Monday, September 1, 2014

She's Finding Her Fit After 40: Purpose Through Pain and Loss

From the time I first got married, until this 18-month period, I didn’t know what my purpose was. For a long time, I thought my purpose was to be a mother and this good housewife… the perfect wife… but infertility prevented that. I felt like everyone else was my purpose. The last thing that I thought about was taking care of me. ~Mary Beth Blake

Sometimes, we come to a fork in the road on our life-journey: do we take the predicable route - the one that's easy, the one that we are perfectly justified in taking? OR, do we choose to act in spite of our circumstances, opting to go against our natural tendencies, allowing ourselves to be positively reshaped/reinvented despite the fact that past patterns might dictate otherwise? Several years ago, Mary Beth Blake came to just such a fork in the road and rather than retreat into comfortable habits, she allowed herself to bend instead of break. She is finding her fit by discovering a flexibility that facilitated growth in the face of death. The outcome has allowed her to touch the lives of people in another part of the world, but it also allowed her to bring change to herself.

Sitting across from me in a Nashville coffee shop, it’s difficult to reconcile the 48-year-old passionate and dynamic woman in town to attend a nursing conference, with the 17-year-old girl that I’d last encountered during high school in Charleston, WV. Once upon a time, Mary Beth Blake appeared to live a charmed life – “charmed” by the standards of most 17-year-olds – a close family with financial security, a big home, her own car, and most every physical/material need effortlessly met. But I discovered that her life is much richer today than she’d ever imagined it could be – not because of what she has, but because of what she’s gained . . . through loss.

Following high school, I lost touch with Mary Beth. I’d heard that she had married a local high school basketball star who was in the military, and had moved out of state. They were a 'golden couple.' Life, it appeared, had led her down a predictable path ushering her from charmed childhood into an enviable adulthood.

Mary Beth fell completely off of my radar – save for some communication via our high school class reunions – until recently. Word was that she had become an RN and was working in an ER in Kentucky. Over the past several years, according to posts on Facebook, Mary Beth started running 5Ks. I understood that she had battled issues with her weight during much of her adult life, and was curious about her interest and dedication to this new exercise regime. Often, her posts would tout particular milestones of this new endeavor and it piqued my curiosity. Today, Mary Beth has become one of the top people that I admire – not for the designer clothing and meticulous accessories as in the past, but for something much less tangible, yet MUCH more powerful – her grit.

While grit might be the last word many from her past might associate with Mary Beth, the Mary Beth of today is the embodiment of it. Her idyllic marriage to the basketball star was heartbreakingly disappointing. Wanting desperately to be a “good military wife,” her home was in perfect order – right down to how the contents of her pantry were arranged. Returning from one long deployment, she recalls her husband breaking out of formation to greet her with a hug, whispering in her ear, “You’ve gained weight while I was gone and I don’t like it.”

Struggles with fertility issues resulted in a hysterectomy and left her the butt of her husband’s frustrations. She recalls waking up from the surgery only to hear him tell her that he was not sure he would ever forgive her for not being able to give him children. The relationship became irreparable, and by her early 30s Mary Beth was divorced. Being a wife and mother had been her life’s dream and now it appeared, she’d lost her “purpose.”
Determined not to move home to West Virginia to live with her parents, and struggling with the label of “divorcee,” Mary Beth fought to gain independence – even within her own mind. “I felt like a marked woman. A divorcee and a barren woman – a BAD combination,” she recalls thinking.

Two years later Mary Beth was introduced to her current husband, John, through a mutual acquaintance who was so certain that they were perfect for each other, she fabricated some things about each of them to entice them into going on a blind date. They eventually agreed to meet. That first date began at noon, and by 8pm they were still talking. “He’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” she exclaims with a noticeable glow. This October, they will celebrate their 14th anniversary.

Life settled into a satisfying routine for Mary Beth and remained so for more than a decade. Time and energy were focused on her husband, her home, her dogs, her extended family, and her work. The pain left from infertility was soothed by her close relationships with her nieces and nephews. Daily rhythms were predictable and secure. Then she experienced a period of major unraveling, prompting what she now refers to as her transformation:

At the end of 2009, after returning home from spending Christmas with her parents, Mary Beth was certain that her father had cancer. She recalls telling John, “I’ve been a nurse for too long. I know what cancer looks like.” For some time, her father had been complaining of pain in his back, but had not been able to get a definitive diagnosis. By January 2010, he had lost a considerable amount of weight. Blood work and scans did not reveal anything unusual, but because of his unrelenting back pain, his doctor suggested exploratory surgery, “just to take a look.” The doctor found cancer. The diagnosis: CUP (cancer of unknown primary). Six weeks later her father was dead.

During those six weeks, Mary Beth says that she grappled with a plethora of emotions. “Being a nurse, I was very disappointed in my profession, thinking, Why didn’t they find something sooner?” Her nephew Jagger, who was born on the same day that her father was diagnosed, was in NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) in Charleston due to health complications. Compounding matters, her paternal grandfather was also ill. “He’d had a difficult relationship with my dad all of his life,” she reveals. “He died three weeks before my dad. It was a lot to deal with all in a very short amount of time.” She took family medical leave from her job in Kentucky and stayed in West Virginia to take care of her father.

As a nurse, Mary Beth is familiar with dying patients, but understandably this situation was completely different than any she’d experienced in the past. “The only ‘good’ thing – if there is a good thing – is that we actually got to sit down with my dad and really talk,” she reminisces. He talked about his wishes for his funeral, what he expected his family to do after he was gone. “We all sat down together for a really honest conversation – no holds barred,” she says. There were tears, but there was also laughter. Having that opportunity with her father at the end of his life was a rare and valuable gift.

Her father’s death left Mary Beth with an inheritance, but she emphatically states, “I’d rather have my dad than his money – but I do things with it. That’s why I can go to Africa every year.” Rather than spend time and money pacifying herself, she decided to be open to the possibility of using her resources to help others.

In the fall of 2011, Mary Beth decided to accompany a friend and fellow nurse on a trip to work in a missionary clinic and orphanage in Kenya (Kenya Relief). It has since become an annual commitment for her. That trip, she insists, “absolutely changed my life.” Previously, her only exposure to “roughing it” involved a disastrous night of tent camping in college and a family camping trip in a rented RV. Her trip Kenya was MUCH different than either of those.

Kenya was – and continues to be – eye-opening and perception-changing for Mary Beth. She describes it as “the most spiritual experience I’ve ever had. It was like being in Heaven on earth.”  There, she is often stretched physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. She identifies it as the “only time I’ve ever done a nursing job where I feel like there is just such a need and we are helping people so much.” In Kenya, she admits, “we have to say, What can we use?” to do a procedure if the usual tools or supplies are not available. The experience is “almost like being like MacGyver,*” she confesses.

Her maiden trip to Kenya provided her with a thorough initiation. During her first night there, Mary Beth was bitten on the hand by a rat through the mosquito netting that surrounded her bed. En route to a nearby city to get medicine for her, the director of the facility was arrested by local police in hopes of obtaining a bribe in exchange for his release. That was humbling for her. The most pivotal experience, however, occurred at the hands of a young boy named Joshua.

Joshua – suffering from kidney failure, and heart and lung problems – had been treated at a nearby hospital and released to the clinic where she was working. She remembers bonding with him immediately. Joshua needed medical attention and other provisions that his grandmother (his sole custodian) was unable to provide. “I went with the missionary to go to the grandmother’s hut and tell her that we were taking the little boy from her so that he could be a ward of the orphanage and receive the on-going medical care that he needed,” she recounts. Mary Beth was filled with dread at how the grandmother might respond. Instead, she was shocked to see that the grandmother was overwhelmed with relief. Mary Beth promised to financially sponsor Joshua for whatever care he would need. In a show of appreciation, the grandmother offered her an armload of avocados – all of the food that she had in her hut – as a way of repaying Mary Beth’s generosity. “I didn’t want to take her food, but she kept handing them to me.” Stunned at this outpouring of generosity and grace, Mary Beth reluctantly accepted the gift.

That night, once back at the clinic, Joshua became ill again and Mary Beth recalls how she curled up beside him in his bed, cradling him as she inserted an IV into his frail arm. Were it not for restrictions regarding international adoptions out of Kenya, she would have tried to take him home with her. After returning to the US, Mary Beth and Joshua often wrote to each other and she anticipated watching him grow - even from afar save for her annual trips to Africa. The connection that she developed with him was life changing, declaring, “He is the reason that I work so hard. Him, my dad, and two other things that happened.”

The August before that first trip to Kenya, Mary Beth’s cousin Kate was brutally murdered by her boyfriend. He stabbed her before shooting himself, leaving the couple’s then 7-month old baby alive, strapped in a car seat in their living room. It was a shock that caught everyone off-guard. The sudden loss, coupled with its sheer brutality was overwhelming.
Returning home from her initial trip to Africa, Mary Beth’s husband was diagnosed with MS. He had been suspecting it for several years prior to his diagnosis, only to have Mary Beth dismiss his speculations as being the result of too much on-line research, she confesses. After all, she had reasoned, she was the medical professional. Surely she would know if he were truly ill. In retrospect, she felt horrible for not taking him more seriously, and blamed herself for him not getting a diagnosis much sooner.

Mary Beth got to a point where she felt she simply could not deal with one more thing on her plate. Infertility had sent her into what she refers to as “the worst depression ever,” but she had rebounded and thrived in her new marriage. It was this more recent life-altering 18-month period that became a catalyst for changing her perspective about how she cared for herself. “I’d become pretty happy-go-lucky. It hit me that one day, I might have to take care of my husband… he’s doing well, but I had just finished taking care of my dad as he was dying…” she admits.

Prior to this period, Mary Beth did not do anything physically active. “I have this diagnosis – cold-induced urticaria (hives) – and I’ve used it as an excuse to not exercise.” This, coupled with the impact of her ex-husband’s fixation on her weight, were her reasons for not exercising. “If I was doing something healthy for myself like exercising, and people would notice that I’d lost weight, I’d stop,” she reveals. “I didn’t like the attention for it, or the pressure . . . so whenever I would lose weight and someone might start to show me attention because of it, I didn’t want that. I’d think, Dammit, I want you to like me for me, not for how I look!” she pauses, then adds, “ Plus, eating – for me – was a way to feel something.” Food and weight were comforting ways for her to survive in the world.
Mary Beth’s transformation began quite suddenly when she spotted a 5K running class on the intranet at work. Immediately she told two coworkers that she wanted them to do it with her. They responded with, “You are out of your mind!” But they did it anyway.

The first class was on a snowy evening in February and she showed up, armed with her eppi pen. “I’ll never forget that first night – you ran one minute and walked two. I remember thinking, I AM GOING TO DIE,” she recalls. The first night, she wasn’t sure if she liked it, but decided to come back. One of her friends decided that she would walk rather than run, but the other one wanted to keep trying to run. That was all she needed, “I got competitive. I thought, Hell, I can do this!” By the end of each session, Mary Beth remembers feeling “on top of the world. I might have only run two minutes at a time, six times that night, but I did it.”

The culmination of the class was a 5K, scheduled for April 2013. With a combination of running and walking, she completed the event and experienced a transformation. She recounts, “I crossed the finish line and it felt as if I had won the Olympics.” Her friends decided that they’d had enough of 5Ks, but Mary Beth was hooked.

Her next 5K was the following September, and she completed it by running the entire distance. Pushing herself beyond her mental limitations, she was able to see the tangible results of her hard work and diligence through a stronger body that successfully responded to the training she had endured. Investing in herself in this way was something that she’d never done before. It was an exhilarating accomplishment. A few hours later, she learned that Joshua had died. She was scheduled to return to Kenya just a few weeks later and there was something symbolic about these events occurring on the same day. Mary Beth was learning the value of moving forward despite the fact that potentially devastating things come across our paths throughout life – even when we are completely justified in stopping – in quitting – under the weight of how utterly overwhelming and insurmountable things may feel. Putting one foot in front of the other is what propels us forward through life, and she understood that.

Mary Beth readily acknowledges that in the past, her tendency during stressful times – like those triggered by the death of a loved one or when experiencing emotional conflict – was to turn to food as a comfort. Now, what brings her comfort is the opportunity to explore her own tenacity and drive, instead. Building her strength rather than amplifying areas of weakness gives her a tangible measure of just how far she’s come.

Mary Beth has run other races since then. A particularly memorable one was a 5K that her brother did with her. “My brother had already finished and then he ran back and yelled and screamed for me for the entire last half mile,” she reminisces. “I had always gone to his sporting events [when growing up] and yelled for him, but to have my brother there to come back to me was a fabulous, wonderful experience. So that’s why I’m doing this.” Despite some injuries, she is sticking with it. “I’ve never kept at [exercise] as long as I’ve kept at this [running]. I’m not where I want to be, but I’m headed there,” she explains. Her motivation is multifaceted. While running is the first thing that Mary Beth feels she has ever truly done just for herself, she never feels alone on her course. “Every time I run, Kate, my dad, John, and Joshua are in my head. Whenever I think that I can’t run, I think of them and think that if they could run, they would. I can take another step for them. I can run more.”
Mary Beth says that she used to be “happy-go-lucky,” but lost that during her adulthood. It’s coming back, but with a seasoning that only life-experience can bring. She attended church in the past, but she now has a richer spiritual practice than before. “It means something more to me,” she confesses. Mary Beth continues to work as an ER nurse in Kentucky, and John’s MS is slow to advance. His, she says, is a “good kind if you have to have it." Today, she values herself in a new way and through this, she is able to give of herself to others from reserves that were previously nonexistent and untapped.

Annual trips to work in some pretty primitive conditions in Kenya… Becoming physically active in her fifth decade of life . . . Getting outside her comfort zone – physically as well as mentally – has proven to be an exhilarating challenge for Mary Beth, but it also has granted her the opportunity to find purpose in her life that she had not previously considered. As author Tara Brach writes in her book, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, “The same life energy that leads to suffering also provides the fuel for profound awakening.” This is what fuels Mary Beth's drive. Developing strategies for genuinely caring for herself has equipped her to care for others more effectively than she’s ever been able to before.  As an added benefit through this process, she’s also lost more than 50 pounds.

“From the time I first got married, until this 18-month period, I didn’t know what my purpose was. For a long time, I thought my purpose was to be a mother and this good housewife… the perfect wife… but infertility prevented that,” she confesses. “I felt like everyone else was my purpose. The last thing that I thought about was taking care of me. I finally realized that I needed to take care of me so that I could be around to take care of other people. I think I have finally found my purpose. I’m 48 years old and finally feel as if I’ve found my purpose.” As we part ways, Mary Beth is heading across the street to a conference on emergency room nursing. In a few months, she will be in Kenya again. In the mean time, she’s running, one step at a time, into an ever more rich and fulfilling life.

*MacGyver is a TV show that aired between 1985 and 1992

"Finding Your Fit After 40," by Elly Haddad will feature 40 subjects over the age of 40 who have experienced an inspiring reinvention (read about what inspired this series here). These pieces will be published 1 − 2 times per month. To recommend a subject, or for questions, email hereAuthor Elly Haddad is a certified holistic health and wellness coach and founder of Elemental Fit, based in Nashville, TN. She helps individuals and groups understand the important influence that diet & lifestyle have on health, happiness, & overall wellbeing. Elly is also a writer and public speaker, conducting workshops and seminars throughout the US. She can be contacted directly via email here

1 comment :

Richard B. Lee said...

An inspiring story. Enjoyed reading it. Thanks for posting.