Thursday, February 26, 2009

10 Things I Have Learned From Being Sick

Oh God, please, I don't want to be sick anymore. I want to be well and happy and live my life and attain peace and fulfillment. But if I have to be sick, (and it seems that I do, since I have been sick for so long, and I have already tried everything to become well and failed), then please, please, let it not be for nought. Let my experience of illness benefit myself and others. Let me learn, grow, teach, and touch others' lives in a positive way.

10 Things I Have Learned From Being Sick:

1. That the Body is not the Self.

2. That the body's insistent demands can be heeded or ignored, by conscious choice.

3. I have developed self-discipline, at long last. I can swallow terrible-tasting medications daily, if needed. I can abstain from things I love and crave, like sugar, dairy products, chocolate, gluten (pizza and bread!), and even sex, to help myself feel better.

4. That so-called "experts" are not necessarily trustworthy. I have been misdiagnosed, wrongly advised, and prescribed medications that made me much worse. Now, I trust my inner voice and my body's clear messages over and above the advice of any doctor or professional. I know myself best.

5. I have learned to be an excellent medical researcher and holistic health scholar, out of dire necessity. I have learned so much about yoga, natural healing, nutrition, nutritional supplements, food sensitivities, herbology, homeopathy, ayurveda, amino acid therapy, psychiatric treatments, pain medications, sleep remedies, and much more. Ask me anything!

6. I have learned to lean on others for support when needed. I much prefer to be independent, and am very strong-minded. But when the chips are down (and they often have been, in recent years), I have learned to ask for help, and to let others take care of me. I especially thank my husband and my parents for their help in learning this lesson.

7. I have learned to let go of perfectionism. I cannot do everything exactly the way I want to do it anymore. For awhile, I was overwhelmingly frustrated by the limitations of being ill. Many days I can barely get out of bed. Even doing one or two things half-assed is a major victory. My ego wants to excel, but my aching body and unstable mind really need to just get by. So I have learned to just get by, and to be okay with that. The girl with a National Merit Scholarship and straight A's at Yale has learned many humbling lessons from being too ill to work.

8. I have learned to have so much more compassion for others. I used to be jealous of other people who seemed to have easier lives than mine. I now know that we are all struggling, in our own individual ways, as the wheel of Samsara turns. Having an invisible disability makes me look a little closer at all the "normal," healthy-looking people I meet, since I'm sure I look normal and healthy to you, and I'm not.

The more I look and listen, the more I realize we all have problems, we all suffer, we all are learning from our challenges, we are all beautiful, and we are all in this together. No matter what, I try my best to be kind to everyone I encounter. No matter how I'm feeling, I can at least smile and acknowledge each person's humanity and divinity: "Namaste'."

9. I have learned to pace myself. Pushing myself makes my illnesses push back. I tend to be driven, but I know now that I am not in the driver's seat. This particular experience of being alive -- with fibromyalgia and manic-depressive illness -- forces me into the passenger seat.

I used to convince myself I was in control. Now, I flow with my moods. I yield to my pain cycles. I don't push my body around anymore. I heed my body's wisdom, trust my inner voice, and hand over the steering wheel to my Higher Power. Being ill has taught me to let go and allow my life to unfold, naturally.

10. I have learned to let go of the many "should"s and "have-to"s of life -- because I've had to. I used to be ambitious, with a strong, people-pleasing streak, and would do things just to impress others. Now, being ill has given me an excellent alibi for avoiding anything I don't really want to do anyway -- especially things that are not really good for me.

For example, I used to drink alcohol and smoke weed and sometimes wind up in the wrong man's bed. Now, thanks to being mentally ill and medicated, I cannot drink or toke at all, and am able to avoid all sorts of unhealthy dramas. I also no longer eat sugar, stay out late, overexercise, overwork, or overstress -- or else I pay an immediate and drastic price. Overindulgence or excess stress leads to mood swings (which often become suicidal thoughts) and pain flares (which often debilitate me completely).

So, ironically, being ill has forced me to be healthy. I take really good care of myself now. My diet and lifestyle are balanced and healthy -- no matter what that other people around me are doing, and no matter what other people expect me to do. Bye-bye "should"s -- Hello self-care.

So, I've learned a few things from the struggles I've been through in recent years. So, God, what do you think? Maybe I've learned my lessons? Maybe now can I be well again???

Feel free to comment or email me your own list, or any thoughts. Namaste'.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Heredity and Environment

Remember that whole hoopla about "heredity vs. environment"? There was so much debate, for decades, over what the cause of human behavior was -- heredity (i.e. genetics) or environment (i.e. upbringing)? Eventually, everyone agreed that it is both, always both -- an interaction between our heredity and our environment makes us who we are. I believe it is time for a similar consensus about the real cause of chronic illness -- it's not just lifestyle (environment) or just biochemistry (heredity) -- it's both, and more. Who we are and what we do are both important causative factors of illness.

Who we are -- our genes, our personality, our dosha (ayurvedic type), our innate strengths and weaknesses -- interacts with what we do -- where we live, how we eat, how we use our bodies and minds, how we interact with others and our environment. It is the result of this interaction between who we are and what we do that can lead to chronic illness.

A "strong" person -- a person with a strong constitution, a strong will to live, kapha-dosha, resilience, and hardiness -- can withstand a harsh lifestyle -- a stressful environment, say, or an unhealthy diet -- and not get sick. A "weak" person, on the other hand -- timid, sensitive, vata-dosha, prone to self-doubt or inner self-sabotage, perhaps from a long line of malnourished and overworked ancestors -- may succumb to serious illness simply from the stresses of daily life. However, as the stresses of modern life increase, more and stronger individuals will be affected by our common, unhealthy environment.

We cannot change our constitution, or change the past. We can only change our present and future -- reduce stress now and from this day forward, and reduce our probability of becoming or staying ill. But really, it is all a numbers game. Your probability of becoming ill decreases if you reduce stress and live a healthy lifestyle, and it increases if you are under stress or make unhealthy choices.

However, not everything is under our control. All of us are exposed to the toxins that modern Western society has created. Here in Oregon, for example, a recent study found that average Oregonians have all six classes of toxic chemicals in their bodies, including mercury, phthalates, PCBs, PFCs, organophospahte pesticides, and bisphenol A.

The most serious result of pollution is its harmful biological effects on human health and on the food chain of animals, birds, and marine life. Pollution can destroy vegetation that provides food and shelter. It can seriously disrupt the balance of nature, and, in extreme cases, can cause the death of humans --

Healthy lifestyle choices can help mediate and reduce the dangerous health effects of stress and pollution. Relaxation exercises such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, and walking can reduce the "stress response" (fight or flight), stimulate the "relaxation response" (parasympathetic dominance), and minimize the impacts of stress on the body.

Healthy dietary choices such as eating fresh, raw or lightly-cooked, organic fruits, vegetables, sprouts, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and lots of filtered water can fortify and cleanse the body to ward off many health threats.

Nutritional supplements can also strengthen and shield the body against disease. For example, omega-3 oils protect the heart and connective tissue, and antioxidant vitamins such as A, C, E, selenium, coQ-10, and quercetin can destroy the pollution-created free-radicals that may lead to cancer and other illnesses. So a healthy lifestyle can help protect you, despite the toxicity of our modern world.

So, if you are ill, make new, healthier choices, and you will increase your odds of healing and reduce your odds of getting or staying ill. But remember, if you still don't get better, it is not necessarily your fault. It may not be your fault at all.

Perhaps you were never breastfed, you were raised on junk food, and like all of us you were and are exposed to thousands of toxic substances. Perhaps as an adult you have been single-parenting or experiencing major work and financial stresses. And maybe now you have a chronic illness that isn't getting better despite all of the supplements and herbs and medications and exercise and broccoli sprouts in the world. Please don't blame yourself. It's not your fault. Just do your best, and let go of the rest.

First, it may take months, years, or even decades of healthy living to heal the injuries of the past. Second, even if healthy-living doesn't "cure" you, it can and will improve your quality of life and prognosis immensely. Third, even if your current illness doesn't disappear or even visibly improve once you've changed your lifestyle, you may be preventing the emergence of other, more severe illnesses or a worsening of your current illness. You new life-changes may not make you better, but will most likely prevent you from getting worse.

Finally, living well is its own reward. By taking care of yourself, you are healing. You are learning to love yourself and live with integrity. You are setting a positive example for your family, your friends, and everyone you know. Your example of holistic living may prevent untold numbers of other people from getting ill. Healing is its own reward.

Be well, or die trying. That may sound morbid, but the joy is in the journey. We may never "get healthy" (as in, "get perfect"), but we can live healthy, and enjoy what life we have, with self-love and integrity. Rachel Naomi Remen says it best in her Kitchen Table Wisdom essay "Life is for the Well":

What she thought was that you had to be without symptoms to enjoy life, to go to the theater, to have children, to love. It was as if life was only lived by well people, could only be lived by well people....She has stopped pursuing the perfect health she once had, and does what she can to strengthen her body in simple, natural ways....Laughingly, she says that she has made a substitution in the cross-stitched sampler that hangs on the walls of her inner life. It used to say, "Life is only for the well." Now it says, "Anything worth doing is worth doing half-assed."