For those who have been asking what I learned from the last few years, this post gives at least a partial answer.
While it isn’t something that I pursue, I have friends who are martial artists. They aren’t the dime-store version either ̶ they are recognized internationally for their skill. So when they say ‘life is martial art,’ you can see how easy it would be to think that it is just the lens through which they see life. I suppose it could still be said that it is just a lens even though I now understand what they mean. But after the last few years, it is a lens that rings true. Understanding for me started a couple of years ago…
One April Sunday in 2007 is what is now referred to in our home as “the day I crashed.” It actually began the night before when I went to bed around 7:30 thinking that I was tired and fighting something off. The next morning I struggled to wake up. I swam in a world of exhaustion and pain that would occasionally carry me to almost consciousness only to feel myself being pulled back to the bottom and oblivion. Each time I fought my way to the surface, the urgency to waken grew. Around noon I finally managed to open my eyes.
The first thing that came to mind was that I had a really awful case of the flu. My lymph nodes were swollen, I was exhausted, and everything ached. It was as though every sprained ankle, dislocated shoulder, tweaked knee, disc problem, and random injury had just happened and it came with the worst case of muscle soreness I’d ever had. I drug myself out of bed, made it to the bathroom where I nearly fell asleep on the toilet, found the energy to stand up after what seemed like a long time, and then plodded down the hall only to collapse on the couch. Unable to even pull both feet up, I lay there completely astonished by the amount of pain and exhaustion and realized that I didn’t have a fever. The doctor in me was starting to add my symptoms together with my signs and I was pretty sure that something wasn’t right but the exhaustion wouldn’t let me think clearly enough to figure out what.
My husband had no idea I hadn’t been out of bed since 7:30 the night before, heard me moving around, and came to check on me. Neither of us understood how sick I was at that point, but when he asked what he could do, I tearfully sobbed, “I need you to take care of me!” It was pitiful and I remember thinking that it sounded pathetic but it was the only sentence I could get out. He brought me food and water I could barely swallow because every muscle hurt and about half way through the meal I left a message for my doctor and returned to bed. I gratefully fell back into the pool of blackness, pain sometimes forcing me to the surface long enough to turn over and moan before being sucked back into darkness again.
Prior to that Sunday I’d been getting progressively more tired. Sure I had been busy seeing patients, running my office, rigorously training for and earning the title of CST Instructor, writing a book, helping with a big project, and trying to keep up with life in general but it all felt like it took more effort than it should have. A great niece had been born just a few weeks earlier and although I was very excited to see her, going to visit them felt like just one more thing to do. It was then that I made an appointment with my doc to tell him that I thought something was going on because I was just too tired. He agreed and ordered some tests.
Thankfully, those tests results came in very shortly after “the crash” to confirm what my broken thoughts had been trying to express but simply couldn’t because instead of feeling better, everything felt worse each time I managed to find consciousness. Something was seriously not right.
A couple years earlier I had eaten at a restaurant with several colleagues during lunch at a continuing education seminar. Everyone but me felt ill very quickly afterward but one of them had twins who had the stomach flu the night before. I went home after the seminar, cooked and ate a nice meal, sat down to play my guitar for a while, and in a matter of 10 minutes went from feeling fine to being quite ill. I had my husband call the restaurant because it felt like food poisoning. They said no one else had called in but I was sick for nearly a week. The third time it happened later that year, I went in for tests and a parasite was found. It was treated successfully and life went on. My stomach bothered me off and on, but life was super busy and there was some stress, so I just put it and the extra tiredness off to that. Not paying attention to those symptoms was a mistake. I hadn’t left the restaurant with a single parasite, I had left with four of them and the other three had been having a party for two years.
I heard the words about how ill I was and even understood that it was serious, but if someone had told me the journey I would take on the way to being well again, I either wouldn’t or couldn’t have comprehended it. I kept thinking that I was going to wake up and feel better one morning. And so the first day turned into three weeks of sleeping all but about 4 hours each day. Finally some of the medication made the ache start to subside a bit and I was staying awake a few more hours. My husband and I looked at our finances and whittled away until it was only necessary that I work 6 hours each week. It was to be a short term fix until I felt better. But time stretched on and sometimes the treatment seemed as wicked at the parasites.
Friends I thought I knew well disappeared when I could no longer give to them as I had before. Some friends became even dearer to me because they understood my current limits and accepted them. Other people who had seemed more like acquaintances slowly evolved into friends. Those people hold a special place for me because unlike all other friendships I have made in life, there was very little that I gave in return for their support and kindness. They accepted what I could do and believed that I was more than that.
Family showed off both their best and worst sides. There was anger that we wouldn’t make the drive to visit some of them. A friend with family in the same area let me know that one of them had been telling people that I had a nervous breakdown. Others were told I just had a flu bug. Eventually it evolved to telling folks that we must be angry for an unknown reason and were staying away. I called and cancelled an appointment/visit when side effects of one of the meds was just too much (3 days of dry heaves, coke colored pee, and rocking that was so uncontrollable it happened in my sleep) and the other person ended the phone call by telling me to say hi to my husband and to “thank him for putting up with” me.
You can know that your childhood wasn’t the greatest and that your family has issues, but realizing that some of them never cared for you except for what you could do for them, it hits heavily. I had always given them wiggle room, made excuses for why they behaved as they did. But as I hung up the phone that day, I thought that it was really that they were so self absorbed that they only cared about themselves. I had been sickly at times as a child. Now I know what was causing some of the problem, but then I didn’t and no one ever really tried to figure out what was going on. At other times I was ill because of emotional trauma I didn’t know how to handle. A million memories and emotions flooded me as I sat there already wracked with pain and I realized that some of how I had let myself get so ill was because things were not done to prevent those traumas. While I had survived, I had missed some important developmental aspects that come from watching someone else care for you and then learning to do so yourself because their actions tell you that you are worthy of care.
But some family members came and helped my husband care for the yard. They stayed as active in our lives as my health would allow. Others dropped a note or left a message to let me know they were thinking of me. I had tried to protect my nephew by not telling him how near death I was. His dad had died and I became a parent figure to him when he was 14 so I wanted to spare him any pain the uncertainty of my health would cause. He told me that he had a right to know how sick I was, and he was right. The people that really love you want to be there for both the good and bad parts. Not that they want bad parts, of course, but because life will come with challenges and they don’t want you to have to be any more alone in those moments than you are by default.
My husband and I worked to find ways to keep our home functioning and redefined our roles within the home and our relationship. “In sickness and in health” were words we said as we vowed to be wed to each other for life, but his commitment to them was suddenly tested. If he ever thought of leaving, I never knew it and I’m pretty sure that even at its worst, the thought never crossed his mind. Don’t get me wrong, we had our moments. I had my way of doing things and I wanted him to take over and do them my way too. He was terrified that I would die and the stress of doing twice his normal work and caring for me was intense ̶ even more so because he was eating allergens that caused his moods to rocket up and down. I wasn’t cooking, so the foods he was picking were loaded with the very thing causing the problem to be worse. As a result he was dealing with depression and was having trouble keeping up with his own things not alone mine. (He wasn’t doing it on purpose, he simply didn’t know at that point.) Everything I saw that wasn’t done was just a reminder of how little I could do and how frustrating it was that I couldn’t even pull my own weight. I was fully dependent upon him and I hated it. Not because he wasn’t dependable but because it forced me to see my mortality. It also forced me to deal with a deep fear of abandonment and several childhood issues thought long ago taken care of.
When My husband and I first met, I would get up around 6, make breakfast, get my step-son off to school, exercise for an hour, mow the 2.5 acre yard, clean the 3000 sq foot house, and do all of the laundry before he got home from school. Then I’d play with him for an hour, help with his homework, make dinner, spend time as a family, read a bedtime story, take some personal time to myself, and spend quality time with my husband until bedtime around 10-11. And that was my day off. The other days of the week I was seeing patients in a waiting list only office. Not to mention that I managed to do all of that with extensive low back pain and sometimes leg numbness/pain from when I had herniated a disc at 19. (The back pain went away in 2006 when I discovered Intu-Flow and began daily practice.) To go from that to unable to work more than 6 hours each week for an extended period of time, and to knowing that even that was too much… It was humbling.
Throughout the first year or so of being sick, I had the constant question of how I had managed to get so incredibly sick. As a doctor, people often came to see me at the end of having already seen a string of other doctors. People would fly in from other states and then fly their families in too. I see things that other people miss and I am good at it. How was it possible that I was so ill that death was a very real possibility and I hadn’t realized what was going on? Why was it that after finding a way out of the back pain of so many years I was suddenly in pain again?
I went from a less than ideal childhood to creating a better life for myself. As I was growing up and experiencing family issues, I felt a deep responsibility to try to save those family members who seemed to need saving. After moving away to college there came a point of believing that those family members didn’t want saving or they would have taken one of the many hands reaching out to help them. Once life was better I threw myself into my work excessively hoping to reach a state of complete independence but instead it left me tired and a bit burnt out. Thankfully, I realized it one day and set about creating a balanced life. I managed to do so, but then I met my husband whose child was mentally ill. I went into full “fix it” mode but nothing seemed to help. The rest of that story is more than I will go into here, but there came a point when he no longer lived in our home. After that, stress decreased and life started to improve again. The initial parasite issue seemed like a small glitch. Intu-Flow was discovered and the back pain went away. Life really seemed to be getting better, and then I crashed.
So looking back I had to admit that there was a trend of pain and pushing to exhaustion while caring for those who wouldn’t care for themselves, finding balance, and repeating. Even if some of the things happening were out of my control, my reaction to them was fully within my control so it was with shock, disbelief, and discomfort that I realized that I was playing a role in the tragedies within my life. Via ‘the crash,’ the grim reaper had grabbed me by the back of the neck and shoved his face into mine — projected his existence into my mind so that I couldn’t look away or deny the path my choices had led me down. I had allowed the extensive progression of an illness and it was my paradigm that didn’t let me see just how wrong things had become. I was applying different rules to my life than I was to everyone else’s. If I wanted to get well and to stay that way it was going to require more than just killing off some parasites. It was going to require that I challenge every aspect of my paradigm and change those that were harmful. I was going to have to take off the blindfold I had thought was truth and look with new eyes upon life.
How did I react to the task? With anger and fear – years of deep, extensive, repressed anger and fear exploded. And as my emotions raged out of control the hormonal response resulting from it overwhelmed my already taxed body and I felt the exhaustion building seemingly by the second. It quickly became apparent that I was going to have to let it go or suffer even more unpleasant side-effects. My ego screamed that I couldn’t let it go, that I had spent most of my life suppressing emotion and protecting others that didn’t deserve protecting, that I had a right to the anger and fear, and that some of what was wrong wasn’t my fault. It screamed and kicked and ranted until I realized that it was behaving like the child that had been hurt so many years ago should have reacted given her emotional skills at the time.
At that moment Scott Sonnon’s words, “the voices in your head are not you” came to mind. But that little girl’s voice actually had once been mine and it should have been listened to by an adult who loved me and knew that no child deserved some of the things that happened to me…by someone willing to protect me and help me heal. And then the first glimpse of life without the blindfold came. I saw that little girl as damaged, and I saw her as still very much a part of me. I’ve worked with people who have had significant trauma in their lives – the kind that seeps into every aspect of their being and binds them physically, mentally, and emotionally. They want to heal but they have been so seriously hurt that they can’t seem to trust anyone enough to follow through with recommendations. They would rather hurt the way they do, because they know what that is like, than to risk being hurt further. Movement (in all three areas) must be restored and there will be some discomfort while doing so, but at the first hint of it, they believe that you are lying to them and it is only going to get worse. They become so wrapped up in what might happen to them that they continue to hurt themselves long after the trauma has passed…and by refusing to let go, they subject themselves to a life of needless pain. In that moment I very softly spoke to my inner child, “I know how hurt you are but if it is ever going to be better you have got to trust me and let go. Please, just let go.”
If you have children or have spent much time around them, you know that a tantrum is not that easily stopped. But fortunately, Scott is right and even if it had once been my voice, I was no longer that little girl. She was part of me and would need to be healed, but letting her cling to past traumas was not part of that process. Part of me knew that I had value and that it was OK to be successful and happy while the other part clung to a life of pain that she didn’t know how to get through. She wanted someone to save her but there is no rewinding the clock to make bad things go away. She kept creating a life of pain so that she could learn how to get through it. The only way she could be saved was by teaching her that her past experiences were not the only experiences to be had. By never acknowledging both parts, my life had swung like a large pendulum between the two — one creating balance and abundance, the other, if not creating pain and exhaustion was certainly willing to accept it as just the way life is.
I have failed to find words to adequately express the internal changes that have occurred as a result of realizing that, but they are vast. Life became more valuable for lack of finding a better description. And I started fighting to heal not just physically from the infection, but emotionally to heal the abused child that I had wanted so badly to not be present that I had failed to hear her voice as separate from my own.
The parasites proved to be far more formidable than I could ever have imagined and there were times when it is fair to say that I was fighting for my very life. To be doing so much emotional work at the same time seemed harsh and I would have loved to have turned away from it. When it became too intense I was tempted to go back, to put the blindfold on and pretend that things were as they had always been. My health and my dreams would not let me. If I didn’t deal with it while awake, in my dreams I would spend the entire night fighting demons or screaming at those who had hurt me. I was too exhausted to be losing rest to those types of dreams. Since I did not want the results of going back and I could not stay still, I plodded forward.
I stopped contacting friends and family who never contacted me first or only contacted me when they wanted something. I got really good at saying ‘no’ when one of them did look me up. I also more deeply appreciated the real friends in my life and made an effort to let them know on a more regular basis even if it was just a small note. My husband and I further increased our communication skills with each other and continued to evolve our relationship. He found out about and stopped eating his allergens which meant he stopped having the drastic mood changes. I stopped being so anal about the house and yard. Priorities for numerous things shifted. I faced my fear of being abandoned and unable to care for myself and realized that the world of total independence I kept reaching for wasn’t a solution. No individual can ever be fully self-sufficient. We all need other people in order for our lives to prosper and grow. There is a difference between needing others and being needy. Being mature and bonding with other people doesn’t make us dependent on them, it makes us all interdependent and that is a good thing to be.
The doc that helped me with the final treatment pulled me off of gluten. I thought that I was giving it up for 3 months but at the end of the three months, I realized that it was not going to be part of my diet again. I grieved its loss and felt that I might have had a farewell dinner with it if I had known it was gone forever. The constant, incessant hunger it carried with it would never be missed, but some of the foods I had enjoyed needed to be forever gone if it was to remain tamed. I chose to let the gluten go. My practice of letting go of harmful things was increasing my skill to do so.
The happy dance that came in July of 2008 when the test results finally came back negative for parasites was filled with joy and the more mature part of me very happily told the abused little girl, “See, I told you things would get better!” But in October when things started going downhill, she screamed, “You lied! This is your fault and the pain is worse than ever! Liar, liar, liar!” She was right about one thing, the pain certainly was worse. The physical pain was accompanied by the emotional pain that the small gains I had made over the last few months were going down the drain and I had no idea where the drain was not alone a plug to make it stop. The previous treatment had very little effect now.
We were due to carve pumpkins with my great nieces, their parents, and my brother and sister-in-law. The weekend before there was blood in the stool for two days, my gut felt raw and beaten, my lungs felt like they were swollen, and I had a headache that simply would not go away. I was miserable but also didn’t want to miss out. Little girls only stay little for so long and I had already missed several things over the last couple of years due to the parasites. My inner child once again pouted that the pain might never go away and that it was going to keep me from doing things I enjoy and being with people I love possibly for the rest of my life. The mature part of me argued that I had been in pain before and still managed to live my life happily. Much to my husband’s great dislike, I decided that quality mattered more than quantity.
It is one thing to say that when everyone is healthy and the possibility seems distant to impossible, it is completely another thing to bring it much closer. He wanted me doing nothing that would possibly make me worse, and I argued that there was no point in living if I didn’t actually live sometimes. I could finally put into words why life felt more valuable. Simply by acknowledging that there was a piece of me stuck in past trauma, I realized that I had let valuable time slip by experiencing less of life than was needed. Life matters. My life matters and regardless of the abused inner child, I wanted to live. Surviving was no longer enough. The presence of pain did not negate the opportunity for growth and happiness. It made it harder to focus upon that opportunity, but it did not negate it. We spoke about what would happen if I died, discussed that it was by no means the goal, but accepted that it was a possibility. He did not like it, but when something really mattered to me, we did it knowing that there would be side-effects to deal with. In his place, it is very possible that I would have felt as he did.
I was so devastated that the parasites were back that I didn’t even let my doctor know. We hunted for a new one instead — travelled half way across the country and paid a lot of money to see a new doc in the hopes that he would have answers that the others had not. He made time for us and in many ways is a good doctor. He took a detailed history, but at the end of it, I wasn’t sure that he had really heard me. Still, there were lots of tests ran and they would speak to him even if he hadn’t fully heard. But when the tests came back, there were no parasites. Excellent news except that I felt like hell and was getting worse. The only things the lab indicated as abnormal seemed like a side-effect of whatever the root cause was to me, but he felt that it was the cause and that it was perhaps left over from the previous infection.
Two weeks into his proposed treatment things were not getting better. I was beyond exhausted and the pain was mind-bending. I was crying at the drop of a hat and questioning how I was going to get through more days like the one I was having. I suppose it would be accurate to say that I had reached a point of uncertainty that I previously had never known.
“He’s wrong.” It was the voice of the abused child. I argued that perhaps it was just going to take longer for the treatment to work and that it was important to trust other people. If all the stuff that had been tried before hadn’t worked, we had to be open to new things. “No. We shouldn’t feel this way.” It was again the child’s voice and it was full of fear but there wasn’t a tantrum and there wasn’t anger…and it said ‘we.’
That was the first time I realized that the months (at that point more than 1.5 years) of emotional work had actually been resulting in change. I was blending the two parts of me, acknowledging that both existed, and working to get them to work together for the good of both. The abused child had learned that consistent pain was not part of life. “You do this all of the time for other people, do it for us.”
So once again I returned to go over my history, my labs, and various doctor visits. Since the parasites that were confirmed on lab work before were not on this last set, either it was something completely different or there was another parasite that had never been identified. But I had felt better at the end of three months worth of treatment and had made improvements. There was also another factor that had seemed unconnected before but seemed a very likely connection now. That ‘something’ had came and went previously and had certainly left completely during treatment. If it was the ‘something’ I thought it was, the only thing that could make it come and go would be if my diet and the treatment shared a common ingredient. A quick look at both showed only one thing in common. It was a long shot, but it was the only shot that I could think of.
I ordered some and within 2 days the diarrhea stopped for the first time since October…and it was currently January. The dosage was increased and I woke up the next day feeling better than I had felt possibly since crashing in 2007. The improvements have continued and for the first time since realizing that there was a part of me I had suppressed, both parts are in agreement that we are going to be healthy.
And my family members who had behaved in a way I disliked… One day I watched them the way that I had stepped back and watched my inner child having a tantrum. In some ways they never grew up, never faced their own issues and never learned who they are in a way that gives them any peace. I went from being angry to feeling sorry for them. To have lived your entire life by running away from your demons, holding on to false realities, and terrified that things will change ̶ that doesn’t make for a very good life. I think perhaps they have always seen the hands reaching out to help them as menacing hands trying to steal something away. Don’t get me wrong, they can still push my buttons, but if I can stop and remind myself of what their paradigm is, it is easy to see how they behave as they do. As wrong as many of the things they did and do are, they are still my family, still a part of me, and I still wish that they would find it within themselves to grow.
My husband and I are even closer than we were. We still have our issues, but they seem smaller than they used to. I think that for some it is because they weren’t as important as I thought they were and for others it is because we are whittling away at them. I loved him before, but knowing that I can count on him to have my back when things are bad, well, I’m not sure exactly what the words I am looking for are. I delight in the interdependence we have. It is true that we are very different people who have very different hobbies, but at the end of the day it is him I want to be with – swapping stories about anything interesting that happened and happy just to be at his side. It is good to have someone to trust so completely. And while it may sound strange, it is also good to have someone so different simply because we challenge each other to grow almost constantly. But it is a challenge with love and trust, not ultimatums. I learned to enjoy that I need him. I don’t need him to survive and my life would go on if he died, but I need him none-the-less.
My deep seated desire for people to separate my professional life from my personal one also seems to have faded in urgency. If I couldn’t see the different parts of me, it is easier to accept that others can’t. They tend to see the side they most need to see and I finally realized that if that is all they can see, it is my choice as to how far into my life I let them go. Besides, one part blends into the other now and there is only so much separation that is required.
I am feeling better on basically a daily basis, but frankly, I am still processing all that happened the last few years. I don’t know if the day will come when I have a thought and the need is gone to ask if it is coming from the emotionally mature adult or the abused child, but the abused child is healing. I’m much better at keeping balance so that there is some fun and rejuvenation as well as some work and challenge. I think that is the result of integrating instead of swinging from one paradigm to the other.
For the couple of months prior to discovering the solution, the pain was like none I had ever experienced. I could not distance myself from it and indeed when I tried to, it was several fold worse. The moment it started to go away I realized that it was significantly different from the back pain of old because it was organ pain. There is a sense of deep wrongness organ pain carries with it that other tissue does not. You can lose a leg or an arm and still survive, but losing your intestines isn’t an option. It makes sense that the body prioritizes urgency with regard to survival. But while in the throes of that pain, the basic instinct of fight, flight, or freeze will come into play.
I already knew that my tendency is to fight even if that means I square off to analyze the situation and decide flight would be better. What I didn’t know was that if there was no getting away, I would fight to the death. The days of not knowing how I could make it another day with as much pain as I was feeling always led to another day. And even though I wished that there was a place to run to and despite that I considered what it would be to just freeze and let the infection finish me off, I continued to fight. I fought for my health but I also fought to experience the things in life that matter most to me. Because I knew I was fighting, everything became super focused. There was no time to make long drawn out decisions because there was no extra energy for it. There was no time to hang on to any problems from the last action because it took energy away from making the decision about what to do about the next problem I was facing. Acting on pure emotion was pointless to outright harmful and I learned to limit how long I would let myself dwell. When something needed said, I said it as quickly as possible because there was no certainty of a later opportunity. I expressed love for people that I would have kept quiet about for a much longer time previously. I let go of drama more quickly. I learned to recognize my ego in minutes instead of in days. I talked with my husband sooner when something needed addressed. I asked for help more quickly and was faster to realize when I needed to focus and give my help even on tough days. “I can’t do that right now, will you please take care of it?” were words I learned to say without fear of being abandoned. I expressed dislike of certain situations more quickly because there was no extra energy to deal with repeated irritation. There was time to act, see the consequences of that action, and act again. I learned by doing. It didn’t matter how beat up I felt or how knocked out I was, if I didn’t get back up and keep taking action, I was never going to make it to a better situation. And I learned that much of what I thought about how I would be and what I would do was complete crap. Smashed up against the reality that the dance might be over for good, the things that mattered most to me took form in a manner that I’m not sure is possible any other way ̶ and who I was when stripped naked of all illusions was still someone worth fighting for.
I would not wish what I went through on anyone even though I learned much. It is odd, but realizing that there was still a broken child inside and learning that the great escape I thought I had made wasn’t real, well it made things matter more. It is as though it became obvious that everything we do gets woven into who we are, so what is being woven deeply matters.
Somewhere in the midst of that I came to understand why life is martial art. It isn’t about the fighting or your opponent. It is about you and how you respond to stress and challenges. If you never challenge yourself, never do work you don’t want to do, and never act when failure is likely or because it might be painful, you lose the opportunity to know yourself fully – you lose the opportunity to realize that you are more than your fears and that you are capable of more than you currently think you are. Martial artists who think that life is martial art don’t train because they want to fight. They train because we all fight something sooner or later and those who train long enough understand that we battle our own inner demons and ego(s) more often than any external foe and that we are also beaten by them more often than by any external foe. There is value in knowing those demons and your ego and having faced them before there is a real external crisis. While I don’t believe that it requires sparring to do so, I can see how it would be one of the easiest and (with the right sparring partner) safest manners of getting to know how you will react when you are stripped of everything but habit and instinct. It also allows you to take the knowledge you gained about yourself in that stripped down state and decide if you liked what you learned or if you want to do the work needed to grow.
Many thanks to those people in my life who were examples I could look to for the courage needed to choose to do the work and who continue to fill that role for myself and countless others.