From Adversity to Rebirth

By Alice Holstein, Ed.D.

(A Presentation for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Easter Sunday, approximately in 2013)

As we all know, the traditional story of Easter revolves around the suffering and resurrection of Jesus. While Unitarians do not observe this tradition, I believe there is merit in examining the process of suffering and rebirth in ordinary lives. Much to my dismay, I became an unwilling expert on this subject over some 12 years of almost unbearable suffering, from 1995 when I was diagnosed with manic depression, until 2007 when I began to get my feet on the ground in earnest. Before these experiences I couldn’t identify much with the Easter story; it was too unreal to be meaningful. The onset of my illness came at mid-life. In my early professional career I had been a pioneering woman Air Force Intelligence officer, briefing B-52 pilots for both the domestic, nuclear mission and then the overseas Vietnam operations. I was the first woman to do any job I encountered in my service career, but I left the military after my four years was up. After putting myself through graduate school by working fulltime over 6 years, I obtained a doctoral degree and began teaching college classes and building a business as an Organization Development consultant with such clients as the Solar Energy Research Institute and Frontier Airlines in my portfolio. I lived a privileged and outwardly successful life.

Then I was forced to the surrender of my journey and I began to feel as though I understood the Easter story in profound ways. Indeed, I had the audacity to wonder if my suffering wasn’t deeply comparable because it included periodically living on the streets as a homeless person, undergoing 13-14 hospitalizations, losing thousands and thousands of dollars and cleaning up horrible messes I had created. There were extreme losses of a busted career, friends and colleagues, structure to my day, meaning and hope, self-worth and dignity. I was devastated at the thought that I would never fulfill my potential. There was psychic pain unending and a fair amount of physical pain as well. I am lucky to be alive today because of the hardship and danger I faced. I literally died a thousand deaths over 12 years.

Some of you know my story and have encouraged me in my telling of it; some of you don’t know it and so I ask the patience of those who do as I sketch in a few of the details. I share it because it seems to bring hope to others. From it I have learned lessons that may prove useful. The bottom line of it all is that adversity has been my cruelest challenge and my greatest teacher. I am very much what I am today because I survived this journey and have found healing and meaning in it. Along with illuminating my story and talking about suffering in general, I will share some of the essentials about recovery and how I believe that it can lead to rebirth, regardless of the nature of your suffering.

Many of you are not strangers to suffering; indeed, it is the universal condition of being human. But many suffer horribly, whether from disease or injury or disabilities or abuse and violence. Others suffer emotionally or spirituality from a litany of causes. Many suffer the loss of loved ones and never recover; some people are maimed or psychologically damaged forever. The list could go on and on, but the questions are,--- how can we bear it and how can we recover enough to realize rebirth? How can we transform ourselves, finding meaning and renewal from the depths of the severest hardship? I’ll get to that in a few minutes after I share a bit more of my story.

Manic depression, otherwise known as bipolar mood disorder, is characterized by the highs of mania and the lows of depression. Often there can be considerable creativity amidst the mania. Depending upon the type of manic depression there can also be delusions and hallucinations, which I suffered. During these periods, I was frequently paranoid, believing that a conspiracy of vice and drugs was operating everywhere and that there was no place safe to go for help. During the mystical moments of the mania, however, I was at one with the universe in a synchronous flow and felt the palpable presence of some force or energy which seemed my only companion for days and weeks on end.

But then there were the days and weeks when that presence was gone. I suffered horrible delusions and grandiose ideas and I did crazy things that later mortified me. I intruded on others space and time. I packed up my house and gave things away; I made horrible messes and had to retrieve belongings over long distances. I was disruptive and argumentative. In other words, I was alienated from the sane Alice in the most painful of ways, out of touch with reality or the part of me that was a normal functioning human. I suffered some 15 cruel psychotic breaks.

Those breaks frequently led to hospitalizations; during which I often suffered even more from some inhumane treatment. Stigma is one of the worst aspects of bearing a mental illness, and a good deal of that comes from the medical system itself where rights are often violated or one is treated as subhuman. The hospitals, however, were also places of saving grace, allowing me the precious time to recuperate before going back out to try to recover alone.

Some of the most dramatic suffering occurred while I lived on the streets periodically as a homeless person, not because I didn’t have assets but because I got separated from them or was too paranoid to tap them. During these periods I sometimes functioned as a genuine bag lady, sleeping in open fields, homeless shelters, in cardboard boxes or on the cement. I went without food for 6 days one time and 8 days another. Some nights I walked all night just to keep warm. I put myself to sleep at night by crying out my fears and loneliness. I often sang the first few lines of “Motherless Child” to comfort myself amidst utter despair.

Along the way, however, I had many incidents where people “saved” me from harm or hunger or isolation or death itself. These were often small blessings that tuned out to be life-saving. For example, there was the $20 bill to solve a crisis, a smile, the gift of some tennis shoes, a listening ear, a ride to the hospital or a caseworker who knew how to support me in small steps to the next point of recovery. One time I was taken in for a week by a Christian couple who merely believed in helping people. Often the help was so crucial that it helped me go on for several more hours or days until the next act of kindness occurred. This is how the homeless live sometimes---hour by hour, day by day, but many do not get saved as I was. I also had miracles along the way, such as a pair of sturdy oxfords lying along the road just my size, a warm pair of gloves left at night on a park bench and a windbreaker wrapped around a tree. There is no rational explanation for some of these incidents.

The work of recovery was exhausting and backbreaking. Often I was so debilitated that I could barely function. I had to let it be OK that accomplishing only one thing, such as making a phone call or going to a support group was enough. I’m still not sure how I got up time and time again over those 12 years. But now, in retrospect, I can see that there were several factors that turned my story into one of transformation and rebirth. These include asking for help, grieving my losses deeply and thoroughly, finding forgiveness, taking time for reflection and contemplation in order to make meaning, being able to see suffering as a purifying experience and giving things time and patience.

In terms of asking for help, I sought every means available to recovery, such as therapy, support groups, alternative healing methods and many self-help approaches. There were some different 50 things I did in all, which are enumerated in my book. In 1998 after getting mad at the doctors for their bleak prognosis, I had made a conscious INTENTION to become as well as I could be, and the doors opened to me as I went. I would not be alive today without that dogged determination and without being willing to accept the help of strangers, professionals and friends. I fought hard to get well, sometimes reaching out because I was so desperate and sometimes merely accepting what was offered. Suffering should not have to be borne in silence, but many of us remain stoic and therefore miss healing opportunities.

And then there was the grieving---the further along in my recovery I got the more I realized that I was full of losses. I had lost so much, from that fumbled career, to respect and dignity, to huge financial losses, to structure in daily living, to hope and meaning and health; I sometimes lost time and my mind. The list was much longer than this. But nowhere in the mental health system is there recognition that such losses are part of our journey and thus no grief treatment was offered. Nor does our society do a very good job of acknowledging the need to grieve, sometimes over long periods. We are expected instead to recover within weeks. And because of these expectations, we do not ask for the help we need to grieve much more deeply. Accumulated grief from loss becomes a huge hidden pain and bearing it without relief can mean that we do not find rebirth. We can become stuck in our sorrow; we can become bitter and disappointed about life. Once I realized the extent of my losses, I realized that I had to find ways beyond therapy to heal my wounds. Thus, I designed personal rituals that involved emotional release and honoring the losses. They helped open some of the floodgates so I could move on. I realize now that I cobbled together my own recovery program of healing at multiple levels---emotional, physical, mental, spiritual and social. And it is such holistic healing that I think is essential for suffering to become transformative.

Another thing that was blocking my recovery was anger--- at the medical system. Anger at the doctors for the battering they meted out. Anger at the illness itself. When I realized that the load was almost literally breaking my back, I proceeded to write out many, many specific forgiveness exercises. I spent several hours a day for 3 weeks emptying myself of this load, giving myself permission to let go of the anger. And I needed also to find ways to forgive myself for the mortifying things I had done while sick.

Taking time for REFLECTION was another essential ingredient of nurturing rebirth. This included reading books and watching videos, such as Joseph Campbell’s work on the Hero’s journey where he describes the universal nature of suffering and hardship. Through this and other works, I REFRAMED my suffering as a purifying experience. As Catherine Ingram says in a book called Passionate Presence, “if we allow our pain to be felt and freed, our suffering does great work in softening our hearts. It is, in the words of Trungpa Rinpoche, “manure for the field of wisdom.” Our suffering, if we feel it deeply and allow its natural passing, makes us stronger and yet more tender. We are whole not only despite what we have suffered but often because of it.” (p. 46) But, making lemonade out of lemons requires courage; it requires the due diligence of turning every difficulty and adversity upside down to see the meaning and gifts of the experience. For me that included defining some specific gifts of my suffering, such as increased compassion, facing death without fear, learning to surrender, finding an expanded purpose and appreciating with new eyes, things large and small. In the midst of Hell, or perhaps best gained afterwards, it is possible to see how life gets pared to its essentials and how one has grown in interior ways because of the battle. Suffering can indeed be a purifying experience.

The reflection time I took included work with therapists to uncover and help heal the causes of underlying trauma, such as family dysfunction and abandonment issues. I journaled a lot. I eventually wrote a book that sat for several years before I was ready to publish A Tough Grace: Mental Illness As A Spiritual Path in 2011. The writing was an enormously healing venture. I integrated the whole of my journey within myself by telling my story. And especially the REFRAMING I did helped heal my psychic brokenness.

As you can see by now, rebirth for me was often deep work---dogged determination and dedicated effort to get well. This is not a superficial journey, a matter merely of doing some grief work. It requires courage and persistence, patience and love, both love for oneself and that from others. And yes, we do need others in spades. Towards the end of my 12 years of suffering, I realized how much I had been a loner all my life and how much I really needed community. I was adrift and bereft because I didn’t have it. That is the point at which I became involved with the Unitarians who have become my lifeblood and a genuine family. I am deeply indebted to this Fellowship and all the love and care and time that has gone into building it into such a vibrant organization. My lesson was that we need places and people where we can experience the healing power of a larger container for suffering than merely ourselves. Without such a container and a place to find listening, caring hearts, suffering can rip us apart; it can be overwhelming and insufferable.

And finally, rebirth often requires TIME. Even as I emerged from those 12 years of Hell, it took me several years and many baby steps to get back on my feet in a fuller sense and I still must be careful to take good care of myself. At first when I began to exercise I could only walk around one block. Gradually I built up to several blocks and now do a 40-50 minute workout at the fitness center 4x/week. I also attempted various volunteer activities before I spent a year in a kindergarten classroom learning how to help others again and reclaim some small sense of self-esteem. Then I went back to work, part-time at age 65, but even then it took several years to come out of the shadows. I had been pretty battered by all the aspects of the illness. And even after all this recovery I became sick again in 2011 though I bounced back quickly this time.

Society does not usually give us the understanding or the time to recover and be reborn. We are expected to quickly get over our losses and not acknowledge many of them, such as diminished capacities due to aging or illness. The grieving process is truncated. Being “productive” and successful and active and lively are over-valued lest we be seen as complaining too much. We try to get back to business as usual too fast, too shallowly and too non-reflectively. We judge ourselves too harshly or avoid doing the deep, inner work. We suffer in silence rather than bearing our suffering with honor. Society doesn’t always demonstrate compassion, or they are afraid of their own grief, so a person in recovery needs to develop COMPASSION for self!

The Easter story in a religious sense is about more than personal suffering and recovery; it is about eternal life as seen from the Christian viewpoint. For me, however, it is about being reborn into a life of many eternal moments in the present. It is about transforming suffering. Rebirth is available in this sense to anyone open to doing the work of grieving, finding forgiveness, pursuing reflection, asking for help and giving oneself time to heal. The story of Easter has become a profound one for me, for I have found new life, an enlarged life, a more compassionate life. It is filled with part-time work, volunteerism, the Unitarians and other friends, mostly inner peace and a host of everyday blessings. My favorite response to people asking how I am is to answer that I am just bumping along with quiet satisfactions. The journey to such richness has been a bone-crushing path, but I was burned clean by the fire and transformed by its fury. A now treasured “Tough Grace” has become my bounty. I submit to you that there are many Easter’s among us. Be gentle with yourself and compassionate toward others as we TOGETHER search for the promise of rebirth and renewal.