Thursday, February 4, 2016

Vulnerability is the Foundation of Strength

I'll start this by saying that what I will divulge within this article does make me nervous to share as it is the most sensitive and intimate information a person can share. It makes me question being open about my privacy and the appropriateness of sharing something that people just don't talk about. But after thinking about it, I felt that if the information could help someone now or later down the line, none of the above matters. If I could support someone the way people have supported me through one of the most difficult, challenging, and devastating events in my life to date, then for me there isn't a choice but to share this story.

But before I begin I want to key in on what this really is about. It is about being vulnerable with the intention to gain strength for and through the hardest of times a human being can experience. Some of you may be saying, well that almost sounds like a can you be vulnerable and strong at the same time? Doesn't vulnerably mean to be exposed, and therefore be unprotected and weak? Perhaps if we are talking about going to war, and putting yourself in a position to get hit, or removing a piece of armor leaving your underbelly exposed to the sword. But this is also with the thinking that there is an enemy ready to attack you. We, in our day to day lives, are not at war. I know there are some of you that think we are and also think we need to survive the tribulations of life, but that is just a mindset we choose. If you change your mindset about vulnerability, and look at it as a gateway that connect all human beings, weakness doesn't come into it. If you could acknowledge that we all go through intense life events that bring us to extreme emotional highs and excruciating lows, you cannot deny that this connection of the human condition bonds us together. We often think we are the only ones to go through these things, and become embarrassed, ashamed, and feel the need to push through it before anyone finds out. But there is something I have realized in coaching teams of leaders, and having gone through my own very delicate and difficult experiences...the key to getting through them and gaining a foundational strength from it is sharing with others, realizing you are not alone, being inspired by others who are going through it or have gone through it, that everything does heal, that there is a tomorrow, and that each day (though challenging) will get better. You also find in a moment where you just can't face the world, someone who cares about you can and has your back. But if you insist that you have to grow a hard shell and must figure it out on your own, not only will the healing process be 10 times longer, but you learn how to cope slower, and the act of not trusting others hardens you, and affects how others experience you.

Everyday, millions of people experience a challenging life event or series of events that challenge the strength of the human spirit. A loved ones dies, sickness or disability unexpectedly inhibits your basic functionality, debt or financial strain paralyzes you with fear, you give your heart to someone and they mistreat it or don't return the love, someone unjustly wrongs you and causes undue strife, you are incessantly striving towards a goal that for a reason that eludes you it has not been reached, or just something that you cannot control turns your life and everything you know upside down. These things happen, we cope, we move on. But what turns these things from tragedy to a blessing and builds your foundational strength, rather than hardens you, is your connection with others in the vulnerability of these things.

For me, I've had my share of hard things… Very scary unjust legal issues, my parents recently have been struggling with separation...but nothing could compare to or prepare me for what I dealt with in the past few weeks, and nothing exhibited to me more the amazing support I have in my life that's helped me to get through it.

If you know me, you know I love to take care of people and empower them to their greatest potential ...some of my students have called me “Mother Hen”. As much as I fall into to being a maternal figure for others, the one thing I have always wanted since I was young has been to raise children of my own. The gift to give life and create another being on this planet that would have unlimited potential to be someone that contributes to our crazy existence is a very tangible dream. Well, it was tangible...until I began my journey of trying to conceive with my beloved partner Charlie. We tried the regular way of course, and then when that didn't work tried a more focused approach (taking temperature, clocking my cycle, ovulation tests, acupuncture, change of diet). After a couple years I began to get very angry and frustrated. Meanwhile all my friends were getting pregnant and having babies around me. At first I was so excited for them and then I started to become annoyed and slightly jealous. It infuriated me that something seemingly came so easy to some women, and I for the life of me couldn't figure out what was wrong. I was super healthy, and even after Charlie and I took all these tests, sonograms, biopsies...nothing came back indicating a problem. My OBGYN just said I was fine so just keep having sex, it will happen. Not helpful.

So I threw my hands in the air and for a year and stopped “trying”. Trying the no stress, don't think about it so much approach. Needless to say this didn't work either, but at least it gave me time to create peace around the whole thing and just surrender to let go of my expectations around it. Year 4 I started looking at my cycle again, and thinking about taking a more proactive approach. I finally resorted to going to a fertility clinic. When I got an appointment, Charlie and I went in and they looked at my old tests, took some new tests, and confirmed yet again that we were both fine physically. The doctor concluded that I was a highly probable candidate for endometriosis. This is a genetic disorder where excess tissue grows within and around the uterus causing inflammation and obstruction to the uterine wall. It causes in some cases extreme pain during a menstrual cycle, pain during sex, and in rare cases chronic lower abdominal pain. It's undetected by any tests and really can only be confirmed and treated with a procedure called a Laparoscopy. This is where the surgeon inserts a lighted viewing instrument called a laparoscope through a small incision. The doctor then finds and scrapes the excess tissue out. This essentially gives you a fresh slate for approximately 18 months before it forms again.

So it was a relief to finally have an explanation of sorts, and I was anxious to have the procedure so I could move forward in the process. But of course with my travel schedule and needing to have at least 2 weeks recovery time, and three months to test out some methods post surgery, I had to wait until the holidays to do so. In this time I was dealing with a lot of stress around my parents separation, being on top of the BoA LP program, conducting workshops and jobs. I honestly didn't know which way was up. I was over exhausted. Had started a solid regiment of yoga, running, juicing...but yet I was still so tired. I began to worry as it was affecting my work. I was getting a little more emotional than usual, which tends to happen when I’m overtired and/or PMSing. I chalked it all up to the emotions of dealing with my family’s personal struggles and trying to be everywhere at once.

I walked into my eagerly anticipated 2nd fertility clinic appointment ready to get started on my procedure prep. They gave me the low down on the scheduling, healing time, dietary restrictions, pre-op meds, post-op meds, etc. Quite honestly for a “simple procedure” it sounded overwhelming. While in the office the doctor asked me how I was feeling. I told her about my exhaustion and emotional state. But as the words were leaving my mouth it thought to myself… Wouldn't it be funny if I were pregnant? So I asked her if I could take a pregnancy test. I told her I doubted it would come back positive but I just wanted to rule it out. So they took my blood and said they'd call me next day to give me the results. This was the day before New Years Eve, and the same night as our BoA Holiday party. I was a little bit impatient and anxious to find out the results, because I wanted to know if I should drink or not. So as I exited the subway near my house I walked right into the pharmacy and bought an e.p.t. test.

At home I nonchalantly started getting ready, peed on the stick and threw it in the bathroom sink, clear in my mind it would be negative because in 5 years that's just what it has been. After getting dressed I went back into the bathroom and glanced in the sink. I had to squint my eyes because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing...Pregnant. I picked it up and brought it close to my face. No fucking way. In a trance I brought it into the living room where Charlie was watching tv on the couch. I handed him the stick. When his eyes focused on it his brows furrowed and he looked at me confused. “What?!” I laughed and shrugged, mind still blown. “How accurate are these things?” He asked. “I have no idea!”. I then called my best friend Kelly who has three boys to ask how accurate these home pregnancy test were, and she assured me pretty damn accurate. But just to be sure she suggested I should go pee on another stick. So I did. Again, pregnant. I couldn't wrap my head around it. Neither could Charlie. But I just knew I was so happy...and I was experiencing a miracle. Next day the fertility clinic called to confirm, and the following Tuesday I found myself back in their office, feet in stirrups, looking at a screen that showed a dot no bigger than my fingernail pulsating with life. When the doctor turned on the sound and I heard the very steady strong heartbeat I began to cry. This is really happening. I'm going to have a baby, Something I had only fantasized about and often wondered if it would ever happen for me, was happening.

When this starts to sink in, all my thinking and perspective started to change. Every decision you make from eating, drinking, sleeping, to jobs you take, considering where you live, how you spend all begins to change. I wanted to tell the world, especially those who knew how much we struggled. But I had to keep relatively quiet because I was only 6 weeks. So only close people were informed and we started having conversations about how to prepare.

The following week I had a work trip to Costa Rica which I was really nervous about. One thing I noticed - aside from being really tired and as emotional as a baby - was that things I normally felt uninhibited about and fearless about, I now felt super cautious and kind of terrified to do. So a trip to a remote Caribbean location, where there could be a plethora of things that could go wrong, scared the shit out of me. But my doctor assured me I was good to go. The baby seemed healthy, I was long as I took my meds, I had the green light. So I went. For the most part it was a pretty low key trip, very relaxing. I did a few days of makeup, but relaxed by the pool, went to bed early. I did eat a piece of tuna, and have some sips of wine, but essentially these are all within the realm of acceptable things to do while pregnant. I had gone on this trip to Montezuma with the crew where we had to ride on quads about 45 minutes on super rough bumpy terrain, and I almost had a cow because it felt like being on a Mechanical bull. I white knuckled the whole ride and broke into tears because I kept thinking that couldn't be good for the baby. But I was assured by many that this also was fine. Regardless, I was still pretty anxious to get home and go to the doctors and see that
heartbeat on screen again.

The Tuesday after I came home, Charlie and I got up early to go to the clinic for my check up. I was so excited for him to actually see the heartbeat of our little “sea monkey”. We got there and waited quite a while to be seen. When we finally went in, I practically ripped off my clothes and jumped in the stirrups. Charlie sat to my left observing all the equipment in the room. To my surprise, the head of the clinic came in to do my check up. I was happy because he had such a great reputation and I knew he'd be able to put all my worries at ease. He initiated the sonogram and adjusted to equipment to find my baby. When he found the little one I noticed the mass had gotten bigger...I was so excited to see it had grown, but also a little concerned because he was still adjusting the ultrasound wand even though he had already found it. Then my breath shortened as I realized it wasn't moving like it had last time. Quickly I dismissed the thought, but a deep dread started to creep around my chest. Then the doctor asked, ”Have you had any spotting or bleeding Danielle?” My heart began to pound. My mouth became so dry I had to swallow before I answered him. “No!” I choked out. I could hear that my own voice sounded paralyzed with fear. He then asked “Was there a heartbeat last time?” “Yes” I said. He looked intently at the sonogram. I was barely breathing. Charlie’s hand grabbed my arm tight. The doctor then said “I'm sorry my dear, but I can't find a heartbeat.”

I couldn't find a word… I only thought one thing in that moment…I did something wrong. I killed my baby. I just stared at the screen searching for something. To his credit the doctor kept looking, but then just looked at me and said “I'm very sorry”. I felt Charlie's arms come around my shoulders and hold me tight. I wanted to say something but my brain just yelled I did it, I did something wrong. My baby is gone because of me. I finally said “but what happened?” I could hear my voice shaking. He said “I do not know yet, my dear. We will have to do some tests. But you should know this is probably not your fault.” As if I didn't hear him I pleaded “But they said I could go to Costa Rica. I went on this bumpy quad ride and I probably…” He put his hand on my knee and said “You were perfectly fine to go to Costa Rica. I'm telling you I see this everyday. You are of the age where this happens to 40% of women. After 40 years old, it's 50%. Sometimes the body knows when something is wrong, and naturally takes care of it. It could be an off chromosome or something else that happened during conception. But sometimes the body just knows, and there's nothing you did or could have done.” I heard his words, and I wanted to believe him. But the guilt shook me. I had some wine, I ate a piece of tuna, I should have gotten off that quad and stayed home that day. The doctor said we'd need to remove the fetus through a procedure which someone would come in and talk to me about. The nurse took my blood and left the room. I began to get dressed and looked at my clothes as though it was foreign fabric. Just minutes ago I ripped them off me with such joy and excitement. Now it was numb, dead weight in my hands. Charlie's hands never left my shoulders as I numbly put my pants on. “Baby, I'm so sorry. We will try again.” I turned to look at him. I so wanted him to see that heartbeat. “I’m sorry honey, it's my fault. I really wanted you to see our baby”. I barely got the words out as I broke into uncontrollable sobs. I collapsed into his shoulder heaving breaths of tears. He gripped his arms around me and leaned his head on mine saying “Don't say that. Please don't think that. You can't go there. It's not your fault. It just happened. We will get through this. But please don't blame yourself.” I just kept thinking they weren't there. They can't know I didn't do something to fuck it up.

Charlie had to run to move the car as we parked in a street cleaning spot. A lovely sweet doctor named Jessica took me into the office to explain what I needed to do next. The first thing she said was “Don't worry we will have this procedure tomorrow and it'll be all over with.” I had to focus my thoughts as I couldn't even remember what day it was. When I finally realized it was Tuesday I panicked. “But I cannot do it tomorrow. I have a job” I said through sobs. “It's all right. We can give you a note to give your boss.” I of course snorted a chuckle. “Unfortunately I am the boss and if I don't show up to the job it doesn't get done and I don't get paid.” I told her.
“Oh I see. Well unfortunately the hospital does not do this procedure every day so if not tomorrow usually we would not be able to schedule it till next Tuesday...” Oh my God, please no.  “However I am going to check in to see if we can fit you in early Friday morning”. Yes, please, please, please. The thought of having to go through an entire week with my baby still inside me was the worst possible thing I could think of.

So Jessica set me up with all of the paperwork and instructions. I walked though the waiting room and it seemed that all the people sitting there glanced up and looked at my face, red and swollen with tears. I felt their mix of compassion and empathy. I just put my head down. I felt almost embarrassed. Yes, I'm one of the ones whose baby didn't make it. I headed down to the car where Charlie was waiting for me.

As I got in the car, Charlie asked me what we needed to do now. I explained to him the details about the D&C (Dilation and Curettage) procedure they were trying to fit in for me Friday, and that I needed someone to be with me because I'd be going under anesthesia. Charlie looked at me concerned. “Don't you have the LP Graduation Friday?” With all that was going on I totally forgot BoA LP3s Graduation Show was Friday evening. I was planning on being there the whole day to support them through the production of their designs as well as present to their guests as their mentor and creator of the program. I just threw my face in my hands and began to sob again. “What am I supposed to do?!” I felt so helpless. “Well babe, do you have to go?” “Yes! I'm the coordinator of the program. How can I not be there?” “Well let's not think about it now. It's only Tuesday. Let's just go home and relax.” But how could I not think about it? My baby was gone, and the day I needed to complete this horrible experience is the same day I had to be someplace important where I'm not only needed but expected.

When we got home I was so exhausted. I considered all the people I now had to tell…and I just wanted to crawl into a hole. So Charlie tucked me in on the couch, and I sobbed in and out of sleep for the rest of the day. Every time I woke up, I considered for a second it was just a dream, but came to the awful realization that I was no longer a mommy. I didn't want to die, but I didn't want to face the world. I didn't want to work the next day, and I didn't want to think about how to figure out Friday. I just wanted it all to go away.

Later in the day Charlie's best friend from childhood, called him and asked to speak to me. She started out by telling me how sorry she was we were going through this. She had just had a beautiful baby girl and was very excited when she found out we were pregnant. But she continued to tell me she had gone through it too...twice. She reiterated to me to not blame myself, to know that this does happen to women often, but they just don't talk about it. She said that I will have a baby, it's just a matter of time. It was sad to hear but very comforting to know I wasn't a freak.

The next day I sent an email to the close friends who knew I was pregnant letting them know what happened. I couldn't bare the thought of an awkward moment when I had to break the news to people in person. I got an email back from a friend saying she went through it right before she had her healthy baby boy. I was shocked. I had no idea she went through this. She was a trainer and a health coach, and super fit. But yet again, people just don't talk about it. She had also told me that a few months after you lose the baby your body is still full of hormones which makes you super fertile. So getting pregnant again sooner than later is a high possibility...which is what happened to her. Then our dear friend Amy texted me to say her sister went through right before she had her beautiful niece. Again, I was shocked and had no idea.

As horrific as it is to hear that your friends have gone through this devastating experience, the more I talked to people and heard the stories the more I felt comforted and confident that I would not only get through this but it is more common than I thought...Women just do not talk about it.  Sharing and hearing these things seemed to start a healing process I didn't think possible. I ended up hearing over a dozen stories from not only friends but colleagues as well. All had a devastating miscarriage story that ended in eventually having healthy beautiful children. Had I not had the bravery to share my experience with other women, which apparently seemed to be something that was considered taboo, I would have never heard these stories. If I had never heard these stories, I do not know how I would have had the stamina to move forward.

But the best part about my story is how people I have spent a lifetime creating relationships with through work, mentorship and friendship, showed up for me in my most vulnerable moment in ways I never imagined. Both Shalonda and Caitlin, who are not just my staff but dedicated friends and dedicated coaches to our leadership participants, were both right there to help me figure out the graduation issue. They first started by insisting I take care of myself and don't even think about trying to show up on that Friday (which was clearly something I was considering). The biggest concern was even if I felt physically fine, my emotional state may not be the best to be around people. They suggested I find a “replacement” for the day. So who did I trust to empower the group to staying on task and be grounded in their efforts to create an amazing show? My first thought went to my dear friend James Vincent. I knew that he would push them and do the job that I would do the way I would do it. So I picked up the phone knowing full well how busy he is praying that he could cover me. When I finally got him on the phone I told him the whole story in a matter of seconds. I knew if I lingered on any detail I would just burst into tears. Without even a moment's hesitation James said that he would handle it and that I should not think about it anymore. He did have to leave shortly after six so I would need to find someone to present for them but as far as being there to project manage their work, it was a done deal. I felt so relieved. So now I had to figure out who would present for them… The only people I could think of aside from myself who would be able to talk about the BoA LP program and know what the participants had been through, would be other graduate participants. So I called Angela Lynn Ware and Shalonda. Of course, yet again without hesitation, they agreed to represent me and the BoA Community. Caitlin then called every team member of BoA LP3 and explained to them what was going on and informed them I probably would not be able to be there in person. They all understood and each sent me personal condolences. I had never felt so taken care of by people who were not my blood family. None of these people were obligated to step up and stand for me, but here they were.

The graduation show went off without a hitch. I went to my procedure and came home without a worry in the world. I slept through most of the afternoon and woke up feeling rejuvenated in spirit. Aside from some very minor cramping and exhaustion I felt really good, and asked Charlie to drive me to the graduation. I didn't really see the point to staying home to think more about what had happened. Rather I wanted to put my thoughts toward being with the group and sharing their accomplishments. It meant everything to me to see their faces light up when I walked in the door. And rather than being in control of everything, I sat back and watched everything be handled before my eyes.

It's been a few weeks and I am still healing and adjusting. I am also still collecting many stories from other women who have gone through this and come out the other end OK. I tell you my story not because I want pity or for you to look at me any different than you had before. I tell you this story because everyone in life has this story in one way shape or form. There are things in life that happen expectedly or unexpectedly which we cannot control that can seemingly break you. Though there is nothing wrong with being private about these things, I have found that there are choice few people that have been put in your life to help you get through what seems impossible. But if we don't share and get vulnerable and be real, we cannot find these people. Plus, you just don't know who you will help by sharing in these most human moments. I am optimistic and looking forward to being a mother. I know it with happen. But if I were one of those people who just didn't talk about it, who knows where I would be, or how long it would take for me to stop blaming myself let alone heal. So I encourage you to find strength in your vulnerability. Share your experience with others you trust. You just never know who’s story can heal you, and further who your story may help in exchange.

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