Change Your Story, a Survivor's Tale
Last May I shared a story with an audience in Philadelphia about the day I decided to take my own life. This is that story.
Access the audio version here.
Joe Walsh, a member of the immortal rock band, The Eagles, once said, “As you live your life it appears to be anarchy and chaos and random events; non-related events smashing into each other and causing this situation and then this happens and it’s overwhelming and it just looks like what in the world is going on. And later, when you look back at it, it looks like a finely crafted novel that at the time it don’t and a lot of the Eagles’ story is like that.”
I shared his quote because it’s going to seem like I’m all over the place. It will seem like chaos. It will sound like chaos. It will actually be chaos. But in the end, it will all come together. Famous last words. The reason I’m alive today is because a few years ago a really great thought popped into my head. At the time, I was sitting in the basement powder room of our rented house in Broomall, PA because my intent was two-fold: slit my wrists where it would be easiest for someone to clean up and die in a place where I was guaranteed my son wouldn’t be the first to find me.
Obviously I was miserable. My husband was miserable. Our relationship was awful. We were broke. I had a wrench in my gut that was so dark and hard and sad that I could burst into tears at the drop of a dime or close out the world just as easily. If someone even cared to help me, I had no idea where to start unraveling the story. I couldn’t conceive of how anything could possibly change. Change wasn’t even on my radar. I knew of no one who could dig themselves out of a mess like this. I didn’t even know digging was an option. I’d been in miserable situations before, a continent from home, and was able to get myself out. But the baggage I’d brought with me into that hole was crushing. For some reason, once I contemplated the end—truly put myself in a position of being free from all the chaos and misery—I felt oddly at peace. I don’t know how long it’d been since I stopped reacting to all the crappy stuff in my life but when I finally did, I was able to detach from it like a window of opportunity had opened to observe it all. And when the peace of being detached from it fell over me, in one moment I became so content with my existence, so present in that moment of peace, that a lucid thought finally found a crack to sneak in. That thought was simple. You got yourself here. You can get yourself out. Change A Story Achenyo Idachaba is a TedTalk presenter and fabulous person. She said, “If you want to learn about a culture, listen to the stories. If you want to change a culture, change a story.” My story was dark and all too common. I’d gotten myself there and I could get myself out. It was my choice. If I wanted to love my life instead of hate it, I needed to change my story. I figured out that would take only three things: observation, a thought (or idea) and execution. Let me give you an example of how this happens. US Airways Flight 1549 In 2009, US Airways flight 1549 suffered engine failure on takeoff that threatened the lives of 155 people on board. But Captain Chelsey Sullenberger landed the plane on the Hudson River and saved everyone. That was a great story. It required three things. First, an observation: The river is in close proximity to the airport. Before that day, he made that observation while flying a routine flight. That led to a thought: If I ever have a problem on takeoff I'm going to head for the river. Although we might think, at their conception, some thoughts or ideas are definitely better than others, the only thing that makes one more relevant than another is the execution. And the difference between a big execution and a small one is nothing more than necessity in the moment. Sometimes the difference between life or death is just a necessary reaction in a time of need. And the nerve to react. Like Captain Sullenberger. He didn’t want to die and he certainly didn’t want to take 155 people down with him. He made an observation, had a thought and who knows how many weeks or months later, got the opportunity to execute. Observation, thought, execution. Hero. Let me give you another example. What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas Well, not everything. About fifteen years ago I was sitting at a table in an airport in Las Vegas with my son and my husband. It was really early, the place was a ghost town and my child was starving. He was about two at the time. I ordered this big breakfast: scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, home fries—anything I thought he’d eat. When the server set the plate down in front of him, he was so hungry he grabbed a slice of bacon, shoved it in his mouth and starting chewing. What I didn’t realize was they hadn't fried the bacon crispy like I do. It wasn’t fried to melt in your mouth. It was limp and greasy. Before I knew it, my child had flung himself back in his seat in a panic. He was choking. Back Up Four Years I’d started my first year of chiropractor school which might not seem difficult but the program I was in was a total immersion in anatomy and physiology and all the corresponding sciences. At one point we were studying the larynx which is part of the anatomy involved in swallowing. What happens when you swallow is a really long process that I don’t recall completely and probably only knew enough about to get a B. But for simplicity, we’re going to say that when you swallow, the entire larynx (your voice box) is pulled up and the epiglottis (the flap at the back of your throat) drops down so that food goes down your esophagus (to your stomach) and not through trachea (to your lungs). So if the larynx and epiglottis get stuck in these positions, like when food is lodged, your trachea will be sealed off and you can’t get air to your lungs. When you can’t get air to your lungs, you will know rather quickly that you are choking. Like my child. Without knowing what choking was, he instantly knew there was a problem. Dr. Henry Heimlich The normal treatment for choking is the Heimlich Maneuver where you place your arms around the person in distress, position your hands at the upper abdomen and thrust. Or, in the case of kids, the baby Heimlich, where you rap your hand on the baby’s back. But while we were studying swallowing, I made an observation. If food simply had to be moved from the lodged position so breathing could return to normal, was it not only possible to bring the food up (with the Heimlich Maneuver) but push it down? Granted, by pushing the food down, it would then be stuck in the esophagus, but wouldn’t breathing take precedence over a little impaction? For some reason I never got to ask this question. We probably got busy or too many people were talking or whatever. The point is, I made an observation, had a thought (an idea) and never considered it again. Until Las Vegas. What I didn’t know was that the bacon my child had shoved in his mouth was stringy, so much so that it was not only lodged, it was also not firm enough to expel. No matter how much I thrust or beat on his little back, it wasn’t coming out. So as a reaction, without contemplation, I plopped him in his chair, stuck my finger down his throat and pushed the bacon down. Instantly he took a breath. So did I. So did my husband. Then a man approached from across the room. He was obviously heading our way because there was no one else around. When he spoke, he introduced himself as a “doctor,” admitted that he had watched the whole thing and, most importantly, that I had handled it perfectly. I wasn’t instantly grateful. “You could’ve jumped in anytime!” I said. He was prepared to, he shared. But I had plenty of time. When Sully landed that plane in the Hudson, it was an observation of the proximity of the river to the airport that led to a thought: Hey, anything goes wrong, I’ll just set this thing down in the river. While learning the mechanism of swallowing, I had a thought: Hey, why can’t the food go down just as easily as it comes up? Both his thought and mine, his being a far more important moment in history, led to execution. Back to Broomall, PA All I needed to do with the thought that I could get myself out of that mess, was execute. Fortunately, the thought I had was the most powerful one possible: I can. There’s a saying that goes, “You cannot conceive of a solution in the same state of mind that created the problem.” So, from this theory, problems are associated with one state of mind, while solutions are associated with a separate one. All in the same brain. While I sat there contemplating the end to my life, my state of mind actually changed. And I liked it. With the thought that I could get myself out, suddenly I could get myself out. And if I could, didn’t that imply that I must have all the faculties present to do so? Or at least I’d find them on the way? If I trusted that one state of mind had caused that much grief, I had to trust that another would lead me away from it. Although ending my life was something that had a quality of certainty to it, taking the leap of faith that I could change everything was an enormous task drenched with uncertainty. But the uncertainty was a welcome change from the certain misery that continuing on the path I was on, would guarantee. Somehow I knew that everything I did from that moment on, I had to do differently. The funny thing is, the thoughts I was thinking about everything that was happening to me put me in that dark place. But what would get me out was “doing” everything differently. Thinking was the problem. Doing was the answer. The first task was drastic. I wanted out of my business. Somewhere along the line I had lost who I was and that led to a business that gave me little creative freedom and tied me to a rigid schedule. My clients were wonderful, the work was solid, I loved that they loved me and that I could provide that service to them but all left brain, right brain stuff aside, that was never who I was. The problem was I had a personal and financial services business for a handful of very affluent clients, handling sensitive, confidential information. I couldn’t just hire someone off the street and I didn’t want to. I really wanted out. Right or wrong, against the advice of almost everyone, when I got a call from an interested buyer, I sold. Soon I had a small monthly stipend deposited into my bank account and I decided to do what I’d always wanted to do: write. If selling my business was considered moronic, you should have seen people’s reactions when I said I was going to write. I looked at my decision to shed the past and start anew as a great thought that was born from an observation that I had lost myself. So when the thought popped into my head that I could get myself out and that led to the opportunity to sell my business, I took it. Since then, I’ve completed five novels, two screenplays and lots of blogs and articles. The big projects are all fiction. Some of my blogs are non-fiction but I’ve never written a book-sized non-fiction project. But I have a lot of friends who have. One day while making the observation that everyone was writing non-fiction, I had a thought: I wonder if I could? A few months later I was at a meeting for one of my favorite groups, a networking group of entrepreneurs and investors that’s just full of people who think in possibility. After one meeting, one of my idols approached and asked me a question. I couldn’t imagine what he was about to say so let me make it clear that what came out of his mouth was a shock. He said, “Would you be interested in finishing my memoir?” It didn’t matter that I’d never worked with someone else’s story. It didn't matter that I had no idea what the story was about. It didn’t matter that I might not have an ounce of expertise in the topic. I had the thought—write non-fiction—then the opportunity came. I was overwhelmed. I loved this guy. He’d made billions of dollars for customers through an advertising medium he had created in the ’90’s. I’d seen him interviewed. I’d watched YouTube videos of his speaking engagements. And now he wanted to work with me? A friend had referred him to me and he’d checked out the content on my website. Here’s the funny thing: on my website, ghostwriting wasn’t listed. Nor was it even on my radar. But it didn’t have to be. I made the observation, non-fiction, had the thought: I’d like to try, and was given the opportunity to execute. I took the job. Then I contemplated what other thoughts I should have. If, through my observations, I had thoughts that brought about an opportunity to execute, I’d better come up with some good ones. Dream Big or Go Home It always works. Good thoughts become things and bad thoughts become things. I observed or stood back in retrospect at what I was doing compared to what I wanted to do and most importantly, what resonated with how I wanted to feel about life. Or I marveled at what other people were doing that sounded fun, exciting and amazing. Then I had a thought and was handed the opportunity to execute, the most recent one leading to why I even wrote this story. Taxes One morning in late January, I collected my stuff to sit at my desk and work on taxes. Yuck, right? I gathered all the things I’d need: a cup of tea, comfy slippers, cell phone and a chocolate bar—70% cocoa because it’s medicinal. Then I contemplated what I was prepared to do for the day and a thought popped into my head: Today would you like to contract or would you rather expand? Obviously I didn’t want to contract into routine and calculations. I preferred to expand; to embrace possibilities. But did I have a choice? Hell, yeah! Minutes later I received a text from my previous editor. She’s extraordinary. It read: Do you know a guy named Frank Felsburg? I texted back: No. Should I? We exchanged information until I was so curious about this Frank guy that I stalked him on LinkedIn. After seeing the connections we had in common, the only thing I thought was, How do I NOT know Frank Felsburg?! I sent him an internal email asking to connect. He accepted, and got right back to me asking if I could talk. When I answered the phone, he said something really cool. “You’re the answer to my prayers.” Now, I didn’t know what prayer I was the answer to but he definitely had my attention. Turns out he had stalked me on LinkedIn too. I’m sure when you stalk someone and they in turn stalk you, that has a catchy Urban Dictionary-type name like a “stalk-balk.” Or simply “freak.” Here’s the cool part. Over the past year I had done some radio interviews and one television interview. I had also joined friends on informational talks on regular old topics in library conference rooms and luncheons and I like doing them. I’m Irish, talking’s my favorite. But I’d never had a bona-fide speaking engagement. One day while contemplating these opportunities, a thought popped into my head: I’d like to do more speaking. The answer to Frank Felsburg’s dreams that day was simple: he needed a speaker. Here’s the funny thing: nowhere on my LinkedIn profile did it list, “Speaker.” But this series is about writers. Being a writer got me the opportunity to speak. Just like selling my business got me the opportunity to write. Just like writing fiction got me the opportunity to ghostwrite. Just like everything else I’ve done in my life that seemed to lead nowhere, actually led to where where I am right now. Go figure. As Joe Walsh said, “Life appears to have been random events smashing into each other. But now, when I look back at it, it’s coming together like a finely crafted novel.” Here’s the clincher. That novel—that story—is being written by me. By making observations, choosing thoughts and executing, that story of my entire life to this point, was all scripted by me. I’ve been writing it all along. I just didn’t know it.
Long ago a thought saved my life.
Now I use thoughts to build a life.
If you'd like to contact me about speaking on this topic with your group, please don't hesitate to click here.
For more, read my novel, The Revolution of Charlotte Smith.
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