Living My Amends with Maria Leonard Olsen
When it comes to heartbreak, most people fear it, citing it as one of the most crushing experiences of a lifetime. Not Chelsea. On the podcast Thank You Heartbreak, Breakup Coach Chelsea Leigh Trescott explores the upside of heartbreak, shedding light on how loss is our greatest opportunity to become meaningful, relatable human beings who are stronger in love, life, and character.
In Episode 106, Chelsea speaks with attorney and author of 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life Maria Leonard Olsen. The following is the transcript from their conversation. Click to listen in on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and SoundCloud.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Hi. My name is Maria Leonard Olsen. I’m an attorney in Washington, D.C. and an author. My most recent book is called 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: I want you to paint a picture of life in Washington when you were raising your children because it sounded so idyllic. You know, cotillion for the kids. I just want to step into that world, if you don’t mind.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Sure. As a result of my childhood, and we can get into that later, I wanted my kids to have all the opportunities that I felt I missed out on. And so, I went about creating a picture perfect life for my nuclear family. I had a daughter and a son and a husband who was a southern gentleman I had met as a student at the University of Virginia School of Law. And he came from a very wealthy family — I did not — and he grew up with the country club life and summering in Nantucket and still owns a big house on Main Street in Nantucket. So, I married into a family of privilege and wealth. I went about raising my children in a way to give them every opportunity. Tennis lessons, golf lessons, sailing lessons. We belonged to a country club and a yacht club and I sought out every opportunity for them. They went to the best private schools in Washington, D.C. I took 15 years off from practicing law to be an at home mom and super volunteer in the community and at their schools. My kids wanted for nothing. And I raised them in a very affluent neighborhood of Washington, D.C. and ran the neighborhood welcoming committee — like a duck, looking very sort of calm on the outside but underneath I was treading water and moving so quickly trying to prove to all these people in an environment, which I did not come from, that I belonged there, that I was good enough, and also to prove to myself that I belonged there and was good enough because I didn’t feel it inside.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: So, do you feel like your children picked up on that? You said, they wanted for nothing. But do you think they ever thought to themselves, gosh, I wish I had a mom who felt like she could relax into herself or were they totally unaware of it?
Maria Leonard Olsen: I’m not 100% sure. I think when they were little, they enjoyed that I was always around, that I was the Girl Scout Leader, that I was always present in their lives. I think when they became adolescents they wished I would back off and did not enjoy my sort of helicoptering and knowing all their friends and not giving them enough room to grow.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: You bring up in the book this perfectionism of motherhood. I’ve had a guest come on before and talk about how she, too, just tried to read every single book there was out there. For her, it was about how to be the best spouse, how to be the best wife. And, for you, you talk about reading all these books on how to be the best mother. I would love to hear that feeling really about, I imagine, just such an anxiety because you can picture what you’re going to be like as a mom but you have no idea how you’re going to be until it begins happening.
Maria Leonard Olsen: The day I walked into my house with my first newborn baby was frightening. I couldn’t believe that there was no training when we have to pass a test to get a driver’s license. Anybody can take a baby home from the hospital. I was also feeling that I lacked good role models as parents, that I was kind of flying by the seat of my pants. My parents divorced at an early time in my life and I was a latchkey kid and I did not want that for my children. I also didn’t trust my own instinct so I read anything I could get my hands on about how to be the best mother. I still have notebooks documenting every feeding and elimination of my first child for her first year. Yes, I was an anxious first time mom and, if I could do it over again, I would relax into it, feel more comfortable with my instincts, and spend more time playing with them on the floor and being present. Instead, I was always thinking about what I was going to make for dinner, what else needed to be done in the house, cleaning the house, having the dinner on the table when my husband walked through the door. I wish I could have just relaxed and been present.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: Is part of the desire to have a hand in everything and have it all perfect relate to fearing that, if it’s not, your husband won’t keep you?
Maria Leonard Olsen: That was part of it. I know that he came from a picture perfect, at least from the outside, childhood and I wanted to create that and it was also a reaction to how crazy and unstable my childhood was.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: Right. You talk about how there’s two kind of angles. How some people recreate the sins of their family or they do their best to rebel against them.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Yes, I see that so often. And for me, I was rebelling against them. For a great portion of my life, I didn’t want to be like my father or my mother and tried very hard to be sort of June Cleaveresque, if you know who June Cleaver was, although you’re younger than I am.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: I don’t know any names other than reality TV, unfortunately. I’ll just tell you that.
Maria Leonard Olsen: June Cleaver was sort of the epitome of the at home mom during the 60s, maybe the 50s, maybe it went into the 70s. It was a television show called Leave It to Beaver and this woman would just always appear perfect wearing pearls and high heels as she vacuumed. It was an unattainable standard that was the popular standard and frame of reference I had when I was growing up.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: In your book, I got to the part where your father, really his death, was this moment of crisis. You say that it caused you to snap. Before we get into that, because I have to hear more, I don’t know, and maybe you speak about it in the book, but is your mom still alive and, if not, did her death create a similar sort of rupture in you?
Maria Leonard Olsen: My mom is still alive and I love her dearly. I see with clear eyes her flaws and some of the things she dealt with that I didn’t understand as a child. She’s much adored by my children. Sometimes I feel like I parented her.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: Your mom?
Maria Leonard Olsen: Yes, because she is very immature and broken in her own ways. So, yes, when my father died, I felt that all the pain of my childhood that I had tried so hard to hide just came boiling up to the surface and I felt like there were things in my childhood that I never dealt with that I should deal with. I felt that my father laid on me a lot of information about my mother in an attempt to exonerate himself from guilt for being such an angry man for my childhood and that was unfair. I learned through therapy that my depression after my father died was possibly unexpressed rage because he had fed me all this terrible information about my mom and I had nowhere to process it. I didn’t know what to do with this information. I didn’t even want to know it. And that just sent me into a tailspin of despair and anxiety and depression.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: Was it this idea that if he had never told you all those things on his deathbed about your mom that there wouldn’t have been rage inside of you or do you think the rage existed regardless of what he told you about your mom?
Maria Leonard Olsen: I think it existed regardless. It just forced me to acknowledge it, to acknowledge these things from my childhood that I really didn’t want to process at all. My therapist likened it to any trauma, to holding a beach ball underwater. You can do it. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and it will pop up in various ways affecting your life, consciously or subconsciously, in ways you might even not anticipate. Like, I could be triggered by a memory and lash out at someone, not because what they’re doing but, because what they did triggered an old memory, an unhealed wound in me, and I couldn’t go on living that way and pretending all these things that happened during my childhood didn’t happen.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: Now you’re triggering me. You talk about how you had been a victim of sexual abuse and you never told anyone about it until you got married because you were so afraid. And I know that this is like, and I don’t want to be controversial, because I know people don’t believe it, but it did remind me a little bit of the whole Michael Jackson documentary because those children didn’t really speak out or face or feel anger about their parents even until they had children that were the same age they were when they started being abused. And so, it kind of reminded me of that in your book when you talk about how you didn’t tell anyone about this sexual abuse as a kid until you were about to be married and a mother.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Yes, it’s true. And I don’t think that is unusual at all. I think that many victims of sexual assault try to bury their feelings, pretend it didn’t happen, compartmentalize and, if you do not process such things, then the consequences can be terrible as they were for me. I was very triggered, especially when my daughter reached the age in which I was assaulted and I think I may never have told were I not worried for my daughter’s safety and wanting my husband to know how to protect her and who to protect her from if I was unavailable or something happened to me because no one protected me. I think there’s also a feeling victims have that they were somehow complicit in what happened because we’re told or given the message that we’re not supposed to tell anyone about what happened either an explicit message or implicit message. And I didn’t even know what sex was at the time I was assaulted. I didn’t know what was happening. And so, I didn’t know how to process it. I didn’t even have the words.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: You didn’t have the language for it.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Yes, exactly.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: Do you remember flashbacks?
Maria Leonard Olsen: Yes, I do and I have undergone EMDR therapy which has something to do with triggering memories and then being able to process them because many victims are adept at burying memories. So, yes, I do and it actually effected my marriage because there were certain ways I could not be touched without being triggered.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: Wow. I imagine that didn’t just affect your marriage but it affected your dating life.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Oh, yeah, definitely. And I think for most of my youth, I could not be intimate with someone without being drunk.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: Right. You need to speak about this because — and this might be why people rely heavily on drinking while dating — I also hear people who talk about how they can’t have sex unless they’re drunk. They’ve never have sober sex. These are not young people really. I mean, they can be into their thirties. I mean, I know that’s young but it’s not. I mean, wow, you’ve never had sober sex?
Maria Leonard Olsen: Yeah, it’s very true and now that I’m a person in longterm recovery from alcoholism. I have 6 1/2 years.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: Congratulations.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Thank you. It’s completely different. It’s almost as if all my senses have been restored. I also went to a trauma rehab for being sexually traumatized and one of the exercises we were to do was to make a fish pond and label each fish with whomever we had been intimate with and then go back and mark each fish where we were either under the influence of alcohol or drugs during the encounter. And, aside from my husband, there was no one. It was completely eye opening. I hadn’t thought about before for that exercise but it was true.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: What is the feeling when you see that? Is it shame? Is it sadness? What is it?
Maria Leonard Olsen: It’s both. And I feel such sorrow for Maria as a young person and the ways that I coped with such pain and not having a trusted adult or guidance to seek the help that could have come so much earlier in my life.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: Yeah, that’s something I love that you said. I mean, it was one line and it might be a larger message throughout the book, that part of not holding secrets in anymore is the hope that someone will live sooner than you began to.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Absolutely. I spoke last April — a year ago — at the national March to End Rape Culture (#MTERC) in Washington, D.C. and, after I spoke, I was surrounded by young women saying, “You’re so brave. I can’t believe you said that on a national stage. I haven’t told anyone. How do you get this courage?” And I have offered and am serving as a mentor to young women who are date raped or otherwise traumatized to help them know they’re not alone. I thought I was alone. I thought I was a freak. That no one had gone through the experiences I had gone through and I maintained so much guilt in my heart that I had somehow put myself in these positions. So, I do a lot of work to try and help other women heal and know that it’s not their fault, that they’re not alone, and that the more we talk about these things, the more people I can reach and hopefully help.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: It’s so interesting to me because there’s so many stories out there now. Almost everyone is telling a narrative almost at all times — you know, it might be fragmented but — on Instagram. The New York Times just on Sunday had a feature article on “captioneers,” I think they called it. People who do long-form captions. So, in many ways, I think there’s just an opportunity for people not to feel alone anymore. And yet, they can read other people’s stories and see themselves in it and still feel alone. So one thing, I think, that has astounded me is people still feel this shame or it’s hard for them to admit to feeling depressed or taking an anti-depressant and I know that was a big thing for you — it was a big thing for me — and I really want to talk about it because it’s something I feel like there should be no stigma toward. I mean, I admit immediately that I take an anti-depressant, that I was so depressed before and, yet, I realize that’s still a big thing to admit to.
Maria Leonard Olsen: That is true. It took me a long time to incorporate the truth in my psyche that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. But our society was built on the idea that we shouldn’t show weakness, that strength fits a different kind of modeling in our society. I’m encouraged by the Me Too Movement and the attention given to suicide epidemics in our country from unaddressed mental issues. So, I think that the stigma is slowly eroding and work by people like you to normalize and bring into the public discourse the fact that maybe a quarter of our population is on antidepressants even we don’t talk about it. It’s important.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: I always have to remind myself because the reality is it wasn’t just external — like, I felt like I was going to be shamed by others or they were going to see me differently. It was just this fear that I would really see myself differently — like, wow, I really am this person that has allowed myself to get so sad. I think that you said that, in a sense, you wish you had just admitted to things earlier or started earlier. And though I don’t regret putting myself through things, because there’s a certain form of discomfort and then resilience that I had to gain and all the things I learned I feel like it made me a more relatable person somehow but, I do look back and I think, God, I just wish I had helped myself sooner.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Absolutely. I completely agree. I think that one thing that helped me accept the use of medication in my own life was the proof that chemical imbalances in one’s brain is the cause of many mental issues. So, if I could intellectualize it, I could accept it as more than just a moral or personal failing. The other thing I was able to incorporate in my own personal view of life is that every lesson and every person that crosses our path presents an opportunity for learning and a lesson. And what you said about being more relatable is absolutely true. As I mentor the young women and also serve as a sponsor for women in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse, the fact that I have gone through many of the same things that they have makes them in turn feel more comfortable opening up to me, gives me more relatability and credence — credibility — as someone who might be able to help them. When we go through the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous or any other 12-step program, we are required or encouraged to talk about every single character defect in our life and every person who we owe amends. And, when you build the trust with another human being by showing them that they can relate to your experiences, that entire process is facilitated.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: You talked about how there should be courses on motherhood, you know, bringing a baby back home. I mean, really, I think that everyone should go through this inventory that the 12-steps encourages and, just imagine, imagine if everyone really had to take a course where they list out every character flaw or they had to at least consider what they might apologize to someone over or, at the very least, acknowledge about the relationship.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Yes, I think the 12-steps are a guide to being a good human and should be taught in every school. And I will continue to do the steps for the rest of my life. It’s not a static once-and-done sort of thing. It’s about continually looking at your life and trying to become the best version you can be and to take your own inventory every day and, when you’re in conflict with someone, to think about what your part in the conflict is and you clean up your side of the street because no one can control another person. It’s impossible. You can only control your reaction to a situation and therefore we learn to let go of things we can’t control.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: Oh my God. I remember being in the circle when my sister was in rehab and I was with my family and a big thing they drove home was that there was a difference between a response and a reaction and I was like what are they talking about? I always thought of myself as someone who was always involved in the study of the self yet I couldn’t grasp these things at the time. I didn’t even understand what it meant to “have faith in yourself” or “one day at a time” and these are principles that my life is now based on.
Maria Leonard Olsen: It’s so funny because the 12-step rooms in rehabs are just full of these pithy sayings and slogans and I thought they were stupid at first but now they ring so true and remind me throughout my life, throughout my day, that “this too shall pass” or “but for the grace of God, go I” or “one day at a time” to help me stay present and focused on living a life that is true to my values. So, yeah, it took me a while too. I think the best book I ever read on the difference between reaction and responding is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Because in that book, he was in a concentration camp. He had so little freedom and the only freedom he had was how he was going to respond to a given stimuli. So, he was able to maintain his sanity in such dire, dire circumstances because he could choose how he was going to feel, how he was going to react or not react.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: I’m curious about how The Four Agreements, because I know that these are important principles to you, compliment the 12-steps.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Oh, yes. I think there is direct synergy, just different language that’s being used. One of the things in The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz that affects my life very deeply is not taking personally what anyone says or does because I always try to think of what he says, everyone has a different reality and it is an accumulation of their circumstances and experiences that play over a course of years. So, when someone treats me poorly, I’m able to look at the situation dispassionately and think of that person as someone who’s carrying their own burden and whatever they do really isn’t all about me or what I’ve done. And that has changed everything in my life, from letting someone cut me off in traffic and not worrying about that to not saying anything when my young adult child says something nasty to me just because it probably doesn’t have anything to do with me.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: I think it’s one of the best perspectives when going into rejection because so many people think, you know, if they’re turned down on a date or someone doesn’t want to commit to them, the immediate feeling is, I’ve been rejected, this is personal. And I think what you’re saying goes back to, people are on different paths. It’s not even burdens. It just be could be that they’re somewhere else on that timeline or they’re seeking something out. I really feel like, more than ever, it’s not personal. I also feel like, and I want to do an episode on this, everyone should be rejected by you before you even date them. I’ve realized, I didn’t know who my ex-boyfriend was until I was no longer dating him, until he was rejected by me. Then, this guy wrote me this whole thing about this date he’s going to take me on and the beauty of it and all this stuff and I said, you know, I wouldn’t feel sincere if I went on this date knowing I’m not interested in dating. The guy basically cursed me out. I thought, this is great, you were just rejected and look how quickly you turned on me. You know, I feel like how people deal and process rejection says a lot.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Oh, yes. It’s a great learning experience. If one never fails, one never grows. So, I think it’s a great idea that you have.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: It’s like the things you can gain, let’s say, through recovery is maybe a more stable sense of self. You have a new perspective, a new faith in yourself. But, if your beliefs and your faith are never being tested, if you’re never thrown up against something to see how strong you really are, then what good is the faith and belief you have in yourself?
Maria Leonard Olsen: Agreed. I completely agree. And while it’s painful for me, for instance, to watch my children make mistakes, even though they’re adults now, I know that if I fix it and continue to fix it as I did in my misguided way when they were teenagers then I’m depriving them of opportunities to learn. While I don’t wish that all the bad things that happened to me in my youth had happened, I can feel some gratitude for the learning that occurred as a result.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: Right, you know that even if it happens to them, they could become — they could end up becoming a mentor too — they could end up being someone that’s on a stage speaking that people are looking up to.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Yes.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: So, what is it like for them though, to see you now taking this really different position on life, on your life. They have a second mom now, I would feel.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Yes, I hope that is the case. My kids, I think, are much more comfortable with the relationship we have. I’m not anxious like I was before. I’m not all in their business. It took a long time. I think my fears and my experience made me codependent on my kids for sometime. I tried to protect them in ways that became detrimental as they got older and I think, when I was in my full-blown alcoholism, I lacked their trust. They were unsure of how I would behave. Now I think some of the most gratifying experiences of my life have been when my daughter has referred a close friend who has been sexually traumatized. She refers them to me to help them. That makes me feel so validated, although, I do want to say that I don’t actively seek outside validation as a source of my self-worth. But, at the same time, it feels really good that she trusts me enough to help one of her friends.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: She thinks, I’m sure, of you first. She knows you’re predictable now.
Maria Leonard Olsen: That’s right. And it took a long time for me to regain their trust after I getting sober but I feel like I’m living my life amends to my children now.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: You said something about being codependent on your children. That really stands out to me, because we know people are codependent on husbands or wives or boyfriends or girlfriends. Do you feel like you can be in a marriage and not be codependent on your husband but codependent on your children?
Maria Leonard Olsen: Yes, because I was.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: So, that was you?
Maria Leonard Olsen: That was me. I had an unhealthy relationship towards the end of my marriage with my husband because my kids became my whole world. I put all of my eggs in the motherhood basket and part of growing up is asserting your independence but I wasn’t ready for them to be independent from me. I held on. I grasped at anything they would throw my way to allow me to be involved in their lives. And, it wasn’t productive. Now I’m in, probably, the most healthy relationship with a partner that I’ve ever been in because we have independent lives and we realize that every day is a choice whether we’re going to love each other or not. As I took for granted the love of my husband and vice versa and, I believe now, part of it through don Miguel Ruiz’s teachings that love is a choice, that it is an active thing. We choose each day whether we’re going to be faithful emotionally, physically choosing to be and to give up ourselves to another person. So, my partner and I, we each have our own house but we spend most of our time together. We have our own interests and we encourage each other to grow because neither of us wants to be stagnant and each of us wants to drink fully from the cup of life while being respectful and choosing to be together and exclusive. One of the things we do that keeps our relationship so healthy is, each day we text each other one thing we’re grateful for about the other person and it can be profound or prosaic. It can be, I appreciate the way your eyes crinkle when you smile or I appreciate that you put the dishes away last night before I got home or whatever. But what we focus on becomes magnified. And towards the end of my marriage, I started focusing on the things that annoyed me about my husband instead of the things that I loved about him.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: I just could cry because I think it’s a message that I really latch on to and I think that, though, relationships are meant to end. It’s the lessons that they teach us, like, that we do overlook things, we take things for granted, that we can be together and we can trust in the love that we have together but what good is it if we’re not choosing each other, like you said, every day, if we’re not choosing to tune into the person, if we’re being passive about thinking that we know who they are and we’re not, therefore, curious about them anymore? And I think it is easy, especially when you’re looking for a way out, to start really focusing in on just what’s not there, like, what they’re aren’t. Rather than thinking about what made them so different than everyone else in the beginning, what you woke up to, what you acknowledge so early on that made you feel like this was a person that you should be welcoming into your world and should be investing your heart in. And so, if you’re practicing that all along, you’re less likely to lose sight of what was there early on and what was honest. That’s the truth. The things that you see early on, they are honest things. They haven’t been manipulated yet by circumstances. Whereas, the negative things, those too might be real, but we might be latching on to them because, again, we’re looking for escape routes or exit signs.
Maria Leonard Olsen: I completely agree. I also think looking at what you appreciate about another person can be applied to friendships and relationships of all kinds. When I went through very difficult times with my son, I had to focus on the things I loved about him because he was really pushing me away and trying to hurt me for reasons, some reasons, that didn’t have anything to do with me. And I had to acknowledge he has his own higher power and it’s not me as much as I want it to be me.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: Wow, yeah. I cannot fathom though feeling, and this is a big word so I wish I could think of the one just below it, but kind of rejected, pushed away, by your own child.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Yes. It was hard for me.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: Talk about a heartbreak.
Maria Leonard Olsen: It was really hard because I would truly give up my life for some, I don’t know, hostage situation for my children. And I had some resentment because I gave up a very lucrative legal career to be the best mom that I could be. And I wouldn’t not do that now. I’m glad that I did it. But motherhood doesn’t have a whole lot of positive feedback.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: I’ve heard it’s a thankless job.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Largely so. My daughter will occasionally say something to like, mom, I’m so glad that you got me into running. I know I was a pain and didn’t want to do it but now I’m so glad that that’s a part of my future dream. My son I don’t think would ever say anything like that. But I think my daughter now being in her mid-twenties is nw able to look back and appreciate certain things that I facilitated in her life.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: So you’re someone though who was able to, after 15 years of leaving your career, go back. And I know not a lot of women feel like that’s an option. I mean, talk about a fear of rejection, a fear of no longer being relevant. How did you do it?
Maria Leonard Olsen: Yes, that was a scary thing actually and especially in the kind of law that I practice, which is litigation, things have changed and I did have some anxiety about going back. So, I was able to secure some part-time contract positions to get my feet wet to slowly wade back into a legal practice. While I was nervous about it — I didn’t have the electronic skills that my younger colleagues had and had learned all about — I do have life experiences and attitudes and demeanor that put me in a better position than younger people. Things don’t rattle me the way a young person might be rattled. And I had to practice affirmations and, in my head, tell myself I can do this. And I didn’t believe in affirmations before I went to rehab. I thought it was a silly exercise. They made us say affirmations every day and, after 30 days, I started to believe some of these things I had to keep repeating. So, it is possible, I believe, to forge new neural pathways and to change your interior dialogue in a way that bolsters your self-confidence and, when people told me this 7 years ago, I didn’t believe it but I do believe it now because many of us are filled with negative self-talk and many of us have learned to change that tape.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: That’s the way out. I think it’s all about the narratives we tell ourselves. It’s the way we talk to ourselves on the inside.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Yes, and I also got a valuable piece of advice which is, when you talk to yourself, talk to yourself as if you were taking to your best friend or someone you really love instead of yourself because we can get into negative spirals if we’re not aware of the messages we’re sending to ourselves.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: I feel like I could do several, several interviews with you. There’s just so many different things and I don’t want to pass over your book and what it really is about so I want to give you the opportunity to tell the audience what the book essentially is about.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Well, thank you. I wrote about a lot of different things that resonate with different portions of our population because recovery from addiction is a part of my story, sexual abuse is a part of my story, divorce, empty nesting, racism — I’m a biracial woman who was raised in an all white area for most of my life. So, there are a lot of threads that people can relate to. What my book is about is, it’s called 50 After 50. It’s 50 things I tried in my 50th year to reframe the next chapter of my life, to determine the contours of how I wanted to live the 3rd third of my life. For young people, it reads as a conidium of things I wish I had learned earlier in life. Hopefully, it can save some younger people from mistakes that I made that you don’t necessarily have to make. In the book, I divided things in seven different categories including adventure, travel, thrill seeking, spiritual endeavors, learning and teaching, lifestyle changes, social life committees I had never tried before. And in trying all these different things, not all of which were successes or things that I would ever do again, like I sang at an open mic and I have a terrible singing voice but I wanted to stretch my comfort zone and see what that felt like and I’m proud that I did it but I never have to do that again.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: Didn’t you do Silent Disco Yoga?
Maria Leonard Olsen: Yeah, yeah.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: I see that everywhere, by the way. I always get messages about doing it.
Maria Leonard Olsen: I love it. I love trying new things. And my life had pretty much fallen apart. I got divorced after being with my husband for 25 years. I was a new empty nester. I had to reenter the work force and support myself financially. I was living alone for the first time. So, I was pretty rudderless yet I knew I had to change everything about my life. And I would say the most fundamental change was cultivating an attitude of gratitude. And I did this primarily, or at least initially, by volunteering in places where people had so little so I could focus on everything I had instead of everything I had lost. I lived in a remote village for a couple of months volunteering at a school where the entire village lacked running water, heat or electricity and yet they were so happy. So, when I got back to the United States, simply by being born and living in the US, we will always have access to clean water or most of us will have access to food, medical care, electricity or have assistance to get those things. And so, I don’t take those things for granted. I do a gratitude list every day, whether it’s written or mental, and sometimes my gratitude list is things like, I can see, I can still hear, I have access to running water, I had a hot shower today.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: Can we just pause for a second? I didn’t have hot water for six days and I have a whole new way of thinking. I went into that hot water and I had to lie down afterwards. I almost collapsed. The joy of hot water. There’s nothing like it. It changed the entire way I felt for a week not having it.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Good. You needed to be reminded of that. The first day I was back from Nepal, where I was volunteering, I went into a public restroom and I started saying out loud, “Oh my God, it smells so good in here. There are paper towels!” The restroom quickly became empty and people were saying there’s a crazy woman in there talking about how good it smells.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: No way. That’s hysterical.
Maria Leonard Olsen: This was after I was using an outhouse for two months.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: Right, a hole in the ground.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Yes, I was so appreciative of what we have in our country.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: And did you really do all this stuff in that one year or was it spread across your fifties?
Maria Leonard Olsen: No, I did it in one year. Not everything required a long trip somewhere. Lifestyle changes, for instance. I practice my own brand of minimalism. Every time I buy something, I get rid of two things. I try so hard to shop at consignment stores because I don’t really need as much anymore. I’d rather have experiences than things and I also, one of the changes in lifestyle is, I’m very intentional about how I spend my time. When someone asks me to do something, I have an interior dialogue consisting of: is this something I really want to do or am I just trying to please someone else? Is this something that will unnecessarily deplete me and keep me from doing something I really want to do? And, if I say no, I just say, “Oh no, I have another commitment.” And that commitment can be to myself. Like, I really wanted to relax this evening. So, I was a chronic people pleaser who was unable to say no to most things before my transformation in my 50th year.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: Very, very inspiring. I just think of clients of mine, for example, just all they could see themselves doing within a year. That, you’re right, none of these things have to be three months. It can be one disco yoga. I’m all about ways you can lead your own life.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Yes, yes. Definitely. I can see that in your work. And the other major change I made is, I surround myself with people who bring out the best in me and I’m intentional in that regard too and I stay away from negative people and energy vampires in my life and I respect my time so much more. When you surround yourself with people who help you to be your best person, that has repercussions throughout your days. So that is a huge change in my life. Another big change was incorporating mediation as a daily practice. And that doesn’t always mean sitting for 10 minutes or an hour and silent. Sometimes all I can fit in, but it is of great value, is a walking meditation. Even if it’s from my car to my office door. I take deep centering breaths and focus on being present so that I’m better equipped to face anything in my day. So, meditation does not have to be very time consuming.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: It doesn’t have to be on a pillow. I like that.
Maria Leonard Olsen: Right, right. Yeah, at a traffic light or in traffic. Even taking three deep breaths makes everything more bearable.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: Wow, three more breaths makes everything more bearable. What does it mean to Breakupward?
Maria Leonard Olsen: For me, breaking upward means practicing acceptance and knowing that every experience has the capacity to teach me something if I’m ready for the lesson. So, for me, breaking upward was getting past many of the traumas and not viewing myself as a victim but viewing myself as a thriver and someone who has learned and is paying it forward to other people, turning negative things in my life into a voice for good. I can see how these really bad and painful things are making a difference for other people now.
Chelsea Leigh Trescott: Where can my audience find you?
Maria Leonard Olsen: I’m all over social media at Fiftyafter50. And also, my website MariaLeonardOlsen.com and I’m still on book tour so I’ll be up and down the East Coast and in San Francisco in the near future. I’d love to meet any of your listeners on my website and see where I’m going to be or contact me through social media. I’d love to continue the conversation.