Horrible Boss Flashback

It never goes away, does it? The involuntary visceral constriction when someone reminds you of a terrible episode in your life. Did the person with whom you imagined yourself building a life break your heart or did you break theirs? Did someone you loved dearly suddenly permanently pass from your life? Did a trusted friend unforgivably betray you? Did you have employers who inappropriately inserted themselves into your personal life? I’ve experienced these situations, and more, that have sometimes made life more difficult than one wishes it to be. However, the incident of which I was recently reminded was the inappropriate treading into my life, which my last employer felt they had the right to do.

I ran into someone recently, whom I had the pleasure of working with on a project for a short time, not long before I became ill almost four years ago. Lucky for her, she did not have to bear the same degree of pain, humiliation, and strife I did to cut ties with our former horrible boss. Hearing the name of the company where we used to work made me cringe. Since the end the legal action I had to take against the company, I’ve done all I can to limit contact with anyone who worked there so I can maintain my peace of mind. Especially those former colleagues who blindly supported my former horrible boss without knowing the truth about what I was subjected to.

My former horrible boss tried to deny me access to my disability benefits when it became clear that I couldn’t return to work after my hospitalization at the onset of my illness. She demanded answers to embarrassingly inappropriate questions about my health. She later terminated the part of my extended health benefits that paid for the many expensive medications I take to function daily; and even worse, she terminated my employment without notifying me about a year into my illness in an attempt to strip me of my long-term disability benefits. On top of all that, she launched a campaign of misinformation within the company to explain my sudden then extended absence. The stress of trying to cope with all of this and my poor health and constant pain was, at times, too much to bear.

The person I ran into knew the crux of the situation because she had heard details from a mutual friend. She expressed her sympathies that someone, anyone, could have done any of what our former horrible boss did to me; especially because the early period of my illness was when my doctors had no conclusive answers about what was happening to my body and I was truly fearful for my life. Instead of being able to direct my focus on my health alone, I was forced to cope with the added stress of an employer who felt they could insert themselves into the most intimate parts of my life. When I refused to share what was happening to me, in part because I truly didn’t know, but mainly because it’s against the law for an employer to ask. It set in motion the series of events I listed above – and much more I try never to think of – that I still sometimes can’t believe. The right to protect my health and personal information caused a protracted legal case that thankfully vindicated me and ended my former horrible boss’s persistently violent prying into my life.

Even though all of that happened, the best thing about this flashback, about any flashback, is that it’s no longer part of one’s current reality. It may be difficult to be transported back to a particular moment when something devastating happened, however, that living moment is gone. Better still, I know I have the protection of the law and the emotional and psychological tools to bolster me if ever the smallest thoughts of that situation resurface in my life, and if any do, I don’t have to stay with them or delve beyond the surface of those memories unless I choose to do so. In this case, where anything involving my former horrible boss is concerned, I choose not to delve deeper than necessary to describe how she attempted to intimidate and deprive me of what I needed to care for myself. I choose not to allow who she was, and probably still is, affect me beyond a momentary tremor in my subconscious because I survived and beat her attempts to harm me during a time when I had to dig deep just to keep living.



Panic Without A Disco

I had a panic attack this morning. It’s the second one I’ve ever had. Both have been visited upon me since becoming ill almost four years ago. The first one came while I was in the hospital emergency room one night seeking help to manage an intensely painful pain spike. Immediately after the nurse injected a dose of morphine into the line of my IV drip it felt like there was an elephant sat on my chest preventing me from breathing properly. Catching my breath felt impossible and I started to feel dizzy, as I lay almost flat on my back on the hospital bed. The medical team treating me had to jump into action to make sure I wasn’t having an allergic reaction or a coronary episode of some kind. They ruled out both and concluded that the feeling that my lungs compressed caused me to panic.

This morning’s panic attack happened because of what I suspect were two concurrent shocks to my system. The first was waking suddenly from a very vivid nightmare. I don’t want to recount it because it’s the kind of thing best left in darkness. However, every moment of it felt frighteningly real and when I woke from it I was afraid. I was trembling. I was breathing heavily. When I moved I felt intense pain in my back, pelvis, and legs that made it hard for me to move so I could self-sooth and calm my breathing. Falling out of such lucid images of fear to land in the pain-filled reality of my body must have shocked my nervous system in a way similar to the day I received that shot of morphine in the emergency room.

When I was finally able to stand up I made my way to the bathroom where I sat for a long time trying to catch my breath. I had to talk to myself to coax my body back to calm. I’m not certain how long it took to normalize my breathing but it felt like an eternity and even then I was still shaking; still feeling the incredible pain shooting up my back and down my legs. In another eternity, I walked to the living room and sat on my couch where I have stayed most of today. I was also forced to face the reality that the plans of having one of my closest friends come visit me later in the day had to be postponed. That hurt too.

Sadly, there are times when my body and mind send me painful messages I can’t ignore. As a result, I’ve spent most of the day trying to move as little as possible because the pain has been so intense. Even though it’s early evening now, my hands are still somewhat shaky and my stomach still feels a bit unsettled. If I could clearly articulate what it felt like during this morning’s episode, it might look something like what I’ve drawn below: spikey, wavy, and disorganized all at once.

I hope no one else has had this kind of Saturday.




Gratitude and Creativity: Low Emotional Valley

I’m just realizing that I spent the better part of the past month in a low emotional valley. The failure of my acupuncture treatment hit me hard. I know this because of the smatterings of energy I managed to invest in anything that resembled something creative, including how little I wrote. The recovery from the pain flare up caused by the acupuncture has been slow – I haven’t been able to reduce the doses of my pain medications. The frustration and disappointment of another treatment that doesn’t work for me is becoming hard to bear. As much as I try being positive, the melancholy found its way in and decided to hang around as I drank copious amounts of tea and binge watched TV while sleep eluded me most nights.

My uninvited guest sapped me of so much energy that I became too tired to sleep. Too tired to feed myself properly, and barely able to meet the few commitments I made to family and friends. The strange thing is while this was happening I didn’t recognize it because I was still moving, still breathing, and still feeling pain. I’m not numb, but I was enveloped by whatever the opposite of being mindful and aware of oneself might be. Then, this morning, as I turned the corner on another sleep-deprived night I flipped through a few pages of my art/gratitude journal and saw how little my brain and hands have produced because of my low energy and sinking emotions.

What was I trying to find in the pages of a sketchbook at 6:45 on a Saturday morning? I was looking for a blank space to teach myself how to draw a new, to me, Zentangle pattern. The space was easy to find because, as I said, I haven’t done a lot of creating lately. I keep saying that I’m teaching myself how to draw. However, at the rate I’m going I may not reach that goal. I have the books and the art supplies I need, but without motivation and a positive mood, that amounts to a lot of blank paper and unused pens, pencils and paint.

I noticed that the time I spend in these emotional valleys seems to be getting longer each time and my awareness of that space is losing its sharpness. This morning, wanting to draw a new combination of lines alerted me to the presence of the current valley. I wanted to connect with one of the things that help to stop me from falling down the steep slopes and that desire, that smallest of desires, pulled me upward.

Last night, while sleep stayed far away from me, I spent time on Adele Bruno’s website Tickled to Tangle. She’s a Certified Zentangle Teacher (CZT) from whose posts I’m learning a lot. She writes a series called “Tips for Tangling” where she shares great step-by-step information about how to draw Zentangle patterns that makes drawing them a lot easier. Because of her posts, I’m becoming more comfortable and confident about drawing in ink and not worrying about making mistakes. After all, in Zentangle there are no mistakes. It was one of her posts that made me reach for my sketchbook: Tangling Radiant Sooflowers. I wanted to try creating my own radiant drawing but I first needed to learn the tangle pattern, Sooflowers created by Livia Chua, which luckily wasn’t at all difficult. After a quick practice, I worked on my tile and made one change to customize it. Instead of stippling the white spaces with dots, I filled them with small Tipple circles.

My tired eyes and shaky hands aside, I’m happy with the result. I’m also happy that although I didn’t sleep at all last night, Adele Bruno’s creativity alerted my awareness to my low emotional valley and inspired me to start climbing out.


Ed Sheeran – I See Fire

Gratitude and Creativity: Drawing Myself Out Of Heaviness

I’ve been writing about such heavy feelings and topics lately that I felt the need to lighten things up. It helps that the sun has lit up the otherwise overcast winter skies for a few minutes each afternoon this week and that I got some unexpected rest while meditating yesterday morning – I fell into a deep sleep for about an hour with my face planted in a pile of pillows. Not getting sleep tends to fry my brain and has a dampening effect on my moods. Even though I try to sound and act cheerful, the weight of fatigue drags me down like an iron anchor. I have to work hard not to succumb to the tug of depression, which only adds layers to my fatigue.

To counteract the heaviness I’ve been researching different art forms to figure out which one suits me best and what I might be able to achieve on a larger scale if I teach myself how to draw and paint. I’ve encountered some interesting artists. One artist whose gallery and website I really enjoyed exploring is Sandrine Pelissier. She’s a mixed media artist who creates beautiful paintings using acrylic paint, watercolor, dry pastels, graphite, oil sticks, and vibrant inks on paper, yupo paper, and canvas. She incorporates things like string, plaster, and paper to create interesting textures. She even incorporates life drawings and Zentangle patterns into her work. I’m considering taking one of her online classes to add some structure to my learning.

In the meantime, I started a small project. I’m making Zentangle tiles using a single tangle pattern (monotangle). It’s intended in part to make me practice drawing the patterns and steady my hands that tend to shake when I draw, while helping me to relax because I don’t meditate as much as I should. This is becoming a helpful practice because I realized that once I draw the patterns in my Zentangle notebook I may add the ones I like to something I draw in my art/gratitude journal, but the others never get drawn again. I also need to practice shading the patterns, which isn’t something I do in my notebook, and I’m not terribly good at right now. To make the project more challenging, instead of drawing random strings (guide lines) on each tile, I’m using the strings from the Tangle Patterns web site. There are currently 196 strings and tangles beyond that number in existence, so I should be busy for a while.


Don McLean – Vincent (Starry Starry Night)


Gratitude and Creativity: A Year Of Banking Positives

I’ve been reflecting on the year that passed, trying to identify the best thing(s) that happened. Unlike other years, this time it wasn’t too difficult to pinpoint what I should put at the top of my list. Flipping through my memories, a few things, and people kept coming back to the surface. Much of them related to my illness and all that has happened, or hasn’t, because of it. Surprisingly, there were more good things than bad that filled my thoughts, which puts me in a positive frame of mind as this new year unfolds.

The best thing that happened to me last year, by far, was having a new surgeon assigned to my case. If I wasn’t sent to him for a second opinion, I’d probably still be sitting here with a growth in my pelvis waiting to see what might happen to it – would it grow larger or mutate into something cancerous as some speculated – and what would happen to the rest of me as a result. It took one meeting with this surgeon for things to take a more positive tone and move forward more rapidly than they had at any point since the start of my illness. Within weeks of his first assessment, I had pre-admission tests scheduled and my surgery date was set. I had surgery last August, close to the second anniversary of the frightening start of my illness, and although my recovery hasn’t been smooth, the surgical outcomes were better than anyone could have expected because the growth removed from my pelvis was benign.

The physical pain that growth introduced to my life was the catalyst for some of the other good things that are now part of my life. Because of all the pain medications I take to function daily, I had to find new ways to express myself. I started by writing a journal that focused on my pain and how I was coping with it. That journal eventually became this blog, but I soon realized I needed more to fill my life: I needed to reconnect with my creativity. I found so many creative ideas and tools online. I started an art/gratitude journal, which made me realize that who I’ve always been isn’t gone, although the fog of pain medications sometimes masks it. That spark of self-recognition helped me start writing poetry again and made me feel less disconnected and dulled. I’m also teaching myself how to draw; this came about purely by accident when I found Zentangle, which has the added benefit of being a meditative practice. My life is full of colour now – I literally have coloured pencils, pens, markers, sketchbooks and paper all over my place – when I never imagined there could be room for anything creative with this illness and constant pain.

Many of my relationships also changed and some became stronger because of my illness. At this point last year I felt alone and very isolated. The feeling of isolation shifted a bit when I started this blog and made connections with people living in situations similar to mine. From their stories, I learned how chronic pain and chronic illness could take a heavy toll on your relationships with friends and family and on your relationship with yourself. Articles and blog posts I read spoke of incredible loss and loneliness because people are afraid to share the truth about their circumstances or they had people turn their backs on them when they did share the truth. I had those fears about sharing and I did lose relationships with people who didn’t want to deal with what I’m living with, and I even had some family walk away from me. However, the people who encourage me to be honest about how I feel (physically and emotionally) and want me to ask them for help are incredible. People, who a few years ago I might have considered casual friends, are now some of my closest friends. Friends I’ve known for decades are now even closer and do whatever they can to support me and keep my spirits up when pain overwhelms me. The love from these friends and the family that stand by me makes me feel less afraid about being open and less isolated, even though I spend most of my days alone.

Chronic pain and illness continued to change my life in 2015. However, as I look back, most of the positive changes wouldn’t have happened without them. I never make New Year’s resolutions and I’m not going to change that now, but I am going to hope that my bank of positive experiences continues to grow.


Gratitude and Creativity: We Rise By Lifting Others

The wife of my friend R has cancer. It started as colon cancer for which she had surgery to remove the tumour followed by radiation; and her doctors believed they removed all the cancer. Unfortunately, after a follow-up CT scan they found a new cancerous tumour in her liver. They surgically removed that tumour along with a significant piece of her liver and again treated her with radiation. About two months ago, they found another tumour on her liver. She started radiation treatments for the new tumour a few weeks ago, trying to shrink it, but her oncologists now believe she needs another surgery to remove this tumour too. The looming question is whether there is enough of her liver left from the previous surgery to cut any more of it out.

My friend R is losing sleep over this every night, but he’s trying not to let his wife see it. He’s worried about his wife and her prognosis, but can’t let her know how worried he truly is. In their marriage, he is always the level-headed, strong, practical, rational thinking being. He’s the one that gets things done and takes care of everyone. He manages the household finances, figuring out when they can splurge and when belts need tightening; and he works at pulling his introverted wife out of her shell by trying to include her in his various circles of friendship, taking her on trips to far off places, and always putting her first.

Unfortunately, R’s wife has never warmed to me: even though he and I were friends, long before he ever met her. Her excuses for not liking me have ranged from I’m too young – they are about fifteen years older than me; I’m single – my past relationships have never changed her attitude, and I learned that only a marriage will suffice; and I’m too attractive, which as far as I’m concerned is about her lack of self-esteem. R has hosted dinner parties, where his wife has exchanged so few words with me it was obvious is efforts to spark a friendship between us, were for naught. So, our friendship – R’s and mine – exists away from his wife’s lack of fondness for me.

Even though she’s not fond of me, I’m worried about her. I’m worried that the recurrence of her cancer is a bad sign. According to R, one doctor is concerned that during the last surgery – when they removed the first tumour on her liver – they may have taken too much of one lobe of her liver to make sure that the tumour would not regrow. If that’s the case, they may have to rely heavily on radiation to shrink this tumour then follow up with another CT scan to see whether she needs more radiation or if they have to attempt to remove the remaining mass with surgery. For both their sakes, I’m desperately hoping the radiation works.

Recently, R told me that his wife has lost interest in all the hobbies and activities she used to do before she became ill. I’ve decided to send her a gift that I hope will lift her spirits. I know that she loves flowers: she wanted to open a flower shop when she retires from her current career. I can’t give her a flower shop, but I can give her some adult colouring books with drawings of flowers and gardens, and a set of coloured pencils. My hope is that the simple act of colouring will soothe her mind, distract her from thinking about her illness and pain, and, I hope, re-spark her interest in the things she used to love doing – as it has for me.

We Rise By Lifting Others

I can’t count all the ways over the course of our friendship R supported me through a tough time, or said or did something to lift my spirits. I want to support him and his wife in any way I can. I know that what I’m doing isn’t much, but when I told him about my plan, he was happy and grateful; and I hope it helps his wife, even if it’s just to put a smile on her face.


Cyndi Lauper – True Colors


Gratitude and Creativity: How I’m Healing

One of the best things I’ve ever done for myself is start my art/gratitude journal. Starting this journal connected me to my quiet self and gave me a tool to help heal myself. Since coming out of surgery – probably the second day after – I started drawing and colouring. With drawing and colouring, I was able to tune out a lot of my pain, other patients, and the busyness of the medical staff and support staff around me.

The first things I made while I was in the hospital contain a loving kindness meditation mantra that I learned many years ago in a mindfulness meditation course. The mantra is

May I live in safety
May I be happy
May I be healthy
May I live my life with ease

I often say this mantra when I feel anxiety. It helps to calm and ground me. Drawing it helped me feel less anxious about all the things that were happening to me in the first few days of my recovery. Things like the drastic drop in my blood pressure (it fell to 60/45), the unbearable pain flare when they removed my epidural, then my blood pressure spiking in response to the pain, and starting to walk again, which was incredibly painful. It was all very intense, so I needed something to keep me calm; as the doctors and nurses did their jobs to get my vitals back within normal ranges and prepare me to go home.

I’m glad I had the forethought to pack my art/gratitude journal, my Zentangle notebook, a new sketchbook, coloured pencils, and markers in my suitcase. I’m glad I’ve found things I can do, even under the fog of pain medication, that relax and calm me while giving me a creative outlet. The things that so many people believe are meant only for children have become significant tools for coping with my pain, and they are contributing to my healing.