Dreams of a Prodigal Spirit

My sister Anarae, Queen Spirit set free

On 9/22/2013 my spirt was set free. And, as any creature let loose after years in captivity, it had to re-learn the hunt before it could feast.

That Sunday morning over 5 & 1/2 years ago was the day my sister Anarae, age 20 at the time, was brutally murdered by Anthony Lee Nelson with the help of Ashley Conrade, both now serving time in the Minnesota prison system.

Short of an address to a group of grieving loved ones at a memorial service (see Part 1 from 12:19 to 23:18) and a 76 min 1:1 phone call with Stephan Molyneux, I haven’t spoken about Anarae’s murder. I haven’t know what to say.

Now, however, nearly 6 years on, my nights are again alive with dreams which have illuminated a truth worth telling yet otherwise lost deep inside my dark night of the soul.

My spirit, it appears, has discovered its way back home, well fed and looking to share in the bounty. He speaks in fragments, flashes & bursts, piercing sweaty sheets in the wee hours of the morning, leaving me to weave scant, small truths together in time, much like a fog inevitably lifted by the rising sun.

Continue below to discover tastes of what I have unearthed thus far, including backstory you haven’t heard before.


Anarae and I have a checkered past, not absent of fondness, but I wouldn’t describe our bond as close in the sense I now use the word. We were more like fellow competitors in a race for the respect and admiration of others, most notably our parents and peers.

I taught her to play chess at 6 – she taught my son at 3 and then went on to compete nationally. I was junior class officer, football captain and graduated high school with a 3.93 GPA – she went on mission trips, was first chair in band and graduated with a 3.98. I went to a top 3 engineering college and accumulated massive debt – she was accepted to NYU and opted to attend U of MN on scholarship. I taught basic computer skills to inner city Detroit youth – she tutored struggling Minneapolis teens in mathematics. I was a student of von Mises – she a disciple of Marx.

On and on like this – shooting stars, alone in the same sky.

To be fair, she was 10 & 1/2 years younger than I and, where age wasn’t enough of a barrier between us, geography filled in. At 18, I catapulted myself 750 miles from home and never really looked back; she was in 3rd grade. Even so, we had so much in common, so much to gain from a richer relationship – what really kept us apart? The haunting reality of the answer is small truth #1:

you can’t love in another what you hate in yourself

Anarae at a Twins game in 2012

In our case, we both hated how we looked in the mirror, although we coped differently. Undiagnosed, but akin to Body Dysmorphic Disorder, she fought against internal pressure to look differently where I submitted to vanity. Both approaches lacking, we couldn’t even make eye contact without facing unresolved trauma. Let me explain.

I remember crying repeatedly in elementary school after being labeled the fat kid and later wrestling with anorexia before discovering the weight room. Even after years of hard work and developing, by objective standards, a highly desirable physique, I’ve never been comfortable shirtless at the pool.

Similarly, Anarae struggled with her weight from a young age, which morphed into bouts with bulimia by her early teens. Where I escaped to the weight room she stared into the mirror – practicing positive self-talk by reciting affirming mantras to her naked reflection in the basement of our parents home. Her messy hair, minimalistic hygiene and less than inspiring levels of physical activity were, to her, acts of spiritual resilience designed to be a sort of exposure therapy. For me, there was something both inspiring and unsettling in her approach.

Looking back, our common insecurity might well have served as fodder to fuse us together, instead it detonated, forging a chasm much more disparate than geography and age.

Next question: why did it detonate? Digging on, I arrived at small truth #2:

healthy relationships are a cyclical process inclusive of self knowledge, open dialogue and shared experience

Excuse the crude graphic, I only have so much patience for detailed design

Had we rightly been able to identify the angst we saw in each other’s eyes as our own we would have stood a chance at diffusing the tension and healing historical wounds. Speaking for myself, I lacked sufficient self-knowledge; translation – I had secrets from myself and therefore struggled with open communication. Hence, we could be in the same space and feel isolated; reference the shooting star analogy.

For more on my struggles with healthy connection and how it ties back in to a childhood mostly devoid of the experience, read my previous post here.

As it pertains to Anarae, when she needed me most, I couldn’t be there for her, no matter how I hard I tried.

I don’t say that with regret – I know I employed every muscle I had available to me at the time – nor do I blame others for not picking up where her and I fell short. Rather, I offer up this perspective as a beacon for my readers, lest you avoid the rocky relational shores in your own lives.

After all, what happened to Anarae was no freak accident – it was entirely preventable. Predators like Nelson draw their victims into thick woods of deception towards a live trap with shame as the bait. Self-actualized, well connected individuals don’t enter the wood alone, or at all, and are repelled by those who degrade as a means of predation.

To bring it home, less than two months before her murder, Anarae re-engaged with Nelson possessing full knowledge that, concurrent to their first round of dating, he had concealed an ongoing marriage and pregnant girlfriend. Not to mention it ended with him going to jail for another parole violation despite self-proclaimed efforts to clean up his act. Throughout the earlier relationship, and more so afterwards, I pleaded with her, as did many others, to get away, to seek help, to never return. She couldn’t hear us, she was in the woods on a solo mission, ensnared.

The rest is in the papers but the horrific details and flowery obituaries obscure the learning. Those of us who remember Anarae, who loved her or tried, deserve more. I don’t proclaim to have the answer but I will share with you what my prodigal spirit has been recently whispering into my dreams:

honesty, like love, can hurt, but without both, we are truly alone

Anarae Schunk, Burnsville High School commencement speech June 10th, 2011

Victimized by Love?

I walked out of my therapists’ office this morning with a new mantra:

“Don’t be a victim of love”

Andre Campbell

But let’s start at the beginning.

I stride in, all black threads, fresh from a cold shower and focused by fast-induced hunger only slightly subdued by 16 ounces of nitro. Think, Dark Night vs. Bane right before Bruce wakes up in the Pit.

I was prepared; had rose early to review my journal, collect my thoughts, and was ready to offer up a condensed version of the last 6 weeks for evaluation. But that’s not quite how it works in this office.

Cooly perched in his plush arm chair, Andre patiently notates while I cover my material – my first month back at school, my new job, my writings, my text exchange with my long-estranged mom…wait, let’s pause there. ‘Tell me more,’ he says. Then the dreaded, ‘how do you feel as you’re telling this story?’

But after 5 years on the adjacent burgundy leather loveseat, I see this coming; ‘ambivalent,’ I say through my teeth.

He counters, ‘Are you being honest with yourself?’

Persistent, I think before launching into a heady regurgitation of the carefully balanced pros and cons of meeting up with my mother after 5 years apart.

‘I don’t think she’s ready and here’s why,’ I conclude, pointing to the text where she indicates she wants to give me a hug.

She hasn’t even offered an apology; this hug – in my mind – represents a covering up of historical wrong doing – a far cry from the atonement I feel I deserve. Not to mention, the last time I went through this, she bailed at the buzzer.

I’ve worked too hard and have come too far – I tell myself – to go back to that place.

But you’re still there, Andre says with a look, and then, ‘it’s as if you’ve built a beautiful house, carefully manicured the lawn, but can’t go inside.’

I’m reeling, struggling to regain composure; the words cut deep.

He continues, calmly inquiring, ‘why are you playing victim to love?’

‘I’m not playing’….I trail off, my tongue goes limp, my vocal cords dry and taught. I assume a listening position while he explains how I’ve been here before, circling but never facing my real need: self-love.

He goes on. One who loves themselves with abandon – think child running arms open wide – cannot be victimized.

I realize I have been longing for my mother to provide this love since I was a child. I am now avoiding the interaction because I am afraid she won’t live up to my expectations and I’ll be hurt, again, as a result. The ‘house’ I’ve been building has become an icy monument to perpetual victimhood.

He reminds me that only I can give myself the love I’ve been both seeking and avoiding from her.

Time’s up.

He repeats the mantra and we schedule our next session.

The theme of the mantra is simple:

internal strength built on a foundation of love and abundance can’t be compromised

– Me

To be continued…

NOT YET GROWN: 3 Things I wish I knew Earlier – A Birthday Reflection

me n chip

Despite turning 37 today, I am not yet grown. But it’s ok, I’m still looking optimistically towards my maturation horizon. Let me explain.

I live in a modest apartment, alone and in a small town in NE TX. Despite spending 50% of the last 15 years at work, my net worth is negative. Emotionally, I’m 12 years old, as my therapist often reminds me. I have an active tinder profile.

I could keep going but I’ll stop there; you get the point. Nonetheless, I believe in my trajectory; hence my optimism.

I’ll pause here and offer up item number one on my list of things I wish I knew earlier in life:

Where you are headed is more important than where you are

Short of an in depth analysis as to why this is true, I’ll simply ask you to reflect on your last hardship, mistake, misgiving – what got you through? I’m willing to bet it was something like the idea that it wouldn’t last forever and that things will get better. This idea is reflective of the fact that human beings are capable of, and highly motivated by, our own ability to shape our future outcomes for the better, regardless of the present predicament.

Take the last year for example – I launched a blog, made a couple positive moves at work, got a puppy, started an MBA program, took my kids on a vacation for the first time since my divorce, kicked a couple addictions and got out of a toxic relationship without sinking my own ship. This all on the heels of 4 prior years marked by divorce, depression, estrangement from my children, near joblessness and excessive legal and medical debt.

Still, one could argue that my recent accomplishments are trivial given I’m approaching 40, and I would be hard pressed to rebuke. Regardless, I have my story as to why (call it cognitive dissonance if you prefer) and I’ll share the high points with you here momentarily.

But first, learning number two:

Connection starts with me

Sure it’s cliche but it amazes me how much of my struggle can be attributed back to never really understanding this at a deep, something approaching a biological level, as well as an intellectual and emotional one. In fact I still often wrestle with healthy human connection in both personal and professional relationships. Let’s jump back into my story here for context.

I grew up in an emotionally volatile home with a family history of mental health issues, which might be best understood as bi-polar (although neither of my parents are yet to be clinically diagnosed as far as I know). As the oldest of three, I consumed the lions share of my parents focus and energy. On good days I felt like Superman, on bad days Lex Luther. On the balance I developed what’s know as an insecure attachment model.

The cliff note version of the clinical definition is that all children need to feel secure in their parental relationship. Children can handle some rejection, loss, injury, etc. but it needs to be consistently reinforced with a message of love and acceptance. If, however, the parental figure doles out love and acceptance one moment and rejection the next, without a consistent, clear pattern as to why – the child will become anxious and insecure, often manifesting these traits long into adulthood.

In summary the result was that, in my mind, other people became more important than me. My survival strategy was, ‘if I am perfect, I can make others happy.’ The reality, of course, is that we are not in control of others’ emotions any more than we are the weather. But as a young, developing child thirsty for secure attachment, I took every possible correlation as causation – when it worked, I felt like superman; when it didn’t…you get the idea.

Circling back, it now makes sense to me why I placed such a high value on relationships and intimacy even though they always felt so far away. The outcome of all this searching was that I never developed a relationship with, or even any real care for, myself. Going forward; connection starts with me. Or, if you prefer, in the sage words of an old friend –

“two things are most important and they must be done in order: first figure out where you are going and second, who’s coming with you”

-credit Alan B.

Sticking with cliche, I’ll wrap this up by leaving you with this final birthday nugget:

Emotions are temporary – don’t give your future to them

There is a difference between being informed by emotions and being swept away. Evolution didn’t accidentally devote 80% of prenatal development to your brain nor was the organ designed to be a single input / output device. Yes, feel your emotions, explore them, learn from them – and then choose your response based on what the best version of you would do.

Had I known this earlier, I mean really understood it, this post would have come out two decades ago and would be replete of much of the aforementioned heartache.

But, again, where I am headed is more important than where I am.

Let’s GO!

Trouble Parking

Dating in your 30’s?

Any single, 30-somethings out there struggling in the relationship game? Raise your hand if you’re having fun. If you’re like me, you might find yourself looking back from time to time thinking – WTF happened?

For me, it all started according to ‘the plan’ – college degree, salaried job, met a beautiful girl, got married, had kids and bought our first home. Hoyle was proud.

But as it turns out, following ‘the plan’ isn’t enough – you gotta own it too. Bottom line – living someone else’s life won’t work, at least not well or for long.

Going deeper into my story you’ll find a mixture of tragedy and self induced hardship ultimately leading to ‘the plan’ falling to pieces, just not all at once. It was more like that rich guy that went bankrupt – it happened very slow, and then very fast. That was 4 years ago.

Fast forward thru a couple years of Family Court, on-and-off battles with depression, nearly 3 years of social hibernation and $10,000 in therapy before even the desire for a relationship re-emerged. And now, after nearly a year of trying, the stark reality is, I’m out of practice and out of touch in the wake of a decade-long marriage which saw the advent of digital dating. Joining my local monastery has started to become an increasingly appealing option.

But here I am, at one of Tulsa’s trendy new restaurants – alone – after waiting an hour to finally get the confirmation text that it wasn’t going to happen tonight:

‘I’m stressed out about parking and just downtown in general and super nervous. I’m not going to come there 😕’

It appears I’m not the only one out there with dating hangups – anyone who has ever been downtown Tulsa knows that parking is not the problem – the text was a cover story. Neither uncommon nor pleasant to be stood up, but on a positive note the tenderloin was superb.

I could be going about it wrong and I’m aware I have my fair share of baggage – but aren’t most single, 30-somethings in a similar position? Maybe it’s just me, but even my most promising relationship since the divorce went south after only six weeks.

That said, I’m not playing victim here – I’m just struggling with the question: ‘where do I go from here?’ I have three kids, good health and a promising career – maybe that’s enough.

For those of you out there who can feel my pain, let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Perhaps we can help prevent one another from spending the rest of our lives like this guy:

Expectations & Resentment

Ever found yourself expecting the impossible; perhaps frustrated, angry or even hurt when it failed to materialize?

Sounds foolish when said out loud, but too often I find myself succumbing to this brand of fantastical thinking. When I don’t get what I’m after, I can get angry and make the situation worse.

Essentially, it’s like Sisyphus blaming gravity for his burden. Can you relate?

Let me bring this closer to home with an example. 

I am a middle manager in an industrial manufacturing operation. I’m no Elon Musk, but I love what I do and the people I work with. 

If asked, others would say I lead with my gut, often causing me to ignore obvious roadblocks or to prioritize action over fact finding. They would also say that, at the end of the day, I am open to feedback and am committed to correcting mistakes. At a 50,000’ level, you might say I have a ‘forgiveness is better than permission’ flavor to my leadership.

Although I have demonstrable success with this approach over multiple years and in various capacities, I work inside a process driven organization with a strong preference for permission seekers. Rather than adjust, I keep driving to change the mindset of my leadership, if not the entire 10,000+ employee culture.

In a recent bought of misguided ‘heroics’ I escalated to the brink of unemployment. Peak fantastical thinking.

The interesting question now becomes – what next?

Perhaps the answer is as simple as dropping the expectation that my track record of strong results justifies special handling? Perhaps I should pursue a new opportunity where coloring outside the lines is more highly valued?

Am I standing on principle or am I just addicted to the conflict? My therapist points out I have a tendency to extremes and reminds me to pace myself and seek out my emotional center.

For now at least the move is to keep my head down as I continue to reflect, here’s what I konw for sure:

Unrealistic Expectations = Premeditated Resentments

Intimately Distinct

I’m going back in after 4 years on the bench and an 8 year marriage.

Equal parts excitement and uncertainty, my heart swells with longing one moment and recoils in fear the next. Night sweats and ecstasy have replaced sleep.

Exotic, vibrant, impassioned, unexpected – and yet familiar, like a deja vu + destiny cocktail.

Even the timing feels right as this season in my life has been marked by both renewal and promise.

She is smart, driven, caring, rational and stunning.  She doesn’t need me, she chooses me.  Disagreements become opportunities to discover one another. I wouldn’t change anything about her yet she seeks feedback.

I took the opportunity to introduce her to my brother and his wife over the Christmas holiday to rave reviews. My close friend KT is supportive, and she never holds back 😉

So what am I afraid of?

It would be easy to try and explain my fear as something related to inadequacy, but that’s not it – for the first time in my life I can honestly say I understand my own value.  I’m not in it out of desperation, loneliness, or any other form of dysfunction that I am aware of.

I think I’m fearful of two things: my past and my future.

My past because, despite ongoing therapeutic progress, I still occasionally allow historical traumas to dictate present behavior.  Being a psychiatrist she is understanding of my struggle but everyone has their limits, and rightly so.

My future because, now more than ever, I can see my full potential and the path towards it.  No more excuses; no more settling.  It’s scary to have something to lose.

In previous relationships this dichotomy would have been too much, I would have ran, but not this time.

This time I’m staying put – I’m going to see this through.

After all, the solution seems obvious enough – when the past is dead and the future unknown, one should focus on the present; right?

Just two individuals connected in the moment.

Intimately Distinct.

Lifted up and uplifted

The title of the track is ‘Lift Yourself’ by @Kanye and, in a sense, is an appropriate theme for my 2018 Summer.  In another sense, I was lifted by others in what was the richest season in recent memory for me.

Whatever the case, the song is inspirational to me as was the depth and breadth of my experiences over the last 4 months.

To the family and friends that pitched in to laugh, cry, drive, fly, work, play, grow and learn with me – here’s to you even if you didn’t make the slideshow, you know who you are.

I am more alive than I was 4 months ago – I am grateful beyond words.