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I hate New Year’s Day. It’s that time of year when I flog myself over holiday misdeeds of over-eating, not meditating and being too sedentary. My diet for the last month has mostly consisted of cookies and meat — a kind of of modified Paleo. I rarely got to the gym and didn’t eat a single fruit all Christmas, if you don’t count the raspberry jam in the thumbprint cookies I snarfed.

I scramble for a resolution that will shortcut me to greater fitness, flexibility and the loss of those extra pounds that have overstayed their welcome like a bad holiday guest. But, the good thing is, at the age of 52, I’ve had some success in personal transformation.

It’s times like these, when the inky darkness of winter and post-holiday doldrums threaten to engulf me, that I think on past victories and remember the principles and practices that have led to lasting transformation. Maybe they’ll help you too.

Nine years ago I had an uncomfortable moment of truth when unexpectedly viewing a photo of myself in a bathing suit. It was a brown, ruched affair and I looked exactly like an unhappy potato on legs. After a fat caliper test, I was appalled to learn of a body fat percentage of 30% — sneakily close to obese. Instead of denying reality or hating myself and drowning in a sea of Ben & Jerry’s, I calmly made peace with my body as it was — then lost twenty pounds.

The best time to make a meaningful change in life is (insert number) years ago. The next best time is today. I stayed in a sad and unfulfilling marriage for 25 years. It was tempting to blame myself for the lost years and all the love not gotten, but it was pointless. I could not have left a moment sooner than I did. I looked kindly on the girl I was, embraced her anyway, and learned from her mistakes to build a new life of love and fulfillment.

I was a stiff-necked kid who couldn’t be taught a single thing — an unfortunate result of being a naturally talented, overly adored first-born girl in a competitive family. But, talent is a bus that doesn’t go to the end of the line without a refuel — that’s where teachers and receptivity come in.

When I entered my thirties and wanted to progress in music, my father delicately suggested I take voice lessons from his choirmaster. The teacher could not have been more encouraging, and soon I quit bellowing like a moose and started really singing. A good teacher (and a willing attitude) has been the fastest way to learning new skills and making big life changes.

When I was 18 and a freshman in college I started running with the cross-country team. I went from being relatively sedentary to running five miles a day — every day. On the advent of our big first meet, my lower legs were in excruciating pain. A doctor’s visit diagnosed shin splints — painful micro-breaks in the shinbones — a result of over-training.

As an adult, I’ve learned to pace myself and get some form of exercise every day, even if it’s just a leisurely walk with a friend. On icy, windy days I might choose the stationary bike in the basement with the latest from Netflix. At times I take it easy on myself and do almost nothing physically. After 34-some years of mostly continual fitness, I’m in it for the long haul and realize that slow and steady truly does win the race.

Two years before quitting my job, I knew I wanted to walk away. But, the idea of leaving a 30-year career filled me with anxiety. For all my blather about taking chances and being adventurous, I am, essentially, a groove creature.

After crunching the numbers with my husband and determining we could (frugally) live on his income, I hit a wall. I called it every name in the book, but it was generic, yellow-labeled fear. I drew on the wisdom of Mark Twain’s bromide, “Courage is not the lack of fear. It is acting in spite of it” and jumped into the abyss and got to work. I have not looked back. Now fear is taken as a sign that I’m onto something. Let the adventure begin!

This year, I have made some resolutions: put away my clothes after wearing them; lose five pounds; write a business plan; complete that book I’ve been talking about for years; write thank you notes; de-clutter the house. Some of them I’ll honor, others will burst like yesterday’s champagne bubbles. What I won’t do is hate, nag or be unkind to myself. That’s one resolution I’m planning on keeping.


In praise of cracking up.


I was a happy but nervous child. Either hardwired or nurtured that way, I remember plucking out all my eyelashes at the age of seven, just to handle the anxiety — jumpy as a flea on a drowning dog.

Our home was loving, but chaotic and alcohol-influenced. Christmas was the worst. My understaffed mother was overwhelmed with choosing, purchasing, affording and wrapping gifts for six kids. It did her in every year with a torrent of tears and drama. Though my father was a structural engineer and made a lot of money (buying plenty of expensive cars, toys and alcohol) there never seemed to be much for clothing or gifts.

As the first-born girl in an Irish-Catholic family I felt accountable for, well, just about everything. The house was a mess? Clean it up. No money for clothes? Get a job at 12 and buy my own. I was hyper-responsible, taking on the emotional burdens of everyone around me, including trying to raise my two younger sisters and joining an oppressive, controlling Pentecostal church to provide the parenting backup I felt we needed. Mine was a short and serious childhood.

As a teen, I never dated, but married at twenty, short-circuiting a normal social life, and having no fun in college. I only wanted to work and become an advertising star, make my family proud and support my husband through his education. However, having two children by the age of 27 sidelined any desire to be a famous art director.

Becoming the next female Darrin Stephens was not to be, but I would excel as a volunteer in a lot of activities: elder in the Presbyterian Church, Bible study teacher, program creator in an advertising club and as a Rotarian. Trying to be everything to everyone, I freelanced to stay at home with the kids, make money and be Supermom.

As a life-long singer, music was an outlet at first, but at mid-life became a compulsion. I was recording my second CD under an impossible deadline with a bi-polar producer who kept losing everything — including much of the work we did. Money was running out and my husband’s patience was fraying. I could almost hear the thin cloth of my marriage ripping apart.

A combination of willpower and terrifying obligation got me though my CD release party, but afterward, the wheels really came off the wagon.

It started with muscle twitches and then I couldn’t sleep or eat — visibly trembling. An emergency room visit determined my problems were probably psychological, not physical. A visit to a neurologist confirmed it. I was sick, but it was all in my head.

The nervous tremors were now accompanied by agoraphobia and cluster panic attacks. Previously extroverted, now I couldn't even bear to leave the house. My first anxiety attack occurred in a grocery store. The bright lights and noise became unbearable. My body felt as though jolts of electricity were shooting through it. I thought everyone could see it. After that, all I wanted to do was stay home, but home was not a sanctuary. Unable to sleep other than for minutes at a time, when it did come, slumber was jagged and filled with nightmares.

While accepting that my illness was mental and not Parkinson’s, MS or Lou Gehrig’s disease was a relief, imagining everyone losing respect for me was horrific. The self-perception as a world-beater was quickly deflating. Making my life an admirable and unassailable structure had failed.

One morning, I laid on my bed, limbs stretched out to the edges like a starfish and thought ”I’ve lost my marriage, the respect of my kids, most of my clients and any idea of who I am. I am nothing.”  After 42 years, I gave up on being the perfect wife, mother, volunteer, daughter, artist. I finally surrendered and it felt … unbelievably good.

Breathing was easy and my body felt as weightless as a dry leaf. The sun shone bright through the bedroom windows, creating warm patches on the down comforter. Everything was perfect and complete. I was perfect and complete! That moment set me free.

A friend had once asked who I was without my accomplishments. There was no answer. Doing nothing meant being nothing. It was unthinkable. It was stunning to now realize I loved and respected myself in spite of cracking up and letting everything fall apart — fulfilling no one’s expectations, not even my own.

Healing was slow. A psychiatrist prescribed an anti-depressant and a tranquilizer, and while useful at first, meditation, dietary changes and a measured life soon replaced them. In a few months I was calm, mindful and definitely not back to normal.

Many changes resulted from that breakdown. Though I did lose my marriage, my career picked up where it left off, and the respect of my kids, family and friends were still there for me. The biggest changes besides peace and sanity were a new understanding of and compassion for mental illness, its causes, and the part balance plays in healing.

Though occasionally trapped by someone else's expectations, or volunteering reflexively for something that “must be saved,” I am no longer swept along in a slipstream of real or imagined expectations of others, setting my own course.

I had been on a mindless, relentless path to redeem my childhood and family legacy and finally got off. Life never looked so good or free.