Liz Hilliard (right) and Lee.
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At 64 years old, I took a very deep breath, divorced my husband of 37 years, fell in love with a woman and began reconstructing my life authentically with a new purpose.
Ending a marriage that had been on life support for far too long time freed me from the constraints of fear and societal norms, which I had allowed to hold me hostage in the search for honesty and self. To paraphrase former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, I did the thing I must not do, which in turn became my ticket to freedom — not only freedom from a stale marriage, but freedom to sound my own horn, to explore my passion and sexuality and to finally become the person I was hesitant and afraid to become. To become powerful.
I had been playing small for far too long, living in the shadow of others’ expectations and my own limited self-worth while preaching to my business clients about finding their own power, accepting it and moving forward into living their truth. I even wrote a book called “Be Powerful: Find Your Strength at Any Age,” which became an Amazon bestseller thanks to clients and others who wanted to know my secrets to looking and feeling good in my 60s. But in writing that book, I began to feel an expansion ― a feeling I had yet to verbalize even to myself.
As I wrote my story of vulnerability and strength, which was genuine, I began to realize deep down that I was writing the story I wanted to hear — but not in its entirety.
My friend and employee Lee was at my side throughout most of this process, helping me excavate facts and feelings that I had yet to recognize and passions that were being unleashed. It felt like fire and freedom, terror and health. I was falling in love with life and reawakening my spirit while also — unbeknownst to me — falling in love with Lee. The feelings were coming on strong, but the words were not.
Let’s back up to the beginning. I have a daughter who is my only child and my best friend. The bond we share has always been unusually close. She has always been my first thought and strongest love. My goal was to nurture her with love and magic, honesty and courage. We loved adventure and freedom. We went through times that were typical as well as extremely challenging, but always together in harmony.
However, there was one exception ― one secret that I could never share with her, out of a need to do the right thing for our family: Her father and I were navigating a troubled marriage. There was no way I would reveal that to her. It was a burden that I couldn’t allow her to bear. I felt that my job was to protect her and to keep my adult life and the evolutions of my marriage to myself.
When my daughter and incredible son-in-law decided to move to Charlotte, North Carolina, to begin their lives together, I was thrilled and decided to share my second baby with her: my new fitness venture, Hilliard Studio Method. We agreed to grow it together, finding new joys and adventures as business partners.
While on paper our relationship read as a recipe for disaster — if not insanity — it has been anything but!
In 2012, Lee walked into our studio for her first class just as it was starting. There were no more spots available, so I ushered her out and told her to come to another class after signing up. When she reflects on that first meeting, she remembers feeling a certain energy as I placed my hand on her back to gently direct her out. Luckily for me, she came back. My daughter noticed Lee on her return and, after seeing her do the workout, suggested that we hire her as an instructor.
That was the beginning of a strong friendship between the three of us. Lee just rolled right into our adventures, and we all became fast friends. The new dynamic was fun and seamless. We found joy and camaraderie in working, playing and traveling together as friends and families.
Love is oftentimes discovered in the most unexpected places and people. For me, it was right in front of my eyes ― when I finally opened them four years ago. When I acknowledged the feelings of my whole heart and inner voice, it became clear that I was in love with Lee. We were not only friends, but women who identified at that time as heterosexual, both going through a divorce. And to really ice the cake, she was my employee and 26 years my junior.
While on paper our relationship read as a recipe for disaster — if not insanity — it has been anything but! Initially I went on a rampage of denial, citing very solid facts about why the relationship could not go forward. However, I could not unknow or deny the feelings of love and respect that we had for each other.
The revelation that I might not be completely heterosexual came about in a lightning flash that ran me through like cupid’s arrow during a stressful afternoon at work, when Lee — then just Lee, not my Lee — threw her arms around my neck and said: “I’ve got you. You’re going to be OK.”
It wasn’t her words that held me. It was the high-voltage electricity that hit so hard I pushed her away from me. I was shocked ― physically, emotionally and mentally ― to find out in that moment that my heterosexual self was no longer intact. I was blown out of the water to discover I was more ― something else that I still cannot name, but it sure as hell was not heterosexual!
Can you fall in love in an instant? Maybe, but I think this feeling had been building for a long time without me realizing it. Can you change in an instant? Absolutely and hell yes. There is no denying the truth when it comes directly from my heart, my gut and my soul. The mind has no power in the face of such knowingness.
That night, I texted Lee to meet me for dinner. I was awestruck and giddy, and I needed to handle my emotions right then and there. By nature, I’m not afraid to confront my feelings, and this feeling was a 911. I remember being aware of the goofy smile that broadened across my face when she quickly said yes to my invitation. I had no idea what I was going to say, but the need to let her know was urgent and had to be handled one way or another.
Sitting outside on my back patio, I told her that I loved her in some new way that I could not explain. I needed to be honest and wanted to see if she shared any of these feelings. She did. I dared not touch even her hand.
Hilliard (left) with Lee.
Shortly after that night, we began to explore together the delights of an unknown passion and love that I had never experienced and certainly never expected. We were honest, inexperienced, silly and serious in one sweeping breath. We were also treading on dangerous ground, with our marriages already broken apart, our divorces pending and the threat of more angst for our families a possibility. We were swept up in the joy of each other while at the same time trying to focus on the fallout that was sure to come among our families.
The fact that we were constantly in the public eye together and divorced from our husbands at practically the same time gave everyone an easy way to make all kinds of assumptions about our relationship. I’m a public figure in my small neck of the woods, and the vicious rumors that began spreading through the city like wildfire threatened my family, my career and my sanity.
Before I was ready to go public, I was called out by those who could see the obvious attraction between Lee and me but only imagined the worst. My hand was forced, and I had to move quickly in telling this bizarre tale when I could scarcely wrap my own head around it.
There was one very important person who needed the truth immediately and who was soon to become my advocate in this new journey: my ex-husband. His grace and support amid my terror was heroic and immediate.
You see, love really is love. My ex-husband and I were well past the pain and hurt of a failed marriage by that point, and the magnitude of the moment is one I’ll remember always. For it, I will love and defend him in any way possible for the rest of my life.
The fear, darkness and pain of divorce is real, no matter how well it’s done — which in our case was a mutual and civilized ending to a relationship that had not been working for years. But there is no divorce without loss, hurt or vulnerability, and those are exactly the feelings you need to move forward. Those are the great teachers of accepting change.
The ability to find your deepest, most vulnerable self is right where you find your power. And I was about to find my power through releasing my past, being accountable for my actions and allowing myself to be completely exposed and vulnerable through the inexplicable love I felt for Lee.
The divorce had already traumatized my adult child when she realized that her parents’ marriage was not what it seemed. Out of love and concern for her, we had portrayed ourselves as the perfect couple. But this facade that we presented to save face only shielded us from reality and caused more pain.
If there’s a chapter in a self-help book somewhere about how to perfectly break this sort of news to your child, I missed it. My daughter felt betrayed and lied to. She knew me as her closest confidante, truth-teller and friend. After my failure to tell her early in my relationship with Lee, a rift formed that still lives in a small, shadowy place between us, but it is steadfastly oppressed by the love that we have for one another. Her hurt is my only regret.
Revealing my truth to my daughter was the hardest moment of my life. The words to express my new alien feelings, which I had never experienced up to that point, came out abrupt, messy and confused. If I had the time to absorb and process those new emotions, I might have been more eloquent or organized. But life is rarely those things, and truth told badly is still truth. The beauty lies in the fact that truth will eventually settle in as love in a new form, no matter how badly mishandled and bruised in the telling of it.
Revealing my truth to my daughter was the hardest moment of my life. The words to express my new alien feelings, which I had never experienced up to that point, came out abrupt, messy and confused.
My relationship with my daughter has, for the most part, weathered the storm and continues to evolve into a newer and more meaningful place, where secrets of our past are losing their power and will one day be relieved and eventually forgiven. I can never know how deeply she suffered from this upheaval because it turns out that we’re not the same; we process life differently at a different pace.
The joy and love I find in her every day is fresh and will never again be taken for granted. My job is to accept and respect her needs and feelings — and, more than anything else, to love her like I always have. Completely.
On a Tuesday afternoon in December 2020, I asked Lee if she’d like to go pick out a diamond. The first ring she picked out of the case fit as if it had been waiting for her to show up. She tried almost every ring in the rest of the store as well.
We were both having a blast, but I had a hair appointment across the street. So, in the most romantic moment of all, I left her with my credit card and told her to have at it! She texted the picture of her final selection, purchased it with my AmEx and met me for a celebratory dinner.
I didn’t propose marriage; mostly I proposed that she wear a diamond as a symbol of our commitment. I wasn’t in a hurry for a ring of my own. About nine months later, we returned to the same store, and I bought the most beautiful ring I have ever seen. I feel the power and strength of our love and commitment every time I see it.
I am an absolute chicken when it comes to marriage. I can only assume that is because I have felt caged for most of my adult life in those terms, and what I feel now is a new freedom of expression that is true and magic, limitless and expansive.
We will wear our diamonds and, when we are ready, set a date to publicly and legally commit to each other, knowing the institution of marriage and its benefits while thankfully avoiding institutionalism. Lee is my person, whether we marry or not. She will be my person for the rest of my life — I’m quite sure of that. Plus, she looks really good in a wedding gown.
The words “Be Powerful” are written boldly on the wall of my studio. They represent different things for different people, each of us walking through the various constraints placed on us by society to show a facade of ourselves that we present to the world. But who are we inside? Where is our light? What fear is holding us back today?
To see oneself clearly and deeply takes courage, practice and stamina. When we grow stronger physically, we use that same courage, practice and stamina to build ourselves stronger emotionally. Every time we move through the pain of change and let go of the fears holding us stagnant, we find who we are inside, we find our light and we shine more brightly for all to see. While fear constricts, love opens and acts as a ripple through the world, and that is truly powerful.
Liz Hilliard is an author, motivational speaker, podcast co-host and personal and group trainer, as well as the owner and creator of Hilliard Studio Method ― a core-centric and Pilates-based workout. The HSM brand now includes the “Be Powerful With Liz & Lee” podcast, which Hilliard co-hosts with Lee Kennelly, HSM’s director of training. A recipient of SmartCEO’s Charlotte Corporate Culture Award, Hilliard is the author of “Be Powerful: Find Your Strength at Any Age” and has been featured in numerous national publications including Yahoo Lifestyle, Oxygen Magazine, Healthy Advantage, and HuffPost. Learn more on her Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages, as well as her website.