In this episode
Sometimes life doesn’t go to plan. In this episode, I discuss the circumstances that led me back into therapy, the return of dissociative parts of the personality, and how I’m rising again after being knocked (and literally falling) down.
Trigger-warning: Please note that this episode directly references acts of sexual violence, although no details are given.
Transcript: ‘Falling down, getting back up again: my journey over the last year’
Not long before the pandemic started, suddenly, shockingly, undeservedly and unexpectedly, I was violently attacked and raped by a total stranger.
I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. I could not have anticipated it. I could not have avoided it. I could not have known that it was about to happen. I was both severely hurt, and severely traumatised. As my only viable option for survival, I immediately dissociated it and stuffed it into a box marked ‘not happening now’. This is the gift and the curse of a brain that has suffered extreme childhood trauma: reverting to type, to habits learned long ago. Dissociation is an entirely appropriate response to overwhelming trauma, and my brain knew it. It’s what I needed to do at that moment. It enabled me to survive.
Then after the rape, pandemic. As for so many people, lockdown reignited trauma in me, but then also blocked the resolution of that trauma, with the removal of human contact, the suspension of face-to-face therapy and so many other adjustments that are so detrimental to healing trauma. It was enough, to start with, just to survive lockdown. My brain preferred to keep the trauma box closed to my consciousness and let me deal simply with what was going on in the world – isolation was trauma enough.
I hadn’t been in therapy since 2016. After working through the pain and disruption, the upside-downing of my life following my divorce in 2015, life had actually been on a steady, upward trajectory. Having developed a comfortable relationship with my past and with no overt dissociativity – living mostly joined-up rather than internally segregated – I instead through those years switched my resources to developing a life worth living. I focused on building joy into my moment-by-moment experience: the joy of nature, of hobbies, of creativity and productivity and generativity, of making a difference to people’s lives through my work, of nurturing rich and mutual relationships, of improving my physical health, and of course white beach walks with my dog. Life still had its challenges – everyone’s life has challenges – but compared to ten or twenty years previously, through 2017 to 2019 I was enjoying life like never before. Recovery is my best revenge. Therapy works. The journey is worth it. Nothing was perfect, but on the whole I felt safe and my need for dissociation as a survival strategy was reduced to mere, occasional hints – traces from the past, a strategy that whispered ‘I’m here if you need me’ but not a daily imperative, because the vast majority of the time I didn’t need it.
And then the rape.
Hello, said dissociation. I’m here to help.
Thank you, I replied – silently, so that my brain wouldn’t hear. Please help.
I continued with my work for a while, unconsciously pushing the trauma, in the absence of a safe space in which to face it, into amnesia. It was truly as if nothing had happened, which is the entire purpose of dissociation. It is magical, and wonderful, and almost unbelievable. But of course over time my physical health cried out instead in protest that something was terribly, terribly wrong. I persevered for a while. And then pandemic, and multiple broken camels’ backs.
Suddenly the isolation of living alone during lockdown, the loss of routines and rituals and comfortable normality, a bereavement, the constant threat to life from the virus, the feeling that we were all extras in a slow-motion disaster movie – all of it allowed the dissociated trauma to start pressing on the inside of my skull, on the underside of my skin, against the lining of my bowels. Out it started seeping in my sleep, in pain, and in the unexpected and unwelcome return – absent for so many years – of seemingly random panic attacks.
I need to get back in therapy, I thought. For some reason, I’m not coping with lockdown.
And, with the rape safely tucked out of consciousness, I couldn’t quite figure why I was coping so ‘badly’. Because at one level – my head stashed full of psychoeducation, daily strategies to promote my mental wellbeing, and a fierce determination towards self-compassion that avoided the worst of any mental down-spiralling – I was coping just fine. And at the same time, watching myself peel away from myself like the skin of a banana, I knew I wasn’t.
I need to get back in therapy. Aah, but starting therapy during lockdown is no easy task. In the meantime, by late spring, my body was protesting and threatening to divulge the trauma through overpowering, unliveable-with symptoms: exploding guts, chronic pain, unfeasible weight gain, unhealing skin infections, and lethargy. Oh the lethargy. Like if all I had to do was sleep, all might be well. It felt like I constantly needed to numb myself into not feeling, not thinking, not knowing.
Alarmed enough to overcome my natural reticence to having gloved hands poke in personal places, I had a phone call with my long-suffering, generous, kind GP. Two minutes into my orderly listing of symptoms, with an unnerving forthright urgency, she interjected: ‘I need to see you in person. You need to come to the surgery straightaway.’ I obeyed. She swooped on me, fully clad in PPE, and in a way that murmured to the inside of me, ‘Danger, Carolyn, danger’. Tests, pokings, more tests, more pokings. She spent her afternoon off with me, to try to find an answer to this alarming array of symptoms. ‘I think you might have ovarian cancer,’ she said, because in 12 years she had never withheld her thought processes from me. ‘Or if not that, then bowel cancer. I can’t see any other explanation for your symptoms.’ I can, I thought, but I didn’t know why or what or how to put it in words like that.
I was referred urgently but the results of scans and tests was: no ovarian cancer. I baulked at the further tests she wanted to perform to rule out bowel cancer. No, I thought, it’s not that. It’s trauma. It was like there was something, in that consultation, that I wanted to say to her, but I didn’t know what. It reminded me of sitting with people in the past, not knowing how to say what I knew I didn’t know: teachers, lecturers, friends, therapists. It’s like the knowledge presses itself up against my eyelids but I can’t quite bring it into focus.
I need to get back in therapy.
And so I did. As the first lockdown acceded to a summer of naive, optimistic reconnection, I started therapy anew. First session, assessing, the ‘why are you here?’ question. And ‘what do you hope to achieve?’ And ‘to what extent will parts be present?’ None of that, I confidently asserted. I don’t quite know what the matter is with me, why I’ve not handled pandemic as well as I’d like – a vague, queasy sense that it’s pushing on an old wound, but I’m not sure what – why my confidence seems to have taken a hit, how I’m not quite able to commit to the pivot in my work necessitated by pandemic. Parts, I declared, definitely won’t be an issue because I’ve not experienced parts for several years: I learned to live in an open-plan way, hearing them, feeling them, integrating them into one overall sense of ‘me-ness’, rather than being stuck behind closed doors. The DID side of things isn’t really a problem, I figured. It’s more this sense of having taken a hit somehow and I want to move forwards and not be so stuck. Oh and the physical stuff. Because it really wouldn’t be great to have cancer and I’m sure I don’t, but why is there so much flippin’ diarrhoea?
So the scene was set. I made a deal with myself: we’re back in therapy, here are its parameters, the boundaries are clear, the sense of safety (or ‘safety-enough’) is emerging from that still place in the centre between the therapist and me. Let’s do this. Self-confidence – we’re coming for you. We will track you down; we will find you; and my life will go back to normal.
And then, impulsively and yet also as the culmination of a long-term desire, I decided to move house. Evidently I felt my existing stress was insufficient. I’d lived in Cambridgeshire since the age of nine. Much of the abuse had happened there. It was the setting for both marriage and divorce. I didn’t know why, but I had an urgent, surging need to start again, to move into a next phase, to leave some demons behind, to establish myself in a new, lockdown-supportive, for-me tribe. Therapy: let’s move forwards. A new start. The next level. The future: it starts right here.
Within a handful of sessions parts had reappeared. I was a million times more surprised than the therapist. What was that all about? I hadn’t lived structurally dissociated for years. Why this? Why now? Something about disorganised attachment being provoked by another therapeutic relationship? Was it that? Was it just that?
And then out came the narrative from parts – disjointed, unremembered, re-remembered, dissociated, unintegrated, scalding-hot in its raw painfulness. The rape from the previous year that had been so overwhelming, so shocking, so impossible to process and integrate and deal with, that my brain had immediately pushed into the realms of not-knowing. Until now. Until, once again – my brain having done this in my major breakdown in 2005 – it felt the right time to begin to heal. Out it came. Agonising, disorienting, humbling: crudely for a while it deconstructed me again. It had all the shock of newness and utter surprise whilst also feeling as familiar as last night’s dream.
And then the Lemony Snicket-style ‘series of unfortunate events’. The house move was complex, involving renovations. Those renovations in turn hit delay after delay: supply chain, shortage of labour, and even the main contractor himself having a near-breakdown after the suicide of his sister. The temporary accommodation I had moved into was surrounded by blue flashies one night after someone tried to break in, or start a fight, or vandalise some cars … I wasn’t quite sure what, because I was unable to stay present to find out. Parts were freaked and I couldn’t go back. I moved into budget hotels and then eventually, inconveniently, decamped to my regular retreat in the Highlands, nearly six hundred miles away.
And then, suffering dizziness perhaps as a body memory of the attack itself, or my body just collapsing in protest at the level of stress I was experiencing, I had a series of falls. The first resulted in bruising as I scrambled on rocks. The second, the next day, down the stairs, resulted in incapacitating broken ribs and being stuck, completely alone, two hours from the nearest hospital, and unable for several weeks to properly walk let alone drive. As if life were not tough enough already. Ouch.
In pain, alone, immobile, I was tormented each night by nightmares, by flashbacks from the rape rolling over me like storm waves; pain so bad I passed out from it; and parts feeling the full force of this life-changing event, this trauma-that-can’t-be-real, this shift of worldview away from ‘largely safe’ back to ‘we knew it, we knew it – life isn’t safe, never has been safe, never will be safe again’. The battle then for my adult, daily-life mode front-brain to take charge over my traumatised, developmentally regressive, danger mode-based back-brain. A battle which many days, many weeks, it resoundingly lost.
What did it all mean? Had I lost the gains from my previous therapy, from all the trauma that I’d processed and integrated? Was I back to square one? Stuff surfaced from my childhood – of course it did – stuff that I thought was resolved and might have remained so if one evil man hadn’t acted his evil upon me. A new therapeutic relationship provoked unresolved attachment needs, unresolved prior relationships, losses, griefs, suspicions, paranoias. Everything in me craved a return to the steady, happy generativity of the years before pandemic. Oh, and yes, of course – pandemic. That was steadily in the background, a loud, annoying buzz, making everything a hundred times harder. Sometimes all you want, after a deep, wound-opening therapy is to sit in the quiet backdraft of another human being. The aloneness of it all was searingly painful, and my neurobiology cried out in desperation for the reassurance and soothing physical presence of a human being, the warmth of withness. I wanted someone to say, ‘You’re home now; you’re safe; I’ve got you; you’re not alone’.
In recovery from trauma, we need to be in the green zone of social engagement. We need the touch and feel and smell and immanence of people to tell our brain that the danger is over. Pandemic made that as hard as it possibly could. The trauma of aloneness from childhood, the trauma of aloneness during and following the attack, the trauma of aloneness from the first lockdown, all culminated then in the trauma of aloneness of being stuck in the Highlands with broken ribs, miles from anyone, miles from medical care, miles from rescue. For a little while, all of it felt too much.
Would I lose forever the progress I’d made previously, in therapy and in life? I found eventually that the opposite began to be true. This was a terrible time – shitty, unfair, retraumatising, horrific – but it was also very different. Last time around – entering therapy to the out-of-control explosion of my childhood trauma into consciousness through flashbacks and switching and body memories and inexplicable pain – I didn’t understand what was going on and saw myself as both mad and bad: I hated myself for my reactions and responses. This time, it was an entirely different soundtrack. Even in the midst of a flashback – that overwhelm of unremembered emotion washing up against me suddenly, unexpectedly, whilst simply putting another log onto the burner – I knew what was happening. My trauma reactions made sense to me. And I was able to calm and soothe myself, in moments of intense distress, with the reassuring knowledge that I was simply suffering the impacts of trauma, and that I was in a process, a sequence, and that if I went through it, all would again be well: I would heal from this too. I knew – knew with a red-hot determination to know it and practice and be it – that self-compassion was key. That if I loaded onto myself frustration and irritation and condemnation and pressure then I would slow the process down. But self-compassion and trauma are not easy bed-fellows. They squabbled frequently, stared each other out, at time with impetuous ferocity, but on the whole they made their peace. I needed it. It was hard enough without in-fighting.
So I took some time off from work and gave myself permission to take it slow. To heal at whatever pace it was right to heal at. To give myself what I needed. To draw back. To lick my wounds. To follow through the process. To prioritise my therapy, my healing, my recovery. To say no to everything that I could reasonably say no to, not least because I’d had no chance to say no to being raped.
Eventually my new home was ready to move into. I was still sore and disabled from broken ribs. Two days later, on a brief and first foray outdoors for weeks – simply to walk my dog – I had another fall. Later investigations confirmed I had broken another rib, on the other side. Ouch again. It felt a bit unending. And moving house is hard work. It’s even harder on your own, in lockdown, with multiple broken ribs. Don’t try this at home, people.
The first time around, therapy was a total unknown to me. I turned up, waiting for someone to fix me, utterly confused at this world that I had entered that I knew nothing about. Fifteen years later, my understanding had advanced somewhat. This time I threw myself into it whole-heartedly. Notes before each session, detailing my priorities for our time together, what I was trying to achieve. Write-ups after each session: journalling, diagrams, reflections, plans. Joining the dots. Figuring out what I hadn’t said, what I hadn’t felt, what I hadn’t felt able to know. Constantly analysing and seeing where I was at in the process, asking myself ‘What do I need to process this traumatic memory, to unpick this disorganised attachment, to associate my dissociated parts, to come back into the green zone, to heal?’
It’s early days. Part of me wanted to wait until it was all sorted before I opened up about it. Part of me wanted to hide in shame. Part of me wanted to shrug it all off and just get on with my work anyway. Part of me wanted to quietly just ‘go back to normal’ and deny that anything had happened. And part of me – eventually with the consensus of all of me (I hope) – wanted to make sure that recovery is my best revenge: not just my recovery, but recovery for other people too. It’s so important to me to be vulnerably, authentically, realistically me: not to present some image of what I should be, but simply to present the image of what I am; to speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves; to put into words my experience, my journey (the good and the bad), in the hope that other survivors will be able to see their own experiences mirrored, that professionals working with them will have greater insight into those experiences and be better equipped to help them. To ensure that these things – these desperately awful things that we minimisingly refer to as ‘trauma’ – get spoken about and not glossed over into shameful oblivion. Because our suffering matters.
And so I don’t want to skip blithely over how awful it’s all been – ‘Hey, tough year, but it’s all fine now’: false-cheerful, toxic positivity. It was hard, and it’s still hard. But I’m here and once again, I’m surviving. My childhood equipped me to survive hard things. I’m good at surviving trauma – it’s normal life that sometimes feels confusing. There is still much healing work to be done – but emotionally I’m beginning to feel fresh, crisp air around me, a spaciousness again, a feeling that the snowdrops are dropping, even in the snow. My front brain is sufficiently and consistently engaged now to sit at my desk most days and push words onto a page. For me, one of the hardest impacts of trauma is my front brain going so far offline, and my inability to write and think and create and relate. It’s a relief to be back on the writing horse again. I love riding this horse. I needed to get back on it. I’m hoping I stay in the saddle, and I’ll do everything I can to make sure I do. If I need to dismount again for a while though, I will, because I will give myself what I need. But I will keep getting back on. That’s the promise I’m making to myself, and to my parts.
I didn’t expect to be writing this. I didn’t, of course, expect to be raped. I’ve always been wary of the myth of specialness, that says that somehow, because I was abused in childhood, nothing bad will ever happen to me in adulthood. That of course is in direct contradiction to the reality: that those of us who have suffered adverse experiences in childhood are far more likely to suffer adverse experiences in adulthood. It is the sickening unfairness of the legacy of trauma in our lives. It’s shit.
All I can do is – once again – ensure that it doesn’t stop me dead in my tracks. All I can do is – once again – work to ensure that recovery is my best revenge. Because I know that I am far from alone in having suffered trauma this last year or so. I am far from alone in being raped. I am far from alone in feeling that life keeps tipping truckloads of tragedy on me. There is so much pain, so much suffering, so much unfairness – for me and for so many other people. As I’ve said in the past, I count myself to be one of the lucky unlucky ones. I wish that none of this trauma had ever happened to me, but one thing I am grateful for is the support and the resources I have at my disposal. And so my determination is to speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, to advocate for the unlucky unlucky ones, who don’t have the support and the resources that I do – to use my experiences, and to use my platform, to help raise awareness of the impact of trauma, the process of recovery from trauma, and the hidden evil of sexual violence in our society.
Recovery is my best revenge – both mine and yours. Let’s do this.
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Thank you for your courage and for allowing yourself to continue to be vulnerable. It’s a huge help to see and hear that bravery in action.
I am so very sorry you’ve experienced such trauma again and I wish you well on your journey back to your more integrated self.
Carolyn I am so sorry you have experienced this recent trauma. You are an amazing women to have once again suffered so much and yet be so far on with the recovery. As you say, your childhood trauma, all the research, therapy and journaling etc. have given you the foundation needed to overcome this latest horrific ordeal. Everything we go through in life can be used for positive results if we have a positive overcoming attitude towards it. Note to self – bring this to mind when I am going through it! Thank you so much for sharing this. Healing for you and more insight for us. Much love to you. J
I’m so outraged at what happened to you. Why is life so unfair for us, it’s often held me back in recovery this thought. I had adult trauma in losing one of my twin boys a couple of year ago. Unfair, traumatic, did we not suffer enough as children?
But your courage and words have truly helped my recovery, my counselling sessions, my understanding, self compassion. All of your work has helped and I am truly grateful for you. Just as you are. A warrior, a survivor, an inspiration….a kind-hearted soul who deserves all the goodness there is.
I wish you well on this road of recovery.
Thank you Carolyn. Once again you show how, even in your darkest moments, you have the ability to share your innermost vulnerability. I wish you well on your road to heal and recover. Sending positive energy & love on your continued journey. You truly are inspirational.
One survivor to another
One warrior to another
One heart to another
Thankyou Thankyou Thankyou Carolyn for rising up and lifting others with you ??? Your resilience and strength is phenomenal ??? an absolute inspiration and I have so much admiration for you xxx let’s do this xxx
Carolyn, so sorry (and appalled) to hear what happened to you, and then all that followed. What a year you have had. Having to recover from the actions of others, again. Thank you for your courage and willingness to share your struggle and your strength. Your way with words always magnifies your message. May 2021 be so much better for you.
I was deeply moved by hearing your experiences of the last year or so. Thank you for your vulnerability. Your words have a way of resonating and seem to have an imprint on my being. You have helped me in ways you’ll never know.
‘Get back onto the horse’. I love that!!! And ‘get off again’, if needed. So yessss… Let’s do this… Together. (Because now I feel less alone)
Wishing you only well… Joy
Thank you Carolyn for your courage to share your vulnerability, for the compassionate way you share your strength, and for your resilience to share your insights and commitment to pursue your vision.
I am so sorry you have had to go through yet more trauma. its not fair. Life isn’t.
What I do know from your work is you don’t shy away from healing and you never stop your journey to becoming whole.
You have and still continue to help me to do the same.
Take care and God bless you and your gorgeous little dog
Dear Carolyn ,
your podcasts have been the most … I wish I could find better words…. lovingly helpful of any thing that I have listened to or read on this complicated messy long term personal navigation out of trauma and towards some place of sturdy health and healing .
I think that as and when as adults we experience more out of the blue traumatising happenings we can lose faith in the narrative of our lives . I am appalled and outraged at the unfairness and violence of what happened to you last year . I am so sad for you .
I think that this podcast illustrates so beautifully once again for me the way in which recovery is both such a huge effort of work and also such a quiet listening to and a believing in our deepest selves the ones that lie so quietly underneath all the complicated layers of self protection .
It is from these deepest places, as you so eloquently put it in one of your earlier writings that we just want to heal and that we can, as you are ,be of such profound inspiration and comfort to others .
So eloquently put. You are an inspiration and a true warrior. Thank you so much for sharing and being part of your journey. You give me the confidence to recover.
Amazed (and grateful) as always for your courage in speaking out about your struggles this year. I wish this hadn’t happened to you. It’s good to hear your voice and have you back x
There is so much I want to say and so much I want you to know, that I cannot for one minute, feel can be done with words. The work thay you are doing, for you, for me and countless others, cannot be understood or appreciated enough. I want so much to be in a world where the pain that you and others and me, feel is allowed. You are creating a bridge to that place and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Please keep going, of course thought if that feels right for you. YOU make a difference.
You are inspirational ❤️ I have no words to convey my feelings about the traumas you have suffered and the way you are. Inspirational does not even begin to describe it but it’s the best I can do at the moment. Thank you
Thank you for being vulnerable and authentically you.
I am so sorry to hear what had happened to you. Dreadful and so unfair.
And yes I understand what you mean by your childhood equipped you for this present trauma.
Recovery is definitely the best revenge.
Please keep going
I’m sorry to hear about the rough time you’ve had. Thanks for being there.
I just listened to your story again… I read the blog last night but couldn’t quite take it all in. Oh Carolyn, it IS shit. All of it, so horrible. But a true testament of your resilience and determination to yourself and those of us who are also survivors. So much of what you said was familiar and you have such an amazing way of articulating the pain- I still struggle to do that with any cohesion or clarity. Sending warmest thoughts as you meander on this new healing journey and as you reconnect with your parts.
I have signposted my counselling colleagues to your website with the assurance that they will find your presentations as much of a treasure as I have found them to be. I love your authenticity and experientially deep knowledge from which you invite us to step up higher in our work with trauma. However, words fail me to express my shock and sadness to know of how you have suffered during last year. Your account of where you have been, stopped me in my tracks. Yours is not just a voice that speaks at us, but a genuine connection with someone real. I truly admire your capacity to emerge from what you have gone through, and trust that your recovery from the recent (additional) trauma will help many others to have HOPE that they too can recover from ghastly adversity.
Warmest thoughts and wishes for progressively deep healing.
Goodness, what a roller coaster to live through and to hear – thank you so much for sharing and modeling your journey & road to recovery. Carolyn, you have such a way with words that’s thrilling; “the warmness of withness” resounded in my ears. Blessing and strength to you as you pick up the reins of purpose and move onward. Your poetic prose spread light in our troubled world.
I have read and listened I am so sorry but cannot tell you how much I respect you
I so understand and identify things are beyond hard
I am so very sorry for what you have been and are going through Carolyn.
Thankyou so so much for your vulnerability. It is so precious and teaches me a great deal.
Thankyou for being the standard bearer for the unlucky unlucky ones. You make such an enormous difference.
I pray that you will continue to take the time you need to heal.
Take good care,
I wanted to write and express gratitude to you since I read your book Unshame late last year, and how it has been practically helping my recovery process from trauma. I recognized my struggles in every page of that book and, your insights at the end of each chapter taught me the courage, hope, and strong will for the recovery in the way nobody else was able to show me.
I am so sorry to hear what happened and what you have been going through. Thank you for coming back here again and sharing your journey with us. I am truly grateful.
Dear Carolyn, I was lucky enough to come across your work through my therapist who had been to one of your workshops. I remember just feeling so understood, like I never had before. It helped me not only understand myself but connected me with my therapist again. I remember feeling so excited about what I had learnt, that I looked up your name and discovered this wonderful space of healing resources. I read your books and cried. To imagine that this thing could have happened to you now, this unspeakable act of inhumanity. But you spoke it. Calmly and slowly with all the truth and pain it deserved and with the purpose to help others in the process. You are so inspirational to me. I hope you continue to recover in your own time and a big heartfelt thank you for your courage to share this.
Thank you ?? xx
I cannot express how upset I was that after everything you have already been through in your life, that you once again found yourself having to dissociate in order to survive yet another, horrific traumatic experience. I was shouting at my laptop at the cruelness of it. My heart hurts for you it really does. I am soo glad you have and use the tools you do, to work through this most recent trauma. You are one of the strongest and inspirational people I have ever heard of. sending soo much love xx
Just to say thank you for this podcast and your honesty and vulnerability.
Although our experences are slightly different I can relate to your reaction and response to trauma you have given me a huge insight and understanding and for that I thank you.
I feel like that stuck feeling I couldn’t shift because I didn’t fully understand it has shifted somewhat and I now can articulate what’s going on inside me.
Thank you again and take care
My heart goes out to you to learn of your rape after you have already had so much original trauma that you have worked so hard to recover from and become more whole. Your authentic, honest sharing along with your vulnerability shows us as survivors the way to recovery no matter what life throws our way. I validate your experience and want to thank you for your willingness to share. In sharing we break the shame and silence as you already know. You are a brave warrior to keep getting back up. I felt like the physical falls you had were very much an analogy of the fall you had in being raped where you got back up and recovery is your best revenge. It is very evident that you have done much work in therapy and put yourself and your recovery first like being your own parent. I’m praying that you continue to heal and recover fully from this newer trauma. You’re an inspiration to so me and others. Much love.