There is much to be said about connecting with people who are going through trauma. Not only do we help them in the process, we also transform our lives with their stories. Today’s guest is passionate about doing this. Whitney Lauritsen sits down with David Richman to talk about how we can form deeper connections with ourselves and those in our lives. David shares his transformational journey from an overweight, sedentary smoker to an endurance athlete who completed nearly 20 Ironmans, many 50+ miles runs, and a solo 5,000-mile bike ride. His latest book, Cycle of Lives, explores 15 people’s emotional journeys with cancer and the various traumas in their lives. Their stories are interwoven amongst the narrative of David’s solo bike ride to meet the book participants whom he had been interviewing for a few years. Tune in to learn the importance of connecting with others, taking a deep look at yourself, and applying big lessons to your life. Plus, find out the three-step process to make a transformation. Peel away the layers and get to the essence of who you are through this heart-centered conversation.
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Moving Cycles Of Trauma With David Richman
One thing I have not told my guests yet is that I resonated with the description of who he is when I first read about him because it reminds me of two of my uncles. One of their names shares the name of the guest, which is David Richman. My uncle David and my uncle Douglas have been into cycling for as long as I can remember. It is a big part of what I think about them as human beings. It is biking trips that they have taken. My uncle, Douglas, in particular, has a story that I feel moved by because he has done a lot of long biking trips for causes. He developed Parkinson’s disease many years ago so he became very determined to embrace his body and celebrate his body but also support other people.
David, your story spoke to me because you do so much work around connecting with people that are going through trauma, a lot of physical ailments and doing a lot of cycling. I want to hear all about it because it moves me on a personal level because of my two uncles. Thank you for coming on here and I can’t wait to learn what you have found through all your cycling.
Thank you for having me. That is nice. I am glad you shared that. It is a Zen thing when you go for long bike rides. I didn’t know that going into becoming an endurance athlete. Endurance athletics is Zen. I didn’t know that. I found that I do my best thinking on super long runs and super long bike rides. Some people check out because they meditate, do yoga, go for a swim, cook or read a magazine but I feel like that is short-term.
If you have ever tried to meditate, meditating for fifteen minutes is different than meditating for an hour, which is different than meditating for two days straight. You get deep when you go for hours and hours and days and days. You start to peel away the layers and get to the essence of who you are and what you are experiencing. For me, that is an added and wonderfully surprising benefit of endurance athletics. It is good for the mind.
The closest I can relate to that is cross country road trips because even though I am not moving my body in that sense, it still requires a lot of focus to stay safe. That is what I am thinking of as you are talking about this. I feel like being on the road especially when I am on my own and seeing all this nature pass by, puts me in this zone that is unlike anything else. It is almost addicting. I can’t wait to get back in the car. It is also interesting because I don’t feel compelled to do long-distance movements like that. Although it runs in my family with my uncles, I have never been that drawn to running or biking.
I have been drawn to swimming but more casual. It is interesting especially because your story is about the transition and evolving into somebody who enjoys those things. I am curious about what your journey has been. Were you always interested in this or did this come up for you over time? If so, what was the spark that ignited that within you?
I was definitely not always interested in it. I do a lot of things well but what I didn’t do well until I got into my late 30s was to have an understanding of taking a deep look at myself. I like to tell people, “I have learned ridiculous lessons.” I was robbed at gunpoint of everything that I owned when I was eighteen years old when I was living out of my car. You learn from that. I ran a $100 million business for a major Wall Street firm. You learn from that. I learned all these crazy lessons in life but my biggest problem was I never applied any of them to myself.
I could go all day long and be a great leader, manager or mentor because I had learned all these lessons but I never turned around and looked at the guy in the mirror and applied the lessons to myself. That was a big blind spot for myself. I don’t know if that resonates with anyone but it did with me. I found myself in my late 30s. I had four-year-old twins. I was in a terribly dangerous and not healthy marriage. I needed to get me and my kids out of that marriage and to safety. We did. I was overweight. I was a smoker. I was happy in life but miserable and stressed out with who I was and who I had become. I had this welling feeling in me that I’m definitely on the wrong path.
For me, on the wrong path is I didn’t know anything about myself. I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing in life. I didn’t know anything. I learned a lot. I just never applied it to me. I’m not even exaggerating. When we were at safety, I stood in front of the mirror and was like, “Honestly, who are you? Who do you want to be?” I said that to myself over and over like an idiot standing in front of a mirror until I heard the question. I have lived my whole life trying to say, “I’ve got to be a certain way because my boss wants me to be that way.” I put myself into bad relationships and I go, “I’ve got to be the guy to fix the bad relationship or I’ve got make people happy. This is what I think they want from me.”
I never ever asked the guy in the mirror. When I did, I went, “Why don’t you try to be healthy? You got your own kids. You want to live a long life. I want you to try to be healthy. I want you to quit smoking. Why don’t you start to become athletic and see if that is something that you want to do?” It was strictly by accident that I came into this. I was in a period of extreme stress and a very low point in my life personally. I said, “You’ve got to take an assessment and you have got to figure out who you are and who you want to be.” I had no idea about either of those questions
That is remarkable especially when you are sharing the story of what happened to you at the age of eighteen. A lot of people have those moments and those are the wake-up calls. I am curious to go back to that with something that would typically feel very traumatic.
I’m not telling you this to say it is any more or less traumatic than anybody else. It is my experience. I grew up in a not-great household. My parents were 40 years age difference. When I was born, my mom was only 21. My dad was nearly 60. I had a mom that was too young for kids and didn’t want them anyway and a dad that was too old for kids and probably didn’t want him anyway. It was just me and my sister. It was traumatic. I grew up at a time when you don’t ask questions and you don’t talk back. It was not a safe place. Some very not happy things happened in my childhood, like what happens with most kids.
I left home at eighteen. A couple of days after I left home, I got robbed at gunpoint of everything. I didn’t have anybody to call. I had $0.56 in my pocket and a carton of cigarettes. That is what I lived on until I could find a job and have somebody take me in. It was traumatic but my point is that I felt like my whole life, I was trying to figure out a way to survive. I was not living on purpose. I was living in reaction to the things that were going on in my life. If I got a decent job, I would work twice as hard as everybody because I’ve got to make the best of it. I’ve got to get ahead. I’ve got to take action.
When it came to relationships, I’m like, “You had a crappy relationship with your mom. Why don’t you go find more screwed-up women that you could try to fix?” Every relationship was an angry and bitter person that I tried to change them. I didn’t know this at the time. I learned this later. When I did step back and look at myself, I realized that I had not done that ever. I never felt how I fit in the world where my sense of self was. I was always in self-preservation mode, not self-awareness mode.
I’m not working twice as hard because I got the big picture of how to get ahead. I’m working twice as hard because everybody else went to college and I didn’t. If I don’t work twice as hard, I am going to get fired. What am I going to fall back on? I don’t have a family. It was desperation for me and then finally, I went, “You should change your mind.”
It’s no wonder you have become an author and a keynote speaker. It’s compelling hearing these things and seeing this journey that has evolved. It’s also poignant in the sense that so many people will have like one big moment and they attribute that moment to the big shift. That is why I brought up what happened to you at eighteen because it has been a number of things. Still, it took you time to evolve to this place where it does feel like a big shift happened for you going back to thinking about taking care of your body.I was not living on purpose; I was living on reaction. Click To Tweet
It is fascinating what it takes in our lives to make a big change and do 180 degrees to become something practically the opposite of who we were before or to evolve to another level. I am also fascinated about the people you have met in your life and that you have gotten to know and studied to understand how trauma has impacted them. It seems like you are very drawn to the physical and how that impacts the mental and emotional. In your book, it’s right where you were meeting with people in person through your cycling to understand their own trauma. Am I describing your book correctly?
You are close. I will get to that in a second but to go back to something that you were saying to make a transformation and you have that a-ha moment. I didn’t know it at the time but I have learned over time that for me and a lot of people I talked to, it resonates with them. Do you know those angry and mean people and you wonder like, “How did she ever get that mean?” Maybe they are lazy and you’re like, “Come on, don’t you want to live a more purposeful life?” You say this in your head. They are overweight or whatever and you go like, “It’s obvious for you to be able to make a change if you wanted to make a change.” All those things were obvious about me but until I knew, I didn’t know.
I didn’t know I needed to change until I knew. In retrospect, in order to make a big transformation in my mind, it’s a three-step process. You’ve got to take a good, hard, honest look at yourself. I didn’t do that until I was in my late 30s. When I did take a long, hard, honest look at myself, I came up with some very disturbing things. One is, I was always worried about fixing everybody else and never fixed myself. I had problems I had to deal with. I never dealt with them. Two, I was unhealthy and I had to admit that I was overweight. I had to admit that I was not active. I had to admit that I was not living the way that I should live. I had to come up with 4 or 5 other things that were honest assessments of where I was.
I had to make the assessment, “These are the bad things about you. These are the unhealthy things about you. These are the things that are wasting your life. These are the things you need to change.” It is an honest assessment. It is hard to do. I got so many in my life that says to me, they are 40 years old and got 4 kids. She goes, “I am mean to my kids but whatever. That is me. I am just a mean person.” I am like, “If you know that then freaking change. You got four kids.” I could not say that to her but I’m thinking, “I am just a mean person.” That is not an excuse.
Number one is taking an honest assessment. The second one is the most important one. If you can make an honest assessment, which I was not able to do until my late 30s but if you can make an honest assessment then number two is to free your mind and forgive yourself, which is a hard thing to do. It is a hard thing to free your mind and also to forgive yourself. What I mean by for your mind is to forget about who you were, the problems that you had, the bad things you did, the stupid things you did and the time you wasted. Forget about making bad decisions. You didn’t know any better at the time. Forgive yourself and move on. You got to live your life and today you know this so start living your life.
Don’t have a chip on your shoulder. Don’t look elsewhere. Don’t look to the past. Today is the day. Free your mind. It is hard to do because oftentimes when we take an honest assessment, we realize we are not really proud of who we are and some of the things we have done or have not done. If you can be lucky enough to take an honest assessment and muster up the courage and the will to forgive yourself and say, “Today is the day I will start.” Live in that life. The third thing is you got to be on a journey to learn. If you already know the answer to every question, you already know how things will work out. You already know the way the world works. You already know everything.
It can’t work but if you can learn and look at every experience as a learning experience and strive for that learning because if you already know everything, you might as well forget it. You can’t change. What are you going to change into? You already know everything. Those are the three things. I wanted to say that because what you said was so important about a-ha moments. You only know what you know and you know it. Your trauma might be a big deal that transforms you. That same trauma on somebody else might be something that rolls off their back. Some other little trauma doesn’t affect you that rocks their world. It is like trauma doesn’t work in low boxes.
I can laugh about this woman who pulled a gun on me and said, “Get the F out of my house,” and I had to run out the window with nothing because I didn’t have anything and knew these people were going to kill me. I can laugh about it. That is no big deal. At the time, it was a big deal. It’s no big deal. For some people, that would be the defining moment in their life. I can’t judge you for your trauma. You can’t judge me for mine and we don’t need to. When you know it, you know what you know when you know it.
That is so helpful. It is very great for me to hear. I had an experience that has been sitting with me that relates to this where based on a previous podcast episode, I had a woman reach out to me sharing that what I said was painful for her. She felt like the way that I phrased it was diminished. I felt awful because I certainly didn’t intend it but I had to step back and examine. What doesn’t impact me may impact others. I am still grappling with how do we go about life? Each of us has our own traumas and our perspectives. Communication in relationships, even with strangers, can be so challenging because they may respond to things completely differently than us. We’re not always able to anticipate it.
I’m curious about what you have learned about that, given that you have spent so much time speaking with other people about trauma. It’s almost like walking on eggshells or navigating landmines. Maybe it is the people-pleaser in me. I don’t want to hurt anybody. When I find out that I have inadvertently hurt someone, it is scary because it is like, “How do I do this?” Is it possible to truly navigate other people’s traumas or can we only navigate our own while being mindful that that may trigger other people’s traumas?
The latter and you said it eloquently. Oftentimes we don’t know what those traumas are. We don’t know what is going on in people’s heads. We don’t know how they are dealing with things. Any statement anybody makes is not a blanket statement because it can’t apply to everyone. Some people have unimaginable trauma that there is no way to get over it. There is no way to put it into perspective. It is unfortunate. There is no answer to some things. Maybe some good could come from it years later. Maybe there is a silver lining and years later but maybe not.
In general, everybody you are walking past in the day, everybody that you talk to has dealt with or is dealing with something that is traumatic. I don’t care who it is. People look at some people and like, “People are at my house right now. I got a beautiful house. I got two kids. They are grown kids. They are very happy. I have got a beautiful wife. She is very successful. I love to cook. I am very active.” People go, “Your life is so perfect.” They don’t know what I am dealing with. They don’t know what I have gone through. Not that they need to but we can’t know their traumas.
The person who cuts you off might be that they are a jerk but it also might be that they got off the phone finding out that somebody they know died in a horrible car accident and they are freaked out. I am not saying I always think that when somebody cuts me off and I don’t go, “Hey, asshole.” I try to go, “People are going through stuff. They are and we don’t know how it is affecting them.” Back to the impetus for this book, what I came to learn is that especially with the emotional facets of trauma, there are other things to deal with trauma. Let’s say the trauma is cancer because that is the topic of this book.
There is the trauma of, “I’ve got to deal with work. I’ve got to deal with my kids, my friends and my family. I’ve got to deal with my care. I got to find doctors.” There are a lot of different types of trauma. Dealing with the trauma itself is not necessarily dealing with the emotional facets of it. “How do I get my kids watched while I am getting in the chemo chair? How do I navigate insurance? How do I find a doctor?” All of these things have nothing to do with the emotional side of it. I noticed that patient, doctor, loved one, friend and survivor, you name it, are all dealing with emotional issues. Oftentimes, the emotional side of the trauma is not an easy thing to deal with.
When I say that, this should resonate with anybody that is reading. Sometimes somebody will tell you something, “It’s the most horrible thing. My uncle and his wife were in a car accident and they both died.” You’re like, “I am so sorry,” and then you want to exit the conversation because what the hell could I say? We don’t want to have these hard conversations. What do you say to somebody who has, “My nephew got diagnosed with cancer?” What the hell am I going to say? These conversations about the emotional side of it are so difficult.
I noticed that people were not well-equipped to form a deep connection with those around them in an authentic, heart-centered, “We care about each other. We’re listening. I hear you. You hear me.” Even for a moment about the emotional side. That is not something that is very prevalent. I am not saying it doesn’t exist but it is definitely, at some level, very much a factor of the experience with trauma. Especially with cancer, it is difficult to discuss emotional things. That was the impetus for the book. How can I tell stories in a way where Whitney could read them or listen to them and go, “I could apply that to my own life or to an experience that I have had.” Maybe it will give you a tool to form a deeper connection with somebody who cares about you or that you care about.Free your mind and forgive yourself. Click To Tweet
That is such an important tool because I find myself even now, wanting somebody to guide me through difficult conversations. How do we respond? I want to be proactive about it because that is one discomfort I don’t enjoy. What do you say when somebody shares something with you that you are unprepared to respond to? It is an interesting thing too because it is not only for you to practice the tools but it has made me hyperaware of how other people respond to me or others, observing how few people seem to have these tools. They don’t have the knowledge of how to navigate. In fact, we actually have carried through, in general, some bizarre responses to trauma. Even saying, “I’m sorry,” sometimes doesn’t seem like the best words.
Oftentimes, it is the worst words because it’s not your fault. What are you sorry for? It’s an excuse to exit the conversation. The second worst thing to say is, “At least.” “At least they lived a long life.” That is how you are going to tell me when I said to you that my grandma died? “How old was she?” “She was 93.” “At least she lived a long life.” What are you talking about? What does that mean, “At least,” You lost your finger? At least you have nine more fingers. What is, “At least,” You went blind? At least you have your health. Stop saying, “At least.” It doesn’t work. “I’m sorry,” doesn’t work.
Comparing saying, “I know,” doesn’t work either. “I was out over this weekend because my grandma died. I was at her funeral.” “My cat died. I know what you are feeling.” No, you don’t. How about, “I know. Losing your grandma must be the worst thing in the world.” Actually, my grandma was a total wreck. I hated her. She hated life. I am glad she is dead. How do you know? “I’m sorry,” doesn’t work. “At least,” doesn’t work. “I know,” doesn’t work. None of those things work but they are all reasonable responses because we don’t know any better. They are also cover for us to get out of the conversation because it is very uncomfortable.
Most of the time, we don’t want to make others feel bad so we are better off not saying anything. I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I don’t not want to say something, “At least,” because that is wrong. “I don’t want to say anything because I don’t want to say the wrong thing.” There are reasons why we don’t have these conversations. I’m not just saying towards the person that has the trauma but the other way as well. “I don’t want to tell you something bad that is going on in my life because I don’t want to make you feel guilty. I don’t want to be ashamed. I don’t want to be embarrassed. I don’t want to burden you. I don’t want to bring you down because you are having such a good day. Maybe I think you don’t care enough.”
There are a million reasons why we might not talk or have people talk to us. What I wanted to do was to find out if we can gain some insight into how younger adult and childhood traumas affect our ability or our inability to navigate the emotional side of trauma. If I could tell those stories in a compelling and inspiring way then we could go, “That makes sense. Something is going to stick in my head. Next time I come across that situation, I might have a better understanding on how to have that conversation.”
Two questions come to mind as follow-up to that. One is, what do you say? Before we get to that, I am curious. What do you recommend when you say the wrong thing? What happens if you say something and share the words and you can see them land on somebody’s face if they are an expressive person and don’t bottle it all up? What we said didn’t make somebody feel good. What do you do then if you have the opportunity to recover from it?
Sometimes you’ve got to admit, “I said the wrong thing, didn’t I?” If you want to have a heart-centered and authentic connection with somebody and join them in that moment or over the years of closeness over this trauma, whatever that trauma might be, the answer is not, “What is the right thing to say?” The answer is, “What are the right questions to ask?” People are not looking for us to give them answers. They are looking for us to give them a safe space to share.
What I used to do, this is an example. This is not applicable to every situation. It is only applicable to a sliver of situations but the previous me before I got into this project and gained a deeper understanding of how isolating trauma is for people would have said something like, “I found out that your significant other got cancer. I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry. If you need anything, please let me know. I’m here for you if you want to talk.” Now, the me says, “Tell me more. What is happening? How are you dealing with it?” Not, “Reach out if I can give you anything,” but, “What do you need to be done for you? Have you gone to the store lately? Do you need help organizing anything? Is there anything I can help you with? Do you know how to navigate medical insurance? Can I help you with that? How do you find a good doctor? How are you feeling about that?”
It’s asking questions. When I hear that somebody tells me in passing that they lost someone, I used to say, “I’m so sorry. That must be horrible.” First of all, I am not sorry because I had nothing to do with it and second of all, I don’t know that it is horrible. It might be the greatest thing in the world because maybe they were not in so much pain that you wanted them to die. Now I say, “Were you close?” “So-and-so passed away.” “Were you close?” or, “Tell me more.” If I care to be there with them in an authentic way, I’m going to ask questions. I’m not going to tell them, “At least this,” or, “I know that,” or, “I am sorry.” You’re not going to tell them. You’re going to ask questions.
Where it can lead you is to these remarkable places of connectivity with people by asking questions. I have learned that you cannot say the wrong thing if you are doing it in an authentic way. You will never have to apologize for saying the wrong thing if you are doing it in an authentic way. Let me give you an example. My sister was dying of brain cancer. This was at a time when I started on this journey of going from no activity and unhealthy and smoker. I’m down this path of living my life. At the same time period, my sister calls me and says, “I got terminal brain cancer. I’m going to die.” She is on this path to the end of her life. We have these two separate paths.
She has got a beautiful marriage and two young kids and a great circle of friends. She is living a wonderful life. I’m living a miserable life. Here I am, starting to change that and here she is, having to deal with the fact that she is going to die. One time she called me up and I saw it with her on the phone. I pick up and I go, “What is happening to you? How are you doing?” I went, “You’re such an idiot. She’s dying of cancer. What do you mean, ‘How are you doing?’ This is the stupidest question you could ever ask someone who is dying of cancer. You are so insensitive. What the hell? Now you are going to make her think that she’s dying.” Meanwhile, all she heard was whatever. She went, “I’m fine.” You can’t say the wrong thing. If we are aware enough to not want to hurt somebody’s feelings, we’re not going to say anything because we don’t want to say the wrong thing.
I‘ve been trying to educate myself on this. I read this book called It’s OK That You’re Not OK, which is about grief. It is mostly written toward people who are handling grief but I wanted to read it as a way to learn how to support people who are in grief. Around the time that I was reading it, someone in my life’s father passed away. I remember thinking, “I feel prepared. I feel like I can respond better than I did before.” I tried saying something around like, “What do you need? How can I support you?” I was met with a response that I don’t know if was helpful to them. I thought, “I thought I learned how to respond to people better but that still didn’t feel like the right way to respond to them.”
I got in my head and thought, “Was I asking too many questions? Was I trying to be overly supportive?” I feel it can swing in the opposite direction for someone like me who is super proactive. I go into this immediate, “How can I fix it? How can I help? How can I be there?” It’s almost like I feel too much and too helpful. I want to bring myself back into more balance. How do you stop yourself from swinging too far in a supportive direction?
I don’t think you can because if you are coming from a place of asking these questions and wanting to support them for them then that will come through. If you’re doing it to show them how great you are then it is not going to be a good thing. Sometimes the last thing somebody wants is to talk about what they are going through and sometimes the last thing that some people want is to rely on the fact that you are going to listen to them.
Let me give you a story. I’m doing this podcast with this guy and we are talking about some of the topics that we are talking about. We’re done and before we say goodbye, he goes, “Can I tell you a story?” I go, “For sure.” He goes, “I had this buddy that recently died of cancer. Our talk resonated with me because every time we got together especially near the end of his life, I wanted to talk to him but all he wanted to do was eat pizza and drink a beer if he felt okay. He wanted to watch sports. I’d start asking him a question and he would pretend like he didn’t even hear me. He talked about the game. I wish I could have broken through to him to help him with some of these emotional issues. I felt guilty about that.”
I said, “Let me ask you a question. Is it possible that you were the only person he didn’t have to talk to about it? What if every single person in his life brought him down? Maybe he was tired of talking about what it felt like to die. Maybe he was tired of talking about this heavy stuff. You were the one person that gave him the freedom to sit on a La-Z-Boy, eat a slice of pizza and watch the game. Wouldn’t that be awesome to know that?” He goes, “It would have been.”Trauma doesn't work in pretty little boxes. Click To Tweet
I said, “I’m not telling you right or wrong. I’m not telling you I know the answer to anything but the next time you are in that situation where you care about your friend, you want to ask them questions about how they are feeling and they are brushing it off. Can you ask a question and go, ‘Listen, Whitney, I’m sorry. I know this is invading your space but are you telling me you don’t want to talk about it because you don’t want to talk about it or are you telling me you don’ want to talk about it because you think I don’t care? Are you telling me that you don’t want to talk about it because you are tired of talking about it or you are scared to talk about it? I don’t care. I just want you to know. I’m asking because I care.’”
“’It’s okay if we don’t talk about it. That is up to you. I wanted to know because if you want a safe space to talk, I’m here. If you want to safe space to not talk, I’m here. Whatever you want, I wanted to know. If you can give me a little bit of direction here, I can either lay it on or go back off. You tell me.’” You can’t go too far. Who is not going to welcome that line of questioning?
That is helpful too because I don’t think enough people ask that. I wish more people would ask me that because I fall more into the category of not sharing things that are hard for me because I am often afraid of how people are going to respond. I find myself when I’m going through a tough time, I’ll sit there and think, “Who can I share this with?” If I want to talk about it, I’ll go through a list. It’s like I’m anticipating, “If I share it with this person, they are probably going to respond this way. That doesn’t feel good.”
I’ll have conversations with friends and find myself very passive because I don’t feel like they are going to hold space for me in the way that I need. What I’m craving is if they were to tune into me more and ask me what I needed at that moment versus assuming. You’re absolutely right. Knowing that about myself can help me ask those questions of other people, which I find most people are not used to hearing because we don’t ask enough of those. We start to assume or project onto others what we think is right. If we could ask more of those questions, we may find that what we think is right is not right for them.
The main issue is that we can’t assume it’s going to be one way or another. The best thing to do is to ask the question or to allow yourself permission to let them ask you questions or vice versa. You mentioned something earlier about wanting to please people or for me, I wanted to fix people rather than fix myself. Sometimes I wouldn’t tell people the traumas or the burdens that I had because I didn’t want to bring them down. I was looking out for them like, “Why am I going to burden somebody with my issue?” Meanwhile, that will stop me from allowing people that care about me to get close to me. It will also allow me to not bring them down but who am I to say one way or another, what might bring them down?
I’m managing a big office of people. I got four-year-old twins and my big trauma of the time was I was married to a physically abusive alcoholic. I guarantee you, none of my employees knew. They would have no idea. If a couple of them were friends and a couple of them cared, I might have said something. Most likely I would not have at that time in my life. I might have stopped myself from saying something because I don’t want to bring him down. I don’t want to burden them. I didn’t want to think less of me. Maybe the best thing to do was to talk to them about it because maybe they were going through the same thing or knew somebody that was going through the same thing.
If you want to make a true connection with people, if you want to have a heart-centered human-to-human real life, grounded, authentic, lasting interaction with people, you have to give yourself permission. You have to make it safe for the other person. These are hard things to do. I know plenty of people in my life that I would like to have a heart to heart but I can’t find the common ground to do that because it’s not safe. It’s not safe for them or it’s not safe for me or they are not giving me the space or they don’t want to go there.
I can’t force people to go there but I know, 1 or 2 questions in, if somebody is going through something difficult or if there is some bridge that we could form between, “You are on this island about this subject and I want to join you on that island about that subject. If I know we can build that bridge pretty easily by asking a few questions, we’ll do it.” I don’t know the answer. Maybe the best thing you could do is burden those friends with your issue. How do you know?
I haven’t thought about it that way. It also reminds me of how I feel so drawn into that more so than I have a deep distaste for small talk. Anytime I start hearing words that trigger me to shut down, which is when people start saying things that feel cookie-cutter, like when you ask somebody, “How are you?” They say, “I’ve been busy.” Immediately a wall goes up. I’m like, “Everybody could say that.” I don’t even like the word busy,, so that in itself is a trigger word or, “I’m good.” I’m somebody who, if I ask you how you are, I want to hear it all.
As I’m reflecting on this now, I also wonder if I’m taking on them. Sometimes that’s a way for me to avoid talking about myself. I’ll put myself in a position of listening so that I can avoid sharing about myself. Part of that is I’m not used to people asking how I am. I’m used to people asking how I am, assuming I’m going to say, “I’m good,” and then they can move on. That’s a fascinating thing to reflect on. The way that we try to steer clear of challenging conversations, if we can have these surface level, small talk exchanges, we don’t have to get uncomfortable. We don’t have to put ourselves in unfamiliar places or places that feel unsafe.
If we continue to share these phrases, we can pull out and move on and then we can talk about what the weather is like, all of those things that we find ourselves in. Also, to your point, David, deep down, each of us yearns for a deep conversation. I’m curious if you found that to be true on your travels. Your book is about 5,000 miles. I’m curious, first of all is there a significance in that length? Why did you go that far? Did it happen to be that far? What did you find along the way? Were these mostly strangers that you were talking to?
When my sister passed away, it entered into my orbit, this idea that I felt compelled to want to explore why people are so ill-equipped to deal with the emotional side of their trauma. Not to give answers but to see what is there because I don’t know the answers. If I’m going to see what is there, I’ve got to interview people. I wanted was a range of ages. I wanted different types of cancer and different times that they had cancer severity. I wanted a perspective of a caregiver, a receiver, a patient, a loved one and family member. I want different emotional responses because how am I to assume that everybody is going to be angry with cancer?
One of my book participants cried tears of joy when she heard she had brain cancer. How am I to explain? People would shake their heads and go, “She was told she had brain cancer and she cried tears of joy?” I can tell you the story behind that. Who am I to assume that everybody has the same emotional responses to things? I went to go look. If I talked to all of those people with totally different experiences, wide-ranging traumas in their young adult and childhood, how did those traumas affect their ability or their inability to navigate the emotional side of what they are going through, both themselves and in their interactions with others?
If I could tell these stories in a compelling way then maybe we could learn something that is. That is what I wanted to do. I cold-called hospitals and cancer centers. I asked friends, “Who do you know? Is there anybody I should speak to?” I talked to one person that led to somebody else. I tried to find all of these people I could talk to. When I had a big basket of people I could talk to, I started interviewing, “Tell me about yourself.” I got the points of their lives, the little highs and lows. If I was able to and if they were willing with me, I try to connect those points.
There were some people I was not able to get deep with. Some people were not able to get deep with me. Some people only connected the points. They were pretty linear, with not a lot of highs and lows. I didn’t know that we could get a lot of insight into it. The fifteen that made the book were unbelievably evocative, inspiring, moving and relatable. It was phenomenal stories of these ordinary people who have extraordinary lives like most of us do. I interviewed them for a couple of years and then, as a gimmick, in my case, I like to do endurance athletics. I thought, “If we are all tied together by emotion, we are tied together by stories. Why don’t I tie us together?”
I’m the thread that ties these stories together or the zigzag out of those old movies. The line when somebody is flying from city to sea, that little red line. I’m the zigzag. I’m the line that ties these stories together. I said, “Get on your bike and go see them all for the first time.” I had to zigzag my way across the country. I went to California, down to Florida, across Florida and then up to New York. I said, “I get to meet them for the first time.” Those stories of the bike ride the people I met along the bike ride are the transitions and little points connecting their stories. Once you get to one of the fifteen stories, it self-contained its own story and then you get a transition about the bike ride and people I met and my thoughts about losing my sister and whatever else is going on in these short little transitions. That is the format and the structure of the book.The answer is not what's the right thing to say; the answer is what is the right question to ask. Click To Tweet
I’m also very interested in what the actual ride was like and how you were shifting. It’s an incredible feat to go that distance on a bike from my perspective. There is so much that you must have learned about yourself. Given my experience of that is being in a car and there are a lot of challenges driving around the country in a car but on a bike, you are adding a whole other level of vulnerability in some ways. It’s a different experience because you are part of the elements in a new way.
How did you navigate yourself while also being there for all these other people? The travel in itself is challenging then your emotional reaction to each of these people and then you are going to the next person after that. Did you have a process of resetting yourself? Did you take a lot of time? Did you feel rushed? I want to hear some of those two tales.
It was pretty crazy. Let’s do the math. I did 4,700 miles and 45 days. I took four days off along the way for rest. One day was forced by a hurricane. 41 days, 4,700 miles, that is 120 miles a day. I was solo and self-supported for a good majority of it. I had my wife, she was my fiancée then, there with me but she was in the car back and forth to hotels. I was choosing to go 100 to 150 miles a day, day after day, on a heavy bike, carrying a lot of gear and out in the elements. It was hectic. You know this from your uncle. Putting in 100 miles is hard but putting in 100 miles solo is really hard, putting in 150 miles, 140 miles especially on hills, the wind, I left the September 1st so I had the heat of the Southwest. It was hot.
For the first twelve days, the high never was below 100°. It was a hot, windy, long-distance, self-supported, heavy bike and add the fact that I was on the interstates because I could not take back roads. You can’t do that when you are trying to get from point A to point B. I had to be on the interstate. I’m dealing with the stress of 70 miles an hour trucks whizzing by and flat tires all day long from the steel-belted radials that pop. I was changing tires all day, every day. It was hectic but immersed in all of that. Once you go to “battle” you get to get deep into it.
In the background, every day, all day, the stories were turning in my head. I would replay over and over my talks with people so that I could like start to formulate how I envisioned their stories going and how I was going to tell their story in an authentic and real way. I live with these people in a real purposeful way over that 45-day period. When I got back, I would be more in tune with going about writing the book. It’s not like I talked to you and then I wrote a paragraph. I’ll talk to you the next week and then I will write another paragraph. It was not like that.
I talked to you for a year and a half or two years. I made a ton of notes but I got to let the story marinate. I got to figure it out. I got to give it some perspective and understand the whole thing and then I could sit down and write it. I was able to bake the cake of each story along the bike ride because that is when it could cook.
I didn’t want to read this because it’s a big story. There are so many layers to the travel, you and what inspired you. When did all this take place?
My sister died in 2007 or 2008 and then I came up with the idea for the book. A couple of years later, it got its form. I started talking to people about 2011, 2012. 2016, I went for a bike ride. 2017, 2018, I wrote the book and then it got edited. It goes to the publisher and that is a whole other year of back and forth. I had to send the stories to everyone to make sure that they were okay because they were not anonymous. There are two stories in there that are anonymous because they mostly involve relationships with kids. The parents didn’t want the kids to relive the hard traumatic parts of the story. We made 2 of the 15 stories anonymous but the stories had to be accurate.
For the non-anonymous ones, you could look up the names of the people in the book. That is the doctor. That is them. That is the things they went through, good, bad, ugly. It’s all out there and the truth. We talk about suicide, cheating, drug addiction, going to prison, making bad decisions in life, being an idiot and now they are not married to the same person that they were married to when we started talking. There is all this real-life stuff and it’s real you could. I had to get their okay to sign off on the story and that I got their life proper and that they were okay with me sharing it with the world. That was a process. This was not a real simple deal. This was going on in the background for several years and then the book came out in 2021.
I’m blown away by how long of a process this was for you. This was a whole other level of a layer of a journey for you. The journey of getting a book done, I’ve been through it but I had a rushed process with my published book. I’m thinking of how much went into yours. It’s a lot and it’s incredibly important because not a lot of people know how much can go into a project like this. They might think it’s simple and you are writing down these stories but the behind-the-scenes of getting it out there are important to take note of, don’t you think? Did you realize it was going to take this much when you started this project?
I didn’t know. These things evolve but let me tell you two things will answer the question in a way most people can understand. One is I don’t care who it was. A doctor, a patient, loved one or survivor, every person I spoke to multiple times, if not only a few times but multiple times said to me, “Since we are talking about it, I’m going to tell you something I never told anybody ever before.” We are talking about real-life hardcore stuff. I said, “They trust me with this. It needs to be told.” The fact that they were willing to share it with the world and they never told anybody about it meant another level.
I admire people that write memoirs. I admire people that tell their stories but you can also understand that there is another level of urgency to do the right thing when you are responsible for telling somebody else’s story. If you were to tell your story, you are not going to be as nervous that you are doing such a good job as if I tell your story. If I tell your story in a true, authentic way especially about things you have never talked about or that you have never told anybody else, if I take on that responsibility, I better do it right. I learned along the way that it was a greater task than what I had originally set out to do because some of the book participants might read our talk but one in particular, not to pour salt on a wound, this guy disclosed to me that he had walked in when he was six years old on his mom killing herself.
Could you imagine the trauma that is carried along with not knowing that your parent died but watching them do that to themselves? Could you imagine? It’s the most heartbreaking thing ever. He is a wonderful human being. It gave another layer of perspective to why he would not accept help when he was going through cancer because he didn’t want people to abandon him. He didn’t want to reach out and then have them say no because he didn’t know how to rely on anybody.
After that situation, how is he going to rely on anyone? He went through his cancer alone purposely but how did he choose to allow himself to be loved and love others? How did he end up settling into being okay with being weak and needing people and knowing that he can rely on people? It’s a great journey. It’s tragic but it’s also a wonderfully inspiring journey. When I got to tell that story, you better believe I better do it right. That was a joy and it was a big responsibility that I was given and that I chose to do but these people relied on me to tell their stories authentically and truthfully. I needed to make sure I did it the right way.
Even hearing you describe that in limited detail is intense. It answers but I’ll still want to ask why it is important for people to tell their stories either themselves or through someone like you?
It’s important to tell your story to yourself in an honest way. We talked about this earlier. This transformation of telling your story in an honest way allows you to then free your mind and then learn and move on. If we don’t tell our story in a truthful, honest way, we are never going to move from where we are now to who we could be. The most important thing is be honest. Tell your story. Maybe that, “Tell your story,” is looking in the mirror and going, “I’m a loser. I need to not be a loser anymore.” Telling your story in an honest way allows you to go, “Now I can purge it and I can move on.” That is the most important thing about telling your story. It’s to tell it honestly.You cannot say the wrong thing if you're doing it in an authentic way. Click To Tweet
It’s okay if you failed, made bad decisions, if you were a jerk in your life, if bad things happened to you, if you didn’t respond properly or if you have lived your whole life as a people pleaser and now you regret it. It’s okay. Just be honest. Tell your story. Let it go. Forgive yourself. Move on. You didn’t know any better at the time. You know better now. Lean into it and learn. Why is it important? Number one, it’s a change agent to be able to tell your story. It’s a change agent for you. The other thing is, if you do care about making a deeper connection with other people, you can’t with everyone and not everybody is going to want you to do it with them but by telling your story in a true, authentic way, it might possibly help somebody else deal with something that they are going through.
Not in a preachy prescriptive way but in a, “I’m not the only one that is dealing with this? I’m not the only one that is always looking to get other people’s approval of us. That is nice. I’m not the only one that is ashamed of something I did when I was 23? I’m not the only one that made a bad decision in life?” By hearing stories that are relatable that I can go, “Maybe I can learn something from that.”
I noticed now but also throughout this conversation, you have emphasized two words. One is authentic, the other is honest. I’m curious why you feel so compelled to emphasize them. Do you feel like people are not honest and authentic when they tell their stories? Do we need more of that? What do you think is getting in the way of us being honest about our stories?
I’m only seeing it from the first person. I was very good at deceiving myself and deceiving other people. Sometimes for the greatest intentions but there comes a time when you need to not try to be the person you want to be or not pretend to be the person you want to be. You got to be the person that you want to be. It’s a big difference. I get it. You need to protect people from bad things. You want to tell your kids that their parent was a terrible person. You don’t want to bring other people down to know that you are living with this bad decision that you made.
It’s hard. It’s not so linear. We can’t all be this open book walking around, showing our wounds and showing our whatever. Honestly, the few people that you want to have a deep connection with, don’t you want to do it in a real way? It’s okay that you are stupid sometimes. It’s okay that you do the wrong thing. It’s okay to have the excuse, “I intended to do well and I still messed up.” It’s okay to do that but we don’t do that. How many times do you do a project at work and you don’t know what the hell you are doing and you fake it? I’m sure that happens to everyone and then we go, “I can’t be an imposter. I got this position. I better figure it out.”
Sometimes we are not honest. How many people got all the sleep they needed, didn’t drink too much last night, ate super healthy, called every friend who needed a phone call that day and made their bed? You did everything perfectly today. No, you didn’t. Let’s be honest. We are not perfect and it’s okay.
“It’s okay,” is so important to hear. It ties back into my challenges with small talk or people not having the right words. Maybe we are all out of practice because we have been conditioned to hide things about ourselves. We have been conditioned to feel ashamed. I resonate with your passion for honesty and authenticity because I want that deep, rich, true experience. I don’t want this surface level but I also have to learn to let go of shame and discomfort along the way. We have also had these messages that we should avoid pain. You are the perfect person to come on a show like this to talk about how it’s okay for things to get uncomfortable.
You also embodied the title of this podcast. You may go into what you think will be an uncomfortable situation and it will not be. When you brought up that woman who felt joy when she heard her diagnosis, it was not uncomfortable for her. It was a bit of the opposite. One of the biggest messages you are sharing here is to not make assumptions because everybody experiences life in many different ways.
I would love to see more people go about life with curiosity and asking questions. You have inspired me to continue to do that and do it more. It’s a daily reminder not to make assumptions, not place judgments and not project our own viewpoints onto others. If we can practice that every single day, we get stronger at it and it connects us. I love that about your work. Thank you for writing the book and thank you for coming up here to share it.
I appreciate that. It’s a great conversation. I’m never not excited to talk about these things because even this far into this journey, I’m still profoundly affected by the fact that you don’t know what people are going through or what they have gone through. I’m going to sound repetitive but if you go through that process of you know what you know when you do it, if you can be honest and then let it go. I’ll leave you with one last story. There is a gentleman that I met on a bike ride. I’m New Mexico. This big family is taking me out for brunch. The dad says to me, he is in his late 70s or early 80s, “It’s such a good thing that you are talking about the emotions of cancer. It’s so important.”
He said, “I had cancer fifteen years ago and I got over it. Talking about it’s so important.” His daughter is 50 years old, pulls me aside and says, “This is so important. This whole thing that you are doing is so great because of the trauma and the emotional side of it. When I had Stage 3 breast cancer, I had a double mastectomy. I became a lobbyist for patients’ rights rather than being a nurse. It affected my life. I know that navigating the emotional side of this thing is so difficult. I’m glad you are doing what you are doing.”
I get ready to leave. I stand up and I say, “Now every family is as close as you and able to talk about these things as you guys are.” I looked over at the dad and the daughter and they both got their hands on their laps. They both are looking down and I go, “You guys told me that you talk about this. You talk, right?” They go, “No.” He goes, “When I was going through my cancer, I’m old school. You don’t show weakness. I got to be there for my family. I didn’t want to bring them down and burden them with what I was going through. You deal with you when you deal with. That is that.”
I’m like, “You told me how important it’s.” He goes, “It’s important but I didn’t do it.” I looked at his daughter and I said, “You?” She goes, “No. I had a little bit of a sense of what my dad went through but could you imagine me asking him about something he didn’t want to talk about years ago because I’m going through this and I feel guilty? What if I die? My dad is going to lose a daughter. I could never talk to him about this stuff.” I go, “You both told me how important it was.” They were like, “We did.”
A couple of weeks later, I’m in Florida and I get a call from my buddy. It was his sister and his dad. He is like, “I had dinner with my dad and my sister. They talked and they laughed and they cried about cancer. They had this deep discussion about it. They talked about the emotional thing and where they were at, at the time, why they were not able to do what they are doing now and why they were not able to do it earlier. They navigated this discussion and bonded about this trauma and its emotions in a way that they had never done before.”
It hit me like, “You know what you when you know it.” When you find the safe space and when you can have an opportunity or make an opportunity to have a deep connection with someone in your life, you got to take a jump. He was not able to do it fifteen years before. She was not able to do it five years before but now they were able to do it. Know you are at. Be honest. Forgive yourself. Free your mind. Lean in and learn. They formed a super deep connection over something that they might not have talked about had somebody not given them a little more permission.
I hope that your book and this episode give other people permission. Truly, that is one of the most powerful things that you could give to another. You have done it for me. I feel moved by these stories but your ability to get people to open up and encourage them and remove these barriers to talking about these important things. That is amazing work that you are doing. I’m deeply grateful for you being here. I’m curious about what is next. Now that this book has been out, are you working on another one?You know what you know when you know it. Click To Tweet
I’m always working on books in the background. Some of them are related. Some of them are not related. I’m doing the things that everybody is doing, which is trying to accomplish as much while we are here as we can. I’m thinking about my next book that is like this but I’ve not quite wrapped my brain around it yet. I’ve got a couple of fiction books I’m working on. I got a number of different things that I’m doing. I’m always trying to live what I talk about, which is to deal with what you know today and start today. The fact that I didn’t write these books earlier is fine. I’m doing it now. The fact that I gave up twenty years of overeating and smoking, who cares? I’m still training for Iron Man. What is coming up for me is to continue to find out what I can learn.
I’ll link to your book and your website and all the different ways that someone can dig into more of who you are and what you do. Everything is at Wellavatr.com. There is a full transcript with the quotes, the links, the book and the bio. Everything is there in one place so that you can go check out this wonderful book as I’ll. Is there an audiobook version of it?
The audiobook is amazing. I had fifteen professional voiceover actors each do one of the chapters. It’s cool. I read the transitions and each one of them read one of the stories. It was fascinating because each story is its own. It’s not a book about cancer. It’s a book about people. You will get that. One hundred percent of the net proceeds from the book go to support the cancer-focused charities that the people chose in the book. Those charities are listed in the book. They are listed on my website CycleOfLives.org. Not only do you get inspired and get moved and grab a tool for your emotional tool belt but you also raise money for cancer care and research.
That is wonderful. Thank you so much, David. I appreciate you. You are doing remarkable things. Keep moving and keep going. Maybe one day, we will cross paths when I pass through your area. I would love to connect.
We will stay connected for sure, Whitney.
- David Richman
- It’s OK That You’re Not OK
- https://Bookshop.org/a/17878/9781632992994 – Cycle of Lives
About David Richman
David is an author, public speaker, and endurance athlete whose mission is to form more meaningful human connections through storytelling. His first book, Winning in the Middle of the Pack, discussed how to get more out of ourselves than ever imagined. With Cycle of Lives, David shares stories of people overcoming trauma and delves deeply into their emotional journeys with cancer.
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