The Tip of the Wellness Iceberg

Your state of overall wellness is directly tied to how you handle (or refuse to handle) questions like your self-worth, the real meaning for your life, your reason for being or your role in the universe.
01/14/2013 11:02 am ET Updated Mar 16, 2013

I was unprepared for the challenges of first grade. Someone evil in the principal's office separated my twin sister and I. She was in 1B, just across the hallway, but she might as well have died from where I sat in the hell that was 1A. On a daily basis, I suffered from severe attacks of homesickness' ugly stepsister, sister-sickness. My separation anxiety was fierce. Up until this point in my life, not only had we never been apart, but I also was also a coward who would cry if someone looked at me cross-eyed. But my despair made me brave. I would wait for the perfect moment when Miss Garczyk would turn her back to write the ABC's on the blackboard and I would make a break for the mecca of Mrs. Stuart's class, where I would slither into Pam's seat and pray to become invisible. It never worked for long. Janet Calovini (every first grade has a Janet Calovini), Miss G's mini parole officer, would inevitably appear in the doorway to fetch me and I'd return to the prison barge across the hall.

I was so sis-sick, I once peed my dress and had to go stand in front of the wall heater in the hallway near the recess door until I dried -- which, as humiliating as it was, I did not mind, as it gave me direct line of vision into 1B.

After a few weeks of this, Miss G had had enough. She made a plan. As I made my daily dash for the door, she caught me and dragged me into the cloakroom and shook me until my teeth rattled.

And just like that, I was cured. Like I'd touched the robe of Jesus and was healed. I came out of that cloakroom a changed 6-year-old and for the next nine years did not shed one single tear on a public school ground.

My 20-year-old son is sort of like me in this department. He has always had separation anxiety and often over the littlest things, like his cell phone. If I ask him to put his away during dinner, he can barely eat. When he leaves the house he has to first lie on the floor with the dog for 10 minutes and say goodbye via belly scratches, whispering "I'm gonna miss you, Winnie."

And when we dropped him off at college a year ago last fall, he re-enacted the college freshman version of what I experienced in first grade. He was not far enough away and perhaps someone looked at him cross-eyed, because when no one was looking, he managed to dart home every weekend and unfortunately, shaking children until they "dry up or I'll give you something to cry about" has gone out of fashion and even if it hadn't, it's almost impossible to shake a 19-year-old and besides, we didn't have a cloakroom.

So he was terribly unhappy, and of a depth, which was completely out of context with how good his life appeared to be.

In the fitness world of wellness, we sometimes use the metaphor of an iceberg. Icebergs reveal only 10 percent of their mass above the water. The other 90 percent remains hidden. Your state of health is just the tip of the iceberg. This is the part that shows. You can try to change it and chisel away at part of it but if you don't make deeper changes, if you chip some away, more of the same rises up to take its place.

I know students at my studio who have battled the same five pounds with extreme exercise regimes for years but until they make deeper lifestyle changes, not one ounce goes away.

To change your current state of health, changes have to come from a deeper level. This is your lifestyle level, just below the surface. Some folks follow lifestyle behaviors that they know are bad for them and are unable to stop themselves. To understand why, we have to look even deeper to the psychological/motivational/cultural level. Here, we learn why we can't stop drinking, smoking, cheating, driving like a maniac or eating the rest of the chocolate fudge layer cake at midnight after being good for three days straight. Here we learn what the payoffs are. Dr. Phil says we keep doing whatever we are doing because on some level it is getting us something we need. This level is not for sissies or pants-pee-ers. It takes courage to give up behaviors that feed our darker, unacknowledged needs. And to quote the wise doctor again, we cannot change what we don't acknowledge.

Then, going deeper, to the bottom, to our inner ocean floor we find our spiritual/being/meaning level. It's more of a realm than a level in that is has no clear boundaries. Here, if we can access it, is our connection to the universe, to our unconscious mind, where mysterious and mystical encounters take place.

Your state of overall wellness is directly tied to how you handle (or refuse to handle) questions like your self-worth, the real meaning for your life, your reason for being or your role in the universe. Your answers and whether you can access them seep upward and permeate all of the upper levels. Subsequently, this realm is our most powerful level of wellness and determines whether the tip of our iceberg, representing our state of health, is one of illness or wellness.

With my son and his discontent, what was showing above the water line was only a small fraction of what was going on below his surface. His dad and I were at the beginning of the end of our marriage and as much as he tried on his surface to chip away at this unwanted heartache, more of the same unhappiness bubbled to the surface and in many different ways, disguised as injuries, anger or drama, but certainly from a deeper realm than he could sense. It was a homesickness for a home to which he knew he would never return. For reasons so obvious you'd have to be blind not to see, he couldn't snap out of it as easily as I did in the 1A cloakroom. So this fall, still searching, he returned as a commuter to this nearby college. He started digging deeper and asking some big questions of himself. His friends were all off at far-away schools, but he got a job when he didn't have class, and he worked out every day because it helped the way that exercise always does. He started meditating and his frustration eased. He finally decided to transfer to a dream school in Ohio where his younger brother was a freshman.

Fast forward to yesterday.

Accompanied by the wonderful man who will soon no longer be my husband but will always be our children's father, we drove our son, our own magnificent contribution to the universe, 14 hours and four states away to drop him off at the doorstep of his new and improved life.

The honest truth is that although it's been a sad year for our whole family, on the surface I have kept my faith and never given up hope for tomorrow. My iceberg tip kept smiling. Maybe it's something I learned from Miss G all those decades ago. I don't know. Maybe she shook me into being a trooper. I've also become very good at contemplating, which doesn't really mean I've reached any conclusions. After all, you don't think yourself to wise. Wisdom must be earned by more than thinking thoughts. It's a byproduct of action, not contemplation. Your feet have to be involved.

And I have my moments, often at 3 a.m., where clarity washes over me in what feels like a tidal wave, soaking me with reminders and realizations of what I have lost and how I got here.

I'm achingly aware of how tragic a divorce can be. Our family is living it right now. But if we can stay connected to our deeper selves where faith and hope spring from, then transformation can occur. The tragedies in our lives have the potential to become the mortar for new beginnings, even if that feels like a thousand years from now.

My mantra with my son through it all has been that it's not our circumstances that define our life. It's how we respond to them that shapes us. I want him to be the hero of his own life, not the victim of ours.

As a young teenage girl, I loved happy endings. I read every Harlequin romance novel to hit the shelves of the Flushing Public Library. Every one of them ended with "happily ever after." But these past few years, where my dreams broke into a million tiny pieces, some weeks, I wasn't sure if I could make it to the weekend. A few of those days, I was lucky to get myself out of bed. Wine was involved. Ambien, too, followed by church. Exercise saved me. Having to do it as part of this job that I love was a blessing, especially on days when I didn't feel like moving.

So I have been excavating down to some deep inner levels and I can honestly say that I am more hopeful every day, not only for me, but -- more importantly -- for my broke and broken family, that we are coming to a third era where we might find cautious optimism. It feels like we might eventually be okay.

Yesterday afternoon, I looked out the car window after saying our teary, smiling goodbyes. As we drove slowly away, I saw our boy, with the sunny sky behind him and all the young kids on campus, rushing towards their shiny future, looking for action, ready for love and the all-you-can-eat ice cream sundae station in the dining hall. My breath caught in my chest and my heart did a little dance.

My cell phone dinged in my lap. It was a text from my son that said, "I think I'm really gonna like it here, Mommy. I miss you already. Don't worry about me."

Down deep in my soul, farthest away from the tip of my iceberg, I glimpsed a flash of his brilliant future on this magical campus, and it gave me hope for all of us.

Maybe, just maybe, someday soon we will all be alright.

For more by Penny Love Hoff, click here.

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