Oct. 12, 2003 — If you're driving to work in the morning dodging traffic, trying to remember if you turned the iron off, wondering if you'll have time to run to the bank at lunch and making out a grocery list while trying to figure out how to deal with a situation you will soon face at work, you are probably not too different from hundreds of other working women.
You've got stress, babe. And now is the time to control it, before it controls you. Stress is not limited to working women, of course. It affects all of us.
More than 600 women and a handful of men stood at attention at Sen. Lorraine Berry's eighth annual Women's Conference Saturday morning at Marriott's Frenchman's Reef ballroom — "A Wake up Call! Stress! A Silent Killer." They expressed a mutual plea: "Stress leave me." They then sat down and listened as a panel of professionals discussed how to accomplish that.
This year, Berry said in an advance release, she's taking a different tack from former conferences, which concentrated on family issues and relationships. The conference is dedicated to Marie Simmons for her "untiring efforts" in the success of this and past conferences.
Motivational speaker, columnist and local radio personality Jamila Harris promised the audience peace and joy — a "sweet peace of mind" — if only they would practice some simple pointers; simple, perhaps, but not always easy.
Almost as one, the speakers came back to the same basics: Change your habits; organize; realize your limits, your expectations, don't overextend your self; pray; and, most importantly, share with others — talk, talk, talk. Nobody can do it all alone, speaker after speaker said, as they stressed the power of prayer and the power of sharing with other women.
"We're going to travel into deep waters today, emerging joyful and stress-free," Harris told the women. Most stress, she admonished, is self-induced. That's why you are driving around wondering, what will the day bring; did you enter that last check in your check register? "Organize," she said, "that is the first thing." If you write out a list of goals, she said, you will accomplish 80 percent of them. If you carry these thoughts around in your head, your chances of accomplishment plunge to about 3 percent, she said.
So, here's Harris' way to start taking control of your life: 1, Organize; 2, Get out of debt; 3, Self-talk: Tell yourself you are precious, you are valuable; and 4, Develop new habits.
Harris described an experience she had in Washington, D.C., when, having driven up from Atlanta, Ga., and stayed overnight, she awakened to discover her car had been stolen. Her credit card was maxed out, so she couldn't rent a car, and certainly couldn't replace it. "Things like that don't happen to me any more," she said. Recently, her car broke down at Red Hook, she said, when she had a full day of appointments. So, she called her mechanic to fix it, walked across the street and rented a car, went to all her appointments, and picked up her now-running car at the end of the day. "I'm organized, and I always have a back-up plan," she said.
St. Croix psychiatrist Dr. Olaf Hendricks brought a bit of levity telling the story of the inmate who walked around the institution pushing a wheelbarrow upside down. When somebody finally asked him why, he said, "I might be crazy, but I'm not stupid. If I turn it over, somebody will fill it up."
Hendricks warned the ladies not to let their wheelbarrows get too full. "When our ability to cope becomes compromised, it creates stress," he said. Then, he said stress affects people differently: "One person's stress can be another person's challenge," he said. Hendricks said he has prescribed lots of medication in his career: "I can give you medication," he said, "but it's not as good for you as talking together."
Hendricks said women are fortunate that they can "simply talk to one another."
"You know, when men get together, we compete, we create more stress," he said with a laugh.
Longtime educator Dolores Thomas echoed Hendricks, saying a woman should not feel she's one alone.
St. Croix Family Court Judge Patricia Steele takes on others' stress every day — it is her challenge. But, she has a meticulous routine to take care of herself and her family which keeps her focused. "A stressed judge cannot handle stressed people," she said. "It is most challenging," Steele continued; "I see problems as opportunities. Remember, you cannot be everything to everyone. Learn your expectations of your self, and set realistic goals. And remember to have humor."
Steele said in her work she deals with parents, troubled children, older people, all facing problems. She encourages her staff to laugh, to use humor in their day.
And she had stern advice for women. "Use the court when you need to. If you have to get a restraining order, do it," she said, "and then . . . " She didn't have to finish the sentence, as the audience filled in for her: "make it stick."
Perhaps the most moving speaker was Cira Burke, a young science teacher and school psychologist at New Horizons School on St. Thomas. Speaking clearly, with an effort to downplay emotion, Burke told of how her life was abruptly shattered. "When I was 26 years old, my husband was brutally murdered," she said. "I had two children, six and seven years old. Then, I lost my job. There was no will and I had very little money."
"I had to wonder, 'Why me?'" she said. "But there are no coincidences," she continued. "I read a book,'Power of the Subconscious Mind,' by Dr. Joseph Murphy, and it allowed me to take all my anxieties and to check myself. I had to check my mind set."
Burke said one of her greatest pleasures today is giving a hug to a child, perhaps a child living with a crack-addicted mother, "and when I do, I am healing myself, as well." She continued, "If it is to be, it is up to me."
Probably the most passion of the morning was brought about by a diminutive lady preacher, Minister Sharon Walker. Barely able to see over the podium, she asked the women if they had stress. "When you can't find your car keys, what is that?" she bellowed.
"Stress," the audience answered.
"When you get in the car and the thing won't work, what is that?"
"Stress," came the answer, this time louder.
Walker finally had the women laughing, as they got into the spirit of the thing which she finished off with a song, the women joining in.
Attorney Linda Baxter, an estate planner, rose to the podium glancing back at Walker. "And you had just been sitting there so quietly by me," she said.
Baxter had some very stern practical advice for avoiding future stress, and possible future impoverishment. She listed several chilling facts about what could happen to your savings — the government could take 30 percent to 70 percent — if you don't plan carefully.
And there are many other pitfalls, such as wills that wind up in probate for years, even decades. She stressed the importance of strategic planning, of having a living revocable and health and financial powers of attorney. "Take care of yourselves first," she cautioned.
Richard Austin, executive director of the Legal Services of the Virgin Islands, looks at stress candidly. "It's complex. It's mental, physical and emotional. It's an unavoidable part of life. It's neither good nor bad; it's matter of perception," he said. "Women place a high value on family life, but they don't have the family life they want."
Austin reiterated much the same stress medicine as the other panelists: "Organize your time, have a soc
ial support system, and create balance in your life."
Speaking after the morning session, Audria Wade said she had enjoyed the whole program. "I really learned a lot from Linda Baxter," she said, "the way she explained estate planning."
Nicole Wilkinson, one of the vocalists with the Full Body Ensemble that provided the music, was thoughtful about the event. "In order to relieve stress," she said, "we have to know we can't do it by ourselves. If we think we can, that's a fallacy. You have to have faith," she said, echoing an underlying theme of the day. She smiled. "No man is an island."
Sen. Douglas Canton was one of the few men amidst the hundreds of women. "It was really powerful," he said, "and one of the most powerful was Cira Burke, to see how she went through all those things, trying to cope and then to have come full circle and have taken control." Expressing what likely every woman there thought, Canton said, "She plugged everybody in. She was dynamic," he said. "She opened their eyes."
"I wish even more ladies were here," said Cynthia Baron, "I hope they all listened; I hope they take it and run with it."
"It's my first time," said Charlene Baron, "I love it. I hope everybody puts to use what they learned today."
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