A year ago almost to the day, I visited a place that I consider one of the most physically beautiful, cloistered sanctuaries in the country, located one-hour outside Asheville, North Carolina, called Lakeview at Fontana. This year, again I traveled to this North Carolina retreat center, for a program called Chicks Unhitched. However, this year I came for an entirely different reason. My initial trek from Dallas to the Smoky Mountains last year was to explore options to help my divorce clients find retreat centers where they could heal from the upheaval of a broken marriage and relationships. This time, my sole mission for taking a week off of my busy, divorce litigation schedule was to heal -- from my own divorce, freshly five months finalized.
As soon as Tetia McMichael, friend and founder of Chicks Unhitched, heard of my divorce, she invited me, arms wide-open, to come to Lakeview at Fontana. She gently nudged me with care-packages and encouraging emails to try it out as a consumer this time, offering me a unique opportunity to find peace and a pathway to recovery. And I couldn't get there fast enough.
Healing and Fear
Healing happens gradually. There is no magic formula, no spell or wand that can wipe away our sorrow or regret. But it helps to have a team of supportive and strong women, gorgeous scenery and focus. One of the life coaches from Chicks Unhitched shared with us that, "fear is the greatest obstacle to joy." When the bottom falls out of our relationships, the sense of fear is overwhelming and often debilitating -- joy seems like distant memory. Healing seems impossible with this inherent fear.
Welcome to Your Journey
The six ladies who joined me during my journey at Chicks Unhitched shared their common fears: "Am I a quitter? What could I have done to have salvaged this? Am I lovable? What if I never find love again? What if I run out of money after this is all over?" Fear is an insidious and strong emotion and an enemy to healing.
Every day we faced our fears at Chicks Unhitched. Just getting there, on day one, literally was an obstacle for some. Traveling by trains, planes and automobiles, some from as far as Canada, these ladies left busy career calendars, children and the hustle and bustle of daily life to focus on themselves. They arrived to Lakeview at Fontana for this chance to meet new friends and to swap tales of woe and triumph. It's not easy to tell strangers the intimate details of just how bad it got before you called it quits or why your husband/boyfriend left you for an upgrade.
These women described in heart-breaking detail how their relationships deteriorated to the point where they had to file for divorce or leave. These brave women candidly shared their narratives: the gut-punch of decade-long affairs, the mid-life crisis wife trade-ins, partners who suffered grave addiction and mental illness and men who bailed at the mention of one of the ladies being diagnosed with MS. There is no one-upmanship in these conversations, just empathy. We all got here somehow, and we all had one thing in common: we were ready to move on.
I met my six new "insta-friends" on Sunday evening when I arrived, and continued to chatter with them as if I'd known them since elementary school until I departed the following Friday. During that week, we cried, shared stories, did yoga, white-water rafted, rode horses through the Smoky Mountains and had a champagne shopping spree together. However, the most important part of this journey was not the zip lining, ropes course or even the amazing nightly organic meals -- it was just being there. We were in a safe place, feeling nurtured and loved, and so the healing part was easy. Nightly, we were in our pajamas outside on the patio, recapping the day and fantasizing about how brilliant our new lives were going to be when we returned home. I felt like I was 13 years old planning out how it was going to be "when I grew up."
The Ropes Course: Facing Our Fears
The most significant day of the retreat occurred on day two. On the second day, we braved a ropes course that challenged even the most athletic of the bunch. (Now I know why day three is designated spa/shopping day). Our Iron Woman athlete, Amanda, who literally is a serial marathoner and self-assigned fearless leader, coached us through the ropes course.
As we whined, cursed and grunted our way through rope webs, swinging logs, free-form obstacles and gravity-defying feats four stories high in the air, this team of women quickly became a resounding unit of "yes you can!" There were a few challenges that made me feel like an ill-prepared contestant on American Ninja Warrior or Wipeout. Although I was not climbing the formidable K-2, many times, when I literally almost lost my footing on the ropes, or was hanging upside down without a plan to right myself, I felt like turning back. I wanted to press the "easy" button. But just as in life, there was no easy way down.
Ann, our consummate optimist and full-belly laugher, told me that the ropes course defined her experience. Ann described that the ropes course, "was a game changer for me and so many women." She explained that, "my life experiences and the voices in our heads (as women), that told me 'you can't do this,' disappeared into a faint whisper, and with the support of our peers, we all conquered every obstacle. It's like a metaphor for the obstacles that keep us from moving on in our lives."
Barbara, our demure, world-traveled artist, told me: "The moment that defined my week was when I let go of the rope on one platform, and crossed the threshold to a next challenge."
Graduating From Fear and Learning to Take Care of YOU
In order to walk through the fear, I explain to my divorce clients how they must start to heal. I often refer to the oxygen mask metaphor, and Chicks Unhitched reinforces it from the moment you arrive. Ladies, the oxygen mask must go on your mouth after a sudden change in cabin pressure. If you can't help yourself, you cannot move on and function in this world. In the healing process, when breathing is even harder to do, the oxygen mask must go on your face first. As moms, mothers, girlfriends and nurturers, we are constantly putting our needs aside to attend to others. However, the fallout can be catastrophic. If you can't breathe, neither can your children, friends or partners.
So, when that plane, (insert marriage or relationship here) goes down with a vengeance -a sudden change in cabin pressure, please put that mask on your mouth first. Chicks Unhitched taught and reinforced this concept from the moment through our morning French Press coffee, yoga, massages, pep talks and life coaching. We had dietitians, yogis and guides to educate us how to start putting ourselves first: through diet and exercise, goal-setting and just literally prioritizing our needs day by day. By the end of the retreat, we all felt like we were breathing 100 percent oxygen. Our masks were on.
Who Should Attend Chicks Unhitched?
Amanda, aka, "Iron Woman," whom I referenced earlier, identified who may be a good candidate to attend Chicks Unhitched. She delineated that this is not just for "the newly divorced, but also for those still struggling or trying to build or rebuild their own life at any time after the end of a relationship. Whether it ended 6 months or 6 years ago, there's still an enormous amount of value in taking time to look at your life and to continue moving forward to hopefully make it match the vision you have for yourself."
Amanda also provided insight on our collective mission and how it worked to create a new vision after leaving. Amanda explained, "We were all there to try to forge change in our lives and as the days passed, our walls continued to crumble, allowing us to be wholly and completely ourselves, with no judgement. These women, despite our obvious differences, have become invaluable to me in my journey."
Another friend, Ann, returned for a second trip to Chicks Unhitched -- not because of a recent breakup or divorce, but to remind herself why she's worth it. Ann, who has a job that entails nurturing and educating others, with her infectious laugh and great attitude, explained that sometimes she failed to nurture herself. She learned at this retreat that you must, "nurture yourself as much as you nurture others. If life, past relationships or your internal voices tell you that you can't, prove them wrong."
Jessica, an unassuming, spiritual, mother-of-three young children, said that Chicks Unhitched taught her one that she was capable of a great transformation. Jessica promised, "only expect not to be the same person when you get home." Jessica acknowledged that while, "I'm sure that you can recharge going on a weekend trip wherever with a friend, this structured program -- with its provoking life coaching sessions and physical challenges, also gave me an inherent connection with other women which is unparalleled with any other divorce retreat center that I researched." Jessica emphasized the clarity she received from this experience was a major gift. She saw that there is now, "an end to the fog I'd been living through (post-divorce)." Connection and challenge lifted Jessica out of a fog, she told me, emphasizing her new-found clarity after the retreat.
What Did I Learn (the Second Time Around?")
As a participant in this week-long transformation of Chicks Unhitched, I can tell you that this is no adult sleep away camp where you gather pen pals and archery skills. While I had been trying therapy, message, self-help books and even painting classes, I needed a jolt to reboot my attitude about my lost marriage. As I "went to the mountain" at Lakeview at Fontana, to discern my new post-divorce path, I learned some valuable lessons, which are forever embedded in my thinking:
1. We are stronger than we think we are;
2. Female connection is universal and sacred;
3. Physical challenges can change the way our brain works;
4. You have to want to change something badly enough before you start to change it;
5. There are no magic tricks to heal and process your fear and grief.
I am humbled and inspired by the six women that I met. My gratitude for this experience is overwhelming and, and I hope that the words of these wise and lovely women guide you to find change in your life. While it may seem an expensive investment of time and money to travel across the United States for clarity and strength, you are worth it and will surely find a new vision through this journey.