Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Earning the Ending

My mom has a thyroid problem, we learned recently. None of us in the family, including my mom, know exactly just what that “problem” is because, despite her doctor’s suggestion, she refuses to undergo a biopsy. She said that the word “biopsy” sounds scary.

“It’s just a way of knowing what’s in there, mom”, I tried to reassure her as she shook her head, grimacing like a stubborn little girl, not in the least reassured.

So, instead of finding out what was wrong with her thyroid—how and why it wasn’t functioning in the way that it should--my mom went to a healing mass and healing session conducted by “healing priest” Father Suarez, after which she promptly declared herself “healed.”

Assuming that her approach to her health works for her, I still can’t help feeling that it’s somewhat...anticlimactic. Kind of like skipping to the end of the DVD and catching only the final happy-ending scene of a movie.

I mean, where was the joy in that? Where was the satisfaction in having an ending—no matter how good—to a story that you did not sit through or participate in? How happy can you really be with a happy ending that you did not earn?

Just how convinced can you be of your healing if it’s not something you’ve worked hard for?

About eleven years ago, when I was twenty-five, I discovered that I had what doctors call “cystic fibrosis” in both breasts—benign cysts or, in layman’s terms, non-cancerous marble-like lumps of fat. Of course, the first time I noticed them through a breast self-exam, “benign” and “non-cancerous” were the furthest words from my mind. I had panicked, cried, imagined the worst—saw my bald head wrapped in a bandanna and all.
When a biopsy was suggested, “to be sure”, I had immediately agreed, for my peace of mind.

But even as my doctor confirmed his initial diagnosis (“Just a fibro-adenoma. Nothing to worry about.”) and I stared at the strange yet harmless-looking little white thing that he dangled in front of me, at my request, as I lay on the operating table, I knew it wasn’t over. I had questions. Lots of them.

Questions like: How do these cysts develop? Why was I the only one among the girls in my family to have these? And when I was told, after I prodded and prodded, that, yes, they may or may not turn cancerous--How do I prevent these benign cysts from one day turning malignant?

No matter how calmly my doctors told me that fibro-adenomas are “just like pimples. Some people are prone to them, others aren’t. And you happen to be one of those people who are prone to them” I couldn’t quite make myself mirror their calmness. The cysts were growing, multiplying, as my regular annual check-ups revealed, and yet I was told the same thing—“Nothing to worry about. Still benign. Come back next year.”

For seven years, I felt like a sitting duck, just bobbing over the waters, blinking stupidly, awaiting the fatal gunshot. Every time I went in for my annual check-up, I braced myself for the possibility that I would be told I had cancer. Between check-ups, I tentatively tried other healing methods: pranic healing, herbs, yoga, healing nuns and priests.

But the operative word there was “tentative”. Even as I disliked its reliance on drugs and their curative rather than preventive approach to health, I was still a little afraid to fully venture out of conventional Western medicine—and the thinking that it fostered, intentionally or not, which is that you cede control over your health to your doctor because they would always know better. Your state of health is what they say it is: if they declared you healthy, that means you are healthy. If they declared you otherwise, that means...exactly what it means.

As I was also going through so many major changes in my career and my relationships, I didn’t feel confident enough about changing doctors or changing my mindset about doctors. I figured I had to keep some things in my life familiar and, therefore, safe.

By 2005, I felt I had no choice. My hair was falling in alarming clumps, I was losing so much weight, I was having nightmares. I was walking around with an Alfred Hitchcock sense of dread and doom; I had no idea exactly what horrible thing was coming at me—I only knew that it was coming.

I also knew I had to do something other than submit myself to a doctor’s reassurance--a reassurance that became more hollow with every year—and drug prescription. I deeply suspected that my own sense of helplessness was making me sick—and I wanted to stop feeling so helpless and powerless. I wanted to stop feeling that the shit was about to hit me, and that I had absolutely no way of keeping it from happening.

I finally focused on getting serious help and tracked down an Ayurveda practitioner. I had read about this 3,0000-year-old medical system that developed in India and its whole-person view and approach to health—regarding a person as not merely a physical being, but also an emotional, spiritual one—sat very well with me.

On our first session, my Ayurveda doctor threw questions –and so many of them, too—at me that no other doctor had ever asked me before. What work do I do? What time do I wake up? What time do I go to bed? What do I eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner? What form of regular physical activity do I do? How many siblings do I have? Where do I live? Some questions I found too personal that at one point, I almost stopped to say, out loud, “Wait lang. Close ba tayo?

In turn, she told me…quite an earful. I was hormonally imbalanced and the hair fall, the weight loss, the cystic fibrosis were all physical symptoms of that. I wasn’t grounded enough, I lived too much in my head. I was too spontaneous, I had no daily routine. I was having a difficult time transitioning from my 20’s to my 30’s because I was still lugging around too much baggage from childhood. I was still too tied to my family. I had an incredibly stressful, even traumatic past year, experiencing different kinds of loss that had taken its toll on my body and my psyche, yet I wasn’t giving myself enough time to rest and recover. I was lactose-intolerant, yet my diet consisted of a lot of dairy. My body wasn’t built to digest a lot of red meat—it cost me too much effort and energy—and yet…

I staggered out of her clinic overwhelmed, bewildered, intrigued and most of all, relieved. I was right all along: something was very wrong with me. A professional had told me point-blank what I had all these years been feeling: that I was off balance, out of sync. No pat on the arm telling me I was alright. No soothing words saying that my condition was “normal”. It was as if my new doctor had lit a candle in a dark room and I was beginning to see, for the first time, what was in it.

I realized that what had really frightened me was the idea of not seeing, not knowing who or what the enemy was. I had no idea just what I was up against. And when I saw it, when I saw that the enemy was me—that it was my habits, my thought patterns, my choices, my lifestyle that were threatening my health and undermining me, I began to feel less hopeless, more in control. For the first time in seven years, I felt I had a real say in how my health, how my life was going to turn out.

My doctor didn’t stop with giving me a laundry list of what was wrong with me. The woman was on a roll. She gave me another long list, this time of all the things I was to do—a tacit order for me to get to work. Eat only freshly-cooked, organic dishes, no leftovers. Cook with ghee, a low fat cooking oil made from clarified butter. Eat mostly brown rice, grapefruit, papaya, avocado, seafood. Yoga sun salutations in the morning and early evenings. Stick to a regular breakfast, lunch and dinner schedule. Go to bed before10:00 PM, get up before 6:00 AM. Shower with warm water from the neck down, cool water from the neck up. And that was just for grounding me physically, which was the most urgent concern. Once I’ve done that, I would have to ground myself emotionally and psychically by seeing a psychotherapist. Also, I was to submit myself to a thermography and a breast ultrasound…

Of course, my stress level spiked those first few weeks at the thought of the amount of work involved and I wondered if I hadn’t made a mistake by taking this on. I mean…ghee? The nearest Indian grocery was all the way on the other side of town…

However, when my mind and my body had gotten over the initial shock of my new diet and daily routine, the realization of what all this was for finally dawned on me: I would be able to sleep at night…at the least.

Hell, bring it! I was glad to finally have something real to do; something to do besides wait, twiddle my thumbs and hope for the best. The work, though daunting at first, gave me such a great sense of power and control over my life that I threw myself fully at it, with the zeal of a fanatic.

This is the work I’ve been on for the past four years—that of knowing me and of consolidating the seemingly disparate parts of myself into one solid unit. During that time, I tried other healing systems as naturopathy and homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, Jungian psychotherapy…investigated other philosophies and belief systems as Kabbalah, Buddhism, Wicca…got to study the Christian story from the Protestant angle aside from my family’s Roman Catholic one…

All of these have helped me to slowly unfold, revealing parts of me to myself that I otherwise wouldn’t have discovered had I stuck to what was familiar.

I will not gloss over the difficulty of such work. Coming face to face with certain truths about ourselves carries with it its own unique trauma, which some people just aren’t ready for, no matter how much liberation and enlightenment it may promise them. As Sue Monk Kidd succinctly put it, “The truth may set you free. But first, it will shatter the safe, sweet way you live.”

I wish I could present a Hollywood ending to this particular story—an obvious, if often simplistic, clear-cut resolution--and say that, after all my effort, I’ve rid myself of those pesky fibro-adenomas. But they’re still there. They still may or may not turn cancerous.

Yet in the most fundamental, most essential way, in a way that is hard for me to explain, I feel healed. And I say that with the awareness of its striking similarity to my mom’s own declaration. Like her, I have no tangible, measurable proof. Like her, my test results may refute what I feel. I am due for a check-up again and my results may be as they were a year ago.

But I am not the person that I was a year ago—I made sure of that, just as I have been doing since 2005. Every year I know myself a little more. And so every year I’ve become much better, more efficient at giving myself what I need and removing from my life what no longer works, whether it is a piece of clothing, a thought pattern or a toxic relationship. That discipline has been making me feel stronger, more in control, less susceptible to the paranoia and sense of imminent doom that had once stalked me.

I wish all that could show up on a medical test.

How would a sense of freedom and lightness register, I wonder?


Anonymous said...


i feel yah. i like the story of the ayurveda doctor it makes so much sense but at the same time leaving you with so many questions. i'll have to see one too. this year has been pretty rough on my health as well. bravo. so far aside from the aber (well all of them are my favorite) but top two this is one of them. cheers to us! positive gees forever.

love lots,

Lami said...

Thanks for the note, Peejkins! ;)

Bring on the questions, right? ;) As you know, am praying for your health. All is well, sistah ;).

Positive gees forevah,
Peej ;)

Anonymous said...

thanks. congrats for having harnessed the brand of stick-to-it-iveness you need in your journey towards constructive self-awareness. sprinkle some in your comment box ;j

Lami said...

You mean, like fairy dust? ;)

I visited your website, Teta. Oh, my gad, ang sarap!!! Why didn't you tell me...?! Ba't ngayon lang?! ;)

Anonymous said...

Parang Bewitched. ;j

;j thanks. It's been a while since i posted anything there. During the school year, I usually revert to ready-to-eats, cream. haha

>>>for some reason, na-deactivate yung open id ko, kaya i just used my wordpress. tamad na ko to trace what happened.

Anonymous said...

hay, i need me some fairy dust ;j

thanks. kahit ako nagulat how it's not so difficult pala to prepare food. tsaka, that was sem break. just don't ask me to fry anything ;p

Lami said...

That was a LOT of sarap-looking food! Must have been a loooong break...;)