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022: Overcoming an Abusive Relationship by Cultivating the Lovely – MacKenzie Koppa

MacKenzie Koppa is a voiceover artist and the host of two podcasts, Cultivating the Lovely and The Same Page. Cultivating the Lovely is a faith-based podcast helping moms cultivate the lovely in the midst of chaos, and The Same Page is a weekly podcast helping families listen and memorize poetry, Shakespeare, historical facts, and the Bible. MacKenzie is a single mom of four children, and in this episode, she shares about the process of leaving an abusive marriage of 14 years.

In This Episode, You Will Learn:

  • What it means to cultivate the lovely.
  • The difference between abuse and normal marital conflict.
  • What steps MacKenzie went through before leaving her husband.
  • How she has helped her four kids negotiate the transition.

If You Need Help In An Abusive Situation:

  • Text the word HOME to 741741 for 24/7 help.
  • Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800.799.7233.
  • Visit www.thehotline.org.

Connect with MacKenzie:

Don’t Miss A Single Episode:

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  • Leave a quick review on any of the podcast apps to tell people what you think about the show.
  • Take a screenshot of the podcast and post it on Instagram or Instagram Stories. Tag us @insporising. We’ll repost and give you a shoutout!

Interview Transcript

MacKenzie, thank you so much for taking the time to hang with me today.

Yes, thank you for having me. I’ve been really looking forward to coming on your show.

So, this whole term “Cultivate the Lovely”; that’s a new term for me. I know what all those words mean separately, but what does it mean to cultivate the lovely?

Okay, well I’ll give you a little bit of background on how it came to be. About four years ago when Periscope got started, do you remember that?

Of course.

Well, it was the first real streaming platform and I just got on there and I started hosting a morning show. I would come on and I would chat with other women every morning and we would talk about three little ways that we could have more loveliness in the midst of our everyday chaos. A lot of us were stay-at-home moms and homemakers and I also had a lot of homeschoolers following me. I still do. I’m not a homeschooler any more, but I had a lot of homeschoolers following me and that’s an intense job. You’re with your kids all day long and there is a certain level of chaos and a certain level of feeling like, “When am I ever doing something that’s beautiful or for me?” 

We would just think of little things, like listen to a podcast while you fold the laundry. Or, take five minutes to do a hobby or pick-up a bouquet of flowers at Trader Joes for $5. Just do those little things that in the moment, they seem like they don’t matter, but when you add them into your life, they give you that little bit of reprieve and a little bit of a break from the monotony of motherhood. To do something for ourselves, so we can feel like, “Okay, I can do this again tomorrow.” 

I ended up actually looking up the definition of cultivating, and it said that it was, “A labor, a care and a study.” I felt like that was such a great image for moms and parents and women – anybody. Anything worth doing, it takes work. You have to care about it and you have to learn about it. And so, that was kind of our mission; to create more loveliness in our lives. But it’s not going to just happen, you do have to put in effort and you have to want it enough to do it. Taking the time to realize that it’s worth it. 

When you were growing up, did you envision yourself as a stay-at-home mom? Were you homeschooled yourself? Was that something that you wanted to do as you were growing up?

No, not at all. Actually, I was not homeschooled. I thought that I wanted to homeschool my kids by the time I was in my late teens, but I really thought I was going to be an actress. That was the track that I was on. I’d been training for that since I was eight years old. And as it turns out, that is actually what I’m doing now. But being a stay-at-home mom, wasn’t exactly what I expected. I knew I wanted to be really involved with my kids, but I thought I would have a career. So, I shifted my viewpoint on that and now that I’m back where I am, I’m actually so grateful for the career that I’m building and I feel like it makes me a better mom. I’m really enjoying where I’m at right now.

What would you say were some of the greatest challenges and greatest joys of being a stay-at-home mom?

It’s kind of both a blessing and a curse. I loved having my kids around me all the time, but it was also so overwhelming to have my kids around me all the time.

You have four kids, right?

Yeah, I do. So, right now I work from home and I still have the four year old with me most of the time. I’m so grateful for that, because I feel like I’ve gotten to know them in a different way than I would have if they hadn’t been homeschooled for the length of time that they were. My oldest is almost thirteen and we are so close. I largely attribute that to all the time that we spent together and I’m so grateful for that. But whether you’re a homeschooler or not, and maybe it’s just motherhood in general, but it draws so much from you. You feel like you’re constantly giving, especially if you have a lot of little ones. By the time my oldest son was eleven, I realized that in that twelve year span since I’d gotten pregnant with him, I had not been pregnant or breastfeeding for a total of eight months. You’re constantly being touched and needed, and there’s just this giving of yourself that can be really exhausting. I think that was the hardest part. It’s like, “Oh, I just need a breath.”

How long did you homeschool your children?

For seven years.

That’s a long time. That’s amazing. My wife’s a teacher, so she’s with 24 kindergartners every single day, and I tell her there’s no way.  I just think of Kindergarten Cop, where Arnold Schwarzenegger says, “It’s not a tumor.” I’d go crazy in an hour. I’d go nuts.

Yeah, and the thing I know about myself is that I love the older years. I love having great conversations with my kids about things and really like diving into stuff. Teaching a child how to read makes me want to take an icepick to my head. It’s like, “Oh, my word. This is not my sweet spot, but we’ll get through this.” I just always looked forward to the older years, where we could have conversations. 

Not that I didn’t love my kids when they were little, but I think that’s sort of a taboo thing with moms, “Don’t say you don’t love the little years.” I don’t love the little years. I don’t want to potty-train anybody anymore. I’ve done that. I’ve paid my dues. That’s not my sweet spot. Whereas, I have friends and they have been pre-school teachers and they just love the little kids. And in the older years, they’re like, “Oh my goodness, I don’t even know what to do with them.” And that’s where I feel like we’re just hitting our stride. So, everybody has their thing that they’re good at and it’s okay to acknowledge that in motherhood.

We have a lot of moms who are listening that might not necessarily homeschool their kids; maybe they’ve got a career. How did you cultivate loveliness in the lives of your children? I’m hearing that you did it in your own life as a way to refresh and renew and practice self-care. How have you modeled and encouraged that in the lives of your kids?

I love this question and I think that it needs to be addressed. Just like I was saying, every mom has their strengths. Whether they like the little years or the older years, you have to recognize where you have strengths in parenthood or the way you run your lifestyle in general. Because I have friends who cultivate loveliness in their lives by making big elaborate meals and always having candles around. It’s beautiful all the time. I started getting really bogged down by that, thinking, “Oh, if I’m not doing that, then I’m not putting loveliness into my kids’ lives.” And I had to really sit back and analyze, “What am I doing that’s lovely?” I realized I’m great at dance parties with my kids and I’m great at looking at really difficult situations and saying, “How can we spin this? How can we make this better?” 

When my daughter broke her arm last summer, we were on our way to the emergency room and I was saying to myself “I just know. I know that thing is broken. I just know it.” So, before we even got there, I started saying to her, “Okay, as soon as we leave here, we are heading to hobby lobby and we are going to buy puff paint and jewels and feathers and whatever you can think of. We’re going to bedazzle that sucker and it’s going to be the most fabulous cast in the history of casts.” And you know what? I don’t want to say she’s “prissy”, but she is like a miniature Kardashian. She is all about the glamour and she didn’t want to take her cast off by the end of the summer because of how we decorated it. We had taken this difficult circumstance and made it beautiful and fun. So, I think I do a pretty decent job, even in the midst of really hard times, finding those little things that we can still cling to that make us all happy and joyful together and laugh together.

You mentioned that through the challenging times, it can be difficult to cultivate the lovely. In anybody’s language, how do you spin it to be positive? How do you find the learning? We all go through tough experiences, but I know in the last couple of years you’ve really gone through some challenging experiences yourself. How has the idea of cultivating the lovely taken a different depth in your life in the last couple of years?

What you’re referring to, so people understand is about a year and a half ago, I had to leave an abusive marriage. It was verbally, emotionally and spiritual abusive and I had been in it for fourteen years. I had to re-evaluate what cultivating the lovely meant, because I had to re-evaluate every single part of our life. Just like, the way we weren’t going to be homeschooling anymore. I wasn’t going to be “just” a mom – I say “just a mom”, but you know, we all know that’s a huge job. I had to sit back and say, “Okay, what does this look like for me?” And, “Is this even possible for me anymore?” I really realized that I could take cultivating the lovely so much deeper, because it gave me the chance to really figure out who I was, what I liked and what I was good at. 

That’s really the period of time when I realized, “Oh, these things my friends are doing to cultivate loveliness, I don’t have to do that. I don’t have to be this image of loveliness that someone else is projecting on me. I can finally figure out where I sit in the pocket of having our own loveliness.” So, that has been a really great experience for me. I’ve been able to really dive in and figure out, “What do I actually like to wear?” “How do I actually want to decorate my home?” “How do I want to conduct my business and go about my day and parent my kids?” It allowed me to look at my life through a fresh lens and see how we would cultivate loveliness in our new life based on the truth of who we really were and who I really was. That’s been a really clarifying experience for me. To be able to see, “Oh, this is how I can cultivate loveliness and not feel guilty that I’m not doing it well enough.”

I think about freedom, whenever we’ve been in a constricting situation; whether it’s a relationship or a job or even our own mindset – maybe the voices of our home of origin or people that have been around us and we’ve constricted our own mind to think, “I can’t do that. I’m not allowed to do that.” Whether it’s taking a risk or expressing ourselves, I grew up in a home like that. My parents are awesome, they are really great people, but the idea of personal expression wasn’t necessarily highly valued as I was growing up.  The utilitarian or economical approach to life was valued a lot more. So, even for me, maybe a decade ago, I started to think, “Man, what would it look like for me to express myself in ways that is outside of the acceptable?” Even though it wasn’t something bad, it was more like, “We don’t really do that.” And all of a sudden, the idea of personal expression took on a whole different depth. 

Yeah, absolutely. When you have the freedom to make those decisions for yourself, it’s a different place to be in in life. 

If there are some women or men that are experiencing a challenging relationship in their own life now, would you be willing to share a bit of the process that you went through? I’m sure it was a long process to go from realizing that the relationship was abusive to where you are now. Would you mind just sharing a little bit about that with people as they are maybe trying to wrestle with some of those things in their own lives?

It’s a question I’ve gotten a lot over the last year and a half. People are coming to me saying, “Okay, this is where I’m at, do you think I should leave?” I really don’t think that anybody else can make that decision for you. It has to be a personal decision and there are a lot of things to grapple with. A lot of why I stayed for as long as I did, was because of my faith and feeling like certain things were expected of me or certain things didn’t qualify as abuse in my faith system. In reality, I had been married for a very short time before I started having people say to me, “Did you know you’re being verbally abused?” I actually tried to leave for the first time when my oldest son was six weeks old and eleven years later is when I actually made the final jump to leave. 

I think that you really have to be able to be sure of it in your own heart and you have to know if it’s abuse or just regular marital difficulties. Some of that comes from talking with other people; not in a gossipy way. It’s not helpful to just complain about your spouse, but actually speaking up about the things that you’re experiencing. Whether that’s to a counsellor or a very trusted friend, make sure it’s with someone who isn’t going to be biased to you. Make sure it’s with someone who is going to give you their honest opinions about what they see happening in your relationship. 

If there is a lot of isolation from people, I think that is a really big red flag. If the person is saying that they should be able to fulfill everything for you and that you shouldn’t need any outside relationships. If there’s gaslighting going on – which I didn’t even realize what gaslighting was until I left. But if you get done with a conversation and you start feeling like a crazy person and start thinking, “How could this be? I really thought I was doing the right thing but somehow, it’s all my fault and I didn’t know. I was trying to do my best,” that’s gaslighting and that’s someone really manipulating the way that you feel about yourself. If those things are all starting to pile up, you have to be able to analyze whether you can stay or not. 

I tried for a long time to say, “Well, maybe it’s just like in sickness and in health and this is like a sickness that he has.” But when I saw that it was being destructive to my own mental state and to my children and there was a specific period of time and an event that occurred, I realized, “Okay, this is going to a different level here. I believe that we’re moving towards mine and my children’s safety being at stake.” It’s really hard to say, because there’s a lot of ebbs and flows in an abusive relationship. Also, for myself, I wasn’t the kind of person who thought I would end up in an abusive relationship. I tend to be very outspoken and bold.

I feel that. I’m feeling your energy and I’m thinking, “You seem just really powerful.”

I was the kid who decided, “Oh, I want to graduate from high school a year early, so I’m going to. And I’m going to convince my parents that it’s a good idea. And I’m going to head off to college when I’m 17.” That was who I was. So, for me to even be in that relationship, I was thinking, “No, this can’t be abusive because there’s no way I could get into an abusive relationship.” But it happened so subtly and even if the abusers don’t realize it, they are very good at what they do. So, you really have to come to a place in your own heart where you’re ready to go and you’re ready to go for good. Once you feel that you’ve exhausted all your options and you feel sure in your heart that you’ve tried everything that you can do. 

I think other people’s wisdom speaking into the experience and knowing that you can get out safely is really important. I had to leave after he was gone to work. We packed whatever we could grab and then went. I had to have a safety plan in place and make sure that I had some way to provide, so that I wouldn’t ever be trapped again. It’s a very multi-layered process that you have to go through. And even after you leave, I’m still going through the divorce a year and a half later. We’re nowhere near being done. 

If you’re coming out of an abusive relationship, you need to expect that nothing is going to be as easy as it “should be” or as easy as you expect it to be. There’s going to be a lot of hiccups along the way and you have to brace yourself for that. But through that, you’ve got to cultivate the lovely or you’re going to lose your mind. I’ve had so many women, specifically, come up to me and say, “I went through what you went through, but I just laid on my bedroom floor and cried for the year and a half that it took.” Or, “I just could not pick myself up. We were on welfare. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t be there for my kids.” And she said, “I didn’t even think about trying to laugh or have fun, because it was like, ‘This is just awful.’ And it is awful so, I need to live in this awful place’.” 

Now, I have my moments. I have those moments on the floor, but I have to say to myself, “I’m free now and I’m not going to live here. This isn’t what I want for myself or my kids. This isn’t want God wants for me or what my family wants for me. Let’s get back up and let’s face a new day.” And sometimes you just have to say, “This day is just bad,” or “This week has just been bad.” But I’m not going to live in that place. I want to have joy. I want to have fun with my kids and I think that is a really important part about getting through it.

My guess is, you had all sorts of opinions from people as this was going on. People that were supportive and people that were maybe not as supportive; probably the whole gamut. 

Yeah.

For those of us who are around people that we think might be in an abusive relationship, what would you have wanted people to say to you? How would you have wanted people to support you?

I think a big part of it is believing someone when they say, “This is what’s happening.” And being able to be that person, even if you haven’t had very many bad experiences with the other person, maybe take that step back and think about, “Have you been deceived? Is that other person being who you think they’re being?” Believe them if you get that gut feeling and think, “Yeah, something really isn’t right here.” Believe them and then stick by them. And don’t blame them. 

I’m a Christian and I think that the church in general, points the finger at the person who left, instead of the person who caused the leaving to need to happen. That gets into a very mucky situation, where the person who has been abused, isn’t receiving the support that they need to help their family and get out of that situation. And the abuser is actually supported and the church tends to come alongside them and say, “Oh my gosh, you poor thing. Your wife left you,” or “Your husband left you. Let’s rally around you and help you.” I don’t think that that is what God wants. I think that we need to have a little bit of a broader perspective than just, “God hates divorce.” Well, hold on for a second. What led there? Let’s believe people who are saying, “This is what’s actually happening in my life,” and get them the help that they need.

How did you, and how are you processing this with your children? As an outsider, I think that must be one of the most challenging things for someone in this situation. How have you talked with them and processed everything with them? Whatever you feel comfortable sharing, of course.

It’s a very hard thing with the kids. Because certain ones of them have experienced enough themselves. It’s hard to even know what to say, but they have experienced enough themselves that they have perspective on the situation and aren’t upset necessarily, over the divorce. They feel rescued out of it to a certain extent. Then I have one kid who has a very different experience and so all you can do is keep telling them that you love them and keep being there for them and finding ways to connect with them even through the difficult things. 

It’s kind of like the cultivating this lovely thing I have been talking about. My thirteen year old and I, we watch Downton Abbey and that’s our thing. That may not sound like a way to deal with divorce, but it’s this way that he and I are continuing to connect and build a relationship and build this part of our family culture. Where we have this shared language about Downton Abbey and he can quote the Dowager Countess and we get it. We have these inside jokes and it allowed him to have that outlet and keep building that relationship with me even through the difficult times. 

I always allow them to ask me whatever questions they want to. There are certain things, because of the court, I can’t answer. But I just try to make sure they know, even though all of this, I’m always there for them. Even when they’re with their dad, I’m there for them. I love them. It’s not their fault. I think that they have it particularly hard. I think in a normal divorce, the couple can work together a little bit more to look out for the good of the children. Sadly, that’s not what is happening in my circumstance. And so, another big thing is them knowing that I’m rallying for them. I’m doing whatever I can to protect them and to make sure that their voices are heard and that their opinions are heard about where they should be living. And it’s been costly. Literally financially costly, to make sure that that happens. But I think that later on in their lives, they will look back and say, “Mom did fight for us. She did try to make sure that truth was heard and that we were heard.” 

It’s one of those things that you just have to muddle through. I’ve tried to get them counselling. That’s been stopped at many points due to things beyond my control. But wherever I can get them help and allow them to be able to talk to third party sources has been really helpful for them. You just kind of have to muddle through and keep altering as you go, and keep finding ways to help them.

How about yourself? How have you sought your own self-care and recovery over the last couple of years?

It’s been a big process. I pretty much immediately got myself into counselling because I knew this was bigger and that this was abuse. The place I actually went to get counselling was the YWCA, because I knew that they would understand the perspective of abuse. I had a lot of people who said, “No, no, no. You should just be going to a Christian counsellor,” but sadly, again, a lot of Christians don’t have this greater viewpoint of what abuse looks like in a marriage. I think we get muddled with what submission looks like and what the husband’s role is and that sort of thing. It can kind of be glossed over. 

I knew I wanted to go somewhere where they had specific experience with abuse, even if it wasn’t physical. And it was tremendously helpful. I was in counselling through them for a little over a year. I did EMDR therapy, which helps your brain to re-file the trauma that you’ve experienced. I had PTSD after living in a highly stressful situation for fourteen years, so I really felt like that made a huge impact in helping me. I still have the triggers from the PTSD, but it helps me to be able to recognize them and handle them better and at least be able to cognitively think, “Okay, that was a trigger. I am having this reaction because of this thing that has happened to me in the past.” 

Now that I’m done with that counselling, I’m actually doing yoga therapy. That’s helping me to deal with the actual bodily responses that I have to those triggers. So, now I can cognitively say, “Oh, that’s a trigger,” but I’ll still have the racing heart rate or I feel like I can’t breathe and those kinds of things. So, the yoga therapy is kind of helping bring the two together, because it helps you deal with your bodily response to the stress and the anxiety. So, both of those things have been really helpful. And then just taking care of myself. 

Allowing myself to have that in the relationship that I had; I was told that if I felt like I needed a break as a mom, then I was not a good mom. I was told that I didn’t deserve a break and that moms should just love being moms 100% of the time. If you don’t, then there’s something wrong with you. Well, that’s a lie. But it’s what I was living under. By the time I left, I was just so burnt out. And I really had to let myself come out of that. Now, I’m doing a better job of maintenancing myself. I’m giving myself those breaks and giving myself that occasional Starbucks. I’m going to yoga and doing the things to take care of myself, so I don’t get to that burnt out stage, where you’re just worthless to everybody.

EMDR; explain to people what that is, if they’re not familiar.

I wish I could remember what it actually stands for. But basically, it has to do with rapid eye movement and the way your brain processes things. So, you can either use lights that you look back and forth at with your eyes while your counsellor is taking you through a series of questions and diving deeper into your general life history or a specific traumatic event that has happened. They take you through that, and the idea is to have both sides of your brain activated. 

When I did it, I used buzzers in my hands and it would rotate from the right hand to the left hand. Some people use headphones, and it will go from the left ear to the right ear with a buzzing sound. It’s a way of getting both sides of your brain activating, so that as you’re processing this trauma, it brings it back to the surface and then your brain files it how it should have been filed when you’re not in a fight or flight response mode. It just helps your brain to get things back in order the way they should have been, instead of being in this jumbled mess from the PTSD.

And YWCA, is that a unique program where you live that offers counselling or is that something that all YWCA’s offer?

I believe it’s nationwide that they offer those services to women. I think that’s a pretty universal place that you can go if you’re experiencing some sort of trauma in your relationship. They offer all kinds of different programs and this just happened to be the one that fit best for me. We went first and met with someone who said, “What is it that you guys are dealing with? Do you need a safety plan?” They offered me all these different tools to be able to access through them and then I was able to sign up for counselling through them. She was a certified counsellor and had experience with the EMDR therapy and that was incredibly helpful.

That’s amazing. What encouragement would you give to women or men who are facing a similar situation? If you had the opportunity to speak into their hearts and minds today, what would you say to them?

I would say, don’t give up. That’s what I have to tell myself a lot of times. It’s okay to feel like things suck, because things do suck. Just don’t give into that. Don’t live there. Allow it to be what it is. Deal with the things that you have to deal with when they come up. When court documents are coming through, deal with those things as you have to deal with them, but don’t live in that space. Find ways to take care of yourself. Find ways to add joy to your life and in your children’s lives. Those are the things that, even when you’re living in difficult situations – we’ve been living with family, that’s a definitely a difficult situation. But when you’re dealing with those things that are still very daily and they feel really overwhelming, you can cling to those little moments that help you to ride out the overall storm.

Meanwhile, you’re a voice over artist and you have two podcasts that you host. Tell us, number one, if somebody’s looking for a voice over artist, what is your focus or speciality or what you’re passionate about? And then tell us about the two podcasts.

Yes, I am a voice over artist. As I mentioned, I’ve been acting since I was eight years old. I just got back into being a professional voice over artist about three years ago. I’ve done everything from audiobooks to e-learning to commercial work. I do quite a bit of e-learning, narration and commercials, so that’s kind of my wheelhouse that I like to stick in. I’ve done podcast intros and really, any random thing that you can think about, I’ve probably done some sort of voice work for it. All that can be found at www.mackenziekoppavo.com. 

And then my podcasts are Cultivating the Lovely; that is my main show which I’ve had going for three and half years now. I do a lot of interviews. I talk to a lot of authors and women who are just learning to cultivate loveliness in their lives and that’s a really fun interview based show. And then we have a family show called The Same Page. And on that show, every Monday we release poetry, scripture, Shakespeare and historical facts. Right now, we’re doing the presidents. It’s with my kids and they’re on the show with me. It’s just like five or six minutes that you listen to everyday throughout the week and by the end of the month, your kids will actually know these poems and about all these different presidents. It really has amazing sticking power, with very little effort on the parent’s part. We also release sections from classic children’s novels. So, we’ve done Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz. Right now, we’re in Little Women. It’s just a really fun show for families to be able to listen to together.

What a unique idea. I listened to it and first of all, I’m listening to your voice because I had never heard it before and then all of a sudden, these cute voices start coming through. Your little kids on there are so cute. Is that something that you thought of? Or are there other people doing that as well?

I’ve heard that there are other podcasts that kind of do the same thing. But the idea came to me because I wasn’t going to be a homeschooler anymore and I just felt like, “Ugh, I’m going to be missing out on all these things that I wanted to share in with my kids.” I thought we’d be reading Shakespeare together and learning poetry and reading all these classic novels. And now I was going to lose that. But then I thought, “What if we just had a little snippet that we did every morning?” I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to get up in the morning and have all the books out. I just knew that wasn’t going to happen. But if I pre-recorded it, then we could listen to it together on the way to school in five or ten minutes and it could just be something really easy that we could implement into our lives that would keep us on the same page. That’s why I named it that. But then I thought, “Well, maybe other families would want that too,” and it turns out that they do. So, yeah, it’s pretty fun.

That’s great. I love the learning that I take away from that. If I have a big idea or something that I had hoped for and it’s not going to come to fruition at this season of life, for whatever reason, I can grieve that. I can grieve the loss of that. But I can also say, “How can I experience part of it?” Or, “How can I re-direct it? How can I think about it in a different way?” I love how you did that. That is so powerful.

Oh, thank you. It’s been a lot of fun.

Thanks for taking time to share the depth of your life, MacKenzie. I really appreciate your willingness to be vulnerable and share about what you’re going through. I know that just by sharing that, it will empower other people. Thank you so much.

Yeah, thank you. I hope it will. That’s why I share. I think it’s important for other people who are going through it, because it’s not talked about as much as it probably should be. So, thank you so much for having me on.


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