The Forgiveness Chronicles: Part XVII - Expectations
Updated: Jan 1
...and then, everything fell apart.
A case that never should have gone to trial marched steadily towards court, with all motions denied. Normally, I would be excited; so few cases went all the way to trial anymore, and even fewer women got the opportunity to try a case to a judge or jury. This would mark almost ten trials in my short, decade-long career as a private lawyer. Yet...I couldn't bring myself to find the enthusiasm.
Mom had just been readmitted to the hospital, and this time, the prognosis was growing increasingly bleak. No...strike that. If I am being brutally honest, it was always bleak to begin with, its just no one had actually come right out and said it. It was this ominous cloud that had hung over every exchanged glance, hug, and bedside conversation for the last six months. Now, it was unavoidable. Now, we were admitting it openly, talking about it, even if it was slowly, reluctantly.
I had expected to be excited about trial before Mom's diagnosis. I had expected Mom to live into her seventies. I had expected....
My entire life was nothing more than a fabric of tightly woven expectations. Mom's. Mine. My parent's. My family's. My friend's. The profession's. The client's. The court's. Society's. Mom's death was the thread that initiated the unraveling of the veil of illusions through which I saw my entire life.
Winning the trial brought no joy, only relief that it was over. I stumbled around numb and in total disbelief. Nothing felt real anymore. Watching Mom pass from this world brought a tidal wave of grief I never expected; I didn't know what I had thought it would be like, but whatever I had imagined, it was a million times worse. I had somehow managed to convince myself that I was immune to grief, having dealt with the grief of clients for so long. It was an irrational lie whose origins were unknown. I wondered what other creatures were floating around with me in this murky sea of denial. I needed time and space to figure it out. I wanted to sell my practice and go sequester myself in the mountains and see if the fresh air and the trees would tell me, if I could unplug long enough to discover their wisdom. But something held me back. There was the unspoken, subtle expectation that I needed to take some time to grieve, but not too much time...a reasonable time. Only...it wasn't entirely up to me what was reasonable. Clients, the courts, the profession...they got a say in my grieving process. My grief was never entirely my own; their expectations built a fence around my grief and my lack of boundaries allowed it to happen. The grief stays over there. The work goes over here. I tried to keep them compartmentalized, but that, too, proved to be an unrealistic expectation. The more the web unraveled, the more tangled I became, tripping and stumbling through the tattered fragments of a life that was disintegrating before my eyes.
I expected to be healthy; I always had been. But profound exhaustion drove me to the doctor for the first time in years after my Mom died. The diagnosis was unexpected. The things that kept me tethered to the nostalgia of Mom - baking bread, making recipes together, watching cooking shows, swimming laps - had to be abandoned one by one. It was either prescription medication or dietary changes to regulate my endocrine system, so of course I chose lifestyle changes over becoming a ward of Big Pharm. I gave up grains, gluten, corn, soy, eggs, dairy, alcohol, processed and refined sugars. Try baking without any of those ingredients. Weekend stress relief baking disappeared. My lifelong practice of endurance swimming was out of the question when physical exertion was restricted to allow the body to conserve energy for healing. Radical lifestyle changes produced incredible strides in my lab results at first, but was soon followed by a plateau in progress. The only thing I had not changed was my workload, which resulted in a punishing litigation schedule. I was still dogged by severe, chronic insomnia. I could expect two hours of sleep a night, usually no more, before the racing thoughts of everything that had to be done the following day took over and ran my body into a ditch of anxiety and fatigue: call the client in the Smith case and discuss the motion opposing counsel filed yesterday...the deadline to appeal the denied motion to dismiss in Jones is due Friday, and you have court Thursday, so you better get up an extra few hours early tomorrow to make time to tackle that project. You didn't call that lawyer back before you left the office yesterday. Better do it first thing in the morning....on and on and on, into nothingness.
I had hoped...perhaps even expected...that my relationship with my sister would blossom, that perhaps we could grow together from our shared loss. We had never gotten along because our expectations for one another never seemed to match up. Her expectations were something I couldn't wrap my head around. She once held a silent grudge for several years that I had let it slip to our family that I was pregnant before she could make it home - 800 miles away - to have her baby shower, "stealing" her thunder. I saw my Mom every week, and was close to my family, geographically as well as in relationship. There was no way I could have hidden my pregnancy from them; I didn't have the luxury of being several states away. None of this mattered to my sister. Slights like these were unavoidable with her, and she collected them like a glass menagerie. I had always apologized for these weird, unintended trespasses upon her warped reality because I never wanted to take the blame for worsening her health. During Mom's illness and death, we had grown somewhat close, which was a mistake. My guard and boundaries were down because I didn't have the wherewithal to protect myself. I was focused on everyone but me. In my desperation for normalcy, I had forgotten that she was unpredictable. That I would probably wind up doing something that would result in a grudge I would never know of for years to come, but that would silently fester and form a new rift between us. Within six months, I had to come to terms with the fact that often, when a person insists upon viewing their life through the lens of a victim, there are only two roles left for the bystander to occupy: persecutor or rescuer. From her perspective, Mom was her persecutor. My Mom died waiting for an apology from my sister for all the horrible lies my sister told about our mother. I wasn't going to make the same mistake. With Mom gone, the role of persecutor was vacant and I was sure in her mind that I fit the bill. There wasn't room in her family for another chronically ill person; she had no compassion for my plight. I didn't want to play any of the roles she assigned me. I didn't share her vision of reality, and so, apart we fell. Another illusion shattered.
Expectations killed a friendship, too. In the months following Mom's death, as my heart ripped open in a torrent of grief, Janis spiraled deeper into addiction. She had relied upon me during this time as a soft place to fall, but watching her repeat the same cycles of self abuse over and over again triggered me so badly that I had to sever all ties for fear of losing what little control I still possessed. It would be easier to lose myself in a bottle of expensive tequila, a euphoric high, or the numbness of pills...but I knew it wouldn't last and that I would just end up in worse shape for it. My daughter watched everything closely and during a time when I was repeatedly telling her to embrace love over darkness, watching a woman struggle with sobriety and cyclical relationship issues was not a log I wanted on my fire. Feeling all the things, all the excruciating pain, is exactly what I needed, its what I had to model, even if it wasn't convenient for everyone else. I had arrived at the event horizon of shattered health and wellness by pretending things were okay when they weren't; that things were perfect when they were broken, that I was strong when I felt weak. Ten years of that is bound to be toxic and I just couldn't do it anymore; I didn't want my daughter to learn the same bad habits I had. I wasn't strong enough to be Janis's rock, or anyone's rock, for that matter. A torrent of hurt spewed forth from my fingers, as I typed out a scathingly horrific email to someone I loved dearly but just could not bear to watch abuse herself any longer. Would the email be a slap in the face and shock her out of the delusions I saw her wading through? Probably not. I couldn't withstand torturing myself as a witness to the vicious cycles any longer, just to enable those around me to enjoy a false sense of comfort in whatever role they were assigning me. I was no rescuer. I was no persecutor. I refused to volunteer myself into the pit of victimhood. I just wanted out of all these unhealthy cycles of distraction, trauma, hurt, and abuse...pinky promises and blood bonds be damned. It had become very clear that no one, and nothing, was coming to save me; I had to save myself.
saving myself meant extricating myself from every single cycle I no longer wanted to be a part of. I couldn't expect others to change, to end the cycle they were so invested in. I had to do it for myself.
Sometimes the things we expect to last are the very things that are the first to fall apart. Intellectually, we know that nothing is supposed to last forever, yet, for whatever reason, we just assume things will stay the same for some undetermined time off into the remote and foggy future. Well, the fog cleared one day and I looked around me at the ruins. I was overwhelmed by trying to salvage it all; trying to fix and salvage what really needed to be left for dead was my ultimate undoing.
I expected my practice to slow down after switching gears into a new area of law, but I was lying to myself yet again. In the weeks following Mom's passing, I contemplated ending my legal career...only, I couldn't fathom just giving it all up. Unlike my personal relationships, I failed to see my career as its own relationship: my relationship with my profession. It was an unhappy marriage, though I was an exceptional wife. I had worked so hard to build a name for myself, to pay off the crippling student loan debt, to become what the profession and clients and my colleagues expected of me. I felt like an imposter, constantly trying to prove my worth, cramming my feet into beautiful shoes that made me stand tall but killed my feet. I smiled. I waved. I was good because I was terrified of my cover being blown. I had to be immaculate as possible with my work; women's mistakes were less tolerated than men's. This ultimately resulted in incredible abundance, as I could be relied upon to do a good job, to find money for the client and colleagues, to sherpa whoever through the bowels of the system with minor incident most of the time. When the work surpassed my expectations and I could no longer handle the load on my own, I found colleagues to share the work with. Their work product then was exceptional. I had found two women who took pride in their work and seemed to have a genuine passion for the subject matter. We worked well together, and it almost seemed as if my career was turning a corner. Perhaps I could sustain practicing. Maybe friendship, collaboration, and shared abundance was the change I needed.
These expectations were fueled in part by the fact that one of the lawyers I began working with had been my best friend in elementary school before my family moved across town and I lost touch with her for thirty years. She was a bright light during a dark time in my childhood. The reconnection sparked a warm fuzzy sentiment that was a balm for all the grief I felt in losing my mother, my best friend, and my sister. My memories of this childhood friend were fond; she had always been bright, considerate, and thoughtful. I remember her as being incredibly tender hearted and easy to laugh. The synchronicity of us meeting again, in the middle of our lives, both as lawyers, seemed too incredible to be coincidence; it felt like divine intervention. I had thought of her often over the years, always wondering what life had dealt her. To be reconnected rekindled a faith I felt slipping away.
Expectations struck again. The cliche is true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and in my case, good memories, too.
I had expected that helping women in the profession get a leg up, that sparing a lawyer the grief, sacrifice, and hardships I had endured in building a successful practice would equate to loyalty, high morale, and greater accountability through a trust that comes when extraordinary faith is extended. Wrong again. Before the ink was even dry on the partnership agreement, a scathing, hurtful, and trauma filled email hit my inbox. The in-fighting began. Envy, jealousy, name-calling, and blame began to circulate. It is entirely one thing to endure a harsh and cruel profession when constantly treading on eggshells in court, around colleagues, and for the benefit of clients. It was an exhausting all-day, every day exercise that had begun to wear down my soul, making me wonder if there was authenticity left in this world or if everything must be tethered to contrived decorum. But having to tiptoe around partners with tempers as explosive as a powder keg was a whole other stressor, something that devolved into a toxic stew of resentment. The office was no longer a place where I could yell "Olly, olly, oxen free!" and be safe from the torment that comes along with the expectation of constant political correctness.
This is where I hit the pause button of hindsight to get philosophical.
I premise what follows by acknowledging that I cannot blame my former partners for the horror show of emotional abuse that occurred behind the scenes. I knew - inside myself somewhere - that it was a bad idea to partner and yet I did it anyway because I was compelled toward change. I didn't listen to the ones closest to me. Like everyone else on the planet, I harbored and indulged a deep denial. The world as I wanted to believe it to be was, in fact, not real; if it was, I surely wasn't immersed in and living it. The world inside of my spirit, my deepest convictions and inclinations, my hopes and dreams had been shoved down and buried under years of "have to's", "should's", "must's", and "supposed to's" - also known as obligation - and was so far removed from the reality that I was actually living in that a schism too deep to repair had formed. My legs could no longer stretch across the divide; I could no longer wade in the tepid luxury of living with one foot in the world of lawyering and another foot in the world within spirit. I had reached critical mass, a choice point, and in my attempt to salvage what I could of the world I knew I would have to leave behind, I took a baby step instead of the necessary giant leap. The schism was an infection; when it was but a small, festering cut, I probably could have done some light first aid and been on my way. Instead, the wound had been ignored and now, a major amputation had become necessary. I was a diabetic clinging to the false hope that I could save my festering foot.
The legal profession doesn't encourage health, wellness, love, or tolerance. It is a place where fear and scarcity reign supreme. In every lawsuit, both sides play chicken with who will blink and give into the fear of loss first, because everyone knows it isn't necessarily about what is moral, right, or just; its about "winning." More often than not, "winning" is couched in terms of Green Frog Skins - paper money with no real value other than what we as a society agree that it has - and never, ever, expect an apology. Apologies are discouraged from Day One in law school. Why? Because to apologize is tantamount to admitting guilt, to falling prey to liability, to accepting responsibility...all things with dire consequences that fall within a spectrum of prison time to monetary damages. No one wants to pay out damages. No one wants to shell out attorney's fees. No one wants to spend years litigating a case, fearful of the fate of their liberty, their financial security, or the lack of validation that comes when their case is rejected or lost. Clients blame their lawyers when things go wrong. Judges blame the lawyers when things go wrong. Lawyers blame the judges, opposing counsel, or their clients. Round and round the blame cycle goes until everyone is wading in a swamp of shame, blame, and guilt and the fumes of malcontent suffocate everyone. The manufactured belief that there is but a finite pool of resources from which to dispense justice is a false narrative that anyone who plays roulette in the legal system must ascribe to. Failure to do so could result in losing a case, a malpractice claim, or disbarment. So...admit nothing, not ever, lest you risk losing everything.
This deeply ingrained dogma among lawyers make them some of the most difficult people to do business with. If they slight you, don't expect an apology whether professionally or otherwise. If you ever meet a lawyer who apologizes for anything, you have found a unicorn. Snap a photo and commemorate the moment because otherwise, no one may believe you. Lawyers live in perpetual fear of loss: of losing cases, losing reputation, losing time, losing money. Everything is scarce. Time is scarce. Trials are scarce. Certain types of cases and opportunities are scarce. And for the self-employed lawyer, money might be scarce, as litigation often results in wild swings between feast and famine.
I saw through a different lens. To me, the world was perpetually abundant. There was no such thing as scarcity; the Earth provided all humans needed and more. Humans manufactured the construct of scarcity for profit. This was a deeply held internal conviction. I was never afraid of scarcity, because I had experienced having nothing in my life and I knew that it was temporary and I had all the tools within myself to flip that frequency. The quickest and easiest way to flip the frequency was with gratitude, generosity, and loving kindness. I believed I was successful in the profession because I expressed these traits with those I worked closely with; it was a rarity and people were drawn to light in darkness. But having to intellectually conform to the fear and scarcity dogma, to wear that mask and play that game, took all the energy I had on a daily basis. There were too many signs to recount along the road of partnership that told me that I was alone in my beliefs, that my partners had bought into the dogma and that we didn't share the same philosophy. The gratitude journals I got them both went untouched, sitting on the shelves as mere office decor as props, not tools. The attempts at weekly status meetings to introduce discussion about our goals and dreams, our strengths and weaknesses, plumbing the depths of who we wanted to become and how to translate that into a more meaningful and cohesive practice were met with impatience and an eye roll; no one had time for it. Time was too scarce for my peace, love, and happiness, for anything other than triaging the workload, and fear ruled the day as deadlines loomed and clients demanded progress. I had lasted as long as I had in the profession because I had done it my way, because while I played the game, I didn't fully buy into the dogma. I could lead my partners to the well I drank from, but I couldn't force them to drink.
This schism within me grew worse. It festered and I was stretched thin. I could feel everything slipping away, as I struggled to hold things together that were simply too incompatible to meld. I had my own fears, but they were larger than just the practice. I worried about the state of the world, the unsustainable systems, the dogmas that were unraveling in the face of a global pandemic, what that would do to the psyches of those swimming in rivers of denial, and the lack of trustworthy information. I knew the world was on the precipice of dramatic change; I had known it since I was young, but the human concept of time made it impossible for me to tell when these changes would come. I only knew that they were inevitable within my lifetime. And I knew that I was being called to change with it, but I could not fathom how to reconcile the life I was living with what was becoming. No one wants to voluntarily let go of everything they sacrificed their time, energy, and soul to accomplish. Worn thin, the dam broke loose on my ability to shove away all the petty insults and offenses. My heart was breaking as I watched everything I had spent the last fifteen years building begin to dissolve and morph into something I couldn't recognize or be a part of. Hours were lost on trivial arguments and bruised egos. There was no room for constructive feedback when insecurity and unresolved authority traumas reigned the day.
We didn't know they were heart attacks at first; I was "too young" for a heart attack. Expectations tainted reality yet again. But after having an attack in court in January, then another after a fight with a partner in February, I knew my health was failing. We thought my adrenal system was finally giving out, that my body was simply too exhausted to handle the added stress. My body was beginning to protest in ways I would be foolish to ignore. My body had gone on strike before, when my soul demanded I get on a path that I did not want to get on. My doctor and a number of spiritual counselors all agreed that I needed a sabbatical. I couldn't fathom taking one. My partners expected me to function at full capacity, only they were planting landmines for me to tiptoe around at the same time. I chalked it up to growing pains and made all sorts of excuses, but deep down, I knew it wasn't going to pan out. I gave it my best go anyway.
Three weeks after my second heart attack, the pandemic hit and ground everything to a near stand still. Our work load lessened. We all worked from home. I saw an opportunity for compromise: I would work part time, taking the other hours in the day to focus on healing. Except...it wasn't just my health and my practice that were unraveling and needed to be addressed. My daughter's education began to dwindle. She was home, too, and aimless, unmotivated, craving social interaction, and growing more anxious herself at not being able to hug her grandparents, play with her friends, or learn new things. Once again, I felt like I was engaged in a tightrope balancing act. I flailed and grasped at half measures, setting new yet permeable boundaries, trying to cram homeschool, healing, and work into a finite few hours of daylight. Training, mentorship, and cocounseling faltered when it wasn't in person; instead of improved communication, misunderstandings simmered below the surface. Accountability suffered, as did the connections between those we worked with. Then, in April, the other partner made errors in work that precipitated another fight.
All the time at home, focused on healing and spending at least two hours in meditation each day, I wasn't willing to stay in denial any longer. Within myself, I knew it was over, that to continue to pretend things would improve and that my partners would be able to lift themselves out of these cycles of drama and infighting was futile. Once again, I had to save myself. This time, I knew I wouldn't be able to handle the stress. I wrote a letter of retirement to the firm. After I tendered it, along with a proposal for a buy out of my interest in the partnership and an offer to continue as a consultant, all hell broke loose. The proposal was flatly rejected without negotiation or explanation. Mediation, along with possible litigation, was threatened. I realized then that I had failed as a mentor; these women didn't share my priorities of placing relationships over money, or of fostering a vibration of abundance over scarcity and fear. They knew that I would never fight over money; I hadn't fought with my family over money, I never fought friends or clients over money. They exploited this knowledge; whether it was intentional or not, I will never know...lawyers never admit anything, remember? The betrayal and rejection was a knife to the heart and right there, in the living room, in front of my young daughter, I had a third attack.
My body jerked and slumped and crashed to the ground. Sweat poured from my pores and drenched my shirt in a sticky, slick dampness, my clothes clinging claustrophobically to my skin. Afternoon sun shone through the windows, and I instinctively turned my face towards the light, something within me desperately trying to harness the energy of the sun for strength. My muscles began to shake uncontrollably as my left side went completely numb and limp. My vision began to fade, and darkness inched in from the periphery. I couldn't breathe and gasped for breath, each inhale a strangled, tortured suck of air that couldn't fill the lungs. This time, it was unmistakable: the thudding in my chest caused a deep, sharp, breathtaking pain that knocked the wind out of my chest. THUD! My heart banged, followed by a few murmurs: thud....tap, tap. For several long moments, there was nothing...and then THUD! Another slam of the heart against the rib cage, a plunge into my stomach, as though my spirit was attempting to leave its earthly casing. My daughter screamed, tears streaming down her face. I laid there, in another world, gasping, sweating, in immense pain, unable to move, paralyzed. I felt consciousness leave me as my mouth went dry.
This is it, I remember thinking. This is how I die. On the floor, surrounded by files, abandoning my little girl...I rather die on a mountain top than behind a desk. It was a terrible, raw thought. My daughter's little hand gripped mine. And suddenly, a spark. It was the same kind of spark I experienced in the moment my Mom died. The second that last breath left Mom's body, she had squeezed my hand with that final burst of strength, and I saw a lifetime in a moment: flashes of pine trees, smiles, the clanking of wine glasses, the smell of bread and flowers, the warm fuzzy feeling of her hugs and the softness of her favorite sweater. It was all there. And then in that moment on the living room floor, it was me and my daughter. She was too young. I was too young. I couldn't give up on this life, on her, on my family. There was something more. I had dreams yet to explore. I was scared, my heart felt ripped in two, and I was weak...but I wasn't dead yet. I stared at the light, let the breath enter my body, and when my heartbeat returned to a faint but regular murmur, I crawled to the couch and laid down. This profession, and my partners, weren't worth dying over. My little girl, my husband, my dreams were worth living for. I made a deal with Great Spirit: I would turn my energy inward, I would put forth the effort to heal, but I was severing all the contracts that bound me to anything unsustainable.
I called my doctor and scheduled the next available appointment. I explained that I had another adrenal attack, but this one had been the worse yet and it felt like something had gone wrong with my heart. The visit had been a sobering one; within days, I had an order to refrain from work. No more being a lawyer. It was the permission I needed to seize my life and regain my sovereignty. I could either keep going down this road and risking my health and my life, or I could change. The change I was being called to make was so big and daunting and completely outside my comfort zone. I wasn't sure how it would happen; I didn't know how it would even be possible with my health being in the state it was in. Yet...I could not longer ignore the deep need for a completely overhaul.
I walked away. My partners tried to apologize, but I had heard it all before and the trust was long gone. More cycles. More patterns. More words without real actions and change...which really only amounts to manipulation. I wanted so badly to believe things would be different, but I knew they wouldn't be. The partners wanted me to retract my detailed retirement notice in favor of one that was vague and more to their liking, something less useful as a document, something that contained no proposals. I knew my partners didn't care about me or my health; they was trying to save face. I was staring down my muggers in a back alley way and rather than getting beaten to a pulp, I handed over my wallet. I began with nothing and built everything. I could do it again. I wasn't afraid; I knew the planet and the cosmos were abundant.
One of my partners, in their typical good cop/bad cop tag teaming routine, had promised me, repeatedly, that she would not let me walk away with nothing. I knew that this was also a lie; they didn't care about my daughter or her future, or my husband or my family's future. I wasn't convinced she truly cared about her own family; I had watched and listen to her scream a torrent of profanities at her five year old for taking a phone outside. My daughter had been video chatting with her daughter when it had happened, and she didn't shut off the video chat. She kept it streaming as she berated her little girl, never once apologizing to my daughter for subjecting her to the terrible scene. Anyone that could blow up over something so cosmically inconsequential lacked the bare minimum of self control and was balancing on a razor's edge of a deep and irrational fear that is borne of only one thing: years of unresolved emotional trauma. A copy of the Desiderata hung above my desk and I read it daily. One line rattled in my mind every time I thought of this partner: "Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit."
I knew that my partners would continue to act out their trauma cycles with me, with one another, with anyone close to them. I also knew they would never comprehend the value of what I had spent the last fifteen years building until I was completely out of the picture and they saw how hard it was to replicate on their own. They would believe that since they were doing the work, they were entitled to every last penny; the countless hours I had spent setting up systems, training the paralegal, writing SOPs, compiling form libraries, and cultivating relationships with paying clients meant nothing to them. My failure as a mentor began the moment I had given them equal shares in a practice I had built because that one gesture deprived them of the experience of growth through adversity; it came baked into the cake already. Incentive was wholly lacking. They didn't recognize the value of a name, routines, or relationships; everything had been handed to them. I invested in their talent. But what had they invested and risked with me?
Anything that cost me my peace was ultimately too expensive. The fights were so emotionally violent, I could feel them acutely through emails, texts, and the phone. I marveled at the sheer energy; if only that energy could have been harnessed to build relationships, dig into cases for clients, and to better themselves as lawyers. Perhaps if I disappeared, perhaps if I wasn't there to serve as a target, that energy could find a productive outlet. But even that was an expectation and in order to heal, it was clear that expectations had to be abandoned. I didn't need to want and wait for things outside myself. I let it all slip away and watched as my ship drifted ever farther from their shore. I stared at it until it was but a thin line in my rearview mirror, wondering, hoping, and praying that the clients would get the focus they deserved and that their families would not suffer hardship mine was about to.
I was able to get in for an EKG on the first day of my retirement. By then, the lock downs had eased and it was safe to go out for nonessentials. For once, I expected nothing. The nurse ran the test three times, shaking her head in disbelief and mumbling that the print out "couldn't possibly be right." Yet, the results were consistent: I had at least one prior heart attack and my left ventricle was damaged. My heartbeat was irregular, and so was my blood pressure, which was far too low. Unlike most heart attack patients, my arteries weren't blocked and my blood pressure wasn't too high; my heart attacks were purely the result of stress and grief. These hadn't been adrenal attacks at all. They were takotusubo heart attacks, also known as Broken Heart Syndrome. Or, if you ask me, Expectation Disease. The vast majority of the time, they occur in women who have endured prolonged and intense periods of stress and grief; shattered and destroyed expectations. They can be fatal, but permanent damage to the heart can be avoided if the patient rests and avoids all stress - or expectations - for a lengthy period of time, often up to a few years.
It is an odd thing when a test result finally validates what you feel in your soul. Numbness spread over me and tears began to fall. I sat in my car, crying. I was so sorry for how I had treated my body, my family, for everything I had been putting myself through, which ultimately had adversely affected the ones I loved most - merely because I had been too stubborn to change, to do what I had known needed to be done when my Mom had died. As I was coming to grips with this news and its implications - which reinforced the seriousness of my decision to medically retire and focus on healing - one of my former partners called, wanting to talk about a case. I explained I was processing the recent news of my heart attacks, and she played along for a bit before asking if we could change the subject to work. I relented. I couldn't fight. My husband wasn't the first to know. Neither was my dad. It was her, the very last person I wanted to confide anything to. My other partner didn't call, email, or even text until several days later. Most of my colleagues, once I announced what had happened, never called, wrote, or checked in. Only a handful of the people I knew in my career cared enough to check in. My career ended in an anticlimactic whimper; no retirement party, no cards or well wishes, no cake. I had agreed to consult, but the partners never provided me with a proposed consulting agreement, and I wasn't about to go to the trouble of making yet another proposal that would get ripped apart, rejected, or breed new contempt. The news of the heart attacks made it clear that I needed strict boundaries to protect my health. Boundaries that I could never expect them to honor.
It was less than two weeks before the same partner who had first learned of my heart attacks exploded again, this time over text, flinging accusations and hurling blame and rage. I felt another heart attack build in my chest. My husband held me and began to breathe deeply, squeezing my back into his chest, as though willing all of his calm into my being. We survived that night together, and I knew that it would never be possible to salvage anything, not a consulting arrangement, not even a friendship. I knew they would never apologize; not that it would mean anything anyhow. It didn't matter how sick I was becoming from all the rage and outbursts, none of it would ever be enough incentive for anyone but me to change. If we couldn't change and grow together, I was free to change and grow in my own way. This infuriated them, but I felt it was fair; if I was expected to put in the effort to change, grow, and heal, I sure as hell wasn't investing any more of my money, time, and energy in doing with those who weren't on the same page, who never really invested in me to begin with, who didn't share my outlook on life.
The following day, as my husband and I were discussing the need to let everything go, to just completely walk away, a tree in the neighbor's yard snapped in half and wiped out the band new fence that my husband had installed in the backyard. In that synchronistic moment, the weight of the symbolism landed heavily in my psyche: fences are boundaries. I had imposed a hard boundary, and like the tree taking out the fence, my boundary was in jeopardy of being breached. We packed up the car and immediately headed west to look for our new home. Our time in Kansas City was over. There was nothing left for us there except for expectations and constant reminders of pain and heartache. We had consulted an astrologer and learned that our ideal location as a family was in the Puget Sound region, over two thousand miles away. We had never been, but determined that it was finally time to explore.
We made it all the way to Orcas Island, Washington by the end of our third day on the road. There, we met a trans woman by the name of Captain Barb, who ran a private campground. In the evenings, she would stop by our camp for her nightly tobacco fix and would regale us with her life stories. She was a shaman; she had paid her way up and down the Pacific Coast by making and selling drums from the hides of roadkill deer; she had once captained a ship and had dated the porn star Annie Sprinkle; she had meditated in the forest and let the trees tell her how to craft each campsite, as she lovingly dug under the roots of the trees to install all the water lines in the camping area. Our meeting was pure serendipity; it was everything I needed: hope, magic, mysticism, faith in something bigger than myself.
Barb looked at me on the last day we were there and asked, "do you want to know what my rules are for living life? There are only four," she said. I was dying to know, and so I bobbed excitedly in my seat like a kid ready for story time. She cleared her throat and began:
"First, have no expectations. Expectations will crush you. They only lead to disappointment.
"Two - and this is the most important one, I think - we are all just here for each other's amusement. Truly.
"Three, if it is bringing you joy, you're doing it right. Life's too short.
"And the only thing you can trust is the integrity of love. That's it. Those are the only rules anyone needs."
Her wrinkled face curled into a large, serene smile. Here is someone who spoke truth to power in the face of what I could only imagine was a life full of intense hardship. Her wisdom wrapped itself around me like a warm blanket. Something inside me stirred with recognition as she handed me the very first drum she had ever made and taught me to drum the heartbeat of the Earth. "Synch your heartbeat to the Earth's heartbeat and you will discover the secret to healing yourself."
With that, she disappeared into the fog of the forest, just as mysteriously as she had appeared.
It took me a while to digest her advice. I meditated on it as we drove across the vast ruggedness of the West. I knew she was right. I had become a lawyer because it was expected. An advanced degree was expected. Living up to my "potential" intellectually was expected. Excelling as a female litigator and mentor was expected. Financial success and paying off student debt was expected. Every single thing that dogged me was an expectation; my parent's, the profession's, society's, my own. Expectations had been programmed into me from childhood, they had been adopted out of fear of disappointing you, your family, society, professors, neighbors, friends, family. They had been imposed and accepted. I swallowed them whole, took them onto my shoulders, and before long, I had suffocated and starved my spirit. Expectations are the disease. Who I was and what I was uniquely put on this planet to do was lost under a pile of expectations such that I scarcely recognized myself. To strip all of that away was scary, because I wasn't sure what or who I would find. How deep would I have to dig to excavate myself? To relegate the ego to the backseat was the first order of business. I needed to get out of my own way for once.
It is in the dark, when we are alone, stripped of comfort and all expectations that we meet ourselves. The first order of business was forgiving myself for having fallen captive to expectation; the most damning aspect of losing it all to gain everything is the realization that I had looked outside of myself for validation and worth. My Mom's death was the catalyst, the biggest gift, in freeing me from crushing expectation. It prompted the realization that forgiveness isn't an event; it is a process, an adventure...and it always starts within our hearts, from the inside out. It comes from a place without expectation. It cannot be dependent upon anything. It isn't conditional. We cannot wait for an apology in order to heal; that is an external expectation. Apologies are merely external validation of our hurt. No, true forgiveness begins within us from a place of self-love and self-worth, and is an invitation to explore our most authentic embodiment of the present moment by letting the past completely dissolve.
It wasn't until we relocated to Washington and I stepped onto the land that I began to explore the concept of forgiveness in its fullness, and to realize that sustainability and forgiveness go hand in hand. Both begin within the soul and spirit, not outside of ourselves.