MESSAGE IN A BODY
The body knows things that the mind can’t stomach.
September, 2003. I’ve been a runner/cyclist/hiker since my teens, and getting my body to the top of a mountain was never a problem till now. The occasion is a friend’s 40th birthday hike (yes, this is how green Vancouverites deal with advancing age – invite their friends to take a 2-hour vertical hike.) It’s a steep climb that starts near sea level, not unlike other hikes I’d been doing several times a week all summer. But this time, my heart rate spikes like crazy every time I take a few steps. It’s embarrassing – and scary – to hike like an out-of-shape senior and I book a doctor’s appointment the next day.
The surprises kept coming. I’d always prided myself on having a slow pulse and low blood pressure, but now both were dangerously high. My heart was teaching itself to ‘palpitate’, and my toes were flushing from dark red to purple every 10 -20 minutes, much to the fascination of my doctor, who invited the other docs to take a look. I was inexplicably exhausted and had rushes described in medical texts as “feelings of impending doom”. It wasn’t a panic attack; further tests revealed extra-high levels of cortisol, and the flushing had now spread to my face, chest, fingers and lower arms. I was referred to the hospital’s top internist, who diagnosed a rare and possibly deadly adrenal gland tumour called ‘pheochromocytoma’. He sent me home with a bottle of double-strength iodine that I was to drink (yes, really, but not the whole bottle) to prep for a radioactive scan that would confirm the diagnosis. Which – surprise, surprise! – came back negative, to my internist’s disdainful disappointment. (He quickly dropped me as his patient, apparently more interested in rare diseases than in helping me.) My GP was more compassionate, but stumped. I took my symptomatic, splotchy, malfunctioning body to a naturopathic teaching centre.
The naturopaths were also stumped. In a desperate bid for attention, my body had now added crippling insomnia and distressing gastrointestinal dysfunction to the mix. (Let’s just say that the competing colours really clashed now.) In a touching moment of sympathy, two of the student naturopaths offered this:
“We can’t identify a physical source for your symptoms. We think it must be emotional. Is there anything you’d like to talk about? Do you have a problem you want to share with us? We could book some appointments for massage, and you could just talk while we help you relax. Would you like that? Does that sound like something you’d want to do?”
I looked at the earnest, fresh-faced twenty-somethings and thought, “That sounds insane. Where would I even start?? You have no idea how many years that could take!” Even thinking about how to put my trauma into words overwhelmed me. I thanked them for their time and paid my reduced-rate fees, then stumbled into the noonday glare of the street. Whereupon I wept and wept, all the way home.
That moment of clarity – the absolute mind/body connection of my ailments – should have started a healing journey back in 2003, had I chosen to accept it. But I never take the easy way if there’s an insanely difficult alternative. (Just kidding. But not really.) I think the real issue was not being ready to acknowledge the tsunami of emotional and spiritual troubles that were swamping my frail little boat. Nevertheless, my body kept sending out the SOS, rising (or stooping) to a level of creativity I must grudgingly commend. The body knows.
My body took to collapsing dramatically in the middle of the night. I’d awaken with a need to get up – get water, get air, get outside. Before reaching this goal, my body would hit the floor and I’d be out cold. These loud bumps in the night would awaken Henry, who would find me unconscious and unresponsive. When blood was involved, he’d call an ambulance and I’d wake up to see firemen (they always get there first) and paramedics staring down at me. The hospital would run tests. Nothing. They liked using the word “syncope” to describe what had happened. The ER staff began to say I looked familiar. But no medical explanation could be found.
A few days after one of these nighttime events, I went to see another naturopath, who was trying to help me integrate my symptoms with my subterranean emotional life. I began telling him how I’d felt myself “leave” as they lifted me by stretcher into the ambulance. He looked alarmed as he tuned in to my energy. “It feels like you’re still gone,” he said. “You need to decide to come back. I mean, consciously decide. If you don’t…..” As bizarre as this might sound to some readers, I immediately knew what he was saying. I was trying to exit my life. And I needed to stop exiting. Or else.
But I still wasn’t ready. The next time I had an ER-level collapse, it was a Monday morning, 8 am. One minute I was sitting at my computer, checking the weather. The next thing I remember is waking up at the bottom of our stairway, nine hard steps to an uncarpeted landing. The firemen were watching the medics as they shone bright lights into my eyes. This time, I sustained a cut upper lip, now permanently scarred, and some cuts and bruises. More tests at the hospital. The diagnosis? “Syncope”. Maybe it should be my middle name.
I wrote a poem about falling down stairs – you can read it in my Poetry section. A poem can make almost anything seem poignant, lyrical or funny. I went with funny for this one, because the truth is, my body was spooking me out. By this time, I knew I was burdened with decades of emotional baggage, but my mind was playing its own game: the game of “Nobody Could Begin to Understand All You’ve Been Through, So Why Even Try?” Clever, solution-less reasoning. The mind/body competition was getting fierce, but so far, my mind – my tough, stubborn, I-can-survive-anything-all-by-myself mind – was in the lead. Because that’s what tough, damaged hearts urge minds to do: suffer in silence.
Categories: My Story: Turn, Turn, Turn