The Winding Path

Counselling Services provided by Barb Zacharias

September 2020: Elsa’s Legacy

Posted on Sep 10, 2020

September 2020: Elsa’s Legacy

Last month, I received the news that my former canine therapy assistant, Elsa, died of intestinal cancer. This was a hard blow for a number of reasons. One is that I had been thinking of her as she reached her tenth birthday—the senior years in a dog’s short life—wondering if she was showing her age yet, that sort of thing. Another is that I learned of her death via indirect channels—which triggered dormant “divorce trauma.” Third is the bond she and I had. I have missed that girl greatly. She was not only my office assistant, but also my “therapist with four legs and fur.”

I’ve blogged about her in the past.

Mostly dealing with anxiety—hers and mine. We taught each other a lot. And she proved to be incredibly empathetic. A natural therapy assistant—instinctively knowing what each client needed—snuggle, kiss, curl up at their feet, keep a safe distance or a watchful eye. She knew the art of “just being” in the moment and of “just being there” for someone.

It’s also a strange experience grieving the death of a pet that you already lost in a divorce. I had not seen Elsa for 3 years; yet the news of her death hit hard. I think it was the finality of never seeing her again. There must have been a part of me that held out hope for one more visit. A strange silver lining to this finality is that it also slams shut the door on my marriage. I was about to write “failed” marriage; but to me that is inaccurate. While the marriage did not last until “death do us part,” I do not perceive it as a failure. It is by far more a success story that I kept working at it for 20 years.

I see it along the lines of a completed marriage. It served its purpose. Its time had come. If I were to remain, it would have continued to steal my soul until I was an empty shell, going through the motions. Elsa played a significant role in those last 5 years. I think she preserved my life, protecting me from the complete loss of my Self. Her behaviour issues demanded I stay in the present and face my own. This is not to diminish the role played by many concerned friends who witnessed my demise long before it surfaced in my consciousness. However, the “daily-ness” of dealing with Elsa held me accountable—I could not bury my head in the sand.

My first attempts at leaving the marriage all centered around Elsa. I hoped to stay nearby to have “shared custody” as she was such a significant part of my life and profession. However, in the end, I had to sacrifice that bond for my Being. She could not be the defining factor in my preparations. It also meant living with unknowns. I had no idea how my ex-husband would cope with her behaviour issues on a daily basis. In my heart-of-hearts, I assumed he would give up and ask that I take her. This was not the case. Somehow he learned to manage; and she, by all accounts, continued to thrive.

As have I.

It has been a gong-show year for most of us. Yet we all hang in there somehow. I have come a long way in the last 3 years—even if my life appears in disarray at the moment with numerous projects on hold: partially painted bathroom, tarp on my roof for winter, broken tooth, paused fence construction, persnickety stove, and the latest—snow blower in need of repair before winter.

But if life with Elsa taught me anything, it was to live in the moment, always be curious, cherish the ones you love, be there for others, and deal with it when “life happens”—even if you’re learning new ways of doing that. And never take for granted the kind souls you meet along the way who make the journey worthwhile.

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November 2016: Elegant Hedgehog

Posted on Nov 16, 2016

November 2016: Elegant Hedgehog

“Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she is covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary–and terrible elegant. ”
Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

An interesting theme has doggedly pursued me for the past couple weeks. It started with the book club selection, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery (2008). It is not the easiest book to read; but once you get half way through, it becomes very engaging and thought provoking. The theme of the book is being seen and loved/accepted for who we are—yet we go to great lengths to hide our true selves from others—for fear of rejection, judgment, being misunderstood, being unseen, being lost, being wounded.

For me, this theme of being seen by others for who we truly are has also surfaced in sessions, friendships, and social media. The Universe is not letting this one go for me! Evidently I have a significant lesson to learn. I am fascinated that we do not see ourselves as others see us—the good, the bad, the ugly. Yet even our best efforts at hiding cannot dim our light for those who see us sparkle. They can see through the subterfuge—are not put off by it—but simply, gently pursue what they see—maybe even light their own candle by the inner flame of those they encounter.

I have had to squirm my way through this concept of self-acceptance and sense of value these past couple weeks. Not only to be present for my clients also squirming through this one in sessions, but for my personal growth and development: to know that others hold the shiny with dull with complete acceptance and maybe even understanding. I am continuously amazed by the strength and beauty in my clients—a light they cannot always see or are comfortable with. So it is somewhat ironic that others see my inner light even when I don’t. And yes, it makes me uncomfortable to be seen. I am just as afraid as my clients.

There is something about feeling exposed, vulnerable, and unworthy in being seen. We learned at a very early age that love can’t be trusted. That being our true selves leads to pain and suffering. That it is much safer to hide and put on a persona of self-protection. That our dull aspects have no value, are beyond polishing. And yet, there remain those incredibly special souls who see through all of that and wish to draw us out of our protective shells. It is terrifying. Another ironic twist is how I must terrify my clients when I attempt to bring forth their inner light. The word exposure comes to mind as well as safety, trust, and patience.

The absurd conundrum is: we obsess about what “everyone” thinks of us when “everyone” doesn’t even care. And if they do, it is to make judgments; but they are surface judgments without seeing or appreciating our deepest selves. We worry about what impression we are making, when that is not what we are meant to do with our time and energy—or even money. Our true light will shine regardless of what impression or mirage we try to construct. And for those to whom mirages matter—we must ask ourselves, why are we trying to impress them? What benefit is it to us what someone else thinks? How does that help us live more fully?

We get dreadfully distracted from our life purpose when we try to hide behind an impression or mirage. We have no one to impress. We have only to shine. Our true selves will be honoured by those who can see the light. And those who are blinded by smoke and mirrors don’t value what they see anyways.

When we get comfortable in our skin, value our unique contribution to life on this planet, we can confidently go where we’ve never gone before. If others bask in our light, let them. If others prefer to dull our sparkle, get out the chamois to restore the brilliance. Our task is twofold: to continue to shine despite the naysayers—the “everyone” we are trying to impress yet who don’t care; and to soak up the warmth from the flames of fellow, brightly-lit souls. If we add a third task, it would be to contribute to the radiance of others—especially when they don’t see it themselves.

Shine on Beautiful Soul reading this, shine on! Blind others with your brightness.


“It would be so much better if we could share our insecurity, if we could all venture inside ourselves and realize that green beans and vitamin C, however much they nurture us, cannot save lives, or sustain our souls.”
Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

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August 2016: Dedication

Posted on Aug 17, 2016

August 2016: Dedication

 “The most essential factor is persistence — the determination never to allow your energy or enthusiasm to be dampened by the discouragement that must inevitably come.”
~  James Whitcomb Riley (American writer, poet, author)

The Olympics. Can’t say I’m a big fan. I watch a bit on TV with my husband here and there. Prefer winter Olympics over summer. Maybe because I live in a country with a long winter. Canadians take great pride in their winter sports and activities.

I’m also not an athletic person. I have never enjoyed, let alone excelled at, sports or physical activity in general. The only reason to move more as an adolescent was vanity: to be thin. Fitness was not a motivator. However, once my husband and brother introduced me to hiking and mountain biking in the Yukon, my interest changed to the pleasure of the activity, communing with nature, pushing physical proficiency, and sharing the experience with others. Of course, I was usually a bit behind the others which either spurred me on or frustrated me to tears.

As a child, I was the last one picked for teams. I was very un-co-ordinated, crossed the finish line dragging after the others, and struggled with performance. Teachers got frustrated with my tears and reluctance to participate. I hated running or any form of physical exertion. I was jealous of the classmate who had asthma and didn’t have to participate as fully in Phys. Ed. Now looking back, with my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome diagnosis, there were early signs of the illness—but I internalized my lack of physical prowess as being something wrong with me.

Internalized messages. They can haunt us all our lives and/or drive us to excel, perform, achieve. Olympians are obviously driven people. They are dedicated to their sport or activity. Synonyms or related words to dedication include: committment, application, diligence, industry, resolve, enthusiasm, zeal, conscientiousness, perseverance, persistence, tenacity, drive, staying power; hard work, effort—as in “athletic excellence requires dedication.”

And while I may not relate to dedication and its synonyms for athletic reasons, I can be inspired by the Olympic athletes for what it takes to live with mental illness. Committment, application, diligence, resolve, conscientiousness, perseverance, persistence, tenacity, and all the rest are necessary just to survive some days—even to get out of bed. Anxiety, depression, trauma, abuse, and the whole host of mental illness manifestations can suck the life right out of a person.

In order to survive and thrive, a person performs mental gymnastics on a regular basis to counter the internalized messages, the damaging thought patterns, the overwhelming emotions. And like athletes in training, mental gymnastics takes repetition, practice, and tenacity. Failure, setbacks, and discouragement will happen. But we learn to keep going, keep trying. Success in life demands it. Not success in the conventional meaning (money and power), but to live life fully engaged.

We can do this. Press on my fellow mental gymnasts!

“There is a difference between interest and commitment. When you’re interested in something, you do it only when it’s convenient. When you’re committed to something, you accept no excuses, only results.”
~Kenneth H. Blanchard (leadership expert & author)

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July 2016: Tragedy

Posted on Jul 16, 2016

July 2016: Tragedy

Tragedy. It’s everywhere these days. What’s happening with our world? Where is all this global violence coming from? How have we progressed as a society in some ways, and yet regressed in others?

I don’t even know how to process all that’s going on in the world: from mass murdering people celebrating in France on Bastille Day, to the “gun slinging” in the States, to the murder of an innocent five-year-old child here in Alberta—just to name a few current events. The violence seems to be escalating along with climate change and natural disasters. How to make sense of it all?

For starters, suffering is “simply” part of life. There is no reason for it. It just is. Healing from tragedy requires us to make meaning of our personal suffering; but first we have to accept it as part of life. Suffering need not be taken as a personal agenda against us to teach us a lesson or test us—in fact that perspective can be very harmful. We can definitely learn lessons from or find meaning in what we experience, but that is not necessarily the reason for the suffering. Life happens to everyone. Everyone handles it differently. Some better than others. We can all learn from each other as we suffer commonly as a human race. Suffering can bring us together or draw us apart. Lately it seems to be more divisive than unifying.

Another basic human experience is that life is unfair. There are no guarantees or true talismans. At this thought, we can get sucked into despondency and depression. Or we can be motivated to love more, help more, share more, be more compassionate, be agents of change, be kind, be better humans. Live up to human potential rather than succumb to human baseness. Quit blaming and take ownership/responsibility. Set boundaries. Address disrespectful and harmful behaviour. Attend to each other. Appreciate. Make a difference. Expend positive energy. Contribute. Participate. Embrace. Promote healing and well being. The list is endless of the constructive ways we can effect change.

I really appreciate this quote by Dr. Sue Johnson, therapist and author:

Love has an immense ability to help heal the devastating wounds that life sometimes deals us. Love also enhances our sense of connection to the larger world. Loving responsiveness is the foundation of a truly compassionate, civilized society.

Somehow our world (and dare I say institutionalized religion) has lost touch with our fundamental need to love and be loved. I agree with A. Bertoli that our very purpose to be on this planet is to master loving each other. To take care of each other. We have failed miserably as a species to promote our very survival through compassionate care of one another and our world.

As overwhelming as it seems to correct this shift towards destruction of this planet and its occupants, we must grab onto hope that love will win in the end. We must reclaim our power to effect change through love and caring. We must redouble our efforts to be there for each other in all the suffering and tragedy that occurs all around us—even when we perpetrate the suffering and tragedy against ourselves as a global community. It’s heartbreaking to consider how we can be so cruel to each other. Let’s counter cruelty with connection and not division or separation.

How about this for a new twist on an old slogan: Keep Calm and Care On!

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August 2015: Healing Journey

Posted on Aug 16, 2015

August 2015: Healing Journey

If you recall last month’s posting, I have been experiencing periods of rest throughout the month of July. Well, it has continued into August, teaching me even more lessons about resting, waiting, trusting, and the healing journey. And, of course, more down time has afforded more time for thinking.

One of the stops along the healing journey this past month has been to track down on Facebook peers, friends, acquaintances from my youth, with limited success. This has been a curious by-product of my downtime considering I am one of those who would push my painful past into oblivion if I could. So it had me pondering what this rabbit trail was about, when it occurred to me that I have not been stricken with sadness or rejection if a friend request went unaccepted.

Now, normally I do not take rejection well. This development had me even more curious about this seeming rabbit trail on my healing journey. What was digging up people from my past all about? And I realized it wasn’t about the people at all, or expanding my friend list. It was about integrating my story rather than fragmenting it. I must quit pushing away the painful parts and start embracing my entire story—the saddest chapters included.

The other important lesson I have learned in the past month is to approach each day as a gift to be opened. Not knowing what would fill my days could have prompted anxiety to take over and even immobilize me. But taking the lessons from July about resting, I concentrated on spending my down time however I liked.

I chose not to listen to the workaholic voices that taunted me about garden and house work; and eventually they diminished. I did whatever struck my fancy—including napping. And I found the days filled themselves with activities. Restful activity. I didn’t push myself to accomplish anything except when I had casenotes to write. I found simple projects lying on the to-do pile that usually got shoved to the bottom. I focused on rest rather than productivity.

To my surprise, I find I will miss this slower pace of life. But it is not sustainable. Bills do need to be paid. Garden and house work does need to be completed. However, I can take these lessons into the next month.

I can continue to be open to each day as a gift to be unwrapped. I do not need to respond to down time with anxiety or face large projects feeling overwhelmed. I can tackle each day with whatever it brings, focusing on people rather than productivity—and sometimes the person I need to focus on is me.

Another avenue of discover was relinquishing the comfort, familiarity, and stability of routine. I kept looking to the next week to return to normal; but each day, each week looks so very different. I may have to quit looking for the familiar and start embracing each day as a novelty, each day being one-of-a-kind, unique. A gift to be opened. Obviously a tough lesson for me to learn as just the other day, my journal noted, “I really do need to learn that every day is a gift. To be lived fully. Even if that is resting/taking it easy.”

May you be able to open your arms wide to let in each day as it unfolds rather than be frustrated by unmet expectations or upset routine. Embrace each day as a gift to be opened. And it might just surprise you with joy!

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July 2015: Resting

Posted on Jul 16, 2015

July 2015: Resting

“We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing. We worry too much. We don’t allow our bodies to heal, and we don’t allow our minds and hearts to heal.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh

This theme or concept of resting has crossed my path a few times and in different ways over the past couple of weeks including Facebook quotes. I think it began when clients didn’t book the days around Canada Day; and I was given a ‘mandatory’ rest of a very lengthy week-end. The following couple of weeks have been lightly booked with clients providing yet more rest. And as a recovering workaholic, this has been the source of some stress. But surprisingly less than usual.

Maybe I am starting to get the hang of this resting and relaxing business. I certainly have not minded the down time to get caught up on reading and my own personal quiet times of reflection…which brings me to the next quote:

“Difficult problems take time to resolve. The more frantically you pick at knots, the more entangled they can become. To untangle yourself try relaxing. Gently and patiently work with your difficulties and in time you will be freed from what now seems impossible.”
~ Bryant McGill

During this time of ‘rest and relaxation,’ I have had opportunity to let go of some persistent worries (such as “Down time is nice, but so is financial security!”) in order for them to work themselves out rather than have me fuss over them getting further entangled and knotted. So it’s been quite the liberating experience to step back, cease worrying, and just be. And hence the third Facebook quote:

“You must let life flow naturally, for life’s secret is patience; you must stop pushing for change and allow things to unfold.”
~Leon Brown

Between mulling over this unprecedented decline in client load (plus what to do about it) and financial responsibilities is plenty of opportunity to relax and just be. Having faith in the “Greater Good/Universe/God/Higher Power/Creator” certainly has helped as well. But it’s one thing to believe in something and quite another to follow through. Here is my opportunity to stop fretting and allow things to unfold.

My body and soul have appreciated the slower pace even if my brain has other (legitimate) concerns. However, faith and experience are teaching me to let go—to uncurl my tightly clenched hands, to relinquish (perceived) control, to quit worrying knots into tangled messes, to step back and be patient, to rest and relax—allowing my body, mind and heart to heal—and to stop all that pushing for change and allow things to unfold.

An image comes to mind of a flower bud slowly unfurling to reveal its full beauty and fragrance. Picking at the petals of the closed bud won’t bring forth an open bloom but will only damage what must emerge with time and patience. This time of unexpected quiet for me is like a bud waiting to open to something even better and more brilliant.

What’s required of me? Patience and faith. For fretting is like picking the petals of the bud trying to force it to open.

May you have the faith and patience to rest and relax knowing things will unfold in their own time and way. You’ll see.

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