One Writer’s Journey From Hell to Heaven

I had come full circle. I was standing in the same place where I’d been 15 years earlier, but my life couldn’t be more different.

This past Sunday, I stopped into my father’s office for a few hours to help him complete a marketing report. On Monday my family would fly to Spain to visit my sister, brother-in-law, and niece for three weeks, and he needed help getting it out the door.

Fifteen years ago, I’d been working in that same office, doing projects for my father after graduating from Princeton University, on the day that my life started to unravel.

High on Life
I was 24, high on life, fresh out of Princeton with a degree in English and Creative Writing, dating a friend from freshman year with whom I was smitten, looking at publishing jobs in NYC.

I felt like the world was at my feet, and I was ready to live my happily-ever-after.

The years from 20 to 22 had been horrible, but I had decided to just move on as if none of it had ever happened. I boxed it away and put it behind me, ready to live my happy little life.

Moving On…
I felt as though the solution was to shut the door on the trauma. In those two brief years, this sweet neurotic overachieving young undergraduate struggling to find her way, i.e. me, had been raped, stalked by a man who repeatedly threatened to kill me, and then lost a man I loved deeply when he died far too young and far too suddenly.

I share the details of the trauma in my book, but suffice to say for now that I had been through a lot, felt “done” with tragedy, and just wanted to be happy.

It had been a year since Eric’s death and I felt like I had finally turned the corner, that I could leave all of that far behind me, that life was now going to go my way. From here on out it would be smooth sailing.

In fact for the first time in my young life I felt as if I had stumbled onto some secrets of the universe.

I felt finally like it was my time to create the life I dreamed of, through the sheer force of my will and creativity. I also believed there was a higher power out there to guide me and guardian angels like my beloved friend Eric to watch over me.

So when things started to go awry again I wasn’t prepared for it.

Doing The Best We Can
Years later after finally seeking treatment for the panic attacks that kept me awake nights a decade and more after the stalking (heart pounding, adrenaline racing through my veins, sweating, terrified, sure once again that this would be the night I would die), after figuring out that my rapist had drugged my drink, after processing my experiences with multiple therapists, I came to understand that I was likely suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

I think my poor body and soul just decided they couldn’t handle any more stress or any more loss or any more drama in that moment in time. I was too fragile.

So when my beau Anthony called to say that he wanted us to take a break while he was at med school in the fall, I was crushed but didn’t say anything. I just said, “Okay.”

I couldn’t bring myself to tell Anthony what I was really feeling, too afraid that I would scare him away. Suddenly I couldn’t bring myself to do anything.

Time Slows To A Halt…
The day that happened, which was the day it all started to fall apart, I was working at my father’s office.

And it was as if time stopped.

Spiraling Down…
I felt paralyzed, unable to act, unable to face the thought of losing someone else I loved, unable to process how life could possibly be “going wrong” on me again. It was as if something broke inside me, as if my body and mind had reached capacity and simply said, “Enough.”

That moment of not being able to act or express what I was feeling became for me the moment when I thought I “went wrong.” I felt that life was this astonishing web of moments and choices, and also had developed this false ideal that there was somehow a “perfect” or best away to live, i.e. one certain way that the universe, and my life as a microcosm of it, was “supposed” to unfold.

Suddenly I felt as if maybe I never would have what I wanted in life, never experience my heart’s desire coming true for me. The scaffolding that I was erecting to rebuild my life, after a rough few years, felt like it was collapsing around me.

It felt as though the earth were crumbling beneath my feet, and more precipitously, that I was standing on the edge of a cliff while it did.

Before I knew it I was spiraling into a depression that would become a four-month black hole in my life. I went from being a happy college graduate to plotting my own death, ferociously suicidal, determined to end it.

Run Away…
I wanted to disappear and be swallowed up. I wanted life to end.

I was so terrified of doing it — too chicken to shoot myself or hang myself — and yet I couldn’t bear to live any longer.

Years later, in a happy place in my life, with years of successes and joys behind me, and with a better understanding of what trauma can do to a person (I now know that my depression wasn’t such an unusual response after a few terrible years of trauma and loss) I see that the story I told myself at the time about how I’d failed somehow, not “gotten it right,” and that I needed to end my life because there was no hope left… That wasn’t real. It was just a story.

But I held onto it tight enough to want to end my life.

I overdosed. I survived.

I went on to build a life for myself that I love today, but not without struggles along the way.

How different my life is fifteen years later.

From Tragic to Magic…
Fifteen years ago, my life was a living hell and my only thoughts were how and when I would die. Now, at 39, I am living a life beyond what I could have even dreamed of in those darker days…

I just landed this morning in Barcelona, Spain, where I will spend a few days with a dear friend before flying to San Sebastian to stay with family for two more weeks. It seems fitting to be posting this from a city that to me is magical, home of Antonio Gaudi’s masterwork La Sagrada Familia, home of Picasso, a city in which architecture is a form of art and where live actors dressed in outlandish costumes become a part of the fantastical cityscape along Las Ramblas.

I am almost 220 pages into writing my first book, which has been a lifelong dream. I read and edited the first 50 pages of the manuscript on the plane ride here and was shocked to find that it is good (just six weeks ago, I’d committed to rewriting the first 200 pages when I felt frustrated by the roughness of my first draft, and I did it, diligently writing away since May).

I have innumerable friends, scattered like stars dotting the globe, whom I have met over the past fifteen years, while traveling, dancing professionally, working on projects in my community in Troy, New York, working for the mayor of San Francisco, and attending graduate school at Harvard.

I am thrilled to be alive. It is not that life is “perfect” now by any means – certainly there are still so many dreams to live, so many goals I want to achieve, and I have my ups and downs and disappointments like anyone else. Yet I now believe that life doesn’t ask perfection of us, only to show up in each moment, be present, and give our love.

My book tells the story of how I got from there to here, how in fifteen years I went from only wanting to die to wanting only to shine my light and love all the moments of my beautiful, imperfect, human life.

The Lessons I’ve Learned…
I can summarize everything I’ve learned along the way over those fifteen years — through meditation and yoga teachers, therapists, spiritual gurus, self-help books, friendships, love affairs, and all the teachers who show up in a thousand ways in my life every day — in the following guidelines for how I live my life now.

Here are my guidelines for creating heaven on earth:

1) Love ourselves and others.
2) Be kind.
3) Live fearlessly and take risks (life is a grand experiment ~ have FUN with it!).
4) Give back the gifts you’ve been given.
5) Live intentionally.
6) Strive to continuously AWAKEN.
7) Let your life be your creation, not something that “happens to you.”

Perhaps even more importantly, I remind myself every day to lighten up, to laugh, and to realize that everything is temporary. Life is change.

In the depths of my suffering, I couldn’t grasp that “this too shall pass.”

Now I hope that my life and example can inspire others to see that it’s possible to find freedom and to live in joy, no matter what has happened in the past.

As Joseph Campbell has written, “We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.” Living fully, joyfully and gratefully in each moment as it unfolds is to me a form of heaven on earth.

What can you do live more joyfully today, no matter what has happened in the past? What are your thoughts about how to live “heaven on earth” now?

Lisa

Lisa of 8 Women DreamLisa is a freelance writer and consultant who has published articles, essays and poems in journals and newspapers across the United States. She has her BA in English and Creative Writing from Princeton University, and earned her MPA at Harvard in 2005. Lisa launched her dream to write her first book by signing up for Ellen Sussman’s “Memoir-in-a-Year” class, speaking her story out loud at a Take Back the Night rally, and committing to a regular writing schedule. She recently achieved another milestone — 200 pages written in her manuscript! Lisa is currently bi-coastal with her home in historic Troy, New York and her heart in San Francisco. Lisa is also a lindy hopper, blues dancer and belly dancer. She has traveled extensively on four continents. Lisa’s post day is Tuesday.

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Lisa is a freelance writer, consultant and life coach. She has her BA in English and Creative Writing from Princeton and her MPA from Harvard. Lisa recently finished the first draft of her book manuscript, Burning Down the House. Her dream is to publish this first book and teach the world how to discover their hidden joy. Her post day is Tuesday.
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Latest posts by Lisa Powell, Get Happy (see all)

  • Lisa,

    I love your wisdom! And I love the huge work you do, to share it with others :D And it’s just SUPER that You enjoy it all so much! :D

    Love, Love, Love & lots of Hugs for You!

    Kristi

  • KJ

    We are so similar that is is eerie. I’ve got a huge girl crush on you. I was inspired by your post and I can’t wait to read your book:-)

  • Remy, the photographer

    I thought Spain was supposed to be a 8wd trip! lol
    Every week when you show a bit more, i know it connects with those of us who can relate, in whole or in part, to your experiences…and that bravery and strength is contagious. Thank you for taking that leap every week. xo Rem

  • Toni Schram

    Those who have suffered the most heinous things in their lives are the ones who seem to have a keener sense of appreciation for the beauty of life. This pertains those who have overcome the awful throes of PTS. (I’m a card carrying member.)

    Your book will inspire many people with your poetic prose. I bet it will quite cathartic for you to as well. Maybe, more than you ever imagined.

    Thank you letting us in on your poignant story.

    ~Toni

  • Laurie

    Oh yea, Spain….Bitch Please, I’m
    J-E-A-L-O-U-S
    Have fun, fun,fun!

  • Laurie

    Thank you Lisa,
    It’s brave to write like you do and an awesome gift for others who are suffering. Eckhart Tolle says people with the biggest pain bodies are the people who can spring back, better than ever and be an inspiration to others.I love that you take your meditation so seriously, seriously enough to miss a plane…hehehe. People who meditate learn to quiet the monkey mind and let their true essence shine. I see that in you.
    You Rule….Big love, Laurie

  • Lisa, I don’t know you personally (although we may have met at some point on the lindy circuit — I’m very forgetful) but I still want you to know I’m so proud of you! Your writing is beautiful in its expression and its honesty. I love the guidelines you’ve created, and I especially love that you’re joyful even after going through such trauma. You’re a hero.

  • Heather, the e-commerce builder

    Spain is near the top of my list for the next trip over there myself. Have an incredible time!

    Thanks for the reminder that we create our own lives. Needed that today!

    Happy travels – Heather

  • Veronica

    You are one of my absolute favorite writers, I love your style, you keep me ingaged, love love love you.

    I make a plan for life and allow myself to be guided by the energy in the universe. Which includes my girls at 8 women dream…..

    I just love you…

    V

  • Catherine, Site Admin

    Have a wonderful time in Spain and congratulations at overcoming your fear of sharing your experience.

    Post Traumatic Stress is very real and people don’t realize the damage it can cause. It can also take years to recover from and heal.

    And look at you – how far you’ve come and what you have made of your life.

    Hugs, Cath

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  • Lisa

    You ARE strong enough to make your life your own version of “heaven on earth” darling… Happy to be get to share your journey!!!

    And goodness please don’t ever take beautiful YOU for granted again… You are too special and deserve all love, joy and kindness in your life… Honor yourself and your beauty and value to the world… :)

    Love to you and your family!

    xoxo
    Lis

  • Julita

    Lisa,

    have the time of your life in Barcelona! with all these people who love you so much.

    my thoughts about how to live “heaven on earth” now?

    for me personally, I have realized that my family is my “heaven on earth”. I will never take any of it for granted again, things such as my beautiful home, my kind husband, my two brilliant daughters and even ME! I am strong enough to make my life “heaven on earth”!

    also, it helps to stay away from negative nasty people, which do exist. at this point in my life, I have so little free time that I have to make the most of it.

    best wishes,
    Julita.

  • Lisa, the famous author

    Sending my love to everyone from Barcelona… :)

    Please forgive me if I am slow to respond to comments today as I am here enjoying this magical city!

    Love my life :)

    xoxo
    Lisa