2908396073_f5c912487c_oI love the myth of the Phoenix. In the story, the giant, colorful phoenix bird builds a nest, sets the nest and itself on fire, and emerges from the ashes reborn. The Phoenix has become my personal symbol since my suicide attempt and resulting brain injury in 2007.

With the intention of ending my life, I swallowed over 90 pills. There are some things at which it is good to fail. Because I was found too late for my stomach to be pumped, the drugs, mostly brain drugs: sleeping pills, tranquilizers, anti-anxiety drugs, and anti-depressants, went all of the way through my body.

Right after the attempt, I was seriously mentally impaired with many challenges.  Just putting thoughts into words was a difficult, painstakingly slow process and when I tried to talk, it sounded like my mouth was wired shut and crammed full of marbles. I shook uncontrollably, my arms hung limply by my sides when I walked, and my balance and coordination were way off.

With determination, hard work, and discipline every day, for years, accompanied by lots of reading and learning, self-examination, doing things differently, and through the miracle of neuroplasticity, I slowly emerged from the chaos stronger, happier, and healthier than ever. I am a phoenix.

In her book, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, Elizabeth Lesser calls such a transformation the Phoenix process:

Surviving the Holocaust, enduring the loss of one’s child, learning to live with an incurable illness, witnessing terror, or experiencing trauma—these are Phoenix Processes of the tallest order. Come through one of them with an open heart, and you will light a path through the woods for all of us.

She goes on to say that a person must make the journey by themselves because an individual must go into the flames alone to burn away the illusions of the ego and arise from the ashes their true, authentic, new self. A person can choose to go into the fire, through the unknown, through the darkness and do the gut-wrenching work or they can choose to turn away and remain frozen in an empty relationship, a soul-killing job, a difficult loss, a numb life, or whatever the circumstances. Upon venturing into the fire, the person stands to emerge with a new level of strength, power, and courage and with an awakened sense of empathy and a softer heart.

My choice initially was to neither brave the flames nor run. I just wanted out. Surviving the suicide attempt and resulting brain injury flung me right into the fire where all I could begin to try to control was how I dealt with the messed-up reality that I had created.

Therein is the magic for anyone in a Phoenix process. My recovery was transformative and believe it or not, a blessing in disguise because I emerged from the ruins stronger, healthier, and happier than ever.  I wouldn’t want to go back to being who I was before for anything, even though she didn’t talk funny and had a much better memory and penmanship.

As a symbol of what I have been through and the promises I’ve made to myself going forward in my life, I got a small tattoo of a phoenix in a discreet place – my first tattoo at forty-six years old! I absolutely love it and don’t need anyone else to see it or even know it’s there.  It’s my little secret, my private badge of honor and courage, and makes me smile every time I see it.

image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/isvin/

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  1. Tony Piparo Reply

    Great article. I wrote a poem about being the Phoenix some years ago I'll havr to locvate it.

  2. Debbie Hampton Reply

    Thanks, Tony. Please find your poem and share! I wanna read it. The phoenix is such a powerful symbol in many societies and for many people.

  3. Lori (JaneBeNimble) Reply

    HI Debbie,
    You did it (re: tattoo)! Woot! That's awesome — I bet it is gorgeous.

    I love this, Debbie. I love your spirit and tenacity. And, I absolutely agree, the phoenix process is very real and transformative. I gleaned a lot of great information from Broken Open, too, and feel my heart softening.
    Thanks for this, and for speaking so openly about your challenges.

  4. Debbie Hampton Reply

    Lori, when I decide something…I do not waste any time! I really feel some fresh, good energy with the phoenix. Glad you have read and also found some wisdom in Broken Open. I think anybody can!

    Thank you for the kind words about my spirit and tenacity. They have sure gotten me through this, but I am learning to tame my tenacity a little bit in the right situations. That is what is all about, huh? Balance.

  5. Debbie, I just stumbled across your blog this morning but I'm enjoying the posts you've written.

    I understand – and respect – that this tattoo was a private thing for you, but I've gotta admit, I'm very curious as heck about what it looks like! Tattoos that have some underlying story and/or meaning are truly fascinating!

    I've been drawing & tweaking on a phoenix-like tattoo to symbolize a transformative journey that I undertook. I haven't quite arrived at the design that seems right just yet, but I think I'm nearing that point.

  6. Debbie Hampton Reply

    Mine is kinda simple, but funky and feminine. I just searched on the web. There are many designs available for free. You have to consider where it is gonna go and how much ink you want on your body. I am still loving mine. Makes me feel like I have a secret and a little wild. Good luck with yours!

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