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Byron Kathleen Reid grew up in and around Barstow, California, in the barren high desert 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The town is famous mostly for being a place you pass through on your way to and from somewhere else, principally Sin City. ("We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold" is the famous first sentence of Hunter Thompson's book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.) Katie's father was a railroad engineer, her family moved back and forth between Barstow and neighboring Needles, and her childhood was unremarkable. When Katie—a pretty, intellectually uncurious California girl with a pile of tawny hair—arrived in Flagstaff to attend Northern Arizona University in 1960, she was not in possession of a burning desire to make her academic mark.

She fell in love, dropped out before the end of freshman year, and married her boyfriend. They had three children, but the union faltered, and they divorced. Three years later, Katie bounced into another bad marriage. Once again stuck in Barstow, she began to sink into a pit of addictions, anger, overeating, and misery that led her to near constant thoughts of suicide. She was, seemingly permanently, in hell.

In 1986, out of options for what to do with herself, Katie got her husband to drive her to a halfway house in Los Angeles, where the other residents were so terrified of her rages and sulks that they refused to share a bedroom with her, insisting she sleep alone in the attic.

Her self-esteem so low that she didn't believe she deserved to sleep in a bed, she chose instead to bunk on the floor, and it was there—hunkered down in an attic, seething with loneliness and confusion—that Katie went to sleep one night, hours away from what would be her awakening.

If you've ever had the experience of waking up in an unfamiliar room, when, for a few disorienting seconds, you can't for the life of you place where or even who you are, then you know what happened to Katie the next morning—with one exception. For her, the sense of "I" didn't immediately click back into place. The data didn't upload. Maybe it was a neurological event, maybe it was enlightenment, but one thing is certain: The burden of her self-identity was lifted.

A cockroach crawled across her foot that morning in the halfway house, and she woke up—or, as she says, somewhat confusingly—"it" woke up. Not "it" as in the cockroach; "it" as in the pure consciousness inside her own head. Katie had the sensation of seeing the world through perfectly neutral eyes, with none of her own backstory attached.

"There was just awareness, no story. It"—that pure, unencumbered consciousness—"had never seen anything before. It had never been born before." (It was the kind of revelation that's usually accompanied by the munchies.) "I realized," she says, "that the mind projects the whole world."

What she means: There is reality, and then there is the movie your mind projects about that reality. There is the dress, and there is the movie that tells you how you look in the dress. Your mind projects the movie that tells you that you're about to be fired or that you've ruined a friendship or that you have no sense of style.

That morning in the attic of the halfway house, Katie realized that we all have full permission to walk over to the movie projector and yank the plug from the wall. "There are two ways to live your life," she says. "One is stressed-out, the other is not. One hurts, one doesn't. Either way, you're living it. Look, if you're having a nightmare, don't you want to wake up? That's what I'm inviting people to do—wake up to reality."

"Everyone wanted to know what she'd done to become so suddenly joyful, so able to live in the moment and embrace life"

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