Experiencing My Heart’s Healing Through My Body

I’ve been having the most fascinating relationship with my body these last three months. (I assume, though I’ve never specifically surveyed my friends, that everyone has a mixed relationship with their body–mine does some things with great grace and a lovely capacity for enjoyment, and the ability to deeply drink in my environment, and it does some things really poorly, with difficulty and discomfort, like running half a block and experiencing Panda Asthma.)

I’ve started doing craniosacral massage (a little scientific backing) and having a very intense and healing response to the experiences. I’m so grateful to my healer for her ability to stay attuned, present, and give me support through a wide variety of physical and emotional reactions to our work. In some ways I feel I’ve been in rehearsal for this moment my entire life.

In their spiritual journeys, both my parents were ordained Zen Buddhist monks, and part of their training was in massage. As a family, we used massage to relax and take care of each other. I know this idea might be uncomfortable to body-shaming Americans, but it was one of the nicer aspects of my childhood–having my parents rub my shoulders and stomach when I was anxious. The adult mutation of this early conditioning is that I love bodywork–whenever I am in a new country, I sample the local version of a massage. I also use bodywork to improve the quality of my life and manage stress: massage, reflexology, body scrubs, acupuncture, restorative and yin yoga. I’m a friend to all body-based approaches. I’m also really attuned to the different types of touch, professional touch doesn’t feel erotic to me. (Intimate touch with my lover is what’s erotic to me.)

As I’ve been using mindfulness with my clients and myself, I’ve grown more and more comfortable using deep conscious breathing to help regulate my nervous system. I’ve also been experimenting with talking about feeling states and their places in the body with my clients and checking in with myself about this too throughout the day.

I didn’t have much of an understanding of what craniosacral therapy would feel like when I decided to give it a try. I understood the touch would be much lighter than regular massage therapies. I didn’t expect it to do much, but thought it was worth paying for one session and checking it out.

My first session was overwhelming. I found myself sobbing hysterically and hyperventilating about 45 minutes in. This was in response to having the back of my head very lightly touched. My healer took care of me very gently while I calmed down, which felt incredibly generous. Even though the experience was difficult–I hadn’t had such an extreme emotional and physical experience in years, as soon as I calmed down, I realized that I knew something beneficial had happened to me, despite the challenges of the experience. My impression is that my first sentence, as soon as I regained the power of speech, was: When can I do this again?

Every session has been extremely different. I’m learning more and more how I respond both emotionally and physically and what I can tolerate–what will challenge me within my acceptable zone of tolerance.

I’ve done four sessions so far. I’ve decided to titrate the pacing–I visit with Julia once every three weeks or so, just because I learn so much about myself each time, and it leads me to a lot of contemplation and integration of my life’s experiences. I feel more self-compassionate and self-aware overall.

Humble brag–apparently I’m really good at tolerating my own distress, remaining present through discomfort and relaxation, using my breath, and continually monitoring my ever shifting internal states.

Emotion is in the body. I knew it before, but it’s undeniable now. Memory is in the body too. Remaining attuned to my body sensations, both positive and negative, has helped me re-process some 30 year old memories I hadn’t given a thought to in decades. Of course, all this is also shaping my interests as a psychotherapist.

(As a therapist, I’m often aware of the limitations of language-based, brain-in therapy in offering healing. Human bodies and human brains need all kinds of healing experiences. I believe there are many paths to healing–some are found in speech and reflection, some are emotional, some are spiritual, and many are in our bodies.)

Mammogram world

I’m at the hospital for my annual mammogram screening. Totally banal. They cover the walls in pink-framed nature and flower scenes–this does not calm me down. I still feel like a beast at a slaughter facility. It will be a narrow escape.

It’s a feeling more than a thought–wearing the antiseptic gowns that smell like frozen meat makes me utterly vulnerable.

There’s the total silence (except for the bad news tv channel playing) and the dim yellow green lighting in the waiting room.

We waiting women do not bond. We sit in fearful stillness awaiting our moment of radiologic scrutiny.

Then there’s my lifelong irrational thought that I will get breast cancer at some point. It’s just a matter of waiting. There is a history in my family. I’m not just a breast pessimist.

The silence in the waiting room is accompanied by a lethal clinical silence from the administering professionals.

No one tells you your odds. There is no attempt to calm you down with human empathy. Pull the random trigger of gene expression and wait for your lottery results.

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ps: As negative as I am about this womanly right of passage, I am deeply grateful for the care. Knowing is always better than not knowing–it gives me the freedom of options.

Creative Energies

Sometimes I feel like a plant, or maybe a vampire. I find myself feeding off the vital energy around me. I used to love writing in bars–so much gregarious energy unleashed. Last Thursday night, September 12, I watched/listened to the Philly Song Shuffle at XPN. There were 55 acts in attendance, and they each got a four-minute set in which to play one song. I found myself filled with the sudden need to write. I’m going to blame the impulse on the 55 bands crossing the stage. Lone singer songwriters were interlaced with multiple-person acts, each with their voice and sound. Band members mixed between sets and there was some impromptu spillover, singers become dancers, rushing to others’ performances.

xpnIt’s been awhile since I’ve written, though the goal is on my to do list, staring back at me every single day.

During the Philly Song Shuffle, I wrote a first draft for a short essay where I declare myself to be a bonbon eater possessing a particular life esthetic. The essay felt terrific coming out. I was handwriting it on the back of the band set list. I rarely hand write, I tend to think as I type, but that night the pen in my fingers, the pen on the page, felt both natural and urgent.

I’ve noticed the importance of other people’s art for my personal productivity before. I feel rejuvenated and strangely full of thoughts and impressions (closer to my identity) when I visit paintings or photography, sit for theater, or watch a dance performance. Nature also has some of this effect on me. Movement, music, color–communing with someone else’s creative process, it all works to renew my own passions, my own sense of direction, purpose and drive.  Maybe it’s time to stop noticing the beneficial effects of art and start being more deliberate in my consumption/exposure.  I could take my laptop to see bands with me at The Fire, for instance. This will take some pondering and some conscious planning. To be continued.

Happy Potato Chip

Two weeks ago, I was waiting for the trolley on the way to work when I saw a man walking on the tracks, holding a soiled roll of toilet paper. He had clearly thoughtfully placed a crap in the full privacy of the tracks. He was coming back, muttering to himself, and as soon as I saw him, my heart jumped. Heart in throat, I surveyed my fellow travelers on the platform switching for the trolley. No one seemed to mind the man walking on the tracks. I looked down the tracks to see if a trolley was coming and if he was in danger–so far, no incoming trolley. I was about a minute in to my time on the platform–I contemplated my options as the man continued walking down the tracks — he was still muttering to himself and the lights of the coming trolley were in the distance, now a few minutes away. I reviewed internally what I knew about crowd behavior, and the behavior of the man. I contemplated what I could do. He approached the edge of the tracks, stepped onto the platform, lost his balance, windmilled his arms, and then got himself back onto the platform. He came towards me, still walking close to the edge of the platform. I was rifling through my mind–how could I approach him kindly and invite him to safety? He was likely psychotic, and perhaps paranoid, muttering to himself constantly. I tried to approach him with kindness–in the most non threatening way I could–and I waved him toward me as he explained as he walked along the edge of the platform as the 34 trolley approached that he was not something (I can’t recall), he was a “happy potato chip”– and he took a step forward, and the trolley pulled into the station, and we both got on, and we were both safe, and I did not know what the day would hold, but my part was done.

Aikido

This week, I’m thinking a lot about energy and how it can be used and redirected, and I’m thinking that maybe I need to learn the martial art Aikido. The premise of Aikido is that your attacker’s energy can be taken in and redirected so as to protect both you and the attacker. If every human interaction is an exchange of energy, and human energy needs to be safely and productively handled (particularly in the work place) then Aikido is the ultimate physical manifestation of understanding how to make the best and kindest use of personal energy. (I’m sure there are many other physical practices and schools of thought and faith that address the issue, but I like the idea of Aikido very much right now, as an embodiment of the best human values. )

I’m aware of Aikido because my mother’s friend Agnes studied it when she was a young mother and showed me a couple techniques in her doorway, on a fall or spring day, when I was about eight. She kept asking me to “attack” her and I kept running at her and she would very gently but firmly take my arm and twist like a bullfighter out of the way and I would find myself on the other side of her body and the door, on the outside. It seemed very magical. At the time I was learning Judo and I was more attracted to the possibility of hurting an attacker (appropriate for an eight year old).

I’m currently fascinated by how knowledge, history and life themes can converge in surprising ways. It’s surprising how my child self and my adult self are meeting through this memory of Aikido and my current preoccupation with the fruitful and kind harvesting of energy. In turn, this makes me think of my mother, one of the first people to talk to me about energy, and how while I knew she was right–there definitely was energy–for most of my life I felt uncomfortable talking and thinking about it openly. The concept was just a bit too groovy.

My mom is on my mental scene in a second way. Here’s one of her oft repeated nuggets: No learning is pointless or useless. All knowledge acquired will be used again, eventually. This came up repeatedly between us during my teen years and twenties, whenever I complained that I was being forced to master skills I considered uninteresting or too specific. And here I am, middle aged, putting pieces of my decades of learning together like a jigsaw puzzle. Maybe this is what wisdom looks like, becoming more than the sum total of your experiences.

The Charm Offensive

I’ve been trying to get better at tuning in and connecting in some small way with every person I exchange words with today. It’s a fun project-makes me feel very vaguely like the Dalai Lama’s neighbor–like after a lifetime of watching someone else be gracious and wise, it’s my turn. It’s also interesting how ambivalent I feel about extending care outward–after all, aren’t these my private goodwill reserves? How strong is my emotional muscle? Will I run out of charm? Will I permanently exhaust the supply, leaving me a bitter-pinched-dour wreck for the next few decades?

Is love a renewable personal resource? I mean, we’re told to be brave and fearless in loving others–religion, mentors, family: all espouse the notion–but how many living examples are left to model this practice? I mean: Mother Theresa is dead. Loving may have been her superpower, but she remained mortal.

Well, for today at least, I’m going to keep going until I fry my battery. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Stabbed in the back by my back

Even Achilles had a problem heel. My dilemma is my lower back. My back is a cruel and whimsical component of my anatomy. It makes a mockery of my plans.

This week’s plan was to go swimming in a pool.

Instead, find me beached on my bed, lying down because sitting isn’t working out right now. My back pain literally makes me sweat. When I’m in one of my “episodes” my bent over stance and shuffling gait are so tortured that people on the street (including young and old ladies) will stop and ask me if I’m okay. Grandmas stride past me looking spry by comparison while I stop and hyperventilate from the pain every few feet. I try to avoid outings in this condition because I just can’t digest the pity and puzzlement aimed in my direction. Some outings, however, are necessary. On the way to the acupuncturist yesterday I ended up sitting on the sidewalk while waiting for the trolley because I couldn’t stand standing.  Last night, I gave up on standing altogether and crawled on my hands and knees from my living-room to my bed (about 7 feet).

Pain does not bring out the best in me: my patience and tolerance for any additional discomfort vanish. I find small wrongs, like rudeness, unbearable. Also, pain makes me try new things–I’m clutching at any and all solutions looking for vain hope. My applied and planned remedies include: stretches, alternating heating pads and ice packs, western medicine, medication, acupuncture, a visit to the chiropractor, complaining via social media, and physical therapy. I get points for being thorough.

The medication makes me feel a bit surreal–not exactly out-of-body, but not exactly in-body either.  It also makes my thoughts a bit disjointed. My best coping mechanism is the same it has always been: copious napping.

Time for my next icing. Let’s hope my next post will be about my miraculous recovery.

Hospital Time

I’m in the waiting room at a hospital while someone I love undergoes a minor procedure. Shouldn’t take much, just my friend’s sedation, which is why I’ve come in as the caretaker. It’s weird sitting in the beige waiting room, trying to trust strangers who have taken custody of the body of a person I care about. I’m not going to witness much of anything, except the groggy end of this short odyssey in medical world.

I’m sitting here, remembering my own minor procedures, and what they call the “twilight” sedation, which is a total joke, there’s no twilight: no beautiful blue sky, no bright moon, no twinkling stars. There’s a giant grey hole in your memory and the associated events are utterly irretrievable.

They try to neutralize the presentation of the experience as much as possible. There are forms to fill, a medical bracelet to wear. The forms, the pen, are soothing. This is something you can take charge of, this is an activity at which you excel-—filling out forms, giving your details. People are polite and efficient. There are procedures and rites of passage, all bureaucratic. Staff and nurses and the doctor will ask you your birth date at each step of the way, and your ability to say “yes, that’s right,” calms every body down. You are who you are supposed to be, you are supposed to be going through this–it’s agreed. And you strip off your clothes and they put the I.V. in and they wheel you into the procedure room, and you remember nothing.

The process is part brutality and part civility—they will be polite and then they will probe you, sample your tissues, look inside, evaluate your body’s secrets on a giant screen.

But this time, I’m on the safe side of the door. My tension, like the risk to my friend, is slight, but it’s quite real.