In case you didn’t notice, I have a new book out.
The book is about the science of the life-changing epiphany and titled The Holy Sh!t Moment. I’ve been doing a lot of interviews for it and there are some recurring themes that come up. One is people saying they just can’t imagine becoming a person who exercises a lot or doesn’t drink alcohol or actually enjoys eating vegetables or launches their own business, goes back to school, stops hating their life …
It’s true that when we’re stuck in a certain situation or way of living, it can seem impossible to change it or even imagine that it is possible we can alter the path we’re on. It’s because it’s tied to the current identity we’re permitting to let reign. The issue is, that identity is often a false construct we’ve adopted to survive each day due to things such as societal and familial demands. Past trauma, life experiences, societal constructs of what people say we “should” be and do have a tendency to drown out the real self, the identity that is yearning to be set free.
No matter what the science reveals regarding sudden change, people have difficulty believing such change can happen for them. But the evidence is there. It’s why I also filled the book with so many anecdotes.
I included anecdotes because the life-changing epiphany isn’t something we often talk about. The reason being it’s usually a deeply personal experience. When it happens, we know something unusual and profound is taking place, and that we will never be the same.
It’s an emotional event, and we’re often told not to overly reveal our deepest feelings, so we’re reluctant to share these stories because we think it might be TMI. It’s oversharing. It’s baring our souls to the public. People get weird when you do that.
But something interesting happens when you start to ask people about life-changing moments, when you say you’re open to hearing it.
William Miller is a professor of psychology and co-founder of the behavior change technique motivational interviewing. He’s also the co-author of the book Quantum Change: When Epiphanies and Sudden Insights Transform Ordinary Lives. I interviewed Professor Miller for my book. He and his co-author interviewed 55 people about their life-changing epiphanies, and he told me of how most people had never told anyone before—or perhaps only one person—about their life-changing experience.
But being asked to tell it, well, that’s different.
Miller described the stories flowing forth like “a great unburdening.” They’d been waiting to tell someone about it.
When I first got the idea to write about the phenomenon, way back in the summer of 2015, I made a Facebook post asking readers if they’d every had a sudden epiphany or massive insight that changed their lives. The comment field exploded.
A few weeks ago I did an hour-long listener call in program on CBC Radio talking about my new book and we were overwhelmed with callers wanting to share their stories. Have a listen.
Professor Miller said as many as one-third of people have experienced such an event, and that’s without even trying to make it happen. They’re just occurring out of nowhere.
A question I’m often asked during interviews is “What is the one piece of advice you would give people to help them have such a transformative experience that improves their lives?”
My answer is simple: believe.
Believe it can happen to you. The evidence is ample and clear that this is something that happens. It happens all the time. And when you open yourself to the possibility and begin to think and behave in ways that make it more likely for sudden insight to strike and take you on a new and better path, then you stack the deck in your favor of it happening for you.
And so, in the interest in providing some more stories that might help convince you, I recently asked followers of my Facebook page to once again tell me tales of their life-changing moment. Here is a sample of people who experienced that lightning strike. I hope you find them inspiring.
I wrote stories often as a child, and being an introvert in an extrovert family, I had to pretend to go along with all things familial. To soothe myself, I made up stories to get through the anxiety. There were other factors that I will not go into, but know that I eventually learned how to deal, and as time went on, and bad decisions were made, my life went downhill fast. It was my fault.
Fast forward three children, second marriage and four states later, I was sitting in a hotel in Rock Springs, WY, my husband having accepted a job offer there, waiting to find an apartment. I received a phone call, my grandmother – the rock of our family and hero to all the grandkids (she had 68 of them) – was no longer accepting medical intervention. She’d fought and won against cancer for more than twenty years. She’d helped pioneer new ways to treat a rare type of bone marrow cancer, and she was tired. It was back, and she’d already outlived her siblings. She’d made it to 72, a rarity in our family. I called her when I found out, crying.
“Young lady, I didn’t raise you to cry when someone is tired. I raised you to fight. Why aren’t you writing those stories?”
We talked, I made excuses, I admitted I feared the work, I was scared of what people would think of my stories.
Nanny handed me the greatest epiphany of my life:
“Sugar, they are ignorant. They don’t know, and want to drag you down. You have words and stories to tell, lessons to teach. Don’t listen to them, don’t bother with their opinions. Write the damn book, and by golly, book number ten will be dedicated to me.”
She died three days later.
I’m writing book number ten under a pen name, have been a runner up in several prestigious global book awards in fiction genres, have hit bestseller lists.
My grandmother, a woman whose life story is worthy of a series (and one I’m going to write), showed me I needed to be true to who *I* was, what I could do, and who I could help. It was the moment in my life I turned it around.
Having just dropped out of paramedic school because I hated it, I found myself feeling lost and depressed. It was the first time I didn’t know what I was heading towards and I didn’t like that feeling. I was in my late 20’s and so I turned to the Career section in the Chapter’s bookstore for inspiration. I picked up a book about ‘finding the right career for you’. I opened it up to a random page and the first thing I saw was a question. It said: “What have you always wanted to do with your life?’. I answered “Be a doctor”. And Bam, that was it. It was a life changing moment. I felt physically struck by emotional electricity and I started to cry in the bookstore. For context, I had a slight foray into thinking I wanted to be a doctor about three years previous when I was in University. I saw a counsellor at the UofA and asked how to go about getting into medical school. They looked at my GPA – (7.4/9 and my major was English) and they said ‘Don’t bother, you’re not smart enough’. So I didn’t bother. But here, in that bookstore, I was faced with a newfound sense of purpose and I was emotional to the core. I called my mother on the phone (cause who else do you call at this moment) and said” I’ve had an epiphany”, my mother said “Oh, God, don’t tell me you’re going to be a nun?”. No, I reassured her, I wasn’t going to be a nun. I went back to University and I took undergraduate courses for a Biology degree at the age of 27. I graduated with a 3.9/4.0 GPA. What can I say? I was motivated. I got into Uof A med school. I had three children while in training and I am now working as a family physician in small town, Alberta. It was a hard road. There are still difficult times, but that is what happened to me and that is how I got to where I am.
I’ve been a paramedic for all but 2 years of my adult life. A few years ago a patient attacked me out of the blue and kicked me so hard he tore my PCL (for those not in the know, that’s a large ligament in the knee- injuries to it are very uncommon and requiring surgery is even more uncommon… I was an oddity for a lot of baby physiotherapists and surgeons to look at). He also gave me a concussion and several other bumps and bruises. I never got an explanation as to why and charges were never brought because they never are. I had surgery on my knee and thought everything would be ok. Not so much. After a few days, I noticed some slight respiratory symptoms then an awful pain in my back. I reported it to my surgeon and my physio who all told me it was a muscle. Nope! I had gotten pneumonia off the intubation for my surgery and it had gone undiagnosed for so long and was so bad my left lung collapsed and my chest filled with fluid. I finally went to the ER and was told I would be admitted. Over 12 days, I had a liter drained off my chest, they opened my chest to debride it, and I relied on oxygen, antibiotics, and old episodes of Law and Order SVU to survive the worst of it. I was told if I’d gone another day or so, I likely would have been septic and too confused to seek help. But wait, that’s not all…
In the course of all this, I was a candidate to take over the paramedic school my company had. I was a valedictorian alumni of the school, the former instructor wanted me to take it over, the sponsoring college wanted me, and I was truly the only qualified candidate. Our director, however, didn’t like to promote women- especially not smart women. He literally changed 4 rules, moved the school to a technical school to lower the standards for an instructor, and, even after I jumped through those hoops, he unilaterally decided I was unqualified for reasons we don’t know. Even with us proving it was a a sexist decision, no one would budge. He was eventually removed for all the complaints, but the damage was done and the position had been given to a man… who tanked the thing.
So there I was, drowning in medical bills because they argued the pneumonia wasn’t covered under worker’s comp, labeled permanently disabled, incapable of returning to the position I loved, stuck at a company I now resented in a position I never wanted, and every possible door that opened slammed shut. I felt helpless, angry, bitter, and trapped.
One night I sat on my kitchen floor sobbing like a child to my mom over the phone. At a loss as to how to help, she said “you know, your dad wanted to be a doctor. He was smart enough, but we had your sister and you instead. You’re definitely his kid so….” Holy shit. I was so lost in my own despair and self-pity, I totally forgot there were other ways to practice medicine. I looked into medical, nursing, and PA school and settled on PA school. I worked really hard to pay off my medical bills, went back to school and got my pre-requisites finished, and now I’m just waiting for a yes from a PA program. Finally seeing your own potential: there is nothing better!
Early 2016 (January) I was overweight, T2 diabetic, hypothyroid, high cholesterol…..but relatively happy. I knew I’d let my health and fitness lapse (completely) but really didn’t feel like doing anything about it.
I had a co-worker who was in AMAZING shape. Fit…absolutely “cut”….abs for days. My co-worker, who was always happy and friendly, suffered from depression and none of us (his co-workers) were aware. He killed himself Easter weekend 2016.
His life ended. He was in great shape, but he didn’t take care of his illness (for whatever reasons) and WE didn’t help him. I have kids, I didn’t want them to lose me. I didn’t want to die young. I didn’t want to die because I didn’t do anything about my problem(s).
I COULD control my diet, I COULD exercise more. The end of April 2016 I started walking in the morning. I started trying to eat less junk. I started run/walking. I started T25 (a Beachbody program). I continued into Insanity Max 30 (3 times), Insanity (OG), Insanity Asylum parts 1 and 2, Body Beast, and running (lots of running). I lost 70lbs by the end of 2016 and have kept it off.
2017 I ran two half marathons. 2018 I ran 3 half marathons (PR under 2 hours, 1:57:10)), 1 10-miler, and 1 5-miler. I ran a 5k in 22:41 two weeks ago. This year I’ll run my first full marathon (aiming for a sub 4-hour finish)
I wish my co-worker were still here.
I married very young (only “honourable ” way of moving out of my parents house). I married the first man I could convince to. My daughter was born on our 1 year anniversary, on my 19th birthday. He was a criminal; he spent time in jail, I was on welfare.
He made some money doing illegal things, and used it for his own fun.
After washing the hand towels I was using as diapers, (while watching him drink beer and polish his boat), I realized I stayed with him because I wanted to, not because I had to. I could do better for myself and my child without him. I left him a week later.
I got a job, now own my own home, and my daughter is a firefighter, and also helps the less fortunate in our community.
I loved smoking. Over a pack a day for over 20 years; closer to two packs the last few years. Part of the justification (delusion?) was that I convinced myself I had no ill health effects from it. I thought I felt as great as I did when i was 18 years old. Either always had an excuse for when I’d be out of breath going up a flight of stairs, or straight up ignore it as a problem when I was waking up in the middle of the night just to have a cigarette. Then at the end of May 2018, I was lying in bed, and I heard this raspy wheezy sound, it was enough to keep me awake. At first I thought it was the dog, or my wife had a cold. It was me. I wasn’t sick, didn’t feel congested or anything, just the natural sound of my breathing in a quiet room sounded like a death rattle. Something about the realization that it was my body making that ghastly sound, just trying to continue to do it’s job of keeping me alive, suddenly woke me up and got me thinking. I listened to my chest seemingly struggle to keep me going, and while i listened I thought of my school age kids, wife, and all the things I would miss if I continued to just ‘do as I’d always done’, puffing away like science isn’t real. I’d made half-assed attempts to quit (although at the time I was sure they were sincerely whole-assed); I tried the medications, I tried the lozenges, I tried the patches, I even read that book everyone always talks about. None Of it worked, I don’t think I wanted them to work. Smoking was my identity. This time though, I decided that smoking was not who I was anymore. I know it seems like only a short time (7 months), and I’ve read about relapses and how common they are, but I’m 100% sure I am done smoking … when I think of days/moments that completely changed me, this is the one.
December 2015 was it for me. At that time I weight 370lb and had been trying unsuccessfully to lose weight since my early teens. I was at the emergency department in the hospital and needed an MRI on an urgent basis. Outside my cubicle, I heard the doctors and nurses discussing how to manage my care. How to get me the tests I needed. When one of the nurses suggested calling the local large animal hospital to see if they could do the tests for me, a part of me died. Another, angrier part sat up and roared. That was the day I turned around. It’s taken years of work and a surgical intervention, and it will take a lifetime of commitment, but that day I was re-made.
I was 18 and just moved from rural Oklahoma to a “big” college town. I finally got the courage to put my pixie cut in a Fohawk and wear it to class. In the student union, an older gentleman stopped and pointed at me. “You are different. Take my class.” He wrote down the course number and it was a “Creativity in Entrepreneurship” course. Even though I was studying psychology and nervous as hell to go further into debt to take such a random course, I went back to my dorm that night and signed up for the next semester. That day changed my life. It was the first and second time I jumped into something without letting anxiety talk me out of it. I am so glad I did because it was my “ah ha” moment. I learned more about myself and ability in that one class than in all of undergrad and grad school combined. I learned how to publish. I learned how to market. I learned how to start with a new idea and finish with something amazing. Now at 27 I sit on the board of directors for a mental health facility where I also provide mental health therapy that aims to help others find their “ah ha” moment. Plus, I am no longer afraid to wear a fohawk.
When my first pregnancy miscarried and I was shocked by the lack of available emotional support, I knew this was something I had to fix. After having my 2 kids, I switched careers and became a Registered Psychotherapist with a specialty in infertility and pregnancy loss. I am now so grateful to have a career that is so fulfilling to me.
I was working in retail and in line to manage my own store. I was in a review meeting with my boss and we were discussing my career path when she commented my goals were in line with what hers were years ago. The comment jolted me into realizing that she hit that goal, and stagnated – and I was going to do the exact same thing. Managing my own store was the top of the line for me, and there I would stop. I realized in that moment that I would be unhappy for the rest of my life if my greatest career accomplishment was that. I would be working in a dead end job with no retirement fund, no advancement, etc, for the next 20+ years.
So, at the age of 40, I joined the Canadian Forces and went back to university and am working towards an economics degree with plans to get my masters shortly afterwards. And I couldn’t be more excited and pleased with my decision.
I was two months behind on rent. On a whim, I calculated how much i had spent in a year on cigarettes. It was pretty much exactly two months worth of rent. I decided I needed to quit smoking then and there.
In December of ’06, my husband had a skiing accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury. We had just bought our first house, and I was finishing my MBA. I was obese and getting warnings from my doc about high blood pressure. Sitting in the hospital with my husband, I realized that it was now all on me to support us AND take care of all the house and property maintenance. In order to do that, I had to get strong and healthy. I joined a gym, hired a trainer, and over the next 3 years lost 90 pounds.
It was 2014 and I had been working at a local retail store for six years, since I was 18. I was comfortable and good at my job, but knew I needed to do something more. That February I watched the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate, and I felt the rush of endorphins I get when I learn about anything Science related, but especially evolution. That was the wake-up call; I was going to go back to school even if just to try it out. This was a completely foreign concept to me, as my parents hadn’t graduated high school let alone taken any higher education classes, but I enrolled in my local community college that week. It was incredibly daunting, I was a 24 year old taking classes for the first time since high school, but I was good at it. I plan to graduate next year from a local University with my Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry. It’s taken me longer than four years, and there have been bumps and confidence issues along the way, but I am proud of myself for taking that initiative and doing something so out of my comfort zone.
On Christmas Day 2011, I told my husband that I wanted to talk to him about a huge financial decision he had made months earlier without consulting me first that I was still really upset about. During that conversation, he told me that I had no right to be upset because he earned the money so it was his to spend as he wanted, that we weren’t partners, that he refused to apologize or say it wouldn’t happen again, and that he wasn’t responsible for my happiness. I felt unloved, disrespected, hurt and angry. I had the epiphany that this was no longer the man I fell in love with. I made the decision that if things weren’t better by the time my youngest finished high school, I would leave and find my own happiness. That finally happened this past August. There were a lot of other reasons, but that was the final straw. It hasn’t been easy, but no regrets. You only live once and it’s not for all that long!
Four years ago, my life was a mess. I was incredibly unstable and couldn’t keep a job, friends, or even a basic sense of self for very long. One day I realized that I wasn’t going to make it out of 2015 alive unless I immediately confronted my mental health problems, and I made an appointment to see a therapist.
I went into therapy at first expecting to spend a few sessions focusing on my suicidal thoughts and leave ‘cured’, but fortunately my therapist and psychiatrist saw through my bullshit. They diagnosed me with Borderline Personality Disorder and it is the best thing that has ever happened to me.
With a clear diagnosis I was able to address my problems head on and I made the decision to do so every single day. I trained myself to rethink every potentially harmful action and react healthily to all kinds of stressors. Now, after nearly four whole years of CBT and DBT therapy, I’m the healthiest and most stable I’ve ever been. I have a job, healthy friendships, and a clear path forward. None of this could have happened if I hadn’t realized four years ago that my only choice was to swallow my pride and get the treatment I needed.
I have a fractured L5 vertebrae. It happened as a kid and has been a significant physical hindrance to me for 35+ years, but only because I would never follow through with the physical therapy and exercise that always followed the numerous short, debilitating flare-ups that would happen a couple times every year.
In early 2016 I had another flare-up, but this time it was different. My physical mobility vanished in an instant and the pain was beyond any of the severe pain I had experienced for years from this condition. I was essentially unable to stand, let alone walk, for nearly two weeks. I then, barely, walked with a cane for two months after that. My doc told me I was approaching a point where I could need spinal fusion surgery. I was 48 years old at that time. The thing, as explained to me by the doc, was that when you fuse two vertebrae together, it’s typical that eventually you will have to fuse more. Also, there are NO guarantees that this will get rid of the pain.
The idea of having spinal surgery, limiting my mobility and potentially still having the pain was a definite moment of clarity for me.
I told the doc I wanted to try PT, exercise, etc to see if I could get better.
He set me up with a cortisone epidural to knock the pain down far enough to start PT, which I did in Spring 2016. I was able to start at the gym in Summer that year and I haven’t looked back since.
I have strength trained 4 days a week for 2.5 years now.
When I started I struggled with body weight squats and deadlifts.
As of right now, I am low-bar squatting 245 and hexbar deadlifting 330!
The best part is that I haven’t had a flare-up of back pain in nearly 3 years and I am in the best shape of my life, at 50 years old.
Long story short, side effects of an antibiotic made me think I was having a heart attack, sitting in the ER with my wife and newborn son made me make some serious life changes. Went to my family doctor the next week and got on a medically supervised weight loss program. 6 years later I’ve completed three half marathon races and multiple metric century bike races. Still have a ways to go, but I haven’t looked back at the years of poor eating and drinking.
A little over a year and a half ago I was going through a pretty deep depression. I didn’t really latch on to a reason why until someone brought it up. My 12 year old was born with very complex medical needs. We see less clinics, we receive less intervention therapies. I was no longer in a mode geared towards saving him. He was going to decide himself how the subsequent years were going to go. It’s a time now just to live life and make family memories. I had forgotten who I was in all the mix and this friend told me I needed to find out who I was again. It was a time to try new things and be bold. To see what sticks. Best decision I ever made for myself. Not all the experiences I gave myself made sense, some were on a whim. But I did them to find me. I’m really enjoying this person who’s emerging; she’s kind of a badass. Right now I find meaning in time with my amazing kid and husband. I’m more immersed in my artistic side than I’ve ever been. I’m helping families get interested in collaborating in research. I spoke at the freaking United Nations last year. I might not be able to reconcile with all that’s happened to my family but it’s fuel to make my mark on the world with an energetic fire I never knew I had.
I got into veterinary school, after my diagnosis of autoimmune arthritis. My medications took my appetite for everything (life, love, food) so I knew I had to do something to stay alive. I started lifting weights and found that it felt good. It has taken me another 4 years to start lifting regularly, but that moment sparked something in me that persists to this day. Lifting makes me feel like a person, not a disease. I feel strong and capable instead of weak and powerless. I couldn’t do it without the medication, but it also gives me something that the meds never could: a sense of power within myself. I hope that I never have to give it up because it has been so good to feel powerful in the face of incurable disease.
November 2014. After my wife’s 20 year high school reunion we returned home and she promptly fell asleep. I hadn’t drank any alcohol in about a month and had abstained that night, until we got home. After she fell asleep I drank 2 bottles of champagne and became agitated when there was no more alcohol in the house. This had been my experience pretty much since I began drinking at 16. I never got withdrawals if I didn’t drink, but if I started drinking I drank until I passed out. There was no moderation at all.
So I’m sitting there, probably about 2AM, my family asleep, and I thought, “what the fuck am I doing?” Alcohol no longer provided me any kind of new, fun experience. I had been drinking in excess fairly consistently for about 20 years and it occurred to me that it was time to hang it up. For me, there was no upside at all. I likened it to standing in traffic. So, I stopped. Never had any urge or desire to drink again.
When I had my first panic attack. Just before Christmas 2015. I knew then I could not beat my mental health by will power alone. I sought out therapy and started meds, began working out again (which has been the struggle always…consistEncy). So, yeah, doing much better and taking care of me.
So during Thanksgiving of 2014 I was “napping,” which was code for hiding and resting from overeating. And I head my family in the next room working on a project and having fun. And i thought to myself “Goddamnit Val, somehow all of those people can eat, be healthy, and generally have a good time. It’s high time you got your ass up and started giving a shit about your life.”
So I did. At first, I had zero idea what to do or how to do it, but then little by little I took small steps and today, I’m proud to say that I’m down almost 70 pounds! (More if you count the extra pounds I had from my absolute heaviest)
My mom was diagnosed with lung cancer and we were initially told that it was inoperable. My world kind of crashed, I was paralyzed with both fear and sadness. I sort of took for granted that she’d just always be there and then smacked in the face that none of us are here forever. My family mobilized to get her a second opinion. The second surgeon said he would operate. After a long surgery, chemo, six months on oxygen, the cancer was gone. That was 8 years ago. She got a second chance and with her second chance came a huge awakening for me. I realized I had been somewhat numbed to life and had lost myself in my kids, in my marriage. It made me realize that I needed to get myself together, find myself again, figure out what I wanted for myself. That led to going to the gym, signing up for a mudrun, losing 50lbs, becoming an instructor, experiences that I had wanted that I had forgotten I wanted…I found purpose again, outside of my family bubble. I started to remember that I am good at things, lots of things. I got stronger from the outside in and then the inside out. I found out that I have a lot to contribute, in a lot of areas. I guess I’m the same person at the core, but people who have known me through say I transformed and blossomed in many ways. I’m sorry it took almost losing someone I love dearly to wake up but grateful that I did wake up, some people never do.
I was working in FL, and I was exhausted. Long hours, physical fatigue, feeling depressed. I had just gotten home from the 7th consecutive 18-20 hour workday. I hadn’t taken the mail out of the box for a couple of days, so I figured I needed to get it. There was a nasty note from the homeowner’s association, telling me that there was mildew on my mailbox and I had 24 hours to clean it off or I’d be fined. So, as I stood outside at 2am, spraying my mailbox with bleach to treat mildew I hadn’t seen because I hadn’t seen my mailbox in daylight for a week, I realized I needed to make a major change to improve my quality of life. Then I went inside, ate a microwaved meal over the sink, and grabbed 3 hours of sleeP before I had to go back in to work. That half-conscious realization started me on a completely different career path.
The first time someone addressed an envelope to me using my new, self-chosen last name was magical. It was only then that I truly believed I was in control of my identity. I get to decide who I am now, not a man. I never liked my maiden name, so I kept my married name when I divorced. It was really important to me to get married again, so I eventually did. Sadly, I married a man who was not up to the task of marriage. I happily took his last name, which I now can’t stand to look at. I took several months to decide what to do about it, and ultimately I decided that moving on with a fourth and permanent last name of my own choosing would be worth the initial hassle. So I chose my great grandmother’s maiden name, because it sounds badass. Totally worth it. Because now I’m a badass who will never be defined by a man again.
Thanks for reading all the way to the end. Perhaps I can interest you in checking out my next book, titled The Holy Sh!t Moment, about the science behind the life-changing epiphany. Learn more about it here.
James S. Fell, MA, MBA, has bylines in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, the Guardian, TIME Magazine, and many other publications. His blog has millions of readers and he is the author of two books: The Holy Sh!t Moment: How Lasting Change Can Happen in an Instant (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), and Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind (Random House Canada, 2014). Order them here.