December 7, 2010

When the Past Comes Back to Bite You

Last night was a very difficult night. The past came back to bite me, revealing to me how much old rage still sleeps deep within me. It began with an interaction with the frequent flyer branch of the airline that I always use, under the assumption that the more I use them, the more frequent flyer miles I pile up, which will allow me to fly somewhere for free one of these days. So I have become one of those flyers who has a lot of miles and sometimes gets bumped up to first class, because I have so many miles from flights bought in service to the Religious Society of Friends.

So, given our many miles, my sweetie and I decide to take a vacation. A real vacation! We manage to find 7 days in our mutual calendars where we can both go away without too much hassle for those left behind. We make the request for those dates with the resort in Mexico where we sometimes go – last time was three years ago. And we get online to buy our flights with our frequent flyer miles.

Trouble is, while we each have enough miles to buy our own tickets, we cannot buy them together. We try to transfer miles from his account to mine. That will cost us over $300! So, even though we both have the miles, and we are a couple traveling together, we must book separately. Meanwhile, the flight we have held for booking is for two travelers, and there is no way to change that without releasing the seats. And, as soon as I release the seats – voila! The cost of the flight we want goes up by a third!!

It seems a set up to me. Why in heaven's name would an airline not make it easy for couples to use their miles together when booking? Why would the cost of a flight go up within minutes of a search? And then it finally made sense to my na├»ve mind – they don't want us to use our frequent flyer miles. They want us to pay them money for our flights. And they want us to pay as much as possible. My almost filial loyalty to them, in other words, in the hopes of receiving a reward from them, is pointless because they will always, always try to find a way to withhold the reward.

I was filled with rage. It grew from my gut and radiated outward through my entire body. It made my muscles ache, my throat constrict, my head ache. I fired off two slightly irrational and wholly angry emails. I screamed at the computer. I wanted to hit things, although, I am proud to say, I did not. But, less proudly, I did not want to calm down. I wanted to be ANGRY and I wanted the airline to know how badly they had let me down. Me! A Loyal Customer!

I was not a good Quaker in those moments – or even in the hours that followed. In fact, I went to bed angry, full of boil. I slept fitfully, and woke in the morning with a disturbing dream.

My dream was a tortuous exercise in trying to get some basic human needs met: to get food when I was very hungry, and to find a restroom when I badly needed to pee. The dream was populated by people who have made me angry in my life: a coworker who used me and competed with me; a teacher who frequently criticized me; but most importantly, my parents who abused and neglected me. It was also populated by men who were strangers and who insisted on violating my physical privacy. All of these difficult characters kept showing up unexpectedly, surprising me and forcing me to cope with their intrusions. At no time in the dream was I successful in getting what I needed. At no time did I receive assistance, even when I asked for it. I desperately wanted someone to take care of me, but since no one was stepping forward to do so, I just wanted to escape. And I was stymied even in that because they kept showing up in my hideaways.

When I woke I was just as agitated as I was when I went to bed. I worried that I was being spiritually challenged to reconcile with my still-abusive family, most of whom I have had no contact with for more than 15 years. I knocked around for a bit, feeling miserable, tidying up the house in preparation for cleaning day. As I handled my drum, I remembered times when singing and drumming helped to shift misery. Music seems to harmonize my jangled energy. So I sat facing the beautiful wetlands that lie right outside our backyard, where the morning sun set the snow to sparkling, and birds swooped through my visual field with a brilliant blue sky as backdrop. And as I drummed, as I sang, as I gave myself over to being shifted, the Living Presence broke through my stubborn anger. It was as if I had been blowing up a bad, stinky balloon, one that was bigger than my own head. And it suddenly popped, revealing this beauty that had been there all the time, but which I couldn't view because of the bad, stinky balloon covering my face.

As the balloon popped, release came with quiet weeping. My body gradually felt soothed. My heart felt opened. My mind felt enlightened. I suddenly realized what the dream was telling me, something I have learned, relearned, and now am relearning again. Something that I thought I had completely healed, but which still inhabits my shadow, and which awakens once in awhile when called out by an event which echoes the original experience very closely.

Which is this: When I feel that kind of consuming rage, it is never all about the current situation. When I feel that level of being undone, of being "not myself," it is always about something that started early in my life, and which was repeatedly fed by similar experiences. In this case the old rage that erupted came from the early experience of being neglected and abused, and from the resulting belief that I was not loved, that I could not have what I needed, and that I would get no help to change that reality.

Which is, of course, patently untrue at this time in my life. I am loved. By my husband, by my children and grandchildren, by my close friends and even not-so-close friends. By the Living Presence. And, of course, I do have much of what I need. I have adequate money, a comfortable house, work that I love, good-enough health, and plenty of bathrooms! And, most patently untrue, I have received a ton of help along the way to get this life that I enjoy, from my husband, my friends, my former therapist, my spiritual directors, a few strangers, saints and sages, and the Inward Teacher.

So this morning, I have come rather painfully and dramatically to the rediscovered learning that I really cannot expect an airline – or any other commercial entity, for that matter – to stand in the place of the good parents I always wished for but didn't have. I realize that some folks reading this are scratching their heads, thinking "Duh!" But for this abuse survivor, who has been thriving rather well for awhile now, it was, yet again, a dramatic learning.

August 20, 2010

More of what the Teacher taught me – Part 3

  1. That I had been living as if my life was a sacrifice, and that I no longer wanted to be a sacrifice.

    When I was growing up, I was the oldest of six children. The second-to-oldest, a brother, was able to escape our emotionally and physically chaotic household on the weekends and in the summer by taking off on his bike. He would go exploring on his bicycle miles away from home - in the parks, streams, ponds, wooded back lots and other out-of-the-way places near our developing, working class subdivision. I yearned to go with him, to escape the overwhelming distress at home, but never felt I could. There were all of these other, younger children at home needing protection. And so I stayed, to keep an eye out for them, and because I was sure that girls were supposed to stay at home. So I grew up believing that my place was close to the hearth, no matter where my heart yearned to be. That others' needs came first, and mine came last. And that there was no way to help others and also meet my own needs. I was supposed to be a sacrifice – that's what it meant to be a girl, and later, a woman. Unfortunately, this view of myself was only encouraged by prevailing religious and cultural attitudes until I was well into adulthood. This is not to say that I regret keeping an eye out for my younger siblings, or teaching special education children, or taking care of my own children, or doing healing work. But it is to say that I no longer believe that I must sacrifice myself in order to help others. In fact, I must feed my own soul in order to help others. I must receive healing in order to do healing. I must receive nurture in order to nurture. I must hang out with Spirit in order to help others find their way to their own experience of Spirit. I may choose sometimes to give away some aspect of my existence for the benefit of others: comfort, income, or leisure time. But this is a very different thing from sacrificing my soul, my evolution, and my innermost being. I will never again be a sacrifice.

  2. That the world wanted my gifts, not my sacrifice.

    This was one of the biggest, most surprising, gifts of grace that came to me during my healing process. When you believe you were born to be a sacrifice, it is a shock to learn that others outside of your closed system don't have the same expectation. I learned that my friends and Friends did not really expect me to use myself up on their behalf. In fact, it made them rather uncomfortable when I did so – even though they accepted the gift of my service, often with grace. At the time, I could not understand their discomfort. I thought that they were just more interested in being comfortable than in joining me in my sacrificial approach to living a life of witness and integrity. And while there might be a seed of truth in what I perceived as the pull on them to remain comfortable, I believe now that my friends and Friends detected, correctly, that because there was little joy in my witness, there was no Life in it, and so it did not attract them. But when it came to supporting me, some were more than generous. These friends wanted me to fulfill my destiny, walk my path, find my dharma, live into my calling. They helped me by calling out my gifts. And then they thanked and assisted me! And still do. It is one of the foods my soul thrives on, to have my gifts recognized and called out by my communities, to experience the cloud of witnesses surrounding me as I respond to a call.

  3. That being nice was killing me.

    That whole sacrifice thing also translated into swallowing my voice. I tried to "soften" my feelings by presenting them in an indirect and, frankly, a dishonest way. Not having grown up in a household that helped socialize me in positive ways, I had no idea how to communicate honestly, with kindness. When I went to college, I observed lots of nice coeds who seemed to be getting along with each other. Many of them – the ones I admired – were expert at hinting at things – and the others would get the message and just automatically desire to please them and change their errant ways! Wow! It all looked so easy! So I learned to express myself "nicely," hoping for the same outcome. Unfortunately, I think I was sitting on a lot more distress than these nice coeds may have been. But I never, ever expressed it – until I was filled to the brim with resentment and even hatred, and some poor being would provide the "straw that broke the camel's back." Then the volcanic explosion! But these were just small releases compared to the amount of distress that was roiling beneath the surface – distress that I was turning inward, in my relentless quest to protect the world (now from myself and my anger) and to be a sacrifice. In time, that distress turned inward became my friend and teacher, rheumatoid arthritis, a condition in which the body attacks itself. "Wake up! Wake up!" said RA. Being a sacrifice, turning my anger inward on myself rather than addressing the people and issues that made me angry – was making me very, very sick. Being nice was killing me.

  4. That power is neither bad nor good, and that I can use mine.

    My good friend, Yarrow, once invited me to join her on a shamanic adventure to be led by a Peruvian teacher in the Canyon de Chelly, a canyon which is sacred to the tradition of the Navajo people. This was a special opportunity, a week-long experience of hiking, shamanic journeying, ceremony and teaching, and it was going to occur on the canyon floor. White people can only enter Canyon de Chelly through the services of an authorized Navajo guide, and we were going to be camping on such a guide's own land, deep within the canyon. I jumped at the chance, even though I was unfamiliar with the teacher, Jose Luis Herrera, or his tradition. When I met him, I liked him very much. He was warm, unassuming, hard working, and an interesting combination of masculine and feminine traits which Yarrow said was common of men from the shamanic traditions of the Andes, and which I found very Quakerly. One evening, during the teaching session, he referred to power as something that one could gain and use. I felt myself recoiling even at the use of the word, and even though none of this man's behaviors indicated he was talking about dominative power, power that has been exercised over people. Neither was he talking exclusively about what I knew as the Power of God – the Power that gives life and breath. As I came to understand him, he was talking about the union of that Power with the power of the Earth, whom he experienced as a living being and whom he called "Pachamama." To the power of Love and Life he was adding the power of the elements, the power of the weather, the stones, the animals, the waters, the sky and the lights within the sky. He was talking about a power that also resides in human beings, simply by virtue of living in a physical body that is inhabited by spirit. And he was saying that we all have access to this power, that we can learn to use it, and that it can be used or misused, much like any other power such as electricity or fire. He said that a shaman seeks to augment his or her power! And why would a shaman do that? For personal fulfillment and evolution, and the benefit of the community. What a revelation for one who had been giving away her power by the basketfuls all of her life! What a revelation for one who has yearned to flee a chaotic childhood by running to the woods, ponds, and starry skies!

    Since Canyon de Chelly, that is what I have committed myself to – reconnecting with the living stream of power that is available to all of us. This power originates in two places: in the rarified atmosphere where God lives, and in the denser environment of Pachamama. It is a stream of power that flows from Spirit, through me and into the Earth, and back again from Earth, through me, to Spirit. I am now certain that there is no more room in this body for any illness that deprives me of that power, that my body and spirit are capable, together, of the greatest transformation of all, the reclaiming of my essential wholeness; and that I am an integral part of the transformation of a wounded world into a healed one.

    Blessed be!

    © 2010 Merry Stanford

August 9, 2010

What the Teacher taught me Part 2

The experience of living with fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis has brought me a whole course of lessons about living in a body. Before I began to engage with these lessons, I was very Spirit-oriented. I experienced Spirit strongly, and in a very real way. Spirit was my source for guidance, protection, comfort and strength. In my early life, when living in a body was frightening and even more painful, it was Spirit who led me to another dimension where I could be safe, a dimension which delivered me from the pain and discomfort of the body and introduced me to the pleasures and joys of the unseen world. So the Spirit and my spirit were good friends, and all was tonking along well, I thought. And then…my body became ill and a whole new dimension of spiritual experience was opened for me, a dimension in which spirit and body intersect, work together, are companions and soul mates rather than opponents. So here are a few of those lessons, presented in no particular order, and certainly not yet mastered.

  1. Life is very sweet.

    That life is good and sweet may seem like an obvious thing to some, but because of the intensity and ongoing nature of my childhood challenges, I hadn't ever really noticed that the struggles were over and I was alive. I kept reliving the feelings, body sensations, images over and over in my thoughts, dreams, and general orientation toward the world. Therapy helped some with these PTSD symptoms, and I am very grateful to my former therapists. But it was the contrast provided by chronic pain that allowed me to finally appreciate that I was alive, and that life was very sweet indeed. On the days when there was no pain, I was filled with gratitude and delight to be able to walk, work, pull weeds, hike in Canyon de Chelly, enjoy my friends, sleep through the night. Simple pleasures became rapturous delights. I learned that these mundane things, which I hadn't even noticed before because I was so blinded by the memories of struggle, were wonderful blessings. And I came to understand how important they were to my quality of life.

  2. That I hated my body, and that it was life or death for me to learn to love it.

    I never knew that I hated my body while I was hating it. I just thought that it was slightly disgusting – because it was too fat, too weak, too uncoordinated, or too something-else-or-other. I felt ashamed of it, but thought, vaguely, that this was normal and okay. That one should distrust one's body, that somehow a body was untrustworthy and in need of firm handling. So it needed stringent diets, stringent exercise, stringent sleep regimens. (I once tried to exist on five hours of sleep per night because I had read somewhere that five hours was all the human body needed in an optimum situation. I didn't consider, of course, that my situation wasn't optimum, and I certainly didn't consult my body.) I avoided looking at myself in the mirror. Any health habit that I tried to initiate was introduced with a firm resolve to shape up the body and make it over – and so, of course, every resolution failed, and I experienced once again how "untrustworthy" my body was. And then I got sick, eventually receiving the diagnosis of the chronic, inflammatory, autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis (RA). In RA, the body attacks itself – the immune system attacks the synovium, or the smooth lining, of the joints, as well as ligaments, tendons, and other soft tissue. It can result in shortened life span, increased risk of heart attack and stroke, and increased risk of lymphoma and blindness. My body-hatred had finally manifested as a physical disease. When I came to realize how closely linked these two things were - my attitude toward my body, and my body's attitude toward its own mobility – I knew it was life or death for me to learn to love my body.

  3. How to ask for and accept help.

    When I was young, there was no help. Either the trustworthy people could not see – and I could not tell – or the offers of "help" were tricks designed to provide access to manipulating or exploiting me. So I grew to suspect offers of help, and to keep to myself. I was blessed to receive some kindness early in life, however, so I was able to imagine what it might be like should someone just see through the secrets, notice my need, and respond to it. When I had my tonsils out at age three there was a nurse who rocked me and sang to me when I was frightened in the middle of the night, and there were various kind teachers who saw my unhappiness but could not fathom the source of it. Doctors just augmented the trouble, either treating my body like a piece of meat, much like my tormentors did, or heaping judgment on me as a young adult when I was unsure about my willingness to have babies. Years later, my first successful attempt to ask for help was motivated by needing help for my children. So I was able to risk asking for their sake. That asking had a happy outcome, so I found it encouraging to continue, and to eventually learn to ask on my own behalf. A tiny seed became a tree. My advice to those for whom it is hard to ask: choose your helpers carefully, but DO take the risk. It will get easier. And as you receive the living water of others' love and kindness, you will have more in the well to share with others.

    More lessons to follow in future posts.
    © 2010 Merry Stanford





June 15, 2010

Living with RA and Fibro – Part 1 (or you’re not in Kansas anymore)

So I've received a nudge (from my friends and my Friend) to write about how I am living, vitally and without pain, with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. And it seems that I can't get a real book going, given my full schedule. So here are a few beginning thoughts, and I hope to add to them from time to time through the summer. I want to start with the history.

I first received a diagnosis of fibromyalgia back in 1993. I was in nearly constant pain, with flares that came and went. I kept going back to the doctor complaining of the "back pain" (somehow I didn't think the pain in my hands and feet mattered) and fatigue. They checked my thyroid, checked for infection, all clear, I'm fine, go home. When I was persistent, the doc finally said, "Well, you've probably got fibromyalgia, which is just another name for unexplained back pain. I can give you some antidepressants to help you sleep." I refused.

Then I met a woman doctor who was more convincing about the antidepressants. Took 10 mg of Elavil every night for awhile and gained 30 pounds. I stopped.

Then I met a rheumatologist who put me on some supplements, gave me some nutritional advice (stop yeast, red meat, alcohol, caffeine, msg), some of which I had been practicing already. I did. I felt some better. This went on for several years, until I started getting worse. Enter another diagnosis: rheumatoid arthritis.

You have to understand I was working in a high-stress bureaucratic setting. High stress for most of us there, and especially for me since I didn't fit in and was also recovering from some extreme childhood trauma which resulted in being an outcast in my family. I was seeing a psychoanalyst three times a week – you read that right – and enjoying the emotional and psychic growth I was experiencing. But work was awful, mostly because I wasn't using my best gifts, and because I wasn't socially accepted among my immediate colleagues. So, even though I valued the work, the job, and the health benefits it afforded me, I wanted to be somewhere else for more than eight hours a day. This is not a good treatment for an autoimmune condition!

Meanwhile my spiritual life was paradoxically exploding with vitality! I was growing in the Spirit, learning new things, hearing the voice of God, having ecstasies, feeling impassioned, and beginning to open to the energies that are part of Mother Earth. I took training in spiritual direction and reconnected with my Christian roots. Jesus came back into my life, visions were abundant, and strong leadings often came to me. It was actually during this time that I learned to stay with challenge, discern leadings, trust them, and be faithful to them. But I was also feeling out of synch with my Quaker meeting, and couldn't find anyone locally with whom to explore the earth energies. Some of my Quaker friends distrusted ecstasies, did not want to hear about God, definitely distrusted "earth energies," and thought I was just plain weird. Or, at least, that is the way I took the energetic "push backs" I received in Meeting for Worship. So my vital spiritual life was, in many ways, pretty isolated. This is also not a good treatment for autoimmune conditions!

I remember the day when I "got it" that I was suffering because I could not accept my own limitations due to the illness, and I could not accept that my employer had no loyalty to my well-being. I kept trying to get the higher ups to understand what was going on for me, while also pretending that my work wasn't being affected by it. "Please take care of me, help me because I'm sick and tired, but let's pretend that I'm meeting my deadlines and nothing is wrong." It was irrational. Also not a good treatment for autoimmune disease.

That day I'd had a hard meeting with the young, charismatic woman who supervised me. She was pushing, and I was resisting. I got angry and scared that I was going to lose my job. When I returned to my cube, I sat with the tension of very uncomfortable feelings, opening to Spirit, asking for release from the feelings. And then the feelings intensified, I didn't know how I was going to handle this in such a public place; they broke, and released in tears. And it was revealed to me that I was hiding from my disability by pretending that my work wasn't being affected. In that moment I accepted that I had a disability. And then I felt led, knowing it was risky, to open up to the supervisor. I cried and so did she. It appears that she had a good, if sometimes hard, heart.

So steps #1 and #2 for me in learning to live with RA and fibromyalgia: 1) Ask Spirit for assistance in learning what can be learned from the condition, i.e. treat the condition as a Teacher. 2) Fully accept that this is a disability which affects your life, in good ways and challenging ones. You're not in Kansas anymore.

Next: What the Teacher taught me, or lessons learned the hard way.