This past Monday, I had what can only be described as a true heart-to-heart connection with author, healer, and nature lover Mary Clista Dahl. Mary and I met earlier this year through the Mad in America website and immediately clicked. Much like me, Mary has experienced a lot of darkness in her life, but instead of letting her past struggles and pain weigh her down, she has transformed her darkness into light. She calls herself a “love cheerleader”: someone who has gone through her own personal healing journey and has now transitioned to healer, encouraging others to let go of their debilitating beliefs and work toward an enlightened life. After savoring and deeply relating to her memoir and blog, I decided it was time to connect with Mary on a more personal level. I was delighted to discover that she is every bit as honest and uplifting over the phone as she is through her writing.
Shortly after answering my call, Mary had me smiling as she took a calming breath in and said, “I’m looking out the window right now, loving the rain. I enjoy all weather.” As a dog walker, I too love all weather. After years of working outside, I’ve come to appreciate the wind, the snow, the rain, and the sun alike, but most people I know prefer a very specific type of day, and anything outside of that is cause for complaint. Mary is not like most people though. She does not believe in the “current cultural consensus of mental illness”, and she does not follow “the peanut gallery” when it comes to matters of the heart. She believes in the beauty of breakthroughs over breakdowns, and she believes in the power of holding on over letting go, trusting in the universe and all the knowledge it dispenses in whatever form of weather that knowledge comes.
Mary may be a beautiful, ray of unconditional love today, but she didn’t get that way by living a safe and easy life. She has gone through much trauma including the sudden death of her father when she was young, divorce after eighteen years of marriage, several hospitalizations, major heart-break, as well as non-renewal of her career in student services after thirty-three years of dedication and only two years before retirement.
Around the time Mary wrote her memoir and second book, Reconciliation of the Heart, she was going through one of the most difficult transitions in her life. The man she fell in love with after her divorce and considered her true significant other rapidly started to change after years of commitment and drifted away. As she tried to make sense of this cold end to a long and beautiful relationship, she ended up in a mental hospital. Upon returning to society and stepping back into her career, she discovered that the position she loved so dearly and devoted thirty-three years of her life to would not be available to her the following year. Her supervisor gave no explanation for her non-renewal, but even without a verbal reason, she knew why. Heavy with the burden of heart-break and the stigma of mental illness, Mary began to write her way back to the path of love. A voice told her back in January 2017 that she needed to write her memoir, and by August 2017, she had completed it. She describes Reconciliation of the Heart her most healing piece of writing. She laughed, cried, and eventually cracked open her heart to a deeply profound, love-filled state—a state she has sustained and believes is everlasting.
This perpetual sort of happiness is one Mary talks about a lot in her book and one that raises many eyebrows in her life. Doctors have called her delusional, but Mary has a whole toolbox of ways to remain in love and in gratitude of her life every day. One of these methods is something she calls “kind speak”. The idea for this tool came years ago after she and her friend got caught red-handed bad-mouthing a stranger in a public restroom. Mary says she’ll never forget the heated feeling of shame and guilt as she realized the negativity pouring out of her mouth and the direct pain she caused in the stranger’s face. From that day forward, she started actively working to rid her thoughts and conversations of gossip, cruelty, and negativity. She started out by first writing letters to people whenever she felt hurt or angry, and then the following day, without having sent the letters, she would go back and edit, replacing the harsh words for kind ones. As she became comfortable editing on paper, she began to edit her speech which eventually evolved into her everyday loving kindness. Now when she finds herself surrounded by people gossiping, she is able to remain silent and wait for the conversation to turn productive in the positive sense again, engaging only when she feels comfortable, contributing peaceful words.
Another tool Mary uses on a regular basis to stay within perpetual happiness is her gratitude ritual. Almost every night, Mary turns to her dresser to read a framed passage that she wrote in the midst of her healing journey:
My Secret to a Perfect and Happy Life
Every morning before I get out of bed I remind myself...
Don’t be afraid to dream
Trust, Believe, Allow, Receive.
Be kind, be grateful, be joyful and love.
Then I get out of bed and live it.
Before I go to bed at night I remind myself...
Who did you interact and smile with today?
What are you thankful for today?
What/who brought you joy and caused you to laugh today?
And there are always plenty of answers.
Then I close my eyes awaiting peaceful sweet dreams.
One day at a time for happiness.
And somehow it just works.
After reading this passage, she holds the several questions in mind and ventures to the window or to the grass outside to fill in the answers. With these grateful thoughts in mind, she then watches the sunset, raising a glass of wine, saying “cheers” to the universe and to all the beauty her life and the people in it provide.
I smiled when I read about this ritual in her book, but I smiled even more when I heard her describe it over the phone because I could tell this truly is something she does every day. Mary’s perpetual happiness is not some over-the-top, masked-over, only-for-show sort of happiness, and it is certainly not a delusion like so many doctors in her life have pressured her to believe. Mary’s happiness is calm, warm, and deep-rooted in hard healing work and strong spiritual beliefs—strong spiritual beliefs that unfortunately have also come into question by those very same skeptical doctors.
Mary, like myself, is highly aware and fascinated by the universe’s signs. She experiences them in nature, in traffic on license plates, in music, lyrics, dreams, and printed loudly on billboards. At first when she started picking up on the perfectly timed messages and living out her dreams’ premonitions, she thought she was crazy. Her fear-based beliefs stemmed from a fear-based society where doctors labelled the spiritual signs symptoms of an illness, and our American culture left her without a guide or a safe place to explore this new, unfamiliar realm. Over years of experience and after coming out of the trenches of the mental health system, Mary has grown comfortable receiving these signs. Just this past October, she started working with some new friends who are highly influenced by Native American culture and have shared their open acceptance and spiritual understanding of the phenomenon. Before Mary met the local tribe, she had never heard a breakdown described as a breakthrough before. After realizing this vastly different cultural perspective on what most Americans consider “mental illness”, Mary decided to research the history of the American Mental Health System and do her part in eradicating the system with her upcoming book I Beg Your Pardon, But I’m Not The Least Bit Disordered. I, along with several other people I know, will most certainly be buying a copy of this book as soon as it comes out, purely based off of the title.
Although Mary has come a long way in her journey and now considers herself a healer as opposed to a person still in healing, life does not stop. She is still working through the confusion and pain of what she considers true heartbreak, adjusting her feelings to this significant other as her relationship with him shifts and changes. While her friends believe she needs to let go of this past love, Mary prefers to do something quite controversial and instead hold on. Mary, like myself, is quite comfortable being alone and would much rather hold onto the good memories she had with this man rather than shut off all feelings associated with the relationship in cutting ties and letting go. She has always preferred to keep her arms open, never once burning a bridge in her life. Whether or not that man comes back into her life, temporarily or permanently, platonically or romantically, she wants to hold onto the unconditional love she has for him—the unconditional love she genuinely seems to have for everybody she meets.
Two years ago, Mary was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis—a diagnosis that carries along with it a dismal prognosis. She felt the weight of the ailment, lugging around the distressing outlook much like she lugged around the label of mentally ill many years ago. After talking to her friends, however, Mary realized that she needed to approach her diagnosis of MS the same way she approached her diagnosis of bipolar—she needed to shut out the doctors’ belief that she could not recover, and she needed to instead believe that she could heal. Since shifting her mindset, she has started integrating more holistic healing practices into her life, including sound baths, Qigong, fast dancing, and Feldenkrais (a method to rewire the brain based on bones and neuroplasticity). Just three sessions of Feldenkrais helped her restore enough feeling and movement in her leg to dance around a yoga studio, and after one hour-long sound bath, Mary was able to feel her entire hand, which is normally completely numb. She no longer listens to the nurses who initially gave her steroid treatments and said, “You’re only going to get worse.” She now believes in herself and listens to her Feldenkrais teacher who says, “Let’s talk about your recovery. You’re going to get better.”
After thirty-three years of working one-on-one with young adults, to publishing two books, creating a website and blog devoted to healing, and running a nature writing program straight out of her own backyard, Mary has already inspired thousands and accomplished many dreams. Her fountain of aspirations, however, is only just starting to flow. In the near future, she plans to help the owner of Song Valley Organic Farm in East Amherst, New York build a “Forest School”. She also wants to help him integrate an ecotherapy program onto his land that will invite people away from the mental health system to instead live and work on the farm where they can reconnect with nature and restore calm into their lives. She also recently joined Halina Goldstein’s “Joykeeper’s Network” and plans to start her own network called “The HIDS Followers” (HIDS being an acronym for Heart, Inspiration, Dreams, and Spirit). Besides that, she plans to keep up with her blog, finish and publish her next book, I Beg Your Pardon, But I’m Not The Least Bit Disordered (I cant wait!), and continue spreading her unconditional love and way of kindness throughout the world.
After Mary and I said our goodbyes over the phone Monday night, I felt uplifted, understood, and deeply comforted. Mary has a way of drawing out the light in others. She has a way of uncovering the true, good-hearted, before-the-pain-and-before-the-trauma hope inside of everybody. Her favorite quote is by mystic Hafiz of Shiraz: “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.” She lives this quote every day, believing nothing to be wrong with anybody. After I put down the phone, I turned to the window and felt a powerful ray of love as I sat with this truth and witnessed the setting sun. In my mind—crazy and delusional to some, but perfectly sane and beautiful to people like me and Mary—I took this sunset to be a sign. I raised a glass, said “Cheers”, and thanked the universe for bringing incredible, love-filled people like Mary into my life.
For more information on Mary Clista Dahl: