Today I’m Reminded…

Today – and most days –, I’m reminded of a woman who I was fortunate to know in my lifetime: She was my Great Aunt M and she was one of the most kind and loving people I’ve ever known. Today is the day she was born and I prefer remembering it than dwelling on the day I witnessed her passing away. Even though I live thousands of miles away from where she once lived, and can’t place yellow flowers on her grave, I pay homage to her memory as often as I can because I learned so much about compassion and unconditional love from her.

She was the kind of person who, although quiet, was strong. Not everyone can survive being put on a ship alone as a young adult and sent thousands of miles away from your family to make your mark in the world. Not everyone would have been able to thrive in a place where they knew no one, but had to prove themselves knowledgeable and capable of saving lives from the very first moment they reported to a new job, but she did. Every person whose life she touched, in even the smallest way, still remembers her. The goodwill of her deeds still lives on in the community where she lived, eventually married, and raised her children.

I’ve been the beneficiary of that goodwill each time I’ve visited her small town and someone has made the connection between who she was and who I am. The pride felt in those moments is overwhelming, and added to the love and respect I already felt for the woman who loved me my whole life. It also made me feel more fortunate that what I know of her came to me, not from her professional life, but from moments that are more intimate. Times where I was fed favourite meals by her, walking with her through the streets of her town on cool summer mornings, sharing cups of tea with her dearest friends after shopping in the local market, or receiving small gifts that always arrived in time for my birthday.

Her memory keeps me positive because every time I think of her I know that somewhere inside me lives the things she taught simply by living her life. I know that I can be strong and survive anything life throws my way. When I am fearful, I know that the courage I need to overcome whatever I’m facing is within me. I know a smile and words of kindness can go a long way to make another person’s day or life better. When I am sad, I have wonderful happy memories in which she lives that I can recall. I know the value of doing good in the world because her work and its legacy live on. Most importantly, I know what it is to be loved unconditionally and what can come of giving love in the same way.

Today I honour the memory of my Great Aunt M and I am grateful I had the opportunity to know her.

 

 

A Bright Spot In My Grey Fog

Time sometimes makes me feel as if I’m moving at a snail’s pace through a murky grey fog. Since having surgery at the end of February, that’s how I’ve been feeling. For the first weeks afterwards, I told myself it was the general anesthetics working through my body and once that passed my energy level would pick up. When that didn’t happen I told myself that I wasn’t getting enough quality sleep, which rarely ever happens, so I had to cast that variable by the wayside. Even when I got the all clear from my doctor because the pathology report from my surgery was negative for any cancer, there was no movement on my energy meter.

I started to get concerned; because I thought, I might slowly be sliding into depression but missing the true signs. Maybe the low energy I was crediting to anesthesia, fatigue, a pain flare up, or my laptop’s hard drive crashing was really the looming darkness of a mental crash. It wouldn’t be hard to miss for someone in my situation, even with the mental health supports I have in place to cope with my poor health; and especially because my nervous system gets flooded not just by the barrage of constant pain but also an unending amount of pain medications. With these things constantly at play, a shift in mood would be easy to miss.

Then last week, I felt a desperate need to change things, but I knew whatever I did had to fall within the limits of my pain. On Saturday, I decided to do something that I had taken for granted when I was healthy. I booked an appointment with the aesthetician I used to go to because it’s been such a long time – almost four years ago before the start of my illness – since I did anything to pamper myself. The women who own the spa I went to were so happy to see me. They asked why it had been so long since my last visit and I told them what I’ve been living with. Not only were they sympathetic, they were also empathetic because they both faced significant health issues in recent years. They were both extremely encouraging and expressed hopes that I would be better soon.

At the end of my appointment, as I walked to the elevators one of the women called after me. I assumed I forgot something, but I hadn’t. She followed me out to give me one of the tightest warm hugs I’ve had in a long time. I started to cry as a woman I hardly know held me with great affection. She reiterated her positive wishes and prayers that I will become healthy soon. For the rest of the day as I pushed myself to finish the errands I had to do – I’m not sure I could have lasted another week without my laptop – I could feel the fog lifting. A hug from someone I barely know lit up my day and has had lingering positive effect.

I’ve been reflecting on that for the past few days: For anyone reading my writing for the first time, this isn’t about me being starved for affection or human contact. I have wonderful friends and family who do everything they can to support me. This is about the big way small gestures can affect our lives; the way sharing our troubles can bring about such surprising connections and unexpectedly comforting events; and how feeling cared for, even if it’s just for a moment, can fortify us.

I’m glad I made that appointment. Apart from reminding me how important it is to do things to pamper one’s self from time to time, it was a truly bright experience that lifted much of the fog that had cloaked me.

 

 

Creative Pain Distractions

It’s hard being alone with intense pain late at night, as I was last night and the night before. Then again, pain that never stops is hard to cope with at any time of the day. Last night, and other days and nights, when my pain is particularly bad and sleep eludes me, I try to think of things to do – aside from amputating the offending body part(s) – to distract myself. Unfortunately, depending on the pain’s level of intensity, I’m not always successful at turning my thoughts away. However, I do usually end up creating something interesting to look at.

As the pain level rose in my legs and pelvis the night before last, I didn’t have a plan for what I wanted to create. I started to place random dots on a clean page in my sketchbook with a black Sharpie pen. Then I connected the dots together with short straight lines and they became triangles, but the sight of a page full of small triangles didn’t feel satisfying. That led me to connecting the triangles at their various points creating a sort of web, which still felt incomplete. I looked at the page for a short while then started drawing lines within each triangle transforming them into prisms. With each line I added, I saw multi-pointed stars appearing on the page that made me wish for an opportunity to experience weightlessness among them on the off-chance I might not feel any pain without the pull of gravity…

Drawing lines didn’t help make my pain go away on recent nights, but it distracted me from thinking of it for a short time as I imagined creating a new galaxy of endless stars.

 

iRest: Learning to Do Nothing

In the fall of 2014, my therapist introduced me to a, new to me, meditative practice called Yoga Nidra, which translated from Sanskrit to English means ‘yogic sleep’ or ‘sleep with awareness’. This yoga practice is said to be “an immensely powerful meditation technique, and one of the easiest yoga practices to develop and maintain.” To teach me the Yoga Nidra practice he used materials developed for the iRest Yoga Nidra Meditation program. iRest “is currently being utilized in VA hospitals, military bases, hospitals and clinics, hospice, homeless shelters, community programs, and schools. Research has shown that iRest effectively reduces PTSD, depression, anxiety, insomnia, chronic pain, and chemical dependency while increasing health, resiliency, and well-being.”

The few times we worked on the practice during therapy sessions, I felt sensations in my body that I couldn’t articulate. To be honest, the unfamiliar sensations I felt in my body freaked me out, which might be why when I used the recorded guided meditations at home on my own; I had great difficulty working through the exercises. Ironically, it was also hard for me to relax and even harder to find a comfortable position so I could focus. I told myself, and my therapist, it was too hard for me to practice alone, and I made myself believe that. After a short time trying the practice, I gave it up.

A few months ago, my therapist told me about a six-week iRest group program held at a local hospital that still had space available and he asked if I might be interested in taking it. I was a bit hesitant because it obviously meant weekly travel that would undoubtedly increase my pain, even though it was just a short cab ride from my home, but I agreed to have him send a referral on my behalf all the same. The program started at the beginning of November, and I wasn’t at all surprised that my health issues met the requirements for me to take part. I was skeptical at first because of how I had felt when first introduced to the practice but I was open to learning more about it in a structured group setting.

The first class of the program introduced us to a meditation similar in some ways to a body scan in mindfulness meditation with the striking difference that your awareness isn’t focussed on your breath and body. With iRest, you focus your awareness on sensations in your body, your body’s energy, and all energy around you. As the program progressed, the class materials, discussions, and meditations became more intense. Through the iRest meditations, the reading materials, and group discussions I was better able to understand my struggles with certain issues. Interestingly, a discussion about fear made the most significant impact on me. We discussed how paralyzing it could be, especially when we don’t understand the origin of our fears.

Over the course the program, we learned to identify what is called sankalpa or personal intentions for each meditation in the practice. I focussed on the issues that seem to consume so much of my time and energy. Thankfully, there was content in the classes I connected with that I felt related directly to my issues: trying to accept my illness and that because of it, I now do nothing. I came to understand that acceptance is not about resigning myself to or giving up on an issue, nor should it be a struggle because acceptance should come without effort. What I’ve been doing is fighting against what exists, which creates mental and emotional pain and intensifies the physical pain in my body. This added pain, mental and emotional, is triggered each time I compare what exists now with my former, pre-illness life. It’s triggered whenever I project my anxiety and fears and attach unproven meaning(s) to the actions of anyone with whom I interact.

The solution to end the extra pain is to do the other thing I fight against: nothing. In doing nothing we connect with the purest form of being. Doing nothing allows us to disentangle our existence from the identities we create because of the work we do and to fit into our various social environments. This uncovering, or unmasking, is necessary to understand ourselves. I recognize now, that my illness is an opportunity to strip away the many masks I wore because I needed to fit in to the world around me, including within my family. For the first time, in my life; I don’t have to justify my existence. I can just be myself, which in this moment means not working and definitely not beating myself up while I do nothing, which is so necessary for me to heal.

Because I couldn’t understand this before, my instincts led me to fight against losing what I’ve known my whole life: constant busyness and doing. Even though, always being busy and doing things is not the whole of who I am, nor is it the complete picture of any other human being. Continuous activity actually prevents us from connecting with our true selves and attending to our needs. Through the iRest program and the self-inquiry it required, I know that what I was really struggling with since the arrival of my illness was my fear. Definite fear about having an illness that still defies complete diagnosis and treatment, but also fear of not being able to point to an identity grounded in constantly doing to show the world or myself who I am.

Of course, there’s a lot more to the iRest program than the small snapshot I’m recounting, but after those six weeks I feel less conflicted than when we started out. More importantly, I feel gratitude about what I learned from iRest, and ultimately about myself, this time around. Unlike the first attempt, two years ago, when I let my fear get in the way of experiencing something new, I also see the value in developing a solo practice. My intention is to continue with the meditations from the program and my self-inquiry. I am practicing to gain as much benefit as I can so the fears I’ve been holding and struggling with – and the many fears I’m certain have yet to emerge from my subconscious – will no longer overwhelm my being and existence, even if my illness remains with me indefinitely.

Just Be

 

New Year

It’s a new year for me to learn more about who I am and the world I live in.

Another year has flown by in a blur. I’m amazed at how quickly time moves, especially now when my days aren’t filled with maddening levels of activity. Still, I’m moving into this new year with new tools and insights about who I am, my illness, and my ability to cope, which hopefully will make things (even just a bit) less challenging.

My mind is abuzz with creative ideas. I hope to have the energy to give life to them with words and to pour them in bold bright colours and shapes on the clean pages of my sketchbooks, and maybe beyond. I’m making plans to travel for the first time since my illness arrived almost three and a half years ago. I’m both excited and anxious about this. Nevertheless, I know the sun, soft sand, and salt water I crave will do good things for my body. I even had a couple dates in 2016. They didn’t result in second dates, but now I know that dating with a chronic illness isn’t impossible, so I’ll probably try some more.

Most importantly, my relationships with my friends and family continue to surprise me (mainly in good ways) and bring me closer to the people I love. Where there has been conflict, I’m learning to approach things without the heavy finiteness of ‘all or nothing’ thinking. Actually, what it might truly be is clearly weighing the value the people on the other side of a rift bring to my life and what I give to theirs. That level of awareness makes room for much more compassion and cuts short the sting from offenses, whether intended or not.

All in all, with some commitment to things I learned in 2016, the year ahead should be a good one.

New Year

 

Happy Day

In recent years, the holiday season has been a difficult time for me. Whether it’s been due to daily physical pain, multiple visits to the hospital emergency room to get medical help to cope with my pain flare-ups, missing holiday events with friends, or not being able to attend family dinners; the past few years have been hard.

However, this year, regardless of where I end up, I’ve decided that I’m going to have a happy day. It won’t matter if the only way I can connect with my friends and family is virtually through text messages, phone calls, and video chats from my bed or a bed in the emergency room. If I can’t make it to dinner because my pain is too overwhelming, I won’t feel conflicted or guilty because I decide to stay home and give my body the rest it needs. If I decide to go to my family’s dinner today and feel sore and exhausted after the drive there, I will give myself permission to find a quiet place to rest and recharge.

Whatever the day brings, the important thing for me is to do what I need to take care of myself. That is my gift to myself today: a day free of pressure, anxiety, and self-doubt. I hope that everyone living with a chronic illness has the freedom to make their own choices today – and every day – so they don’t have unnecessary stress and anxiety piled on top of lives that are already a struggle.

I hope that just as I am determined to, that everyone will have a happy day today.

 

Happy Day

 

After InkTober Is Over

Now that InkTober is over, I feel a bit out of sorts. I don’t have a daily prompt to look forward to, like I did for the entire month of October, nudging me down a particular path, whether with my thoughts or the topic to draw. I liked having that daily structure. Modifying the challenge for myself to focus on my mindfulness practice – as I set out to do on Day 1  – increased my enjoyment, even though some days it was harder to get into the flow of writing without my thoughts constantly wandering off topic. I suppose it did help me to practice mindfulness because I needed to bring my thoughts back to what I had chosen to write about and stay with it to finish a coherent piece.

I also realized during the InkTober challenge that I’m not sure what my preferred drawing style or techniques are and that showed in what I produced. Although I managed to surprise myself on some days with my drawings, I had to stretch my artistic abilities. After some thought, what I’ve decided to do now to maintain a daily creative practice, instead of doodling or drawing or writing poetry when the mood hits me, is select one of the many creative books I’ve been stockpiling and work through it as if taking a course. I may not post my progress every day because I learned how tiring it could be, mentally and physically, to push myself to complete a daily challenge. However, even if I don’t post about it I will be occupying myself with something to improve my creative skills and to ward off boredom.

I also need to get back to where I left off writing about all my medical treatments and misadventures. I obviously haven’t written about that part of my world for a while, but there are still things happening that I hope might be helpful to others living with issues like mine. I’ve had a new medication added to my pain management cocktail and I have two important additions to my treatment plan coming up, which I’m counting on to deliver some changes to my health, but if they don’t maybe someone reading about them will benefit from them. The first addition is a six-week mindfulness and yoga-based chronic pain management course called iRest. The course starts next week and my therapist referred me to it. The second is a more invasive procedure that will happen under my pain specialist’s supervision at the hospital in the day/ambulatory surgery clinic.

I no longer have daily prompts, but I will have lots to keep me busy. With all the upcoming activity, I have to remind myself of the most important take-away I learned from InkTober: that even though some of it might be fun, I don’t have to finish everything at once.

Bright Cone Flower Sketch - October 2016