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Opening the Heart, One Sip at a Time

 

 

 

 

Hello there. I’m back. And yes, it has been a minute. The last blog I did nearly one year ago on the mean-girl phenomenon known as the abusive sleepover gutted me. It also gut-punched those close to me, especially my family, who had no idea the the emotional abuse I suffered as a child was not limited to the garden-variety bullies that so many of us deal with growing up. As was ghoulishly depicted in those ‘70s horror flicks where the operator warns the babysitter that the recent barrage of threatening phone calls are coming from inside the house, much of the damage incurred during my tender formative years came from a small but persistent circle of friends who consciously, or more to the point, unconsciously used me (the ultimate soft target who would not fight back) as punching bag practice.

It was only two years ago that the truth I was completely unaware of lurched forth out of the mouth of the moderator of a self-development workshop I was in the midst of. It was startling, somewhat saddening, but eventually, relief washed over me: this was the missing link from my subconscious and a huge answer to why, after so much therapy, self-reflection, and general life-success I still felt a sense of tormented discontent.

One thing I’ve never done is run from the truth once it’s revealed to me. The sudden awareness that, during those vulnerable years when I needed love and acceptance the most, everyone but my German Shepherd was throwing stones at me hit me like a collapsing wall of bricks. I had no choice but to grieve the good experiences and healthy bonds I never had. It was challenging enough to process wounds I was aware of (from knuckle-dragging bullies, emotionally unavailable parents, and toxic extended family members), but to discover the betrayal I’d buried so deeply in my psyche was truly remarkable.

I never felt betrayed by the bullies.  Intellectually, I know they’re both strangers and would-be tough guys who feel it’s their duty to dole out belittlement and insults. But when such behavior comes from a person who, by definition, is supposed to be in my corner, the degradation of self-worth is crippling, and so is the shame that effectively mummifies the stage of life where self-esteem blossoms.  I’ve had significant time to process this and I can say for sure, the wounding from friends is far deeper and more damaging than from an asshole who shouts at me from across the playground.

Betrayal, by the way, is one of the most difficult wounds to recover from. And haven’t we all been there? I know I’m hardly alone, and that’s a big part of why I write about my past so openly. I know I’m not the only one who’s been mistreated by a friend, whether it’s outright cruelty, a micro-aggression masquerading as humor, or the expectation of being the free therapist without a thought of reciprocity. The levels of it vary, what’s constant across the board is the silent shame. There’s simply no adequate forum for addressing the grievances or admitting to the hurt. Well, that is, until today. I don’t write this stuff for fun, believe me; there are other things I’d rather be doing. But it’s a topic whose time has come and I challenge anyone to challenge me that it’s not just a worthy topic but a crucial one.

Recovery can’t be rushed and I haven’t tried to ricochet through this difficult season. I took time out from blogging here, but kept at my book-in-progress and began a Substack, where my story of overcoming a bad childhood gets increased visibility. The healing took and continues to take many forms, from crying til my eyes were out of tears to seething with rage. Eventually, with time and grace, I believe the resentments will dissipate in their own time. In the meantime, I nourish myself with honesty, good people, good therapy, and good food. So, what better time than in this era of returning to wholeness to delve into the art and practice of drinking ceremonial cacao?

I was introduced to the concept during the pandemic via Instagram, where I discovered Paula Gibson and Heart Tribe Cacao. It didn’t matter that she was based in Dublin – the whole world was connecting through Zoom in 2020, so I hopped aboard a six-week class, which proved to be the heart-opening endeavor I was hoping for. Paula taught us that cacao is an ancient ingredient used by indigenous people for millennia for healing the body and soul. Biochemically, it’s said to have 40 times more antioxidants than blueberries as well as 400 active ingredients useful for meditation. It’s also beneficial for the lungs and respiratory system. Ceremonial grade cacao’s inherent stimulant, Theobromine is related to caffeine, but differs by a single molecule. Paula explained that because of this, it doesn’t enter the nervous system, but rather is absorbed through the dilation of blood vessels, resulting in energy boosts minus the jitters. All I know is, not only do I enjoy the delicious, mellow flavor of ceremonial grade cacao, it imbues me with an improved peacefulness and sense of wellbeing. But I drink it mindfully and don’t gulp it down in a hurry – how cacao is approached is key.

 

Ready for ceremonial heart-opening

 

 

 

 

In addition to quality cacao, a healthy base is crucial…

When I’m craving sweets or just a little good-tasting comfort, hot chocolate is still a go-to. But the ingredient list has changed from a dried packet of sugar, milk, and powdered chocolate to a noticeable, but completely practical, nutritional upgrade. The recipe below isn’t written in stone. Use whatever type of unsweetened cocoa powder you have on hand and if you want at a later date, experiment with ceremonial grade. Some of the brands I’ve tried and liked include Keith’s Cacao and Rukuxulew, an all-female, 100% Mayan-owned small business based in Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.  I always pair the cacao with a non-dairy milk (unsweetened Hemp is my current favorite) and add my own form of sweetener. Ceremonial shamans may shudder at my choice of a singular chocolate bon-bon, but it melts beautifully in warm milk and adds the perfect amount of sweetness for me. There are times when I do a deep-dive into purity and use no sweetener, but most of the time, I want a lil’ sugar.

A singular bon-bon rocks my WORLD!

 

 

 

After six weeks of connecting with like-minded women and being led on shamanic meditations with Paula Gibson, I knew I wanted my relationship with cacao to continue, and I remain a regular user. It’s a natural progression from being a long-time hot chocolate lover. Growing up in the ‘70s, my favorite wintertime treat was a cup of warm (not scalding) hot chocolate, served in my bunny mug with a few mini-marshmallows floating on the velvety brown surface. My chocolate of choice morphed from Swiss Miss and Nestle’s Quick to unsweetened Dutch cocoa and now, raw cacao. Since Paula’s workshop, I’ve participated in a few of group cacao events, as well as solo heart-opening excursions to the great within. Especially in the winter, I often make myself a cup of cacao simply to treat myself and satisfy a craving. No rules necessary – pure enjoyment is its own reward.

Food doesn’t solve everything, but in this case, a cup of hot cocoa really can make it better.

 

My favorite retreat…

 

More sweet, clean recipes such as this one can be found in my dessert cookbook, Sweet Comfort, and in my cookbook-memoir, Clean Comfort, available on Amazon.

 

 

 

Hot Cacao

Serves 1

 

Ingredients:

1 ½ cups of milk (I like unsweetened Hemp milk)

1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa or ceremonial grade cacao

Sweetener of choice is optional but honey, maple syrup, Stevia, or a sweetened piece of chocolate are some ideas.

 

Instructions:

In a small saucepan, heat milk over medium-low heat until steam begins to arise or it just starts to bubble. Stir often so it doesn’t stick to pot and make sure it doesn’t boil.

Add cacao and whisk vigorously with a wire whisk until blended. Add sweetener and whisk some more. Pour into a mug and enjoy. Introspection is optional…

 

 

 

 

Sleepovers and Shrapnel

The unavoidable

 

I lay on my back in the dark, staring at the ceiling with tears silently streaming down my face. Quickly, I wiped a rivulet on the left cheek before it could spill into my ear. Humiliation had become all too familiar a condition for me by the time I was 12. I’d come to accept being belittled and insulted by classmates, acquaintances, and even strangers, but this round was particularly devastating because I lay there in a sleeping bag surrounded by ‘friends.’ Four adolescent girls in a downstairs den all sleeping blissfully, except for me. I couldn’t get the evening’s events out of my mind. It was another sleepover, which for me, meant another opportunity to be designated the lowest rung on the social ladder.

 

Several hours earlier, the girl hosting the festive occasion had spent the evening alternately ignoring and belittling me, calling me a ‘stupid jerk’, and a ‘fat, immature jerk’ because she didn’t like the way I played charades. She also let the other girls know she didn’t like the way I smelled as she wrinkled her nose and glared at me, commanding me to get away from her. Apparently, I could do nothing right in her eyes. She was liberal in her disdain for me as she’d laugh and giggle with the other girls, withholding eye contact, and ignoring me on the few occasions I was brave enough to make a verbal contribution. I used to wonder why she would reissue me invitations to her house when she clearly had no desire to connect with me. But the answer became clear over time. She needed someone to kick around so she could forget her own unenviable station in life: an awkward, nerdy adolescent who wasn’t exactly at the top of the school social hierarchy. But fat always trumps any other social handicap, which left me at her mercy each time there was a sleepover, or birthday party (where she was fond of snatching toys out of my hands plunking them in the corner of the room with an authoritative slam).

 

In stark contrast to the hostess’s antagonism towards me was her obsequious fawning over the pretty girl. She fluttered subserviently around pretty girl, making sure she had enough to eat and drink, had comfy pillows, the best seat on the couch. Nothing was too good for her. We were all on the threshold of puberty and had become accustomed to our stations in life. Pretty girl had come to expect the shower of obeisances and I was always ready for collapse-and-submit posturing for when the insults were fired at random.

 

The other two girls at the slumber party neither participated in the degradation nor defended me, but were visibly uncomfortable with the hostess’s abusive behavior. Especially when she and pretty girl engaged in a round of ‘Let’s see who can make Stacey blush first.’ It was a sadistic ritual I could bank on happening every time I was in their presence, and I dreaded their gleeful announcement of it. To say I was shy and bereft of self-esteem at age 12 was an understatement. I didn’t expect mercy from the school bullies, but when my ‘friends’ undercut my dignity with such deliberate schadenfreude, it was its own kind of pain. As they carried out their ritual, I found myself wondering how they could find such joy in the extraction of shame as I sat on the hot seat, cheeks aflame and fighting back a quivering lip.

 

Lying silently in the dark, reliving the past few hours, I carefully regulated my breathing. Being caught crying would only invite more ridicule. Playing dead and pretending I wasn’t hurt were the only ways I knew how to survive. Since stepping on the school bus six years prior, absorbing shrapnel had become routine. I’d become numb to it and numb to the fact that deep in my core, there was a quiet cauldron of broiling rage that wanted out. The bullies were bothersome and I hated encountering them, but it was when someone who was supposed to be a friend suddenly turned on me that broke my spirit and my heart. The depth of the betrayal shattered me and reinforced the ever-repeating message from others that I’m defective. Certainly, it was illogical to keep going back for more episodic mistreatment, but in my meager and myopic world, mean girls and occasional dart-throwers were better than having no friends at all.  Hindsight, of course, has proved this incorrect, but 12-year-olds generally operate on bewildered desperation born of wanting to fit in.

 

Burrowing into a world of silent but agonizing denial is how I got through the early years. The survival skills to circumvent my sense of worthlessness included undue amounts of people-pleasing. I apprenticed in elementary school and perfected the skill into adulthood: I was the empty vessel there to serve the other’s personal needs, whether it was in the role of cowering fat girl remaining mute when insulted or later, as the unpaid therapist when there were boyfriend problems; and then as the more mature unpaid therapist when the ‘friends’ got married and had kids. I use the term ‘unpaid,’ because the time and energy I freely gave in listening intently and offering solutions to their woes was not returned. Somehow, when I needed a shoulder, they were uninterested and dismissive, sending me away with a ‘yeah, well it could be worse,’ wave of the hand, or a cold gaze that unmistakably said ‘…and this is relevant to me becuzzzz?

 

Why did I put up with it? Simple. It was what I deserved. I knew this after years of reinforcement at school and at home. In early childhood, when the torment at school began reaching a crescendo, I assumed if I confided in my parents they would offer consolation, at least a crumb or two. They informed me I’d brought it on myself with my size and that if I didn’t like it, I should go on a diet and stay on one. Their indifference coupled what I experienced at school (or as I like to call it, Alcatraz for children) was a terrible foundation on which no healthy sense of self-worth could possibly take root.

 

The thing about self-image, whether it’s good or poor, is, it emanates like a radio frequency and people sense it. They sense confidence and people also sense an absence of it. So I attracted girls at school who weren’t really interested in being my friends, but were interested in playing the empowered alpha so they could, for a few delusional moments, feel like a mob boss.

 

I don’t wish on anybody the role I took on in childhood.  Years later when I sought therapy to make sense of it all, I berated myself for not fighting back. There’s a deeply embedded shame that goes with being abused. And the shame is doubled when there’s no recourse to fight back. How could I? I was a terrified mess. I had no support at home and no support from anyone. Aunts and uncles, babysitters, grandmothers, doctors…they all railed at me because of my weight. I’ve been in group therapy with fellow sufferers and many reported at least having refuge from an abusive home life in their friendships. I didn’t even have that.

 

All the years I assumed the root of my worthlessness stemmed from the obvious: unsupportive, overly critical parents combined with the orchestrated attacks by the blonde-haired school bus sadist and his henchmen. It was only within the last year that I began putting the rest of the puzzle pieces together. My unconscious mind, after years of tamping down the truth, began sending up smoke signals. There was deep scaring from the unfriendly fire from friends.  I don’t, to this day, know how I made it out of those years with my sanity. If surviving my childhood isn’t a case for the existence of guardian angels – I don’t know what is.

 

I’m soliloquizing on my collateral damage first and foremost, to cleanse myself. The time has come to unburden my spirit, which I never acknowledged was so severely broken by friends with less-than-noble intentions. The time has also come to unburden my body – literally. For the past several years, it has been under siege from autoimmune disease. It’s not new information that every disease has an emotional root, and trauma experts are in accord that unresolved trauma embeds in the body, especially the tissues, so it’s no surprise that one of my diagnoses is mixed connective tissue disease. I hope, one day, to be no longer hurting physically. Writing truthfully about the things I’ve been ashamed to admit to myself will surely help in all that.  But my blogs have never been just about me. I write because readers tell me they relate and are comforted by the fact that someone else went through a difficult passage, too.

 

Reason No. 2 for delving into this topic is, well – look around you –  because the fallout from kids being abused by their peers makes the news with horrifying regularity. I had it comparatively easy 50 years ago with garden-variety verbal and emotional abuse. Kids today are subjected to physical violence as well as emotional abuse at school, much of it recorded on phones and broadcast all over social media. In February, Adriana Kuch, a 14-year-old high school student from New Jersey, killed herself two days after being gang-attacked at her locker and beaten to a pulp while other students stood by and filmed. A teacher who witnessed the attack reportedly went back into her classroom and shut the door.

 

I can’t imagine it getting much worse than this, but it will if we don’t pay attention and hold ourselves, our children, and our school boards accountable. And support our kids by letting them know they are loved and accepted as they are. And while you’re at it, support an adult you think can benefit from a little random kindness.  It’s by no means, a tall order, and if you think it is, or if you think this topic is frivolous and I should just shut up and move on because it happened so long ago, then you are, by definition, part of the problem.

 

 

 

Peace..At long last

 

 

Invisible Wounds – How They Haunt

The old adage, ‘It Gets Better,’ can be true, and it certainly has been true for me. But sometimes it can get better, and then get worse. Such is life: unpredictable, stormy, cruel, then abundantly kind.

I thought I’d weathered just about every storm there was after a difficult childhood, to which I responded with numbing the pain with food and carrying around nearly 200 extra pounds much of my adult life. I faced every demon I could think of in therapy then, through the hand of God, released the weight, and kept it off for more than a decade.

Four years ago, autoimmune disease struck, out of the blue and with no warning. After some deep contemplation I realized the cause. Some of the scars haven’t healed, and some of the wounding ran so deep, it had become imperceptible to me. The clues, however, presented themselves behaviorally. After all the work I’ve done for myself, I had to face the hideous fact that I continue to spend much of my time and energy being a doormat; a people-pleaser tangled in a web of worthlessness.

I’ve swallowed too much, endured too many emotional blows, and have remained inert when I should have swatted back. After all this time and progress, collapse-and-submit is still my default response.

I don’t blame or berate myself for the chronic and unconscious people-pleasing. It’s been a survival skill since day one when I became pretty much everybody’s soft target. Who better than a fat kid to take the arrows of disapproval and scorn? There was no refuge from it: family, friends, and strangers alike all took their shots. And all I wanted to do was be liked. So I became as stringently likeable as I could, all while aching inside.

Fifty years later, my body, it seems, will have no more of it. Auto-Immune Disease complete with several unwanted diagnoses, has set up shop. So consider my most personal writing here (for the foreseeable future) as part of my Operation Remove Shrapnel mission. I can’t go on this way anymore – 58 years is long enough. It’s time to catch my psyche up with my body. Or is that visa versa? I’m not certain of anything anymore except this: I’ve turned a corner in my demeanor and in how I respond to the world around me, and there’s no going back. And anyone who tries to coax me back isn’t really in my corner.

The woman in the video below who scaled the top of the transformation mountain so victoriously seems a stranger to me now. I no longer look or feel the way I did 11 years ago, and I don’t know if I ever will. But what I do know is: I will no longer make myself insignificant so others will be more at ease. I will no longer flash the auto-smile when I’m sad or angry.  I will no longer say yes when I mean no. And I will no longer evaporate into a ‘that didn’t just happen’ trance when you hurt me. I will let you know. I promise you, I will let you know. And if I lose some toxic baggage in the process, so be it. My life is worth it.

 

 

Truth

Ahh, if only abusive people were upfront and enlightened enough to be truthful. But I’ve never met one who is.

Instead, they sucker punch, I drop to my knees, catch my breath, and stand up as if nothing happened. 

That was the scenario until very recently. Now, as scary as it sometimes feels, I gather myself, breathe deeply, stand tall, then verbally notate the punch and the fact that it’s a foul and inappropriate act.

Whether the action is an insult, invasive question, a dig veiled as a joke, or the all-too-frequent act of unapologetic interrupting, it’s imperative that I draw a line in the sand. If I don’t…who will?

Undeterred by Gas-Lighters

A little thought for the day for gas-lighters: I can’t declare it officially in the past if it’s still in my body.

As Bessel van der Kolk’s book suggests, The Body Keeps The Score. When you know something is off, you know.

Our bodies are hardwired for survival, but even they will get tired of holding trauma, and it will rise to the surface in one way or another (aches and pains, repetitive thought patterns, cloying resentments), begging for release. Some events in my life I actively suppressed, while others I was completely unaware of in terms of how toxic the people and situations were and what my body ended up absorbing.

Once my body and in turn, psyche, brought some of these things into focus, I began to face them. And that wasn’t such great news for those with unhealthy, unkind agendas. I had to learn to set limits.  And not succumb to the gaslighting tactics of ‘just let it go, or ‘ that’s in the past, get over it.’  Guess who gets to decide when we’re through an issue? We do! As owners of our bodies and our life experiences, only we have the authority to make that call. Those who are invested in protecting their denial and self-crafted sterling images can take a seat.

Today I am grateful for the willingness to face the stuff I wasn’t even aware of… Some of the deepest and the most painful, but I’d rather undergo the cleansing process than keep it buried. And I’ve been using every tool in my box: lots of tissues in the morning when I sit in silent allowance, deep and conscious breathing, yoga, sound healing, trauma-focused group classes, journaling, the empathetic ear of a friend who has proven their trustworthiness.

 

Nothing new under the sun, but when practiced with consistent, gentle focus, gaslighters become powerless and space is made in my body for more and more light. ✨?✨