Wednesday, April 13, 2011

April 13, 2011 ~ Day 125
Prayer and Harry Lewenstein

Photo courtesy of Palo Alto Weekly, published 2010

They say it's always darkest before the dawn, and I think that statement can be true in many ways. Today was overall a very dark day for me yet I think the darkness prompted some very positive 'Aha!' moments.

Aha! = Teacher speak for the second in which a student suddenly 'gets it' - suddenly understands a concept they've been struggling with. Sometimes you even see the understanding flash across their face, briefly illuminating their visage.

I think I reached a couple of those tonight.

In a nutshell here are the problems I am facing:

(1) Injury
(2) Financial stress
(3) Chronic illness
(4) The stress these things put on our family

If you've never been in chronic pain, you don't know how it can grind a body down over the course of days or weeks. I remember all the many 'free' years before I got injured, when I was so fast and spritely and VIVID - full of energy and bounce.

I felt like I could do anything. I WAS up for doing just about anything. Scale a cliff? Sure! Climb a mountain? Sounds like fun! Bike across the city for lunch? Why not?! I truly believed that I was capable of anything.

This is the woman my husband married. The one who could go anywhere, do anything, be 100% all of the time. He didn't know that my time in this condition would be limited. I didn't know either.

After we fell pregnant with our first son, I continued in my teaching job. Of course I did! I could not imagine anything but working. "I'm not the stay-at-home kind," I used to say. "I'd go crazy at home. I'll be a better mother for working." So I kept on putting in my 80 hour weeks, trying to stay at the top of my game. Teaching in four inch heels.

I was sure I'd be one of those uber-amazing pregnant women who put on basically no pregnancy weight and then shed the remaining weight in a few months. After all, hadn't I always been skinny, wiry, athletically built? I ate healthfully, never drank while pregnant... I was sure to be a model of gorgeous motherliness. Right?

Just the first of six years of Life's humbling experiences. To my shock and despite the fact that I ate normal sized meals, I gained a whopping 46 lbs by the time the baby was born. I went from a petite 118lbs to a "Hellooooo MAMA!" at 164lbs - which made a big difference on my tiny little frame. The hormone relaxin had kicked in, my muscles were loose, I was fleshy in all of the wrong ways.

Six weeks after I gave birth I went back to work and promptly injured myself on a work retreat. SOOOOO STUPIDLY. Doing yoga, one of those poses where you lay on your back and put your feet over your head to touch the other side of the ground, if you can make it. I have always had ridiculously tight hamstrings... couldn't possibly make it to the other side without bending my legs.

My friend and co-teacher who was also a yoga instructor-in-training, came by to check on my pose. "Let's push that a little bit further," she said and manually pressed down on my back to force my feet toward the ground. That is when I felt it:


And everything went black for a moment. When I looked up, I knew something had really happened to my back but I didn't know what.

Weeks passed and my back hurt worse and worse. It became hard to sleep, hard to sit, finally hard to walk. I had a two month old baby and was in agony. My brother recommended I go see his chiro. I did. It seemed to help. Four visits later, I felt like everything was pretty much back to normal.

Except that I couldn't lose the baby weight, no matter how much I dieted or how hard I worked out. I couldn't get it off. Then we got pregnant with number two, and I ballooned up to 184 lbs. (Which is not to say that there is ANYTHING wrong with weighing 184 lbs. Women much larger than that are GORGEOUS, all of the time. It just didn't look or feel right on me.)

Around that time I learned that I had an autoimmune thyroid problem and gluten sensitivity. "You're trending toward autoimmunity," my naturopath said - and at the time I didn't know what he meant. I now know that autoimmune syndromes overlap and you can have like 8 of them at once. It isn't like you get one and stick with it. You can have multiple overlapping syndromes like Sjogren's, Hashimoto's, MCTD and RA all at once. It's amazing... and not in a good way.

Three years I kept visiting the chiro. Except weird things were happening. Tingling in my legs. Weakness. Numbness. Not good. I don't even want to go into the rest of it all. Suffice to say, it only took a year and like 30 doctors to find out I have lyme disease.

I went in for a CT-scan on a totally unrelated issue and while I was there they found a moderately large herniated disc in my L4-5 with canal stenosis (narrowed space around the spinal cord) and bone spurs. I started PT and stayed in it until our insurance coverage ran out. Thought I was finally on the mend!

Fast forward to a major fall down our staircase last October when I caught air on the top step (slippery socks) and ate it, hard. Landed eight steps down on my arm. Tore my rotator cuff, compressed my ulnar? nerve... likely herniated my C6-7. So. Much. Pain.

Do I sound like a ninety year old woman complaining about her aching bones? Do I?

Because I FEEL LIKE ONE. And it infuriates me! Saddens me! Frustrates me!

I am only thirty-five years old. In moments of weakness and exhaustion I ask myself WHY I have back injuries. WHY do I have lyme disease. WHY do I have an esophagus that doesn't work, and autoimmune issues. It frankly sucks - and some days when I'm really feeling down I just have to wonder if there some deeper underlying thing that I could have done differently. Are there thoughts in my head that I could *think* differently? Is there some lesson from all of this that I am learning?

Most importantly, will I be able to help others? Will I be able to take all of this pain and myriad other challenges over the last few years and turn them into something WONDERFUL? Something that will be so good for humanity that I'll say in the end, "It was all worth it! All of it!"

Which is when the first beautiful experience of the evening struck.

My husband likes to say that I turn to like an oracle, for the answer to all questions. I did this again tonight in a moment of real sorrow and typed in something lamely self-centered and self-pitying like, "Praying for better health" and to my surprise found several sites dedicated to anonymous people praying for each other.

This is a really interesting concept! There are websites out there where you can type in a prayer and then other people somewhere out in the web universe ~ possibly thousands of miles away ~ will read your prayer request and pray for you.

I scrolled through some of the prayers and was touched and saddened by them. People praying for their spouses or significant others; praying for their children in the hospital. Praying to find work. Praying to find inner peace. Praying to find friends. As I read their prayers (and prayed for each of them) I came face to face with two things:
  • All people suffer

  • Prayer is powerful and communal

Over the years much research has been conducted by different scientists to determine whether prayer actually helps to heal patients. I think the academic jury is still out on that one, but I would say this - I certainly would want as many people praying as possible for my children or myself in the event of a serious event. I am not very religious but despite that I really do personally believe in the transformative power of positive thoughts directed by one or more people to change events in the world. I believe that prayer heals.

So I kind of love the idea that I can pray for someone I have never met, whose name I don't even know, and the sheer power of my prayer - coupled with that of hundreds of other strangers across the net universe - might have the power to shift the tide on their behalf. I love that my positive energy could infuse someone else who really needed it at that moment.

Just thinking all of this through made me feel so much compassion and caring for the strangers who had posted their stories on the different prayer sites. I was strongly compelled to pray for them and forgot for a time about the pain in my body, and my fears that with one wrong move (say, lifting a squirming toddler) I may end up needing surgery.

I guess one could say that I gave my positive energy away and by so doing, it blessed me with a moment of peace.

The next positive thing that happened - I discovered the life of Harry Lewenstein... or rather, his last 14 years.

While I was googling treatments and physical exercises to do for C6-C7 injuries I found a web page written by Harry called "My Life as a Quadriplegic". Sounds depressing, no? But it wasn't!

A retired marketing executive, Harry was enjoying a bicycling trip in Portugal with his wife Marion - at age 70! - when he went too fast down a hill, hit a bump, and broke his back at the C6-C7. He lost the ability to function from his trunk down, although he did maintain the ability to move his arms (but not use his fingers). After an incredibly expensive and traumatic journey back to stabilized health, Harry had to re-learn how to do everything. He couldn't care for his bathing and toiletry needs alone, so that required assistance.

But beyond the basics, he learned to operate a wheelchair, use voice activated computer software so he could write articles and stay connected to the world through the internet. He developed the confidence to go out in public alone, to enjoy concerts and films and even traveling with his wife... all as a quadriplegic.

They thought Harry wouldn't make it long... gave him grim odds for old folks in his situation. He wasn't the kind of guy to get bogged down in feeling sorry for himself though. In his article he writes:

"Some disabled people harbor feelings of rage about their condition and the circumstances that caused it. I do not. Society in general is certainly not responsible for my quadriplegia. The responsibility is solely my own.

There are times when I feel a little sorry for myself—more for my family, really, than for me. Early on, while in rehab, I resolved to limit my periods of sadness to less than 0.1 percent of the time. This meant I could be sad for 86 seconds each day. I soon learned that was too long, and I went to 0.01 percent, less than 10 seconds per day. I no longer need the limitation. There are only a few seconds at rare intervals when tears come to my eyes."

I love Harry's article for its honesty, determination and, frankly, for how eloquently it is written. The man may have broken his back but he certainly didn't break his spirit or his mind. In many ways, he was luckier than my own father who could still walk up until his death but who had completely lost his identity and personality.

Harry Lewenstein lived until February 2010. Thirteen years from the time of his accident. When at last he did die, it was from complications for cancer treatment - having nothing to do with the original spinal injury. He lived until the age of 83, which though assuredly too soon to have lost such a wonderful man! is not all bad in the grand scheme of things. He was exactly the same age that my own father was when he passed away in 2009.

So these are the two things that have turned my night around ~ and which combine to form the essential meaning of this blog post.

First, there are people out there to pray for and people who are suffering as much or more than I am. They deserve compassion and love, and are much more interesting for me to focus on than staying in my non-productive "Woe is me" mode.

Secondly, following in Harry's footsteps, I need to hold to giving only .01 percent of my day to sorrow. Less than 10 seconds. (That might even be too much.)

I am a lucky woman. I have three basically healthy kids. A roof over my head. A car to drive. Food in our refrigerator. Not facing homelessness or poverty. There is love in my life.

Yes, money sucks... and yes, I'm still fighting lyme disease. The road ahead is bound to wind a little. But I can still pray for others, and I can still think for myself. Which means that life is actually rich with blessings.

My mom always says, "What blesses one, blesses all..." so I'm going to sign off and go pray for some folks who really need it, trusting that my life and limitations are unfolding as they are meant to.

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