25 Years Later: Honoring a Stress Breakdown


I wonder how I’ll celebrate it this year. I haven’t decided yet. My 25th birthday. No, not my biological birthday; what I call my spiritual birthday.

Since 1998, I have honored March 28 as my spiritual birthday. It is the anniversary of the night in 1998 when I collapsed to my knees, sobbing, while alone in a motel room in Banff, Alberta, Canada. I was convinced that if I got on a plane the next day to return to western Washington, I would be killed in a plane crash. That was the crisis point of a severe stress/mental breakdown that was initiated just seven days before. That night was also when I felt the souls of two friends who died at a young age press up against my back and hold me as I panicked in that terror. My friend Nikos died in a car accident in 1986. My friend Kerin died in December, 1997, just a few months before my visit to Banff.

I didn’t want to die. With the release of energy over the previous week, my life made sense in a very strange way. With Nikos and Kerin holding me, I “heard” Nikos coaching me, Come on, Penni. Come on. You can get out of this, but think! THINK! You have a good brain; you can get out of this! How can you get out of this?

I remember feeling something click in the base of my brain at the back of my neck as I realized, Don’t get on the plane. You are safe here. Don’t get on the plane. Then I couldn’t feel them anymore. Whatever veil opened for those few moments was again closed. I decided to stay in Banff a few more days to get my head together a bit more before returning to the U.S. I flew back nine days later—with no fear of flying.

The stress had built up over the previous 15 years. I was 31 years old at the time, so that was almost half my life. Since high school, I had witnessed significant pain in my family resulting from contentious divorces and power dynamics. My middle brother, Jeff, left Montana in early 1990 and dropped contact with all of his family. We were pretty sure that he was homeless in the Las Vegas area. I carried significant grief for him and also his children, whom I loved dearly. I don’t remember the last time I saw him. In March, 1998, I didn’t know if he was still alive.

That wasn’t the only stress that I carried. In addition, my work environment wasn’t healthy. While I was paid relatively well, I didn’t have the tools and resources needed to do my job successfully. I was naïve enough to keep banging my head against the wall to try to implement a variability reduction program as it related to a manufacturing environment. I guess that is how large corporations work: minimize resources wherever possible, even if it means that the program that the managers and executives say they want can’t really be implemented.

I knew that I didn’t like living in a metropolitan area. There were just too many people for me. Since I grew up in sparsely-populated Montana, I was used to having more elbow room than the Seattle-Tacoma-Everett area provided. I loved the nature and scenery of the Pacific Northwest: Puget Sound, the Cascade and Olympic mountains, and the Pacific Ocean. I struggled with the overwhelm of the metro area. I made the most of it, though it never really felt like “home.”

What drew me to the Seattle area was synchronized swimming, my passion while growing up. I even competed nationally for four years as a teenager. In 1993, I began coaching regularly as the novice coach for a local swim team. In time, the dynamics of the swim team degraded as the head coach became more and more mentally and verbally abusive to the older girls on the team. A week before my scheduled trip to Banff, the parents of the “A-squad” pulled their daughters from a major swim meet where teams from all around the western U.S. came to participate.

It was the dynamics of the swim team that “broke” me. Two days after the girls were pulled from the meet, the parents convened a meeting to determine how to proceed. I was invited to attend as the novice coach with 25 families represented. I was also the only adult who had experience as a synchronized swimmer. When the four girls entered the living room to describe their experiences at the meet, before they verbally said anything, their body language screamed at me. I can still envision it. I could almost see a distortion in the air as a wave of energy crossed the room and hit me full force.

When that shock wave hit me, I realized: These kids have been abused! That was the first time that word—abuse—came into play.

I looked around the room at the parents, many of whom I had known for several years. We were all part of a system of abuse. We, the adults, failed to recognize how things had grown to this point. We even inadvertently encouraged that growth. Individually and privately, some parents had expressed concern for how the head coach handled practice and how she seemed disorganized or would berate the girls. In time, her behavior grew beyond critique of the girls’ performance. Her behavior became more judgmental and even insulting. Each individual event was excused in some way.

Parents, swimmers, and even I often found ourselves walking on eggshells around her. That, in hindsight, should have been a huge warning sign. There were lots of signs that were more easily recognized in hindsight, not just with the swim team, but with work and my life in general. Conditioning makes it difficult to notice how thresholds can be crossed into unhealthy dynamics.

When I looked back at my overall experiences of 1998, I developed an analogy. Over the years, different people told me that I was under a lot of stress, including the medical doctor I saw in 1996. I thought I was letting all the stress, dysfunction, and accumulating grief roll off my back. However, in a sense, it was as though I was stuffing it all into a glass ball, resulting in a toxic mess. That stuffed energy included the unending grief related to my brother, the displeasure at work even though I loved what I did, the overwhelm of where I lived, and even the passion for wanting to help young girls enjoy a sport that I loved so much.

The wave of energy I felt when I realized that the girls had been abused was the ka-chink, a significant whack, that hit that glass ball hard enough to break it open. All that pent up energy released and exploded.

On March 30 or 31, while still in Banff, I was struggling significantly with the process of events that unfolded over the previous week and a half. I found myself asking, What is this? This was on a completely different scale from anything I had experienced previously.

This was no illness. And I knew my biochemistry was not the primary issue. Though exceptionally intense, I also knew this wasn’t a chronic condition. This was an accumulation of stress and toxicity that was in the process of some kind of release, an explosion.

This was a breakdown. Some might call it a nervous breakdown, a breakdown of the nervous system. Though I agreed with that, I chose to call it a severe stress breakdown which better described the causality of the experience. Breaking down due to too much stress. One counselor in 1999 preferred to call it a “breakout” or a “breakthrough.” This was an “awakening” as to how conditioned I had become to dysfunctional and even toxic systems around me. I recognized how intricately non-random my life actually was. There were repeating patterns of behavior that I could see when examined in relation to prolonged stress. I found that non-randomness to be of interest, since I had earned a master’s degree in statistics 10 years earlier.

A few days after the crisis, while still in Banff, I called a friend who had been through a similar experience. He used the term “ego collapse.” I found that description quite helpful. In addition to the explosion of the contents stuffed into that glass ball, there was also an implosion. It certainly seemed like a collapse of the ego-mind, which compromised the filter between the conscious and subconscious minds. Months later, he also described such experiences as “hatching from the ego” as in hatching and emerging from the structures of beliefs and experiences that we build around us in order to function in this world. When those structures are under too much strain, they can fragment and splinter and collapse, resulting in considerable pain. At least that seemed like a reasonable description of what I went through.

Often, the process of breakdown is ultimately a process of “breakout” and hopefully of “breakthrough” to a healthier state. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, what I experienced in Banff was a process of transformation rather than an illness or disorder. Like a snake, a person can “shed their ego skin” of the toxicity and stress that has been buried in the subconscious or deeper levels of the psyche. Other natural, transformational processes include the chick that hatches and leaves the confining eggshell behind and the butterfly that emerges from the confining cocoon and is transformed into a different stage of its life.

Unfortunately, too often, for people going through such a transformative process, other people, including members of the mental health system, attempt to shove, manipulate, coerce, and even abuse the person back into the very role that broke them open to begin with. You don’t shove a chick back into the egg. You don’t shove the butterfly into the cocoon. And there is certainly no way for the butterfly to go back to being a caterpillar.

Similarly, when a baby is being born, you don’t try to shove it back into the womb. So, yes, I recognize March 28 is my spiritual birthday. There was no going back to who I was before, nor would I want to.

Unfortunately, like too many others, I ended up traumatized worse by the mental health system than by the breakout/birthing process from that shattered ego structure. While in Banff, two days after the crisis, I was cut off twice by two mental health professionals who wouldn’t stay on the phone with me to help me through what was still a very tumultuous time, even an emergency. Upon return to Washington, I received misinformation about my medical leave benefits and also received two sets of paperwork filled out incorrectly with regard to starting a medical leave. The first PhD psychotherapist I saw two days after I returned to the U.S. wouldn’t even diagnose me.

He agreed that I had been under a lot of stress, and he seemed to agree that I had some kind of breakdown. Yet he wouldn’t diagnose me. I had no idea what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was. I also didn’t know that temporary conditions such as stress or nervous breakdowns were not included as a diagnostic category. Without a psychiatric diagnosis, I couldn’t get on a medical leave at my employer. The next four months of trying to satisfy my corporate employer to get on a medical leave were torturous, which significantly worsened my condition and delayed my healing and recovery.

I was exceptionally lucky, though. Somehow I made it through to a place of healing and recovery. I even ended up moving back to Montana and found a professional job. Prior to the breakout, I believed that the best I could do economically and professionally would be to retire in Montana.

Over the years, other helpful terms and descriptions came my way with regard to my experiences.

  • Several months after that crisis point in Banff, my friend who introduced the concept of “ego collapse” also used the term “spiritual awakening.”
  • It wouldn’t be until 2020 that I learned of the term “spiritual emergency” coined by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof and his wife, Christina, in the 1980s.
  • The Grofs also introduced the concept of “extreme states of consciousness” and “non-ordinary states of consciousness.” With my background in statistics, to me, those extreme states represent that which is not normal, beyond normality. That is, those states represent the tails of a distribution, even an outlier in a sense. I certainly experienced something beyond the “normal” levels of consciousness.
  • In December, 2017, I finally understood how moral injury played into my experience. I watched a documentary that mentioned moral injury, a term that is also not in the DSM. I had heard of moral injury before, though I didn’t relate it to my own experiences. I realized that the ka-chink of the glass ball, that wave of energy that hit me at the parents’ meeting, was a moral injury. As a coach, I failed to protect the girls from the dysfunction and toxicity that was building. Granted, I wasn’t trained in how to recognize that nor who to turn to for help. That didn’t matter; the inaction from me and the other adults failed the girls on the team.
  • One additional term that helped was one I made up myself. A couple days after the crisis, I was in the motel room in Banff trying to understand what I was dealing with. I asked myself, Was this bipolar?” I picked up a two-dollar Canadian coin and noticed it had a polar bear on one side of it. I thought, No, I’m not bipolar. This coin is bipolar. Magnets are bipolar. The world is bipolar. I am nothing less than “tripolar”—mind, body, AND soul. Mine was an exceptionally spiritual experience. Later, as I tried to navigate the mental health system, I wouldn’t let anyone dismiss that spiritual element. I still don’t. My experience was a “tripolar rebalancing.”

Even in Banff, I knew I would probably get diagnosed as having “bipolar disorder,” which is ultimately what happened in May. I knew that was wrong. What I didn’t know was that too often when a person is going through a mental crisis, they are “diagnosed” primarily based on behavior and speech, without proper assessment of the environment, personal history, trauma, and social dynamics they live in.

When I started looking at things from the point of manipulative, even abusive, systems, my life—and suffering—made much more sense. I recognized that as a “people pleaser,” I became toxically enabling and/or chronically co-dependent to the dysfunction around me. That breakdown/moral injury was my “wake up” call to just how conditioned I had become.

I learned quite a bit through my journey; much more than I could have ever imagined. I’ve even quipped that it was very much a “crash course.” Ultimately, I am thankful for my experiences. They have made me so much stronger than I ever could have known or believed.

So, yes, I’ll do something on March 28 to honor my spiritual birthday. Twenty-five years. It was quite the journey.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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      • “Or maybe the spirit has a chance to emerge and thrive.” As one who also had a spiritual experience misdiagnosed as “bipolar,” but once weaned off the psych drugs, also had a drug withdrawal induced manic awakening to my subconscious self and dreams, which is all about an awakening to the Holy Spirit within.

        I thank you, Penni, for sharing your story. I’m not going to give up in my belief in myself, an intelligent designer, and God, merely because the psychologists and psychiatrists believe – and unfortunately my childhood religion, and their scientific fraud based child abuse covering up psychologists and psychiatrists believe – that scientific fraud trumps God.

        “That’s me in the spotlight losing my religion.” Let’s hope and pray God judges all fairly. But I agree, death of ego, is part of the awakening journey. And I still believe, God wins in the end.

        Thank you for sharing your journey and story. And, by the way, you look an awful lot like my pharmacist cousin, who is totally ignorant of psychiatry’s fraud and crimes.

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  1. Dear Penni,

    Thank you for sharing your story. I relate to it because like you I believe much of what is thought to be ‘mental illness’ is actually a spiritual breakthrough brought about by repeated moral injury—injuries usually made worse by a system that speaks a different language.

    And I wish you many Happy Returns on your Spiritual Birthday!

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    • Ah, Birdsong, thanks for the well wishes on my Spiritual Birthday. You get it. When I tell people how I honor that day, very few people get that we usually wish people the best on our “birthdays.” And I totally agree that those injuries are made much worse — partially due to the difference in language, but also due to the exceptionally poor metaphor of “chronic illness” — that is, the diabetes analogy. You don’t treat a crushed pelvis like diabetes — and if you do, you shouldn’t expect that person to recover and heal. At least that’s my take.

      Thanks again, for the well wishes.

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  2. “…there is no coming to consciousness without pain.” – Carl Jung.

    If anything in the cosmos is Spirit, or Consciousness, then surely everything must be; and if any part of our individual and collective and individual human (at the very least…) evolution has been leading to our planetary spiritual awakening, surely everything must have?

    And nowadays we have not just the likes of Lao Tzu and Jesus, Buddha and Carl Jung, “Julian” of Norwich Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart and Eckhart Tolle to help guide us through less painfully, but also Penni and countless other modern mystics.

    Or maybe Consciousness merely is “that annoying interval between naps?

    In any case, heartfelt thanks for a magnificent essay, and for all those seemingly endless sacrifices which made it possible and inevitable – which manifested it and which I trust will ensure that most exciting thing of all, the Peace which must follow.


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    • Tom, Thanks for your comment. I am glad this article was of interest to you. Yes, the mystics. I was lucky in that I had a glimpse of some of Jung’s work after having read M. Scott Peck’s books, “The Road Less Traveled” and “Further Along the Road Less Traveled.”

      In addition to the mystics you mentioned, in the 1960s and 70s, psychiatrists like Stanislav Grof and John Weir Perry recognized the imagery and depths of the psyche involved in the process of awakening (or breakdown / breakout).

      The problem is that too often, people trained in psychology or psychiatry are not trained in the spiritual aspect that can accompany (erupt — as Perry called it) during such a process. Also, many people trained in psychology or psychiatry don’t believe in that spiritual or mystical aspect at all — which leads to a toxic combination for someone seeking help.

      A few years ago, I came across the quote by Joseph Campbell, “The psychotic (person) drowns in the same water that a mystic revels in.” Campbell became good friends with Stan Grof. A year or so after I came across that quote, I came across a passage in one of Grof’s books where he said that the mystics don’t “revel” in that state of consciousness, but rather, they understand the value of such an experience (and both Grof and Campbell recognize that the mystics have mentors or people who help them prepare and train for experiencing such states of consciousness.

      I have come to say that my experience was “belly-flopping into mysticism” — and as I noted in my article, my passion growing up was synchronized swimming. Of course synchronized swimming ties to Carl Jung and synchronicity. I have one manuscript done of a collection of synchronicity stories and have more collections planned as I get a lot of them, which my friends enjoy.

      In addition, after college, I had a Rotary scholarship to study abroad for an academic year. I chose Basel, Switzerland. I knew that Jung was born in Kesswil, Switzerland, and lived outside of Zurich in his later years. I only learned a few years ago that he attended the University of Basel, was a professor there for a time, and even grew up just outside of Basel. I love having that connection to Jung. 🙂

      Thanks again for your comment and support.

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  3. Thank you, Penni, and belated Very Happy Birthday wishes!

    Perhaps every day, or every moment can be a very happy birthday, too, though?

    “We are all meant to be mothers of God. For God is always needing to be born.” – Meister Eckhart.

    Jung, Rumi, Socrates, Jesus and Tolle: I doubt they or any of the greatest mystics would disagree about anything much, and, nowadays, at least, were they with us, and maybe they are, all the other “Christian mystics,” of old (Julian, Hilda, Francis, Teresa, both Johns et al) might also agree that we, like all of Creation, and more, can only be “God,” variously expressing and maybe exploring Herself – and this must, of course, equally include those regarded as and who do play roles as predators and perpetrators, until they – we see The Light?

    “Theologians may quarrel, but the mystics of the world speak the same language.”

    ― Meister Eckhart

    But, even having very clearly seen The Light, once back inside the depths of The Cave, and re-infected by the dark fears and despair of those around them, we may see that even such as Socrates (we can read of his agonizing over whether it was nobler to try and escape or accept imprisonment – before he reportedly chose suicide!) and Jesus and Joan of Arc were far from immune from fear/indecision/suffering, when misunderstood and persecuted

    Leonard Cohen told us that he had tried various drugs and religions but that Cheerfulness kept breaking through.

    In “Hallelujah,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hN8CKwdosjE , Leonard tells us that “It’s not someone who’s seen The Light,” but, actually, it is, isn’t it?

    A long time ago, according to Plato, Socrates told us what fate befell those returning to the Cave having seen The Light, and made it perfectly clear that this was the fate of every single human soul.

    Jung, Grof and Campbell, and now Sean Blackwell (of “Bipolar or Waking Up?”) and Hollywood in countless heroes’ and heroines’ journeys movies has made this still more clear, and yet we fail to understand and continue to persecute one another for our different visions: SURELY, we all play and have played Victim and Perpetrator in countless narratives until we emerge as healing heroines and heroes.

    And, thanks to the courage of women like you, Penni, and Brené Brown and countless, countless others, we have arrived at a place where we are forced to ask,

    If we refuse to see spiritual awakenings, no matter how abrupt and traumatic, as medical illness, and cannot in all honesty therefore ask states or insurers or employers to pay folks “sick pay” for something we refuse to call illness, what can we do to better support individuals undergoing such awakenings or emergences and “spiritual emergencies?”

    Jung, like Brown, seems to have managed to continue to keep working away throughout his, but it seems not everyone can.

    Like your brother, perhaps, Penni, as you probably know, Neale Donald Walsch and Eckart Tolle spent time homeless…and some might say that both Socrates and Jesus did, too, before both dying by cop and, arguably, even by suicide-by-cop.

    But, when we get it, we laugh, I guess, and, when we are not laughing, perhaps we just don’t get it, yet, or forget…and it is funny to see the evolution of “breakdown” into “spiritual awakening” in at least one influential therapist’s thinking – at least when the pressure came on her!:

    About 7:50 of this


    or 7:39 in the transcript

    ‘And I’m so worn out at this point in my life, I look at her and I actually say, “It was a fricking spiritual awakening.”‘


    Min 10:50 – 12:00 of


    Min. 11:13 -11:36 of this transcript


    Many Very Happy Birthdays, again, and very many happy thank-yous, again!


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    • Tom,

      You aren’t late in wishing me a happy birthday. The article was published early. Tomorrow (March 28) is my special day.

      To your question about insurance and “sick pay,” — we can come up with better models that don’t treat everything as pathology and “disorders.” Pregnant women who go to hospitals to deliver their babies are not “sick” or “ill” — and yet I am certain that insurance pays for that process. People experiencing injuries — car accidents, falls that break bones or cause other injuries are not deemed to have experienced “illness” and “disorder” and pathologized. And yet insurance pays for those procedures as well. So just because something has been called “sick pay” doesn’t mean that is what it really is and only what it is used for. The last company I worked for didn’t use the term “sick pay” — it was just part of “paid-time off.”

      Limiting support based on language (and incomplete language at that) is an exceptionally poor process. In addition, there are power dynamics related to language. I have a second master’s degree in Germanics, which ties to how difficult it can be to translate things, including experiences into language. It also addresses how we think language is fixed, and yet it isn’t.
      Language is constantly changing. The power dynamics of words is why the “disorder” garbage is just that — garbage. And “illness” is right there with it since there are no biomarkers for such experiences, no virus, bacteria, or even biological sources for such experiences. It is much easier to label that which “breaks” — the individual — than to address the forces and systems that cause or at least contribute significantly to a person breakdown down or open. If you haven’t read James Davies book, “Sedated: How Modern Capitalism Created Our Mental Health Crisis,” it’s an excellent read.

      Stan Grof said that when assisting someone through the spiritual emergency / awakening process, the mental health person is in the role of the midwife — primarily to aid and assist and support — and yes, to be there in cases where something happens that can lead to other forms of emergency. And he often worked with people diagnosed with schizophrenia, which is often an even more severe type of experiences than so-called bipolar. His work goes back to the 1960s and 1970s when he recognized how a person can end up in non-ordinary states of consciousness and how that is often a healing and beneficial transformational process. He coined the term “holotropic” to mean “moving toward wholeness.” So perhaps creating an approach that doesn’t limit pay to “sickness” (which it doesn’t anyway) and focuses rather on transformation would be a good way to go. And, thankfully, that process of reform is already underway.

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  4. Thank you for such a very thoughtful response, Penni.

    And a Very Happy Birthday, this evening!

    Your points are well made (although I doubt you have watched “The Business of Being Born” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Business_of_Being_Born – available online, as far as I know or you could hardly have avoided referring to it!) but…

    1. As we observe Religion and Politics finally beginning to really clash in the US, It amazes me that this has miraculously not happened long ago, if only given that the concept/assertion that “All men are created equal” is a purely religious notion, in my opinion (as well as actually being true, but not yet “self-evident,” also in my opinion).

    2. You may recall seeing “religiosity/”hyper-religiosity” listed among supposed signs (rather than symptoms, strictly speaking) of “manic-depression” or “bipolar illness/disorder?”

    3. You know the joke that you are an alcoholic if you drink more than your doctor? Well, it has been more dangerous, at times, to be either more “focused/hyper-focused” or more “religious/hyper-religious” than your psychiatrist, or than the one thrust upon you, as this has been held to be and used as evidence of one’s “mania/hypomania,” sometimes to impose life sentences, and to deprive law-abiding citizens of their reputations, of their careers, of their autonomy, of their unsullied (by forced drugs) consciousness, of their confidence – oh, and, incidentally, and indefinitely, of their freedom – and all with the sanction of that citizen’s state: Indeed, “those who can makes us believe absurdities can make us commit atrocities.”

    4. But, given that it seems intellectually dishonest, at least, or barely conceivable that any psycho pharmacologist who has undergone a spiritual awakening should continue to prescribe psychotropic drugs to others and continue as a member of the APA in good standing.


    5. The late, great and in so many ways profoundly enlightened Thomas Szasz, himself, to my knowledge, never claimed either the slightest belief in “God” or in Spirit, in awakening or in genuine spiritual awakening: clearly he did not need to.

    6. Carl Jung, to my mind, made it clear that to him, awakening folks was what his work was all about.

    7. This, I believe, explains why mainstream psychiatry had to follow Freud and not Jung – this far, at least.

    In summary: If for those who believe/have undergone any spiritual awakening, no proof is necessary; while for those who have not yet, no proof is possible, then, at least until such time as some critical mass of humanity has undergone an awakening process, or what Jung called a “coming to Consciousness,” we can hardly expect state-mandated or insurance-approved paid time off for “spiritual emergencies,” can we?

    That said, however, I happen to believe that such a critical mass may actually be achieved in the immediate future!


    My view is that, like Jung, many of the greatest scientists were mystics, even though they may well have eschewed any such description:

    “Evolution is no linear family tree, but change in the single multidimensional being that has grown to cover the entire surface of Earth.” ― Lynn Margulis, What Is Life?

    “I go into the Upanishads to ask questions.” – Niels Bohr (and Erwin Schrödinger did likewise, I believe).

    ‘Albert Einstein wrote “Now he has again preceded me a little in parting from this strange world. This has no importance. For people like us who believe in physics, the separation between past, present and future has only the importance of an admittedly tenacious illusion.”[7] Einstein died one month and 3 days after his friend, on 18 April 1955.’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michele_Besso


    Penni, thanks a ton for responses I found even more formidable that your spectacular original essay!

    Comfort and joy!


    PS: Apologies, Penni, for a response which has turned out to be less fittingly lucid and coherent than you deserved and than I had hoped, but which I hated to delay further…

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