Mary's Story

My Story—How I Came To Realize It’s Time!



When I was three and a half, Santa Claus came to our house. All the adults were acting happy, and I was supposed to be very excited about it. At the appointed time, a big man came in, saying, “Ho, ho, ho,” wearing all red, with a big white beard. I quietly studied him from head to toe. When my eyes reached his feet I instantly recognized a pair of brown alligator slippers and yelled out, “That’s Uncle Frank! That’s not Santa Claus!” I got into a lot of trouble for this and similar observations and was soon labeled “The Devil Herself.” In a Catholic household, you can imagine how this expression carries centuries of history. This incident marked the beginning of a phase of my life in which I was continually punished for my tendency to see and talk about what was really going on.

We are not that far from the times when loving Irish parents felt they had to beat the devil out of a child, for her own good. People believed that “if you spare the rod, you spoil the child.” My parents never beat me just to beat me – there was always some infraction, such as coming home at 5:00 p.m. instead of 4:30 p.m. Things that by today’s standards would earn you a scowl. I was beaten, I would scream so loud that my parents would say “Shhhh,” so I would scream louder.

One good thing about corporal punishment – it really motivates you to get out of the house. At age twelve I started working, riding the bus into downtown Manhattan to work at a department store on 5th Avenue. I fanatically saved every penny I made, for I had a secret dream, which was to become a doctor. I was in love with the idea of being able to help people who were hurting. In those days, as far as I could tell, girls didn’t get to become doctors, so I went for the next best thing, which was to be trained as a nurse. By the time I was fifteen, I had saved enough money to pay for the first year of nursing school, both tuition and room and board. Because of this, I managed to talk my extremely reluctant parents into giving me permission go. They wanted me to get married at sixteen, and they were bitterly disappointed that I broke off my engagement and went to school instead.

In nursing school we studied and put in hours at nearby hospitals. I began working in a mental hospital, Belleview, and one of my tasks involved holding patients down while they were given electroshock, officially called “electroconvulsive” therapy. Along with several interns, I had to lay my body over the patients so that they were unable to flop around as their brains were being scrambled. I was young and somehow accepted this was what a nurse did. In those days, “The doctor was always right.” That was in the fifties, of course, the era of omnipotent white coats. There was a saying, the men in the white coats are coming to take you away. Movies depicted people becoming emotionally upset, starting to yell and cry, and then an ambulance comes and men in white coats put them in a strait jacket and forcibly remove them to a mental hospital.

I made it through the first year of the nurse training, but I was wondering how I was going to manage the second year. No tuition was charged for the second year, but you still had to pay your living expenses. It wasn’t possible to work on the side to make money for food or rent, because every minute of our day was taken up with classes and working in the hospitals. Then my brother Jack, bless his heart and soul for all time, started sending me money, starting at the beginning of the second year, so that I could continue in school. After graduating I worked Montefiore Emergency Room, which was a fast-paced place, with one crisis situation after the other. There I met a young doctor, Al, we fell in love and were married. His medical practice took us from New York to California. We had a young daughter, Laurie, and for awhile I became a lonely stay-at-home doctor’s wife. Feeling the loneliness, I became more anxious, and so I fell back on a defensive technique I had developed as a child, which was to get really busy.

When I was a child, one of the defenses I developed was what I called “speeding up. ” I kept myself really busy, moving from one activity to the next, non-stop, in order to mask my emotions. In California I perfected this “speeding up” technique and lived in a perpetually agitated, over-scheduled rush, now with a second child, Richard. I gave parties, went to parties, and was active in the Hospital Auxillary, the League of Women Voters, and the Young Jewish Foundation. I was politically active and was part of a “clean up detail” after the Watts riots, for which I was arrested.

All this activity created lots of anxiety, or else I could feel my anxiety in spite of being so busy. This was when I discovered the miracle drug, alcohol. When I need to calm down I simply medicated myself with alcohol, and it numbed my anxiety and calmed my fears, at least for a few hours. My drinking was in contrast to the drug of choice for some of my friends at that time, which was marijuana. I tried pot, and it did make me feel mellow, but also strangely disconnected. I would sit in the corner and say nothing. Alcohol, on the other hand, was a great drug for me at the time; it made me feel very present and involved.

I was unhappy in my marriage and when I would voice my feelings my husband told me it was my problem and that I needed analysis. This was around 1965, and in those days, no one I knew talked about feelings and communication. What people did to try to “cure” their unhappiness was go into analysis. So began three years of me lying on a couch in an analyst’s office.

I am an intensely interactive person. I like to see who I am talking to, and naturally it bothered me a great deal that I never saw the analyst’s face during these sessions. All I heard was the sound of my own voice. My anxiety was becoming worse and worse and so the analyst recommended that I come two, three, and finally five days a week. Talk about a case of something not working, so try more and more of it!

There were two great gifts my analyst gave me. One was he did not medicate me. Many people in my situation found themselves addicted to powerful prescription tranquilizers that made you a walking zombie. Advertisements during that era portrayed women in states of deep worry, frowning as they wrestled with the new “changing morality.” And then they were suddenly happy again as they swallowed the latest tranquilizer, touted as the smart solution to modern problems. Miltown and Thorazine put a dazed smile on many women’s faces, at least in women’s magazines.

The other great gift my analyst gave me was the one thing he said in each and every session. At the end of exactly 50 minutes, he broke his silence with the words, “It’s time.” It signaled the moment I was supposed to get up, walk out into the world, and find my own way. Because this was the only thing he said in most sessions, other than hello, it came to have a special resonance for me. I realized when he announced, “It’s time,” it meant more than get up off the couch and stop talking. It meant it’s time to go forth and live.

One day I was talking about my anxiety, and the doctor said he could admit me to the mental hospital. I think it was a Friday, and I was already seeing him every day, so he was offering me a way to be cared for over the weekend. At this point, something in me clicked. I knew about mental hospitals. I knew what went on in them, and registered a loud “No thank you,’ inside. Placing myself in danger of having my brain, my memories, my identity, my whole sense of self zapped away by electricity – no thanks. A determination arose within me. I knew that it was time. Time to move on! I got up, walked out of his office, never to return.

When my analyst mentioned putting me in the mental hospital, something in me clicked, like a spark of my own life electricity, shocking me into greater awareness. All I can say it that it was a biological electricity that seemed to connect my head, my body and my heart. My anxiety was transmuted into courage and a willingness to tolerate the burden of my own perceptions. My whole body was mobilized. I could not have described any of this at the time, I just knew, it was time! This was an awakening, I could feel it with my entire being. But I had a lot more work to do.

My marriage was still an arid place of non-communication so I decided it was time to work on my communication with my husband. I told my husband, “I don’t want to go back to that analyst anymore. I want us to go together to see someone.” To my surprise and delight my husband was immediately agreeable. So we went to a couple’s counselor. The man was a medical colleague of my husband’s best friend and had a fatherly demeanor. He asked both of us what brought us in, listened for awhile, and then looked me straight in the eye and said, with a thick European accent, "You will behave yourself. Your husband is a good man. Go home and listen to him. You are very lucky.”

I did not feel lucky. I felt devastated and negated. My attempt at opening up communication was met with failure, and now the male doctors had formed an alliance against me. I decided not to go back to the couple’s counselor. Let me tell you, the deck was stacked against women in those days!

I realized that I couldn’t change my husband, or change the dynamics in our marriage, so I decided to focus on what I could change. It was time to face the reason I was anesthetizing myself with alcohol. This was a major “it’s time” realization for me, one of the most important ones ever. I had heard about Alcoholics Anonymous, and something about it attracted me. One day I grabbed the phone book and went through the Yellow Pages looking for AA. The first thing I saw that had a bunch of A’s in it I called, and said, “I want to find out about your program, and maybe join.” They listened to me very politely for a few minutes, and then said kindly, “This is Triple A. You know, AAA, The American Automobile Association.. It sounds like maybe you want AA.” We got that straightened out, so I called AA next. It turned out that they had a headquarters in Los Angeles and I drove straight over there and got some of their literature.

At the headquarters, I found out about a women’s support group, and as I participated in it, I opened myself to a whole new model for dealing with my lifelong anxiety. AA taught me about looking at my behavior and considering the consequences before taking risks. The attitude wasn’t that you don’t take risks – what I got was that you look at them soberly, and then you go ahead and experiment with new, more effective behaviors for getting what you want. In my case, what I wanted was to get my emotional needs met. I wanted, I craved real communication.

In AA, people look at each other as they talk, and they listen. And everyone shares, as equals. This was astounding to me. As I listened to other people talking in an uncensored way about their true feelings, I realized this is the first time in my life I am hearing authentic communication. I began to understand that I was not a “bad” person. Everybody in the group had painful feelings and had acted in ways they came to regret. In AA, I began to learn what was to me a miraculous process -- getting out from behind my defensive behaviors and simply feeling my own painful emotions. As I took baby steps to do this, I sensed emerging within myself a whole new world of possibilities.

Beginning the long process of looking directly at my anxiety, I began to grieve for the past in order to live in the present. For the first time, my urgency to get to the heart of the matter began to seem like something other than a curse, it began to seem like it might have a blessing in it. The grief slowed me down, made me look at all the moments I would rather not look at or feel again, and as I did so, I realized something amazing. Grieving frees you from the past. Grieving is an essential kind of attention you give to your regrets, that lets you transmute your mistakes into a sense of appreciation for this living moment. Grieving leads to a quiet urgency about seizing the day, the hour, the minute, the second.

I still grieve over the years I drank, because although I got some calmness from it, the alcohol also blurred my boundaries. I took on problems that were not mine; I tried to do the emotional work for both my husband and myself. This, in turn, made me more anxious which led to more drinking. Alcohol throws off my instinct for knowing when it’s time and what my heart truly wants.

In 1972 my husband and I separated. I said to myself, it’s time to get out. But let me tell you the deck was stacked against women in those days. You did not want to be “the divorced woman.” You were marked with an invisible scarlet “D.”

During this phase of my life, one of the healthier activities I had used to numb my anxiety was playing tennis on the circuit. I had a wonderful mentor, and one day she announced that she was going to a place called Esalen Institute in Big Sur, in Northern California, to attend a personal growth workshop. The class involved something called “bodywork. “ I thought to myself, “Wow, it’s really time for something like that!” and said to her, “Me too!”

When the day came, I jumped in my red Porsche 911, and got two speeding tickets on the way up the coast to Esalen. I asked one policeman why he was giving me a ticket, when lots of other people were driving the same speed. He said, “I just wanted to look at your car. It is so beautiful.” And then he said, “It really is very pleasant, standing in the sunshine writing you a ticket.” I wasn’t that mad, because I knew I was on a great adventure. Obstacles arise. I took it as a good sign that even the cops were communicating to me in a relatively unguarded fashion.
From time to time in life, it seems, portals open up. Looking back, it seems to me that I encountered one every decade or so. I don’t know if they are windows, doors or gates, but if you are alert you will notice them. And if you are ready you can move right through them into a different world. In retrospect it seems that AA helped me to confront the obstacles, look at the consequences, see my part to play, and practice sobriety. I was clean and sober and ready for life.

In this spirit I arrived at Esalen in 1973, wearing a tennis dress, which was quite a contrast to the colorful and alternative Big Sur culture of the time. Actually, in thirty years I have never seen anyone walking around Big Sur in a tennis dress. Wildness and brilliance was in the air, and I recognized this as a window of time, and I jumped through. I was totally eager to embrace a new way of seeing the world. At Esalen, I found nurturing support groups, where men and women were speaking in unguarded ways about their feelings. This was a way of relating I had been searching for since childhood. This was the honest, undefended communication that leads to communion. This was the style of honest talk I had been searching for in every relationship, and the lack of which caused me to leave, in great pain, home after home.

I loved to listen to other people talk and share in this revealing, unguarded way and I never tired of it. I just marveled at the process, and when it was my time to talk, I delighted in being able to say just what I was feeling inside. I sensed that behind the seeming freedom and spontaneity of the exchanges in the groups was a supportive structure of respect, consideration, and responsibility. And behind that, I saw, there was a technology, a set of skills, encouraging and allowing people to speak from the heart. Often I would be amazed to see one person in a conversation pause, reflect, and then . . . not say the expected thing. They did not respond in kind, retort, defend themselves. Instead, incredibly, they might take a breath, somehow access an interior realm, and then speak in a manner that was intimate, disarming, and loving.

I realized I was witnessing people, here and there, who had figured out how to step out from behind their defenses. And I saw them doing it on the spur of the moment. There were people in the world who had figured out a way to set aside their mechanical conditioning, the basic but totally controlling stimulus-response mechanism of their survival defenses, and just stand there talking from the heart. When I saw that, I said inside myself, “Wow, me too!”

The first workshop I attended at Esalen had a “bodywork” component, conducted by skilled Radix practitioners. Radix, I discovered, is an approach to therapy that works with mind-body unity – bodily sensations, movement awareness, emotions, thoughts, and breathing techniques are all used together to release emotions trapped in the body. When I first felt healing touch, I felt like Alice in Wonderland, in another land entirely. I had spent years in analysis, which is so dissociated. There is no interplay of eyes and hand gestures. You stare at the ceiling and talk. The concept of touch as part of therapy was utterly mind-blowing to me. In Radix, you don’t just talk in an abstract, distant, cool, analytical way about an anxiety or other feeling. You lie down and breathe with it, you allow amplification of anger until it turns into maybe rage, or tears, or laughter. You look the therapist in the eye and say what you are feeling, with all the power you can muster. You get the energy moving so that it is available for life, so that you walk out of a session radiant with your own life force.

I completely embraced this way of doing therapy. The beneficial effects in my own body, heart and mind taught me what an inspired and integrated approach Radix is. The Radix practitioners recognized a talent in me and asked me to assist in the next session, which I gladly accepted. This was a completely unexpected invitation to play in a larger arena, to accept the responsibility for leading others into the power of body-heart-mind unity, and I knew it was time and I said yes.

During this time I heard from friends about EST, Erhard Seminar Training. People were just raving about it. It sounded interesting and challenging, so I went. At one point in the weekend, groups of people who seemed to be assistants were going around the room ganging up on individuals and attempting to humiliate them, to break them down. I had seen them reduce many people to tears. Six of these “assistants” came over to me and surrounded me and started screaming at me whatever demeaning phrases they could think of: “You are just a superficial suburban housewife! You are nothing but a spoiled bitch! A debutante! Ha ha ha!” I just stared at them and said nothing. A kind of spell was broken, because until then I was going along with the ritual abuse they were dishing out. I just stared at them, I looked each one in the eye and said nothing, because there was nothing to say. Their ignorance was unfathomable, and yet their delight in what they were doing, their participation mystique was magic to them.

In that moment, I realized that there are people who take the idea of a sacred dialogue, a conversation from the heart, and seek to twist these tools into methods for abuse and humiliation. They want to break you down so that you will accept them, their group, and their leader as your route to salvation and your messiah. He will save you, just wait for the Leader to recognize you. This brought me face to face with the fact that there is a dark side to this new world of intense communication I was exploring. I realized then and there that abuse does go on in the world of workshops, but I never allow any of it in my groups or anywhere in my presence. This is bullying, and it should not be glorified by any other name.

Soon I went on to be trained as a Radix practitioner, and began working as a Radix therapist. I also pursued my own version of “becoming a doctor,” and went to chiropractic school, where I became a “Doctor of Chiropractic.”

Then my quest led me to earn a Ph.D. in psychology and become a “Doctor of Psychology,” licensed as a clinical psychologist. Gradually, these different threads of thought, of mind, body, and mind-body, became woven together into one coherent whole in my awareness, and I slowly became better and better at communicating consciously, in this new and delicious way.

All the while I was working with individuals and groups, helping people to make changes they realized they needed to make. All of these life experiences have contributed to my definition of spiritual living, which is to live consciously, process your authentic feelings, take well thought-out risks, and embrace gratitude as a way of life. This is my simple teaching, this is what I have taken as my light to shine on the path.

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