There’s a good reason why true stories of personal discovery and triumph are so popular in books, in movies and on TV. It’s because the idea of uncovering who you really are and what you were meant to do speaks to each of us on a very basic level. The desire to achieve this seemingly elusive goal is intrinsic to us as human beings. So it’s inspiring and motivating to read about or watch the story of someone who has been able to do what we all hope to do. And if you could use a little encouragement today to examine your own life and find your calling, here are five stories from fellow Atlantans that just might embolden you to become your best self.
The Best of Both Worlds
Carrie Heller's curriculum vitae might make you do a double take. In bold letters at the top, it says “Licensed Clinical Social Worker.” One line below that, it also says “Trapeze/Aerial Dance Artist.” Heller didn’t put both titles there because she can’t decide what it is she wants to do. It’s because she knows exactly what she wants to do.
Founder of the Circus Arts Institute, Heller has managed to take her professional and personal passions and meld them together into a thriving vocation. “I often think about the odd set of circumstances that brought me to this place,” she muses about the journey that has allowed her to offer experiential therapy sessions for children, teens and adults that use circus-arts equipment—from the low trapeze to the circus rings—as a restorative and reparative tool. For little ones, she uses the circus equipment as play therapy, helping them overcome attention difficulties, behavioral and emotional issues, physical challenges and more. With adults, she has found that the fitness benefits of using the equipment are just as powerful as the psychological ones.
“I stumbled upon the opportunity really,” Heller says. “I was doing two things that I loved and was enjoying them both. Then, all of a sudden, it just clicked in my head.”
Since the age of 8, when her parents brought her to the Florida State University Flying High Circus summer camp, Heller had been captivated by the circus arts. “I loved physically challenging things as a kid,” she recalls. The camp was such a hit with her that she ended up becoming a junior counselor at 14 and eventually the main teacher for the program a few years later. When the camp was sold, the owners let her take as much circus equipment as she could fit in her trunk so she would be able to keep up with her hobby. She put the equipment in storage and headed off to the University of Florida to pursue both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in psychotherapy—something she had known she wanted to do since she was a teenager. Little did she realize that her favorite pastime and new profession one day would intersect.
While working in Atlanta as a therapist in the early 1990s, Heller hung her trapeze at the New Moves Yoga Studio in Little Five Points and taught a circus-arts class on the side in exchange for her personal time there. She also started bringing certain elements of the circus arts, such as juggling scarves, into her therapy sessions with children. “I noticed that the children liked to juggle and later learned that juggling is actually a brain-balancing activity—it helps children with focusing,” she says. Eventually, after going home and writing about her observations in both environments, she realized that she was on to something. “It’s magical. [The circus arts] helps kids physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s therapeutic, and it’s really for everyone,” she notes.
In 2006, Heller founded the Circus Arts Institute and opened a 1,300-square-foot studio near Candler Park, where she offers a variety of circus-arts therapy sessions for individuals and families, as well as circus-arts fitness classes. She’s even written a manual and traveled the country teaching others how to apply the circus arts to their practices, often working with the prestigious Cirque Su Monde: A Cirque Du Soleil outreach program. And she couldn’t be happier about where she has found herself both personally and professionally. “I feel very blessed in my life to be able to do two things that I really love. To be able to combine the two feels like a great gift,” she says. “It’s important to get an education and think about what you want to do, but also pay attention to what your passions are. I love my work, and I get satisfaction from people feeling that they’ve been helped."
Something Lost, Something Gained
When Ginger Rock's boyfriend looks at the pictures from their whitewater rafting trip to West Virginia last year, where they shot the rapids on a Class 3 river, he can’t help but laugh. In every photo, Rock has a huge smiled plastered on her face. “It’s because I’m so excited that it’s just bubbling out of me,” she observes. “I never got to do these types of things before. I have a new life, and I’m almost 50!”
The reason Rock couldn’t have exciting adventures before is simple. Nine years ago, she weighed 400 pounds. Overweight since the age of 6, she had been on nearly every kind of diet, starting her weight-loss journey at age 11. Over the years, she gained and lost 100 pounds several times, following everything from low-fat to low-carb diets. But without fail, 6 months after losing the pounds, she would put them right back on. “With any diet I was on, I was always starving,” she recounts. “I didn’t have a full switch. Many obese people don’t. So I decided to educate myself and went to a support group seminar about gastric bypass surgery.”
After a lot of praying and soul searching, she decided to have the surgery in March of 2000. With a smaller stomach, she could only eat 3-4 ounces at a time immediately following the procedure. But with the understanding that the surgery was not a “magic bullet,” she didn’t depend on it alone to make the weight come off—she also decided to change all of her health-related habits. “I was addicted to sugar and carbs. When I had the surgery, I said to myself, ‘I’m never going to eat those things again,’” Rock reveals. Nine years later, she has made good on her word, completely giving up bread, rice, sweets and more. She’ll cook those items for others, but they won’t cross her lips. And she learned something—she no longer craves them.
Now, at a fit 170 pounds, what Rock does crave is physical activity. She began by walking in her backyard pool for months after the surgery. Now, she has taken her fitness level to unbelievable heights, working with a personal trainer and going to the gym regularly. She often can be seen walking along Alpharetta Highway, ear buds pumping music into her ears as she pushes her way up hills she never thought she’d be able to traverse. “I just really love exercising now—I never thought I could say that,” she says. “But life is so good in this body. I wasted so many years being 400 pounds.”
And she doesn’t want anyone else to waste time like she did. That’s why her job as Bariatric Program Assistant at North Fulton Regional Hospital, which she held proudly until October of last year and put her in direct contact with patients considering and having gastric-bypass surgery, was so important to her. “Every day I got to share with people and help them. I put my arm around them. I held their hand. If they cried, I cried with them,” says Rock, who also writes a blog and has started offering her services as a life coach. “I just know this type of work is my calling. And if I can maintain my weight loss and maybe in some way inspire somebody to do the same, then that’s the best thing I can do.”
Of course, there are a few things the new “adrenaline junkie” does want to do for herself. First on the list is zip lining. Then she plans to take a tandem skydiving jump. She’s also back in college pursuing a degree as a registered nurse. Whatever she ends up doing, she knows she’s earned it through hard work and perseverance. “Wherever you are, you have to learn to love you, and it took me a really long time to love me, but I do now. I know I am worthy. I know I am of value,” Rock says. “In middle school, I remember praying to God, ‘Can you please just let me have long blond hair and be athletic?’ God answers our prayers. Not on our time, but on his time—when he thinks that we’re ready for it. And he didn’t think I was ready for it until I was in my 40s. But now I am different. I’m outgoing. I’m confident. I can walk into a room and feel good about myself."
Rising Like a Phoenix
At Age 24, Trish Wilkinson was the picture of success. Happily married with two small children, working in a management position at a Fortune 500 company, enjoying a leadership position at her church while pursuing ordination, finding time to be room mother for her kids—it was a busy but fulfilling life. So the Columbus resident felt blindsided when she began having infrequent yet traumatic episodes of unexplained fear, complete with sweating, a pounding heart, tightness in the chest, vomiting and involuntary muscle spasms. After the episodes became more frequent and severe, she sought counsel from her family physician and was diagnosed with clinical depression with anxiety disorder—two conditions that often go hand-in-hand. And the first thing she did with the prescriptions her doctor gave her was rip them to pieces.
“I had such a huge misconception about depression,” Wilkinson recalls. “If I had followed the diagnosis of my doctor and taken care of myself, it would not have escalated to such acute clinical depression.”
By the time she was 30, she was in the throes of a complete breakdown. She could not keep food down. Her weight plummeted to 87 pounds. She could barely communicate, finding it difficult to speak. “I wasn’t functional at that point,” she says. “My body had completely revolted on itself, and very basic functions were overwhelming to me.”
With the support of her husband and children, she took a 3-month sabbatical in Fort Lauderdale, taking refuge at her parents’ home. She sought the psychiatric care she needed and made a commitment to do everything in her power to be restored to her family. She learned how to engage in positive thinking and self-talk. She began exercising and resting adequately. And she stopped isolating herself from the people who could help her. “I began to look inward and make some good, positive decisions for myself,” she explains. She soon realized that she had placed so much pressure on herself as a woman to have the perfect life that she had neglected her health and burned herself out. “I was equating my significance in life by how I measured up with society’s demands. And anytime we do that, we’re going on a scary journey.”
After returning to her husband and children, and taking a full 6 months to recover, Wilkinson had faced and overcome all of the negative stigmas associated with depression and anxiety. From being willing to take medication to manage a physical chemical imbalance to learning how to set boundaries and realistic goals for herself, she slowly rose from the depths of despair to create a new version of herself. She went back to work part-time and earned a bachelor’s degree in theology and biblical counseling from Luther Rice University in Atlanta. She also returned to the ministry and wrote a book, Bound No More, Free to Soar: A True Story of a Woman’s Victory Over Depression and Anxiety Disorder, all with the goal of sharing her story and the lessons she learned so she can help other women who are facing the same struggle she prevailed over. Now 42 and happily married for 22 years, Wilkinson has found the balance that she lacked during that painful time in her life, as well as a purpose that makes her feel complete.
“I feel like I’m pursuing my destiny,” she observes. “I feel like I’ve turned my negative into a positive, and I truly feel like I’m doing what I was created to do. We all have challenges—they may all be packaged differently—but there is not a life challenge that we can’t conquer if we find strength and solace in those things that are true to ourselves. In my instance, it was God and the love and encouragement of family and friends. If I can be a very small tool in that process for someone else, it brings me tremendous satisfaction."
Paying It Forward
It was June 30, 2008, and renowned photographer Chris Savas was in the operating room at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta capturing images of Dr. Douglas Murphy in action as he performed robotic surgery on a mitral heart valve. He looked up from behind the lens and told the doctor, “It was 2 years ago to the day that I was on that table while you did the same operation.”
Before undergoing surgery, Savas had never been sick a day in his life. No one in his family had ever been sick either, so he had no real experience with doctors or the medical industry. However, he found himself schooled very quickly after returning to the United States from a trip to the jungles of South America. While on assignment, he contracted a strep infection and began showing symptoms upon his arrival home—fever, cold sweats, vomiting and more. He visited three doctors, all of whom prescribed several courses of antibiotics, but his health continued to decline. Finally, while on a shoot in Las Vegas, he passed out. Back in Atlanta, he discovered not only that his symptoms were related to a very serious strep infection, but also that the infection had destroyed a mitral valve in his heart. The prognosis was grim, and he was told he did not have long to live. He needed surgery, but he couldn’t have it until the infection was under control. Even then, the complicated procedure, which involved having a sternectomy, replacing the damaged valve with a metal one and being on medication for the duration of his life, would render him unable to continue his work as a photographer because he would not be able to travel, carry equipment or handle the rigors of the job. Even worse, a loophole left him without insurance to cover the costly operation, and he didn’t know how to begin paying for it.
“I never really felt that it was my time to go, so hearing that I only had a few days to live didn’t bother me as much as being told that I wouldn’t be able to work, support my family and pay my bills. That was just as devastating,” he says. “Saving your life is one thing—but saving your lifestyle is just as important.”
However, a visit from Savas’ priest changed everything. The clergyman told Savas that Dr. Nic Chronos from St. Joseph’s had once offered to help any patient from the Greek Orthodox Church who needed heart surgery but could not afford the medical care. Within hours, Savas was in front of Chronos, who agreed that he was a good candidate for a meeting with Murphy, who performed an innovative robotic mitral valve surgery that would avoid the need for a sternectomy and could repair the valve instead of replace it. With Chronos and Murphy on board, and partial funding from the Larry King Cardiac Foundation, which is affiliated with St. Joseph’s Hospital, the stage was set for Savas’ critical surgery. “I believe in miracles, and I do believe that I was saved,” he observes. “It was like winning the lottery.”
Amazingly, Savas had very little discomfort from the heart operation and was up and about within 4 days. He does not have to take medication regularly and is back to work with his burgeoning photography business. And while he had such a negative experience at the beginning of his daunting illness, his perspective of the healthcare industry was changed by St. Joseph’s Hospital. “It was a matter of everything coming together to make this situation right,” he says.
And for that, Savas has dedicated himself to furthering St. Joseph’s cause, shooting all of the hospital’s photography as a way to give back. He also speaks often about his experience and works pro bono on behalf of the Larry King Cardiac Foundation. Together, these two organizations have given Savas the only things he ever wanted—to be there for the important people in his life and to continue doing the work that he loves. “I’m so appreciative of everything that I have and everything that’s around me,” he concludes. “My situation could have been catastrophic, but it is abundant. Life changes, and we can be taken at any time. I’ve always accepted what’s been dealt to me. Even when things were going wrong, I accepted it. When things went right, I accepted that too. The experience has just made me so appreciative. My parents are healthy. My children are healthy. I’m healthy. That’s why it’s important for me to pay it forward."
Defeating Fear to Become a Champion
Sitting in her car one night after leaving her night job as a supervisor at Starbucks, Adele Amor felt something strange. A tingling numbness was making its way up her left leg and into her left arm and hand. She couldn’t think straight and called a friend, who headed her way and told her to call 911. On the phone with the operator, Amor couldn’t say the name of the street she was on, even though the sign was right in front of her. After arriving at the emergency room, the 39-year-old learned that she had suffered a mini-stroke brought on by stress.
While the diagnosis was surprising for Amor, the cause was not. Living in a controlling and abusive relationship for the previous 13 years and holding down three jobs to make ends meet, she understood why her body, which was also carrying an extra 20 pounds, had reacted the way it did. “It was the turning point for me,” she says. “I was working myself to death. Deep down, I felt like I didn’t have a way out of my situation. But I realized that my health was more important than anything, and I decided at that moment that things were going to change. I told myself, ‘Everything I do is going to be for me.’”
So, as frightened as she was of physical repercussions, she broke off her relationship on New Year’s Day 2009. She put in her notice at the coffee shop job and began making plans to alter the course of her life, which had changed dramatically since her years as a bodybuilding competitor. Once her passion and a source of great accomplishment, having won first runner-up in the Ms. Michigan All Natural Bodybuilding competition in 1996, weight lifting and fitness training had been put on the back burner. But now Amor was ready to return to something familiar—getting into the gym and pushing her body beyond its limits. And that seemingly simple act has allowed her to become the best possible version of herself in so many ways.
Starting with her body fat at 32 percent, Amor began by taking spinning classes. She soon added weight lifting to her fitness regimen. And after meeting Andre Travis, an old friend who has become her new boyfriend, she seriously thought about going back to competing and believed she could achieve the level of fitness required to win. She started spending a total of 3 hours in the gym each day and completely changed her diet, filling it with protein, complex carbohydrates and vegetables. Within 8 months, she had dropped 30 pounds and brought her body fat down to 13 percent. On Oct. 3, Amor won first place in the novice class at the Supernatural Bodybuilding and Fitness Organization’s Pro-Am competition. “I knew I would do it,” she says. “I competed 14 years ago, but that wasn’t my time. This is my time. I don’t think I would have appreciated it then like I do now. I just knew could do it.”
What she didn’t know was how much her new lifestyle would also affect her psyche. “Making these changes has helped me so much,” she explains. “I’m a different person now.” Relaxed and confident, Amor has also found a new professional calling as a part-time certified personal trainer and nutritionist. She also is a hair stylist at Carter Barnes-Paces Ferry Place. Helping other women find their physical and mental strength is not only something she is enthusiastic about, but it’s also something she can relate to. “My clients meet me where I am now—they haven’t seen my before pictures,” she says. “But I can tell them, ‘I’ve been in your shoes. You can do it. You just have to want it. You have to put your heart into it.’”
Leading by example and wearing her own heart on her sleeve, Amor is in the best shape of her life—physically, mentally and emotionally. She is striving to achieve 9 percent body fat for her next round of competitions and looks forward to building her business. No matter what the outcome, she knows she has made the right decisions for herself. “I have found my passion in life,” she says.