This past Saturday, I attended Toastmaster Leadership Institute for my district in Colorado. One of the take-aways was a call-out to the membership to tell their stories. Personal stories are a powerful influence on bringing people into Toastmasters (or any organization), and we were being reminded how important our own stories are. Here is my Toastmaster story.
You may not know this. I may not have told you, but I was once kind of a big deal. When I was senior in high school…about 50 years ago now. I’ll wait while you clean up the drink you just snorted all over yourself. The scope of my influence as a “big deal” was rather small, my high school district and my family, mostly. I’d come off a phenomenal year of forensics (speech and debate) competition, taking awards at the district and state levels in California and qualifying for the National tournament. I reprised the mojo in 1972, taking awards in two events at the Junior College Nationals.
I then got busy with life and career and motherhood and wifehood. It was all going rather swimmingly until about six years ago when I lost my voice for the first time. It was when my grandmother died. Losing my voice wasn’t a little inconvenience, I’d been asked to deliver her eulogy. Writing it out helped, but the power I used to have in delivering a speech was gone. I got through it, but the mojo was weak. I managed a few words at my mother’s memorial, although by now the effect was much more severe; and I did an acceptable job for my husband, Bill, when we honored him at Arlington. Both times, a microphone doing the work of projecting my words.
Grief comes to all of us, and it affects all of us differently. The one thing we cannot deny is that loss affects us. It changes us. Sometimes those changes are subtle, and sometimes they are unmistakable. The bigger the loss, the more complex and the more evident the effect. For me, the death of my husband of nearly 28 years was the end of a streak of losses covering only three years, beginning with my grandmother in mid-2007. That was followed by my mother in early 2008, and then of course, my husband in 2010. And when I wasn’t losing somebody through death, I was leaving them or they were leaving me behind. We moved away from our family and friends in Maryland and the DC area in late 2007. In April of 2009 my son’s marriage blew up spectacularly and all of us were still picking out the shrapnel when Bill became terminally ill.
It wasn’t just my voice.
After Bill died, I seemed to do ok for a while. We got through the wake and the funeral and I ate and slept and took care of routine things, sort of. I even became a county Veterans Service Officer for a while, until I realized it was making things worse. You’ve read about the VA problems. There I was sitting across from frail old men with Agent Orange triggered illnesses, knowing they would probably die before they saw a penny of assistance — gamed by the system with automatic denials and requests for information already sent.
Somehow, by late 2012 I found myself spending whole days in my pajamas watching TV — from Good Morning America through The View and the news and then on to the court shows on Denver Channel 31 and on into the evening until it was time for bed. I would change into clothes before my son got home from work, so he wouldn’t know what a total slob I was becoming. The only relief was the occasional camping trip out of town.
Because I was sitting around in my pjs, not much was being accomplished. I would make lists of things to do and then find ways to rationalize not doing them. A body at rest tends to stay at rest, and I was resting myself right into an early grave. I also wasn’t doing much communicating, other than displacing my emotions with raging rants on political websites.
One day in November 2012, I came across a paragraph in the local Parker Chronicle under the calendar section: LUNCH OUT LOUD Toastmasters, 11:30 a.m. every Friday, Parker Methodist Church. It just so happened, I had nothing to do on mostly any Friday at 11:30 a.m. Something deep within me clicked into place.
At my first meeting, I found a friendly and accepting group of people who were all looking to pull something better out of themselves. I was warmly greeted and encouraged to participate fully in the meeting. At the end of my first meeting, I was awarded a ribbon for Best Table Topics.
Prizes? No one told me there would be prizes! I was hooked.
In the coming months, as I worked my way through both the speaking and leadership manuals*, I found that things were changing around me in ways I hadn’t expected. I was spending less time in my pajamas even on days when I wasn’t at Toastmasters. I was becoming a functional human being again. My house was even cleaner and more organized. I was also having conversations with people again. I was making new friends.
In my second year of Toastmasters, I took on a board officer position for my club, and that has accelerated the positive changes in my abilities to organize not only my thoughts but my day-to-day life. I’m not new at this organization thing, I had just given it all up for grief. In the process of getting and keeping myself organized as Sergeant at Arms, I broke through that barrier. It was a bit of an epiphany when I found myself creating a continuity binder for my successor, just like the old days when I was an awesome senior NCO in the AF.
And my voice is back. A little shaky from my advanced years (snort) and all the years I insisted on smoking cigarettes, but it is gaining strength and I am gaining confidence all the time. Maybe one day, I’ll be kind of a big deal again. It doesn’t have to be world-wide fame — just being a big deal in my little world will be fine.
*Competent Communicator and Competent Leader