I have had my fair share of trauma and health challenges, and life certainly has not played out the way I envisioned as a child. While illness and injury have put a damper on things, however, they also have, in their weird little way, provided opportunities for me to grow, get to know myself intimately, and develop an exciting, powerful, and inspired life. By listening to my core voice, insisting on alternatives to the standard protocol, and taking advantage of opportunities as they have arisen, I have responded creatively to situations that the universe has presented — designing a life that is uniquely, vibrantly, and deliciously mine.
It all started as a pre-teen, when I cashed in on my inheritance to family back pain. Guided by the deep-breathing techniques I had learned for playing flute, I consciously breathed into whatever place hurt, effectively healing myself from the condition that plagued my relatives.
The next defining moment was in my early 20s, when I self-healed from a severe respiratory condition, for which I was taking four medications four times a day. When my doctor told me that I needed to increase my dosage, to help manage my worsening asthma attacks, I said to myself, “That’s it. No more drugs.” First I went off the long-term, ie “preventive,” spray for asthma, then I stopped taking my allergy pills. Next I put a pause between the first and second puffs of each dose of my asthma and nasal sprays, gradually stretching out that pause until I no longer needed a second puff.
Once I was down to one puff per medication, I began stretching out the time between an acute asthma attack and my use of the inhaler: Gasping for air, I would hold the inhaler in front of my face, repeating to myself, “You can take this whenever you need it.” I only would take that coveted single puff, however, when I was turning purple – which came to be farther and farther away from the onset of the attack. I distinctly remember the night that I choked and wheezed my way through 10 or 15 minutes, clinging to my asthma spray for dear life, when suddenly, blissfully, the attack passed; and I could breathe again. From then on, I continued to hold the asthma spray in front of my face during an attack but found that I no longer needed to take a puff.
Once I had the asthma under control, I stopped using my nasal spray, by far the most challenging step of all. For months, I would wake up repeatedly in the middle of the night, panicked, having stopped breathing. As exhausted as I may have felt at the time, I would sit up and do the alternate nostril breathing technique I had learned in yoga, with my own adaptation:
With one hand, I would plug one nostril. With the other hand, I would hold and stretch out the skin of the opposite nostril, allowing a teeny-tiny crack of air through. I then would breathe in through the “open” side of my nose, plug both nostrils, hold my breath, and exhale through the nostril opposite the one through which I had just inhaled. My breath sounded like a noisy old Chevy truck with a broken muffler. I kept at it, however, until air penetrated my nasal cavities, and I could return to sleep – only to wake up again and repeat the procedure a couple of hours later.
My persistence and determination paid off: Within two years, I was drug-free, and not long after, I was able to exercise vigorously without even getting winded.
Then in my late 20s, I was in a hit-and-run, head-on car collision, which in turn catapulted me into the shadowy depths of conventional and alternative healthcare: I was misdiagnosed, refused tests, dismissed as a hypochondriac, physically injured, and emotionally traumatized by the very practitioners who were supposed to help me heal – fairly typical, I later came to learn, for those suffering from pain. As a result, I went from bad to worse, spending stretches of months at a time wheelchair-bound, housebound, or bedridden. I ended up not only in pain, but also in despair. By 2004, I had sunk so low that contemplating suicide became as much a part of my morning routine as drinking a cup of coffee.
That year, a friend dragged me out of my urban apartment, which I had become afraid to leave, and took me to a retreat in the middle of the desert. On the first night, I cried bitterly while watching an electrifying dance troupe perform in the white desert sand. Barely able to walk, I thought I had forever lost the ability to move so passionately and vigorously. After the dancers and audience members left, however, as the music blared over the loudspeakers and tears streamed down my face, I raised my arms – the only body part not in pain – and began moving them to the music. And so I began to dance again.
Having re-conceptualized dance as something other than leaps, twirls, and fancy footwork, I continued dancing at my edge for the duration of the retreat. To my astonishment, I found that edge moving out farther and farther — until the fourth day of the retreat, when I was magically able to tear up the dance floor as in years past. Tears, this time of rapture and gratitude, streamed down my cheeks once again.
I began dancing regularly in my living room. At first, I would wake up with horrific pain, dance away the pain, then wake up the next day right back where I had started. While I was disappointed that I never seemed to progress to another level, I was grateful that I had a tool for daily pain management. Over the years, however, the amount of pain I felt in the morning gradually decreased, until one day I woke up with no pain at all. One day stretched into one week, then one month, then one year, and recently I was able to bike a whopping 30 miles, pain-free.
I believe that we all have within us the power to self-heal. We just need to figure out the constellation of variables that will kick our self-healing mechanisms into gear. That’s why, when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at age 41, I said no thanks to surgery and instead made some radical changes in my diet and lifestyle:
First I went 100% organic vegan, gluten-free, soy-free, and sweetener-free (including honey, agave nectar, and the like), while getting ultrasound tests every three or four months, to monitor the nodule. After eight months, the nodule grew slightly, albeit statistically insignificant; it could have been the difference in imaging machines. Regardless, I mixed things up a bit: Over the next year and a half, I participated in two detox programs; ate a mostly raw-foods diet; went on two month-long juice fasts; began a rigorous supplement regimen; and introduced “clean” animal products into my diet — including fresh-caught Alaskan Sockeye salmon, raw organic dairy, and organic, pasture-raised meats, eggs, and poultry.
So far so good. According to the ultrasound tests I have received, the nodule has stopped growing. Now I just need to figure out how to make the damn thing shrink! With my diet and supplement regimens under control, I am adding lifestyle changes that promote a sense of peace and harmony: I am journaling daily; going to bed at 10:00 pm instead of 3:00 am; setting clear boundaries between work time and “me” time; and getting out of town monthly, for some fun and adventure. I also am looking for meditation groups to join, and I plan on adding massage, qi gong, and music back into my life.
A few days ago, I received an email from a young woman who has just been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Like me, she did not want to pursue the conventional path, but she wondered if she was crazy to design her own alternative. I reflected on how I was in the same position two and a half years ago – overwhelmed and frightened, desperately seeking out information and guidance. “Seeking” is the key word here: By learning about the options available to me; making educated decisions about how to move forward; seeing my body as a walking laboratory; and adopting a “do whatever it takes” attitude towards healing myself and, in the process, transforming my life, I became not a victim of circumstance but an empowered agent of change.
The decision of how to respond to heath challenges is highly personal, and everyone’s life circumstances are different. Some may choose surgery and pharmaceuticals; others may choose nutrition and yoga; and still others may choose both. We each have our own ideas about healthcare, and socio-economic realities tragically may interfere with our ability to move forward in ways we otherwise would choose. Wherever we are in life, however, and whatever avenues are open to us, we can approach the healing journey as one of adventure, looking not at the roads that are blocked, but at the tools available to us to build a new and signature pathway forward.