1. Getting Woke (Literally) 1. GETTING WOKE (LITERALLY)
I knew I was in deep cosmic shit when the same nightmare ripped me from sleep, night after night, for nearly a year:
My spidey senses are raging. Something doesn’t feel right. My apartment doesn’t feel right. Actually, it doesn’t even feel like my apartment. It’s cold and dark in that terrifying something-really-awful-must’ve-happened-in-here kind of way. Even the signature visual pops of my favorite color, orange—the egg chair, the vintage vases, the abstract artwork on the walls in the living room—seem dull and lifeless, muted.
Am I in the Matrix? Is the Universe testing me again? Is this what it feels like right before you get murdered?
Where am I? I’m freaking the hell out.
I scan the space.
And then I see it, out of the corner of my eye, a hallway off the living room that I know doesn’t exist in my actual apartment. What the fuck is going on? Someone must be messing with me. I’ve lived in this apartment for five years! I know every nook and cranny of its barely-pushing-twelve-hundred-square-feet.
My head is screaming, Oh, hell no! as my body is lured down the strange new passageway until I’m stopped in front of a doorway. A doorway I’ve never seen before, at the end of a hallway I’ve never seen before. My right hand makes slippery contact with the brass door handle. I don’t even know how it got there. Everything feels out of my control. I’m miles outside of my comfort zone, wishing I still had a view of the front door, my only escape route.
Am I dreaming or awake? Did I slip into some other dimension or B-grade horror flick? God, I’ve always hated horror movies.
The door opens to reveal an empty bedroom. At least I think it’s a bedroom. Of course, I’ve never seen it before. (This is getting really old, really quickly.) The creak of the door reverberates in an echo chamber of wood flooring and stark walls. I grope the closest wall in search of a light switch. Nothing. My eyes are barely able to make out the vast emptiness of the space: no furniture, no décor, and no windows. A deep chill is shooting down my spine, my lizard brain’s SOS.
I’m desperate to turn back, but my gaze is suddenly pulled to a thin sliver of hazy yellow light across the room, faintly illuminating a short section of floorboard. Another door? Another room? I force myself toward the light, my legs like lead.
Twelve steps. Zero breaths. Shaking, I stare at the outline of a small utility closet I’ve never seen before. A dim light bulb glows from the ceiling. So, who left the light on? Through the surrealism of it all, I hear my mom’s voice in my head lecturing me about wasted electricity. I’m startled by something beyond the sound of my own thoughts. It’s barely audible. I hold my breath and listen again. Oh my God, labored breathing and the faintest whimper. I rip open the door and come face-to-face with a neglected, malnourished, near-death dog.
Not just any dog—my dog.
Moka, my precious blind pug, who had been my fur baby and guardian angel for nine extraordinary years. The gentle fawn soul, wrapped in generous layers of wrinkles and rolls, who had dutifully licked the tears of illness and divorce from my cheeks, was splayed out on the floor of this closet, draped in a loose cloak of patchy skin, barely able to lift his head.
But, wait, how can this be? Moka died six years ago. I’d been there, holding his swaddled and lifeless body, sobbing on the floor of the vet’s office. Wishing we could have had more time together. Or was that the nightmare and this is real? Has he actually been alive this entire time? Was I too busy to notice or remember? Did I forget about him and leave him to die alone in a closet?
It’s all a messy blur.
And then I’m screaming, crying, collapsing, reaching out to cradle Moka’s skeletal form. I’m whispering into his little black velvet ears how much I love him, promising over and over and over again to stay with him. Feed him. Nurse him back to life. Never leave him again.
I’m so sorry, baby …
I’m so sorry …
I’m so …
And that’s where it ended, every single time. I would bolt up in bed, drenched with sweat and tears, struggling to make sense of this tragedy burrowing its way into my subconscious four or five nights a week.
I’d go to bed terrified and wake up feeling crucified. I’d spend my waking hours exhausted and heartbroken and questioning reality. I worked hard to keep the armor polished and intact at work, while being scared shitless to open closet doors or close my eyes at home. Petrified of discovering that I really was a careless monster, that my worst nightmare was my cruelest reality.
The details of the nightmare became tattooed on my brain with the ink of pain and needle of repetition. The location of the unknown hallway and doors sometimes varied, but a strange force always propelled me to bear witness to the same crippling end, no matter how hard I tried to resist it. No matter how much wine I drank to incapacitate it.
This went on for my entire final year at Harley-Davidson. (Yep, you read that right.) This wasn’t a quickly passing phase that six-year-old impressionable me went through after watching my first horror flick behind my parents’ backs. This was a forty-six-year-old badass career woman being held hostage by a nightmare and the overwhelming shame it caused.
You know those moments in life when you (wrongly) think no one could possibly understand what you’re going through, and if you dare say it out loud everyone will think you’re one-flew-over-the-cuckoo’s-nest crazy? This was one of those for me.
I should admit here that I did break down and confess this to my sister, Christy, over the phone after a few months, while I was racing to the bottom of another bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc after work, trying to numb the ache of endless meetings, politics, and reorganizations. (I’m guessing this may sound familiar to you, my friend.)
My sister’s call caught me armor down, in a messy heap on the floor, wondering aloud how this could be the “life at the top” of which so many people dream. Worrying about losing my own health and sanity, and for what? I spilled the story of the nightmare as proof that I was losing my goddamn mind. In vino veritas, baby. I swore her to the same bond of secrecy that protected the truth about how my car really ended up in a lake when I was sixteen.
After that conversation, I started journaling everything I could remember about the nightmare each time it robbed me of precious sleep. I was desperate to crack the code and move on with my life already. Hey, I’m a master problem solver—it’s what I get paid ridiculous sums of money to do all day; how hard can this be? my stubborn head would say to my weary heart at 2:00 A.M.
It was like being forced to watch the same movie again and again—until I finally accepted that pain is a holy messenger. It’s going to gut punch you over and over again—through illness, tragedy, nightmares, you name it—until you finally listen.
Anyone else had to learn that one the hard way?
A couple of months later, I found myself starting to practice simple meditation in an effort to combat work stress and Dr. Bob’s diagnosis of “monkey brain.” Dr. Bob, perpetually clad in a bow tie, tortoiseshell glasses, and jovial mood, was in charge of the executive physical plan to which Harley-Davidson sent its senior leaders for a half-day comprehensive checkup each year. It was a highly respected and well-intentioned program that, ironically, helped us all better understand the myriad ways our jobs (and Wisconsin cheese curds) might be killing us. In my case, almost twenty pounds packed on in the first three years, a grossly-underreported-yet-still-red-flag-worthy wine habit, and a brain perpetually stuck in sixth gear. At Dr. Bob’s suggestion, I read Breakfast with Buddha and committed to twenty minutes of meditation every morning before jumping into a relentless twelve- to fourteen-hour workday. Not exactly getting to the root of the problem. But, baby steps.
One particular morning, I was counting my breaths, allowing thoughts to pass like clouds in the sky, releasing any control or judgment or attachment. Occasionally, my as-yet-unenlightened mind would get distracted by images of Andy, the sexy British voice guiding me on the Headspace meditation app. (Please tell me I’m not the only one!) So, the usual drill. Until I became aware of a new and repeating pattern of thoughts:
Acknowledge me. Listen to me. Nurture me. Love me.
I noticed them and let them pass, as I was taught. But they reappeared, in a hypnotic and rhythmic pattern that I began to chant aloud like a powerful mantra:
“Acknowledge me. Listen to me. Nurture me. Love me.
“Acknowledge me. Listen to me. Nurture me. Love me.”
You know that feeling when you just can’t shake the significance of something? That twinge in your gut that says, “Listen up, this shit is important!” even though it makes about as much sense to you as ancient hieroglyphics in the moment? That’s exactly how it felt. So, I sat for another half hour in complete stillness, perhaps for the first time ever, silently asking the Universe for a little translation assistance.
She delivered, in her own inimitable way. The memory still gives me goose bumps.
On the backs of my shuttered eyelids, I saw an adorable image of a healthy Moka running free in his favorite neighborhood dog park. As quickly as I felt tears of happy relief welling up, the image of Moka dissolved into a more joyful and carefree me—at eleven years old. Me with my sister, in the unfinished basement of our family home on Bass Lake, roller-skating with reckless abandon to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” and Olivia Newton-John’s “Xanadu” on vinyl. The me that played more, laughed more, imagined more, sang more, danced more, loved more, followed her spirit more—and worried a hell of a lot less.
This was me before my personality overrode my soul; before I got separated from who I really am and so cleverly donned the rebel alter ego to ward off my deep-seated fears of being disliked, unworthy, or simply a failure. It was the me before I made a career out of looking like I had it all together on the outside while struggle and strife consumed me on the inside. Me before I started should-ing all over myself with the hopes, dreams, and expectations of my parents, employers, society, and men. All the things that had me flexing my identity like a professional contortionist.
It was like a two-by-four to the solar plexus—Moka was my soul.
This whole time, I’d been turning a blind eye to my own neglect of myself, and the Universe was showing me this in the form of the little creature I’d loved most of all. My soul was crying out for me to get back in alignment with me; back in relationship with my soul—and to trust it to guide me toward purpose and fulfillment, toward ease and grace. So long as I acknowledged it, listened to it, nurtured it, and loved it. Unconditionally.
Loving my soul is loving myself. The room inside the room in the nightmare was painful proof of how closed off my way of being had become; of how many layers of armor I’d unwittingly created in an effort to cope; of how distant and disconnected I’d become from my true self.
I sat there for a while, stunned. Trying to make sense of a dizzying array of questions that felt terrifying and out of my depth and like the most important work I had to do in this lifetime:
Have I already sold my soul to the devil? If so, is there a buyback program?
How do I go about reconnecting with my soul? Is it like writing a letter to a childhood friend with whom I’ve lost touch, and apologizing for being a complete and utter asshole these past few decades?
If my soul hasn’t written me out of her will already, how do I go about nurturing her? What does that even look like? What does she need?
Does listening to her mean I have to do what she says? What if she tells me to quit my job and follow my dreams?
Can I be successful and aligned with my authentic self? Are those things mutually exclusive?
Who the hell am I if not the bold, irreverent corporate executive who constantly flipped the bird to tradition?
I knew I couldn’t process this all on my own. I needed support. It was time to call on two of my lifelines—my financial advisor and my executive coach. Both already knew I was questioning my future; the restlessness had been increasing for a few years, but I hadn’t yet shared the depth and urgency of my struggle. Perhaps I was afraid that if I spoke the truth out loud I would actually have to do something about it. I’d have to be willing to get out of my own way and make significant changes. The kind of changes that require the trust of a trapeze artist as she releases one swing and awaits the next, gracefully suspended in midair.
Dominick, my brilliant but verbose financial advisor, responded with uncharacteristic brevity: “I’ve been waiting for this call. I didn’t think you’d make it past two years at Harley.” Phone drop. His instincts were always sharp—in fact, they had helped me to establish what we lovingly (and frankly) referred to as my “Fuck You Fund,” a special investment account set up shortly after my eight-and-a-half-year marriage came to a brutal and financially devastating end. It was intended as both a present-tense Fuck You to my ex-husband and a future-tense Fuck You to anything less than total fulfillment in my life.
According to Dominick, my Fuck You Fund was in great shape, after nearly six years of post-recession growth and careful cultivation. I was in no way financially independent, nor was I even close to retirement potential, but I had a little runway to play with if I was willing to bet on, and invest in, the possibility of my future self. If I was courageous enough to step off the corporate Tilt-A-Whirl in order to get serious about understanding my soul and its deepest desires. I just had to get clear on my priorities (and stop buying expensive shoes with red soles).
At the same time, my coach, Victoria, was supporting me in a radical mind-set shift. She understood the profound calling of the nightmare. Despite being funded by Harley, she was dedicated to objectively guiding me through the challenging work of defining what I really wanted my daily life to be like; who I wanted to be in the world; and what values and boundaries I was no longer willing to sacrifice. I bawled my eyes out in nearly every session. I was physically and emotionally exhausted, yet I found perverse comfort in dancing with the leather-clad devil I knew. As much as I dreamt of freedom, I was terrified of being on my own, without the safety net of a big company for the first time. I was the so-called rebel afraid of making the ultimate rebel move. Go figure.
But it was time to reckon with those fears being kicked up like blinding clouds of dust in the wake of the nightmare or the Universe was going to continue to hold me hostage night after sleepless night. As Anaïs Nin wrote way more eloquently than I ever could, “the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” I walked out of the corporate world and into my Soulbbatical six months later. And never had the neglect nightmare again. This is the story of risking to blossom.