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Recovery Strategist Fay Zenoff: 5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change

Honor your grief and loss — don’t hurry the process. Grief, like healing, has its own timeline.

The world seems to be reeling from one crisis to another. We’ve experienced a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political and social turmoil. Then there are personal traumas that people are dealing with, such as the loss of a loved one, health issues, unemployment, divorce or the loss of a job.

Coping with change can be traumatic as it often affects every part of our lives.

How do you deal with loss or change in your life? What coping strategies can you use? Do you ignore them and just push through, or do you use specific techniques?

In this series called “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Traumatic Loss Or Life Change” we are interviewing successful people who were able to heal after a difficult life change such as the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or other personal hardships. We are also talking to Wellness experts, Therapists, and Mental Health Professionals who can share lessons from their experience and research.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Fay Zenoff.

Fay is an addiction recovery wellness strategist working with individuals, families and organizations to eliminate stigma and integrate recovery into all aspects of health and well-being. Her work as a recovery advocate has been the subject or articles and interviews in The New York Times, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and USA Today, among others. Fay has served as the Executive Director at Center for Open Recovery, a social-impact, non-profit based in San Francisco — prior to launching her own firm in 2020. She earned an MBA from Northwestern University and a BA from Sarah Lawrence College. Fay is the mother of two adult daughters; lives in Marin County with the-love-of-her-life; and has been in recovery, since 2007.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Absolutely. I was the youngest of three children born to loving parents. My father was a professor, and my mother a psychologist. We lived on the Upper West Side of New York City and stayed on the East Coast until I was 10. We moved across the country to Palo Alto, California which was a big change for a little kid. I remember being nervous about starting a new school, but had a fairly secure sense of self. I grew up feeling grounded by my close-knit family. Tragically, a few years later, my teenage brother plunged to his death while hiking in Yosemite. This shattered my family. Within months, my parents’ marriage unraveled, and my surviving sibling moved away to boarding school. By the age of 14, I was a shadow of my former self. I felt betrayed by life and did not have the emotional capacity to process the enormity of the compounding losses. I lived with my mother until I graduated high school and then went back east for college. Even though there was no lack of love in my life, there was an absence of presence. The feeling of being alone — forgotten, and left — permeated my heart and mind. I believed I was unworthy of connection or perhaps incapable of enduring, healthy, secure attachment. To this day, I find it painful to look at photos from those years.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life quote is “The best is yet to come.” While I know “now” is all we have, the faith and optimism inherent in that saying has offered me a promise that I have believed in. No matter what hardships or uncertainty I may be dealing with, the belief that ‘this will pass’, and I would someday be able to experience joy, connection and peace again, always keeps me going. The quote has proven to be true again and again.

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

I must acknowledge the inherent privilege of being a white, middle-class, woman and therefore having access to high quality education and resources which have contributed greatly to my success. In terms of personal qualities that have been cultivated, the top three are 1) showing up with integrity, 2) personal courage, and 3) having a growth-mindset. As an example, it was my courage that allowed me to quit my secure job at the age of 22 and don a backpack to travel solo for a year through Africa and India. It was my commitment to living with integrity and authenticity that enabled me to “come out” as a person in recovery from alcoholism rather than feeling shamed and stigmatized. My desire to live free of fear has fueled my growth-mindset and taught me to ask questions, seek guidance, become teachable, quiet limiting beliefs and be open to new possibilities.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Healing after Loss’. Do you feel comfortable sharing with our readers about your dramatic loss or life change?

Yes, of course. My brother’s tragic death and the unraveling of my parent’s marriage were devastating. I want to share also that over the next 25 years, I experienced many other life-changing events that resulted in more loss — the loss of hope, trust, innocence, self-esteem and security. Those life-altering events included my own divorce; the experience of being raped; the loss of control when drinking alcohol; my social reputation damaged due to my poor judgment and painful choices made while struggling with a substance use disorder; ruptured friendships when I got sober; loss of financial security due to poor fiscal planning and lapses in employment; the crumbling of my self-respect from internalizing the consequences of these losses and feeling unworthy of happiness. I do not share all of this to be dramatic. Rather, I want to acknowledge that my life like many others has been dynamic, complex and the losses compounding.

What was the scariest part of these events? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?

The scariest part was thinking I was alone and irrevocably broken.

How did you react in the short term?

I numbed-out the grief which manifested as a hunger for connection and a longing for meaning.

After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use?

As a teenager I saught boyfriends, booze and excitement to cover my pain. As a fairly high-achieving person, I was able to make it appear as if all was pretty much ok. But I did not have the skills or capabilities to navigate the losses. At times, I sought psychotherapy and prescribed medication to help sooth my aches. For decades I reached for affirmation and confirmation from the outside to reassure me of my worthiness. These strategies — “using” feedback, approval and substances to cope, “worked” for many years.

Can you share with us how you were eventually able to heal and “let go” of the negative aspects of those events?

Of course.

As for the grief and loss from losing my brother, in time I was able to recognize that I could still sense him with me when talking about him or by looking at things around me as if through his eyes. I often reflect on his life and cherish our memories. One of my daughters was named after him. We spoke about my brother — their uncle — throughout their childhood; and until this very day, he has a meaningful presence in our lives.

Healing the abrupt and painful fracture of my nuclear family has taken more time. As an adult, I needed to recognize that my parents were doing the best they could. I was able to create a loving family of my own. Today, I have a secure sense of being met and am at “home” with my partner in a way I have not known since before experiencing the tragedies in my childhood.

Perhaps the most important catalyst and influence in my healing journey has been living a sober life in recovery. Stopping to drink alcohol at age 40 was the beginning of an incredible transformation and growth that paved the way for me to experience healing, health and well-being. I have learned to shift my focus to the practices, relationships and strategies that are most nourishing rather than seeking external confirmation that I am doing the “right thing” or looking the “right way” through outside indicators. This is not always easy. However, in recovery I have been able to repair my self-esteem; heal fractured relationships; find new meaning; and create a joyous, dynamic life that does not require escape.

Aside from letting go, what did you do to create an internal, emotional shift to feel better?

Over the past 15 years, I have cultivated a spiritual and mindfulness practice that includes daily prayer, meditation, affirmations, journaling, and gratitude. I also have a circle of trusted friends and confidants with whom I can always feel love, share my inner most issues and gain valuable perspective.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?

I am grateful for the men and women in recovery who have shared their experiences, of healing transformation so that I could see and believe in what was and is possible with hard work, faith and help. In terms of a specific person, it is my mother who has exemplified resilience and been my greatest “cheer-leader” and support, even when I had lost confidence in my own capabilities.

Were you able to eventually reframe the consequences and turn it into a positive situation? Can you explain how you did that?

I have come to understand that the pain and loss I have endured can be helpful if shared with others who are struggling. People need to know they are not alone and that our hearts and minds can heal. Being open about my journey has been the gateway to this transformation. I have given talks at conferences and events focused on healing shame and eliminating stigma based on my own experiences — which is the result of reframing what was once so painful.

What did you learn about yourself from these very difficult experiences? Can you please explain with a story or example?

There was a time when I thought all of these tragedies and difficulties in my life were due to karma. I believed I deserved them somehow. I did not think of myself as capable of experiencing on-going joy or that I was worthy of good things lasting. With that mindset, I proved my theory right. There were times when I felt victimized by the painful events. Each time I shared stories of my past, I would feel worse about myself. It was only as an adult, in recovery that I began to truly heal and recognize that I was worthy of peace and happiness. I learned that esteem-able acts led to self-esteem; that nourishing the mind, heart and soul were as essential to well-being as nourishing the body; I learned self-compassion and that my life has value regardless of my weight or income; and that the sum of my imperfections has brought me to this moment with Grace.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give others to help them get through a difficult life challenge? What are your “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Honor your grief and loss — don’t hurry the process. Grief, like healing, has its own timeline.
  2. Reconnect to your essence — ground yourself daily to your unique vision, values and purpose. Know that you are worthy of happiness and health even when experiencing pain and anguish.
  3. Be open to support — surround yourself with people who believe in you. You can borrow their faith when you have lost your own. Love is our birthright even when we feel broken.
  4. Look for new perspectives — freedom from suffering is possible when we recognize pain and loss are inevitable and are not punishment. We can grow and be enriched even when life does not go our way.
  5. Practice gratitude — there are always reasons to give thanks and remember ‘the best is yet to come’.

These 5 Things that have helped me to heal and grow and they continue to do so.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

My movement would be to abolish shame as an oppressive experience of “othering”. In its absence, we would be able to value vulnerability and thereby increase empathy to create more connection so that everyone who needed some form of support or healing could find it with ease, love and compassion.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)

Ha! I would welcome a meeting with Oprah! She is such a powerhouse — so fearless and yet heart-centered — a true change-maker. I would love to collaborate with her on any project!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

The best place to learn more about my work or to reach me is through my website: www.fayzenoff.com, and please keep an eye and ear out for my new podcast called ‘Sum of My Imperfections’ focused on thriving in recovery. Thanks so much!

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Pirie Jones Grossman

Pirie Jones Grossman

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