My inspiration for Guided Autobiography came to me in the summer of 2022. I was in Montana to help care for our grandsons while they were on summer vacation. I took them to the library. I was looking at books when I had a serendipitous find: Life is in the Transitions by Bruce Feiler. This book was a life changer for me. I then researched Guided Autobiography from a website recommended by the author and purchased the book Writing Your Legacy by Richard Campbell and Dr. Cheryl Svensson. This book was about using Guided Autobiography to write legacy lifestories.
Bruce Feiler, author and motivational speaker writes about his journey collecting and analyzing people who told their stories of life transitions. He includes cutting-edge research and presents a framework for how we view and handle the voluntary and involuntary transitions that increasingly disrupt our lives. He traveled around the country and gathered hundreds of stories of everyday people, then studied the stories for themes and takeaways. He concludes that linear life is dead and nonlinear life involves more life transitions. Life transitions, he states, are a skill we can and must master. Feiler writes that 'disruptors' are the base unit of a nonlinear life. These are an event or experience that interrupts the everyday 'flow of one's life.' His research uncovered 52 common disruptors, such as getting married, a child's illness, parental divorce, change in identity, beliefs, work, and illness. He concludes that adults face between thirty and forty disruptors in a lifetime.
Lifequakes, on the other hand, are more life-changing. A lifequake, he defines, is a forceful burst of change in one's life that leads to a period of upheaval, transition, and renewal. A person can anticipate 3 to 5 lifequakes in their lifetime. These can be personal or collective (happens with many others, such as disaster or war). They can be voluntary (the person initiates the change) or involuntary (the change is brought on by someone or something else.) It can take 3-5 years to work through these major lifequake transitions. He says that lifequakes are massive, messy, and often miserable but can initiate a period of self-reflection and personal reevaluation. Lifequakes forces us to ask, "What is it that gives me meaning, and how does that influence the story of my life."
This brings me to my recent lifestory of resilience. In the past seven years, I have had four lifequakes stacked back to back. The first was in 2016 when my mother-in-law Kate suddenly sold the house she had lived in for thirty years. She was a widow and fiercely independent. During this house sale, we discovered that she suffered from dementia. Signs were subtle and often hidden well, but we realized she could no longer manage her finances, take care of her beloved parrot, or manage herself. We were able to find her an apartment, but this became an untenable situation, and we could see that she was not doing well with the change. She was losing weight, going to Walmart late a night 'to talk to the friendly cashiers', and she began falling frequently. We made the decision to sell our retirement home, and buy a house close to her old house for the familiarity, and we began a 3-year journey in caregiving.
My work, teaching nursing at a rural community college and going on summer medical missions, ended abruptly. I realized I was suffering from compassion fatigue and general fatigue from the 2-hour commute I now had for work. I resigned from teaching. Of course, caregiving continued to utilize my nursing skills like never before.
My next 'life quake' occurred in December 2018 while caregiving Kate. My husband Andy had a stroke just before Christmas. It was an unusual stroke resulting in global amnesia. I was grateful that we lived close to a large medical center. Time is of the essence during a stroke. I drove him to the Emergency Department. His CAT scan and MRI of the brain showed the stroke. Thankfully it was not a hemorrhagic one (bleeding). He received TPA, a life-saving medication used to dissolve clots, and his symptoms resolved. It was discovered that the stroke was caused by a clot formed from having a large opening in the septum of the heart (patent foramen ovale). This entire event shook my world. Again, thankfully, a cardiovascular specialist repaired this defect in his heart, and he has had no negative results from the procedure.
In January 2019, while managing Andy's health crisis, Kate progressively declined and essentially stopped eating enough to sustain herself. She was also falling more frequently. We made the decision to admit her to hospice care for comfort management and end-of-life care. Her hospice team was incredible and helped guide us through her decline. She ultimately lost her battle with dementia in March 2019.
After Kate's death, we remodeled the house, sold it, and moved to another house that would not remind my husband daily of our caregiving journey. Soon after that move, we had to put down our 14-year-old black lab, Maggie. She had lost the use of her hind legs and was suffering. Maggie was a faithful and loving companion for my husband and me. The close bond we had with her made her death painful to endure. I believe it was also a bit of grief upon grief that pushed me into a tailspin. I call this darkness an abyss.
Right behind this loss was, of course, the COVID pandemic. As a nurse of 45 years, I desperately wanted to be of help. I was hired into Missouri's Disaster Medical Team (DMAT) and was deployed to a psychiatric facility for mentally ill criminals; some were incarcerated for life. COVID was leading to a staffing crisis for the facility. Needless to say, this was overwhelming, and I did not feel prepared for the work there. I spent three weeks at the facility, working back-to-back twelve-hour shifts. The stress and exhaustion were unexpected and took their toll on my resilience. When I returned home, I decided, once and for all, it was time to resign from a profession I loved and had spent almost half a century in. I retired my FNP certification and began a difficult transition facing retirement. The dark abyss grew larger and deeper.
I read books on retirement and how to find meaning a purpose again. I was teaching ESL for adult immigrants, rewarding, yes, but I missed relationships. My husband and I purchased a small home in Montana, just a few miles from adult kids and grandkids. We intended to spend a couple of months, two or three times a year, helping our grandkids and exploring this beautiful area. And this is how I discovered Guided Autobiography. After devouring Feiler's book on transitions and recognizing I was in a lifequake transition, I began to explore the healing power of writing life stories. I began with my own and then had an epiphany. I am, as Feiler writes, a lifestorian. Throughout my nursing career and as a family genealogist, I have been passionate about eliciting people's stories, particularly those of resilience. I was let to Dr. Birren's Guided Autobiography website and to books about the topic. His method includes small groups of people who write and share their stories with their small, supportive group. This idea resonated with the desires of my heart. The Birren Institute just so happened to be offering a certification course to be a facilitator. And there just happened to be ONE spot open! Coincidence? Not hardly. I believe I was called to this work as part of my lifequake transition and a reshaping of my life.
I believe that this long journey of healing and working through many transitions have led me to regain my passion, meaning, and purpose to help others write and tell their stories. I am thankful to Bruce Feiler, Dr. Cheryl Svensson, Richard Campbell, and my GAB instructors, Heidi and Sherrie, for throwing me a life ring and pulling me out of my abyss. Hope is a remarkable virtue; I am now hopeful, grateful, and joyful.