Monday, March 20, 2017

Healing From Divorce: A woman's journey of the heart

"If You're Going Through Hell, Keep Going"
~Winston Churchill

I truly believe that no one says "I do" with the intention of parting.  It is the dream of the "happily ever after."  The story.  The ideal.  The hope.  We believe that marriage will create stability in our lives, and it can.  But, it also doesn't always deliver, and according to the most recent statistics, it rarely does in our society.  78% of people have been divorced.

Times are changing.  Things are different.  Historically, marriage has rarely been about love.  Its been about real estate, the joining of kingdoms, for commerce, peace, war, economic gain, etc.  Romance wasn't necessarily part of the equation.  More often than not, marriages were arranged, and even then affairs were common knowledge, mistresses were par for the course, and it was known that a spouse didn't necessarily equate to a fulfilling love life.

A perfect example of this is the old King Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triage.  Guinevere married Arthur to join their kingdoms.  It was a wise pairing based on mutual government and military advantage.  However, Guinevere's romantic interests were found in the dashing Lancelot.  He was brave.  He was gregarious.  Nothing was solid and steady about him.  Unlike the wise Arthur, who ruled with a judicious hand, was known for his fairness, and brought peace to nations.

Guinevere & Lancelot

When did romance and marriage become synonymous?  Is it even healthy?  Most love experts say no.  Our culture's expectations of love and romance are diluted by unhealthy expectations, which have proven to be ineffective.  It's also been proven that, all around, from a mental, emotional and physical well being perspective, that men benefit more by the institution of marriage than women do.

How then do we reconcile the notion of marriage?  Is there hope in it?  Is it worth doing in this day and age?  This is a question each couple must decide for themselves.  There is no right or wrong answer.

When marriage fails, how do you move forward from a dream that is now gone?  How do you make sense of the "bubble" that's been burst?  I never grew up really buying into the prince-on-a-horse saving me concept.  I was too independent.  Too awnry.  Too wild.  I was always in the ER:  making capes out of blankets (& jumping off our roof), climbing trees, challenging boys to skateboarding contests, stealing my mother's red lipstick and painting war stripes on my face, carrying around my Boa Constrictor in a backpack to school, jumping in muddle puddles, catching salamanders at the resevoir.  My mother had 5 separate fences, put around our backyard, to keep me in.  Each one higher than the last.  Each one more futile than the previous.

I'll never forget my Oma sitting me down, I had painted war paint on my face with my Mom's lipstick, had red Snoopy galoshes on, and a beautiful pink dress with lace...covered in mud.  I was 6 years old.  She said, "Look at you!  You're filthy!  You will never find a husband.  Never.  Boys don't like girls like you.  You will scare them.  Do you understand me?!?"  I never liked her.  My Oma.  She was an emotionally scarred woman.  She was a product of the Apartheid Wars in South Africa, left bitter by them.  I was always defiant to her.  My lower lip started trembling, mud dripping down my dress into my rainboots, down my hair, hanging on the tips of my lashes.

"I'm not like you!  I'm not like any of you!  I don't need a husband!  Leave me alone!  I can take care of myself!  You're mean!  I won't be like you!  I will save myself!"  I ran out the door, in the pouring rain, and spent the night in my tree house that night, shivering, falling asleep to the sound of the ocean waves.

That night I had a dream.  I still remember it...to this day.  I was riding on a beautiful horse, bareback, on the beach.  I felt free.  I began to see the silouette of an old man in the distance.  He had a long staff.  He walked slowly towards me, through the mist.  He put his hand out to me to stop.  I did.  He walked up to the horse, and pet its mane.  He looked at me and said, "You are a warrior.  You are far from your home.  You are not from here.  I'm sorry.  You will be alone much of your life.  But, not necessarily lonely.  Someday, you will meet a weary warrior, like you.  You two will walk next to one another, in respect.  But, it will be later."  He turned and walked away.

Is this a metaphor?  Is this a foretelling?  It doesn't really matter.  The message is important:  you will be alone, but not lonely.  This is a powerful message for anyone going through, or just having come out of a divorce.  It IS okay to be alone.  Our species isn't really built to be alone, long term.  But, it is important to learn to enjoy your own company.  Some of the best dates I've been on have been with myself.  I've really come to enjoy, and be interested in, my own company.  I like myself.  Its a freeing feeling.  The neediness and the clingyness for stability, and someone to love, doesn't shadow my world.  It interests me, but I'm not bound by it.

I often don't relate to women in my age bracket.  I frequently hang out with women of the menopausal age, because they're generally kind of over the ridiculousness of being needed so much. This isn't to say they don't love.  They do.  It just comes from a deeper sense of self.  A clearer understanding of who they are.

I needed to see what the big fuss was about, though.  I needed to understand society's need for being needed.  Think on that a bit.  I like to be useful.  I like to give and receive love.  I'm not cold-harded. Quite the contrary.  My love comes from a deeper place now.  A solid well of admiration, respect, peppered with a bit of romance.  But, naive expectations?  No.   And, its from that place I feel I'm able to love in a more real way.  More authentic than ever.

One of the most powerful things divorce taught me is that I'm even more tough than I thought I was.  And that was a relief.  I'm a tough cookie.  But, I grew up in a safe household.  I had a great childhood.  I was lucky to dodge the statistics of abuse, drugs and alcohol, growing up.  I had no emotional or physical parameters for my husband's behavior.  I wasn't accustomed to drug and alcohol addiction.  Day, after day, drug and alcohol induced rages became the norm.  I use to pack up my dogs and sleep in my office, for fear of the escalated violence that began to occur in my world. My peace had left me.  My animals would urinate all over themselves in fright, when he would come home.  He used to grab my wrists and shake me to the ground, until I would shake in the corner of the room in fright.  He would then say, "Now, you know what it feels like to feel fear."

I began to realize that I attracted him in my life to learn the opposite of love.  We humans learn through opposites.  Our chemistry was a spark that turned into a wildfire I couldn't control.  I needed to understand everything I could about fear.  I was already a climber.  I had looked fear in the eye through that lense.  My whole childhood was doing extreme acts that made the other kids feel fearful. I had traveled the world, alone, through third-world countries, to face my fear of being alone.  Yet, I hadn't experienced love turning into fear...until my marriage.  And, that was the most valuable lesson of all.

High-Ball Bouldering, North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii

An old palm reader came up to me in Varanasi, India, in 1997, and said to me, "Child, you are a student of fear.  You are here to master it on all levels."

Varanasi, India

The day I handed my husband divorce papers, hands shaking, was the day, I began to understand that I would be okay.  My voice trembled and stuttered, "I can no longer help you.  You need to help yourself.  Go home to your family.  Heal yourself.   Thank you for the lessons.  You are free now, and so am I."

That night a great storm swept through the high desert of where I live.  I lived in a small rental home that was a true "fixer upper."  The roof leaked buckets of water into my bedroom and living room.  I had pots and pans all over the house, catching water.  We only had a wood-burning stove.  No electrical heat.  The dogs howled with the roar of thunder, and hid under the bed.  I had a panic attack, realizing, I was truly alone now.  I tried to call my parents.  They were out of the country.  My sister?  In Mexico.  My brother?  In Colombia.  Everyone was gone.  I sat in a heap on the floor, and cried the hardest I had since my best friend died.  After I cried, until I could cry no more, I felt a wave of peace over me, and had a sense of knowing that my end would be a beginning.  Its inevitable.  It is the law of nature, and the way of things.  Your end will be a beginning.  This, I can promise.  As sure as the sun comes up every day.  Your tears will water the newness of a fresh start.  Time is the only true healer.  It comes slower than we want it to, but heals the heart more thorougly.

There are some practical things that you can do, from day-to-day, to take care of yourself.   I will let Sophia McDermott address some of these things, and touch on the subject of self-care.  We have both been through it.  We have grieved.  We have lost.  We have both rebuilt ourselves, and are in the continuing process of doing so.  You can too.  You will realize you ARE so much stronger than you ever thought imaginable.  This is your freedom.

Almine & Sophia Have Both Been Through Divorce, And Came Out Stronger

From Sophia:

Divorce is one of the most difficult times a human being can go through and yet statistically it is something that almost 50% of us experience. In  my previous article I discussed some of the heartbreaking factors associated with divorce as well as some management strategies such as focusing on being in the present moment and exercises to  help you get there.  In this article I want to look at the rollercoaster of emotions we go through during the grieving process and strategies to deal with these. Too many people around me have experienced this difficult stage in life and I have seen some channel their pain into positive ways and others into not so positive ways. I think if we build awareness on the subject and make this less of a 'taboo' topic more and more people can be learn about the grieving process which leads to a greater understanding. Once we are made aware of the stages of grieving that most of us go through we can first and foremost have greater acceptance of the process and our emotions and then adopt coping strategies that allow us to work through the emotional process of grieving.
The process of grieving is quite universal, whether it be because of divorce or a death or a diagnosis of a serious,  life changing illness. This is because the overall theme is about loss. When we lose something important in our lives or
lose part of our lives we tend to experience the myriad of emotions in this order, which are:
Shock or Disbelief
Acceptance and Hope

METHODS TO MOTIVATE: (For the stages of shock, denial and depression.)
Sometimes when you are in shock and denial you tend to be frozen like a deer in headlights. Consumed in your thoughts of 'why?' and 'how?' it can be difficult to carry out a usual day, especially if your significant other was a big part of your daily routine. Depression can make you unmotivated, tired and lethargic. The will to get out and do things seems to be diminished. It is exactly for these reasons why you should enroll in a set class or hire a trainer,
whereby the instructor or trainer can hold you accountable if you don't turn up. The other bonus of joining a class is that you are around other people and hopefully in a joyous and positive environment which can help lift your spirits.

Sophia teaching a Jiu-Jitsu Seminar
CREATE A PHYSICAL OUTLET:  (For the stage of anger.)
For other stages of grieving such as anger, I think it is really important to channel this emotion into something physical. Punching the crap out of a heavy bag is a wonderful way to release it all. Doing something with high intensity that really works your body is the key. Although you may feel tired after the session you will also feel great, having channelled that anger out all the while your body is high on endorphins- your feel good hormones.
If a martial arts is not for you, whether it be MMA, kickboxing or jiu jitsu, there are other exercises that you can do in the gym such as sprinting, or jump rope.

Check Out Sophia's Website For Exercises To Help Empower You Through Divorce At:

This is a great plyometric exercise for the upper body to develop speed and power. In order to be able to do this exercise you must be able to perform push ups and have decent core strength to support the spine while performing this exercise on an unstable and uneven surface as well as transitioning from side to side. 
Aim to do 10 push ups each side, 3 times through and try to keep a straight shape from head to toes.
- burpees with a jump.
Burpees are an awesome full body exercise. They work your upper body, lower body and your cardiovascular fitness. Remember to bend your legs instead of just bending at the hips when you lower yourself down to the ground. Kick your feet back to create a strong plank shape for the push up. Once you have performed the push up, bring your feet back in and jump from a squat position. Aim to do 20 reps, 3 times through.
Medicine Ball Push-Ups Build Strength & Confidence For Women

These exercises are high in intensity and require a lot of energy. The aim is put all your efforts into jumping as high as you can, or propelling yourself from side to side in the push-ups or kicking that bag as hard and as fast as you can.

These dynamic exercises are exhausting, and rightly so. They work many different muscle groups, they  require balance, power, speed and coordination and intensity which is the perfect recipe to channel that anger.
Getting in a class environment or hiring a trainer will help motivate you if you are feeling shocked and depressed and the coach or trainer can hold you accountable if you miss a session.  So whether it be divorce or a traumatic event in your life that is causing you to experience grief, adopting some healthy strategies such as these will help you along the process and make it more manageable.

Almine Barton:  @alminebarton
Sophia McDermott:  @sophiamcdermottbjj

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Foes to Friends: One Journey From Opponents To Allies

"If You Want To Go Fast, Go Alone.
If You Want To Go Far, Go Together."

~ African Proverb

When two women meet in a competition setting they have choices.  The choice presents itself to see one another as adversaries or teachers.  The ego likes the adversary.  The heart loves the teacher.  There is already so much pitting women against women.  Our society almost designs it that way, in many aspects.

I'm not oblivious to the animal kingdom.  There are alphas and there are betas.  One is not better than the other.  They both serve different roles in the grand order of things.  But, lets face it.  You are probably an alpha female if you're drawn to competing in combat sports.  Its possible, yet unlikely, a beta would even be drawn to this.

So, what happens when two alpha females meet one another, eye to eye, in a combat sport setting?  Sometimes a journey of the soul ensues.  A journey of introspection, dark feelings, resolution, ending with deep mutual respect and sisterhood.

Here's the journey that Vickie Valdez and I have undertaken.  Our journey of friendship, competition, training, and understanding has seasoned us as women.  We hope that by sharing our process, you too may benefit in some way...


I became an athlete later in life. Growing up, I did not play any sports, which is what I thought being an athlete equaled. I opted out of gym class to take AP Chemistry. I was co-captain of the speech team and editor of the literary magazine. I crafted an identity around being nerdy and crafty and a love of learning. My body and what it could do was not relevant.

In my early 30s, I started lifting weights. I found a trainer and fell in love with the barbell. I obsessed about my squat and worked to improve my bench press. The metrics of it - logging reps and sets, setting PRs - were exceptionally satisfying. They would be a comfort when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 34. Lifting became a greater focus, as it was something I could control during a time when I felt out of control. I met with my trainer as soon as I was able after each chemotherapy session, and after surgery I had to rebuild much of my upper body strength.

About three years ago I joined a new gym where I’ve had the chance to learn completely new sports, like Olympic weightlifting and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). This is where I began to think of myself as an athlete. I started competing in powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting and BJJ - all with the excellent guidance of my coaching team and without injury. My understanding of my body, of what I can ask it to do, started to shift.

"Hard Work Yields Success"

Jiu jitsu, for me, has been more about getting my mind and my body to work together. The physical aspects are challenging, as is the need to repeatedly drill movements and techniques so they feel natural. But what I’ve struggled with, and continue to struggle with to be honest, is my mental ability in the fight. Unfortunately for my friend Almine, she was initially an instrument for much of my learning. 

Almine was my very first competitor in my very first BJJ tournament. I’d been training for about 6 months at that point, and have never been in a physical fight in my life. Once we slapped hands, my brain shut down. I panicked. There was a lady trying to hurt me. My brain stopped as she pulled me into guard and choked me in 38 seconds. My second match was better, but I succumbed to that same x-choke.

Over the next few months, she became my arch enemy. She was so nice I thought she was being fake, trying to get in my head. I wanted to beat her. I wanted to choke her. I called her not nice things. My teammates knew about all about it. My coaches used the thought of her as a tool to get me to train harder. I want to say that my lack of experience in competitive sports meant I was learning as an adult what most people learn in their youth. But I can’t really defend what is an exceptionally shitty attitude.

We competed against each other in three tournaments, during which I never did beat her. I was frustrated and acted coldly towards her - stuck in my own head. It was when she came to my gym for a charity competition that I was finally able to put myself in her shoes. To have empathy. She was scared. Usual competition jitters combined with a fear that the other ladies were going to be mean to her. Any enmity I had evaporated. I could see in her pieces of myself - someone who’s had to work to feel comfortable in her own skin. On that day we started building a friendship, and it’s become one I can rely on and am grateful for, both on good days and bad.

Vickie Competing
Photo Credit:  SmithHammer Photography

I’ve competed since and will compete again, but never again against Almine. I'm still working on the mental game, and have a lot more to learn. But this experience with Almine taught me that focusing on my competition doesn't help. Feeling angry or wanting to beat someone just means I’ve lost my control over myself. I’m really competing against the little part of my brain that is yelling that someone is trying to hurt me. I’m competing against my own sense of self and my willingness to keep fighting. I’m lucky that other ladies sign up to compete in my division as it gives me the opportunity to measure that progress against full resistance.

Almine & Vickie Competing At "SubLeague," Portland, Oregon


Competition was a new concept for me.  Excuse the pun, but it really was one I grappled with.  My background is climbing.  Unless you're going for some major speed record up "El Capitan," or doing an indoor climbing comp, people really don't compete with one another in climbing.  Its more about pushing your personal limits, enjoying nature, taking in the views, and cheering on one another, when you're pushed to your edge.  That's what I'm used to.

Almine, free-soloing, North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii

Sure, I've also done "CrossFit" for a decade, and have been a certified coach for almost 5 years now, but I never saw myself as a competitor within the sport.  It was just more of a fitness class for me, where I got to see my girlfriends, and cheer one another on.

You'll notice a theme with me:  cheering one another on.   This is the essence of who I am.  I've always felt particularly passionate about this amongst women.  I've always felt myself to be a "cheerleader" for women, women's rights, and empowerment.

So, when I was given an opportunity to compete in Jiu-Jitsu, it was a foreign thought to me.  Sure, I liked watching the UFC.  I understand you don't have to be mean to be tough.  But, what I've found, over the years, is that not all women have learned that lesson.  They feel the two go hand-in-hand.  That they're inseparable.  That's unfortunate to me.  A famous example of this is the Rousey vs. Holm fight.   I've always had challenges with Ronda's trash-talking her opponents, treating them poorly (see "Ultimate Fighter" t.v. series), and threatening them.  I never saw a need for this. When Holly Holm knocked Ronda out, she exhibited pure class.  Staying with her trash-talking opponent until she received medical attention, making sure she was okay.  This was even after Ronda demonstrated horrible sportsmanship towards her at the weigh-in and wouldn't touch gloves with her, at the start of the fight.  "Why?  Why are you like that, Ronda?"  I've always wondered.  I didn't understand the need for it, and still don't.  I instantly became a Holly Holm fan, then and there.  Class, integrity, sportsmanship, and kindness CAN exist in combat sports.  In fact, to me, its the origins of martial arts.

Rousey vs. Holm, UFC #193

In my 3 years of BJJ, I've realized a lot of women start the sport, fighting invisible "ghosts."  These ghosts are comprised of memories, most of them painful.  They're fighting those "demons," really.  Not you.  Many people who enter the world of combat sports do so with a "chip" on their shoulder.  They're fighting and running against their darkest self.   When you can do as much internal introspection as you can physical training, you realize the meaning of the Ying/Yang symbol. They're interdependent.  Kindness and combat, actually, aren't mutually exclusive.  The word"Code" is fundamental to who I am.  I choose to live, to the utmost of my ability to the Bushido "code," or "Way."  This means, your competition is, in actuality, your teacher.  How can you feel anger at one whose about to teach you something?

Vickie has taught me many things.  She's wise.  She's funny.  She's kind.  She gave me a second chance.  This second chance came in the form of changing her viewpoint of me, and our connection.  She gave both of us the opportunity to go from "opponent" to "training partners."  She gave me a second chance, seeing me as enemy, initially, tofriend.  I'm grateful to her for this.  This is how I've always wanted to be seen. This is how I will always wish to be seen.

I'm not afraid of failure.  A win has never been as important to me as sisterhood and community.   My hope is for all women in combat sports to embrace this.  Its a wonderful thing when you can.  Its like a soothing balm to the heart.  Forgiveness is one of the highest emotional laws there is.

Vickie, (her Professor) Hillary Wright VanOrnum, & Almine

Because Vickie and I have transformed our friendship into one of deep mutual respect, we're now training partners.  We don't go to the same gym.  We don't even live in the same city.  In fact, we're 3+ hrs. apart.  Yet, we maintain an ongoing cyber "training log," where we post inspirational quotes, what obstacles come up for us on the mats (whether mental, physical or emotional), and have begun a wonderful year of goal-setting together.

Almine & Her Professor, Ryan Clark


"Impact Jiu-Jitsu," Portland, OR.  


"Clarks Univ. Of Martial Arts," Bend, OR.

Almine & Vickie's Sponsor:

"SmithHammer Photography"