Digging into your emotional core
Vail, CO Colorado
Nearly two decades ago, Jennifer Gilbert was brutally attacked and stabbed multiple times in a New York City apartment building. She made the decision to tell very few people about it and dove headlong into a successful career as an event planner.
“I never wanted my name and ‘victim’ to be in the same sentence,” Gilbert said. “I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, even though back then, I felt my life would be divided forever into before and after.”
And then, two years ago, her son’s hair began to fall out. He was diagnosed with alopecia, and those same feelings of anger and vulnerability Gilbert had felt in her early 20s, after the attack, bubbled up. She put pen to paper to get them out. And once she started remembering, she couldn’t stop. She titled her book “I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag.”
“I started writing in my journal to sort my feelings out because from experience, I know people don’t know how to deal with someone else’s sorrow,” she said. “Once I started writing and remembering and understanding what my life choices had been, I started to realize how my life had been built on those years of heartache and overcoming them. That’s when I thought OK, I’m ready to share now – in fact, have to share what I have learned – in hopes it inspires others to share their feelings.”
Gilbert will share her story on Tuesday in Avon at the annual Literacy Project Luncheon.
“Each year, we strive to bring authors with a positive message to our annual luncheon,” said Colleen Gray, executive director of The Literacy Project. “We’re excited to welcome Jennifer Gilbert to the Vail Valley for both her inspirational story and signature humor. It’s going to be a fantastic event.”
Vail Daily: Oftentimes people who go through traumatic events subconsciously block out details, I think as a sort of self-preservation. Was it hard to remember the details?
Jennifer Gilbert: The hardest job I’ve ever had in my life was writing this memoir. It is terrifying to be so exposed, and even now that it is on stands, I feel like I am dangling from a fishing wire, naked over Times Square on New Year’s Eve. But once I knew I was writing it, I wanted it to be honest, and for that, I had to go back in time to a place I had never really dealt with. I remember every single moment of the attack; I was present and thinking every second how to fight, and save my life, but the “after” gets fuzzy. I had to relive and remember so many details I had completely blocked out. I interviewed my family and friends to piece together parts of my own life I had forgotten. That was really scary and cathartic at the same time. I had to go deeper, so with each draft, it was like peeling back the onion to get to my emotional core.
VD: After the attack, you poured yourself into a very successful career. What else did you do to “get through it”?
JG: My decision to become an event planner was the first real step in deciding how I was going to try and move past my own pain. I figured since I would never have joy again in my own life, I would surround myself with other people’s dreams, events and celebrations to fill that void within myself. I also created this new persona that I zipped on like a suit when I needed to go out into the world as a happy “normal” person. I put on my red lipstick, my new smile and sort of faked it till I made it. I also started disciplined actions as a way to control my environment in the manufactured belief that I could control my world, like running, exercising and my diet. While these were all understandable back then as part of post-trauma, I realized again and again over these years that we never have any control over the world around us.
VD: Did the attack help you in any way? It seems as if maybe there was some good that came out of it.
JG: I have often wondered if my life would have turned out the same as it is now had the attack never happened. I still don’t know the answer to that, as I don’t believe it happened for a reason. I think it happened, period, but how I decided to deal with it and handle it prepared me for a life of being a driver in my own happiness. I can now think through problems without fear and panic. I also have more room for empathy and sympathy. People going through their own traumas tend to seek me out as a pillar when they need to lean. I attribute this directly from the attack. I never minimize someone’s pain while they are in it. I just listen and let them feel heard and validated.
VD: What can people expect from your talk at the literacy foundation event in Avon?
JG: I hope it will be the same take away as my book, “I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag”: that it’s real and honest and relatable. I hope it’s inspirational. Of course, I hope it’s also highly entertaining, as I am an event planner with some wonky stories about my event-planning career, but it’s the right combination of funny and thoughtful. Sometimes, the light and the dark can go together in life, and I think my book strikes the right balance.
But the take away is that we all have “our somethings.” An event has happened to everyone in our own unique way. Whether it’s illness, divorce, losing a loved one, unemployment or just feeling unworthy in our own bodies, we all carry something around. That these are the “stories” we have told ourselves for years, and we repeat every day from habit, but if we step out of that same grove and choose a different path, we can change everything. As long as I kept telling myself that I was unworthy of joy, then I felt unworthy. It was time to read a new book and stop the old story.
We have a choice in life. That while we cannot control what happens to us in life, we can control and decide who we want to be afterwards. This is very simple to say but the hardest paradigm to shift. That letting go, of the anger, the sadness, the resentments or expectations, and just deciding to be different was really very simple when I finally realized that I was the only person standing in my own way.