Dr. Michele DeMarco featured with her new book "Holding Onto Air: The Art and Science of Building a Resilient Spirit"
Alumni News

New Book, “Holding Onto Air: The Art and Science of Building a Resilient Spirit,” Reveals Fresh Insight Into the Nature of Suffering and How to Transform It

Dr. Michele DeMarco, CIIS VP for Internal Relations, Integral & Transpersonal Psychology alum, and three-time heart attack survivor, new book offers a transformative new lens for healing from trauma, grief, and loss and building resilience.

December 31, 2023

Editor’s note: Dr. Michele DeMarco, CIIS Vice President of Internal Relations, Chief Communications & Marketing Officer, and Integral and Transpersonal Psychology alum, discusses her latest book, Holding Onto Air,  a trusted and transformative guide that uniquely addresses the age-old human struggle of meaningful challenge or loss and the essential journey of reclaiming one’s life and building resilience. This book, published by Berrett-Koehler, is available for preorder on Amazon and where books are sold. The official launch date is January 9, 2024.

Michele DeMarco

Imagine you are 33 years old, at the peak of health and in the prime of life, having just completed three graduate programs, and the promise of a new future with a husband, a new vocation, and plans to start a much-desired family. But rather than pursuing those dreams, you find yourself barely able to breathe, with crushing chest and back pain, on an operating room table, hooked up to all manner of machines; and when one suddenly changes tone, everyone in the vicinity leaps to attention, and one specifically, leaps onto you, while another yells, “We’re losing her!” –And you realize you can neither escape your impending doom nor do something to save yourself. 

Such was the case for Dr. Michele DeMarco who suffered two Spontaneous Coronary Arterial Dissections, or SCAD, in one week (and a third a decade later). SCAD is an acute heart condition that occurs when a tear forms in the wall of a coronary artery. And despite its statistical rarity, it is now the most common heart attack in women under 50 — affectionately called the “healthy girl” heart attack. 

As Dr. DeMarco explains, “In a moment, my world completely turned upside-down; I felt like a stranger in a strange land, with everything around me still looking normal but feeling inside as though ‘normal’ was no more. Suddenly, all the study, practice, and research I’d done into trauma, the human condition, and how people throughout time and across culture build a resilient spirit in the face of meaningful adversity, wasn’t just an intellectual abstraction or someone else’s reality — it was mine, and very personal … a loss of innocence.”

Combining two decades of research in psychology, trauma, and world religion/spirituality, with her own inspiring story of several near-death experiences, Dr. DeMarco has written a trusted and transformative guide that uniquely addresses the age-old human struggle of meaningful challenge or loss and the essential journey of reclaiming one’s life and building resilience. The result is Holding onto Air: The Art and Science of Building a Resilient Spirit. Early praise by New York Times best-selling authors, such as Anne Lamott, attests: "Michele DeMarco has written a wise and welcoming guide to what comes after survival — the rebuilding of hope, spirit, resilience, and joy."

Holding Onto Air: The Art and Science of Building a Resilient Spirit

Holding Onto Air has been two decades in the making, says Dr. DeMarco. 

“It started out as a bold little handbook for grief and loss — something to overcome the tendency of many books to offer merely rudimentary maps for navigating grief and loss’s rocky terrain, with tired tropes and shop-worn strategies, often about being positive and thinking happy thoughts. Same old, same old in different language and a pretty cover. As a therapist, clinical ethicist, and trauma researcher, I’m more than aware that innocence, once lost, cannot be recovered, and no simple platitude can will that away.

Lost innocence, as a concept, is the beating heart of this book. Dr. DeMarco explains: 

“Meaningful loss is a dual loss: not only do you lose the thing itself — like a person or relationship, health, security, faith, your moral compass, a job, and so on — but also you lose a part of yourself — your innocence. Holding Onto Air is the first book to situate grief and loss specifically in the timeless notion of lost innocence, taking it out of the world of pathology and approaching it as a natural human struggle.”

Holding Onto Air is also different in that it rejects what she refers to as “beat the grief” philosophies and approaches to healing, like many business-based, positive psychology books tout. 

“These approaches fly in the face of emotion science, which overwhelmingly shows that clobbering difficult emotions and feelings that emerge with rational analyses or artificial meaning serves only to delegitimize them, and this ensures that they never fully metabolize, which prevents people from fully healing.”

Holding Onto Air introduces several new concepts that grew out of Dr. DeMarco’s research and practice. One is coherent sense of time, that is being able to see ourselves fully in the past, present, and future, and holding each timeframe with equal value and importance. Another is benevolent honesty, that is a clear-eyed, no-rose-colored glasses, no blinders, no exaggeration way to engage with challenge or loss, but doing so with kindness and compassion — an embodied gentleness with oneself and others as new realities are absorbed. A third is dynamic balance, meaning simultaneously holding contradiction and uncertainty with hope and progress; moving with the forces of life; and finding stability amid chaos or change with quiet, intentional surrender.

When asked why this book is relevant today, Dr. DeMarco said, “Our world is on fire with conflict, trauma, pressures, and stressors — from the COVID-19 pandemic to the increasing socio-cultural and economic unrest, climate change and environmental concerns, rapidly changing technology and certain plagues and contagions brought on by social media, and now a new war in the Middle East with further geopolitical tentacles — it’s a very difficult ‘innocence-draining’ time. Also, a growing body of research shows that resilience rates are down. —Individually and collectively, I feel there has never been more of a need for resilience.”

In her current position at CIIS, Dr. DeMarco brings to light the compelling and multifarious stories that make CIIS such a unique community, but from her study, practice, and research, Dr. DeMarco knows well that stories don’t only reflect life, they also shape it, which is one reason people often end up becoming the stories they tell about their experiences. This is particularly significant when a person is struggling with trauma, despair, and lost innocence.

“Stories give us a way to make sense of what happens in our lives and to prioritize them in our minds. Through story we form and examine what we believe to be true, and then we set these truths against others’ truths. In listening to stories, our truths are both reinforced and challenged. In sharing stories, our realities both solidify and shift. Ultimately, the stories we tell ourselves and others determine what we remember about the past, notice in the present, and influence how we approach the future.”

Through rigorous research, poignant narratives, and a painstakingly developed framework, Holding Onto Air enlightens and engages readers by revealing timeless truths about the nature of suffering and offering them a practical roadmap for engaging their own story of lost innocence through a healthy new lens.

Holding Onto Air’s official launch date is January 9, 2024, but the book is available for preorder now at Amazon. Dr. DeMarco will be appearing at Book Passage in Marin, CA on Saturday, February 17 at 1pm, where she will be in conversation with her agent, Kimberley Cameron. Drinks and snacks will be served. We hope to see you there!

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