September 11, 2022
By Jemi Lassiter
Arlene Ambrose is a registered nurse, wellness consultant and the founder of Arlene Ambrose Curated Health. After coming out of depression with the help of therapy and self-compassion, she wrote "The Practical Self Love Workbook" in 2022.
Photo courtesy of Arlene Ambrose
To meet Arlene Ambrose is to take a deep breath, releasing all that you hid away in hopes that you were truly over “it”… whatever “it” was or is.
The 35-year-old registered nurse, self care coach and multi-hyphenate professional is an avid writer and workshop leader who is granting women — and perhaps some men through her book — permission to reassess how they manage, cope with and release stress with self compassion.
“I kind of joke about it now but I’m literally allergic to stress. I will break out and will not be able to breathe if I get stressed out too much,” laughed Ambrose.
Based in Canada, Ambrose had to learn just how important it was for her to get clear on what she could handle and what she would not tolerate. Her first book, “The Practical Self Love Workbook came out of her own harrowing experience from being disconnected to herself.
“It came out of my whole story. I came out of [depression] and said I’m going to write this book,” said Ambrose.
In 2010, she had a near mental breakdown after being sexually assaulted by her boyfriend. Ambrose did not immediately seek help or inform the authorities. She was not alone. In fact, Canada estimates only six percent of sexual assaults are ever reported to the police.
According to the Canadian nonprofit organization Rape Victims Support Network, one in 17 Canadian women is raped at some point in her life. An estimated 70% are committed by people the victim knows.
When Ambrose did seek help, her sexual assault had not fully registered to her. She went to the hospital unaware of why she was not feeling like herself; almost like her body and her mind were two different entities. To her, what happened to her body could not be the reason she was depressed, irritable, quick-tempered and sad all at once. This person was so different from who she actually was… only this was who she was becoming without the proper help. At a hospital in Toronto, she met with a sexual assault nurse who urged her to leave Toronto and go where she had family.
“She said, ‘I just want you to be safe’,” recalled Ambrose.
She was 23 then, in what she now calls an abusive relationship, working and studying to become a nurse when her life was upended.
“I left. This was like the gut wrenching part, this is where I felt the sacrifice was. I dropped out of school. I left my family [in Toronto]. I left everything behind and it was over like two weeks. I didn’t get to say goodbye and those things. That was a sacrifice. The rest was faith,” said Ambrose.
She moved more than 2300 miles, or 3700 kilometers, across country to start over in Alberta.
“I moved from Toronto and I entered a program in Alberta, the Sexual Assault Center Edmonton (SACE), there and got into therapy there.”
Located in Edmonton, Alberta, SACE provides an extensive range of support services for people who experience sexual violence, including: crisis support, counseling, court support and advocacy. People of any age, gender, sexual orientation and background can access its services.
It was her first time in therapy and her own cultural bias warped the experience. Even though she felt lonely, sad and depressed, Ambrose admits she did not do the work to heal herself. Instead, she returned to what was familiar.
“I started looking for the next relationship and I didn’t do any healing work,” she said. “I hadn’t fully packed [what happened to me] away but I think I blocked it out.”
Ambrose got into another romantic relationship in Alberta and it got serious. He wanted her to move in. Ambrose had reservations.
She was raised to never live with a man before marriage and she was sticking to that but the pressure to move in was intensifying. Just before Ambrose agreed, she got a call from her mother in the Caribbean country of St. Vincent. She was coming to stay with her in Alberta for a few months to get medical care. Ambrose postponed moving in with her boyfriend and her mother stayed with her for six months until her health improved.
“I knew that that was God. For me, I knew why she came. She didn’t know but we ended up talking about it years afterwards and I’m like that was no coincidence,” said Ambrose as she recalled the conversation with her mother. “[My mother] said she kind of knew. She said, ‘I don’t know, mother’s intuition. I just felt something was wrong. I didn’t know why I was there and why this was happening to me but I knew that that’s where I was supposed to be’. My life is filled with all of those types of stories.”
While her mother’s presence put a much needed boundary between Ambrose and her boyfriend of five years, it did not reduce her heightened stress levels or address her emotional wellbeing. Ambrose felt she was barely functioning.
“It wasn’t until I was like 29 or 30 that it clicked. I was so drained. I didn’t know what was going on. The precursor was, I wasn’t feeling like myself. I was snapping. I was angry. I was irritable. I remember the exact moment. I was in my house and [my face] was breaking out from the stress. I was sick. I was laying on the floor, you know. Even sexually, I was feeling so hurt down there. There was just so much pain in my body. I was thinking, ‘What are you doing? If this doesn’t change, you’re going to die’,” said Ambrose. “That was it, I didn’t want to die. That was the turning point.”
An a-ha moment on the floor of her apartment in Alberta, Canada jump-started the series of changes that would make Arlene Ambrose the self-aware, heart-centered woman she is today.
Photos courtesy of Arlene Ambrose
On the floor of her apartment, Ambrose had a breakthrough she describes as her first A-Ha Moment. The mental fog she experienced, the swelling in her body, her inability to breathe freely were all stress responses connected to her lack of personal boundaries. She said yes to way too many requests, denied her needs far too often and that allowed stress to go unchecked.
“It’s kind of like this light bulb goes off. I call it like this dark night of the soul. It’s when I realized I was the problem. I had this moment where I was like you are letting people do these things to you,” described Ambrose.
Over the next couple of days she started the work of creating new thoughts and changing how she viewed her experiences. It started with Googling her emotions and led to her connecting with a health coach who guided her through how food, water and exercise contribute to mental wellbeing as much as, if not more than, physical wellbeing.
“Health coaching, when I found it, just resonated with me. I knew that if I could just feel better in my body then I could get well,” said Ambrose. “I developed habits that I use to this day.”
The experience so inspired her that she took the training and became a certified health coach adding another credential to her career as a registered nurse.
She returned to writing, as she had when she was younger, and shared her work on Medium and Thought Catalog. Described by Ambrose as a mix of poetry and essay, she shares upbeat and intentional writing to address common behavior that many brush off as their personality but may actually be defensive or coping mechanisms based in trauma.
“I actually want to write about hope and healing and self-compassion because that’s the thing that pulled me out of all this,” said Ambrose. “What I realize is that sometimes those familiar feelings are familiar trauma feelings. You’re feeling the bond sometimes to something that’s familiar but sometimes that could be toxic or not good. It made me start questioning, Why would I get into these relationships? Why would I make these decisions? Because, I just feel so much. I really had to step back and say I am intuitive but there are other things that go along with that. I started using heart-centered [instead of empath or intuitive] to say these are people who feel deeply. These are people who do things from their heart so that’s why I use that word now.”
She also read a lot. The book that Ambrose credits for her clear boundaries today is Nedra Glover Tawwab’s New York Times bestseller “Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself”.
“Anything I do now, I start with self-compassion because the negative self-talk is so strong. I feel that if you don’t have that compassion then you can’t take the steps to change and have boundaries because the minute someone says something [negative to you] you just regress. I had to learn how to sit with uncomfortable feelings,” explained Ambrose. “There are all these uncomfortable feelings that I have but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m wrong. When I say ‘No’ and that’s uncomfortable, I tell myself I'm still learning and that’s okay. If I’m not sure I want to set that boundary, I ask myself first are you willing to do anything from this request.”
Yes, she has had people ignore her boundaries or try to step around them. She has managed other people’s anger towards her and her own guilt but standing firmly in self-compassion helped Ambrose maintain her boundaries.
“It is a process. I have Marie Kondo’d my life,” explained Ambrose of how she let go of relationships, thought patterns and behaviors that no longer brought her joy. “My relationships are my genuine relationships. The people I love, everything I do with work, I’m like how is this going to make me feel. It brings a lot of peace. Of course, there’s turbulence along the way. That’s where the compassion comes in.”
*CORRECTION 9/14/2022: The location where Ambrose received counseling services has been corrected.