We all have a personal story, a narrative of our life. When I was 29, I had a reasonably happy, normal life. I was a college graduate, had great friends and was thrilled to be living in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Then things changed dramatically when I was sexually assaulted at knifepoint in 1980, and later diagnosed with cancer in 1998, the treatment of which left me totally deaf in both ears in 2006.
While “Rape, Cancer, Deaf” is not a story in which most people would like to star as the main character (including me), I used these circumstances as material for a new, better life story…an epic tale of survival, revelation and constant rebirth.
I chose how I defined and reacted to these obviously horrible events. We are confronted in our daily lives with all manner of events that we experience on a continuum of agonizing to ecstatic. We don’t always have the time or emotional wherewithal to craft a story that will benefit us and carry us through our experience. Or, as the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard aptly noted, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”
Your interpretation of events will determine how you experience the circumstances of your life. No matter your circumstances, how you frame your experience will directly influence the degree of happiness and suffering you experience in life. We all will experience disappointments, upsets, and grievous losses during our lifetimes. It is the nature of being alive. Yet, knowing how to reframe your interpretation of your circumstances will enable you to live a life of joy and productivity no matter what life throws at you.
Rather than become mired in agony, I turned my circumstances into the raw material for personal transformation and a new personal life story that became the catalyst for the story-crafting model I’ve developed over the past 40 years.
Opportunity #1: Rape Presents A Wakeup Call
On a rainy night in November 1980, I drove around lost in Oakland, CA. I was looking for new friend’s house who was hosting a study group. I was passionate about the topic and anxious to get there on time. I didn’t want to miss a moment of the conversation.
Eventually, I found my destination. I parked on a dimly lit street, stepped from my car and noticed two teenage boys across the street. I smiled, suspecting nothing at the time. As I turned and locked my car door one of the boys appeared behind me. I still didn’t realize that anything was wrong until I felt a cold knifepoint touch my neck.
The next two hours became an internal battle between fear and courage. I was forced into the backseat of my car and kidnapped as my assailants drove around Oakland, raping and threatening to kill me if I didn’t behave. Several hours later, I was pushed from my car and set free.
I immediately felt feelings of shame and powerlessness. I’d always considered myself psychologically strong. But in an instant, I had to fight a rush of self-loathing and terror that threatened to topple my own sense of well-being.
Yet, as I reflected on this awful event, I noticed something striking. Throughout the ordeal, I’d maintained control of my thoughts.
As the assault happened, I first imagined worst-case scenarios where my life would end. Almost automatically, I countered these bleak narratives with stories in which I emerged victorious, making this horrendous episode psychologically bearable as it took place.
Immediately after the assault I noticed that I, like many rape survivors, had started blaming myself for what happened. Just as quickly, I took control of my thoughts and emotions, resolving not to give my rapists any more control over me.
I made a pact with myself to re-frame this situation so that it empowered rather than victimized me. I focused on how I’d survived a lethal, agonizing situation.
Intuitively I realized my need for outside validation of my new post-rape narrative. The first instance came when I reported the crime. “You didn’t do anything wrong,” said a policeman at the Oakland precinct, “This was not your fault!” This unexpected gift became a turning point in my life. Through willpower and help from others I could create counter narratives around the harshest of circumstances.
As months passed, I surrounded myself with supportive family, friends and colleagues who helped me reinforce my new story, helping me avoid the post-rape tendency to self-blame.
A therapist helped me explore my emotions and resonate with my experience, exploring it from different perspectives. This helped me heal quickly, fully and stronger than before as I created a new, better story about my rape that celebrated my courage and strength.
I embraced my experience. Instead of becoming a victim, I was now a survivor with the power to create new meaning from life challenges by consciously defining my own experiences.
I evoked compassion for myself, and even my rapists. I channeled my anger into benevolence by enrolling in graduate school, becoming a psychotherapist and sharing my perspective with other rape survivors. I lived the mantra: “I empower rape survivors!”
Over the years, I’ve helped people turn devastating circumstances into life changing opportunities. Had I not been raped, I never would have helped so many people in so many positive ways. My rape actually helped me discover the restorative power of my own well-being.
Opportunity #2: Cancer Presents An Opportunity To Help Others
In September 1998, I experienced wrenching stomach pain. My doctor detected a growth on my ovary and ordered a sonogram. During the following two weeks, I had to consider that I might have cancer.
At the time, the thought of me having cancer was unbelievable. I’d experienced health concerns before, but none was life threatening. I certainly hadn’t composed a cancer narrative.
Ten days after exploratory surgery, my surgeon said. “I’m sorry to have to tell you…” (I stopped listening at that point). Fortunately, I had a good friend accompany me to the doctor’s office who heard the end of the sentence. “…that I found cancer in both your ovary and uterus.”
I was in shock. I remember looking at my watch, thinking I’d die in a few minutes. Who could live with a dual diagnosis like that?
Luckily my surgeon had a more optimistic story when I asked about my odds for survival. He replied, “80/20. I’m going for a complete cure!” That calmed me and I got to work creating my own healing narrative while facing a year of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
After the initial shock, I grieved my life. But, over time, I turned my grief into a gift that helped me take stock of my life and make decisions about what mattered most.
“I’m going into the cancer monastery for a year,” I told my friends and family. “When I come out, I’ll be healed in mind, body and spirit.”
It was an excellent metaphor. Like monks who enter monasteries to meditate and study, I shaved my head and shed my everyday behaviors to pay full attention to my treatment.
Cancer provided a sabbatical of sorts. It removed me from the regular world and provided an opportunity to contemplate who I was and who I wanted to be. I appreciated that life was short and precious. I birthed a new narrative for myself based on service to others and compassion and love for myself.
Cancer Reminds Me To Share What I Learn
As my treatment wore on, I felt worse and worse. Rather than pointlessly suffer through treatment, I decided to turn the experience into a quest to uncover ways to help other cancer patients. I acted as a “participant/observer,” becoming curious about my pain, and what alleviated it, so that I could share my tips with others.
Prior to cancer, I used to say, “There’s no point in experiencing a tragedy if you can’t make it work for you!” My new mantra became “There’s no point in having cancer if you can’t use your experience to help others.” I then focused my coaching business on working with newly diagnosed patients, applying what I called “Chemo Coaching.”
I taught my cancer clients how to face treatment by understanding their own strengths and developing coping mechanisms. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is scary, yet it’s a time when people are open to change. Client after client proved that my model not only helped them better tolerate treatment but also articulate their core purpose and desires.
Opportunity #3: Deafness Offers A Business Opportunity
I lost my hearing in 2006 as a result of my cancer treatments. In the beginning, I denied it was happening. Deafness terrified me. If I became deaf, I told myself and others, I might as well be dead.
Of course, when I finally became deaf, I noticed a big difference between being dead and deaf. My ability to see my situation from a new perspective helped me reframe my story so that hearing loss was not the end of the world and could serve as a seedbed for new possibilities.
I turned deafness into a business opportunity. As a coach, it taught me to listen in new ways, not just to what clients said, but hearing what they truly meant. I listened for facial expressions, gestures, how fast they moved their lips and other physical clues.
After coaching sessions, clients often asked, “How do you pick up the subtlest of cues when you’re deaf? You can’t hear a thing!” I’d respond, “I’m sorry that you’re not deaf, otherwise you’d hear the way I do.”
Opportunity #4: Trusting Technology/Regaining My Hearing
Fortunately, my deafness was based upon nerve damage due to my chemotherapy treatments. This made me a good candidate for cochlear implantation. However, it took courage to trade in my minimal natural hearing and rely on an electronic implant in my ear. What if it didn’t work and I remained deaf and now had no possibility of hearing at all? How would I cope when it would take a long time to learn how to hear via the implants?
In the end, courage and a new story allowed me to choose to be implanted. I had my first cochlear implant in December of 2007. Amazingly, I could hear and understand a few words from the moment that my implant was activated. Yet it took me another year to recognize sounds and hear the human voice normally. I was so excited at the success of the first implant that I immediately requested one for my other ear. My second ear was implanted in August of 2008 with equal success.
Regaining my hearing via the implants was exciting in itself. However the real miracle was that I reprogrammed my brain so that it could accept and interpret the signals from the cochlear implants. When I realized that I taught myself to successfully hear again, I realized that I could teach myself to do anything! The only thing that could stand in my way was my limiting belief about what was possible. Today, you would never know that I am deaf. Now I happily tell people that I’m “The Bionic Woman.” Armed with a powerful story, focused intent and repeated diligent practice, you can make profound changes in life.
Opportunity #5: Taking Stories Seriously
Our lives are composed of a series of circumstances. Without stories to create a context and meaning for these circumstances we would live in a continuous swirl of disconnected meaningless events. Our brains create stories not only to provide meaning to our experiences but also to create a sense of the ongoing flow of life.
Stories thus serve to create our necessary sense of identity and meaning. They often operate unconsciously and immediately in order to support our psychological stability and strength. However, not all stories serve us. When our stories no longer support us, it’s time to understand their impact and change them so that they can work to better our situations.
Learning from tragedy, turning bad situations to my advantage and sharing my knowledge are all predicated on reframing my story and crafting a better one. This process works. I’m living proof of its power as I’ve turned my rape, cancer and deafness experiences into new possibilities to experience life to the fullest.
Every moment is an opportunity. The only question is whether you say yes or no to each experience that comes your way. It requires resilience, creativity, and community in the service of authentically living your life and sharing your love with others.
Ultimately, the choice is yours. With me by your side, you don’t have to do it alone.
Of course, you can’t say yes to everything. Life can be difficult, sometimes impossibly so. But you have more strength than you probably know. Imagine how you could improve your life by learning to embrace everything, even bad circumstances, as possibilities to learn, grow and achieve your life’s ultimate purpose.
Story crafting offers a tonic for fear, hopelessness and depression. In times of optimism and abundance, it can help you increase your creativity, productivity and bring joy and intimacy to your personal and professional relationships.
I hope you join me in this exciting new model for experiencing your life, relationships, career and projects.