Essays, recovery, trauma

How optimism saved my life (and sanity)

why I am an optimist

I don’t call myself an optimist to self-compliment. It can actually be a curse. I don’t get to wallow in self pity for long. I forgive people way too quickly. I trust others in bad situations, and I put myself in close proximity to toxic people because of my naïve nature, thinking that people will be good if I just give them a chance.

But I’m proud, too, of being an optimist. It’s gotten me through the dark times of my life. Very dark. I have survived a lot: When I was 8, my parents divorced. At age 10, my mother, the county jail nurse, moved a convicted felon straight from the jail into our home. By the time I was 15, I’d been molested by a family friend and then repeatedly gang raped by my boyfriend’s friends for a year and a half—all high school athletes—until numbness overtook me. For the remainder of high school, I acted out in every way possible, demonstrating just how poorly I thought of myself and found myself pregnant in my first year of college, but I lost the baby to a heart-wrenching birth defect. It took me seven years and five schools to graduate college, and I did it all on my own, amassing a huge amount of debt and hangovers and a strong circle of friends who believed in me as much as I did.

Finally, at 25, as I found myself through a career I’d wanted since I was a child reading books and magazines under the covers with my flashlight, I began to blossom, and my optimism, my ability to see the light through any tunnel I’d trudged through, started to do more than just save my life—it enabled me to fully enjoy it.

And that’s when the universe gifted me with Maria, a strong, sincere woman who loves me despite my troubled past and supports me emotionally through the good and bad times. For the next five years, our love bloomed and grew. The moment she proposed to me in Central Park, the day before I turned 30, rushing rivers of happiness plummeted through my body. I couldn’t wait for my father, a man for whom my affection was boundless, to walk me down the aisle.

When he was ripped from my life just 8 months before my wedding, my heart throbbed in a way I never knew possible. My whole chest ached as the loss drenched me. It would be years before I could even speak of him without tears quickly spilling down my cheeks, without warning. By my side through this has been my steadfast wife, but on my other side has been my sweet brother, a man whom I’ve admired and appreciated as a devoted father, a beloved uncle and a really fun comrade. George walked me down the aisle when I married Maria in 2009, and has stood by my side through thick and thin in every way. When my mother and I became estranged before the wedding, George helped me cope with comedic relief (how else are you going to deal with a woman who tells you a week after your dad dies that her responsibility to her children ended when they turned 18?).

It never got much better with me and my mom because every time we were around each other, I would open myself up with a forgiving heart, only to get hurt again (see how that optimism is my Achilles heel?). When my brother became terribly ill with severe acute pancreatitis this past November, it took me 24 hours of serious pep talk to embolden myself with nerves of steel and some serious detachment to put my strained relationship with my mother aside to help my brother. As George’s sickness progressed and he was put into a medically induced coma, my mother’s mental capabilities decreased and I had to take on the role of parent in addition to sibling, taking on all of George’s financial affairs and medical decisions.

It was a 15-week roller coaster of incredulous highs and rock-bottom lows, peppered with a sharp increase of verbal abuse from my mother (winning statements include disowning me and my children, and telling me she was sick of me and didn’t want anything to do with me once George recovered), the death of our dog at Christmas, our water heater breaking, the threat of toxic air pumping into our lungs and thus our heat having to be turned off for two days, a close friend of George’s going absolutely mental on me, daily discussions with George’s doctors in ICU and then his horrid rehab facility and then getting him moved back to ICU, all on my own because my mother was essentially just a visitor coming to see George and looking to me to make all of the decisions.

The lowest point of the journey of George’s illness was his rapid decline at the end due to the development of three medically resistant infections. Ten days after he had taken 10 steps, the doctors were speaking to me with heartbreaking phrases such as “it’s time to think about hospice” and “we’re doing him more harm than good” and “he’s on the strongest antibiotics available and they’re not working” and “there’s nothing more we can do for him.”

We moved George into hospice on the last Friday in February. Those were some of the longest days, but they were no longer filled with the constant worry that had troubled me the last 14 weeks. While George was in hospice, I felt that I was watching his spirit being tangibly stilled with peacefulness, and though it was difficult to watch him slowly leave his body, it was an honor to be by his side throughout it all. By Tuesday night, his breathing became so shallow that it woke me up. I’m a heavy sleeper with serious hearing impairment in both ears. But I had watched him breathe for more than an hour before I’d finally given into sleep, only to wake three hours later when his breathing made significant changes. He was gone 30 minutes later, and I laid my head on his strong chest and let out my tears for my sweet brother, just 18 months older than me, with two children of his own, and his entire future wiped out. Poof. Gone. My heart remains broken, and I don’t know when it will be repaired. Maybe it won’t be. I’m not trying to fix it right now.

The family slowly gathered after I made the phone calls around 4:30 a.m., and by 11, the funeral home had come to take George’s body. At a family lunch at noon, my mother threatened the life of her only living child: me. And though I remained calm and polite and invited her to a therapy session with me, inside I knew that in order to protect myself and my own family, I needed to put some distance between us for awhile. Again. It’s not our first go at estrangement after all, and though I might be too forgiving, the time has come to be even more protective of what I have left.

Life will continue to hand out lemons, and though I’m honestly not trying to make lemonade from it, I am still able to enjoy the happiness that life offers, even in the midst of trauma and tragedy. Life is a bounty of smooth and rough patches, and I’m quite certain that it’s better this way, than always being easy with no challenges. Does life suck sometimes? Absolutely. There’s no question about it. Do people suck sometimes? Clearly they can. But most of them don’t, and I feel such a connection with the people on this planet, just for the simple fact that we are all in this together, that I haven’t lost any of my faith in humanity. Do I startle easily? Yes. Do I more easily suspect people of child abuse and molestation? All the time. Do I want to make sure my wife drives extra carefully and goes to the doctor once a month to make sure no crazy illnesses are developing? Yes, I’m guilty of now worrying that I might lose her, too.

But I’m not searching for any deep meaning for the reason that I have lost both my brother and my father and have been left with one family member—the one who loves me the least—from my original four-pack, because to me, there’s no good reason. Life just isn’t fair. We enjoy who we are blessed with for as long as we have them. I’m going to do my very best to enjoy the people I have left in my life while enjoying my own existence. I am just happy to still be here.

Meditation, recovery, trauma, Wellness

The gift of breathing

yoga breathing PTSD

Rainy Sunday mornings are right for praising life with yoga. My first session of the season is going resplendently well. My body isn’t arguing with me as I thought it might—a dedicated yoga class hasn’t been on the calendar in 10 years. A twin pregnancy and decadent, indulgent food in a metropolitan city as a restaurant editor have enabled me to eat recklessly.

Through death and abandonment, my original family of four shrank to one in the course of just a few years. I have grief-gobbled myself into a puffy caterpillar form, minus the legs. Finally, I’ve earned the mockery of the high school girls calling me an elephant, a quarter-century too late.

But my body is strong and limber today, giving me what I need. Hips opened wide after delivering two darling boys in one night—finally, I birthed a living child; full healing lungs breathe in deeply instead of screaming and gasping after a 15-year childhood stint of sucking on the cancer sticks (family legacy).

As we move through our positions, I hear my therapist’s words in my head: “Inhale deeply through your nose as if you’re trying to smell freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Then breathe out of your mouth so strongly as if you’re trying to blow out birthday candles across the room.” In. Out. Mindful breathing. Here we go.

I glance around the room of my “Easy Like Sunday Morning” yoga class, and I’m as relaxed as a breeze. The relief draws tears to my eyes. My pink nose tingles as if I’ve just inhaled a solitary snowflake. I am determined to honor the flow of the class.

Yearning to belong, I train my eyes on the bodies of the yoga soldiers in our packed class. Their bodies sinewy and muscled underneath their supple skin, their techniques refined. I revel in their wisdom and lovingly bathe in their path, mimicking their movements like a chubby toddler parrots her mama.

As we commit to the downward dog, we push up from our mats with an exhalation of breath for power, and two strong arms. As we lift our hips back into the air and draw our ribs toward the spine, we inhale, and then exhale fully.

We sit upright comfortably, feet tucked ever so slightly under the opposite leg. Crisscross applesauce. I place my single right fingertip behind my tailbone to provide all the support my entire body needs. I do this. Like a giraffe reaching for a bite of leaves from the tallest tree, I turn my body to the warm gray light, dappling in from the rain-splashed windows.

Then the class moves into an intense hip-stretching exercise. I’m a contortionist, with my right foot pressing into my soft belly dough and my left leg drawn back taut, pretending to be a sleek arrow on the hunt, pulled taut on the crossbow.

Like cracking open a coconut, I roll the outside of my right hip down by pushing into the outside edge of my foot and even out my seat. Somehow, as I am wincing to manage all of this, we lay forward and open ourselves fully to the ground, in a humbling, vulnerable open prayer to the fire in our loins.

During this time, the teacher tells us that we should never push ourselves to do anything that feels unsafe or painful. I’m immediately overwhelmed, and my eyes react by silently bawling. My cheeks are wet with the basic cooking ingredients of water, salt and necessity as I consider the basics that I didn’t receive growing up, the basic protections, the simplest of advice—the most primitive of worry.

After twinning the exercise on the opposite leg, we rustle up to stretch out into bent-over wide-legged triangles. It’s now that I take note of the male student behind me. Was he here all along? I’ve already tallied two in the classroom—one softer male three mats over to my right and another in the far right corner—but it’s alarming to think there’s a full-grown muscled man right behind me who I wasn’t aware of.

This heart quickens.

Suddenly, it’s time to relax and I’m supposed to trust this space. As the class draws toward the end, the instructor has us pull into our child’s pose. She tells us we are safe. We transition into rolling onto our backs, lifting up our hips and legs. “Stretch your legs out as you need,” she tells us.

Soothing music lulls around me as I roll my hips around, relieving them from the hard work I’ve done in the earlier exercise. The teacher says to make this practice our own. She’s turned the lights a little lower, to relax people, and she’s walking around waving aromatic scents of lavender salve under our noses.

My legs are tucked above me—I’m in a reverse child’s pose, except my arms are tightly wrapped around my legs and my eyes are closed to relish in the relaxation.

The instructor leans down and whispers to me, “Is your back hurting?”

I pop my eyes open and look around. Everyone has their legs flat on their mats, yet my arms are fiercely pulling my shins down to my belly. My legs are hugged in tightly; I’m giving myself the embrace I wish the people of my world could. Or would.

Cocooned, I am wrapped into myself: a tiny little package, impenetrable. I lock eyes with my teacher’s shiny blue eyes. She is here for me, with a gift of only love and assistance. I am broken down once more, and my shoulders quake.

I manage a smile and say, “No.” She gently takes my feet and pulls my legs out. Now I match my peers in position.

I know then what is wrong and I hiccup-cry as I try to mindfully smell cookies and blow out birthday candles but try try try as I might, I can’t close my eyes because I never know when another group of high school football players are going to force me in a closet again to take their turn at seven minutes in my hell or just one dark muscled man is going to lock the door, shove a dresser in front of it, and then heave himself on top of me with a hammer in his hand, reeking of a stench of old urine I’ll never unsmell, shoving his body parts inside of me, while I fight to breathe on a thin dark orange blanket in the middle of the darkest night, lost. My psyche caresses worse memories away before my mind is rendered powerless, a lost balloon floating above my body. Watching. Waiting. Breath withheld.

“Gratitude,” the instructor begins to read a poem out loud. Her gentle voice waxes and wanes in my ears as my heart thumps and burns in my chest. I have pulled in my lower lip with my two front teeth, and I’m chewing on it in rhythm to my heart.

I’m nauseatingly aware too that I’ve just whimpered like a newborn puppy. (Did anyone hear?) 

For the love, please no one look at me right now.

My right hand twists around my lime green mat, fingers writhing on the cool wooden floor below like the stripper I can’t believe I didn’t become, who I chose to not become.

This is no longer an exercise in relaxation. I’m fighting for air and my eyes are wide open in a full-blown panic attack.

I wonder if I should run out, but I’m frozen in fear (a familiar feeling).

Tears pool around my earlobes, and I pray they aren’t wetting my expensive hearing aids. The first of the calendar month zings our accounts to cover tuition and therapy for our autistic son. Goodness. A merry-go-round of indulgent self-pity that I haven’t yet succumbed to encircles my head like a revolving crown of shame. My entire body begins to shake, wishing for just one tiny break in the clouds.

I think to myself: I know where I am. I am in a safe place. I am in control.


I have placed myself here, and I am grateful for the journey I am on.

This moment is mine. I choose this moment. I choose this place.

I blow out the birthday candles, for I am reborn in my strength of choosing.

I am grateful to be breathing.

This essay was first published on The Manifest-Station.


Essays, recovery, trauma

Mothering as a survivor of abuse, sexism and racism

 survivor mother

I am a survivor of racism, among other things. It makes me a hypervigilant mother. You can find me on the lookout for teachable moments: cultural appropriation in music video costumes, generalized assumptions based on race, and every children’s show or movie from Disney.

I am a survivor of sexism, among other things. When I bring my car in for repair, I bring my son with me. He is 9. He watches the repairman talk over me repeatedly before stepping in. “I saw it happen,” he says, and the mechanic suddenly believes me and sees the problem too. We talk about gender privilege on the way home. My son says, “I will never be like that man,” and I know he won’t.

Some days I do not function. I sit on the couch and hold my head together with my hands. Repeat mantras to stay present because I have children I love and want to care for. I am told to shake it off. Just push through it. Take some medicine. Get some therapy. I am the survivor of ableism. I tell my kids Mommy is having a hard time today and I need extra help. We work together to make it to bedtime.

Those days I do not function are because I am the survivor of abuse and assault. Individuals in positions of privilege have controlled my body to get what they want. Their actions stay with me even with medication and therapy and shaking it off and pushing through it. And when my children throw tantrums, I am sick to my stomach. I scream at sudden motions or sounds. I cry when we’ve made it through to the end because a piece of me is still a terrified child, a terrified young woman, a terrified adult.

But the flip side of this is awareness; the ability to draw attention to social inequality and discuss the ways we make it better. First, we notice. Second, we speak up. Third, we do not repeat the transgression. Safe touch, safe speech, safe action. Solidarity.

Together, my children and I learn how to extend radical compassion without excusing violent behavior. We are allies to Others who, like me, have survived/are surviving. We acknowledge their realities and offer support because these actions are healing. This world needs healing.


My favorite moments are the quiet ones. When the toys are put away and we cuddle together, book in hand. We read of underdogs turned heroes. They defeat their evil, protracted metaphors for Othering and abuse. When we read, we all get to be the hero. Our voices are never silenced. There is no limit to what we can accomplish.

The couch transverses time, space and reality. We forget our world for awhile. Even the stunningly beautiful parts. Ice cream, birthday cake, a fire in the fireplace, parks, friends and animal companions. There is other beauty in other worlds to discover without the responsibility of now.

There is nothing quite so beautiful to me as my children in my arms. Those moments when we all rest and breathe together and do not think about learning or teachable moments or injustices. We simply are. We slip into another story even as we are writing our own.


Shawna Ayoub Ainslie is a writing coach and essayist who writes on issues of race, place and survivorship at The Honeyed Quill. Her work has recently appeared in The Huffington Post, The Manifest-Station, Medium, Art Saves Lives International and Role Reboot. She is the content editor for On the Verge, an online magazine for everyone, and is currently coordinating a series of writing competitions to raise money for her son’s service dog


Essays, grieving

Saying goodbye in hospice

It seems to be universally true what Lesléa Newman writes about her mother dying in hospice. They wait until you’re not there to go. I awoke to my brother’s labored breath around 3 a.m. I jumped up from the fold-out blue leather chair bed where I’d been dozing beside my sweet sibling, fading in and out of dreams of when we were young and climbing on trees in the woods. We were strong in muscle and in spirit.

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quotes, recovery, trauma

Frida Kahlo is part of my tribe. Maybe you are too.

I know I’m strange, but I’m not the only one. I take comfort in this. Though I’m not uncomfortable being strange. My wife gives me sideways glances a lot. “You’re weird,” she states, as if she’s just now noticed after 12 years. “Do you know that you’re weird?”

And I’m not doing anything all that odd when she declares my strangeness as if it’s something to be examined. I hold my coffee mug with two hands. She says I look like a turn-of-the-century poor child begging for soup in the cobbled streets of England. I say that’s a bit of a stretch.

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grieving, parenting, trauma

Remembering the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting

I remember the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting quite well. It was one of the worst news announcements I’ve heard in my life. Because of where I was when it happened, the hideous massacre is forever connected to my own family trauma that was happening during December 2012. My wife and I were on our way to have a meeting with my brother’s medical team about his condition: severe acute pancreatitis. At this time, he’d been in the hospital for only two weeks and was already in a medically induced coma.

The news of the shooting came over the radio. My wife and I were in a grief-filled fog of shock and horror. Tears bulged out of our eyes like marbles, not quite spilling on our cheeks. As new parents we were aghast at the thought of something like this happening to our little ones, and we each felt our heart being ripped in solidarity with the parents of the dead children of Sandy Hook Elementary.

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Beware the barrenness of a busy life

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life,” said Socrates. When we are rushing from one task to the other, we leave no time for reflection, no time for gratitude on what we have in our lives that enrich us, that build us up, that which makes us whole. But we also leave no time for the people in our lives. Even if we’re rushing around with the people. Say, little people, like our children, bussing them from soccer practice to gymnastics to school to lunch to birthday parties. We say we’re doing it all for them, but are we? Or maybe you’re a corporate climber, constantly bouncing to meetings, smartphone glued to your hand, waiting for the next break, always improving your network and social reach, eyes bugged out, needing to be on 24/7 or else.

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True nobility

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” — Ernest Hemingway