In the summer of 2000, I set out on my first proper backpacking tour of Central and Eastern Europe. For six weeks I would be visiting all of these historical places that I studied about for years, and I was ill-prepared! The cheap $20 rolling duffle bag with pieces of things pretending to be straps just would not do, especially on the trains. During my first stop—Prague—I saw how much easier it was for other young travelers to navigate the trains having proper backpacks. So at my next stop—Krakow—I found an outdoor shop and paid $80 for my first real backpack. She was amazing! Blue with black trimming, she was so easy to pack, and so wonderful to carry on the trains. I feel like she opened up the world for me and the possibilities in it even wider. For the next nineteen years, she would literally help me carry the baggage of my life and my transformation.
The word “baggage” has taken on an interesting emotional connotation in modern times. My mother always warned me not to date a guy with “baggage.” By the time I got to my mid-thirties, I was brave enough to respond, “Um…mother, I got quite a bit of my own baggage by now.” There’s even a Game Show Network series called Baggage hosted by none other than Jerry Springer where dating show contestants evaluate each other by whether or not they can live with each other’s baggage. And as a trauma therapist I’ve long helped people come to terms with their baggage, a word they often use for the burdens they carry. Sometimes I help them to shed the load that’s weighing them down and other times I help them to make peace with their past and how they carry it. Using the backpacker’s metaphor, sometimes we just need to get a more efficient piece of luggage.
Recent events prompted me into some deep introspection about baggage and all of its metaphors and meanings. I am currently on a one-month tour of the U.K., teaching and writing. When I got to the airport, I noticed that one of the last two functional buckles holding my old girl together had cracked and broken. Over the years everything that once made the old girl an ideal backpack went bad—the waist buckle, the chest strap, some chords and zippers. The two back straps were still intact which made her still okay to use. And suddenly that was no longer the case. I checked in at Cleveland for my flight to London. Yet trying to haul a month’s worth of gear into London city from the airport with a broken backpack was exhausting. I gave her one more go as I proceeded up to Scotland last week and the strain wreaked havoc on my shoulder and back. Knowing that there was no way to fix or to replace the buckle, it was time to lay her to rest and get a new pack.
I was surprised at how difficult that was for me. I’m not really the type to get attached to material things, yet there I was, attachment sick over literal baggage.
“Wow, Buddha would have a field day with this,” I snickered.
The old girl was different. She carried me through the healing journey of the second nineteen years that sought to unravel the confusion and pain that tangled me up in the first twenty. Setting out to travel the world was a major component in my recovery for it showed me new perspectives and different energies. When I ended up moving to Europe for three years in November 2000, I carried everything I needed in the old girl. She came with me on every international trip that followed as I connected with these lost pieces of myself.
When I walked into the outdoor shop in Inverness, Scotland, I reflected on just how far that 20-year-old girl who walked into a similar shop in Krakow had traveled. Two marriages come and gone, sobriety, a doctorate, seven books written, a successful business established, major mental health relapses healed and still healing, coming out in various ways, a story of transformation still in process… Most importantly, we’ve achieved liberation by connecting to the certainly of who we really are and what we stand for—we are total and yet continually evolving towards wholeness. Traveling, embracing the journey—both literal and metaphorical—brought me these gifts.
And now the time had come to get a more functional, efficient pack for the next nineteen years and beyond. When Mark, the lovely salesman in Inverness, explained all of the features on the state-of-the-art red Osprey pack I was privileged enough to buy, my first response was, “But the pouches on the new pack aren’t like the old one—I liked that feature better!” I chuckled at myself—realizing how it’s so easy for all of us to do that during the change process. Without a doubt my new pack is better for my body, contoured for a larger woman’s back and hips and full of efficient features. This new pack is 15 gallons smaller than the old girl, which will force me to pack more efficiently. That’s probably a good thing! I knew in that moment that as attached as I can get to the things I’ve gotten used to, they may no longer be what serves me the best presently.
I’ve learned to travel lighter in the last nineteen years, both literally and metaphorically, and this adjustment certainly helps. I am also a human being struggling to make sense of attachment and heal or release the storylines I carry. In trauma focused therapy, working with attachment is a topic du jour. As an EMDR therapy trainer, I often entertain questions on how well our curriculum can help trainees to work with attachment trauma. While it’s clear that many people with complex trauma were severely wounded in early childhood by the caretakers with whom they should have formed healthy attachment, I’ve never felt that repairing attachment is the entire answer. As a mindfulness-focused EMDR program committed to East-West integration, detachment is just as important. I heartily believe the Buddha’s teaching that attachment or clinging is one of the three main causes of suffering. Yet we are human and healthy attachment is a legitimate need—so how do I reconcile this one, Buddha? Contemplating this question in meditation has taught me that acceptance and letting go are vital to the change process. We can do this at the same time as we grieve the childhood we needed and never received. We can also bring healing to the younger, wounded parts that may still live inside of us, modeling healthy attachment for them. Letting go of the storylines and the attachments that no longer serve us in the present is paramount. Letting go clears the path for healing at all levels.
I ended up letting go of the old girl in my hotel room in Scotland with a note for hotel staff to do what they saw fit. It felt appropriate laying her to rest on the international road, especially in a place as magical as Scotland. I was also blessed to stumble upon a teaching from de-cluttering guru Marie Kondo during the days I wrote in Scotland. She advises, “Have gratitude for the things you're discarding. By giving gratitude, you're giving closure to the relationship with that object, and by doing so, it becomes a lot easier to let go.”
I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so wise and so applicable for people on any path of recovery. Gratitude is a quality of recovery that directly helps us to let go of unhealthy or unserving attachments, yet in modern times gratitude can become so difficult to practice. We are socialized, especially in the West, to focus on what we don’t have instead of celebrating what we do. Further, practicing gratitude can feel impossible especially when you’ve been so hurt and so wronged by life and the people in it. Hopefully this will not block you from at least giving the practice of gratitude a try in your process of letting go and lightening the load.
I thanked the old girl vocally before I left the room that day, and writing this article is a way of publicly offering my thanks. Yes, it’s to an object, yet think of how much this wisdom can also help us let go of the so-called “baggage” from our past that weighs us down—memories, shame-based scripts, unhealthy coping skills, and the impact of wounding relationships. We can thank those things and those people for the role that they played for us at the time. Even the horrible stuff—if you are willing, thank it for its role in bringing you to where you are today, hopefully on the precipice of a major shift in your continued healing and recovery.
On the Monday after Thanksgiving eighteen years ago, I ran away to Europe. My addiction and untreated emotional problems left me in a state of chronic suicidal contemplation. Every time I used drugs and drank that autumn, I hoped that I wouldn’t wake up. There was nowhere I could really turn for help without being met with answers like, “Just go back to church,” or “Tough it out, you’re too smart for all of this.” Something that I can only describe as a shimmer of clarity woke me up on Black Friday with a clear message: Go to Europe.
The few months I’d spent backpacking through Central and Eastern Europe earlier that year were some of the happiest times in my life to that point. Moreover, getting to connect with my Croatian relatives that summer and in the two previous years I spent traveling and studying in my ancestral homeland was like finding a part of myself I’d been desperate to meet. So over what remained of Thanksgiving weekend I made the arrangements—got my money out of savings, bought a cheap ticket to Prague with the intention of taking the train further south to Croatia and then Hercegovina, and wrote letters explaining to the people in my life that I needed to leave to be okay. I took the gamble, left that Monday, and stayed for almost three years.
I recently recounted the story to one of my oldest and dearest friends. He said in reply, “Jamie, stop saying you ran away to Europe. You moved to Europe.”
I chuckled and sighed when I heard his reframe. Indeed, everything truly wonderful that happened to me—especially finding my recovery and my life’s vocational path—was a direct result of taking that risk to move. In the English language the concept of motivation comes from the Latin word meaning “to move.” So, the very concept of being motivated is rooted in movement. And we don’t give movement (and all the ways we can engage it) enough credit in the change process.
In recovery circles we can be quick to condemn the so-called geographic cure, or the notion that just changing locations is the magic bullet that will make all of your problems disappear. Of course, you take yourself with you wherever you go, and if nothing changes inside then nothing will change overall. Some people would describe what I did by moving to Europe as a geographical cure in the pejorative sense. Even when I share my lead or qualification at a 12-step speaker meeting sometimes I tease myself about it. Janet Leff—my very wise first sponsor and fellow humanitarian aid worker who I met while living in Europe—once made a powerful distinction.
She offered: “Sometimes it’s necessary to make a change—change jobs, change relationships, change cities. We have to ask ourselves though, are we running away from something or running towards something better? Like recovery, our self-dignity, an opportunity that’s better for us and our growth?”
These questions are useful for all of us in recovery as we contemplate making changes, especially if those around us try to shame us for our choices. When I reflect back on those moments in the Fall of 2000, there is no doubt that moving myself in the most radical way possible was needed in order to survive. When I arrived back in Croatia and then to Bosnia-Hercegovina where I settled, I struggled a great deal. It was certainly no geographic cure! I thought that church was the only answer at first and that working for the Catholic Church (which I did) would save me. I thought that I could still drink like a fish and hang out with men who weren’t good for me, as long as I wasn’t popping pills.
And then 12-step recovery found me in the person of Janet Leff, who first befriended me and then asked me to translate a recovery council meeting in the local community for her one day. This powerful system of help, which was devised in my home state of Ohio, found me in the hills of Hercegovina in the years following a brutal civil war in that region. Janet, whose story I tell more fully in Trauma and the Twelve Steps (2012), was there to answer all of my questions I struggled to piece together about my life in chemicals and my emotional demons. A retired clinical social worker, Janet was the first person to give me the framework of unhealed trauma as the main explanation for my mental health and addiction concerns. Because of her commitment to carry a message of recovery to others and lead by example in her life, I’ve been continuously sober since July 2002. There are not enough words to express my gratitude to her and the cosmic flow that brought me to her.
The other layer to this story is how my move to Europe impacted my professional development. If you’re reading this blog on the Institute for Creative Mindfulness site, chances are that you’ve taken a training with me, have read one of my books, or have worked with me in some capacity. What I do today is a direct result of the seeds that Janet and others planted during my work there from 2001-2003. When I moved to Europe, I was starting a graduate degree in history; I took two psychology courses in my undergraduate studies and hated them! So, when both Janet and the priest who was my immediate supervisor suggested that I go to graduate school for clinical counseling, I laughed at them. Janet chuckled in response and said, “Trust me, you’ll be good at it.”
As I reflect back on this time in my life that set the course for the road ahead, I am grateful to be a mover in every sense of the word. Friendships that I made, some very deep, last to this day and continue to shape me. I learned for certain that the world is much bigger and full of wonder than the American bubble of success and failure in which I’d been raised to imprison myself, and there are parts of me to be found everywhere if I’m only brave enough to look. I pray every day that the work I do as I move about the world in the present time honors Janet’s memory.
To be a mover is to embrace a challenge with forward momentum, even if the temptation is to judge yourself as a coward for what may seem like running away. For you, moving halfway around the world may not be required. Although for change to happen, taking actionable steps in the direction of change is an imperative. Movement heals—a simple phrase I often teach in my Dancing Mindfulness expressive arts therapy work. Now, as I spend Thanksgiving weekend of 2018 clean, sober, and mostly sane on holiday in Slovenia and Croatia, two of the places that revived my spirit all those years ago, I realize the deeper truth in this simple teaching.
In memory of Janet Leff (1941-2017)
Institute for creative mindfulness
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