I’ve been working more hours lately, and my energy is improving. I am grateful for the gradual improvement in my POTS symptoms and my overall health. I am also grieving the many years of self-abandonment that led me into this long and painful process. I suppose this is the main lesson of last year’s crisis: that self-abandonment is self-destruction. I see that remaining in a driven career that was not aligned with my values or temperament set me up to feel permanently off kilter, developing one persona layer after another to try to fit in, to cope. No wonder my body started to block me–or rather, to rescue me.
But there is another aspect to this. It is as if I have lost the last 15 years of my life because I was so maladapted to the role I thought I should play. Now I don’t want to be that person or have that life and career. The false importance of it all, the artifice and emptiness of “fast” culture depresses me. And what confidence and stability did I build during those years? I feel like I’m starting over at 45 with no experience, and by that I mean experience that feels true to my core and my strengths. I know I do have deep experience, emotional intelligence, and talent. But I feel like a tender mollusk trying to form a new kind of shell before I can make my way onto the sea floor with some sense of integrity.
I have been networking and experimenting with vulnerability and transparency. It is uncomfortable to tell people I am meeting for the first time that I am healing from a health crisis and had to take time off work. In most situations I look across the table and perceive judgment and something else that brings up my fear and isolation. My challenge is to remain firmly in myself, to hold the gaze, to stay true to my words and my experience without catapulting into shame. It’s an act of courage and love, and it is so hard.
It’s not easy to give up money and the identity that come from a “career,” even if that career is making you sick. So many cultural norms pull me back into the web of illusion. And the illusion is that it will be different this time, that it is temporary. I have to remember this LIFE is temporary, and it is passing quickly. I must remember this when I start thinking, purely out of anxiety, about going back into marketing to re-stabilize myself financially. I’ve tried to make it work for almost fifteen years. Each time, it works less. I work more. I break. I can’t keep breaking.
I’ve been reading about the ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) study and the relationship to autoimmune disease, so articulately described by Donna Nakazawa in her recent book Childhood Disrupted: How Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal. Nakazawa writes that for every ACE score a woman has, her likelihood of being hospitalized with any number of auto-immune diseases increased by 20%; for a man, it is only 10%. Add on top of this the sensitivity gene, and you have a recipe for multiple chronic illnesses. So many women are suffering from these illnesses related to toxic stress that it seems overwhelming. What can be done? I have to start with the personal lab of my life, my body.
I know that my stress reactivity related to my early childhood and shame is a big part of my illness, and I do my best to take responsibility for my mental health. But I also know that even without my particular wiring, I might not thrive in this era and this culture of overwork, 24/7 availability, and competition. I dream of much more than that for my life. I dream of being connected, feeling a spiritual meaning beyond personal gain in my work. I’m looking for my deepest calling, not security as defined by the mainstream.
In looking for that calling, I keep thinking about joining with other women. Can we as women create new structures of business and community that do not operate on burnout, fear, and an underlying and secret sense of worthlessness? How do we do this so that we are in control of our lives, able to thrive and full of creativity? How do we do this so that kindness, innovation, and a life driven by different values is possible?
Last week I got one of those emails that make your heart sink. I opened it and learned that my friend Heidi, a young 70-ish, had suffered a massive stroke. Within hours, I was planning to say goodbye.
I went to the hospital on Tuesday, and experienced the shock of seeing her unconscious body. Was the spirit still there? Where was it? The next day we held a puja for her, chanting the Saraswati mantra 108 times. I de-petaled flowers until midnight in preparation for the puja, thinking of the times Heidi and I had done flower prep for our spiritual teacher, thinking of her meticulous artistic sense. I tried to make a garland, Indian-style, sweating over the carnations as I attempted a 360 effect which I imagined would be soft against Heidi’s chest. As I tried to weave it together, the whole thing fell apart. I decided to let it go and stick with the petals.
It was a beautiful, meditative week, filled with the persistent reminder of the sacred, of something bigger. In the honoring of my friend, in the ritual of saying goodbye from the heart, Iremembered how wonderful it feels to be connected to the mystery of life, whether you call it God/Goddess, or Nature. I remembered how humbling it is to watch death proceed, because we really cannot understand it. But I also got lost in presence, and forgot POTS, disability, troubles and trials. I remembered something I had forgotten. Thank you Heidi, thank you for bringing me back.