Compassion, Humor & Honesty or How to Deal with Sick People

On Christmas Eve, I was gifted with another blood clot in my left leg.

Only last week, I wanted to write everything about it.  About the anger toward a returned illness.  The reasons why it happened.  The blow to the ego because how can someone who helps others look deeply within themselves become this sick…again?  And of course, the Fear—not just of death but of fucking up the lessons I obviously still need to learn.

It would have been meaningful.  Beautifully sad.  Sober and resigned.

And it would have depressed the hell out of me.  It would have kept me in a sick space rather than propel me toward true health.  I know why I’m here again.  I’m working through it as each piece resurfaces.  This is where I need to be.

Yet, as I’ve been slowly accepting this illness, I’ve also been hyper-aware of how people who aren’t sick deal with those who are.  Some people are simply assholes.  They see the vulnerability of illness and exploit it, almost enjoying the additional pain their carelessness causes (a particular ER nurse comes to mind).  But most people, I believe, have very good intentions.  They just don’t know how to express themselves well.  And I get it.  When a loved one is seriously ill, we want to make it all better immediately because it’s easy to begin mourning, to fear a future without him or her.  Deeper still, sick people remind us of our own mortality.  Planted in this fear, we say and do things to sick people that don’t always come across as compassionate.  I know I’ve been guilty of this in the past.

With a bit of humor and a wealth of compassion (and if only to serve as a reminder to me), I’ve come up with the following.

How to Deal with Sick People:

Unless I specifically ask you, don’t give me random medical advice about my condition.  And don’t talk to anyone else about my illness either.  It’s great that your best friend’s niece just graduated with a nursing degree but if I’ve never met her and she knows nothing about my health history, I’m not interested in her opinion.  Trust that I know my body better than anyone on the planet and I’ve surrounded myself with the right doctors and practitioners that are helping me to heal.

Don’t tell me about other people you know who have died from my illness.  This happened the first time I got blood clots and again just last week.  I cannot fully describe the gripping anxiety and fear I carried—for several days, I knew intimately what it means to be terrified.  Furthermore, don’t tell me about any other sick people.  I’m compassionate that your postman was just diagnosed with cancer but I need my energy to heal me—not to be sad for him and his family.  Better yet, don’t talk to me about any tragedy or the news.  If it doesn’t affect me or you directly, realize that right now, I can’t handle it.  I cannot heal and mourn the state of the world at the same time.

Don’t try to make me feel guilty for not being able to do what I used to do or for canceling things I agreed to before I got sick.  I don’t know how I’m going to feel moment by moment and if I can’t make your dinner or pick apples like we planned, don’t take it personally.  I’m simply honoring what my body needs to do to get better.

Don’t feel sorry for me.  If you want to feel badly, that is your prerogative, but please keep it to yourself.  Your pity is not going to lift me up to a better place; it’ll only make me angry.  Pity is toxic.  Compassion, on the other hand, is full of light and love.  I’ll take your compassion anytime!

If you can’t be supportive or present with me because you’re dealing with your own drama, then be honest.  You have to come first in your own life.  Also, if sick people make you squeamish, let me know that, too.  You’re not doing either of us any good if you’re preoccupied or uncomfortable.  I understand.  We’ll reconnect when we’re both better.

Don’t assume the worst if I don’t answer the telephone.  I’m probably sleeping.  Or I’ve just had a good cry.  Or I’m dealing with the pieces of my illness.  More and more often, I’m fantasizing—creating a beautiful garden in the springtime or kneading biscotti or pizza dough on a marble pastry board or dancing again in the basement.  I will call you back but when I’m emotionally ready.

Don’t be weird when you see me.  I walk with a slight limp now.  My skin is really dry and there is not enough lotion in the world to moisten it up.  Bed rest has straightened the curly hair at the back of my head into a weird flip.  The pain has me often grunting like a pig searching for truffles.   And, my God, I stink.  Seriously, every part of my body that can emit smells does.  I bathe, wear deodorant, and brush my teeth.  It doesn’t matter.  It could be the blood thinners or the illness slowly releasing its toxins.  The more I heal, the smellier I am.  At home, it’s freeing but with others, I’m slightly embarrassed.  So, please look me in the eye when you see me.  I know how I appear but remember, this dry, limping, stinky state is only temporary.  I’m getting better every day and I’m still me.

If you sincerely offer to help me, be prepared for the unusual.  What I need most right now is for someone to cut my toenails.  My Neanderthal arms can’t make up for the limited mobility.  My blood clot, though dissolving, begins at my foot and ends just under my butt cheek.  And so the nails have been growing for nearly six weeks—yes, before I even got sick.  They’re not quite talons but they’re not cute.  Vanity—and the desire to maintain a modicum of sexiness—have prevented me from having my husband do it.  It takes intimacy to a whole other level.  I might as well ask him to floss my teeth or change out my tampon.  It’s that gross.  But he’s going to have to do it sooner or later.  Or you are!

Finally, don’t ask me about my illness.  Unless I bring it up, let’s not talk about the details.  I live with the details and if you and I dissect them with every conversation, I’m never going to get better.  I’m actually becoming bored by the details—and that’s terrific!

Instead, let me tell you how my husband called me on his way to work to have me look out the window at a rainbow arching over the sunrise.  And you tell me how much your six-year old loves her oatmeal.   And I’ll tell you that I just bought heirloom seeds for purple cauliflower—can you believe it—purple?  And you tell me how you witnessed your teenaged son being kind.  And I’ll tell you that I love you.  And you’ll tell me that you love me, too.

And I’ll tell you, that’s all I needed to hear.  In that moment, your love and positive energy have propelled me further to true health.

Thank you.

Posted in Self-Awareness, Personal Growth & Personal Responsibility | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Just What the Hell is “Who the Hell Am I…Honestly?®”

Workshop Background Overview

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Forgiveness with a Smile!

Background Selling Forgiveness

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Veterans Day

Background Veterans

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Another Halloween Poem

Background Halloween

Image | Posted on by | Tagged | Leave a comment

On Forgiveness: A Daughter Finally Sees Her Father

Maybe it was the workshop that set things in motion.

Last weekend, I facilitated a workshop that examined the relationship between daughters and their fathers.  During a break, one of the participants asked if I would share my story.  For me, sharing my story is a fine line.  While my experiences gave birth to my workshops, revisiting them too often feels dangerous, like deliberately re-infecting me with a childhood disease.  Voicing the past gives power to it and I can easily become lost—for a minute or for days—in all of that pain.

But, I’ve been working with this circle for a year and a half.  I trust them and I’ve learned to trust myself as a facilitator, so when the time was appropriate, I did feel comfortable sharing.  One of the questions I ask in this workshop is, “Did the way your father treat women influence your own interactions with women?”

I then clarified.  “For example,” I said, “My father had an affair with my mother’s friend.  He divorced my mother and married the friend.  But, together, they also deliberately set out to destroy my mother.”  I said all of this without emotion.  Nonchalant.  I allowed myself even a moment of pride: look how far I’ve come!  I continued, “Because of this, I never trusted other women.  If I had women friends, it was never for very long and it wasn’t until I was almost 30 that I had girlfriends.  Sometimes, still, I don’t quite trust couples that my husband and I hang out with.  So, this is the kind of thing I mean by this question.”

That’s all I shared about my father.  I didn’t carry it home with me.  I’d like to say I was even able to release it.  And I may have done save for the fact that this past weekend I attended a memorial for my great-aunt.

During my parents’ divorce and the years of craziness and heartache to follow, my father’s great-aunt and uncle and their kids were the only members of my paternal family to remain in my life.  My paternal family thought my great-aunt and uncle chose my mother’s side over my father’s.  They didn’t.  They chose a 12-year old girl and her 10-year old sister because we were family, we were hurting and they were the kind of people who could never turn off their hearts.  They paid for this choice: like me, they, too, lost an entire side of their family.  My great-uncle lost his big brother—my grandfather.  All of it has been senseless.  Ego and pride and misunderstanding that tore through the family like lightning 30 years ago.

Still, there was some communication between my great-aunt and uncle and a few members of my paternal family.  I knew this.  So, when my great-aunt passed away, I was prepared to see a long-lost aunt or cousin at her memorial.  I allowed myself to really examine my feelings: would I be okay if this happened?  Yes.  Simply, yes.  A lifetime had passed; I was no longer a little girl.  While I could easily access my old hurts or sense of victimization if I wanted to go there, I didn’t.  I knew if I did see my family again, it would only be with hard-earned grace rather than old fear.

I can honestly say, however, that I did not expect to see my father.

He sat with my grandfather, my two aunts and their families at a table across the aisle.  Only a few feet and a mountain of years separated us.  I felt torn, in a way.  I was here to honor my great-aunt.  Yet, right here, right now, was a man I thought if I ever saw again, it would be in a coffin.  Curious.  Why did he come?  To make amends to his great-aunt who he never treated well?  To catch a glimpse of his daughters?  For the free food?  I don’t know.  I was simply curious.  No nervousness.  No sweaty armpits.  No anger.  Just curious.  More curious still as a wave of compassion and forgiveness covered me.

But then, he was gone.  He got up from his chair and left.  He doesn’t know this, but I followed him.  He walked quickly through the foyer and out the main doors into the parking lot.  There, I stopped.  I decided I was not going to chase him down; that seemed familiar and detrimental.  I did wait for a minute or two but he didn’t return. 

I walked back into the banquet room directly toward my aunt.  I said hello.  I think I even occupied the chair my father had been in.  I talked to both of my aunts, my uncles, a cousin.  Despite the years and gray hair and lines, I recognized my memories in their faces.  Without knowing them, I still knew them.  I looked at photos of first and second cousins, all beautiful girls and young women, strangers who shared my blood.  We distilled our lifetimes into a few minutes.  Defensiveness held in the air from some, wistfulness from others.  I realized then: it would be so easy to paint them as ogres and me as the victim, but I couldn’t.  I just couldn’t.  They, too, had been affected by this split.  They, too, had lost.  I could not know what burdens they had carried all these years.  This family was in pain.  I can’t close my heart to that.

Even as I reconnected, I waited.  I waited for my father to return to the table.  I waited for him…until it was time to return to my table and listen to the eulogies honoring my great-aunt.

Then, it was over.  I looked for him again but my father was gone.  It was over.  Again.

I said good-bye to one of my aunts and gave her my phone number.  She and my uncle gave me a hug.  We moved back into our lives.

I returned to my great-aunt’s family.  I finally broke down.  For my great-aunt.  For my own sense of guilt: I thought I would have more time with her.  I think, though, my great-uncle and cousins thought my tears were for my father.  In their grief, with their big hearts, they actually apologized to me; they hadn’t expected him.  I was not a little girl anymore; that day, my tears were purely for my aunt.  For this loss which had begun years before she died as we all grew up and moved away.  I cried for her.

The next day, however, I did cry, on-and-off for my father.

But not in the way one would think.  I didn’t miss my father.  I didn’t fear him.  I didn’t hold any anger even.  I didn’t want to insinuate myself into his life.  I simply wanted to give my father a hug and I cried for the missed opportunity.

Because in my father, I saw a man older than he should be.  All those years of unkindness, especially toward himself, hung heavy like dusty, gray curtains in an abandoned house.  My heart wanted to give him a moment’s peace.

I wanted to hug my father.  And tell him that I love him.  That I always have.  I wanted to tell him I am grateful: if he had not stepped away, I would never have become the woman I am.  I am stronger than I ever thought I could be because of him.  I have come through it all not only with my heart intact but full of grace and magnificence.  I wanted my father to know that it’s okay.  It had to happen this way.

Maybe that’s why the memorial happened the way it did.  Maybe that’s why we were only a few feet apart and yet never connected.  Maybe I needed to see him again just to reaffirm who I am: a woman who has lost a tremendous amount and yet, has blessedly, wholeheartedly, truly learned a kind of forgiveness that cannot be explained or justified to those who aren’t there yet.  It had to happen this way.

This is my new story about my father.

Posted in Self-Awareness, Personal Growth & Personal Responsibility | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cured from Within (Repost)

Pain—spiritual, emotional or physical—makes us vulnerable. And if we’ve lived with pain for years, our vulnerability urges us to seek out people and remedies who promise relief, comfort, or the Holy of Holies, a cure.

In the beginning of 1998 when I was 27, it was a lifetime of pain that finally drove me to try yoga. I found a yoga teacher in the phone book and called her. I explained that I suffered from scoliosis. She said with a confidence that exploded through the phone line, “Oh, yes!  I can cure you!”

“Cure? She can cure me?” I thought. “She can cure me!” I believed her to be a godsend. With her words, I finally saw an end to the grinding ache I wore in the muscles along my spine and the sharp pain lying deep in my tailbone, hips and pelvis. I imagined I would be able to sleep comfortably instead of waking up after a few hours and moving to the floor or to the bathtub because a hard surface occasionally relieved the pressure. I saw myself sitting straight in a chair without collapsing or constantly adjusting. I was sold.

I actually hated my first yoga class. My husband came with me and his naturally strong body easily shifted into poses that I could not hold. The soles of my feet and my palms sweated from embarrassment. My back pain was worse. Even though I knew I wouldn’t feel better immediately, I had been so hooked on the idea of a cure that I was disappointed not so much in the teacher or the class but in myself. I was a failure. I cried as soon as we got into the car to drive home.

But I went back to class the next week. It was a bit easier. So I continued, each class helping me to become more aware of my body and less conscious of how well or poorly I did in comparison to the other students. I was still in pain but it felt different. It felt like forward movement. As my body and mind started to shift, I became filled with such gratitude that for a few months, I owed all of my progress to my teacher. I hung on her every word. I thought she was really cool and I still believed she could cure me. I wanted more yoga, so I bought my own mat, strap, props and books. I practiced at home almost daily.

A strange thing happened: as I went deeper into my own practice, I began to see more clearly. I saw my yoga teacher for who she really was and not who I wanted her to be.

The classes began to devolve. I don’t know where they came from but a group of women and a few men who were at least 20 to 30 years older than I began to surround the yoga teacher. Like me just a few months earlier, they listened to her almost in a state of rapture. Surely, she had all the answers. Perhaps she had promised to cure them, too? I wasn’t sure. I just know that class became less about yoga and body awareness and more about pontification. With such a large group of disciples, and really that’s who these people became, the yoga teacher gave full reign to her ego. She’d make strange proclamations like, “Downward facing dog. I drove cross-country with a broken radio and that’s when I learned how to love country music.” The class would nod and ooh and aah and say things like, “Country music, you say? Where does one go to hear such country music?” Yoga class became ridiculous.

The teacher also revealed a mean streak. After a particularly fawning student would leave, she’d gossip about her to the students who hadn’t yet made it out the door. She’d tell people what was wrong with them mentally and what they needed to do about it. People would arrive with smiles, leave with frowns and yet, come back for more the next week. I began to question why the hell I was coming back. And then, my teacher injured herself and cancelled classes for a few months. The relief I felt was total.

During this time, I had also begun working with a massage therapist. She had shown up in class a few months after I did and the yoga teacher introduced her with “She is a WON-der-fullllll massage therapist!” To which the therapist calmly and honestly asked, “How could you possibly know that? I’ve never given you a massage.” The part of me that still bought my yoga teacher’s bullshit was slightly offended by this truth; but the part that was deepening smiled.

This massage therapist was to become very important. Her first words to me were, “I can help you.”

Help. Not cure. A distinction that changed both my healing and my outlook on life.

Once a week, I endured grueling deep-tissue massage therapy. During that first month, the day after the massage, the pain was so great, I could only sit ramrod straight. Layers of muscles and fascia that had been knotted and spasmed for years began to release. I learned that scoliosis had little to do with my bones and everything to do with my muscles. In the pain that came in waves, I learned to meditate. I traveled with the pain, discovering that where it resonated the loudest wasn’t necessarily its source. I was amazed by how connected I had become to my body and how I no longer had to be a slave to it. Illness and pain were a choice.

Just as important, my massage therapist and I worked together. She researched my condition. With my permission, she sought advice from one of her instructors. She explained everything she was doing, why she was doing it, and what could possibly be achieved. For my part, I showed up with trust and a willingness to try different modalities without expectation. In these massages, I learned that the cure is in the journey.

After nearly a year of intense work, my massage therapist released my psoas muscle. She accessed it through my abdomen; my breath caught as tears formed in my eyes and a sheen of sweat quickly covered my body. I think I joked that it would’ve been nice to have a leather belt to bite. But all of my practice with the massage and meditation finally allowed me to relax. When the therapist finished, my hips were symmetrical. For 15 years, my right hip had been higher than the left one. Now, I was symmetrical. Truly. It was amazing. My pants now hung beautifully instead of being hung up on one hip. We had achieved this together. I can honestly say that my scoliosis was cured.

Then, the yoga teacher came calling again, circling like a shark. Like a fool, I decided to go back to her class. She noticed the difference right away.

I said, “Yes, it’s amazing what massage can do.”

She huffed, “Your massage therapist didn’t do that! That’s from yoga!”

I corrected her, “No. This is from massage. A year of massage and a psoas release.” I went to my mat. She called out a pose. I lay on my back with my right leg pulled into me, gently cradling it. I felt my new back muscles and I rejoiced in the easiness of them. I closed my eyes.

The next thing I felt was a huge snapping weight on my right leg. The yoga teacher, envious perhaps that I hadn’t found my cure with her, forced her body down onto my leg when I was vulnerable. Pain flooded over me and I cried out. She stood up, looked down at me and smirked. In one hateful movement, she undid all of my hard work. I lay there like a broken animal unable to move, afraid to move. Finally, in pain familiar and complete and damning, I left and never returned.

My massage therapist and I could not believe what had happened—how ego, envy and competition had given my yoga teacher permission to physically hurt someone she had once promised to cure. And hurt me she did. My hips were no longer even. The psoas had recoiled. My pelvis was once again pushed forward. My massage therapist and I began again.

Without knowing it at the time, these two women greatly influenced how I interact with people—both as a student and a teacher.

I am highly suspicious of anyone who sets him or herself up as a guru with all of the answers: Do this! Buy this! Think this! Wear this! Feel this! And if you do, ALL of your problems will be solved! You’ll be happier, richer, healthier and sexier!

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t really good people doing really good work that truly helps others. There are. But I’ve also met many people who operate from a place of ego—they create a cult of personality and foster a continued independence on them as individuals. As long as their students please them, they promise a cure.

Because of my own experiences, these people scare me…but I’m even more afraid of becoming like them.

Which is why, I think, my workshop series is not more conventionally successful. I am simply not willing to tell people that I can cure them. I can’t. It’s not my job. It’s not my responsibility. And because I only give people some tools that could be helpful to them in their journeys, my workshops work only for people who are ready to do what I did and still do: to dig deep and find their own answers and truth.

That’s more than okay.

I’d rather be like my massage therapist helping one person at a time than my yoga teacher hurting many and calling it a “cure”.

Posted in Self-Awareness, Personal Growth & Personal Responsibility | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment