I was never afraid of the dark, roller coasters, or monsters in my closet. By the time I was six years old, I water-skied, swam in deep oceans, and could sail a small sailboat myself. When I was nine, I flew to New Mexico and spent a week away from my parents. In middle school, I would go for runs alone at night and, in high school, I backpacked for 40 days in the Arctic. I’m not afraid to drive across the country, attempt acrobatic yoga, or lead a group of 10 ten year-olds into the wilderness. I’m not afraid to be homeless, jobless, or to dance like crazy in a room full of people.
So why does my body act likes it’s consistently afraid?
The ironic thing was that I was sitting in a support group, talking about fear, while acutely aware that panic had seeped its way throughout every corner of my body. Just minutes ago, I had been stuck in an alley, tires skittering hopelessly back and forth on the ice. Someone had fortunately come along and helped me lodge cardboard under my car, but stomach still felt like someone had reached in, clenched their fist, and given a sharp twist of the wrist. Unfortunately it was a sensation that I was all too familiar with. It was the sensation that largely contributed to the reason why I was sitting at the group in the first place.
I was at Renewing Life, a nine-week program designed for people living with chronic conditions and life threatening illness. Through a variety of healing techniques, the goal is for participants to have access to an emotionally supportive community that gives them tools to live in the best way possible.
Most people who meet me, or even who know me well, think of me as the embodiment of life, not as someone who needs to renew it. Everyone has different natural demeanors, but mine has always been one of joy. The bountiful, uninhibited type. I smile a lot and am easily excited. I’m not afraid of spending my time doing what I love and I surround myself by the people I care about most. I don’t let myself forget to live life with intention, to make the most out of it.
But something obviously wasn’t working so well for me.
If it was, I wouldn’t have a stomach so bloated it looked like I was pregnant or an energy level so low that I was frequently forced to take naps and decline invitations to socialize with friends. I wouldn’t have found my muscles weakening, my hair thinning, or my brain squeezing. I wouldn’t have found myself lying on the bathroom floor, cheek pressed against the tiles, sobbing.
On the physical level, I had chronic digestive problems and, by this fall, had started to become very depleted and unhealthy. On a deeper level, my emotional state was in constant turmoil, and my relationship to myself, which had always had some weaker areas, was beginning to show some obvious fractures. I was feeling broken, inwardly and outwardly.
It was hard for me to accept that I needed support for my health, and not just a little bit. That acknowledgement led me to leave my job this past December and move back to Minneapolis where I embarked on a path that included several different mentors and resources, including meditation, chiropractic work, acupuncture and massage. Some people are surprised that this path includes spending my Wednesday nights at a support group with members who are mainly twice my age and who, for the most part, have very serious conditions such as cancer or Multiple Sclerosis. But the truth is that, regardless of our age and life experiences, we are just trying to get the most out of life. And we all could still die at any point, whether we have a life threatening illness or not.
I had long ago stopped thinking of my fellow group members in terms of their age or the difficult stuff they were dealing with. Soothed by a supportive environment where people are allowed to be open and honest, we had become close as a group from the beginning. Most of us looked forward to Wednesday nights. For several of us, it was a highlight of our week. Some of the material covered in the class was more familiar than others. But, regardless, each Renewing Life class had served broaden to my perspective; it connected me back to my core beliefs and to a sense of personal strength and empowerment.
But that night, sitting at Renewing Life was like getting slapped in the face by someone who you thought was your friend. It didn’t seem to matter how much self-work I did. Something as simple as getting my car stuck in an alley and being late for class could still send me into a state of utter stress.
We are not very rational creatures. But we sometimes have more rational moments than others. This was definitely not one of my most rational ones. My brain had found its despair loop and was now embarking on its familiar whirlwind cycle of irrational thoughts laced with guilt, shame and fear.
Typically my automatic response to stress is to do something to hurt myself. It’s as if my body switches to an animal-like mode, desperate for distraction in the form of self-harm. For instance, I typically don’t drink coffee as I know it will immediately send my stomach into an utter fit. But, if I become quite stressed and there’s a cup of coffee nearby, my urge will be to drink it. I am typically very mindful of the way that extensive technology use can be overly thought-producing and worry-inducing. But stress will lead me to check my phone, facebook, and both emails in erratic, repetitive spurts, even if I don’t have the energy to write any responses.
These are only mild examples. But it’s like all of a sudden I don’t care at all about myself. I care neither about my present self, nor about my future self who will suffer from the choices that I was currently making. If I didn’t already have a massive stomachache, I could surely create one.
At these moments, I know what I am afraid of. I’m afraid of my limitations. I’m afraid that I will never be able to transcend above the destructive cycle that has become a part of my daily life. And here, here at this group where, of all things, we were discussing stress and fear, there’s nothing I could do to distract myself. There’s nothing I could do to hurt myself. Well maybe I could start crying, but at Renewing Life that would just be considered normal.
I don’t know what my stress feels like compared to other people’s. I imagine that in many areas of my life I experience relatively little stress and that in other areas of my life, like with regards to food, I experience a relatively large amount. But sometimes, I feel baffled by the limitations that exist in comparing the human experience. All I can really know is how stress feels in my body. And, sitting there in that room, there was no mystery to what it was doing to my stomach. Regardless of the great strides I had made since I had consciously decided to truly transform my health, my body still activated a sort of flight or fight response with considerable ease. I couldn’t handle my own emotions. That was the raw truth of it.
Thoughts turned to words which fought within me until I eventually let them out, attempting to express to the group some of what I have just described.
“When I become stressed, my instinct is to hurt myself in a way that harms, not only my present self, but my past self and my future self.”
My comment was lacking in both clarity and detail, and I immediately began to berate myself for not being more articulate. Yet a woman named Clara seemed to know the perfect response.
“It’s moment by moment,” she said. “Breath by breath.”
For someone who spends a considerable amount of their free time practicing meditation and yoga, such a statement seems like the most obvious thing in the world. Yet somehow, it was like I was hearing those words for the very first time. Coming from Clara, the words contained power. A woman who had ignored doctors urges to amputate her cancerous leg, who had refused all chemotherapy and radiation, Clara had managed to eradicate on her own all traces of cancer. She understood what moment to moment looked like.
Thus far, I had seemed to operate within the idea that it was ok to stop caring for myself in those moments of stress or sadness. I am not exactly sure why this is my response. But I think it relates to the way that deep emotions can leave me feel fragmented. This fragmentation causes me to leave myself and become another entity that chooses distraction and harm. I do try pretty hard to take care of myself most of the time. But this isn’t a most of the time thing. My stomach is too fragile for most of the time care. My life is too precious.
Living by the moment, by the breath, is not just about cultivating a yoga and meditation practice. It’s not something to think about once a day or even several times. It’s an all the time, every moment conscious, roll-up-the-sleeves type of effort.
Breaking my body’s barely conscious response to stress would not be easy. But, then again, life isn’t easy, even for those of us who have been lucky with our circumstances. Healing yourself from a chronic health condition is not easy. Changing virtually every aspect about the way you live your life isn’t easy.
I’m asking quite a lot out of myself, there’s no doubt about it. But I also don’t really have a choice. Not changing was far too destructive for my emotional state and my body. And still, there are changes I have yet to make. If everyone at Renewing Life was being asked to take on this scope of a challenge, then I surely could too. It’s a challenge bigger than any high dive I’ve jumped off of, or any mountain peak I have ever climbed. It’s the biggest challenge I have ever experienced. But I will not be afraid.