In her new book, filmmaker Andrea Buchanan gets 30 women to share their personal stories. "Note to Self: 30 Women on Hardship, Humiliation, Heartbreak, and Overcoming It All" includes pieces from Sheryl Crow and Camryn Manheim.
Buchanan's book tells of how their trials and tribulations made the women stronger and more successful. Read an excerpt of the book below and check out more from the "GMA" library.
IntroductionAs far back as I can remember, my father wrote little notes to himself about everything. They were reminders, really, little scraps of paper with nuggets of wisdom. This way, he could recall a thought or follow-up on a half-baked idea or a new creation. For a time he was an inventor, so ideas were his life, and he would not let one of them pass him by. Even his wardrobe functioned as a facilitator to his ideas. He would not wear shirts unless they had two pockets: one for his pens, the other for his scraps of paper. "Function over fashion" was his motto.
After the invention of sticky notes, (someone else's brilliant idea), they became a staple in our home, perhaps more important than sugar or coffee or rice. They were everywhere, but most of them could be found on the kitchen table in a neatly organized row alongside the orange place mats and plastic fruit centerpiece. The notes were supposed to be relegated to his area of the table, but if they went unchecked they would creep toward my mother's, my three older sisters', or my place settings. A day didn't go by in which my mother wouldn't rightly complain about "those damn notes." While she rejected this practice of his, I embraced it. As the youngest of four girls, it was a bond that my Daddy and I shared. But I took it to another level: my notes were en vogue, beautifully penned on parchment paper (I think I even went so far as to laminate a few). Canvas inside a shadow box was probably my note de force. I gifted my husband one saying, "My love guaranteed."
Let me be clear: I don't write lists. I hate them. Somewhere along the way a list came to represent structure, rigidity, and that perfect girl in class who had the color-coded markers for every day of the week. I write things down on scraps of paper, on Post-it notes, on beautiful stationary, and on my hand. I would have them everywhere-just like my dad- but my husband hates clutter even more than my mother does. So he makes piles of all of the scraps and puts them by the phone, on my desk, near my computer.
I curate famous quotes, paraphrases of famous quotes, raw emotion, friends' quotes, snippets of phone conversations, ideas. To me they are like oxygen. I need them to breathe. A recent inventory yielded these gems:
"You get what you want."
"Receiving is Giving."
"Have more faith than fear."
"Breathe and breathe again."
"Listen to your instinct. It just might save you from yourself."
"Service is the rent we pay for living on the planet."
"Don't forget to exercise and drink water."
"Dream Big. You will have it all. You already do."
"She has a free pass to get the fuck out of my life." (I threw that one away.) I have collected countless carps of wisdom, inspiration, insight, and empathy over the years. One day it occurred to me that a book of such reflections—and the stories that surrounded them—might bring others the joy and comfort and occasional laugh that they bring me. I started to seek out stories that wouldn't fit on a Post-it, but with final messages that could. Notes to self.
All of the stories were primarily about moments of redemption following what I call life's "Big Three": Humiliation, Heartbreak and Hardship. However, as in real life, sometimes tough moments cannot be so easily compartmentalized, so I put some stories into a category I like to call "Life's Constant Complexities," which can mean anything from coming to terms with a professional setback to accepting the width of one's thighs.
We all have a "story" that helps to define us, a piece of ourselves that reflects who we are today yet is somehow rooted in our past, perhaps holding us back. More often than not, we need to shed that outdated outer shell - that "story" - so that we may finally and fully move into the next phase of life with a lesson of wisdom firmly intact (and if you are like me, taped to a wall). So I asked my fellow contributors to not only share their stories, but also to sum it up in a final note to self, something that a reader could scrawl on a Post-it and keep somewhere she could access for a quick dose of wisdom. What they came up with will inspire you.
Each woman in this book has a defining story from which she has moved to a new pinnacle of life, renewed and redeemed by the lessons she learned and will share with you. Punctuated by tears and laughter, these stories are full of incredible strength, invaluable knowledge, insurmountable odds, helpful survival instincts, amazing willpower, humiliation on a national level, and a hefty dose of humor. Through them, I have come to realize that no matter what life presents—however unfair, ugly or murky it may seem-- if you are willing, you can actually learn from the biggest of life's challenges and find the light at the end in the darkest of tunnels. And once you go through it, the lesson, the take away, your note to self, can act as a reminder, a place holder, a bookmark just in case you forget, for one moment, how amazing you are and how awesome the journey has been, even with its difficulties.
It seems only fair that I now join this community of women in this book and kick it off by telling my stories of the "Big Three" which have defined me, emboldened me, and taught me lessons worthy of places front and center on my wall.
My story of humiliation came early. I should state that we all have moments of being humiliated, but I am talking about the one humiliation in life we experience that we never forget, the Super Bowl champion of embarrassing moments (think Janet Jackson).
I grew up in Lewisville, Texas, a middle-class suburb of Dallas. While some kids spent their summer vacation at camps, on lakes, or at the very least, the community pool, I spent mine pouring over Christy Brinkley's operating manual, "How to Look Like a Model." I studied its glossy pages like a student preparing for my dissertation. I wanted to be a model, and not just for myself. There were many who deemed me beautiful, and I felt I owed it to them, too. At 14, I was 5'10", 120 pounds and wore a 34C bra. I had been voted Sophomore and Junior Duchess. I knew my place amongst the jocks, nerds, and burnouts, and I enjoyed the view from up-on-high as I looked down on my adoring subjects. Senior year was primed to be a royal cakewalk to the ultimate crown, homecoming queen. At the time, this was serious business; signing each other's yearbooks as we said our good-byes for summer vacation after junior year, we all knew the crown would be mine when we returned in the fall. My acceptance speech was all but written and my glorious future was laid out before me like my homecoming cape: my star linebacker-boyfriend and I would get married after graduation and our first child was going to be named Rush, after the band. This was the roadmap of my life. And it was happening just as planned.
That summer, however, my body went rogue. I mysteriously packed on 30 pounds, developed a goiter in my neck, and almost overnight suffered from a serious case of bug eyes. My mother had her theories about what was causing the sudden change. For a while she determined that I had a bacterial infection that I'd caught tubing down the Rio Grande. Not long after that, she knew in her heart of hearts that the chemicals used to perm my hair were ruining my looks. My favorite theory, however, and one that stuck the longest, was simply my cat.
My mother moved beyond these strange explanations for this sudden illness and was determined to find a diagnosis. As helpful as her determination was her sharp sense of humor, which helped us keep a bit of levity in the house during this stressful time.
My parents took me to a specialist in Dallas. As I sat in his cold office barely covered by a paper gown, he examined my body - feeling the goiter in my throat, checking under my arms for swollen lymph nodes and around my breasts for possible cancerous lumps. While he was conducting his exam, he whispered to me, "I can see why your mother is so upset. I can tell you used to be so beautiful." Though I didn't give him the satisfaction of seeing it, at that moment I broke into pieces. Life was never going to be the same for me, and I knew it.
I was diagnosed with a severe case of Grave's disease (a thyroid disorder) and the doctors ultimately had me drink radioactive iodine, which tasted awful, to kill my thyroid, which had decidedly gone berserk. This was followed by all sorts of medication to replace what they destroyed with poison, so that what was left of my abnormal gland, could function. It was a scary time. as we attempted to regulate my metabolism with chemicals, and I absolutely didn't feel or look like myself.
Meanwhile, I prayed for a miracle to keep me out of school, but God wasn't listening. As I drove to class on the first day of my senior year, it dawned on me that I was an anonymous participant in what used to be my life. I was terrified to face my peers. The responsibility I had felt prior to my fellow students to be beautiful and to be their homecoming queen was now replaced with utter fear and self-loathing. I felt ugly, and disgusting.
Walking through the hallways that early September morning was the first time in my life I wished no one would notice me. Some of my classmates stared too long, while others averted their eyes. I could hear the whispers of concern coming from every direction, and my head was spinning. They say kids can be cruel, really cruel. Well, due to my previously held titles junior and sophomore years, my peers were kind or felt pity and nominated me for homecoming queen. I was completely stunned.
But this was Texas, and let's get real: I knew in my heart I was not going to be crowned queen. I went to the Homecoming game anyway, decked out in one of Lewisville's finest dresses and wearing two gargantuan corsages made of Mums pinned to my chest, complete with streamers that hung down to the ground. The queen was to be crowned at halftime.
When the time came, I made my way down the bleachers to take my place with the other nominees. As I descended, I stepped on one of the streamers, ripped a corsage out of my dress, and tumbled down the steps. I knew that I could either fake a serious injury or get up off the ground, brush myself off, and make my way onto the field. I mustered every shred of dignity I had and got up. Limping, I made my way to the fifty yard line, escorted by my father, only to witness the crown placed on my friend's head. She was the perfect homecoming queen: beautiful, nice, and gracious. It was the most humiliating moment of my life. All that practice to walk like Christie came crashing down. The one thing I depended on, my looks, had turned on me and sent me plummeting down the stadium steps in front of the entire town. And at a young, impressionable age, it seemed like the world was coming to an end.
Seventeen years later, I was living in Los Angeles. My body had gone through changes due to my Grave's disease, but I regained a sense of self. Granted, I was no runway model, nor did I want to be, but I was healthy, active, and very much in charge of my life. I had traveled the world as a documentary filmmaker covering grizzly bears in the Canadian Rockies, active volcanoes in British West Indies, rock stars in Europe, and the March for Women's Lives in Washington, D.C. Lewisville felt far away and abstract, as if my darker high-school days there had been a dream from which I had awoken. I was a new brand of queen: a goddess with lip gloss, a woman grounded through meditation, a filmmaker who wanted to make an impact on the world. One night I went out to dinner with a friend, who brought along a woman and her husband I had never met. The moment I saw this woman, Ayrin, I knew she was from my past. I asked her where she was from and she said sheepishly, "I like to think of myself as being from the East Coast, but for awhile I lived in a small town outside of Dallas called Lewisville."
I choked on my Chardonnay and practically yelled across the table, "Oh my God! I grew up in Lewisville!" Ayrin asked me to repeat my name again and it was as if she had seen a ghost. "Oh, my God," she said. "You're Andrea Buchanan. I can't believe it!" My face flushed. I wasn't exactly sure how to handle her shock at discovering my identity.
Ayrin blushed, too, "You used to be so beautiful," she said softly, and I felt as if I'd been punched in the gut. "Not that you're not beautiful now," she stammered, "but you were the girl we all wanted to be. You were so perfect."
She went on to tell us that she had been a misfit. Bone thin and six feet tall, with pale skin and black hair, she'd found herself in a sea of blondes when her parents moved to our town. She used to hang out in the 'freaks' courtyard and smoke cigarettes, counting the days until she could leave Texas.
Ayrin claims to have two friends in school. I had two hundred. She was shy. I was outgoing. She dated the mascot. I dated the star linebacker. She wanted to be me, by I wanted to be Christie Brinkley. We both wanted an identity beyond ourselves, a sense of belonging.
Ayrin cut to the chase. "And when you got sick, I was so upset. It just seemed like you were in so much pain. My friends and I tried to figure out what happened to you because back then, you had set the bar for what was possible in life: being popular and being super-nice. If you weren't happy and perfect, then what were my chances?" Ayrin, choking back tears, went on."One day, in homeroom, you looked at me. It felt like you were really seeing me, and that you somehow understood me. You seemed to understand what it was like to be a misfit, and that gave me a big dose of courage, strength and confidence. I have never forgotten that."
And then she explained the perfect irony: when she left Lewisville, Ayrin moved to Manhattan and became a Calvin Klein model.
That night, Ayrin helped me realize that I needed to heal the shame I felt for what had happened to me and learn to laugh about the humiliation I experienced on the field that night. Through the embarrassment, I had transformed the path of my life. I went beyond the surface in almost everything I did in my work, my relationships, and how I viewed the world. Through the pain I had learned compassion for anybody suffering something out of their control. Disease in any form is scary stuff. And it can show up when things are humming along and knock you down, however beautiful you may look. And the night I met Ayrin, I truly learned that reaching within yourself to find solace, peace, and love heals you from humiliation. When we are knocked down, we sometimes see things more clearly, below the haze of lost perspective.
Note to self: Losing your crown can be the luckiest moment in your life.
Two years later, my life was running on all eight cylinders. I loved what I was doing in my work life, and I also had an incredibly full social life. There were dinner parties, trips to New York, and - my favorite of all —spending time with my four closest girlfriends: my circle. We vacationed together, were in each other's weddings, threw each other elaborate parties, shared our most intimate moments, and held each other's deepest secrets. We even went so far as to swear our undying love to one another and made vows and promises I couldn't imagine breaking. My girlfriends and I were like the dude's version of a weekly poker group, but instead of playing cards, smoking cigars, and drinking beer our nights were more about sharing, processing our innermost feelings, and sleepovers.
My husband, family, and other friends outside this circle often played second fiddle. Belonging to this group of women meant the world to me. My identity and my ego depended on it. At the time, I was too caught up in the intoxicating efforts this group's popularity had on me. I changed so that I would fit in and then I suffered from a false sense of safety, seemingly less vulnerable to the perceptions of others. Perhaps this was my coping mechanism, developed as a result of the earlier days trying to shoulder the responsibility of being the queen of the school and my subsequent fall from my throne.
Now, let me set the record straight: I don't consider myself a wimp or a pushover. I consider myself a strong, independent woman, who has always figured out a way to forge my own path, even if it meant falling down to get there. I am usually a pedal to the metal speed racer kind of gal. But there was something about this group that rendered me a follower. There were storng personas in our posse, and as easy as it felt to be a part of the group, there waws always a part of myself that was hidden, not truly present. As time passed I stared to realize that the group resembled more of an incomplete circle, as I was not completely me. At the time, it didn't matter that I felt more like a member of an entourage, because I was happy to take a backseat, just happy to be in the coolest car in town.
Then, in February of 2006, I had a disturbing "reading" in which my trusted astrologer said that my circle was in for a shift. It wouldn't change totally, but the parts that were no longer working for me would undergo a visible change. I was alarmed. How could it shift? We were all so much in each other's lives. We had a bond that would not break. The results of the reading stuck with me. I would have much preferred, "You are about to come into a large amount of cash."
Soon after that astrological zinger, one of the girls had a birthday. I suggested a "group-gift" in which all of us could participate: we would give her five delicately thin gold rings, each one representing our individual commitment to her and the fifth band representing a commitment to herself. It was a ritual to solidify our circle. The gift was such a hit that we decided we would gift the rings for each of our birthdays that year. It was like I was marrying my friends. At the time, I felt overjoyed, and thought, My astrologer was clearly wrong, thank god. I couldn't wait for my birthday to arrive, when I would receive my five bands, symbols of our sisterhood. I couldn't wait to belong more.
By the time my birthday rolled around, not only did I not receive the bands I had coveted, but also, through a series of events, miscommunication, and misunderstanding, one of my tribe unceremoniously ended her friendship with me, and before my very eyes, the circle, as I knew it, was broken. At first it seemed inexplicable, but I was suddenly cast aside by some of these friends with the routine antics straight out of a petty high school playbook. Before this happened, we always agreed we would speak the hard truth to each other in the spirit of being open and honest. I got a hefty dose that left me bewildered. And then there was silence. What was once open was now closed, hiding and avoiding resolution. No more sleepovers, just sleepless nights trying to pick up the pieces. The bonds of friendship we'd spent years developing were gone in what seemed like a flash. I cried until I wanted to vomit pain. It was worse than any breakup with a lover, because in some strange way I was breaking up with myself, saying good-bye to a version of myself that was so desperate to belong and define myself through others' views of me, instead of through my own resolve.
I experienced some of the darkest and hardest moments of my life, feeling worthless, empty, with nothing left to give, even to my husband. It was a sense of loss I had never felt. I recall a night in bed staring at the ceiling, my husband at my side, trying to help me make sense of it all, and I suddenly recognized a deep-seeded pattern. I relied on other people to feel good about myself. The harsh truth was crystal clear: I did not believe in myself enough to be truly authentic in my relationship s with these women. My dethroning in high school had victimized me and now this was s different version of a dethroning but with the same opportunity to heal. When my body had broken down in high school, it had been humiliation. When some of my closest friendships broke down in adulthood, it was heartbreak.
But like that fateful night on the football field, I was at my lowest point possible. I had to pick myself up and began to reconstruct my ideas of trust, fault, guilt and forgiveness. I leaned on a few notes-to-self during the healing:
"To be powerful one must go through the crucible" was one. "Have more faith than fear" was another.
I was fortunate to experience real intimacy with those friends who stuck around, and I was eventually able to forgive the ones who couldn't seem to move beyond honest mistakes, and most important forgave myself for my part in our demise. I was not without fault, but I needed to let myself off the hook at some point. This time my friends couldn't do it for me, I had to do it for myself. Through the heartbreak, I learned how to recommit myself, to love myself and stand on my own. Afterward, that confidence radiated in all of my other relationships, and I was more authentic with everyone, including my husband and family, and I began to see how I had truly been ignoring a part of me for years. I often see the rings on the fingers of the friends who received them, and I am no longer hurt, but my heart has been fortified with self-reliance: "I am the source of love and security."
My story of heartbreak is not unique. Everyone goes through this sense of getting hurt, getting a raw deal, mistreated but most important, misguided by one's choices in some form or aspect of their life. Ultimately you have to take responsibility for healing yourself no matter what you face and realize that every interaction is co=created. But when healing clears the way, the truth really doe set us free. And we are strengthened by our resolve. Not long after that break up, my husband and I moved into our first home. It was a big, ramshackle, turn-of-the century gem in a transitional neighborhood with tacquerias and tire stores on the street corners. Moving into this house, with its sturdy foundation and strong walls was a beautiful renewal of my commitment to my marriage, and I knew that friendships that were meant to be would follow.
Just as my heart was remodeling itself from the break I had experienced with some of my friends, and I was embracing a new sense of self, unknown to us my husband's heart was breaking down in a much more literal way. A routine trip to the doctor to check up on a congenital condition known as bicuspid aortic valve, or BAV, revealed a time bomb ticking away.
His sweet, strong, thirty-six-year-old heart had an undetected 4.8 centimeter aneurysm growing within. His doctor told him his aorta could rupture at any moment, which would mean game over. This meant lifting a box or bending the wrong way, or picking up a friend's child, could mean instant death similar to the way the late John Ritter suffered from a catastrophic aneurysm.
My husband was in the prime of his life; he had just completed his first marathon, bought our first house, and was thriving in his career. Yet quietly his genetics were failing him. There was no time to grieve or think about it, we had to take action. While in the midst of moving into our new home, we were thrown into a fast track preparation for surgery, which meant massive doses of blood pressure medicine to keep him safe and the mental preparation for the "open heart" part of it. We talked to experts from all over the country in this highly specialized field, but luckily the best in the world was in our own backyard. Open-heart surgery was in store for my husband, a terrifying concept that defied my ability to grasp, imagine, or even say it. Putting on a good face, I was calm on the outside, but inside I was growing anxious. I had firsthand experience with the body turning on you, but this was an entire other level than Grave's disease--this was untenable. It was the first time I actually considered what life would be without him. The what-ifs came in, and I was quickly chasing them out so I could be the rock my husband needed to lean on. He had been there for my heartbreak, I HAD to be there for his.
As I had done so many times in my life, I relied on my friends, but this time it was not for acceptance, or popularity, it was for survival. I imagined myself standing atop a mountain and using a ram horn to make a call throughout the world for people to come and save him. I thought, if I could gather enough hearts together, I could make sure his wouldn't fail. Our community surrounded us. Literally. My circle never actually broke; it just took on a different shape, and size. Exactly like the astrologer said it would. She was right all along.
A week before surgery, we hosted an evening at our new house, boxes and all, where twenty of our friends sat in the round, shared stories, and prayed to anyone who would listen. As I sat by my husband's side, holding his hand, I realized I never wanted to let it go. I was one hundred percent completely married to this man and there was nothing else, but that. Love Guaranteed. In the silence of my prayers that evening and with a small piece of jewelry that I gave him symbolizing his courage, I re-committed to him, to my marriage, to seeing the happiness and hardship in relationships, and to standing by his side, through sickness and in health. It was no joke.
One week later, my husband was laying in an ICU in Los Angeles, unconscious. He was hooked up to a heart and lung machine, only his head visible with his iPod still playing, his earbuds in place (the surgeon allowed the iPod in the OR I knew it would keep him unconsciously calm), his body covered by blankets, which were slowly warming his chilled bones. During the eight-hour, full-circulatory-arrest surgery I'd known all the facts, the human body was chilled down to nearly single digits in temperature to reduce cellular metabolism. With everything on ice (think Han Solo frozen in Carbonite), the doctors could shut down his heart, lung, and brain, to replace the faulty pipe with a piece of plastic that will never rupture or break down. I quietly listened to my own heart beat, unwavering in its intention to keep this family together, to love unconditionally all of life's imperfections as they show us the true meaning of triumph.
When he woke up, our lives were all about recovery, which was incredibly painful at first, as well as aggravating and challenging. It was hard. Really hard. Slowly the healing occurred. It took him three months to go back to work and nine months to feel back to "normal" again, although there is nothing "normal" about being slight bionic.
Nowadays, when I am lying next to him, my head against his chest, I can hear his robust, healthy, safe and sound heart beating. I slip away and burst into tears when I recall his unconscious body, lying entombed in blankets, surviving by machinery. It is a combo of grief and gratitude. During those hours in the waiting room, my entire life flashed before me; high- school humiliation, my circle of heartache and all of my doubts…all of it paled in comparison to the possibility of losing him, because he remains the truest extension of myself, in all its forms, old and new. It is a miracle: His broken heart had the strength to heal my wounded one. Love actually does conquer all. So I conclude with a simple note:
"Take nothing for granted, especially the miracles found in love."
Each woman seems to have a private mantra that keeps her going through her darkest hours. And something in our own words brings light out of the shadows, keeps us faithful in ourselves. In each of the stories in this book, you will get a chance to learn about amazing women and their triumphs over humiliation, heartbreak, and hardship. Their triumphs are unique, but the lessons they share, the notes they wrote to themselves, have universal appeal to the female condition. I invite you to consider writing your defining story down, and with the notes that sustain you, remind yourself of how a few words can make miracles happen.
Don't just live it— write it down, make a note, and never forget.
August 7, 2008