Why did I have such a run of bad luck? Bad karma? Fate? Pure random chance? Was I such an evil person in a past life that I am doomed to pay for those sins in this one?
I may never know why, but I do remember what. While most people seem to sail along with only a few bouts of choppy water, I am one of that handful who often find themselves slammed by a series of 50-foot waves every now and then.
The short list begins with the violence inflicted by my first husband when he discovered he had terminal cancer and became severely alcoholic and unexpectedly abusive. Memories of the beatings, as well as of Ron’s gruesome death, took a toll for many years after. Repeated ailments and infections. Flashbacks and phobias.
My second marriage literally went up in flames the night our home burned. I was there alone, using steel wool to remove paint stripper from a metal power strip, when the jelly-like substance burst into flame from an errant spark. Within minutes, the house was gutted. After the firemen left, I kept trying to reach second husband Jack so that he wouldn’t be stunned when he returned home. When I finally found him at the office, he told me that he had fallen in love with his boss and wanted a divorce. Nightmares, cold sweats, tears.
The good news is that ending the marriage allowed me to meet my wonderfully supportive new husband Drew. But less than a year after we met, I slipped on the ice, flipped into the air and landed on my right arm and shoulder, exploding the bone and crushing nerves coming from the spine, an injury that still causes pain more than a decade later.
Hardest of all was the succession of three deaths within a year – first my boss Bob, then my young friend Mark and finally my daughter Kim, who died at 34 from a toxic combination of alcoholism and bulimia.
I feel awkward about publishing the list, as if I am asking for pity or victimhood. Not only are there literally millions of people who have suffered far more, but I am blessed with people to love me back, a career that matters, a home in the woods and pets to baby. Yet my odyssey, as I found my way back to the point where I can again see the world in color, deserves to be explored.
No “one answer” for all
While I do not offer my experience as a blueprint for others, healing seems more of a journey than a destination. Even during my desperate search for immediate answers to the physical pain of my nerve-damaged arm, there was no magic pill, no miracle surgery, no overnight cure. My universal advice is to keep trying until you find what works for you.
When I injured my right arm 14 years ago, an initial shot or two of Demerol, followed by mounds of Percodan, helped take the edge off during the months required for my bones to knit. To my great relief, a succession of nerve blocks then turned down the volume on the searing pain to the point where I stopping believing that suicide was my only way out.
Yet, in retrospect, the real healer was time. A neurosurgeon who had survived a similarly painful injury told me, “I don’t think the pain ever really goes away, but we learn not to feel it.” Alternate neural pathways? Psychological dissociation? Or are those merely scientific terms that describe how hard our bodies try to help us feel better?
Physical pain is a complex response to both physical and emotional triggers. Unfortunately, many people feel that their pain is being denied when they are told that stress and emotions are the underlying cause. But rather than bridle at the possibility that it is “all in your head,” we should embrace the power of the mind in healing.
My condition has been variously diagnosed as brachial plexus injury. Then reflex sympathetic dystrophy. Then thoracic outlet syndrome.
No matter the technical term, it hurt, so an important part of the dynamic of healing for me was learning to cope with fear. When anyone approached, I instinctively tensed, for fear even the lightest touch would again trigger the blinding agony that could drive me to my knees (baffling onlookers who often saw me as a drama queen). Even though my conscious mind knew that it had been weeks – and then months – since an incident had occurred, my reptilian limbic brain would still bristle at the threat.
Each time someone approached, my mind would flood my system with fear chemicals, urging me to fight or flee and overwhelming the endorphins that generate positive feelings that range from serenity to hope and joy. At the physical level, my body would tense, cramping my muscles and eventually contributing to structural imbalances.
Time allowed my mind and body to learn that my pain is now controllable and thereby break the cycle. Fortunately as well, my sister is a master of healing touch. In addition to therapeutic massage, using acupressure techniques to release my trigger points, she has also tailored a modified Pilates program for me to help me correct the structural imbalances.
Dealing with trauma and phobias
For the emotional pain and trauma, instead of therapists, I turned to my extraordinary circle of support — sister Tina, new husband Drew and my caring friends (you know who you are). I am especially grateful to my husband for his patience in allowing me to work through my phobias, especially my fear of being in a car on a highway, either as the driver or as a passenger.
For more than five years, Drew indulged me and took back roads only. Equally as important is that he did so without lecturing me or making me feel the fool. He also withstood criticism from well-meaning friends who feared that his “pampering” was allowing me to avoid dealing with the problem. But slowly, ever so slowly, I have been able to overcome this crippling fear. Like emerging from a save, I can again travel the country giving lectures and workshops. Yes, there are still times when I hold my breath (doesn’t everyone in the shuttle to LAX?), but I still go.
This does not mean that I do not respect physicians and therapists. If I had it to do over, I would rely even more on them when the problems are acute. But the fact remains that we are all an experiment of one, which makes us the best experts on what we should do and the timetable it will take.
For example, reading works for me, while others find it is the last thing they can do. In times of turmoil and pain, I pop books like pills, not only for information, but for insight and inspiration. A good book takes me to worlds I will never see otherwise, while teaching me what other people feel and think. Alone and awake at 3 a.m., I hear their voices in my head and feel less alone.
Honoring rituals and the gift of time
At just the right moment, when I was ready to accept it, my friend Gae urged me to shut off my linear mind to participate in a personal and private ceremony to honor the good things in my life – and to embrace change.
At first, I resisted, thinking I would feel silly. But then I began selecting things that mattered to me – my granddad’s pocket watch as a symbol of family, a few coins representing the wealth of experience, a book representing knowledge and a photo of friends as the icon of relationships. I placed the items in four dishes, one at each point of the compass. I turned out the lights, lit a candle and talked aloud about what each thing meant to me. Then I challenged myself to think of change as part of growth, not as something to be feared. The ceremony took minutes, not hours, but it lifted years of grief and loss from me.
We live in an aggressive, fast-track culture that believes disease and dysfunction must be defeated by aggressive treatment — now. The answer for me has been to find ways to strengthen and support my mind and body’s ability to heal itself – slowly. The people who love me allowed me the respect to heal at my own pace, in my own way. It was they who truly gave me the gift of time.