Love, the Universe

act with intention and the universe responds

Publishing a gut-spilling memoir certainly clarifies what it means to act with intention. This is not language I’m entirely comfortable using. Despite the fact that I’ve lived in Northern California for sixteen years, I have yet to read a book by Deepak Chopra, who wrote, “Your focused intentions set the infinite organizing power of the universe in motion.” Chopra believes the universe has bigger things in store for us than our blinkered brains can imagine, different outcomes than the ones we try to force.

I’m here today to say that the man knows whereof he speaks. The unforced outcome of your dogged intent, the thing that shows up out of the blue, that you never saw coming, that you couldn’t have dreamed if you tried—that thing the universe has up its sleeve for you is stupefyingly amazing!

I’ve written elsewhere about some of the uncanny connections my book has allowed me to make with some wonderful people. I told myself those were very cool coincidences, nothing more. My apologies to the universe for not recognizing your handiwork right off the bat.

In May, after the reading I gave at my local bookstore from Every Moment of a Fall: A Memoir of Recovery Through EMDR Therapy, people lined up to have their copies signed. One woman seemed to hesitate when her turn came. I said hello. She kind of stammered how much she enjoyed the reading. There was a pause. Then she told me her name was Carol, and that she grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, where I’m from, and where the plane my dad was flying crashed when I was sixteen. Then she said my sister Nancy, who was killed in the crash, had been one of her closest childhood friends. They’d spent summers together at the Concord Country Club. Then she told me she lives right here in the same small California town as me. Then she said she’s a psychotherapist. Who does EMDR.

Mind fully and completely blown, courtesy of the universe.

I couldn’t really make words come out of my mouth. I was in the middle of signing her book and found myself writing, Wow! Wow! Wow! Somehow, I had the presence of mind to hand her a Post-It note and ask for her email address. It took me a couple of days to convince myself that the unfathomable had actually happened. Then I emailed her.

We went for the first of what would become many walks. We established that Carol and my sister Nancy were the same age, four years younger than me. Both Carols (she and I) have a sister named Sue who is four years older than we are. Which makes Carol’s sister Sue my age. It slowly dawned on me that we were in the same high school class. We played freshman field hockey together.

Carol and Nancy became friends because they both felt ostracized by the other kids who spent their days at the club pool. This is not hard to imagine. The country club was home territory to the New England uber-WASP. So Nancy and Carol kept to themselves. Carol described a little stand of apple trees between the pool and the tennis courts where they hung out, eating lunch in the shade. Maybe once or twice chucking apples at passing cars. And talking for hours about all kinds of things, like what they struggled with or longed for in their twelve-year-old hearts. For years after Nancy died, Carol felt like she’d never find another friend who got her the way Nancy did.

This was my bratty little sister we were talking about. The one who couldn’t let me be for five seconds without dropping the cat onto my book, or snapping off the bathroom light from the outside, or tattling to Mom that I’d used my allowance to buy candy. I’d never given any thought to the possibility that she’d had an inner life, that she harbored secrets and dreams she’d never shared with me. Suddenly, here was a person who admired my sister in a way I never had, giving me a glimpse of the textured creature I never knew her to be.

I tried to convey how meaningful it was to learn these things about Nancy all these decades later—to get a peek into my sister’s psyche. And how great it was to hear about Carol’s own life—her time in college and grad school, her husband and two kids, the places she’s lived and the work she’s done. Not only was it lovely to start to know Carol, getting acquainted helped me picture what Nancy’s life could have been like had she survived.

We hugged goodbye and Carol offered to be my adopted little sister.

After that first walk, I dreamed about Nancy. She was a small child in the dream, while my sister Sue and I were our adult selves. We were protecting Nancy from a bully, using our grown bodies to shield her. Another woman in the room with us began urging me to let Nancy fend for herself, warning me that was the only way my little sister would learn to roll with life’s punches. I became enraged, shouting at the woman to butt out, telling her she had no idea what a troubling past Nancy had endured.

When I woke up, I wondered if the other person in that room was me too, in the way it sometimes goes in dreams, where we play multiple characters and see the action from  multiple perspectives. Maybe my dream was showing me two sides of the coin, two versions of the story of Nancy’s life. The version I’d vehemently guarded for years cast my sister as a helpless child. Now that was being challenged by critical new information, by all there was to learn about my sister from a second Carol, who remembers Nancy as capable, even fierce.

After that first walk, Carol had a similar experience. She made a painting about Nancy. It turns out that, in addition to being an EMDR therapist, Carol has an MFA in painting. It’s her vehicle for addressing and processing complex emotions, or working through knotty problems. Meeting me, reading my book, learning things about her friend she’d never known before had unsettled her. She began to think she had idealized Nancy in some ways, making her stand for certain Big Important Things in her mind. So she made a painting to work through that. The one at the top of this page.

When Carol first showed me the canvas, all I could think was: coast of Maine. That’s where our family spent much of my childhood. But beyond the immediate personal association, there was something starkly elemental about the work, its juxtaposition of a cold, stony (one might say frozen) bluescape against the warm browns, ochres and greens of the overlaid trees Carol collaged in. Those greens and yellows are slowly seeping into the blues, as if the two versions of Nancy’s story, slapped together, are merging. Making something new.

Perhaps it’s impossible to keep ourselves from freezing the dead in past time, or idealizing them as we begin to forget the subtler things. I think both of us Carols allowed Nancy to become more of a symbol of something we needed to believe and less of a person, as time passed.

Today, thanks to the improbable ways of the universe, I’m getting a peek at the real girl who sat under those apple trees sharing her struggles. I acted with intention, releasing my story into the world, and the outcome is something I never could have imagined. I’ve been given the chance to understand that my little sister may have only lived twelve years, but she had a robust emotional life, and a kindred-spirit confidante. One who answers to my name. One who I now call sister and friend.

Burning Down the House

reliving trauma

by guest blogger Andy Weisskoff, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Some people who survive a life or death event — like war, sexual assault, or a plane accident — get mired, reliving trauma for decades, experiencing the intense anxiety, depression, vigilance, flashbacks, and nightmares characteristic of PTSD. For these people, memories remain vivid and feel horribly alive until a therapeutic intervention, such as EMDR, softens them. For others, who have been through the same types of dangerous events, memories of the trauma transform apace into manageable life lessons, without professional intervention.

The difference is in large part determined by the social resources available in the aftermath of trauma. If you have people around who help you process the thoughts and emotions aroused by trauma, you are much more likely to recover. If, however, you struggle alone with your memories, and the conclusions about yourself that follow, (like, “It was all my fault,” or “I’m still in danger,” or “Something’s wrong with me), the memories stay stuck in their original form, inspiring fight/flight/freeze responses to triggers of the original event.

I’m reminded of the episode of the 1970s TV series The Waltons where the family’s house burns down. In case you don’t know the show, I’ll recap using my very faulty memory of watching it forty years ago. One night in Depression-era Virginia, John Boy Walton leaves his lit pipe on a table in the hallway. That same night Grandpa Walton leaves the electric heater running in the bathroom. The next day both artifacts are discovered in the smoking embers. But was it John Boy’s pipe or Grandpa’s heater responsible for the disaster?

Eventually, (it was a two-part episode), Grandpa Walton takes John Boy aside in an effort to ease his guilty mind. Grandpa says something like, “It was either your pipe or my heater that burned the house down. We’ll never know which. Either way it was an accident. Put it behind you or you’ll drive yourself crazy with guilt. And that won’t help anyone.”

Wisdom from Walton’s Mountain.

After a catastrophe, the reactions of family and friends have the power to either mediate or reinforce our tendency toward self-blame. At the time of the event, if the people close to us are non-blaming, if they tell us, “This is not your fault,” or, “Even if you participated, you had your reasons,” if they say, “I’m glad you survived,” and “I still love you,” we have a decent chance of setting the experience to rest alongside our other important life lessons. If, however, the soothing messages are absent, if they’re ambiguous or frankly accusatory, our memory of the event will stay alive indefinitely, along with the belief, “I’m bad.”

In Every Moment of a Fall, Carol’s memoir of recovery from trauma using EMDR, we watch in agony as her parents miss one opportunity after another to challenge her self-blame. Like John Boy with his pipe, Carol takes responsibility for the crash that killed her sister. Then, because there is no Grandpa Walton in her story, (not in her immediate family, nor, when she becomes an adult, in her primary relationships), she remains stuck. That is, until her therapists Connie and Jan arrive. Connie, with acceptance and gentle prodding, starts challenging her life’s narrative.  Jan, with EMDR, facilitates a radical re-examination of the facts. When the work is done, instead of believing the accident is all her fault, she sees it as nobody’s. From this vantage she gets curious about why her dad let her take the blame in the first place, why her mom went along, and why the other men in her life had followed suit.

After EMDR Carol rejoins her life from a new perspective: “Accidents happen. People who blame me when things go wrong, or allow me to blame myself, are not on my side.” This perspective suggests an action plan: “From now on, I’m only hanging with the non-blamers.”

And that, as the poet wrote, has made all the difference.

Andy Weisskoff, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and EMDR specialist. Learn more about EMDR and his practice at

Married to Therapy



You wouldn’t know it from this blog, but for years I was dead-set against psychotherapy. A brief stint in college with the wrong therapist had a lot to do with that. So did my own decades-long denial that anything was wrong. But I also got the hint early on that I wasn’t deserving of the care a good therapist provides, and that made me spiteful.

Soon after my mother married Dad #2, they put my little sister Nancy into therapy. She’d been shunted from one babysitter to another during Dad’s protracted divorce and she was pissed. Dad bragged that Nancy was seeing the best child psychologist at McLean’s Hospital. I wasn’t offered the option after our plane crash, so I pretended not to care. I didn’t need that kind of help. Therapy was for losers.

It wasn’t until I was pushing forty and desperate to save my relationship with my partner of fifteen years that I finally reconsidered. He’d started seeing a therapist and insinuated that, if I did the same, he might not leave me. Even though I was coerced, somehow I recognized that Connie Rubiano, a licensed clinical social worker, was the life raft for me. “Ahoy,” she said. “Climb aboard.” And I did. Thank god! Now I know just how incredible it is to come out the other side of your misery.

Psychotherapy is not the only way to accomplish this, but it sure did the trick for me. My work with Connie, and with Jan Cehn, the EMDR therapist she referred me to, transformed my life. I can’t sing their praises loudly enough.

I guess it’s no surprise that I wound up married to a therapist, then. (Not my own therapist. Ew!) After the relationship I’d tried so hard to save went south, and after I found my nerve, I did the online dating thing. There he was in pixels–a writer and therapist who specialized in EMDR. It seemed too good to be true, but he kept turning out to be the real deal.

Nuns marry Jesus. I married therapy, and it couldn’t be a more perfect match.

My emotional life just gets better and better. Since meeting my husband, I’ve learned what it means to be adored, muffin top and all. I’ve gotten better at forgiving myself, at tuning out the critic in my head. I’ve also learned how to fight in a way that clears the air instead of making it fouler, how to accept an apology instead of clinging to an offense, how to abide the fact that not everyone thinks I’m awesome 100% of the time. And that’s just for starters. I’m still working on getting to the point without chickening out when something is difficult to say. Allowing that someone else’s bad mood is probably not my fault. Not leaping to problem-solve everything for everyone.

As if all that weren’t already an embarrassment of riches, I got a bonus, too. My husband is as talented a writer as he is a therapist. And he’s an incredible editor.

I’ve read over and over that married or partnered writers should NOT edit one another’s work. Some say it puts too much strain on the relationship. Others say it doesn’t give the work enough of an objective appraisal. I’ve also read many accounts of married and partnered writers who ignore these warnings and do just fine.

I can’t say how things will go in the future, but when I was drafting and revising my memoir Every Moment of a Fall, being married to therapy was the best thing EVER. Who else would you want sitting next to you while cranking on the umpteenth draft of a book about your own therapy experience but a therapist who also happens to be a kick-ass editor (and who loves you best of anyone in the world)? We pored over every single word together. Literally. We plugged my laptop into the TV monitor and scrutinized each page on the large screen.

Sometimes it drove us nuts. He had to be in control of the wireless keyboard, for instance, since he said I type too slowly. It’s true, I do. I can’t type without looking at my hands. But still. Sometimes we got hung up because the word or phrase he insisted I change was absolutely, non-negotiably the one I wanted. But inch by inch, we made the story clearer, the experience more vivid, the healing more apparent. More days than not, we’d high-five at the end of an editing session, thrilled at the good work we’d done together.

If you’re a writer, you know what a demanding and mostly solitary job it is. Having a mate who gets that, who understands how bloody hard you worked to lay six words next to each other in gorgeous order, who can help you amp those words up from gorgeous to chill-inducing—well, that feels slightly miraculous. It feels like being carried over the threshold. Home.