Once Stifled and Suppressed, Susan Overland Finally Said Yes to Her Real Self

Susan Freeman looked through the windshield of her “crappy brown Datsun” at the steady rain that had brought rush hour traffic to a standstill on a darkening fall evening in Santa Clara, California. The bleak, gray world of metal and concrete she saw outside was the mirror image of what she felt on the inside.  The car resembled her life as well—full of things that no longer worked: no heater, no air conditioner, and no radio. Black smoke belched from the tailpipe—a grievous social and environmental offense in the mid-90s in the Golden State. Worst of all, the driver’s side window refused to roll up more than half-way, so the rain that evening felt highly personal, as if it fell just for her—a cold, soaking reminder that she would never have a right to expect more from life than this.

It was an apt culmination—in a twisted sort of way—to a recent avalanche of painful events in her life. Sitting in the rain, trying to keep her cigarette dry, Susan relived in her mind a series of phone conversations she’d had over the past twenty-four hours, from the tuition calls from the private high school her sons attended, to the levy of wages from the California Franchise Tax Board, to the most devastating of all from the fraud division of San Jose Police Department about her husband being arrested that day on embezzlement charges.

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I first met Reverend Susan when she was introduced to me by Michelle at the Center for Spiritual Living (CSL) in San, Jose.  Admittedly, I tended more to the spiritual side than religious side, so I went with hopeful enthusiasm.  It took about five minutes to feel warmly welcomed – no doubt due to my wife-to-be’s inherent sunny and open disposition. What I loved and still do about CSL is their recognition and honoring of all of the world’s religions, without denigrating, or in fact, elevating any.  What I didn’t know then was any of Rev. Susan’s back-story, to which made me love her even more, or that a few years later, she would be the officiant for our memorable wedding. Under the intertwined oak and redwood trees, in a windstorm and monsoon with golf umbrellas as our backdrop – and it was perfect.   What made it more perfect was for us to know more of her not-so-uncommon struggles and how Rev. Susan found comfort, and ultimately her life calling and career, in her faith.

When Susan was a young girl, there were no visible clues that her life journey would lead to such a dark place—stuck in the grip of hopelessness and despair. In spite of growing up with parents who struggled with alcoholism and abusiveness, as early as age seven she recalls feeling an “amazing spiritual connection” to God when sitting in mass at the Catholic church her family attended.

“It was usually when people started talking that I lost the connection,” she quipped. “I was the kid in class at Catholic school who always raised my hand to ask the weird questions, like, ‘How come my friends who don’t go to Catholic school aren’t gonna go to heaven?’ and ‘what do you mean they’re gonna go to hell?’ None of it made sense.”

Music and theater were central to her life as a young person. She sang and performed every chance she got—in school plays and other events, even lying about her age in order to work as an entertainer in Manhattan supper clubs. She loved it and dreamed of one day making a career for herself in music theater.  All that changed abruptly when Susan met her first husband and eloped with him to Las Vegas. Within three months, she was pregnant with her first child. A baby boy was born before her twenty-first birthday.

“I didn’t even have a driver’s license, but I had a kid,” she said.

Though she didn’t know it at the time, Susan had begun the process of losing her voice—not literally, but in the way that so many people do when their boundaries are compromised, and dreams thwarted. Over the next twenty years, her ability to speak for herself slowly atrophied, taking with it the belief that she even had a right to do so. Along the way, the light of her innate curiosity and natural spiritual connection with God slowly went out as well. The shining life she had dreamed of faded into one long struggle with financial and emotional hardship.

“I came to the place where I believed I was living the life I deserved,” Susan recalls. “I told myself, ‘this is all I’m gonna get.’”

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On her way home that night in her broken-down Datsun with broken-down dreams, Susan got into a shouting match with another motorist who wanted to cite her polluting beast. Making threats and flipping people off in traffic are not normally seen as evidence of a spiritual awakening. Yet, for Susan, that’s exactly what her life-changing experience in a rain-soaked traffic jam became. That “middle finger” was aimed far more at her own limiting beliefs, and the dark status quo she’d been living, than at another person. What she was tempted to “kill” in that moment was the woman she had become—a depleted shell of herself who believed she deserved to be mistreated and downtrodden.

Her outrage marked a pivotal moment in her life—the moment she said “yes” to a different future.

“I asked God for a sign as to why I should keep on living.” Susan said. “In that instant I heard God say, ‘You should keep on living, Susan, because you’re a good person, and I need you. I need you to yank your thoughts out of this slum and remember who you are!

Over the next several years, that’s exactly what she did.

She left a job she hated in a “toxic, dysfunctional work environment” and took a new one that eventually led to a position as executive assistant to a senior vice president at Hewlett-Packard. There she worked her way up to a six-figure compensation package and the respect of her colleagues. She started seeing a counselor who helped her recognize how she’d lost her voice—and offered sound advice about how to get it back.

A counselor gently suggested that reclaiming her lost love for music and theater might be a good place to start. Shortly after that a small, square ad in the newspaper caught her eye—announcing auditions for an upcoming production at the Sunnyvale Community Players. She got a part. She hired a voice coach and soon was back on stage as often as she could manage it.

Susan divorced her husband and several years later married someone new. Max Overland was a kindred spirit who shared her renewed interest in finding a healthy faith community that would help anchor their new life. That led them to the Center for Spiritual Living in San Jose.

After feeling unworthy, alone, and abandoned by God for nearly two decades, the possibility of such free and affirming reconnection to spiritual purpose called to her deeply. She began a new journey, first as a licensed “Prayer Practitioner” in the church and then—after three years of intensive study to earn a master’s degree in Consciousness Studies—as a full-time minister since 2011.

For a while, Susan Overland lost her voice—and herself. She got it all back, and more, when she said “Yes!” to a different way of seeing herself and God.

“I now know that I was settling for a known hell rather than what could be a potential paradise,” she said. “There was always a boogie man in the closet that I kept giving my power to. The biggest thing was to actually believe the spiritual principle that there is a power for good in the universe and that we can use it. But even more importantly, it can use us—if we just say yes and stop giving in to fear.”

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On February 7th, 2014, seven years ago, Northern California had been under a year-long drought.  Until our wedding day.  The energy that Rev. Susan and Michelle brought was of love, positivity and humor.  My former boss Gerri Elliott summed it up for many when she arrived and said, “It’s good luck to rain on your wedding day!”. And she’s right; we’ve been blessed with a lucky seven years so far; how blessed we were to have Reverend Susan officiate for us in front of our friends, family, and colleagues – and to know where she came from made it (and still does!) that much more special for us.

For more information on Rev. Susan, Dr. David Bruner and the Center for Spiritual Living, please go to: https://cslsj.org/ .  And to read more of Rev. Susan’s amazing full story, you can purchase your personalized and signed copy of Climb Higher here!