Better Late Than Never! Choosing Conscious Living

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The Journey

--Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice – – –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations – – –
though their melancholy
was terrible. It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do – – – determined to save
the only life you could save.

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Hi, I’m Katie and I am a workaholic. Recovered, or, I should say, in recovery, always in process. I am writing this from 36,000 ft, flying in a plane and in spirit; I am still glowing from my attendance at the Women’s March on Washington. It was an experience I will never forget, filled with love, positive energy and determination. But for me it was also an experience that I never thought I would have again. Two and a half years ago I could not stand for 5 hours, much less be on my feet standing and walking from 5:30 pm to 11 pm for miles and miles. I could not even stay awake for that many hours or be in a large crowd or hear powerful speakers on powerful speakers without severe vertigo and nausea. This is the story of how I consciously saved my own life.

Who I Was: Then

 I spent most of my life defining and valuing myself by my role in the workplace and how perfect I could be at that particular role. I was a Distinguished Faculty Award winning Professor of Psychology, a well-loved Academic Senate President and Department Chair, and a Dean of Humanities and Social Science who worked so hard that the faculty sent me on a spa retreat with my husband and wrote me letters asking me to stay when I left to become a Vice President of Instruction and Institutional Research at another college. I fully believed I would next become a college president. I worked 40 hours a week, then 50, then 60 and, eventually, 70 – 80 hours a week. I was an energizer bunny. I rarely said ‘no’ and noticed that the larger the scope of my job became, the harder it was to be perfect, and this increased my anxiety. And ‘good enough’ just wasn’t.

I didn’t just want to be a good Mama for my three girls, I wanted to be the perfect Mama. I wanted to be the Mama no one would criticize or make fun of when they became adults. I wanted to earn a gold star for my parenting and teaching everyday. Dear reader, you have certainly guessed by now that I was also a perfectionist. And I had a fear of being judged as wanting.  During one of my three episodes of clinical depression I had a therapist say to me, “Who is giving out the gold stars? And why doesn’t earning one count for the rest of your life? Where do they go at the end of the day?” These were great questions for which I had few answers.

 

The Organ Recital: The End

What happened was entirely predictable to everyone around me, but not to me at the time. My physical body began to suffer a long, slow decline—first it was the normal stuff that happens when I work too much. I was anxious, had trouble sleeping, I ate poorly and gained weight. Occasionally, mostly in the winter, I would become depressed. Shortly after becoming a Dean I developed shingles and after that I developed odd circular plaques on the bottoms on my feet that would crack painfully and deeply into my flesh and bleed; embarrassingly these also occurred in my groin.  This was finally diagnosed as an unusual form of psoriasis. Next, my blood work came back showing elevated markers of inflammation; the pain in my joints and sacroiliac were diagnosed as psoriatic arthritis. In my mind, I was simply getting older, not sick. You know (or young ones, perhaps you do not yet know), the body changes.

Then—it is hard and painful for me to write about this event, but suffice it to say that the worst thing that could have happened to me professionally, did. Just like that. With no warning.  (Honestly I’ll tell this story fully another time.) Once again, for the second time, I was deeply and darkly depressed, even suicidal. And within a year I was terribly physically ill as well.

I woke up one day with vertigo that didn’t go away for 4 years. I had double vision requiring prism glasses and constant, extreme nausea. It took several years to fully understand what had happened, and some of it remains an enigma. First, MDs thought I had Meniere’s disease (but no), then vestibular migraines (but no). The psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis worsened and I routinely had steroids injected into my feet so I could walk without pain. I took methotrexate, prednisone, then Humira—all very strong anti-inflammatory medications that I did not tolerate well.

At the end, what I think of as the end, I had Bell’s Palsy on the left side of my face, a constant feeling of bugs crawling in my scalp (this has a name, formication!!!), a tongue that always felt burnt, and tremors in my arms. But worst of all was my  loss of cognition. Whatever autoimmune inflammation was attacking my body began attacking my brain. I told my husband that something was terribly wrong with me and I was terrified, constantly clenched with fear. After teaching two classes each morning, I noticed that I could not follow what was happening in subsequent meetings that day. My brain felt as it did following anesthesia, but it never went away. I often fell asleep at 3 pm, something I never had done in my life. I thought I had early onset Alzheimer’s. At the neurologist’s office I could not, despite being a psychologist, complete the neuropsychological tests. Could not think of more than 6 words that began with a “b” in a minute. I could see terror and tears in my husband’s eyes as the test progressed. And I woke up every morning already crying. I would wake with streams of tears already on my face; I didn’t want to live without my sharp, creative and busy brain and I was so embarrassed at my diminished cognitive capacity that I secluded myself from all but a couple of people. I went to the hospital for tests including a lumbar puncture to rule out Multiple Sclerosis. This caused 18 months of excruciating sciatica that went to my ankles (and I still have back pain).

Two doctors saved me, but not, dear reader, in the way you might imagine.  When I declined yet another drug trial after developing four infections from the Humira my rheumatologist said, “There is no help for you here.” And my ENT specialist said, “You need to ‘live’ to your hypothalamus to try to treat your brain. Eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired, take a semester off work and truly rest to see if your brain will recover”.   

 

The Beginning

What follows, dear reader, happened just as I recount here, and I think of it as “the beginning” of my conscious and chosen life.  A few mornings after coming home from the hospital I woke again with tears streaming down my face to a deep resonant voice that said “Embrace your existence”.  I swear it did. In fact, I reached for my iphone, opened my notes app and typed “Embrace Your Existence”. And, empiricist that I am, I did not even tell my husband, or anyone else, about this voice for years.

And I chose life. Embrace your existence meant that I had to CHOOSE who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live out my life  It meant, to me, that I had to embrace myself fully with love, acceptance, compassion and forgiveness. It meant that no one could fix me but myself and that I had permission to change whatever needed changing in my life to heal.  I had to accept life exactly as it was and not how I wished it would be.

So, with the help of my husband, because my brain was so slow initially, I slowly began reading cutting edge research on reducing the inflammatory response in the body. I read about how nutrition, sleep, meditation (which I had already been studying) increased health and well-being, countering the stress response in the body. I thought about how few years I might have left and how I wanted to FEEL during that time. I thought about how I wanted to LIVE and not simply exist. I thought about where I had been the happiest—camping for a week or two each year in King’s Canyon and spending another week at Fallen Leaf Lake. The darkness that had enveloped my brain began slowly lifting. And though I could not at all be sure that life would unfold as I wished it might, I was willing to try. 

 I told my partner that I would give it a year to see how much I could reclaim my cognition and physical health (or I would take, what we euphemistically called “the early flight”) and I restructured and reinvented just about everything about my life. 

  1. I began to deepen my mindfulness practice, committing to further classes and consistent daily meditation practice at home. (A few years later, I decided to embark on the lengthy certification process to become a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction teacher.)
  2. I hired a personal trainer who worked with me twice a week to help strengthen my core and help me learn how to move with the pain in my back, down my legs to my ankles.
  3. I worked with a physical therapist, twice a week, who consulted with my trainer in reducing the sciatica.
  4. I slept 10 hours a night for a year and did not set an alarm.
  5. I explored elimination diets and decided to fully commit to an ultra low inflammatory way of eating: no gluten, no dairy, no nuts or seeds or grain or nightshades or refined sugar. Now I eat organic and locally grown as much as possible and eat pastured, grass-fed, organic meats. I make and drink my own bone broth daily.
  6. I found a marvelous acupuncturist and went twice a week for a year.
  7. I decided to retire early as my college was having a “golden handshake”. My work environment was constantly stressful and though I loved my interaction with students, I did not experience my workplace as collegial or collaborative.
  8. I decided I wanted to live in the Sierras, where I have always felt the most peace, been the happiest and healthiest, even though it would be much farther away from my adult children and grandchildren.

I made these decisions and changes in my life in collaboration with my partner-- mindfully and intentionally—letting myself be with the fear of change, the fear of failure, the fear of judgment of others, the fear that I could change everything and yet nothing would change within me--- watching the fear pass through me, re-emerge and pass though me again as I took each step towards well-being.

 

Who I Am: Now

I am, still and always, a devoted Mama and Grandma; but mostly I am once again a teacher who is filled with health and well-being. I occasionally and joyfully teach psychology at the Truckee-Tahoe campus of Sierra College.  My passion for healthy, organic and local produce is realized as a board member of Slow Food Lake Tahoe and volunteering as their Garden Director. I spent my summer surrounded by the pines and river and with beautiful, helpful human beings, we built beds that help plants thrive in our harsh and changeable environment. I teach others how to do the same and all of our produce is donated to Sierra Senior Services/Meals on Wheels.

I’ve begun an organization with Jackie Griffin, Truckee-Tahoe Mindfulness, and am contracted with Tahoe Forest Hospital to teach classes in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindful Eating and Mindfulness for Practitioners. I spend time helping others learn how to develop new strategies to mediate the response that their bodies have to the stress, challenges and difficulties that naturally occur in a life. 

I spent most of my life not really choosing the life I wanted, but living a litany of roles conferred on me by my culture and accepted by me unconsciously. No one gets out of this world alive, but not everyone gets to actively embrace his or her existence. But, as I have oft heard, and found to be true, it truly IS never too late to consciously choose your life.

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For those tired of complacency; brave enough to forge their own path // Who never settle; are driven and adaptable // Who challenge personal and societal boundaries; following their fire // Who act with intention, and lift others up in the process //
This is for you.

 

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