“I don’t remember last Thanksgiving. Where did we go? What did we do?”
Those were the words of my sixteen-year-daughter as our family of four drove to get a Christmas tree.
Her comment did not surprise me. Traumatic periods of life can get blocked out for self-protective purposes.
My husband and my older daughter chimed in with benign tidbits about what they remembered about Thanksgiving 2021.
We weren’t all together for the first time in our lives.
That’s what I remember.
Things were not how they were supposed to be.
That’s what I remember.
After a few more details were offered, everyone in the car got quiet, perhaps remembering how the crisis impacted each of us in different ways.
When one family member is in pain, it affects all the members – like one bad bulb on the string of twinkle lights makes the whole strand go dark.
I made that connection when I plugged in the string of lights my Uncle Steve gifted me twenty years ago. They were gathered inside a rustic, woven basket he’d made by hand. With its ginormous, colorful bulbs and sentimental value, it’s one of my favorite holiday decorations.
I excitedly plugged in the basket of lights, anticipating the feeling of joy it always brings when it comes to life.
there was nothing.
For the first time in twenty Decembers, the basket of lights did not glow.
After testing the strand in several sockets around the house, I faced the fact that they’d never light up again.
But I refused to throw them away.
I Googled “bad string of lights” in hopes of finding a fix. The first paragraph of the how-to article caught me off guard:
“Christmas light strings are wired in series, which means that every light must be functioning in order for the string to be lit. When a blub burns out, it breaks the connection, and the whole string of lights goes dark.”
Oh. I thought. Maybe this isn’t just about Christmas lights.
I thought about the light that went dark in my younger child, and the fact that our family didn’t toss up our hands and believe the light would never shine again.
At first, my belief presented itself prominently through protective measures, resource gathering, seeking professional guidance, and thinking… thinking… constantly thinking about her broken light.
It consumed me.
After a few months of that, my mom made an observation that was hard to hear.
“You know who I am most worried about right now?” Mom said solemnly over the phone. “You, Rachel. You are carrying so much of this heaviness, and I think you need to figure out a way to not let her healing process consume you.”
My Soul Shift journey has taught me that healing truths often come in the form of hard truths (if we choose to be honest with ourselves). I recognized my mom’s statement as one such truth because it echoed an awareness I was already starting to have:
My own light was now in jeopardy; I needed to start plugging INTO restorative outlets instead of constantly and obsessively draining myself dry.
By working on healing myself through this crisis, I would be contributing to the healing process of my entire family.
This concept is the very foundation of my Soul Shift journey: When we cultivate harmony within ourselves, we cultivate an everlasting source of energy that creates healing ripples outward, into our families and communities.
Because of the awareness I’ve acquired over my decade-long journey, I was able to recognize I was reverting to a damaging default response: Trying to control things when I am anxious or scared.
‘Rachel,’ I said to myself, ‘it is not up to you to recover the light in your child and in your family unit. Trust that as you process your pain in healthy ways, you will be better equipped to help your family process theirs when they are ready.’
I began making intentional efforts to plug into healthy outlets for a few minutes each day to calm and regulate my nervous system. With a bit of distance between my child’s struggle and my own, I was able to see flickers of healing.
- I saw a flicker when she helped her tennis coach stay calm during a nerve-racking match.
- I saw a flicker when she described how she was learning to communicate with a non-verbal student at school.
- I saw a flicker when she was nominated to be a student representative for a suicide prevention program.
- I saw a flicker when she got behind the wheel and confidently said, “I am going to be a good driver, Mom. You can relax.”
When I saw flickers of healing happening, I was there to point out her strengths, as well as the small, brave steps she was taking to reclaim her dignity and joy.
In between the flickers were some difficult periods where unhealthy coping mechanisms surfaced. But through the work I've done on my own healing journey, I was prepared…
- I knew I could address unhealthy coping mechanisms from a place of “I know, because I have my own self-sabotaging behaviors,” and explain how she’d helped me see them in the past.
- I knew the timing of these hard conversations was equally important as the words I chose. How many conversations were broached in the sanctuary of our car? Too many to count. One of the most healing ones lasted two hours in our garage because I knew I could sit with her in her pain and didn’t have to fix it or run from it.
- I knew my child’s missteps did not make her less worthy, nor did they mean I had failed her.
- I knew family conversations where big emotions surfaced were not something to fear, avoid, or shut down, but instead dialogues that needed space to be expressed, processed, and validated.
- I knew that although things were not how they were “supposed” to be, it didn’t mean they were wrong, and our family was doomed.
Last Thanksgiving, we were not together.
This Thanksgiving, it was just the four of us – no extended family or friends for the very first time.
As we sat down to dinner, I told my family I’d like to read one of my favorite quotes by Brené Brown.
“Mom’s gonna cry…” my older daughter said affectionately.
Keeping my voice steady, I read this out loud:
“Twinkle lights are the perfect metaphor for joy. Joy is not a constant. It comes to us in moments – often ordinary moments. Sometimes we miss out on the bursts of joy because we’re too busy chasing down extraordinary moments. Other times, we’re so afraid of the dark that we don’t dare let ourselves enjoy the light. I believe a joyful life is made up of joyful moments gracefully strung together by trust, gratitude, inspiration and faith.”
Exactly one year ago, I’d been so afraid of the dark that was suddenly part of our story. But the more I tried to hold it at bay, the more power it gained.
Looking at my family gathered around the table, changed in ways the eyes can’t see, it seemed fitting to invite their voices in. Knowing full well this question could crash and burn, I took a deep breath and asked anyway.
“Would anyone like to say what they are grateful for this year?”
I sat in awe as each member of our family volunteered very specific blessings.
Unlike rote blessings of year’s past, these were messy, honest, tender, and real… because they had been lived by the person speaking them.
When it was my turn, the most important things had been said, so I got to simply point out the light that held us, both individually and collectively in that room.
And not for a single minute did I wonder if the light would be there tomorrow… I chose only to be in the moment at hand.
That is where the joy is.
Friends, on an unforgettable July night in 2021, when everything came crashing down, I remember looking at the ceiling of my bedroom and thinking, “I can’t do this. This hurts too much.” But deep inside, the voice of my inner protector reminded me: ‘You can do this because it is what you’ve spent the last decade preparing for.’ My inner protector was right – learning to sit with my pain and reclaim my joy prepared me to sit with my child in her pain and support her as she reclaims her joy. I have spent the past eighteen months writing a book about this vital process. My new book is called SOUL SHIFT: The Weary Human’s Guide to Getting Unstuck and Reclaiming Your Path to Joy. Unlike my previous works, Soul Shift uses a metaphor of a rustic garden – complete with illustrations, maps, and engaging exercises – to help you explore and recover YOUR personal path to joy. The fact you have read this far means you are my people, and I want you to be the first to see the beautiful cover and grab a signed copy while supplies last. Pre-orders are vitally important to the success of a book, so if you do pre-order, please save your receipt. I am preparing a very special gift for anyone who pre-orders Soul Shift. The book is available at the following retailers: