Hello all! Welcome to the first installment of Thrive To Survive! This is a very special blog/interview series where I, Jon Phipps, will sit down with some of my closest contemporaries to discuss with them how they overcame various physical & mental hurdles in their journey, or overcame obstacles outside of that realm! I couldn’t have picked a better guest of honor for this maiden voyage of TTS…….I had the thrill of sitting down and chatting with my best friend and closest co-creator, the inimitable Renee Yaworsky!
Renee is the embodiment of the words strength, kindness, fearlessness, love, compassion, friendship, beauty, care and inspiration. A native of New York and a long-time resident of the Peach State of Georgia, Renee has been involved with many different things over the span of her life, including law and prison work, modeling, acting, being a singer/songwriter, poet and novelist-all while valiantly and bravely battling health issues, namely lupus and seizures. Says Renee of first finding out about and subsequently tackling these issues in her life:
“I was 18, I was on Grady Avenue in Athens, Georgia and had a typical Athens night. We were swimming, and doing band rehearsal and was up most of the night and really having a great time, and when we fell asleep in the morning after being up all night, I did not wake up. And so luckily, one of my friends who was there tried to wake me up and was confused that he couldn’t, so he called my other friend and got on the phone with 911, and my other friend, my girl-friend was there with me and they were able to wake me up. The paramedics told me my heart had stopped and that they were gonna take me to the hospital. I said, I don’t want to go to the hospital and they said, well we’re taking you anyways. So they took me to St. Mary’s and determined that was the beginning of the understanding of the fact that I was going to have something going on with me, and I didn’t realize what it was. In fact, the initial doctors were reticent to call it a seizure.…….And then I came back up to New York and I was lucky, I was able to be seen by a cardiologist, a very, very good one, and he checked out my heart. And then I started seeing neurologists back in Georgia and they just, you know, called it seizures. At some point, they started saying seizures because they gave me EGS tests, and I was showing seizure activity. But actually after that moment, I didn’t have that many Grand Mal seizures. The Grand Mal seizures is like that when you’re losing consciousness. I’ve only had about two of those, maybe three In my entire life. Typically, my seizures that I had for the next six years, which I had almost every minute of every day were Complex Partial, I think they’re called. It’s been a long time, so some of my terminology might be wrong, but I was medicated and the medicine I don’t remember ever helping that much. I essentially had seizure activity 24 hours a day for about 6.5 years and that limited my ability. Even though I wasn’t losing consciousness, it affected my sense of self, the way I saw the world, what I was able to do, what I was not able to do. I sometimes would have to stay home because the lights outside could make it worse, fluorescent lights made it worse, sunlight could make it worse, But I didn’t get a lupus diagnosis until about 12 years later, and that’s disappointing because I had all of the symptoms. But for whatever reason, even though I was under a neurologist’s care, they never connected those dots.”
Despite the darkness and uncertainty, Renee nevertheless found a cure for the seizures she was suffering, and it was nothing short of a miracle. Renee portrays the scene when she found this miracle cure:
“It must have been 2005. I had trouble traveling, although I tried to travel as much as I could. I often was canceling trips because if the seizure activity was particularly bad, I wouldn’t even be able to leave the house. In 2005, my mother wanted me to come up for part of the summer, and I was able to make it up there. And when we got there, she mentioned that there was a shrine to St. René Goupil, which was not close, but in Upstate New York. It would have been a day trip. And I said, ‘that’s so weird because my name is Renee!’ I said, ‘how did I not know? I’m a Catholic! How did I not know that? I had a saint named after me that has a shrine right near where I grew up!’ She said, “I don’t know.” And we went there, and we toured the grounds, and it’s a lovely, lovely place. It’s out where the Mohawks were. There’s a lot of Native American history there, and a lot of museums, and it’s beautiful countryside.
I was having my general seizure activities, and the sun used to really adversely affect me. That’s a symptom of lupus, and it also can make certain seizures worse if you have that photosensitivity. And it was a hot day. And she went back to the parking lot and I said, “well, I’m gonna linger down near the river a little longer.” I had no plans, no hopes, nothing. I was just by myself and I for some reason bent down and put my hand in the water of the stream, a tributary from the river, which is where the body of St. René had been martyred. And it was once, it was maybe 3 seconds. I just put my hand in the water and I blessed my forehead and I said, “St. René, take away my seizures.” And I had never prayed for my seizures to leave me. I had never given them any conscious thought. I tried to ignore them. And instantly, my seizures were gone. The whole world looked different. The sun was different. And it was just…..gone. And I walked back up to the car, I didn’t mention it to my mother, but I knew I was totally cured and I never once had another seizure. I went off of medicine, I went to law school, my whole life totally changed.“
As mentioned before, Renee has been involved with many different things, but one of her foremost passions earlier in her life was acting. Having taken acting classes at various points since the age of 2, she developed a brawny love of the stage, but a very serious incident made her steer away from acting. Renee recounts this event:
“I’ve been acting my whole life, but I always stayed away from screen because I felt it would be safer, and I love theater. I love the stomps on the stage, I love seeing the audience, I love memorizing the lines and I became a stage actress and that seemed safer to me. Fast forward to about 2007 or 2008, I was in with the acting troupe in Athens, Georgia, and they had a mass shooting there at a function that I was supposed to be at, that I overslept. That was when I made the decision to go to law school and to not continue my acting. So if you fast forward till now, you might understand when people who don’t know me when people who don’t know me think I’m looking for attention, or, “oh, you think you’re so beautiful, you want people to look at you,” they don’t understand how much of my life was spent trying to get people to stop looking at me and for various reasons, and when the mass murder happened, it was very, very intimate and very close, both in proximity to where I literally, physically was and then also emotionally where I was. I did not want anything to do with entertainment again. I only came back to entertainment at all in 2020 during quarantine, but sure that I was going to focus on writing and law, and I absolutely did not want to go back into modeling. I did not want to go back into any sort of public activism and certainly not anything entertainment, nothing with acting, nothing with music.”
Nonetheless, Renee powered forward and dove headlong back into the creative realms of acting, modeling, music and writing. As mentioned before, acting & especially modeling are just one part of Renee’s MO. Through her work in these fields, she inspires and encourages scores of others to find their inner & outer beauty and embrace it, not just for one time only, but throughout the rest of their lives. And Renee is truly a shining beacon of hope for those looking for inspiration, or for those just on a journey to love themselves and accept themselves for who they truly are, not for what society wants them to be. Renee herself talks about the long road it took to overcoming food addictions and to love the skin you’re in, no matter how long it may take:
“I never had an eating disorder, but when I had a fainting spell in my teen years, I was grossly underweight and I did spend many years of my childhood with doctors, you know, monitoring me for bulimia or anorexia. That’s not what was happening. I was eating everything in sight when I was free, but I was highly active and I had a bit of an insecurity about being so underweight. When I was hospitalized for the fainting spell, I weighed 94 lbs. It was quite shocking that that’s why I was hospitalized. There was concern about that, but it wasn’t deliberate. In fact, I would buy these powders and stuff and try to gain weight. It’s what I really wanted. But I was riding horses competitively, so I was active. I was also playing basketball, I was playing tennis, and then I was in a touring rock band while at the same time as starting college at age 16, and I was also running an N.G.O. I ran a nonprofit that I started. I was doing all of that and I was so young, and I just loved it. My mother was so concerned about me because she said, “you’re not eating, you’re not sleeping.” And I’m like, ‘yeah, but I’m so happy.'”
With the modeling & acting work, plus current music endeavors and past activism considered, Renee is no stranger to being in the spotlight. And while this has been a mostly pleasant experience for her, Renee, like any other who is consistently in the limelight, has had to deal with more than her share of catty comments, hurtful messages, situations gone awry, and in some cases, even stalkers and people spying on her. Renee describes what this is like, and what she has done to overcome it:
“It’s disappointing, certainly, because I do havefearful things that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I would say that I was exposed to it early, to the point where now I don’t know any other way. I started my my anti death penalty work when I was 14. And the band I was in became really popular when I was about 15, and so between prisoner issues, prisoners or people from the activist world who maybe didn’t agree with me between that, and then the fans for the band……..I was a drummer. I was the drummer, but I was the only girl. So although I was not getting the level of attention that the front man was getting, I was getting the boy attention because I was the girl. And this is certainly pre social media, but the internet existed. I think we had AOL chatrooms, it wasn’t like what it was now, and it never occurred to me that that could exist. The technology wasn’t popular. So when I was 14 starting this, this anti death penalty work, it never occurred to me that I would be able to be tracked down or my family would be able to be tracked down by prisoners or families of victims or families of prisoners or gangs, it never occurred to me because the internet didn’t exist like that. We were primarily still doing things over snail mail. I created an alias, I had a a pseudonym and I had an activist alias, and I felt like that would be enough. I had no idea what was coming in the years to come with that. Now anybody can find anything. The rock and roll business of it was a little different. I felt very safe because most of our fans of course were like teenage boys our age. I remember our school would have events, we had interviews coming out in the papers and they would put us outside and we would autograph everybody’s copy and things like that. Certainly, there was a lot of attention on the band, but again, because there wasn’t social media and all that. One of the funny things that would happen is many times the band and I would be out in normal places, the mall or a carnival and we would see fans wearing our t-shirts and they wouldn’t recognize us because they had never been to a show, They heard our cassette tape or something, they were fans of ours, but they didn’t know what we looked like. There were fans that came to my house, there were fans that came to my mother’s place of work. There were fans that called us at all hours of the day and night, but they tended to be well meaning and I didn’t fear them, but it did make me very cautious.”
To say life for Renee has been ridges and valleys would be an understatement. But through it all, she has never lost her smile, her passion, her drive, and her compassion and love and kindness toward others. She is someone we all aspire to have as a friend and a cheerleader in our lives. I speak for myself when I say that having the gift of Renee’s friendship has benefitted me and change my life in ways I’m sure I don’t yet know. Add to that the fact that we both have a common goal for ourselves in terms of paths forward and creative ideas, and it’s a friendship that is rivaled by few and duplicated by none. Renee is the definition of taking the high road. When asked about how she would like to be remembered when her times comes, she said:
“I would like to be remembered as somebody who truly showed that you can suffer in your life, and shine a light instead of bringing more darkness into this world, and to be known as a bridge builder and a peacemaker. I think peacemaking and bridge building are things that came naturally to me because I have a duality in my nature. I’m that textbook Gemini, I really do see things from different points of view. When somebody is arguing with me, I always see it from their point of view. I can see it from their point of view as they’re describing to me how unhappy they are with me, and I can jump aboard. I really see things from both points of view. And when you do that, you become a diplomat, you become a leader, a coordinator and organizer. And at the end of the day, you’re becoming a peacemaker. You’re sitting down with someone who might have done something horrible to another human being and you’re finding some common ground there with those people. And that to me is the most important thing, because if we don’t have peace, we don’t have freedom. And if we don’t have freedom, we can’t have happiness. More than 51% of my time as an adolescent teenager and young adult were spent listening to older people talk about their journeys, telling me things and I got to sift through what I believed in, what I didn’t believe. But I was listening. I was acquiring that knowledge. I don’t always have an opinion, and that’s the part of peacemaking, when you’re constantly jumping to conclusions without all the data, you’re constantly, stubbornly clinging to what you believe is fact. Even when different facts are presented to you, with that type of rigid personality, it’s very hard to progress, and it’s very hard to build peace because the more that you’re segregating people and telling them how different they are and how horrible one side is and how great the other side is, all you’re doing is limiting truth and you’re you’re not allowing the person you disagree with to ever progress in their own journey. So hopefully, I will be remembered as a peacemaker. You can’t make everyone happy all the time, but at least that’s my ambition, and I think that’s what I was doing even at nine years old with my animal rights. I was trying to build peace even back then. I think that’s been the theme of my life.”
I want to thank Renee for taking some time from her busy schedule to sit down with me and be interviewed, and I want to thank you, the reader for taking some time from your busy schedule to read this first installment of Thrive To Survive through to the end! without you, none of this is possible! Thank you all again, and until next time, take care, much love and may God richly bless!