Today I am unapologetically 50.
This is me.
I have thought for a long time on how I was going to approach this day with great uncertainty. I wrote this as a reminder to myself. A reminder to keep going. I understand it may sound harsh, but in my life, it has been a needed reminder as far back as I can remember.
There is no shame in truth, only courage in honesty. I know I am not alone in needing this reminder.
I was supposed to be walking into Santiago de Compostela, Spain today. It has been bittersweet to postpone, though walking the 480 miles virtually in my home of Southwest Virginia over the last few months, I tried to feel the connection I yearned.
The one thing I have consistently shared with trusted friends and mentors is, ‘I never expected to be here this long.’ And while it drives them crazy to hear, I think deep down they understand.
As I walked, stumbled, climbed, and dragged myself through fifty years, it did not always look like I would see another in each one that passed. Many repeatedly express surprise that I ever made it out alive on very specific stages of my journey.
My life seemed to be challenged since the beginning growing up in San Francisco private Catholic schools, graduating on to a vagabond lifestyle travelling through Europe and across the country many times. I went from each adventure with my life on my back trying to discover who I was from religious life discernment and ministering to the sick and dying in Lourdes, France to young adult ministry taking me through prominent moments as preaching in the steps of Jesus in Israel on pilgrimage. There were endless speaking engagements as a motivational speaker at heart sharing the healing journey I walked to bring meaning, depth, and purpose to the pain, then coming back to myself through the gift of motherhood.
I am always honest with the fact that I have survived many hurdles most do not, though repeatedly would not change one thing. I would never wish my journey on my worst enemy, and yet I am grateful for walking it. Yes, grateful. My journey blessed me with gifts, lessons, and friendships I may never have had otherwise. Mentors are my guardian angels, for in every form from teachers to religious, to faithful friends they have guided me in this life.
Years ago, my life was about full-time ministry. I remember care-free times of getting in a borrowed car, grabbing my backpack, and just stopping at Missions and Monasteries up and down the coast of California for weeks, praying with monks and religious as I was invited in. It was a beautiful and meditative free-spirited time embracing many stories and accessing my gift of intercessory prayer along the way. I took from their journeys and tried to find where my own would lead. I could always live a life for others before I remembered to take care of myself. I held onto those stories and prayers of all whom I encountered in my life predictably to escape my own.
I would not recognize this until further down my journey. I lived my independent years wildly and without fear as a minimalist. I thrive in simplicity; it fills my soul. I moved often for adventure. I thrived in risks. The collage of men and women that I met truly molded my spirit into where I stand today.
Along this journey, there was a bigger story interweaved. I battled anxiety and depression for the whole of my life but did not utterly understand what that meant until the last decade walking through perimenopause.
I have walked the road of suicide more than I care to admit from childhood to adulthood, spending a lifetime trying to take away my life as much as live in it. I trusted and knew darkness more than the light. Though when I finally admitted the pain and opened up the story in the depression, it was revealed the anxiety was as great a part of the journey, a truth which still has its moments.
It’s fair to say my eating disorder of 14 years was my greatest hurdle. A journey of 17 years in recovery in which doctors and counselors from treatment programs and hospitals have written me letters over this time sharing how they never thought I would walk away alive from anorexia.
My eating disorder existed through all my experiences taking away my dreams of further ministry, losing the love of my life and leaving me very lost. When I had nowhere to turn, I ran away into a marriage at an attempt to be normal. As I am blessed that I received the gift of motherhood unexpectedly in my health, truth revealed later to be determined in heartbreaking ways as I became a single full-time mother. I still never have found a partner who knew what he had was a gift, and I now love myself enough to not accept anything less than my worth.
I am grateful for so much in my life. Without the trials I have had to walk I would have never met and treasured some incredible people in my life today. Today, I’ve needed to reflect by looking back and seeing how I’ve been blessed travelling extensively through Europe and Ireland in my young adulthood, to driving across country next to five times, witnessing the glorious beauty that is hidden to those who never risk to see it. I have driven the backcountry roads without fear and stood in the middle of the desert screaming with no one around, feeling the enormity that is this life. One of my ‘I can do anything moments’ driving from Virginia to California in a two-door tiny car with all of my possessions and two young children as a single mom reminds me on my tough days.
Then there is my heart where I pilgrimaged to Lourdes France nearly a dozen times living in the Dominican monastery and ministering in the baths of the Grotto of Our Lady to sick and dying pilgrims. I remind myself that in 2001 I was the very first woman that they ever placed as a Hospitalier in the Grotto itself. Today I do this ministry from afar still helping people reach the waters, stay in the monasteries, and find healing on their journeys through prayer. It has been such an intimate part of my life, that I am now documenting it in yet another book. I need the reminder that I was needed.
In my most sacred ministry I have walked with too many dear friends down the journey towards their end of life and I’ve sat with as many unknown souls as illness took them to their final rest. My heart is so much in this place of peace with them. While lives are lost, it undoubtedly renews my faith.
I look back in surreal ways to my ‘98 Israel pilgrimage of 28 young adults with two Dominican priests, one being my mentor and dearest friend in the world, where I did the spiritual direction and mass coordination for the pilgrims and priests. As we prayed and explored the footsteps where Jesus walked, it was there that I preached the readings of good Friday in the church of the Holy Sepulcher. I did not reflect but I preached from a place deep within my soul and faith with a voice I was just learning to embrace. I must remind myself of those powerful words I still have today in my journal on worn notecards as they reflect the steps I promised to fight for and the steps I am still walking. I remember the emotions and tears of those who sat before me and listened. I hold that privilege close.
The number of women and men I have walked with through anorexia and bulimia while in treatment and on the other side of recovery is endless reminding me of the gift in which I received going into my 17th year of recovery. Many of those beautiful humans never saw the other side of their eating disorders as I have, losing the fight. My greatest passion is standing before those who need to hear my story of healing, hope, recovery, faith, and possibility. The auditoriums of students, conferences, hospitals, and treatment programs are endless. A gymnasium full of 1500 high schoolers to speaking before students at Yale University being sought after, to then the most treasured of all the treatment program that saved my life with a room full of those looking for hope from me where I had once sat hopeless. Those lives are why I am here today, they are why I do the work that many do not understand.
When I am blessed to receive an occasional email, phone call or social media connection from someone who had heard me speak over 25 years ago share that I made a difference in their life, I can only pause in gratitude. I, too, need that reminder that I am needed. That my life is valuable. A reminder that my voice still lives and breathes, never to be silenced.
I still must remind myself that I wrote a book. An actual book. It was not easy by any means, and I stopped countless times along the way for it felt too intimate to express. The most beautiful aspect that I love so much about this book and where criticism lies, is that it is not perfect. In fact, it has been pointed out to me. I simply smile and respond, ‘Thank you, I know.’ You see, I turned down publishers offers because I did not want to lose the integrity of the book’s message. For me, it was not about cosmetics and selling thousands of copies, rather if it helped one person it did its job.
The story and tools format that it lies in is what helps people, it is how I healed and I stood by that until the moment I pushed print at the urging of a friend. I did not look back and it was an extraordinary day. My voice, my story was finally being released and heard. Find Your Voice Project: A Journey Towards Healing. It is moments like those that make me think that I am meant to still be here. The darkness can be so very great at times, but the gift within the light is priceless.
As I am not a woman who takes someone telling me I cannot do something, I will always prove them wrong in the dreams I choose to follow. My business Anam Nostos House is the final place where I bring all of these years’ experience into one authentic voice and work leading workshops and retreats to help others find their voice, define their story and own the path they walk. It may not always pay the bills or bring me what others have…but it fills my heart for it gives my story purpose and meaning to remind others of their own.
I am a woman who does not like the word no or can’t. I prove any wrong 50 years and counting.
Here we are today.
I had been planning this pilgrimage to Spain for years. My dearest friend in the world, responsible in many ways for my receiving the care I needed when I was sick, died from cancer nearly 8 years ago. Shortly before she died, she asked me to walk the Camino in her honor. I knew I had to do this for her. Two years ago, I decided it was going to be the definitive time as the children were older now.
I have trained hard, I worked hard to save for it receiving donations and monetary birthday gifts to reach my goal and then Covid came. My savings quickly became survival of our family finances trying to keep us and my business going. The airlines canceled my tickets, the group I was going with is on hold and we are not sure when it will be a possibility anymore. I understood why it had to be, but at the same time I have been heartbroken. This was to be a time of renewal and rejuvenation for my soul and spirit.
The life I led prior had seemed to have disappeared for the current responsibilities of life leaving my heart bruised. This Camino pilgrimage was about so much more than fulfilling a dying wish, it was about so much more than an accomplishment. It was going to be about finding myself again, for in countless ways I have been lost and needed a rebirth. In ways, Spain would be that reminder to keep going.
No I didn’t expect to make it to 50, but I will respect what it took in every step for me to get here.
I will celebrate every wrinkle that represents tears of joy and sadness cried or laughter experienced, for those wrinkles are who I am constantly becoming.
I will embrace the gray that begins to cover me and be thankful that I have lived those years, when the odds were clearly against me.
I will see the true beauty and the scars upon my body, for they gave me two beautiful children and one in heaven. I may struggle in motherhood. I may feel like I am failing them at certain turns. But, I thank God every day for the miracle of their lives which were never expected to become a reality.
Those other scars I see daily on my body, the scars that sometimes others see remind me of the painful moments and times where I fought harder through death to discover a rebirth. They tell their own story. I do not want to cover them up or take them away. I will let them remind me that STILL I RISE.
Today, I am standing in my own power.
Today I unapologetically turn 50... I pray I can do it justice. I know there are many more lives who need to hear my story including myself over and over to be reminded that today is a gift, yesterday was a gift, and tomorrow will be a great blessing.
No one thing defines me, no one person can tell me who I am.
This is me.
So, today the Camino de Santiago begins at the door of my soul…
Andrea creates, builds, and offers her teachings and hands on life tools based on her journey healing her body image after a 14yr battle and life of trauma. Her vision always is to help others live a full life with the journey they are given.