BY ROSIE WITTLEDER, GRACE ATTENDER
I hit another year of living, which means compiling my “Birthday Wisdom” from year 36. I wrote an article last year, inspired by my sister who asks me this question each year: What have you learned this year that you’ll carry with you into the future? (You can find that article here.) Well, there are two major themes that stick out from my 36th year--awakening and shedding.
In March of 2019, something strange started happening. My body kept waking up at 5:00 a.m. on its own instead of the usual time around 7:00 or 7:30 a.m. So I began journaling and reading during that time, not really knowing what was going on. A few weeks later, I saw my therapist and told her what was happening. She replied, “No one else is awake at that time but God.” In other words, she was insinuating that I was being woken up by a power greater than myself.
One morning, I was reading about dreams and why some of our dreams never happen. One reason this happens is due to trauma. When unexpected things leave us sideswiped, dreams no longer have a place. Survival becomes the focus. Something pricked me when I read those words. A few minutes later, this thought came to mind: “Rosie, this is you. I gave you a dream 10 years ago. Remember?”
Now, this thought left me wondering if I needed a comprehensive exam regarding my state of mind. I began to panic because it felt like something was happening that was beyond my control. I thought about it and wondered, “That thing that happened at that women’s conference in 2009?” I had forgotten all about that fall day in the Amway Arena in Orlando. I had been working full-time as an employment recruiter. I had been the ambitious busy-bee type, bordering on workaholism. Then I had gone to this conference and had an experience that threw me for a loop.
At the conference, there were multiple speakers and writers I came to hear. While I was listening to one of the speakers, deep down, I felt this internal pull to pursue a career as a writer and speaker. There might have been some weeping on my part, which was very out of the ordinary for me. Mostly because I felt entirely overwhelmed and this seemed to happen out of nowhere.
A group of four older women, who I didn’t know prior to the conference, befriended me that weekend. At the end of our time together, they told me I should consider the same path that had been indicated the day before. I was astounded and mostly afraid--or more accurately, terrified. I had so many reasons why none of that would ever work. I also felt like I was losing my mind. I wasn’t exactly sure what that experience had been, or where it had come from.
When I came home from the conference, I thought about what had happened and what I was supposed to do. But then I began taking an online course and quickly realized I had a lot of unaddressed trauma. My life began to fall apart. My functioning began to fall by the wayside, and I could no longer show up in the world the way I used to. I would burst into tears at work and have to go into an office to collect myself. I would have panic attacks. They were absolutely horrible, and I wouldn’t wish them on my worst enemy. I had nightmares and couldn’t sleep. I realized that I had to quit my job, and I became a nanny for a little boy.
That began a 10-year process of recovery and rediscovery of who I was. I surrounded myself with a group of amazing women, had multiple mentors, and began seeing a trauma therapist. I also became a mother of two during this time, and my areas of focus during the last decade have been marriage, motherhood, and continuing on this healing path I began that winter of 2009.
So now, fast forward to that moment in my bed in March 2019. I was baffled when this question came to me: “Remember that experience at the conference?” My life had taken such a sudden turn after that conference, I hadn’t thought about it in years. But here are the thoughts that came to me next: “Rosie, it’s go-time. You’ve had, and needed, 10 years to work through so much. But now it’s time. Trauma left you on the sidelines for a long time, and that time to heal was needed. But things are better now, and we need to make a turn--to take what you have endured and give it further purpose and redemption.”
But I had no idea what that meant in terms of action. I kept waking up at 5:00 on my own and just tried to keep showing up. Shortly after, my husband Mark and I entered a very difficult season in our marriage. That’s when the shedding really began. I realized I needed to shed old ways of doing things, relating to people, and the ways I used my time. Before I could enter something new, I had to get rid of the old. And boy did I have a lot of old to shed.
Think of a runner wearing layers in the freezing cold. They have to wear layers for a long run in the dead of winter. But as they warm up, they must shed the layers or else those layers will hold them back. I had to take off the layers that I had once needed in order to make space for the life I was being invited into. Before we can “yes” to something, we have to say “no” to other things. Honestly, this process has been stretching, uncomfortable, and sometimes painful.
What are some of the specifics regarding shedding?
Revamping My Morning Routine
I needed to shed my previous way of starting my day--getting up and heading straight into my days’ work, usually some form of motherhood. That was no longer going to work. In order to start my day on a full tank, I need to journal and reflect on how I’m doing internally. I’m not a feeling-oriented person. And yet, when I’m not accessing my feelings on the regular, I’m unable to show up as my best self in the world.
After journaling, I make sure to move my body. I have complex PTSD, which intersects with anxiety and depression. I’ve found that exercise, after a contemplative time, is a huge double-punch to the upkeep of my mental health. After doing these two things each day, I’m ready to show up fully alive and present for my day.
Establishing New Rhythms – How I Spend My Time
I realized that I needed to change the way I did things--how I lived life, spent my time, and used my hours within each day. In order to have more time within a day to pursue my life’s work, I needed to make the time. This included an extensive examination of my daily routines. I couldn’t just let life happen to me. I needed to be more intentional about deciding, in advance, how I used my time.
This included an evaluation of my ongoing social commitments, which was hard because I liked my social engagements. They were good things. But sometimes we aren’t doing the most important things because we’re too busy doing the good things. For example, Mark and I were part of a life group that was very hard to step away from. I also come from a large family, and during certain parts of the year, it would be a part-time job to attend all the available events and social gatherings. I didn’t attend every event. I didn’t meet up with my friends as often or engage in the same number of playdates. And we said no to some basketball opportunities for my son. I can’t spend five nights a week right now sitting in bleachers for practice and games. That day may come, but not when he’s eight years old.
As a result of having more space, Mark and I have implemented a “workday” and a “rest day.” On our “workday” we take care of household living necessities so that we can rest and be together as a family on our rest day. This has revolutionized things for our family--both our sense of rest and our relational bonds. It has been a life-giving rhythm to keep us sane, rested, and connected to our most important people.
I also developed a routine and parameters around my phone usage. When I look at it and when I don’t. Where I keep it when I’m at home. Leaving it behind if possible. Moving from a reactive approach to a purposeful approach. Now, the functions of my phone work for me, instead of me working for it. I’ve found much more mental space and focus when I’m not pulled into other things. I’m not a slave to my phone or technology. This has been painful at times, too. People get used to responses in a certain timeframe, and when that timeframe changes, it can be painful.
Changing Ways of Relating to Others
As 2019 unfolded, I became aware of several patterns of relating to others that were outdated and no longer useful. For example, I instinctually protected myself and others. I’m a protector by nature--I look out for the weak and vulnerable and use my voice for them. But my greatest strength is also my greatest weakness. At times, I protect those who don’t need protecting. This prevents them from growth and inhibits my own growth. Here is a question I must frequently ask myself: “Is this mine to do?” If not, I need to back away from the scene. I don’t need to do work for others that they should be doing for themselves.
On the flip side, I was also protecting myself at times when I didn’t need to. Since I have endured a lot of trauma, I can easily enter a fearful stance--which translates into feeling the need to protect myself. I’ve had to realize that, when I go into my protective shell, I’m missing out on life and I’m hurting others. When people see me in my healthy space– engaging, generous, welcoming–and then see me in a hunkered-down space, it’s hurtful. They know I’m withholding from them. Sometimes it’s okay and good to withhold. Not everyone should have access to your vulnerable self. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I would withdraw at times when I didn’t need to. This was cutting myself off from others and from good things. This way of relating impacts every person I’m in close relationship with.
Putting my relational ways under the microscope has been very challenging. Changing ingrained ways of relating is extremely difficult to undo. When I try a new way it’s vulnerable, scary, and awkward. I feel like Forrest Gump when he first got his braces off his legs. I stumble, fall, endure a lot of pain, and then get back up and try again. In some ways, staying in the braces felt easier. But it is certainly a limited way to live--one I can’t afford to stay in if I want to pursue my life’s work and calling.
Though it’s good and productive work to change outdated ways of relating, it’s also painful. There is a sense of loss for how things used to be, and that has been costly--impacting myself and others profoundly. When I change the way I relate, those closest to me often will not like it, especially at first. Changing the rules of the game can mess up the relationship equilibrium, which is disorienting to all involved. This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t engage in this process, but it does mean I have to count the cost. All change, even good change, has an accompanying loss.
Even though it hurts at first, shedding is ultimately freeing. When you need to take off that first layer on a run in the cold, you often must stop or slow down as you finagle yourself out of the sweatshirt or pants. It’s awkward. And if you don’t watch your step as you shed it, you may fall. That can feel embarrassing, humbling, and disorienting. But when it’s off, you get back up and realize you’re lighter. The gust of wind in your face cools you off because now you carry less heat.
Though my previous year was marked by shedding and awakening, I feel thankful to be on a journey that continues to unfold. I don’t know what year 37 holds, but I do know that I must free up space before something new can begin. I’ll keep shedding as long as I need to, and I’ll see what springs up between now and year 38.
If you want to follow Rosie’s journey, her blog is sugarfreewritings.com/my-blog.