There is no easy walk to freedom

At this very moment eleven years ago, at the age of 31, I was in a hospital bed, waiting to be born.

I, a 31 year old woman, was waiting to be born.

People around me were waiting for a baby girl to be born. They didn’t know that she was not the only one entering the world, though. They didn’t know what my insides looked like, because I didn’t tell them. I guess I didn’t really know that I was dead inside either. I only knew that I was a vapid, insipid human being–a person who knew nothing and felt very little. Feelings were painful and scary, and so disassociation had become my normal state of being. I was going through motions just enough to keep the peace, but not enough to actually show up in this world as fully human.

Until I saw her.

They pulled her out of me at 7:50 am on June 15, 2008. She tilted her head to one side, as the nurse held her up to my face. For the first time in such a long time, I felt something. Something about those mocha eyes staring at me caused me to almost want to stand up, even though I had literally just been cut open a few minutes ago in a Caesarean section surgery.

I took her and held her. This was an inexplicably important moment. It wasn’t just the birth of my child. It was the birth of me. Somehow I knew that. I just didn’t know how it would quite play out. I didn’t know what that meant. I only knew disassociation was no longer an option. I had to start showing up in my own life.

Every day of the first two years of Aliana’s life, I knew that I would need to leave my marriage in order to become me again. This truth grew into a massively strong tree that continued to grow inside of my soul as it was revealed to me, day in and day out. This tree of truth became so mighty and strong that I felt shame for not watering it. I felt shame for noticing it, but not taking care of it. While I didn’t act upon it, I felt this ominous feeling inside that I needed to do something or that tree would actually pop out of me and I would be exposed for being a fraud.

I somehow made baby steps of action. I found Bible verses that spoke to me and read them every day. Every morning I read the magnet on my fridge that said, “Be strong and courageous and do the work.” -1 Chronicles 28:20. As I read that verse over and over again, I hoped the words would eventually cause my feet to act on what was growing inside of me. I wrote down a quote in my journal by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “Our lives begin the end the day we become silent about things that matter.” I knew this was the truth. That until I spoke up about what was happening in my life, and acted on that truth–that I would continue to choose a life that was rooted in darkness instead of in light.

Silence creates shame. Ironically, the more we don’t act on changing things that we know need to be changed, the more the shame seems to grow.

I knew the work I needed to do was to leave my marriage. The more I knew it, the angrier my spouse seemed to become. The abusive episodes escalated until a moment in February 18, 2010, where my daughter witnessed something that no child should ever see. I felt my heart jump out of my chest as I called the Julian Center the next day, “I need help,” I told them.

I began to call attorneys. I began to interview attorneys in secret. I began to go to the Julian Center for a women’s support group.

And then I told my family. I started with Uncle Roy. Uncle Roy was patient and kind and truthful. He helped me to begin to not be ashamed of my experiences but to actually own them. I began to understand why “responsibility” is the fourth stage in the cycle of violence: for it is when we take responsibility for stopping the cycle, that it can finally end. Ownership of truth leads to responsibility.

Abusive relationships are addictive. People become addicted to each other during the cycle of trauma. There’s something called trauma bonding that happens-which is why the average woman tries to leave an abusive relationship multiple times before she actually does it with finality.

People ask me all the time: what causes some people to finally leave abusive relationships, and others to never leave? And I used to say all the time, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I just know I somehow did it but I’m not even sure how I got there.”

And while I still don’t completely know, what I do know is this–there is a connection between humility and courage.

My parents always acted on the extreme side of teaching me humility. Sometimes I felt that they aimed so hard to teach me that vanity and pride were a load of crap, that I actually almost had none.

But this trait they worked so hard to instill in me–a sense of humility–was ultimately what caused me to change my life.

Humility is defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as “freedom from pride or arrogance.” When you are humble by nature and are facing difficult challenges, you can start to say things like, “Hey, I don’t know how to do this. Let me get some help from someone. Let me listen instead of speak. Let me admit that I’m jacked up right now. Let me sit with this and know that God will lead me out of this if I listen hard and surrender to the fact that I cannot control my situation, but I can take responsibility for it.”

There is something to be said to listening to your inner compass. But when your inner compass is not working, there is wisdom in listening to and following the advice of others who love you and who are professionals. When you are blindsided with fear and anxiety, your inner compass doesn’t even work. It’s like a compass on steroids, spinning and spinning and freezing up.

So that is when you find the following two people:

-a very wise, professional well researched individual who is an expert on what you are going through (like a psychologist or doctor)

-a wise friend or family member who always wants what’s best for you and loves you more than you love you

And then you sit down and listen. Filter out what sits better with you than what doesn’t. But trust that they know things you don’t.

We don’t know it all. We can be experts and read books until we are dead, but when we are experiencing something keeps us stuck in a shame cycle, anxiety spin, or is just painful as hell, we will need help.

We will need help. We will need each other. We will need truth, that is borne from love.

For me, my rebirth was the road to freedom. I still have pain and difficulties in my life, but I have ME. I know how to be me and it’s safe to be me. I am free from abuse, and just like an addict who becomes sober, I will never go back “there.” I will not become entangled with someone who abuses me, uses me, and confuses me.

But I wouldn’t have gotten to that point without learning to listen, and without a humble heart. The challenge with raising a child is aiming for humility AND self love. It’s hard-it means you must do a lot of talking, modeling, and building understanding of healthy relationships.

I feel so much gratitude today. Gratitude for my 11 year old baby, gratitude for humility, and gratitude for freedom. The other day, I saw this quote from Nelson Mandela, posted at a school I was in:

“There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again, before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.”

May we remember this: that no one, not even God, has promised us an easy life. But we have the ability to be quiet, be still, and listen. And within that stillness, we just might find a new path or new way of being. I am so thankful to this child, whose birth was a reminder that it’s never too late to change your life. And it’s never too late to become free.

Grace Elaine Sommers Whitehead

This past week my mom turned 79. It’s kind of jolting, because I don’t think of her as being someone who is close to entering her octogenarian years. She’s just my mom. However, she’s MY MOM. And being that I’m a mom, this has caused me to reflect on what it must be like to be my mom.

Sometimes I look at old pictures of myself from when I was a kid, and try to remember what my personality was like. I’m guessing my mom would say I was a happy and talkative child, and I was, for the most part. I liked to play outdoors in the dirt, ride my tricycle, talk to the neighbors, and play in the sandbox. I also liked to pretend I had imaginary friends and even children. One day I told my mom that I had two daughters–one named Ruthie (after my grandma who I was obsessed with) and Crouton (after my favorite salad bar topping-BECAUSE WHO DOESN’T LOVE SEASONED BREAD?!). I was creative and liked to color and draw and watch the birds at the bird feeder.

My mom would sit at the foot of my bed every night until I fell asleep. We said bedtime prayers, and she helped me to learn how to pray. She cooked healthy food for us, and we always ate at the table.

(God, I should stop reminiscing because this is actually making me think about all the ways I’ve failed as a parent.)

But before I stop, I must mention one more thing.

I remember lying in bed in my childhood bedroom. Only I wasn’t a child anymore. I was 30 years old. My mom had pulled the curtains up, in hopes that I would feel the sunshine. It was springtime and it was beautiful weather. And yet, I couldn’t stop crying, and I couldn’t get out of bed. I knew my parents were concerned, but every time they tried to speak to me, I either cried or shut down. And all I remember thinking was, why can’t I just enjoy the sunshine? There are actual people who are getting up with the sun and going outside and living their lives and going to the grocery store and shit. And getting up to go pee was overwhelming to me. Eating was overwhelming to me. Showering was overwhelming to me.

I felt like I was getting evicted from my own life. This was during my second separation from my husband. Things were crumbling and I did not want to surrender. What I didn’t yet understand was that, as Glennon always says, nobody gets evicted from his or her life unless she is being called to a truer, deeper life. Rock bottom is always an invitation to something else- something even more authentic and beautiful.

My mother came into my bedroom. She sat down on my bed. She told me she had baked some homemade bread and had fresh strawberry jam, made with strawberries from our garden. While my mother is an incredible cook, it was very out of character for her to make homemade bread. I looked at her, perplexed. But then I knew: she’s trying to get me to eat AND baking may be her way of coping with the fact that her child is feeling hopeless and not eating or sleeping.

She convinced me to eat a piece of bread. She brought it upstairs to me and sat on my bed. I put the bread in my mouth and could tell it was nearly a perfect tasting piece of bread, so I began to chew it, even though I wasn’t enjoying the process of eating. Every time I swallowed food, it went into the pit of my stomach and I thought would vomit. But I didn’t vomit. So I continued to slowly and thoroughly chew the bread in my mouth so that I could nourish my body at least.

“I’ve been thinking,” my mother suddenly said, “about you.”

I sat up in bed. She had my attention.

“I have this vision of you in my mind. You are an exquisite, beautiful flower. And yet, you’ve been buried for so long under the dirt. The ground above you is hard and cracked, and the soil is not good. However, you continue to grow and you will soon sprout above this ground that is holding you back–this ground that has held you down for so many years, and you will begin to bloom. And you’re just the most beautiful flower. You’re becoming yourself and you’re stunning. You are going to bloom and break free.”

I looked at her in awe, because she was envisioning things for me that I simply couldn’t see. But what she said–her words–were so intricate and fascinating, that it drew me in.

Everyone has always loved my mother. At times I resented this, because I didn’t like sharing her. I would get jealous and hide for attention or act out (when I was a child, to clarify-not last week 😜). But now I know why people are so drawn to her-it’s because she showed up for them, and never fell apart. It’s because she’s a vault when it comes to trust. My mother has exhibited grace under pressure, time and time again. When others are stressed, she remains serious. When people are crying and crushed, she responds with compassion. That’s why people love her.

So that is my mother. She is a believer in things that dwell in truth and possibility. Happy birthday, Mom.

Happy Re-Birth Day to Me


9 years ago today, after laboring for 30+ hours, my daughter, Aliana, was born via Caesarian section at 7:50 am. After experiencing what my OB-GYN proclaimed to be a freakishly challenging pregnancy, that included sciatica, kidney stones, preterm labor, and gestational diabetes, it was mind-blowing to me that a human this extraordinarily healthy had actually been percolating inside of me for nine months.

On this day, June 15, 2008, I was 32 years old, yet I was just a shell of a person.  I had no personality, no likes or dislikes, and no idea how I had gotten myself into the mess of an abusive marriage.

And now I had this tiny, gorgeous human with a full head of curly black hair, that was staring at me with the deepest coffee colored eyes I had ever seen.  And somehow, those eyes were the only thing that ever could break me of my numbness.  You see, I could no longer disassociate from my life, because that would mean I was disassociating from MY OWN CHILD. 

In the intensity of her gaze, I imagined she was saying to me, “I am here.  I am LIGHT.”

Her existence broke me into a million pieces so that I would be somehow be forced to make a plan to put myself together again, because her eyes–HER LIGHT–showed me that she needed a mama who was whole, and that mama had to be me.

One day, I was giving her a bottle when her father entered the room.   I don’t remember what I had said that upset him so much, but he spat on me.  His spit ran down my face and dripped onto my shirt.  I didn’t react, as I knew that would make it worse, but Aliana did. She screamed at the top of her lungs and she no longer wanted the bottle.  Her screams and her terror reminded me of my own terror–reminded me that I needed to finally be terrified in order to be her mother. My heart of darkness slowly began to crack, and I allowed her light to seep into me.

Her birth was my rebirth, so in many ways, this day, June 15, is sacred to me and forever will be. It is a day that I was also born, as this baby was the one who brought me back to life.

Sometimes people say to me, it’s unfortunate that you and your ex husband conceived a child together, because that means you have to still communicate and can’t be completely unattached. What people who make these comments don’t understand is that if I hadn’t had my daughter, I might still be living in that marriage. Aliana’s existence propelled me into a completely new level of life, because I finally loved a person so much that I didn’t want her to live the way I had been living.  The love I couldn’t feel for myself, I could feel for her. 

Something deep inside of me knew that I could never be the mother she needed unless I could fully be myself, and the journey to self discovery started with her birth. 

Changing lives is serious business, and this girl wasn’t even planning on getting into that business; the universe simply deemed it so.

And for that I will always be thankful. Happy birthday, Aliana. 

Uncle Roy

I do not have a fancy house or amazing car or a six figure salary. But I do have something money cannot buy–I have an Uncle Roy.


Having an Uncle Roy is like having a dial a therapist, quite literally because he is a therapist and he always answers your calls. Even if it’s 2:00 a.m…especially if it’s 2:00 am.

Uncle Roy listens. Then he says something profound. Then once you’ve calmed down, he says something witty. And before you know it, you’re feeling centered again.

I have wanted to write about Uncle Roy for awhile, but I don’t know if any words I say can do him justice. I mean, how do you begin to describe a person who invested hours of his time in order to save your life?  The main thing I can tell you is this: everyone needs an uncle Roy.

When everyone had given up hope that I would leave an abusive marriage, Uncle Roy didn’t. When everyone was so sick of hearing me sing verse 742 of the same damn (metaphorical) song and dance, Uncle Roy still gave me the microphone and  said, “Sing louder, because you need to hear yourself. You need to hear your story and realize what’s really going on.” When everyone else told me that my situation freaked them out, Uncle Roy remained calm. When others backed away from me, Uncle Roy came closer.

Everyone needs an Uncle Roy.

When I started to date after my divorce and had dating anxiety, Uncle Roy made me laugh when I told him and Aunt Jeanne about some of the odd and strange men I met through online dating. I laughed and laughed until I couldn’t possibly be hurt or resentful or anxious anymore. Everything that didn’t work out was just too damn funny to be upset by it. But this just amazed me–how my uncle’s jokes could transform a situation that felt like a tragedy into something hilarious, all the while showing empathy at the same time. That’s a GIFT. “When you’re laughing, you’re healing,” he says.

When I became involved in a new relationship with a guy I really liked, my PTSD would sometimes rear its ugly head. It was during these times that my uncle taught me the important truth: “Healthy relationships are not fragile.” And this is what that means: there’s no need to overanalyze things that you did or your partner did or to fear that little mistakes may tear things apart.  Because if it’s healthy and good and the right fit, it will naturally work. And if it’s not, it will start to unravel. This is the natural order of things. You must let go and let it unravel if that’s what it starts to do.

Uncle Roy taught me that I don’t ever have to have all the pieces of a puzzle or all the information I’m seeking to make an informed decision. He taught me this: HOW YOU FEEL about a situation is enough to know how to proceed. If you continually feel unhappy in a certain relationship, your feelings are enough evidence to end it. If you continually feel anxious or resentful towards someone, that’s important information to pay attention to.  If you wake up in the morning and never want to go to your job, that’s a feeling that you need to deal with. If you look out your window and can’t stand where you live, that feeling is information.

You see, these are things that many of us don’t learn growing up. But it’s never to late to learn them. It’s never to late to listen to yourself. And it’s never to late to believe you have everything you need to solve the problem you’re facing.

Uncle Roy has not had a life without hardship. Without divulging too much of his personal info (however, he doesn’t know I’m writing this, because he cannot operate a computer), Uncle Roy went through a painful divorce in his twenties. He experienced the heartache that many involved fathers feel when they can no longer see their children everyday. He felt a deep devastation of betrayal in his life and it took hard work to just keep doing the next thing and not allow his depression to devour him.

But he did it. He woke up everyday, and did what he thought was the right thing to do. And just kept doing that again and again. He eventually turned his shit into fertilizer in his practice as a therapist. He began to help people understand that by doing the next thing, they would survive.  He continued, and still continues, to help others understand the fundamental philosophy of what he refers to as the acronym T.A.K.E., which stands for Tolerance, Acceptance, Kindness, and Encouragement–what he considers to be the foundation of healthy relationships.

I talk about my uncle all the time with others, because I love him.  And also because what I want people to understand is this: you only need one person in your corner. Just one.  And while I do not want to minimize all the incredible people who have played a role in helping me to change the trajectory of my life, Uncle Roy was so pivotal when I was at my lowest of my low.  And he was just there, showing up for me, and somehow never doubting that I could be my own hero.

All you need is one person.  Just one.  I love you, Uncle Roy.

I Woke Up Like This

When I first got divorced, I walked around for about a year like a female version of Rip Van Winkle who had awoken and was seeing a new world. 

Despite a PTSD diagnosis from my doctor,  everything felt like a miracle to me. 

Every time I would pay a bill, I felt gratitude to be paying my own bills. When I bought my first piece of decent furniture, I felt like a queen. I finally slept like a baby most nights in my bed, and I let my daughter, who was two at the time, sleep next to me, despite everyone telling me “that was a bad idea.” I didn’t care. What I cared about was that we were finally SAFE and FREE. 

For about a year, I walked around like that-in an almost mystical, childlike state of wonder. I am not saying I wasn’t raw and emotional-what I’m saying is that I felt peace, despite the range of emotions that passed through me.

I remember sitting in my little, white and brick house in a not-so-great part of town, rocking my daughter in my tattered, hand-me down rocking chair, thinking that I had life figured out and that life was good. 

You see, it takes some time to realize you have your own life after you haven’t for so many years. And here I was, in 2010, finally awake to the idea that I was alive and that I could make choices for myself.

People observing me said, “Wow. Emily is doing SO well. She’s, like, a brand new person.”

Only I wasn’t. I was still the same person I had been during my entire marriage; I was simply now reacting to the fact that I was finally safe and free.

I was like an aged onion. There were so many layers of me that hadn’t been peeled back yet, and my skin was starting to toughen and the roots were trying to pop out because I needed to be peeled. The learning had barely begun. 

I realized in therapy that rejection was my oldest wound. And it has also been the most difficult wound to heal. Deep wounds like that do not heal from the outside–they can only heal from within. You cannot slap a bandaid on a rejection wound and expect it to heal. You have to do the deep, psychological work that starts from within. 

Combining my fear of rejection with PTSD, and you could say my post divorce dating life was a complete shit storm. I went from boyfriend to boyfriend. I remember my therapist looking up at me and asking me, “Where did you go?”

My energy was frenetic. Although the framework for the abusive marriage was gone, I was still the same person, afraid to be seen. Afraid to show up, instead of showing off. Afraid of being my true self, because…who would actually love that?  Although I said I wanted a partner, I continued to pick partners who were clearly not right for me. 

But tonight, as I sit here on Valentines Day 2017, the one thought in my mind is this: it is so good to be single, free, and safe. I once prayed so hard for the things I have now, and I feel GRATITUDE to have them. I feel a little wide-eyed tonight, even though seven years have passed since I left. 

I know there are many men and women in relationships that, even if they are safe, they are not free. They feel afraid. Maybe they are afraid of rejection from their spouses, even after being married all these years. Or maybe they feel like they just don’t have the courage to be seen, and that eats away at their insides. Or maybe they feel they cannot trust this person lying next to him or her and that wears on them day in, and day out.

If that is you, while I do not have specific answers, I can tell you this. Don’t stop peeling off your layers. Don’t stop showing up. Don’t stop feeling the feelings. Don’t numb out. Have the courage to be yourself and figure out what’s underneath the feelings. Because until you peel all the layers off, all you are is a body with feelings-not your awokened self. And we all need a planet that is full of humans who are healthy, alive, and awake. 

Happy love day, 2017.


Back in the days of my 2010, Rip Van Winkle awakening.