Debbie Ford talks with Oprah on Feb. 19's Super Soul Sunday (11 a.m. Sundays on OWN Network)
Her doctor’s grim diagnosis was one that nobody ever wants to year – the big “C” – cancer. Stunned, shaken, the co-author of The Shadow Effect, written with Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson, says she didn’t understand – and became furious. After all, she’s devoted her life to helping others.
“It is my mission day after day to find new ways to inspire others to go on this lifelong journey to clean up their past, to forgive themselves for their flaws and shortcomings, to make peace with their humanity and allow themselves to be guided by a power greater than themselves,” she says.
“So, yes, I was mad at God because of the cancer diagnosis. I thought I should have been protected because of the work I do in the world.”
Ford is a New York Times bestselling author who has penned a number of books, including The Dark Side of the Light Chasers, The 21-Day Consciousness Cleanse, The Right Questions and The Best Year of Your Life.
She teaches courses on forgiveness and spirituality. She’s the sort of mom who was delighted when her son, Beau, startled everyone by announcing he was giving every cent of whatever money that friends and family might give for his bar mitzvah to help build a school in a small village inUganda.
Beau and mom, Debbie Ford
She jumped into his project, helping him make a video, which she
posted on her website – resulting in the then-13-year-old raising $80,000, enough to build not one, but two schools.
She takes a certain motherly pride that the idea caught on with some of Beau’s friends deciding their celebrations —not only bar mitzvahs but also regular birthday parties — should mean more than simply accumulating gifts. They, too, donated their gifts for similar projects.
“Congruence, integration, responsibility and integrity are the values that I stand for,” she says as she puzzles with why God would allow her to have cancer. “Within ourselves, there are voices that provide us with all the answers that we need to heal our deepest wounds, to transcend our limitations, to overcome our obstacles or challenges, and to see where our soul is longing to go. Training people to go beyond their minds for direction in order to connect with these voices within is at the core of everything I teach.”
So, how could God allow somebody as nice as her to come down with cancer?
“I was angry at God because I felt betrayed,” she admits. “I always felt like if I lived in true authentic self-expression and lived in service and in support of many other people, I would be exempt from having to deal with yet another crisis in my life. I was wrong.”
She revealed the diagnosis publicly for the first time, talking about it to Oprah Winfrey on “Super Soul Sunday” last Sunday.
“For the last year and a half,” she admitted candidly, “I have been engaged in a fierce battle for my health and well-being. I am not technically in remission but I am what is considered ‘stable disease,’ which means that my tumors have not grown or advanced in the last year.”
Apparently she’s had it for almost 11 years, according to her doctor, but only in the last year or so has she been feeling the worst effects.
A few of Debbie Ford's books
“I am trying a number of targeted therapy drugs — not chemotherapy — aimed at shrinking the tumors. There aren’t many drugs for this
because it’s such a rare form of cancer but every day they are testing new drugs and I trust that one will be proven to not just shrink the tumors but to eliminate them.”
What has such a horrific experience taught her?
“None of us are immune to life’s challenges,” she says. “We all have them. They show up in different forms. Sometimes it happens in our careers, our relationships or getting involved with the wrong people. Instead of using these experiences to beat ourselves up, we have the opportunity to open our hearts and be compassionate with ourselves.”
So, how did she deal with her anger at the Almighty?
“I have been teaching for 18 years that when you are angry, you must feel the emotion, take an action and do a forgiveness process not just for you but for whoever you perceive as the victimizer as well. So in the case of my anger against God, I wrote a letter to God, feeling so powerless and weak, having felt like I held up my end of the deal. After writing the letter, which really gave the spirit within a strong reprimand, I was able to start looking for the divine order in what I was going to go through.
“I looked for the gifts of this experience.
“And of course as soon as I remembered that I had to accept the things I cannot change and change the things I could, I realized that my work right now was to raise my own consciousness so I could share my experience with others.
“Then instead of feeling victimized by God, I felt blessed by God.”
Is she reconciled now with God?
“I am,” she says simply.
More Debbie Ford books
A deeply spiritual woman, she has experienced Him before, she says:
“I write poignantly about my experience in my book The 21-Day
Here’s an excerpt:
“I was in my fourth drug-treatment center, and it was day ten of a twenty-eight- day program. By this time, I had suffered for over fifteen years with drug addiction and the underlying insecurities and self- loathing that birthed this painful pattern of behavior.
“I had been in and out of treatment centers before and could never seem to make it all the way through. It was always around the ten-day mark that I began to feel strong, willful, and convinced that I “had it.” I don’t know what I thought I had, but the ache that led me into the treatment center would fade away and be replaced by a desperate desire to get the hell out of there.
“But on this particular day, I was keenly aware of where my urge to escape would take me. It was no mystery, because it had happened so many times before. I would finagle my way out of the treatment-center door, claiming I was healed, had found enlightenment, and was now freed from my addiction. And then either hours, days, or weeks later I would be back in the same vicious cycle of filling my small body with drugs, chasing a feel-good moment, and then sinking back down into the depths of hell and hopelessness.
“On this particular morning I was finally able to see where the path of running away would lead me. And I knew without the shadow of a doubt that I couldn’t do it one more time. I knew that if I ran away, I would either find myself back in the same place I was in or, worse, never make it back here alive. But even with this awareness, the urge to escape continued to well up inside of me, and the voices in my head became louder and louder: ‘Run, Debbie, run! Get out of here! You’re not one of them. You don’t need this. You don’t need these people. You can do it alone! You’re better than them.’
“I excused myself from the group-therapy session I was attending and proceeded down the dark, dingy corridor that led to the bathroom. I opened the door to the bathroom and was appalled by the smell of dried urine. The bathroom was a disgusting place.
Debbie Ford today
“The stench was almost more than I could bear. The tiled floor and the grout that held the tiles together, which probably started out gray,
were now black with mold. And even though I’m a bit of a clean freak, I forced myself into the room because at this point I was so filled with toxic emotions and so desperate for help that I decided to do the unthinkable: I got down on the floor on my hands and knees in a prayer position and began to pray.
“I asked God — or my higher power, as they called it — to come to me, to help me, to rescue me from my pain and my own self-destruction. My body was trembling, and tears were rolling down my cheeks. I was desperate for help, for understanding, and for salvation. And although I had attended synagogue all my life, attended many 12-Step meetings, and heard all types of people talk about God, for me God was nothing more than a man in the sky, a concept in my mind that brought me neither comfort, peace of mind, nor faith. The actual experience of God, spirit, or divine consciousness did not exist for me.
“So for a few minutes, I listened to the ranting in my head about how stupid this was, how disgusted I was to be here, and how embarrassed I felt begging some power I didn’t even believe in to help me. I felt angry at God, at my parents, and at all those who had hurt me, believing that if it weren’t for all of them I wouldn’t be here, literally experiencing an all-time low.
“I tried to convince myself that I could get up and leave, but my fear that I would die if I ran away had led me here, and now it urged me to stay. There, on my hands and knees, not knowing what else to do, I began reciting the Serenity Prayer, which I had recently learned: God, grant me the serenity To accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference. I focused on each phrase, because I was desperate for a moment of inner peace. More than anything in the world, I just wanted a few minutes of quiet inside my noisy mind.
“I whispered the words just loud enough so I could hear them over and over and over again: “God, grant me courage to change.” I wanted to change; I needed to change, or I was going to kill myself. I was begging and crying hysterically. With my head in my hands, I sobbed uncontrollably, rocking my body from side to side, trying to soothe my broken heart, until suddenly I realized that something inside of me had shifted: a calm had come over me, a silence that was palpable.
“In asking God, this higher power, to enter my awareness, something inside of me had opened up and relaxed. Slowly, the stress in my body and the screaming voice in my mind subsided, and peace enveloped my entire being. Even the filthy, disgusting bathroom floor didn’t look so bad. There was a release, a letting go, a clarity, an expansiveness, but most important, there was some hope. My God, I had hope. Just what my soul needed most.
“I share this experience on the bathroom floor of the West Palm
Beach Institute because it was the defining moment when I discovered that a power greater than the self that I knew existed. It was in this moment that I began to heal and transform my inner world and form a deep, loving relationship with the power that I now know as God. It was my day, my miracle, my choice point. And every day for the next eighteen days, I made the choice to find my way back into that bathroom, which had become my holy sanctuary — a place where I could reconnect with the all-loving presence that had delivered me access to the higher aspect of myself and this inner resource that could shift a moment of pain to a moment of awakening.
“Through this daily ritual of prayer, I found the strength to finally make it through all twenty-eight days of treatment. On one warmFloridaday nearly twenty-six years ago, I walked out of my last treatment center, knowing that I had tapped into a power and a resource that could remove obstacles, change people’s perceptions of the world and their lives, and lead me to a future I couldn’t even fathom. That day, I knew with every fiber of my being that I needed to further explore, understand, and, more important, devote my life to finding and knowing God.”
Today, she’s continuing in her work – even though the cancer battle occasionally slows her down. Among the messages she wants to proclaim is that we must confront the “dark shadows” of our past failures, humiliations, trauma — or worse:
Tossing a coin into Rome's Trevi Fountain; speaking at a Miami conference
“If we do not confront the past, we inevitably carry it around with us, dragging it into the present and allowing it to set the course for the future. We try to hide our beliefs about who we are, beliefs formed in our past (‘I’m phony,’ ‘I’m stupid,’ ‘I’m worthless,’ ‘I’m unlovable’) which I call ‘Shadow Beliefs.’
“But we seek out experiences that will validate what we believe to be
true about ourselves. When we confront the past and integrate its wisdom, we don’t have to keep repeating the experiences or learning the same lesson over and over in this lifetime.
“Right now, when we hold on to any pain from our past, we look through those lenses, through that set of eyes. When we confront the past, we start to see out of new eyes, eyes of possibility and of freedom.
“I’ve been working with the shadow for 15 years and I can assure you that there is nothing ‘truly terrible’ hidden in the human shadow. The human shadow comes bearing great gifts. It is the fear of the human shadow that keeps it suppressed and hidden and allows it to exert power and control over our lives.
“Bt I’ve never seen the human shadow, when faced and embraced, do anything horrible to anybody. I’ve only ever seen it help people.”
Are there times when it’s best to leave such shadows alone? To move on?
“No,” she says. ”If I have learned one thing working with the shadow all these years, it is ‘What we can’t be with won’t let us be.’ When the shadow is suppressed and ignored, it builds up power and strength, wreaking havoc in our lives. But when we are willing to face the shadow and embrace it by finding its gifts, we are granted the ability to be our most gracious authentic selves and make the best choices.”
Why has she suffered silently with her cancer? Why hasn’t she gone public before?
Working on a project with Beau
“I didn’t want to involve everybody in my personal life,” she admits. “People come to me as a teacher to support them and they would love nothing more than to take the focus off themselves by focusing on me and my needs.
“But they need to work on their own, so I didn’t think it was appropriate to share this information.
“Also, I didn’t want the projections that happen when you tell people news like I share with Oprah. People say, ‘I’m sorry,’ But I would ask ‘Why are you sorry? This could be the greatest thing that ever happened to me.’”
Why reveal it now?
“It’s time,” she says. “A year and a half ago, I knew I needed to take
the year off to rest. I told my assistant ‘Don’t ask me to do any radio or any TV or any print unless Oprah calls.’
“So when Oprah called, I answered because I trust Oprah and because there is no one else in the world I’d trust more to have this conversation with.
“I feel ready because as I wrote in my new book Courage, I believe all of my life experiences are here ultimately not just to support the evolution of my own soul but to support and serve others.”