A lot has happened since mid-February. Your conclusion about this time being a big squeeze is spot on. For me, too. A big burning squeeze. My cat Ed died. The on-demand hot water heater died. No amount of fixing was going to revive it. It was an expensive replacement and two weeks without hot water and heat.
Neighbors offered showers. It’s been a mild winter. I even had a shamanic story about Ed and his love of the bathtub. So it seemed weirdly perfect to not be able to use the bathtub. And I was able reframe the no water thing as camping. In my house with every amenity. Except hot water and heat. Doable.
But what got me, what sent me down the slippery slope, around the bend, and kicked me in the ass was this: THE FREAKING FLU!
The first day: I refused to accept I was sick. But there was no nice reframe I could do about the flu. I was going down. No matter how many witchy brews I was drinking a day.
The second day: I went to bed. I secluded myself so I could be alone and safe. And invisible to the world. My body hurt; even the bottoms of my feet! My appetite disappeared. Going anywhere to take a shower seemed like the journey of a lifetime and I just didn’t have the energy for that kind of journey.
The third and fourth day: I slept. Hard. Ate chicken soup. Until I couldn’t stand the taste of it. Stayed hydrated. Until I thought I would float away. I moved slowly. I was sick but staying with myself. So far, so good. But I didn’t count on the blue spark of flu hitting my brain. That’s when things got ugly.
The fifth day to the tenth day: I entered the dark territory of Sarah’s Swamplandia. Deeper down than I’ve been in a long time.
My life flashed before my eyes. Back through the debris and stuff of my sixty-five years of living. My brain was on fire. Leaving me unable to think in full thoughts. Unable to talk in full sentences. Unable to process any of the life review I was going through in a way that made any sense. My usual ways of making intense feelings feel a whole lot less primal were not available to me.
But I was stuck in bed. With the flu. Full of anger, jealousy, short-fused snarkiness, and hatred. At myself. My life. The world. All of it. And there was a full on out of control wildfire happening in my head. My inner sanctum, so right at first, got smaller and smaller, as the burn got hotter and hotter. I wanted out. But my body didn’t have the energy to outrun my brain.
All I could do was just be in it. Even if it sucked. And it did. I kept reminding myself I was in it. That I was doing the best I could do. Without Ed. Without hot water. And that, honestly, trying to process any of it, as it was happening, was futile.
That’s when the burn in my head died down to a controlled burn. When I could finally see clearly where I was. Down deep in the darkest territory of me. A place I’ve spent a lifetime dancing around the edge of and hoping would just go away. Magically. Because that’s what I wanted.
The eleventh day: I woke up with this word in my head: inconsolable. I googled it. The only thing that came up was how to console an inconsolable baby. I googled it again. Twice. Just to make sure I hadn’t made a mistake googling. I hadn’t. So I took that as a sign to read about how to console an inconsolable baby.
I imagined a great big mama, holding me close to her, as she rocked me and patted me on the back. Cooing softly to me that things were going to be alright. I began to see the review of my life in a different light. I saw how my fiery inconsolability was my protection during my childhood. I saw how it had informed my life. I saw how it still does. And I saw it without the onslaught of judgements, comparisons, pathologizing, and sad stories.
I remembered two things I’d read before my flu days. One from Nadine Burke Harris, who wrote The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity. She says the tiny body really remembers the severity and stubbornness of the emotional pain we experience when we’re little. And it is good at holding onto the emotional pain and stuffing it down.
The other from Richard Rohr, who wrote The Naked Now, Learning to See as the Mystics See. He suggests wisdom is precisely the freedom to be truly present to what is right in front of you. That presence lets us know how to see clearly. That it is the one thing necessary for wisdom. That wisdom is the presence to see and know the ten thousand things in a new way.
And it is hard to do. Because it requires doing three things at the same time: Keep your heart open, your mind clear without resistance and divisiveness to what is happening and your body not somewhere else.
So, my burning squeeze, as unpleasant as it was, revealed to me how my life has unfolded in amazing ways. How its been a zig zag meander-y path where everyday magic occurs and brings me to my knees. In laughter and tears. That what I’ve judged to be a mistake, a wrong turn, a failure isn’t. That what I’ve pathologized as my PROBLEM is not a problem. It is the path. Leading me to right here. Doing what I do. Being who I am.
Our last nap together.
RIP, Guru Eddie!
It’s true! As we uncover more pieces of our fixed stories, our lives can feel less stable. We wonder, as we pull out the next block of beliefs and stories we’ve built our lives around, which one is going to cause everything to come toppling down. Taking us with it. JENGA!!!!
It’s uncomfortable. And we can be surprisingly okay with it, too. Once we accept we are not in control. That our lives unfolding is a process. Where we trot out all of our coping mechanisms. Using them until we realize they no longer work for us.
This month I had my own experience of witnessing how I cope in a crisis. With my cat Eddie. My first of line of defense was to go dark. To the worst case scenario: Eddie dying. And, it’s a weekend and I’m home alone.
I didn’t know what to do so I googled Eddie’s symptoms. Where I read that his symptoms could be from cancer. My spinning head of worry went into full blown resistance: I’m not ready for this. Nor do I want it. Not at all.
Somehow, I was able to notice I was worrying and resisting. And notice how they distract me from what I don’t want to accept or feel. I reminded myself I didn’t really know what was going on with Eddie. Maybe he was dying. Maybe not. I did know was I wasn’t ready for him to die. I reminded myself it was Sunday night and I could call the vet first thing in the morning.
Monday morning we went to the vet. The diagnosis: oral cancer. The only option: take him home and keep him comfortable. The prognosis: he was dying and we might have a few more “good months” together.
Tuesday morning a spider ran across the bedroom floor. My first thought was maybe Eddie doesn’t have cancer; maybe he just has a spider bite. The hope I felt at that moment was sweet. I spent all day magically thinking Eddie was going to be just fine because he just has a spider bite.
Wednesday morning my magical thinking came to a crashing end. I woke up with a knowing in my bones that it wasn’t a spider bite. It was cancer. Eddie was dying. And all my worry, positive thoughts, and what if questions were only keeping me outside of my body and my ability to just simply accept what was happening.
Yes, I wanted to worry and resist with all my might. My worst case scenario was coming true. I went dark. And, in that darkness, I found some space in me to breathe into. I was able to remember I’ve been here before. That it hurts like hell and I’m still here. That my heart has been cracked open before and will be again. And I’m still here.
Giving myself permission to imagine the worst case scenario allowed me to be more present with what was happening in my body and in my life. It slowed down my what if questions, my resistance, and my plans to change the outcome of what was happening.
It wasn’t easy. My body was there but my head was in overdrive. I didn’t like what was happening. I didn’t want to accept that my attempts to save Eddie weren’t going to save him. My wanting what was happening to be different didn’t mean anything. I felt helpless. I knew the only thing that was going to help was a true and deep acceptance of what was happening.
The Stoics believe in this approach to life. That imagining the worst case scenario leads to happiness, peace, clarity. That it creates an inner space in us. To trust what we’re feeling, in our bodies, when life gives us something we didn’t ask for and don’t want.
Sound crazy, doesn’t it? Imagining the worst case scenario? That it could bring us to a spacious place of peace. Both of us experienced that last month. How imagining the worst case scenario allowed us to feel prepared for when the unthinkable, the unwantable occurs in our lives. And it does.
Being attentive and mindful to what I was feeling, I was able to just name what I was feeling: anger disappointment sadness peace. I chose not to judge what I was feeling. That gave myself permission to not understand why this was happening. It was happening! I only had to be aware of what Eddie’s dying was stirring in me.
Worry, complaining, and over-thinking are things I add on and cling to when I feel out of control. They might protect me from strong feelings. But they are not useful. They are just part of my habituated coping mechanisms. A way to avoid dropping down into the territory of acceptance. Where I can meet what is happening. Whether I like it or not. However, what is useful to me is imagining the worst case scenario.
Choosing to meet what is is the beginning of true acceptance. A hard choice for me when I’m deeply wishing things were different. A hard truth for me is that I can’t change the reality of what is happening. No matter how hard I try.
Practicing acceptance allows me to live in the ever changing world. Where anything can happen at any time. Something that imagining the worst case scenario reminds me of.
Acceptance…blessed acceptance!…of Eddie dying was potent. There was so much sadness. Held by tenderness and love. And all I needed to do, for the rest of time Eddie was alive, was just BE with Eddie. Just be present with him. In his dying process.
His dying was my worst case scenario. But it gave me space. To breathe and feel what I didn’t want to happen. To find peace in accepting what was happening. And stand grounded there.
What a month it has been, Steph! I am grateful for your presence in my life as we meet life…all of it. From worry warts to worst case scenarios to acceptance.