A Sista Survivor’s Journey: Thriving Amidst the Light and Chaos
By Claire Jones
“Where I was born and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.”-Georgia O’Keefe
Many years ago, a reporter in my home country of Barbados called me a “Sister Survivor.” She was referencing my journey, from a life of domestic violence and as a high school dropout, to scholarship in the USA, against incredible odds. Today in my mid-fifties, a Permanent Resident of the USA, I stand on the precipice of a new beginning. Nowadays, I regularly spend time reflecting on how I made it this far when every indicator in my life suggested otherwise.
My first memory was at age four. It was late at night. I lived and grew up on the stunningly beautiful island of Barbados, West Indies. Still, the beauty of my external surroundings only served as a temporary lull. Nevertheless, my surroundings often allowed me to escape from a life that was repressed by challenge and obstacle at every turn.
On that particular night, way back in my early childhood, loud voices and screams shattered the velvety quiet to blast through the windows of a room illuminated by a single, dancing, yellow flame of a slender, white candle. My sleep-filled eyes trained themselves upon that lonely, beckoning light in the middle of an otherwise pitch-blue-black room. Oddly, I found the warm, yellowish glow soothing and comforting to observe. In my memory, it communicated a sense of warmth and well-being even as a chill descended sharply down my four-year-old body. This enduring image-memory and the accompanying awareness of its inescapable juncture remained with me throughout my life.
I immediately knew those voices outside in the pitch, blue blackness of that Caribbean night belonged to my parents. My parents were tethered together in domestic violence drama that traumatically shaped my life from that moment until now. This point in time came to encapsulate the story of my life because it demonstrated that light and chaos were inextricable from my life experience. These two actualities were a profoundly significant aspect of my existence and meant to be my lifelong travel companions. To survive, live, and eventually thrive, I learned to navigate these realities, ultimately finding a way to meld them together successfully. Hence, I believe my goal to accomplish my purpose, which is to heal and help other girls/women on their journeys to healing by sharing my revolutionary life story and vision of reclamation, is finally within reach.
Maintaining a regular, disciplined, and consistent spiritual practice and expressing myself creatively through the arts became my gateway and saving grace. For this reason, at age 57, I am healing and surviving while learning to thrive and live a healthy, whole life amidst the light and chaos. To do so, I have found a steadfast practice of awareness, clarity, presence, acceptance, and gratitude. Accessing these regenerative principles, through my daily Buddhist tradition, is the only answer to stay grounded and balanced in these chaotic and tumultuous times.
A few years ago, after a devastating health diagnosis shook my world, I used the seven stages of grief to reinvigorate and shake up my life. After I was diagnosed with monoclonal gammopathy, a health condition that can lead to multiple myeloma, I had to create a new reality. MM is cance
r, which is produced by malignant plasma cells. It can wreak havoc upon one’s immune system, causing damage to kidneys, bones, and red blood cell count. Instead of allowing my life to remain stunted by, what I perceived as a symptom of a deeper problem, I chose to confront the crisis by taking responsibility and challenging all my dysfunctional behaviors one by one. In doing so, I found a sure-fire way to continue healing while helping others to do the same.
The Chaos and the Light
Seared in my memory is the image of my little four-year-old-self waking up the next morning, anxious and agitated from a night of restless sleep, and the slender white candle sitting in a malformed puddle of wax with the scent of mosquito coil lingering in the air. It was the only visual reference left of occurrences from the night before. Unexpectedly, my mother informed us that we were going back home to my father’s house, and the distressing saga-cycle commenced again. However, my newly awakened spirit never forgot my mother’s anguished screams from the beatings of the night before. We returned home to chaos and crisis, but I was no longer alone: I carried residues of the soft, flickering flame of the candlelight, from the night before, deep within me. There were no words to express this image or the feeling it evoked within, so I continued with my life.
The chaos reached an epic level after my younger brother, and I spray painted a black stripe on a neighbor’s white car, which caused a significant problem for my parents. Incensed, my father stripped us of our clothes, beating us with a broad, dark leather belt until we were covered in painful welts. When the blows finally ceased, he bathed us in water whitened with disinfectant. The pain of this torture is still seared deep in my memory. This earthshattering moment was when I came to fear my father. There were momentary lulls in the violence where I saw his humanity, but he continuously reverted to abuse and violence when crossed. Yet, I still loved him because he was the picture of strength and power, and I felt safe when he was around. This dichotomy fostered a type of Stockholm Syndrome-like condition that impacted my life for years to come.
As the years drifted by and trauma, build upon trauma, creating dysfunctional and toxic conditions, the problem created by his actions fashioned a deepening conflict within me. I learned not to look for him when a young female cousin molested me at age five; I learned not to look for him when molested in an all-girls school at seven; I learned not to seek his support when at age 15 a male teacher sexually violated me. By the time I was in my early twenties and on the other side of two attempted rapes, I knew he was never going to come to my rescue, so I made up my mind to fend for myself at all costs.
Consequently, my mother was a consistent figure in my life, but I never told her of my troubles until many years later, when I became a mother. She showed and gave love and care in the only way she knew how by fighting to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table amidst the most difficult challenges. Yet, her love and care were not enough for me. Despite my father’s obnoxious behavior, I needed his validation and love. Sadly, this conflict created within me meant that, as I matured, I continued to seek out male figures who only mirrored his actions. As a result, I desperately attracted those who were unavailable and emotionally inept and abusive.
It took many years to accept my mother’s love and release the fantasy, father/daughter relationship I longed to have with him. The feeling of unworthiness carried through every aspect of my life as I aged, causing major problems in all areas. Nevertheless, life trudged on as I silently brought the chaos-luggage wherever I went while holding on to the light. Over the years, I have learned to survive, live and thrive against incredible odds by holding on to the tiny, life-saving light from my childhood memory: it is embedded like a well-worn, protective shield deep within my psyche.
The Beginning of a Survivor’s Mindset
“Call this number for a good time!” This tawdry note, written in a phone booth not far from my house, featured my name next to it when I was in my early teens. The appellation printed next to the tasteless scribe was mine. How did it come to this? Accordingly, my life up to this point of teenagerhood was a show-stopper. Sadly, I silently dealt with sexual harassment and sexual violations countless times. Ignorant of my internal angst, my parents consistently had all-out brawls whenever my father was around.
The beatings from my dad continued at random times, while my younger brother was, we found out later, playing truant from school daily. Although I fought back physically and in all other ways against my father’s domination, I felt deep shame and guilt, which caused my self-confidence and self-esteem to suffer. Henceforth, I struggled to maintain a sense of individualism while still trying to fit in with the traditions of my culture and environment. This internal discord set up a push and pull paradox for my young spirit, causing me to feel torn about who I was at every turn. Yet, the glow of that tiny light within still burned, allowing me to dream and hope even under ongoing, prolonged despair and desperation.
Since I looked much older for my age, I was in my early teens by then, both older boys and grown men were always throwing lascivious stares my way. I was a friendly and outgoing girl on the surface, but no one knew of the inner anguish I fought daily. The chaos in my life was at a high level, and I absorbed it at every juncture. My every breath resonated with a kinetic energy that was overwhelming and charged with negative ions. There was even a high-pitched noise, which foreshadowed the arrival of violence each time.
I subsequently learned to survive by delving into romance novels, writing, and art while finding a deep connection to the incredible rawness of nature that exploded from every nook and cranny of my external environment in Barbados. Due to my ongoing sufferings, I fantasized about a ‘white’ knight from one of my romance novels, spiriting me away from the continuing chaos and disruption that was my life. While at the same time, I wondered why no images were representing me between the fantastical pages.
Under those circumstances, I felt helpless, distraught, and alone, reaching out for love in all the places I should not. In this way, I garnered a reputation of a ‘loose girl’ who was willing to ‘give out for a good time.’ However, nothing was further from the truth: because I felt traumatized, fearful, scared, and insecure, I sought human touch and contact to alleviate my pain.
As a result, I felt like I was living on a ship on land made liquid by ongoing crisis day in and day out. There was nowhere to rest, nowhere to turn to; nowhere to seek solace except deep within my fragile spirit, in nature and my stories and drawings. As the years went on and my unworthiness magnified, I decided to go with the flow becoming recklessly adventurous, overly promiscuous, doing drugs, drinking alcohol, creating a self-fulfilling outcome. By the time my family violently tore apart, due to my brother’s involvement in the Rastafarian movement at age twelve, I surrendered to the expectations of the village gossips regarding my life.
In due course, I dropped out of school at 15, figuring I could navigate life independently. This delusion was soon tested and put to rest by failure at every stage. However, thankfully, I was reliably cared for by my mother, who consistently managed to provide for us making sure there was shelter, food, and clothing. My mother believed we were protected and helped by an unseen hand. She often said she never understood why money inevitably manifested when she was down to her last penny or down to her last loaf of bread. Many years later, I realized this was the power of the light within that was guiding and protecting us.
On the other hand, my younger brother never made it back to our family in a healthy way. He succumbed to drugs from age 12, street culture, and AIDS. He died in his early thirties. Yes, I realize now we were all survivors. Sadly, misfortune tore my brother and me asunder, leaving only a few old childhood memories. Losing him devastated me tremendously. Disconsolately, his loss presaged the beginning of this protracted journey to self-actualization.
The door to Freedom Finally Comes Ajar
Fast forward five decades later, I live in the USA, and the chaos continues to dominate my reality.
“You are a loser!” Those four words rocked my world like no other when uttered by a person I once called ‘friend’ in the middle of the 2014 Christmas holiday. It was the beginning of a spiral that kept going for years. Fortunately, the light is persistently present in my assiduously cultivated spiritual practice, but chaos is addictive, so I habitually welcome it like a caring relative. Unbelievably, the time has allowed me to overcome and rise above many challenges, but life continues to throw curveballs from every angle. At last, a college graduate, I am married and own a home with my husband, we have a daughter who is intelligent and talented, but the chaos and light are even now erupting in and disrupting her life.
Born into Buddhism, she, too, is showing signs of a connection to the light as she struggles to overcome trauma and illness caused by the stress of middle school bullying and racism. We have fought through every kind of calamity together as a family, but because we practice Buddhism at varying levels, the protection is continuously present. Wretchedly, my lack of self-worth, feelings of illegitimacy, and a plethora of festering resentments dating back to my past life have continued to hold me hostage.
Realizing that a person I thought of as a friend for many years harbored those thoughts about me was an unwelcome surprise. However, the more astounding outcome of this event was I felt this way about myself. Her uttered words hurt to the core because deep down inside, I knew them as truth. It was a clarifying moment that forced me to face myself and my survivor’s mindset. By the time I diagnosed with the potential to contract multiple myeloma, a rare blood disorder, I was finally forced to fully embrace the light by utilizing a practice of clarity, awareness, presence, acceptance, and gratitude. Rooted in my daily Buddhism tradition, I used these positive principles as my armor, shield, and sword to combat the chaos once and for all.
Surviving the Chaos, the Seven Stages of Grief and Creating a New Life in the Light
This entire process made me realize that devastating, life-changing news can make or break us. During a time of loss, chaos, and crisis, it is easy to spiral out of control, losing all perspectives. However, considering these harsh realities, there lies a great opportunity to recharge one’s life. Hence, after my traumatic health scare, the seven stages of grief became the conduit for the light to entrench itself deeply into my thought process. Through my Buddhist practice, I finally hitched my life to the positive influences of the light while facing and combating the darkness of the chaos head-on. Thus, the disciplined practice of awareness, clarity, presence, acceptance, and gratitude adhered to the center of my life.
The last four years went by in a blur. My body was on the precipice of imploding, and I was in a race against time and myself.
At first, I was in shock and could not believe what was happening to me. Soon the other stages of grief set in, and I reeled mindlessly amongst denial, anger, bargaining, guilt, and depression. Finally, after weeks of living in a type of suspended animation, I shifted into the last stages, which are acceptance and hope. In hindsight, these stages were instrumental in my recovery.
In a crisis such as this, it is natural to plunge downward, but I quickly flipped the momentum from that downward trajectory and adroitly propelled myself back up. When a crisis hits, it is an extraordinary opportunity to learn about oneself. This approach is key to why I have survived and thrived amidst the most challenging and paralyzing circumstances: like a lotus in the mud, I am growing and thriving within the most stubborn situations. Below are a few of the methods I used to maneuver back up to a better and healthier self. I hope my use of the seven stages of grief to recover will help those going through difficult situations.
Shock: In a Crisis Take Responsibility and Find Your Footing
When you are in the middle of a challenging situation, it is best to find your center and slowly advance. The news that a potential condition such as multiple myeloma was morphing inside my system blew my mind. Where did this convoluted condition/situation come from?
During my first visit to her office, the Oncologist spoke in an unemotional and matter-of-fact tone. As she spoke, my physical body sat on top of the examining table, while I felt strange energy floating high above. To this day, I believe I had an out-of-body experience as she spoke. Looking back, I have no idea what she was talking about since my mind was busily absorbing the meaning of this new reality.
Over the years, I came to believe the responsibility for our health lies with us as individuals, and it is best to embrace this fact sooner than later since it sets the tone for the entire journey. No one knows your body like you, and you are your best advocate. Of course, I asked numerous questions as I watched my mercurial mind wildly meander, but to this day, I am not sure what those questions were. As time flew by, I slowly reintegrated all parts of myself to deal with the unfolding traumas that were ricocheting throughout my being. Naturally, a loving family and friends’ support is helpful, but the hard work needs to take place deep inside. Like, a baby learning to walk, I took tiny steps forward as each new day dawned in my strange, new world, but fear and anxiety eclipsed every action I took. In the long run, I learned you must reach deep within yourself when a crisis hits and work outwards from there.
Finally, I settled into focused meditation and daily chanting, realizing that no one would take responsibility for my life. In doing so, I finally gathered the disparate threads of a life gone awry from chaos and stress by slowly invoking clarity, awareness, presence, acceptance, and gratitude daily. In doing so, I meticulously knitted each strand of my life back together again, creating a new and clear path into the light.
Denial: Acknowledge the Problem Even If You Don’t Want to
Often, just deciding that something is not happening is not enough for it to leave. In any challenging situation, it is preferable to be courageous; to acknowledge what is happening and name it.
Despondent, I returned home after my first appointment on a cloud of denial, refusing to study online lab results since the numbers caused my stress levels to soar higher. As a result, I gagged the first time I perused the labs when a preponderance of the figures was outside of the normal range for my age. After a while, the digits disappeared in the fog, making it a pointless exercise. Perhaps those doctors don’t know what they are talking about, I muttered to myself. I feel wonderful! What could be wrong since I feel so energized!? Nonetheless, in the back of my mind, another contradictory, minuscule voice begged to disagree.
Usually, time is of the essence when dealing with health situations, which create significant instability, chaos, and stress. Although extremely difficult, it is best to face reality and push fear aside to go deeper. During times such as these, a mind-focusing practice like meditation can benefit one by creating internal calm and distance from the chaos. While walking in nature is a helpful, constructive activity that keeps one connected to the light, it is vital to do mindfulness activities such as reading, collecting positive quotes, taking soothing baths, yoga, tai chi, writing, and creating art. Anything that calms the mind and brings you back to the present is a plus. I incorporated all the above and more into my daily routine and found my footing in a short space of time.
Anger: To Hell with this and Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Generally, anger and resentment are a part of the process, but a fundamental part of healing is releasing these emotions. Lamentably, if you carry around negative feelings, you will have difficulty moving forward and healing from deep within. Why did this disease choose me? What did I do so wrong? I am a positive person, so why do horrendous circumstances happen to people like me? Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Repetitive thoughts such as these regurgitated themselves on a loop during those early days and weeks. Seriously, what exactly was this? Unabated, my inner diatribe continued as I prepared for a skeletal bone scan and other vital tests to determine if the disease reached my bones.
During unpredictable and chaotic times, use resources that are positive and uplifting. Fortunately, there is an overabundance of information available on and off social media, which can keep one’s spirit grounded in light. It is crucial to obtain these accessible resources to learn about your situation. Critical to one’s healing and recovery is a dependable support system. Searching for backing from reliable sources should be a priority. Thankfully, I found a cache of videos and books by Dr. Wayne Dyer, Louise Hay, Tony Robbins, Les Brown, Jim Rhon, Eckhart Tolle, Marianne Williamson, amongst others. Eventually, these efforts helped calm the constant, internal noise, and I progressed to the next stage, which was bargaining.
Bargaining: I Promise to do Better if I Get Through This
Regardless, by this stage, you realize the situation is real. Nonetheless, it is difficult to accept. Desperate, old survival strategies emerge to aid in wiggling out of the problem, including a mournful plea to a higher power: I know I can improve if given the opportunity. Please give me another chance. Notwithstanding, the facts are clear, yet you hope a little whining to the higher power will stop the annoying crisis. Regrettably, when I arrived at this point, I was in a state of total dejection.
Strangely enough, it did not take long to arrive at this cul-de-sac. Miraculously, I escaped a myriad of hair-raising situations in my previous life, so what was different this time? Inopportunely, the avalanche of complaints continued for days accompanied by deep, gut-wrenching sobs, which rattled and shook my body for an indeterminate amount of time. During periods of this sort, it is best to let it all come out: it is an essential part of the grieving process. By trial and error, I learned it is pointless to fight back and forth. In reality, the best one can do to let one’s body and mind prepare for all outcomes and pick up the pieces later. Thus, the journey to releasing guilt, rising out of depression, and cementing acceptance in my life commenced.
Guilt: Where Did I Go Wrong? How Can I Fix This?
In effect, the best way to deal with this stage is to venture where it flows, nevertheless, after spending a bit of time in bargaining guilt set in. Where did I go wrong? What could I have done to avoid this? Tediously, day after day, I combed through my memory-vault, trying to figure out how I became susceptible to such a disease. Until I became ill, I had lived a lifetime at just 53, the trail I blazed was of someone who lived several years beyond my current age. My silver covered head is a testament to my agonizing journey.
As a result, the days, weeks, and months merged into one, there were copious tears of regret, but after realizing my efforts were leading to nowhere, I released all to the higher power. Significantly, one of the utmost vital lessons I learned during this ongoing journey is how little control we have over our lives. We may struggle to direct our life’s steering wheel through numerous attempts, guiding our lives in the direction we intend it to go, but inevitably, mercurial life veers and creates its single-minded path.
Amazingly, the internal focus during this stage clarified my mind, and I came face to face with my mortality. Thus, I spent long hours drinking in my loved ones’ faces, wondering if they could manage without me. In due course, the urge to bring about amends with everyone became a motivating force. I wrote letters of apology to family members left behind long ago, letting them know how much I appreciated all they did to help my growth. Sorrowfully, the guilt and regret weighed heavily on my heart.
Depression: Hitting Rock Bottom
It’s important to realize one will face the darkest and most desperate moments in life when you hit rock bottom. Usually, when there is no room to ascend, a person sees who they are and their capacity to undergo challenging situations. Therefore, by this stage I panicked. Maniacally, I closed all external communication with those who influenced my decisions. In consideration of my new reality, it was necessary to hear my voice without filters—only my immediate family gained access.
Pledging to remain upbeat and focused, I faced my darkest moments, scrambling day-to-day to scrape myself from the bottom of a self-made pit. Every day, I took long walks alone, no matter the weather outside or my internal life-condition. Subsequently, my observation skills became so acutely attuned it was as if nature spoke through me. Throughout this challenging stage, one might tend to break out in tears. Occasionally, I found it best to release everything by having a much-needed gut-wrenching cry.
Amid the ongoing internal struggles, frequent thoughts about my mortality continued to flit through my mind as I grappled with a situation over which I had no control. Regrettably, those become the longest days of the journey when one is grieving. Nevertheless, as time flies by, the heaviness eases, and a new ‘normal’ descends.
Acceptance and Hope
After passing through depression, the stage of acceptance is a blessing. By the time I arrived here, I felt calmer. After numerous marathons of meditation/chanting sessions, countless internal conversations, and in-depth talks with my family, I finally took full responsibility and released all vestiges of resistance. At last, I faced the internalized chaos calcified by years of trauma coming out with an upper hand.
Nowadays, I often give thanks for the onset of this health issue. If this situation had not occurred, I would have never found the courage to fully embrace the light inside by going deep within my being to understand the true meaning and purpose of my life. I would have never found the courage to fully embrace a consistent practice of clarity, awareness, presence, acceptance, and gratitude inspired by my Buddhist practice. As a result of this health crisis, I created @clarityisjustsohip, an Instagram page with a fantastic body of manipulated photo-paintings that help to calm my mind and heart daily even as they inspire others. Fortuitously, the sun became my model and muse, while on those daily nature walks. Taking photos of the sun and nature provided limitless material for inspiration and motivation, reconnecting me to the artist within. Today, I am a better person because of this unpredictable journey.
To overcome deep internalized suffering, one must re-examine the inner self from all angles. It is best to face a situation like this courageously and fully to strengthen and marshal all aspects of your spirit. Your priorities will shift and change as you find new and healthier ways to live your life. Fundamentally, things you thought to be universal are dissected and re-examined: people you thought understood or cared for you disappear. Everything old and illusionary is ground to dust, and a new you emerges. You become clear, and you arrive at a place of peace, centeredness, and balance. You have tapped into universal, inner truth that is leading to your self-actualization. Life will never be the same. By this time, there is no going back, and you only look at your past for reference, not for absolution. Finally, emerging is the Beginning of a brand-new life and a brand-new you.
Claire Jones is a 57-year-old female creative. Her mission is to spread clarity, love and light through her art.