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Defining who we are

One day you're walking up hills, enjoying mountain views and looking forward to the vacation that's due after another action-packed year of teaching. The next day your whole world has changed-up is down, right is wrong and what seemed to make all the sense in the universe is suddenly meaningless.

Welcome to Rhonda Lee's life-make that Rhonda Lee's new life.

Before Rhonda suffered a heart attack on the last day of the 2004-05 school year, she was an overextended, type A single mom. No need for help here, thank you very much. I can manage just fine on my own.

Well, what Rhonda discovered when she faced a life-threatening event was that she needed help-and she needed to learn how to accept it. Not so easy for a woman whose attitude was one of fierce self-reliance. "Here's the deal," says the fit, 58-year-old Ashland resident who teaches English at North Medford High School. "I was very physical; I walked a lot and was doing things that I thought were taking care of myself. That's part of the surprise of the heart attack-I felt sideswiped, sucker punched."

It wasn't until a cadre of friends and family forced their help upon her during an extended recovery that Rhonda began to sense a life-changing potential from the whole experience. "I certainly don't feel like a victim because of the heart attack," she says now. "I feel it was a gift that was given to me and that there's a purpose for all of this."

In the eight months since her heart attack, Rhonda has faced and exorcised several personal demons, leaving her stronger than ever-stronger because she has learned the power of love. "We think we know how big love is. We love our families, our children, and our friends. But we don't really know it until it's visited upon you when you don't expect it," says Rhonda, eyes sparkling and hands moving about enthusiastically as she instinctively smoothes her hair and touches her heart. "I had to be confronted with it. I was weak, I couldn't breathe, I was losing control, I was terrified. Not being able to take care of myself was my worst nightmare come true. But the enormity of the love that came my way-when my colleagues gave me some of their sick leave so I could take a semester off, when my neighbors cheered as I took my first five-minute walk-smacked me in the face and made me realize I had to get through my fear."

Physical needs soon became the least of Rhonda's post-heart attack issues. Although she consented to a regime of medications that ended up causing her some health problems, her biggest challenge was a clinical depression that laid her flat for several months. Like the heart attack itself, this foray into the "emotional abyss" came as a surprise to the otherwise top-of-the-morning-to-you woman. Luckily, Rhonda knew enough about depression to recognize her symptoms and, taking advantage of her newly found ability to ask for help, she reached out to a therapist.

"He reminded me that I had good reason to be depressed and kept assuring me that this state of mind wasn't permanent," remembers Rhonda. She soon discovered she was slogging through the stages of grief-mourning her passing youth, her former good health and the way things had always been. "I realized that my life as I thought I knew it was gone," she says. "And one day, I decided I wanted a better life, one that's even healthier."

What took the place of Rhonda's grief? It was a series of epiphanies that revealed a much more self-fulfilling approach to life. First, Rhonda learned to get quiet, sit in her depression and figure out what was wrong. "In that abyss I had to start asking myself why I was working so hard," she says in a matter-of-fact voice that's still just a little tinged with wonder at her discovery. "When I peeled away the layers, I didn't like the answer-I was doing it for the acknowledgement. My ego and my pride were all tied up in it. What's funny about this is that's not at all how I saw myself-I had always seen myself as altruistic."

Ka-boom! All of sudden, Rhonda knew what the lesson was. "I define who I am," she declares. "I'm not defined by outside influences."

Once she embraced the idea that she controlled how she felt about herself, Rhonda was able to move through the depression into a lighter, brighter and more self-responsive lifestyle. Presenting this new face to the world has paid off a thousand-fold. "I find myself slowing down and I'm learning to identify what I need and then to ask for it," Rhonda says with obvious relief. "And asking for help is no longer risky business for me."

And it's not just Rhonda who has benefited from her months of multiple "Aha!" moments. An entire network of loved ones has never felt closer or more needed. Indeed, the whole Rogue Valley is basking in this remarkable woman's journey, thanks to her willingness to share. "This was a gift and I've been asked to do something with it-to talk about it," says Rhonda. "Don't wait till you're 58 or have a heart event. We have the right to ask for what we need and want. We might not always get it, but we need to practice that all the time."

As Rhonda says, it requires a tremendous presence to stay healthy and honest with ourselves. And it is only then that we can be healthy and honest with others.

In the midst of a post-heart attack depression, Ashland resident Rhonda Lee found herself reaching for simple activities-activities that didn't tax her mind and left her feeling calm and quiet. To her surprise, a childhood favorite became her best friend for a few months.

"I rediscovered coloring, which was very healing during my rehabilitation," Rhonda says, showing off books full of brightly rendered Victorian costumes, intricately decorated stained glass windows and detailed fairies. "It was a really wonderful mindless and soothing thing that gave me a lot of options without a lot of hard decisions."

Inspired by a coloring book and crayons she'd stashed in a cabinet for a friend's child, Rhonda quickly graduated to more sophisticated material and markers. "I did some serious coloring-think sitting on the couch for hours with tongue out the side of the mouth and brows furrowed," says Rhonda with a giggle. "I tell people that and they look at me and say they wish they would've done the same thing."

Reading and walking rounded out Rhonda's rehab schedule. Looking back, she figures she pored through over fifty books during her six-month recovery. "And even though there were days I was so depressed I didn't think I could make myself move, I walked."

What started out as five minutes the first day home from the hospital grew to seven minutes, then ten and now tops out at a daily hour and a half hike.

And thanks to an unexpected addition to her homespun therapy, Rhonda doesn't have to walk alone. On a trip to San Francisco, she met a soft little white poodle named Prince. "He's been a wonderful companion," she says.

Defining who we are