Confronting Change You Can’t Control (Part 1)

It could always be Great. 

My mom told me to write that on every wall and mirror around the house. I was on the phone with her, basically in a downward spiral of apprehension about a major change happening this year that is mostly out of my hands. Allow me to rip off the band-aid: My parents made the decision to move to Colorado this year, back to my hometown. Pause for dramatic effect.  

Many reasons played into that decision, a big one being that a majority of my moms family lives there and we will have a tighter community of support. Given that 2/3rds of our fam is sick and one family member is a dog, the move makes sense. It can be a tad isolating out here on the ol ‘farm’.

My moms casual reminder that it could always be great was a nice departure from the supposedly optimistic adage “Hey, It could always be worse!” I’m not sure that phrase has ever really made me feel better while in the midst of a struggle. It’s like “Well hey, both of your legs could be blown off!” “Riight. That’s true. I could have zero legs right now. Cool, thanks. I feel better.”

So yes, I have both legs, but I am still pretty afraid of the whole thing and I guess that makes sense given the scale of this. It’s a big change, and since I don’t have the health to live on my own yet, it’s one that’s out of my hands, which always adds a pinch of frenzy. I’ve sort of tortured myself thinking of ways to stay here, but I just don’t have the physical stability to do it. This last crash that’s held me down since Christmas just reinforces how mercurial my *health* is and how unreliable  I am as a result. A few weeks ago the crash finally let up for roughly a week, then returned angrier than before, and I’ve been essentially a half-living disaster since then. Yeaaaah wooooo! 

You can see how thoughts like that (I’m sick, my life is chaos, I don’t have jurisdiction over my own life) can play with your mind the way a cat bobbles a feathery toy around. It can take your whole outlook and shape it in many variations. 

One of the hardest parts the last few months has been maintaining an open mind that this might actually be a good thing. It’s meant a lot of reigning in of my thoughts, which tend to go default mode into armageddon type thinking. It’s as though some small part of me decided early on that since I didn’t choose this, it wasn’t a good idea and it would end in disaster for my life. And it’s pretty crazy how easy and quickly those thoughts can assemble, pile on one another, and leave me completely convinced that I’m going to melt away and die in my parents basement…or some other absurdity. I don’t know where that fear stems from—I mean I’m pretty sure they have internet in Colorado. 

I’ve had to work to clean up the useless, unhelpful thoughts that tend to mess with my mind and sense of wellbeing. By that I don’t mean I dismiss all the thoughts or feelings I have about this—which are of course, a lot. Certainly there is a legitimate sadness and type of grief that comes from leaving what’s been home the last 18 years. Those feelings deserve their own validation and processing because, damn, it’s sad to leave the people and place you’ve come to know and love so much. Louisiana has felt familiar and comfortable for a long time, and it will be tough to leave, even if I do plan to come back. ;)  

What I am referring to are the haunting thoughts, the ones that make you feel bad about things that are not within your control.

This kind of thinking totally blurs and limits my perspective about the life I have. It dismisses all the good and incredible parts of it, doesn’t see possibility or feel hopefulness or gratitude. It downsizes the significance and value of people and things just because they aren’t in line with what I had planned. (I think humanity might have an addiction to plans but that’s another day) These are just hypothetical scenarios based mostly on fear and a future no one can actually know. Like Tolle says, it is always more empowering to face facts. Even when the facts are scary or we wish they were different, it’s in acknowledging the real and being present in the now that we have access to our innermost power and strength. 

I realized early on how incredibly contrasting the outcomes are that emerge just from framing things in my head one way vs. another. This is something I do have control over, and it’s become pretty important that I put this ability to use, otherwise the ugly thoughts take over and down the rabbit hole I go. 

It’s been a good but difficult exercise to step back and try to just watch the way my mind can interpret the same reality in two completely different lights. The modern mystics would advise to consider the circumstance from the point of view of an objective observer. Watch your thoughts, but don’t become entangled in them. Allow them to appear, then let them go. Easier said than done, of course. But at any rate, the mind astounds me in its duality. For instance..

Here is one side of my mind thinking about the move: Reiterate the story that my life is out of control, that the disease makes all the choices, that I have no say so about things and thus can’t really be happy because it’s not up to me. My personal growth and goals and contentment will all be stunted or I’ll cease to pursue them because my lack of health and other people have the wheel and I’m just a passenger to my own life. What’s the point in trying? As a passenger I don’t decide where I go and thus my happiness isn’t my option but one left up to others or whatever new circumstances materialize without my consent. I don’t want to go. It’s not fair I have to leave what feels like home. What about my family and friends here? What about my dream to live in uptown New Orleans one day? Now it will never happen. I guess I’ll go eat worms. 

I can’t tell you how easy it was for each of those negative thoughts to formulate, one after the other, building on each other like a lego tower turning into a whole city…

Now here is my mind consciously thinking about the move: Colorado? That’s cool, I guess I’ll get packing. 

Could the differences be that dramatic? And is it actually possible to participate in your own life that way?  In The Untethered Soul, Singer makes the point over and over that of course it’s possible! We don’t always decide what happens, but we always the ultimate say so in how we react toward the circumstances of our life. And it’s those decisions, not what happens, that leave us either content, at ease, joyful, whole, or bitter, angry, jealous and depressed.

All it took was a few negative thoughts to quickly unravel into my making the choice to play no part in my own autonomy or the trajectory of my life. Just because I’d be living somewhere else, I removed myself from having any accountability in manifesting a life I wanted or that I could be proud of. That’s a crazy conclusion to make! But when you’re present and you actually break down your thoughts, you see what a huge majority of them are insane and simply need to be let go of. That’s not so easy when you’re hit with an onslaught of frenzy and angst, like a whirlpool that takes you down, where there’s no clarity.

So I have to practice at disarming the egoic force from taking over in my head, which I do by sword fighting the air with a Star Wars lightsaber. Just kidding. Like Tolle teaches, whenever I have a future based thought made mostly of fear, I replace it in my mind with facts that are actually true. I try to repeat positive reminders instead of playing a record of apprehension on repeat with a sad ending.

In other words, I do the thing basically all chronically sick people must learn to do at some point: surrender.

As always by ‘surrender’ I don’t mean give up–ever. I mean to leave a neutral space open in your heart and your head where good things can happen because you allow a new path to be paved even though you didn’t design it. If I had understood earlier on in my relapse that reality doesn’t really care about your plans, I might’ve saved myself a good deal of pain from what was already such a hardship. I thought I could fight things that were already in place and moving quickly forward. Life was just waiting on me to catch up to what was real, instead of trying so hard to hang on to the way things were.

All I know is that there is a pulse to life, a certain beat that resonates deep within us as individuals and as a collective. We can typically feel through that pulse a general sense of what direction life is moving in. We can resist. Be the fish swimming upstream. Or we can lean in and greet life with an open and adventurous spirit, despite limits and changes and things beyond our control. It’s true I am afraid and I’m sad to leave what I thought would always be home. But I have been shown over and over the miracle of surrender, of allowing life to ‘move me’ and the amazing outcomes that can result when we feel fear but move forward anyway. It always comes down to following that thumping compass we hear deep within and far beneath us.

Here’s hoping that it just might be great.

Health, Happiness, Hello Colorado

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Lost: Life Force. Answers to ‘Mary’

*I Wrote this last week. I’m feeling better now ;)

Universe, God, sky, grey clouds, screeching frogs outside– helllp meee. Someone drained my life force in the night, and now I lack the will power to even use an exclamation mark. Not sure what happened. But I couldn’t go on letting myself be buried by the wet blankets of my mind. I had to do something. Something positive, and fight back against the road to stagnancy. I felt like I was slowly turning to cement! Hey look there, I used an exclamation point. 

Of course the weather is that in between weather that makes entire cities look like they could use therapy. Not sunny, on the cusp of rain but not raining, just a wet, grey, dish rag that drips sometimes and peeks the sun out in others and never definitively decides what it wants to do. So, can’t rely on the weather to help put humptey dumptey back together again. Find something else. 

I would bathe but I don’t have the energy. My arms are getting weaker. I need to lay down again. I’ll try to think of good things. 

***

OK, I’m back. It’s been almost two hours. I didn’t sleep. My willpower seemed to be dropping like a heartbeat beeping slower and slower on the heart rate monitor. Beep. Beep. Beeeeeeeeeep. She’s a gonner. It’s like all the feel-good, or feel-right chemicals in my brain have truly drained. The stuff that makes you want to go and do and play were drying up. Or already dried. 

While I’m a little weak, a little dizzy, the residual migraine still thudding behind my eyes, it’s not my body making today so hard. Well maybe that’s the setup for this mindset, but it’s calming my frenzied mind when I have no physical ability to match it that feels impossible to do. Keeping your mental sanity while waiting on your body to come back to you is probably the hardest part of all of this—a challenge that needs constant knowledgable reminding about from people who know better. I’m amazed how easy it is to forget simple truths. Clearly I’m still learning. I guess that should probably always be the case, if only I were a bit quicker at picking these things up. 

I feel the need to do so many things, but most of them aren’t doable right now. Then I feel doubly bad about not being able to do what needs getting done. I guess that’s why I’m sitting at this chair and typing, because writing is one thing I can do. 

I have learned that you can fight back against days like this. Despite nothing sounding good—for example, no type of music sounds decent to listen to, and the idea of watching TV or a movie feels even more depressing. (During the day) Even reading the book I’m thoroughly enjoying (19Q4) doesn’t feel right. I read fiction at night. None of these give the impression they would fit. If I were healthy I would go for a run, or to the coffee shop, change up the scenery and get those endorphins going. But since that’s a no-go, it’s another creative challenge to figure out that comes with the territory.

Sometimes just admitting that you’re having a crappy or hard time helps create the tiniest gap between you and the experience you’re having. This is what Tolle teaches—finding space between you and the circumstance so that you might see it from the outside objectively and not get lost in it and take all of it personally. (The Why Me Route) 

You can write it, say it, draw it, sing it, whatever it is. But transferring some of the weight onto some other medium helps prevents you from becoming tangled up and trapped in it—where every thought flowers at once and the idea of living the rest of your life frantically swirls around your head like a hurricane and feels impossible. The enormity of it all piles up because you think I can barely get through today…how will I ever get through the next three months? You start thinking 5 years into the future, your will power plummets, until something—in my instance, Monty scratching at the door— snaps you out of this useless futuristic angst and brings you back to right now. 

All I have to do is survive right now. Which sounds easy but when your willpower is at a zero, it’s actually a praiseworthy task to achieve. I survived another day!  I can’t survive anything 3 months from now, I’m right to think it will be impossible, because I can’t have a clue what will be in 3 months from now. It’s easy to think everything will be the same, and it might. Or it’s easy to see a dozen problems that all feel unsolvable. But all I have to do is look at the history of my life for proof that it can change in a snap, and 90% of the time, you don’t control the change, or predict it. You only go about figuring out how you’ll respond and adapt to it when you get there.

So how do I make now better? Unfortunately having a rebuttal for your mad mind doesn’t make it simply stop in it’s tracks and suddenly you’re grounded and fine. I’m not that good yet. Just knowing what’s helpful and what isn’t doesn’t immediately make you feel happy and give you your life juice back. But it might help slow that thought whirlpool down. It might allow for the smallest stillness to get through to you and allow the truth to calm your fast beating heart. Mostly it involves just having to live through the tension of the feelings and the knowing simultaneously that they won’t last. They may not even be true. As hard as it is to work against something inside you that feels like it’s actively dragging you down or drying you out, I know that trying anything is typically better than rotting on the floor like roadkill and trying nothing at all. 

On my two hour break, I listened to a podcast called Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell. I highly suggest listening to it, but it surprised me how just hearing someone else’s voice and someone else’s story can help pull you out of the thought whirlpool of your own. It’s nice getting out of your own head and being exposed to what people before you have met and endured in their life. I listened to Sammy Davis Jr.’s story A Hug Heard Round the World and hearing of his life and challenges put things in perspective, at least temporarily. This is the importance and power of story telling, I think. It straightened me out for a while.

I also downloaded some foreign language apps on my phone a few days ago so I can start to remember and re-learn french. I’ve forgotten so much of it and I miss it. I plan to visit France for a while when I’m better, so I’d like to get back to moderately fluent. I can’t wait to sit on the sidewalk again, drink my cafe au lait at at a table with a white tablecloth, and write in a fresh notebook Well, I’ve finally made it back to Paris. 

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I didn’t want the invisible vacuum of thoughts inside me to win, so I had to fight back and share these crappy thoughts with you, sorry guys. I guess writing these thoughts out was my way to create the gap. The ability to step back and watch today unfold was my way forward. Otherwise I was slowly being swallowed and nobody wants that. This was my version of winning! Hey look at that, I used another exclamation point. That’s my comeback for today, using an authentic exclamation point. A sign of life. Beeeeep. Beep. Beep. She’s back people!

I think for now that has to be enough. 

Health, Happiness, Surviving

Day 5

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*my general editors note here would be that maybe writing through one of my more serious crashes in the last few years wasn’t the best idea because I imagine it can become a little daunting on the reader to read over and over again. Of course, that is the reality of living chronically ill, and it’s surviving the resilient day after day after month after month that is the most difficult part. But also this wan’t exactly intended for people to read and enjoy, although that would be a SUPERB secondary outcome. It was to clean house.

BUT,  if I’m going to document such tough times, I have to be very cognizant about not letting the work feel tortured, even if I do. Torture in general is not the most entertaining subject matter, I think we can all agree. The point is not to let the sickness win and be the teller of the story. It should be the lens but not the primary subject matter. The challenge is to express and respect the experience authentically, be honest when it feels like torture, but allow enough distance and space from the part of me that wants to try to make this personal (the ego) so that humor and optimism and hope can carry at least half the narrative, the ‘happenings’–or ‘non-happenings’ as it were.

I thought I remembered by day 5 things were beginning to improve, and I read here that my weakness had finally started to just barely let up, and yet it was still an incredibly difficult day, mentally. I was still in really rough physical shape and I remember well just staring out of those windows and feeling an absolute absence of willpower–to do anything. I felt an emptiness inside and a certainty that anything I chose to do made no difference whatsoever. Talk about fun times! But I do remember seeing the bright red of that type-writer, this project I told myself I’d start and finish, and in my 1% battery charge of life force, I made my way and just started to type. It felt like a long exhale.

I actually remember the moment I began to feel better, in the midst of writing this piece. When I wrote “It seemed like a better idea to write at the type writer than to continue staring out the window, wishing things were different,” I realized how huge my role was in keeping my brain and mind active in positive ways when my body wasn’t strong enough. It makes a difference where you look, what you’re looking at, and how long you let your thoughts take the wheel away from you. In that paragraph I knew writing was a big way  of living through something unpleasant and of changing how I felt about it, just by making a lot of small decisions that were opposite of what I felt like doing.

That role is so crucial, and like baby-sitting a two-year-old, you have to sometimes run around after your meandering mind, make it sit in time out, and remind it of true and happy and important things. Facts, not stories. That’s where you find gratitude and humility and grace and remember love and kindness and hopefulness. (All below the surface) You have to reach down far, and the willfulness to reach is for some reason so incredibly difficult it feels next to impossible. And yet when you do reach and feel something reach back, your entire outlook, even for an hour, can change massively. I think done enough times, we can remove a lot of the unnecessary pain we feel no matter what we’re going through..

For me, it’s sitting in time out and not letting toxic thoughts convince me of anything that isn’t true. Its not that I can’t acknowledge how extremely hard this situation is or allow the deep emotional parts of it to rise and let them out. In fact I have to do that. All parts of the spectrum need an outlet.  It’s not about making those thoughts forbidden. It’s about acknowledging them but also then to keep going. Not to stay glued to some idea about fairness or unfairness that eventually keeps you from trying, keeps you from remembering who you are–buried underneath all the hardship that can feel piled on top of you. Writing is magic for me in the miraculous way it reminds me of the truth when I can’t think of or remember it on my own. It will literally turn bitterness into gratitude in just a few sentences, and that’s why it’s important.

Well, I’ve veered off track again. I just felt like taking some notes that maybe I’ll refer back to in the future.

Dammit, I just remembered the Super Bowl is tomorrow and how as a Saints fan I’m boycotting it, but as a curious person I’d like to watch some of it and also observe what 15 million dollar commercials the ad people came up with. I imagine my mom will be dressed all in black and if we had an American flag on our porch, you can bet it would be hanging at half mast. Hah. Football.

Ok Mary well it’s been real. Yeah Mary I agree. Have a happy Saturday. Yeah cool you too. See you tomorrow. Same bat time, same blog place.

 

An Open Letter to Myself, To Be Read 10 Years From Now

Dear future self,

Congratulations, you’ve made it to 41. If you’re still living in your parents pool house, don’t feel bad. We all move at our own pace. I hope this letter finds you well. You know, I normally hate that line, mostly because it’s hardly ever genuine except as an ice-breaking device used in emails just before asking for something, usually money. But I mean it. ‘Well’ is pretty relative term, but you know what I mean–better. Better than today. It’s November 5th, 2015.

For record-keeping, I’ll set the scene. I’m writing from bed, the computer in my lap and Monty sleeping on the edge in his spot. I am achy, heavy-bodied, and nursing a head-ache that now spans the entirety of my face. It’s strangely resistant to pain medicine so I use frozen peas to numb it. I feel the force of gravity pushing against every move I try to make. Standing up makes me dizzy and faint, so I’ll spend most the day sitting or supine. (POTS) My brain is fuzzy and clumsy. My thoughts come fast and then stutter and mix up on their way out. Writing is better than speaking. It’s more patient. My heart mimics hummingbirds and butterflies. It makes this audible “clicking” sound whenever I lay down, like my own cardiac stopwatch in which to keep time! My blood pressure spikes and drops, making simple things hard, like showers and teeth-brushing. (Dysautonomia) So I stay horizontal–a term my specialist uses and advises on days like today. But the Interstitial Cystitis makes this part harder. I peed 12 times last night! A new record. But who’s counting? This is how crash days go. Another part of the disease that goes mostly unseen.

Greetings From 2015
Greetings From 2015

But let me interject. The point here is not to belabor on about life with illness. This is simply the physical state of things, and the more important point I am making is that I am OK.  I’m not living a life that looks anything like the one I planned for, (haha, plans) but I’ve found meaning here too. I’ve forgiven what my life was supposed to be, and grown into the one I have. It’s smaller-sized than the one I dreamed of, and it bewilders more people than it impresses, but I’ve actually learned to like it here. Every day despite health and money and a recently sad surplus of dead animals in the pool, I crawl into my bed at night and it hits me that I’m OK. A small flick on the side of my head.

Is it a contradiction to say you’re fine but also expect change on a large scale? I hope not. But it’s partly the reason I’m writing now. I detect a shift underway. I hear a slight buzzing sound behind the drone of everyday life, and it hints at considerable change to come. I hope in time this letter will be a relic from an era long gone. I hope it will be a nearly humorous account of the way things used to be once, but that it won’t sound all too familiar. I hope that physically I’ll just barely be able to recall it, like the name of a childhood teacher on the tip of your tongue. That’s my hope, but who can know? Just in writing this I can feel my future self alive somewhere; that she exists on some unknowable plane, and that when she reads this letter it will make her happy.

It’s my belief that if I’m not cured by the time I read this, that my mom will have shot me like I made her promise to. Only joking calm down. If I’m not cured, I expect at least to be a much higher-functioning version of my present self. I should be able to work at least a few days a week, to attend (and dance at) a wedding, or to go on a bike-ride and not crumble for days after. I don’t see this as wishful thinking or as the result of divine intervention. I see FDA-approved, effective treatment options as an only natural, foreseeable byproduct of the serious research to come by governing agencies like the NIH and the CDC. As I write this, there are zero approved treatments. My 25 pills a day are mostly bandaids on a broken knee.

Up until now, the world hasn’t quite known what to do with someone like me, like us; chronically sick people who don’t get better and don’t die. And I understand their unease. This is all relatively new, and we just haven’t developed the etiquette for it yet. But a bigger issue exists in this realm, and it’s having a disease called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a name so comparatively small and demeaning, I don’t even like to say it out loud. It’s hard to keep my own eyes from rolling. Instead I call it Shit Turd Disease, which feels no less valid or serious, and has the added bonus of a cackle at the end. Out in the world, I don’t really feel like a person who has a disease. I feel like someone with a strange secret to keep–Something to talk about in hushed, apologetic tones. Or something better not to talk about at all. Explaining and defending it takes an energy you just don’t have. So you stay quiet, but there’s a loneliness in that choice.

And there are consequences to it. For decades, the voices of the sick have been drowned out by the loud, proud professionals with strong opinions about our disease. Their ‘efforts’ are continually led by the notion that we can be cured with exercise and positive psychology. This was what the influential $8 million dollar Pace Trials set out and claimed to prove. Exciting! But upon 3rd party inspection, methodological flaws were found throughout the process, basic but crucial scientific protocol was neglected, and there were blatant conflicts of interest: Trial scientists had longstanding financial ties with the disability insurance companies who’d rather not foot the bill for those with Shit Turd Disease. And yet these trials still helped solidify the narrative that these “non-treatments” were legitimate. For more than thirty years, this idea has fueled study after study, it has shaped public opinion and policy, but it has not actually made the sick people better.

But here is where I detect the buzzing. Our attempts to improve public awareness and patient advocacy are hindered by the obvious: We’re a sick, slow-moving crew, and many of us are house or even bed bound. Fighting to be heard requires a vigor that’s diminished when you’re sick. I imagine a CFS Race for the Cure! would be more like a Saturday Night Live skit, with an embarrassing amount of joggers passing out on top of one another thirty seconds after the gun went off, half of them being hauled off in ambulances. But we’re living in the age of technology now, without the prior limits that hindered communication and networking. Now our collective voices can be heard without us leaving the house, and that matters here. The digital age provides for a new accountability and transparency where there was none before. Maybe now that professionals know their work will be seen by many sets of eyes, they’ll be less inclined to make those silly mistakes like those of the Pace trials that deeply effected the lives of millions of people. All of this helps to balance out the power. This is how we change the direction of the fruitless path we’ve been on. We have always had the right, but now we have a platform–thank you internet– where we can be seen and heard, and we have to use it.

Of course, people will stick to their guns (even in the face of gun laws they’ll do it!) And that’s OK. This isn’t actually about proving anyone wrong. No, that is the egos fight and it doesn’t belong here. This is about knowing that silence never yielded progress, and that to enable the truth we have to listen as much as we talk. It’s about ending an era that has ignored the complexity and vulnerability of what is true for the convenience and righteous facade that comes from salaried opinion. At a basic level, this is a humanitarian cause. What does it say about us that we treat the sick this way? What we do to each other we do to ourselves. So let’s do better.

Curing and treating this disease has never been an issue of capability, intelligence, resources or technology; It’s simply a matter of the right people having the committed willingness to try. If we begin there, it will be enough. But that means really beginning. It means treating this disease like an actual disease, and not some commonplace complaint or nagging ‘woman’s issue’ to be fixed with yoga. It means at least 10 times the amount of annual federal funding toward research. It means leaving the politics and scandal and doubt in the past, and surrendering the ideas that have proved ineffective. Let’s begin with purity of intent–to understand and cure it so people can get their lives back. Then I can stop writing these weird letters to my future self.

There are a lot of different ways that the next decade might play out. I could very well be cured, married with babies, living the kind of fast-paced, busy life I watch other people live. I always imagined I’d have a daughter and name her Catherine after my mom. Of course I might still be sick, an unpaid blogger still living in my parents pool house. I’ve already reconciled both possibilities. I’ll be OK. But then again, I’m not alone. This is much bigger than me.

This is millions of people at the mercy of a disease with a bad reputation and a worse name. And I’ve realized it’s useless to keep crossing my fingers about necessary change. This letter isn’t written out of hope, but as a nod to the future that I feel called to make better, starting now. It’s a reminder that change is possible and it always starts small. It’s my own refusal to stay quiet, especially on behalf of the many sick people far worse off than me, too sick to speak up. When I read this again, it shouldn’t matter whether I’m sick or cured. If I’ve done the work, I’ll be reading it from a better world; where sickness is not a secret, where we gravitate toward the truth, and where the silenced voices are finally heard. If that’s the world I’m living in, this will be the reminder that we did it, and that we’re OK. A small flick to the side of the head.

See you in ten years,

Mary
And Monty