Thursday, March 29, 2018


I've been perusing through some of my old posts, and I am amazed to see the difference between where I was then -- emotionally, psychologically -- from where I am now. A lot of my old posts are bogged down, as if I am trying to pull myself out of slowly hardening cement. So much to figure out. I can feel how frustrated and baffled I was with my inability to reshape myself emotionally or psychologically in relating to the issues I had in my life. I remember many of those incidents and feelings as if they happened yesterday, and yet, I feel so far removed from the person I was then. And I attribute most of these changes, if not all, to entering my masters program in marriage & family therapy.

My MFT program has changed my life. I am in a cohort of 27 students, and everyone is wonderful. Warm, caring, thoughtful, and kind. It's exactly the kind of community I've longed for, and couldn't find in the years after we left San Francisco. I once again feel like I belong somewhere.

During the interview for the program almost a year ago, I entered the room feeling slightly apprehensive. What skills did I have as a lawyer that would be conducive to me becoming a therapist? As a litigation associate, I had spent most of my time writing combative nastygrams to opposing counsel and dealing with discovery nonsense. Had the law hardened me to a point that I would be unsuitable for dealing with other people on empathetic and personal levels?

In the group interview, we were first asked to go around the circle and introduce ourselves. After listening to the impressive backgrounds of the people before me, who had actually all done something to better the world through social services, I found myself stammering, "I'm not sure why I was even invited to this interview, because I have absolutely zero experience in this field that I hope to enter. I am so impressed by each of you and all that you have done." And then I prattled off a sentence or two about how I had been a lawyer in my former life.

Amazingly, at the end of the interview session that day, the director of the program offered me admission to the program on the spot.

The program started in the summer, and we spent much of the summer listening to each other's life stories. We took turns talking about the experiences we had with our families of origin, what events shaped us, what issues resonated for us. There were so many stories, some with intersecting threads, others with unique directions. But everyone had a story to tell. And they were all humbling and edifying.

It felt like I had read 26 memoirs in a matter of weeks. And I loved it.

Since the fall semester, we have been meeting with clients, and I can't describe how much I love meeting the clients and listening and talking to them about their lives. It's similar to the conversations I have always had over coffee with friends, conversations I have always loved. But these are more intentional and more directed. And with strangers, at least at start, who give me the benefit of the doubt to open up with me.

This one change - entering a new program - had reset me completely. I don't obsess about my time as I used to. I don't feel bogged down by the fears or worries I used to have. I don't feel so negative about my past career as a lawyer or my passing days.

I think if I had been diagnosed with breast cancer before I had been admitted to the program, I would have fallen into a deep despair. I would have been so wrought with resentment and sadness that I had to waste time on something that had nothing to add to my life. I would have seen it as something to deal with in order to return to status quo. And I would have felt that it was yet another segment of my life wasted on top of the years I spent trudging through law school and working as an attorney.

Now that I'm in the program, the cancer diagnosis has hardly made a blip. I see it as a nuisance, nothing more. Even though most of my free days are filled up with doctor appointments, chemo therapy, and some test or another, it hasn't gotten to me. Not nearly to the degree I used to be bothered when I even missed one day of planned me-time when one of my kids got sick or my plans got upset.

Even though I attribute it to being in the program, there are many facets embedded in it that I find so fulfilling and satisfying. Most important is that I am learning again. I am learning about things I care about in life and exploring ways of seeing things through different frameworks. The conversations that I am having as I'm learning are complex, nuanced, and substantive. I am reading wonderful books by innovative and insightful thinkers. One of the most satisfying books I read over the summer was on multicultural perspectives. To date, I have never read a satisfying book on race, at least not one that addressed different perspectives of different racial and ethnic groups. But, yes, such a book exists! I am also spending time talking to my cohorts, professors, and clients about subjects that I think are worth talking about, not just about the weather, or sports, or some TV show. And all the while I'm doing this, I am among a group of people I really appreciate. The cohort is composed of people of various ages ranging from 23 to perhaps late 50s or early 60s, all with life lessons to teach, insights to share, and life pains they have overcome and somehow managed to shape into future directions.

When I think about how simple this was -- how simple it was to reset my life -- I can't help but wonder why it felt so difficult before.  The idea of going back to school seemed daunting. I was already in my mid-40s. I have small children. My husband worked. I had to take the GREs. I wanted to carry my fair load of household responsibilities, whether it was taking care of the kids or contributing financially. And as I list them, I now see that none of them were insurmountable. I recognize that I have it easy. Jeff took some time off of work so that I can go back to school while he takes care of the kids. He has taken over almost all of the domestic chores. But I see the other women in my program doing it. Like me, most of them are entering a second career. Many of them have working husbands and children. Some are single moms. And they show up to class and turn in their assignments.

I think about the countless conversations I had with my lawyer friends when I was practicing law about the second careers we wished to have. It was probably the most popular topic of conversation. And instead of regurgitating those conversations ad nauseam, I could have just gone back to school. But of course, in hindsight, it all looks so easy now. Besides the logistics, I think most of it had to do with the uncertainty of not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. And I realize now that I didn't know what to do with my life because I simply had not lived enough. Maybe I needed all the detours and the events of my life to take me where I am now. Maybe I needed law school, my ten years lawfirm career, the disasterous layoff, the three miscarriages, the family estrangement, the precancerous cells in my cervix, the worries of being a parent, and the delicacies of being married as well as all the happy and fulfilling moments embedded along the way. Maybe I needed these more than others after a lifetime of being a good daughter and a rule follower.

Now, from where I sit, I am grateful for all those experiences - the challenging as well as the happy ones. Even my recent diagnosis. They have made me a fuller person. I relate to others differently. I relate to my children differently. I respond with more patience, more understanding, more heart. I even like myself more.

I think returning to school was about fulfilling one of my core needs. I need to be in an environment where I'm learning. And where I am connected to others through my learning. The learning doesn't have to come in an academic environment, but I need to make space for that in my life. When I didn't have that -- when I didn't have the time or the space to take care of one of my needs, I felt suffocated and desperate.

I think about the little steps we can take to identify and meet our own needs. And to recruit others to aid us in our effort while we help them in turn. Many of us may be gearing ourselves in that direction without even realizing it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Power of Responding

Almost a decade ago, shortly after Paul Hastings laid me off, I was talking to one of Jeff's acquaintances. I'll call her R. She told me how sorry she felt for me because "one of the most shameful things" that could have happened to a person happened to me, and so publicly too! I was so caught off guard by her comment that I didn't even respond. But that comment stayed with me.

I thought it about it recently as I read an article for a class (yes, I'm back in school getting my degree to become an MFT! More about that later.). The article discusses the importance of focusing on a person's response to a traumatic event, rather than the effects. Focusing on the effects of the trauma increases the sense of helplessness and casts the person as a victim; focusing on the person's response increases her sense of agency and calls attention to the actions taken by the individual, which highlights the person's values and identity. No matter how traumatic the event, the article argues that we always respond in some way, even if those responses are subtle or unnoticed by others.

Even though I didn't view my layoff as trauma, I realized that R's comment stayed with me because she focused only on what the firm did and completely disregarded my response to it. She only saw what was done to me, something she cast as shameful. Focusing on that, and stopping there, put me in a passive role. Something was done to me, something that I had no control over. Just thinking about that now makes me feel agitated.

My many friends, however, focused on my response. They saw me taking a stance, and in my stance, they saw a reflection of the person they know me to be. Their responses reaffirmed and helped further build an aspect of myself that I very much like. Their perspectives and affirmations were life-giving.

I've been thinking about responses a lot lately. Over the summer, we had a professor who is one of the loveliest people I've met. He smiled all the time, told the class how much he loved us (yes, a professor telling his students how much he loves them! Did I tell you how much I love my program?), gave us warm hugs, and was amazingly attentive to each of us and our stories. Near the end of the summer, he told us his life story. He started out telling us about his family of origin and his academic journey. He also told us how he met his wife. As I started to think he had such a perfect and easy path, he disclosed that his wife suddenly passed away several years ago from an unexpected illness. He was parenting three children alone while chairing a department and teaching and running an organization on the side.

From his story, I learned the value of leaning in to difficult experiences. Instead of shying away from his memories of this difficult time, he tells his story over and over with the hope that his students will learn something from it. And despite his difficulties, he didn't turn bitter or cynical. Before I met him, I don't think I could have imagined someone not turning bitter from such an experience. Instead, he responded with more love and compassion for others. His hardship, as difficult as it was, expanded his experience of life.

Ever since I've had kids, I've lived in fear of certain terrible events, like the possibility that one of them could fall seriously ill or be hit by a car or be kidnapped or choke on a grape tomato or wrap the bead necklace around their neck too tightly or want to ride a roller coaster. There is no end to the list of calamities I've conjured up in my head from which to protect my children. And trailing these calamities, I imagine a sense of helplessness and hopelessness -- a despair from which I am convinced that I could never recover.

I am caught in this idea that we all respond in some way to life's obstacles.  As human beings, we respond to these obstacles with some action or mindset and we make meaning of the event and our responses. In the article, Yuen writes "even when people are sunk in the depth of hopelessness and despair, "small acts of living occur'". These small acts of living may even happen despite ourselves. Thinking about this gives me a jolt of hope. It makes me think that no matter what happens, there is some action we can take or some meaning we can decide to adopt or reject. We can always do something. We can't help but affirm life by the mere fact of living and experiencing what life throws at us.

While I cried about my shaved head, it gave me a sense of purpose to pack my hair in a box and ship it off to Locks of Love. I loved thinking about how some child with cancer could use my hair, and my hair would not have to be wasted. The donation wasn't done for the sake of the unknown child, but for me. To give my act a purpose and to find some way to handle the situation. I think if I had just waited for my hair to fall out and simply reacted to the process as it unfolded over however many days, I would have felt somewhat paralyzed and helpless. Instead, taking some action helped me to focus and feel empowered.

I love how an idea as simple as this can shift how one views life's obstacles. Maybe it was obvious to others, but I think this was the first time I actually thought about the impact of thinking about one's responses rather than the effect. I hope you find it useful.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Strange and Familiar

Last Thursday, at around 9:05 am, I shaved my head. Completely. I walked into Super Cuts as soon as it opened and asked the lady behind the counter if they had room for a walk-in. She smiled warmly and said yes. After she took down my name, she asked me what I wanted done. I told her that I wanted to shave my whole head. She didn't give a hint of surprise, even though her eyes flickered ever so slightly. I explained that I had been diagnosed with breast cancer and my hair had started falling out from the chemo treatment. I told her how I wanted to shave all my hair off before too much fell out so that I could donate my hair to a place that made wigs for kids with cancer.

On Wednesday, the morning before, during my shower, I noticed my hair collecting around the drain. I didn't even feel them falling out or running past my fingers. But when I looked down, there were little clumps around the holes in the drain. I knew the time had come. When I brushed my hair after, more clumps fell out, and the strands seemed limitless because the falling strands had other strands entangled in them. My brush looked like a shaggy animal from all the hair tangled in it. I hastily put my hair up in a tight ponytail and kept it that way all day.

I had planned all along to donate my hair as soon as my hair started falling out, but when the time came, I could not do it. Instead, as I saw my hair fall out, I cried. I wasn't necessarily attached to my hair. I hardly did anything to take care of it these days. Every morning, as soon as I woke up, it went up in a little bun. I didn't have time to blow dry or style it. I have breakfasts to prepare and kids to send to school. But with the loss of hair came all my insecurities about my looks, the size and the shape of my head, the excess weight I've put on, and all the features I don't like to think about or bring attention to when I'm in the middle of living day to day. Now, I didn't even have my hair to hide behind. My face, and all its imperfections, was exposed for me and the world to see.

That afternoon, I rushed to the store where I had ordered my wig a week before. When the lady told me my wig wasn't ready yet, I bought another and whisked it home as if I were bringing home a newborn. At home, I tucked it away safely in my closet while I thought about what to do. Actually, I didn't think about it as much as live with it. Live with the new circumstance. Live with this development. Live with the idea that my hair was falling out and I would soon have none left.

I thought about how fragile we are, how thin the divide between those who belong and those who don't. How we live in a society shaped by certain images and norms and how desperately we cling to them. I thought about what it would mean to be a woman with a shaved head. I could only think about Sinead O'Connor. And more recently, Emma Gonzalez. But who else?

Since the breast cancer diagnosis, I have not felt sorry for myself at any moment. It is only stage one, and it's completely treatable. It seems like nothing to complain about, especially when I think of others who have it so much worse. But that night, I let myself cry a little. It felt like a farewell of sorts, a farewell to a part of me that had provided a sense of comfort and protection. A part of me that would soon cease being a part of me.

I slept with my hair in the pony tail out of fear that I would lose too much hair along with my opportunity to donate it. On Thursday morning, I cautiously pulled the rubber band off to assess the situation. The amount of hair that sloughed off alarmed me, and I put the rubber back on immediately and braided it. I checked the hours for Super Cuts, and rushed over as soon as I could.

I sat in the chair, and the lady pulled out the electric razor. Mindful of how I wanted to keep my hair intact for donation, she kept my hair in the braid and started shaving from the top of my nape. I felt the coolness on my scalp as she worked on a section at a time. As she worked, I became self-conscious about the odor of my scalp since I had not washed my hair since the morning before. The kind lady gave no sign of noticing anything, and kept shaving. I don't think I looked in the mirror once while she was working.

When she was done, she reached over to put the hair in a paper bag, but I asked her to hand it to me as I had brought my own plastic bag. The hair still retained the shape of my head. In the cap, I saw several strands of white in the shrub of black. For a few minutes, I focused on pulling the white strands out, thinking that the kid who receives my hair shouldn't be stuck with white hair.

Finally, I looked up in the mirror. In myself, I saw images of Buddhist women monks. Emma Gonzalez. And Wakanda warriors. I looked strange and familiar.