coming home: It Takes a Community to Heal a Soul

By Alice Holstein, Ed.D.

Some “aha” moments are more momentous than others. The one I had while driving home from a manic episode came with a wallop. The insight was so strong that I almost shouted into the cab of my old Ford Ranger truck. Warroad, MN had produced a revelation. Despite making a seemingly nonsensical trip to northern MN----traveling was a symptom of my mania---the adventure gave me a crucial lesson. The lesson was that I needed “community” to stay grounded. Indeed, I needed community to stay alive. Even before my illness, for most of my years, I was a loner, often functioning in a man’s world of high achievement and stress. I was a workaholic career woman without a support system. Then, during my solo years of battling manic depression, I mostly tried to manage the horrific 12 years of suffering alone. In Warroad, which seems an apt name for a town where I learned my hard lesson, I found out at last that I needed company pretty badly.

How I learned that is one of my favorites storiess. Who knows where I was going or why on my manic adventure? Deadly, below zero nighttime temperatures accompanied me as I stopped along the way to find a motel room, but at several towns there was no room at the inn. At 2 o’clock in the morning, exhausted, I found Warroad and a modest motel where I got the last room. By this time a snowstorm was brewing; I was lucky to find shelter. In the morning I was checking out and was chatting up the receptionist about the beautiful Native American paintings on the wall. (Chatting-up people, when you are normally an introvert, is characteristic of mania.) The conversation, however, brought the young manager out from behind his office. He was a handsome, young Native American with a carefully braided pony-tail at his neck. We chatted some more. Then I went out to my truck to continue on my way toward North Dakota, only to find that the steering vector had gone out on my truck. Perhaps another interesting symbolic event---

The fact that I was stranded in Warroad meant that I had time to kill while the truck was being repaired at the only gas station, thankfully open on a Saturday. The delay, however, meant that I had opportunity to talk further with the motel manager, whose name was Eugene Standing Cloud. Eventually we went to lunch where he opened up about his hopes and dreams.

I can’t remember now the details of that coversation, but I do remember that I realized he was grounded in his reservation nearby, that he was anchored in his tribe, that he was deeply connected to his blood family and his family of choice even though he was divorced and had a child. As a Native American, known, for their connection to the earth, he had also helped ground me in my mania by engaging me in rational conversation. He had helped me come down from my “high.” The upshot of these insights was that I returned to La Crosse and declared it to be my “reservation” to several people. Then I began building my “tribe” by becoming involved in the UU’s through regular attendance and some committee work. I found here a sense of belonging that comes through in Phyllis’ poem, especially the lack of judgment that makes vulnerability possible. And then there are the shared values, the comfort of no dogma and the welcoming attitudes and hugs. Many people who find us also report that they feel as though coming here is “coming home.” My particular sense of that includes being welcomed by several of you at holidays, which are normally hard for a single person without family. These people welcome me into their homes and to my heart. In many other ways, being a part of this Fellowship is lifeblood to me. Thus, I suggest---never doubt the importance of your individual contributions; it takes all of us to create a sense of “coming home” for the many. We seldom talk about what it means to be part of a community like this, but I’m betting that there are others who feel kept alive by our efforts. It is difficult to tell you how battered I was by my illness; suffice it to say that I was depleted, defeated, debilitated, discouraged beyond belief. I was disabled physically, mentally and emotionally; spiritual sustenance was an unknown concept. Support was missing. I now feel restored from that and this Fellowship is a huge part of my anchor.

Before I go any further, I need to define the term, “community.” The word itself is vague and diffuse. It has multiple meanings. One is that it is a place where there are close interpersonal ties of emotional honesty and mutual support. (Community of Faith, p. 22) This can be a support group or for me, my covenant group. Here there is a strong sense of belonging, a recognition that we have much in common and the possibility of intimate conversation. This definition is a psychological use of the term. A somewhat different meaning might be a sociological understanding; these include neighborhoods or the sub-groups of professional communities. One of my sub-groups is my mental health community where I show up at various groups such as the Mental Health Coalition or other groups where the work of mental illness advocacy occurs. Here I have the chance to use my former professional skills of being an Organization Development consultant. Having had to grieve the loss of my career, this has helped me resurrect some of it. It feels good to know that I can make a difference in these settings after being, at times, someone who lived on the streets.

But the UU’s and the mental health community are part of the larger community of La Crosse where I also feel a sense of belonging. I nurture that by reading the newspaper to keep up on local news and find events to attend. From my work at the VA in a quasi-counseling role, I see that so many people are totally disconnected from a sense of belonging to the whole. I feel pride in belonging to this special community, grateful for its chock-full basket of resources that have helped me heal and grow. Recently the Chamber Chorale sent me into rapture with their rendition, in Russian no less, of a Rachmaninoff piece. I have laughed and cried at community theater presentations, attended Viterbo or UW-L free lectures and concerts and sampled the symphony. I am a frequent community public speaker, and whenever I share my story of trial and triumph, about the fact that I see my path as a spiritual journey, I find a sense of meaning and purpose that I once thought was lost to me. And then there is the La Crosse public library, a place of unfailing kindness and outstanding services, such as their fantastic inter-library loan access which brings the world to my doorstep.

Added to all this is that in La Crosse I found alternative methods and practitioners who helped me heal in unusual ways. These professionals helped me heal my body and soul; they helped heal a divided Self. Included were cranio- sacral work, massage, rebirthing, Hellinger Family Constellation work, EMDR, zone therapy, myo-facial healing and a gifted energy healer with whom I spent hours crying in her big office chair. I had trauma to uncover and heal from several angles. I recently read a book by Peter Levine, IN AN UNSPOKEN VOICE: HOW THE BODY RELEASES TRAUMA AND RETORES GOODNESS. In it he says, “In healing the divided self from its habitual mode of dissociation, they(people) move from fragmentation to wholeness. In becoming embodied they return from their long exile. They come home to their bodies and know embodied life, as though for the first time. While trauma is hell on earth, he says, its resolution may be a gift from the gods.”

This brings me to another sense of community, which was having a “work family” at the Department of Veterans Affairs until my recent retirement. That came about through a psychologist who heard me tell my story at a Tomah “recovery fest.” When I finished, he came to shake my hand and said I could be involved with them, any way I wanted, whether volunteer or paid employee. I had to wait a year for the newly-established job of peer support specialist, but the 9 years I spent there was a “2nd chance at life” which I began at age 65. But importantly, there was a nurse practitioner behind the scenes, the person who had invited me to speak at the recovery fest. And behind her there were people such as those who run the mental health drop-in center, which is one of the first places where I told my story.

I was still somewhat debilitated when I began that VA job, but I left it having designed and helped deliver, with one of the psychologists, an 8 session growth group based upon the content of my book, TOUGH GRACE. Now that I’m retired, I know that I helped more than a few patients find their way along the tortuous route to a better life, and that I helped create high morale in the office. When I left there I was conscious that I’ve needed nearly a whole decade to fully rebuild my life and in order to be ready for the last quarter of it, I didn’t really get my feet on the ground until 2006, when I was 63, after having been diagnosed at age 51. And even then I had a setback in 2011 when I learned, by being absent for 2 weeks with a manic episode, that I am cared for if not loved by many. This was an amazing discovery, a blessing that I would guess many don’t get to experience. Having been once battered by shame and stigma and my own horror at the damage I did in mania, this was an unparalleled gift.

Going backward in time, to my re-entry to La Crosse, I returned in 2002 as a place to live after having been gone for 40 years. I came in the midst of a manic episode. This was the last place I ever wanted to live, and the re-entry was quite a trial. Having lived in Tucson for 15 years, I found myself stranded in Minneapolis as I emerged from a cross-country junket by car, bus and foot. There were long periods of living on the streets despite having some assets that I either got separated from or was too paranoid to tap. I suffered abject loneliness for about 5 months before I found myself in the Twin Cities without access to my funds and in crisis. I realized I had some La Crosse contacts who might help me cope. After spending some time with several people I knew, I became manic again and was hospitalized for several weeks. Eventually I was released to the streets and found myself walking aimlessly on a damp foggy night. Through a strange and lucky referral, I found myself at the Franciscan Sister’s St. Rose convent. Amazingly, they let me in where I was introduced to Sister Lydia Wendell in their living room area. I was having death thoughts at the time, not suicidal ones, but a sure sense that life was ending, probably because my thyroid medication had not taken effect yet, which is a life-threatening condition.

At the convent, the Franciscan sister didn’t try to talk me out of my death thoughts. She merely listened, held my hand and prayed with me. I remember distinctly that she gave no advice nor did she judge. I then went back out into the damp night, not knowing where I would find lodging at this hour in this neighborhood when I was on foot, not yet fully put back together again after the hospitalization. Now I know that Sister Lydia’s listening gave me the strength to go on to find one more strange sleeping spot which turned out to be the playhouse in the back yard of The Place of Grace at 919 Hood Street. I crawled into the shelter to find fitful sleep. In the morning I was able to use their phone, finding also a welcoming attitude, one offered to the weary, the disabled and the disheveled like me. I used the phone to start putting my life back together, but I clung to Place of Grace a bit as I got my affairs in order. Imagine what would have happened to me if this Catholic Worker House that welcomed all without questions or judgement had not existed.

It was not the last time I would be enriched by the Franciscans. For about 6 years I found solace, stimulation and intimacy in a non-denominational Group Spiritual Direction experience From 2014 to this year I’ve been a student in their Spiritual Direction Preparation Program. Initially I feared that I couldn’t do the intense work of this 3-year program, feeling still slow and sluggish from my illness, but I found that I could, which has been a huge boost to my confidence. This feels like the missing last link in my decade-long rebuilding journey. From it I’ve found an expanded, though decidedly non-Catholic spiritual worldview, new skills for actually doing spiritual counseling and the inspiration for several books I want to write. This program has spawned a whole new chapter for what promises to be some of the happiest years ever. I believe I would be living a half-mast life if it were not for the Franciscan Sisters’ work in La Crosse starting some 130 or more years ago and their creation of this specific program several decades ago.

But I divert from my chronological re-entry story. Back in 2002, after using the Place of Grace for a base of operations, I went from the motel to an apartment where I slept 16 hours a day for 2 weeks. I was still on foot; owning a car again was still months away. At the new apartment I set up housekeeping on a budget basis. During my recovery there I read a story in the paper that Sister Joan Chittester, an outspoken Benedictine nun, was coming to the La Crosse Center to speak. I registered out of curiosity. This was a conference that Bishop Burke had banned the FSPA from sponsoring. Chittester was a feminist, an internationally recognized speaker who spoke openly about the status of women in the church and other limitations of the hierarchy. She was far too liberal to be allowed an audience in the conservative territory of the Bishop. But a local social justice activist, June Kjome, stepped forward to make sure that Church Women United would sponsor the event. The deal was sealed and Chittester wowed the audience. I identified with her powerful words because my work with transformation, aimed at the business world, correlated with her views of the need for church transformation. I knew also that only “open systems” will survive, long-term, in the modern world.

Her words had a surprising effect on me. They awoke my battered brain. Her very powerful presence seemed to spark me to life after I had recently applied at a Taco Bell for a job because I thought that was all I was capable of doing. Sometime after that I had one of those “big dreams” that come with an indelible message. This one said, “you have abandonment issues and need cranial-sacral help.” How could a dream be so specific? Had I read the term somewhere? The dream prompted me to spend 3 days processing the people and places where I had been abandoned, starting in my family of origin. I can remember the sense of circuits reconnecting in my brain. I did seek cranio-sacral help for a brief time before going on to other methods. What would have happened to me if it were not for June Kjome who was insistent on the Church Women United sponsorship?

Well, there are other stories about my healing journey that are unbelievable and hopefully inspiring to others, but I want to share now a few things about what other people say about “building community.” One of those is Sebastian Junger who wrote a recent, deceptively simple but profound, small book called TRIBE. He writes about returning combat soldiers who end up depressed, traumatized and isolated from society. They have a transition problem, says Junger. It’s the shock of going from a close-knit communal existence to the kind of individualized, unconnected society that exists in modern America. Such drastic change is just hard psychologically, hard on human beings. It’s hard on civilians as well; we just don’t realize it because we’ve never experienced the alternative. The alternative, says the author, is the close-knit emotional cohesion of a combat unit. “The problem isn’t with the vets, it’s with society” he proclaims! And he’s right. We are social human beings who get our emotional needs met from the group. Changing the scenario, he suggests, must “recognize that there are a lot of social ills that result from lack of community.” He hopes his book will accurately define the real problems we’re trying to fix.” (AARP Bulletin, November 2016.)

Then there are words from our own Rick Kyte, director of the Viterbo Institute for Ethics in Leadership, who wrote some wise words in a December, 2016 editorial about how “Quiet Virtues Build Strong Communities.” He tells the story of movie director, Frank Capra whose famous, “It’s A Wonderful Life” was initially a box office flop. Capra sought to dramatize the truth that man is essentially good,--- that compassion for others, friend or foe, is the noblest of all virtues.” Rick suggests that “the problem with teaching virtues in movies is that character traits like compassion do not lend themselves to spectacle. Kindness, patience, generosity, caring; these are quiet virtues that take time and wisdom to appreciate.” Kyte goes even further, suggesting that he sees something very special in George Bailey, the main character, who is portrayed as someone who once had big dreams but who now lives a humble life which nonetheless involves constant kindness to others. Rick says, “if we don’t have enough people like George Bailey, committing themselves to building strong, healthy communities, working in their own small way to practice compassion and goodness, then our towns and cities will slowly subside into dark, hostile, intolerant places. The fascists will have won the war.” (La Crosse Tribune, “Community Column,” December 11, 2016)

Can this theme be lifted to the conscious level of a town or city? The kindness idea was heralded in a Parade newspaper insert on January 1, 2017, suggesting we make 2017 “the year of being kind.” Only 25 % of the population believe we’re living in a kind society and it’s deteriorated in the past 10 years. Kids are bummed too, pointing out that parents are more concerned with achievement or happiness than caring for others. (p.8) If you’re wondering where to start, the Random Acts of Kindness campaign suggests, “it takes one person, one act. You don’t need money or a ton of time.” (p.9) Kindness gives us an immediate hit to the brain so that it feels good, and it leads to “social contagion.”

Some cities are even taking the cue. The slogan, “Make Kindness Contagious” inspired Annaheim California’s mayor to address the symptoms of bullying and discrimination by starting a “Hi Neighbor” program, hoping to stimulate the city to heal from within. It encourages neighborliness and forming neighborhood watches. Spreading similar messages are Albuquerque New Mexico’s new ABQ Kindness campaign and a citywide service effort in Louisville Kentucky. La Crosse already has some strong neighborhood associations blooming, but what if we were to become a “Make Kindness Contagious” city?

The Parade article tells another good closing story about the effects of kindness. It is told by a young man whose grandfather was on the brink of execution during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania when the janitor in his apartment building intervened. Said the janitor, “I let you live because you would talk to me like a decent person.” Decades later, the grandson who lives only because of that janitor, carries on his family ideology via a company and a foundation, both devoted to kindness. The grandson says, every day I recognize the power of kindness to change our world. I’ve never been so convinced that kindness is the essential antidote to the divisions and disconnection we’re seeing.”

So there you have it---several “small” acts of kindness, one from a food handler and one from a janitor, creating miraculous legacies of untold further acts of love and kindness. Imagine the legacy! If you knew the details of my story, as some do, you would appreciate how my life was saved during years of suffering by acts large and small, many from complete strangers. What I want you to know today, however, is that beyond that, this Fellowship and this larger community have helped heal me to levels I could not have imagined. I’ve come home mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually and socially during these last 15 years. I am so unbelievably blessed. As my father said, “we all stand on a lot of tall shoulders.” Thank you for yours. Blessed be.