Let That Sh*t Go: A Conversation with Maimah Karmo & Debra Alfarone | Washington, D.C.
This interview originally aired on The Fem Word Radio show on Rukus Avenue Radio, a Dash Radio station.
Monika Samtani: I’m excited to speak with two special guests today for The Fem Word! Maimah Karmo is a bestselling author, speaker, transformational coach and cancer survivor. She calls herself a soul purpose speaker. Thank you so much for being here.
Maimah Karmo: I am honored.
Monika: Debra Alfarone is a TV anchor reporter, storyteller, and inspirational speaker. I find it inspiring when you walk in the door. Debra, you are so amazing. Debra is a former colleague of mine and now an on-camera coach. Welcome Debra. Thank you so much for being with us here in the studio.
Debra Alfarone: I am so honored. I love The Fem Word studio. This is great.
Monika: So, when I reached out to you both and I said, what do you think we should talk about? There's so much depth to both of you. And this is what I got from both of you. Maimah said 'claim that shit'. Too many people are waiting for permission to say out loud, envision, pursue, claim and get what they dream of. And Debra said, how about the concept of GTFO? So "get the fuck out of your own way" and what it means to have integrity.
Debra: Can you understand why we're both friends with each other?
Monika: I love that and I love you both for saying that. So, here's what I say. I'm holding a mug that has a Hindu God on it, you know, like as if he's doing yoga. He's got this peaceful look on him and he's saying, 'let that shit go'.
Debra: Yeah. Let that shit go and then get the fuck out of your own way.
Maimah: Reclaim your friggin power.
Monika: Do it all and do it your way, but just do it, just for you. I think that what I loved about your response was that you share a common mindset, both of you, all three of us, and you also share a common past in the sense that shit's been hard, right?
Maimah: You were telling us your backstory, you escaped from Liberia and you were alone. Start us off from that point of your story.
Maimah: My life has never been easy. But I look back and (realize) I'm never going to let anything stop me. The more things that happened, my parents escaped from my country three times from the war I had been held at gunpoint, at one time I was hit by lightning. And then, when I came to this country, my parents put me on a plane alone at 15 years old, and then I ended up getting breast cancer. If anybody had just one of those things happen to them, one thing or two things or three things, it would have been broken or traumatized. But I always said, whatever happens to me will only make me stronger and propel me toward my goal, but it won't stop me.
Debra: But what makes the difference for you? I mean, I've had stuff happen in my life that's helped propel me. But you know, being a refugee, lightning, gunpoint, cancer?
Monika: It's like you reached your quota, you know, like how much more?
Debra: Like a cat with nine lives, a unicorn with 25 lives.
Maimah: You have to have a vision for your life. When you look back, what do you want it to look like? I put a post up this weekend because my twelve year cancerversary was on Saturday. Twelve years, and I put, no matter what comes my way, I will fall. I will crawl. I will scrape. I will cry. I will climb. I will drag myself to my goal. I don't care what the fuck happens to me. I know where I'm going. I don't know how I'm going to get there or when, but I'm getting there. The journey really is about getting up, standing up and sharing stories of how you found that thing in your gut to get you up and off the ground and going again. I've always thought too, there are people who don't have that same kind of strength. When you're in the shit, you think, I don't have the strength. But as you pull through it and look back, someone's coming behind you, who doesn't think they can get through that challenge. For me, if I get through this, I can tell the person behind me don't give up. You can do this.
Maimah: I think the shit is where the strength is made.
Monika: It takes pain, right? It takes sometimes people's pain.
Maimah: That's kind of why I think in this world something is really not working for our kids and teens and young adults because they don't go through stuff. All those things that happened to me, they were so hard, but somehow, I pushed through them. I wanted to get through them. I wanted to have a future and a vision. I pushed through them and I looked back and I thought, how the fuck did I do that? So, I didn't know I was strong when it was happening to me. When I was going through cancer, I wanted to die. I was like, I'm so scared I don't want to die of cancer. My daughter is three years old. My fiancé just walked away and left me. My jobs at risk. Everything I've ever wanted is at risk, and I would cry. I would fall on the ground and on the floor in the bathroom and I would just beg God for my life. There are times when I wanted to give up, but I just said, you know what? I'm going to get through the next minute and the next hour and the next day. And those days became weeks and months and a one year and then two years. And when I look back, that pulling yourself through, that's where strength is found. You may not feel strong in the moment, but when you look back at what you've accomplished, that's when you can say, I did that.
Debra: I don't know if you know at the time that you're being strong. You're just getting through.
Debra: I think that's what makes you stronger. What happens to you, happens for you, and we don't know what our path is going to be in life. We have no idea. We have no clue what we're going to be or what we could be. But we go through things and they do make us what we are. The trick is to not take the pain with you. Just take the lesson. I forget who it is that says, ‘leave the pain, take the lesson.’ That's the thing as you can't take that with you. And so, if you do, you're standing in your own way because you have no room for light, if you're carrying around dark.
Monika: Isn't that easier said than done? Think about it. Don't take the pain with you. And yet I think we all have that back story.
Debra: I've definitely taken the pain with me. In fact, I think I've carried a suitcase of pain from different things with me, but I've also learned - only when I learn to let that go, can I really truly step out and become something.
Maimah: I think it is what you do with the pain. My daughter's now the age I was when I left Liberia and as she's going through her teenage angst and stuff, is when I began to break apart. I don't know whether it was psychological or just something about her being my age. Imagine your parents telling you we're going to the airport, you're getting on a plane. We may see you again in six months, maybe three months, we don't know. I didn't have time to deal with that trauma. I was here and then I had to find out how to get to my uncle's house and there's no internet, no Facebook, no cell phone, no texts, nothing. But that pain has informed who I choose to be for other people. So, I don't think that pain is a bad thing. I think it is what you do with the pain. Is the pain going to make you a victim, or is it going to make you be a victor, or inspire other people to succeed in life, or to use what you've learned? My pain, I would say has always been with me, but it's informed how I choose to use that pain. I molded for good. I always figure out whatever I'm dealing with, how do I mold this to be able to help make something else beautiful for someone else. Like cancer, I'm lying in bed, shit's gone to hell in a hand basket, and I sat there and I was depressed for three months. I was like, fuck this shit. I'm depressed. I looked like shit, I’m alone, I might die. But you know what? There's somebody who is lying in bed who is like literally dying right now. How can I make something beautiful for her, for the next person? So, I just tried to turn my pain into beauty.
Monika: think that the hardest thing for me to envision is being in that moment and then saying to myself, I'm going to turn this pain into something productive or transformative for someone else or even for myself in that moment. For me it's okay. I reflect back and say, damn girl, you're pretty strong. You went through a lot and look at you now, you know. But in that moment, is where I feel it's hardest.
Debra: I feel like grace comes to us. There are little miracles, small miracles, and grace that comes to us in those moments. I was a high school dropout. My parents divorced at 13 and I was lost. I didn't have a mentor. I didn't have anyone to watch over me. I was basically raising myself and I dropped out of high school because I couldn't graduate anymore. I just kept cutting school because I was in so much pain and so depressed and so alone. I've met what I call label whispers. People have said to me, you could be this or you could be that and you just have to be open to that. I feel like at one point when I was going through a tough time, a friend of mine said, ‘well, why couldn't you go to college?’ Well, I didn’t finish high school. I just took my GED and I was working at the time, as a cashier, whatever it was, and a friend of mine said ‘you could go to college,’ and that's all that it took. I feel like in those moments, really sometimes we're blessed. We're blessed with grace. We're blessed with the presence of someone else who sees something in us. Just a little glimmer. And that's why telling these stories are so important. Because if we're not there for other people and we're not open to it and present, we can't be those labeled whispers for other people.
Maimah: So, I was in treatment and I'm from Africa. In many cultures, like African culture, sometimes Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern, we don't discuss cancer in the family. We don't talk about it. I'm in bed and I'm struggling with my identity. I'm struggling with the loss of the person that I was going to marry. I’m struggling with the loss of what I was going to be. I might die. I have a cancer that up until today there's no treatment for. I'm overwhelmed. My mom's amazing. She's changed my life in so many ways, but she was like, just don't talk about it. This is our family thing, it's the big C, the C-word. We're just gonna call it the C-word and deal with the cancer in the house. I don't know how to do that because for me, if somebody else is going through something and they are feeling as lonely as I am, I want to share. But our culture wants us to keep it in the family. And so, one of my aunts wrote a magazine and she would call me and talk to me and she goes, ‘Hey, I would love to share your story in my magazine.’ And I'm like, ‘what story?’. I didn't know I had a story to tell. My aunt said, ‘I know you're depressed. I know you're scared. I know you feel alone. There is somebody who feels exactly how you do. Write the story for me and send me some pictures.’ I'm like, ‘I'm not a writer. I can't do that.’ She goes, ‘God asked me to talk to you. You're going to do this.’ So, I wrote that story, and I pressed send. That was my first time writing my story like that. I wrote that story and it changed my life because that story was the first time I saw myself in my power. People begin to call and ask for help and to tell me that I empowered them to tell their story.
Monika: What this reminds me of is that shift where the label whispers are women to women. I think that women are holding hands. They're supporting each other. They're saying, ‘you go, girl, let's do this.’ I love your reference to label whispers. Do you feel that a lot of that's coming from women today to each other?
Debra: Absolutely. And how does that start? It happens when we stand up and tell our stories. We are giving permission to other people to tell theirs. We're letting them know they're not alone.
Monika: I think what we're doing right now is keeping up that momentum.
Debra: You don't know how many people are going to listen to this podcast. You don't even know who you're touching. I had no idea of the people I was touching with my Tedx talk. People from all over the country. I did this talk in 2015, and my whole thing is “I'm not supposed to be here”. I was a high school dropout, a throw away, no one really thought much of what I was going to be. And then through a series of events and a lot of hard work and persistence, positivity in label whispers, I ended up being a TV anchor here in Washington DC and also worked as a reporter in New York City. Dreams that I never ever envisioned for myself. I got to tell that talk and that was the first time I was telling my story. Then the people would reach out to me. A guy who lives in Kentucky. I've been to Kentucky once. A man who is much older than me. What we have in common is stories. We've all felt misunderstood. We've all felt the odds were against us. Whether they be huge odds, or not. We all have that and we can all connect with our stories. And again, when we tell our stories, we're giving people permission to tell theirs. And that's what we have, its power.
Monika: And I think that that's what's creating change. The more of us that share our stories, the more of us that create these platforms. We want to manifest that positivity.
Debra: People feel so disconnected. We have so much more information and so much more ways to connect, but we're not connecting.
Monika: There has been that whole problem of disconnect with the technology. What about that human connection? To keep that momentum, it’s creating more of that human connection through storytelling and what we have to offer.
Maimah: Somebody could hear Debra talking and connect with her. They might hear you and connect with you. They might hear me, and connect with me. If we all were to show up and show off and share our gifts, we connect people across the world who were wanting to hear and be empowered and be inspired. I began writing morning prayers through my newsletter because I love to pray. I am Christian but I can still say bad ass and fucking shit while I'm praying. My prayer would be like, ‘God, why the fuck is today so fucking crazy. But I love you anyway.’ My point is that I began to write these really authentic prayers. One girl had depression for a year, she was suicidal, she lost her kids and she's like, ‘I read your prayer and I used to always have you on a pedestal that you are this person that wasn't touchable, you were always happy, but you are sharing that you had bad days and that you got down and I wanted to share with you what I was dealing with.’
Debra: We have to share the shit that we go through too, because people do put you on a pedestal.
Maimah: Even getting here, my daughter's home, she's not feeling well. I have to be someplace in two hours. I have to call someone to be with her and get her food while I'm gone. I have to write some reports for a client. We are always juggling.
Monika: That's the beauty of us. That's the beauty of being a woman it is that we can do all of that. It's hard and we're bad ass. And you know what else I love about just the three of us right now talking and sharing. Just put your hand out. Maimah Deborah. Monika, look at that.
Monika: Yet we're all connected, aren't we? It doesn't matter. We're all the same. This is what I care about. This is what the world is for me. When you wake up in the morning, what motivates you? What gets you going every single morning when you wake up?
Debra: Making a difference. How's this day going to be great? What can I do to make this day great and stand in my truth. Yeah, sure we wake up in a bad mood. But honestly, since I've left my job and now I'm doing my own thing, I don't have the negativity that a big workplace can bring. I get to decide what my day is. So, when you're doing your own thing and you're an entrepreneur, yeah, there are stressors, but their mine. All those things that stress me out, I choose those. I don't have someone else's stress on me. I feel really blessed when I wake up and I can actually choose what my day's gonna be like. Sure, there are days when it's raining, the dog doesn't want to go out. Sure, there are days when I can't find the hair extensions. Like all of these things can happen, but I get to choose it. Don't think like, ‘oh, well that's great for you Debra, but I can't do that because I have bills to pay and children and this and that.’ I have been saving up so that I can do this. This is a long-term plan for me. This happened because I made this happen. So, we all are in charge of our own destinies and we have to be in charge of that every day that we can. I just feel so blessed that I get to do what I want to do. And what I want to do today is be hanging out with the two of you and record a podcast. Hopefully someone will listen and be lifted up and know they can do anything.
Monika: Here's where we need to give ourselves some credit. Deborah and I were both in jobs where we were like, ‘You know what? We're not feeling fulfilled anymore,’ but it's hard to take that next step and go off on your own. To any female entrepreneur who might be listening, if you're starting to feel that, maybe just go with your gut. You feel empowered by that. Even that feeling that you know you can do more. I wanted to just go off on my own, but it was scary. It wasn't easy.
Maimah: The thing that moves me is a quote by Marian Wright Edelman. It says, ‘service is the rent you pay for living.’ That's what gets me up in the morning because I almost didn't get to be here. I get up in the morning, touch my heart and I'm like, I feel it. I feel it. And then I breathe and I say, thank you God.
When I came here I was a refugee, so my goal was to get the American dream. So, I hustled, I got to the American dream. I had a shitload of money at thirty-one. I had a couple of homes and investment property. I had stocks. Then I got cancer and it all fell away. I realized I wanted to make a difference in the world. So, I left my six-figure salary to do charity work and I didn't have any money in my budget yet for Tiger Lily. I had nothing. I just had my promise to God that if I survived I would give my life to him in service. I didn't do coaching. I didn't have a book. I hadn't met Oprah. I met nobody yet. I didn't know what the freak I was doing. I just knew I couldn’t be in this job where I was getting my life sucked out of me. God made a way and then I ended up doing consulting work. It is exciting, but it's not easy. It's never been easy.
Monika: It's fun as hell though, it is the best time I've had in my life and I'm over 50. I'm older than both of you. I wake up every single morning and I actually embraced that now.
Debra: This should be its own podcast because I'm going to need a little help here with the aging thing.
Monika: Is it a female thing that we struggle with age?
Maimah: I do think the number is less for me. I don't feel like I'm getting older. I feel like I'm doing a lot more. It's less the number. It’s how people label the number. I'm hot as hell. I'm smart and savvy so I haven't changed.
Monika: I turned 50 and it was scary as shit. I see everything changing, and my body's aching more. Those are all realities. But I do wake up in the morning and I say, ‘I don't really frigging care how old I am. I have so much to do. I have a difference to make. I have women to speak to and I'm going for it.’ I don't really care what anyone else thinks about my age.
Maimah: Think about where you were in your thirties.
Debra: There was a lot of noise in my head, in my thirties, a lot of noise, a lot of. Am I good enough?
Maimah: It's funny how God makes us work when you're younger and everything's tight and times ahead of you. You're confused and you're not sure and you're doubting and all that. And then the age brings wisdom, and other stuff, and then labels.
Debra: This is why right now what I want to do is really empower women to step into their own power. I've walked into a room many times focusing on the one extra pound that is around my middle. Where no one would ever see it, or that one gray hair.
Monika: Debra, describe a moment when you felt powerful.
Debra: I worked really hard in my life to get to where I am. I wasn't supposed to be here was my mantra. I’m supposed to be ringing you up in a supermarket, but I put myself through college. I worked on Wall Street, survived 9/11. That was really the moment that I decided I needed to do what I wanted to do and kind of step into my destiny of storytelling. I worked every hour and every shift at small stations and large stations all across the East Coast. I remember being broke. I'm turning stories for $75 a piece for a now defunct TV station. And I remember the time that after eight years of getting in touch with this one assistant news director in New York, they gave me a shot. I had my shot and I remember thinking this is the best moment of my life. I've worked all my life for this moment. I get choked up just thinking about it. They gave me a shot and I did okay.
In the TV business things can be fickle. I've been the same person but I've had different news directors. Either they like you or they don't like you. It's all subjective. What their tastes are. As you date people, you have different tastes. You like different things. That's news directors, they have different tastes. I remember there was this big ad campaign for the station I worked at in New York and they took these beautiful pictures of us and I remember it being in the New York City subway system. A picture of me in the subway. Here was this girl who at 15, ran away from home to take the train to New York. Just like looking around. I remember thinking, wow, if I only saw what I could be now back then maybe I wouldn't have had all that angst and all that searching all this time. But you can't tell yourself that. And that's not a gift this life gives you.
I remember at the time how the beautiful ad was in the subway. My boyfriend had cheated on me. I was moving out and I was heartbroken, but it felt really good to be in that subway. I felt really powerful. I remember thinking this is the validation I've wanted my whole life.
The story is, of course, we don't need validation. We just need to love ourselves, which is the hardest thing you'll ever ask of yourself to do. With the gray hair, with the extra pound. I would not conquer the whole self-esteem issue that I had growing up for a long time after that. I was still struggling with that sense of worth. But that was like, wow, if you work hard enough and you ask for it, you can get there.
Maimah: So, for me, there are two, three times I think. Coming here as an immigrant there's no book that tells you how to navigate it. Back home when you want to buy something you go to the store and say how much is that? There could be a tag, but you always bargain for everything. So, you say how much at the store here and they're like, the tag is the price. I felt very lost the first few months. I ended up getting a job and two jobs and then I remember my parents came. I was walking to the bus stop that I to go to Tysons corner to get to work. I worked in the mall and the bus stop was three miles from my house. I had to walk three miles every day and then get on the bus and go to the mall and then I would work. One day I was walking and I was like, ‘I'm doing this.’ I have a suit that I bought myself and my hair's done and I have on my heels. I felt a sense of power that I never had before because I came here with nothing. I was going to a job that would pay me for my services and I can help my parents in the house and give back and do that. That was really powerful for me to feel like I can own my outcome.
I was so scared when I got here. I didn't know anything and I looked back at that girl when I was walking towards the bus stop and was like, ‘look where you are now.’ How can you project, where are you going to be in the future from where you are today. And I do that all the time.
And then when I was on Oprah for the first time was 2008. I got breast cancer in 2006 and I began Tiger Lily in bed while on chemotherapy. I was still very sick and going through aggressive treatment and I'm raising my daughter. I asked myself, ‘imagine if you survived this and two years ago, what do you want to have done at that time? And if you don't survive, what do you want to leave?’ I said, I may have cancer in my body, but not in the spirit. How can I use this time to really love all these people who are feeling alone and scared? How can I change people's outcomes? How do I change whatever I can in this time?
Oprah called me, I was in shock because I'm like, how did the hell did you find me? But it's energy. That’s what was so powerful for me, the energy of me walking in my power. I was sitting there with the founder of Susan Koman, which is the biggest foundation in the world. And I'm like, what the fuck am I doing here?
Monika: You know what Oprah said, ‘the energy you put out will come back to you.’ And that's exactly what you're saying. And why me? Why not me?
Maimah: I was like, why am I having this cancer experience? Why did he leave me? Why am I going to die? And then I was like, well, why not me? Babies die in childbirth. People get on a plane and then they get shot down. One of my friends was going to work he slipped on some snow and sprained his ankle. He was dead in a month. So how do we not let the challenge be the thing that stopped us, but be the thing that is a catalyst for us to really live. And even if you don't feel as strong or powerful, live with whatever power you can find to propel you forward. Whatever energy you put out there, like you said, it'll bring something to come back to you and it gives you strength.
Monika: Give me just an idea of your events that you do with I-Manifest.
Maimah: I kept wanting more honest conversation. I was going to all these, you know, cancer charities, black ties. I'm always asking people, who are you, tell me about yourself, and I want a more authentic conversation. I made a friend, we became very close, and he ended up committing suicide. It devastated me. The way I found out was that his sister sent me a letter that he wrote the message was that you are loved by the greatest love of all and that's God. You show your friends love, you show your family love. You're such a loving person. I want you to share with people all the love you can share with them because you touched my life in a very powerful way. Having somebody who's taking their own life who leaves me a letter telling me how much love they saw in me and how he wanted me to give that to the world began to propel me towards being more open about my life's work, which was about love.
I-Manifest came out of a way to help people manifest who they were. At first it was called, ‘I Manifest Bliss.’ I thought, well, what if you just manifest as you are? What if what you're working on is truth, or labels. What if it's being more authentic. What if is being more fearless? Whatever you're working on, that's what's true for you. So we took the bliss out.
I-Manifest is a series of panel discussions around authentic conversations around people, like us, who are living their lives and wanting more. I-Manifest is a whole day of amazing speakers that come and share these powerful stories of transformation. They help people to break open, and let the light enter, and they transform, and heal, and they connect.
Monika: Where can people find out more about you and what you're doing?
Monika: Debra, inspirational speaker and coach and all around, amazing person. You definitely want to be connected with Debra. Where would people find you?
Debra: I think the best place is either on my website or on Instagram.
Monika: The Fem Word is a loudspeaker for women to have a voice, to tell their story and to connect with each other. Thank you so much for sharing your stories Debra and Maimah!