but this was not the case for this particular situation.) The deck continues to be orange and I look at it every day. This has helped quite a bit.

I was also thinking about betadine and yes, those orange stains on my skin happened in the course of breast cancer. And breast cancer is bad and scary. And yes, they happened during a period of time during which I was feeling particularly low.

Then I realized that one of the advantages of using an antiseptic that stained my skin is that the OR nurse knew that she had swabbed all of the areas she needed because she could see exactly what she had done.

So the orange in the betadine helped protect me from infection. My orange roots gave me a huge laugh and buffered me from some of the fear of having a breast removed. I loved writing that Willy Wonka post.

So orange, you can stay.

This is the phoenix in my garden. The artist made it out of an old pink flamingo. This is a good kind of orange, the orange of transformation.

This is the phoenix in my garden. The artist made it out of an old pink flamingo. This is a good kind of orange, the orange of rebirth and transformation.

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George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (


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