What is real?

Let me begin by saying that I think therapy should be a regular part of healthcare for all beings and not just a luxury for those who can afford it. I can’t really afford it, but I have had help along the way, making it possible for me to receive the incredible gift of learning about my demons, where they have come from, and how to send them on their way.

I think the world could experience a great deal of healing and compassion if people were encouraged to cultivate love and compassion for the self. When my own basic emotional needs are met, I can feel my heart expanding to share love and compassion for others.

Seeking out therapy does not mean I am crazy. It does not mean I am selfish and wish only to talk about myself. It does not mean I am looking for a person who will tell me only what I wish to hear about the choices I have made in my life and how I have been affected by the choices of others.

I began therapy in earnest in 2008 or 2009. Ironically, it was not long before I began a doctoral program studying the concept of sustainability. At the time, I could not seem to get through the day without weeping. I had difficulty breathing. I felt myself gagging when I would brush my teeth and the tooth brush made its way a little too far toward the back of my tongue while reaching for the farthest molars.

I did not know what was wrong with, and I confided in a friend, who recommended the person who would become my intellectual and emotional guide for several years to come.

I reached out recently to this therapist. While I have done a lot of self work since our time together began and in the times between our sessions (sometimes years have gone by), I am still haunted by people and places and experiences.

I have learned from therapy, yoga, meditation, and wise people in my life, along with my own common sense, that much of what I tell myself to be true is an allusion. Cognitively, I know this all too well. However, my heart and my mind are often at odds, and it has been attempting to convince my heart that I need to revise my narrative that has proven to be my greatest.

So, I called upon my therapist for guidance once more.

Because I have a social research background, and I like to be organized, I made a list for our session. I wanted to make the most of our hour together.

Here was my list:


Severing ties

Letting go of control over what people choose to think about me

Not taking the blame for relationships/endeavors that don’t work

Healthy boundaries

Feeling like I was somehow deserving of being treated so poorly

Thinking I have done something wrong with supervisors

I put the names of individuals in parentheses after each line, but for the purposes of anonymity for some, I have removed them for this post.

We began the session with my list and my description of the elements from my life that continue to haunt me. It boiled down to these:

  • Trauma from my job in Alaska (which has affected my working life ever after)
  • Relationships with renters and friends in Alaska
  • My recent and brief business venture
  • An ongoing fear that those in authority and leadership roles in my life will eventually turn against me and be disappointed in me

Of Supervisors and Demons

I shared an overview of the experience I had with my supervisor and management in the Interpretation/Education Division of Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska (GLBA). I prefaced the story with the knowledge I had gleaned from staff at other parks, who roll their eyes at GLBA for their inflated sense of importance.

I told my therapist that at GLBA, my superiors had seemed to believe I could do no wrong until suddenly they determined that I could do no right. I had been celebrated during my first year at the job. Then, I had gone through a painful separation with my now ex-husband over my first winter in the tiny community of Gustavus, which borders the national park. I had wept for many hours of each day.

My supervisor had assured me time and again not to worry, that I was doing ok.

Are you sure? I would ask.

Yes, he would say. And I believed him. I trusted him. He was not just my supervisor. He was also my friend.

I had done my best to work on projects and get things done in between these bouts of grief and all-consuming pain, but I had neglected to go through the education backpacks we would send to the education centers on board cruise ships for the summer season.

I believe it was this discrepancy, along with my desire to rescue and revive a tiny voice inside of me that had begun to tell me I did no deserve to suffer and that I could be happy and whole. I had also gone to a National Park Service training at the Grand Canyon that provided a discontinuity, which was not appreciated at GLBA. At the training, the staff told us that we should advocate for ourselves and for change at our parks. They had us devise projects we would suggest to our superiors. Of course, what most of us did not realize was that managers are our parks were not likely to be as enthusiastic as we naively imagined they would over independent-minded staff and changes coming from the bottom-up. They had worked hard to get where they were in the chain of command, and at least at GLBA, they were not appreciate of my idealist, whippersnapper ideas.

They also didn’t like that I started asking for the components of the job that had been promised during my initial interviews, such as creating new programs and going to trainings. I was quickly losing favor with my whippersnapper requests.

The tension built over the course of the spring until I was called in for a meeting with my supervisor. We sat in a different office (HR rules for when you are trying to maintain neutral ground), and he laid down a stack of papers in front of me. Atop each page ran the heading in bold and capital letters:


What proceeded was likely the most demoralizing interaction I had experienced with an authority figure in my entire life.

It began with my supervisor pointing directly in my face (he liked to point his finger at people when he spoke) and saying in a strained, loud tone,

YOU have lost your way, and we need to get you back in line.

It was clear to me from previous supervisory trainings that they were trying to move through the beginning steps of getting my fired, which was difficult to do in the government. There were lists of the ways I was not performing to the level outlined in my performance appraisal.

For example, I was told that I did not offer a very good Junior Ranger Pledge for the children I was swearing to Junior Ranger status to repeat. I was also informed that I was a poor public speaker and monopolized training sessions with my questions and comments. Apparently, I had not realized the training was not entirely about me, and I had been wasting the trainer’s time (even after they had thanked me for my insights).

Toward the end of the meeting, I was informed that in order to be re-assimilated into the GLBA borg, I would be meeting with my supervisor every morning to outline my responsibilities for the day. At the end of each day, I would send him a write-up of everything I had worked on that day. (As I worked on these write-ups, I contemplated including the amount of time I spent writing what I was working on, but I did not go that far. I needed to convince them that I had seen the errors of my ways and was necessarily remorseful.

I was able to work my way toward an acceptable performance appraisal by the middle of the season. By the time the fall rolled around, I asked for my full four-month furlough to give me the most time possible to work on my dissertation. I spent the four months working on my dissertation and applying to as many jobs as possible to complete my escape for Alaska plan. I finally found a position in Massachusetts and was hired. I flew up to Alaska, gave my notice, moved out of my office and my home, and spent the next several years working in the most unexpected and wonderful of places—Lowell, Massachusetts. However, the trauma from my time in Alaska ran deep. It got to the point where my new supervisor who call me into her office and tell me at the outset, Don’t worry. You’re not in trouble. She knew what I had been through and that being called into the supervisor’s office sent tremors of anxiety through my body.

At a training in D.C., I ran into a colleague from another division at GLBA. Seeing him, I froze with fear. I knew I could not avoid him for the entire two-week training, but I also did not want to be seen by him after my shaming at GLBA. I had been completely demoralized and humiliated, something that all of the seasonal staff had confided they had been noticing from the outset of my time at the job.

My former coworker came up to me, hugged me fiercely, and said he wanted to tell me something.

O-k, I responded tenuously.

He proceeded to explain that they (staff from other divisions) all knew what they (management) had done to me. I was one of a long line of people the Chief of the Division had essentially driven out, and that I was loved and missed.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I hugged him and thanked him. I had long since felt that I had been shamed in the eyes of all of my coworkers, especially since I had memories of the awful things my supervisor had said about our staff when they were not around. I could only imagine the things he had said about me in the wake of my own departure from the park. His fellow supervisors, who had been my friends and who I had reached out to before leaving had not responded to my desire to connect. Hearing my former coworker’s words of love and support sent a spotlight down into the corner of my heart where I held all of my dark Alaska memories. Not everyone thought the worst of me.

Had this been the sole darkness from what my therapist described as a bad fairy tale from Alaska, perhaps I could have set it all to rest.

But I had other skeletons in my Southeast Alaska closet.

Of Renters and Demons

I have learned the hard way the importance of keeping money and friendship separate. When I was leaving my job Alaska, I was also trying to find a renter to help offset the cost of my mortgage. I had reached out to a couple of friends, who had hemmed and hawed for several months over whether or not to rent from me. When we spoke in person while I was packing up my house, they changed their start date to at least a month, maybe two after they had originally said they could begin renting. Another friend mentioned that she and her partner could start renting right away.

While we had agreed to think of the renting dialogue as a business interchange, when I decided to rent to the people who could start right away, the niceties quickly dissipated. Friendships were ended, and my name was slandered to people around the town. I reached out several times in the following year, only to receive nasty responses. Eventually, I gave up.

My renters were great but eventually decided to build a small cabin on a piece of land. I was sad to see them go, even more so as I began dealing with the volatility of my new renter, a woman who was moving from the lower 48. The transition from the “civilized” world where you can flush the toilet while doing dishes, laundry, and running the shower full blast to the land of sensitive septic can be difficult for some.

This renter fell under the category of some. She also fell under the category of manipulative and abusive. I would receive emails from her that spoke of the spiritual beauty of my home, followed by missives about how she could not take a shower without a water softener because the water was sure to would turn her porous blonde hair orange.

She told me that I was malicious and had intentionally rented a home with a broken water softener because I wanted her to suffer. The list of my cruel intentions went on and on. Finally, she broke her lease and left the next pair of renters without any propane.

I was thankful to see her go, but I knew from the few people left who still thought of me as a person with a kind heart and soul that she had been slandering me around the town. A woman who had been my closest friend when I lived in Gustavus had unfriended me on facebook after befriending my renter. When I contacted her to find out what had happened, she simply told me that I was not worth keeping in touch with because our values were so different.

For a long time, it has felt like an entire community turned against me, but I realize that this is only part of my allusion. And even if they have, is it worth trying to hold onto people who can only see your darkness?

Of Abusive Men

I told my therapist that I seemed to have developed a behavior pattern of severing ties with people with whom I experienced conflict. Years ago, I had told her the story of fellow in Gustavus I had become friends with and ever so briefly something more than a friend. He was a person I never in my right, self-loving mind would have gone beyond acquaintance with. But in the wake of leaving my husband, I had moved into a dark and dismal emotional state where I believed that I was not worthy of love. I had picked the perfect poison: emotional abuse.

This relationship nearly destroyed me. But somehow, the tiny voice I wrote of earlier, the one telling me that I did not deserve to suffer, came through before I had completely fallen off the deep end. I eventually crawled back into the light, but it took a great deal of crawling, groveling, and apologizing for my temporary lapse in judgment to friends who had warned me. Even after, the demons from this time in my life have continued to haunt my heart and mind.

I reminded my therapist of my interactions with this person, who had told me that I was the devil and like a dog with a bent tail. No matter how much you try to straighten, it will always bend back.

In response to my concern that I simply cut and run when conflict arose with another person, she responded, There are people with whom that’s the only way we can manage [sever ties]. With people who are out of bounds, it needs to be harsh vs. people who are more fluid.

This made sense to me. It’s not that I simply run away from conflict or sever ties with all people I have a negative experience with. It is the people who live in a black and white world with whom I wind up severing ties. Those who see the world with more fluidity, encourage conversation, and offer compassion and understanding are the people who have remained in my life through dark and difficult times.

She went on to tell me that I had done an incredible amount of work these past several years, and that I had the cognitive piece down.

She told me that I needed to cleanse myself of the inner narrative I had been telling myself regarding the way other people felt about me because it was an allusion. I needed to rewrite that narrative.

If you were to write down the things you think people believe about you and read them out loud, you would see how crazy it sounds.

It’s true, I ssaid. I think I spend far more energy and time thinking about these people from my past than they do thinking about me. But how can I find closure and move on? I know that I am not going to get an apology from any of them.

When we carry things in our heart, if it is still burning, there is something that we have not fully processed. Recognizing the pattern is the first step. Bringing it to the light is the next step.

For each person I had unresolved feelings toward, she recommended that I answer the following question, What do I think this person thinks about me?

Finally, she shared the changes she has witnessed in our time together. When you first began therapy, she told me, you felt extreme guilt over holding boundaries and asking for what you need. She told me that I had been getting involved in relationships that were a mismatch for a long time, but that I was beginning to realize the pattern and create a change. Her description of a mismatch was essentially what I have come to call healthy boundaries. My yoga teacher calls it, the way we constrict ourselves.

The National Park Service, my ex-husband, abusive man, renters, the Gustavus community, my recent business venture, etc. were relationships that were unhealthy. They were a mismatch.

It’s ok to recognize a mismatch, she told me. Likely, your former friends in Alaska realized your relationship had been a mismatch. It happens. We all move along different paths.

She was right. And what’s more, it took me ten years to fully realize the extent of my mismatch with the NPS. With all of the self-work I have done, I have come to realize far more quickly now when a new relationship is a mismatch. I can feel is in my body first, my mind and heart following suit. It is still difficult to sever ties or create a healthy boundary. I often do this through the medium of writing because I do not think I will be able to stand my ground if I communicate in person.

My time in Alaska was like a bad fairy tale, a dream come true that turned into a nightmare. It was what my therapist referred to as my work of individuation and autonomy.

And it is time to let it go.

1 thought on “What is real?

  1. Dear Marieke, you are so much stronger than you think…and brave too! I admire your will to see the best in people and places, your will to get down to what’s really important and carries real value. even though I have known you for a short time you’ve brought light into my life: your smile and the little light in your eyes are wonderful. I hope you keep finding ways to let go of those demons of yours but know that for me and my family you have made a very positive impact on our life. We are lucky to know you!

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