Usually, a new year fills me with the zeal to create a vision board, filled with resolutions and many aspirations. I sat at my computer last week and felt numb. Nothing I wrote fed my soul. So unlike me. (Or maybe not.) So I set it aside – physically and mentally. In the background, my mind tried to process what was going on.
I turned 55 a couple of weeks ago and the number hit me hard. It feels like the dark side of middle age, a feeling that was compounded by the onset of a cruel headache on the bottom right side of my skull. I’ve had migraines and wine headaches, but this one was weird, constant and didn’t go away. So I did what any modern adult does, and sought Dr. Internet, who talked about brain tumours and a bunch of other stuff.
On day one, I fly from home from Toronto. My father calls to tell me that his cancer has spread to his back. He is strangely chipper because he says that the radiation will shrink them and make his back pain go away. I get off the phone and cry. My husband is baffled and tries to comfort me by saying that my Dad is positive, so why can’t I be as well. (Because one day I will lose him, and I cannot bear it.) On day two, I fly to Saskatoon for meetings, and land a big coaching contract. Day three, I run a full-day strategy session and then meet a coaching client. The headache is a constant, nasty force. Advil makes no dent. Day four, I go to the doctor.
After describing my symptoms, my doctor went, “Hmmmm. You are one of my stoic patients, so I think we need to take it seriously.” (I feel briefly superior about the ‘stoic’ comment. ) “Earlier this year, a woman with these symptoms had a brain tumour, but it could be musculo-skeletal.”
“A BRAIN tumour!!!!” I shrieked. “That’s what the Internet said!”
My doctor is a lovely, zen woman, and she just smiled at me. “I shouldn’t have said that,” she said gently, followed by, “and you know what I think about computer medicine. Let’s try a prescription muscle relaxant and pain killer, and go for a therapeutic massage twice in the next five days. If it gets worse or interferes with your vision, or you vomit, call me or go to the hospital.”
I am freaked out but simultaneously notice extreme tightness my shoulders and neck. I call Wendy Hendren, the Wondrous Goddess of Bodily Help. She doesn’t answer, likely because she is busy pounding some poor client’s bod into submission. Stripping ligament thingies like scraping paint.
Moments later, she calls. “Help!” I exclaim, and explain the pickle I’m in. “Come in two hours,” says the angelic voice.
I lie on Wendy’s table and she goes to work, with that look of fierce concentration she gets when she’s problem solving. “Ohhhhhh,” she murmers, and then, “Yeahhhh…”
“Ow! What?” I ask, not sure that I want to hear Ms. Bodily Help’s diagnosis.
“I can’t believe that your doctor said you were stoic. You’re one of my wussiest clients. You have fluid in your upper back, neck and head. Your muscles are so tight that they’re compressing nerves.”
“So it’s a pinched nerve?” I say with relief, images of tumours receding from my aching head.
“Essentially a bunch of them, and some other stuff.” This is code for ‘let me do my work now, Journalist Garrett.
So I quit asking questions and she digs around and kneads things, strips stuff, pulls at my arm. Pain shoots up higher in my head and down into my hip. She is now Dark Wendy, Underlordess of the House of Pain.
I hobble home with instructions to ice. I call Evil Personal Trainer Jared Feuring and explain that I cannot come to the gym. He is uncharacteristically compassionate.
I meet with clients the next day and can’t move my head. I stop the painkillers so I can drink wine on my birthday, which helps wayyyy better than the prescriptions. I feel older than 55. For five nights, I sleep on the floor on a mattress at my autistic son’s new apartment so that I can help to ease the transition for him. Connor is so anxious about this move and cries easily. On day five I cry myself.
Wondrous Wendy says that she thinks I have occipital neuralgia, which is essentially chronic pain caused by compression of the nerves from your spine into your neck and head. I google that and feel that my days of physical activity – including my gardening, favourite earthly joy (other than sex) – are over. I cry.
After four massage treatments, and savvy advice from my friend Jody Waldie, I start to feel better. Jody is a similarly driven woman who had to slow down earlier this year due to chronic pain. She said that it forced her to do less and nap more, which has its own blessings, although it didn’t present itself as such.
I continue to work, giving a speech, running an evening strategy session, and coaching. Meanwhile, it is Friday before Christmas, and the house is upside down because wallpaper is being installed in our living room. My immaculate husband is hanging in ok, but the anxiety level is rising, especially when they can’t finish and announce that they’ll be back on Christmas Eve day. My family is arriving from Ontario that night. My neck gets tighter. We make it through Christmas without major mishaps, but I cry when everyone dances at our house one evening and my hubby doesn’t. I seem to be crying a lot lately, which is not like me at all.
I go to see a potential client, and she tells me that she is offering a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course. “Jon Kabat-Zinn?” I ask. She’s surprised that I know about him. I tell her that I’ve tried meditation, listened to his tapes and essentially suck at applying his teachings. She hires me as a coach, and I enrol in her course. I want to master this inner peace thing.
At yesterday’s three-hour session, she has us lie on the floor under blankets, and we participate in a 45-minute full body scan. It is relaxing at first, and then I want to scream. The person beside me is snoring, there is a truck outside beeping every time it backs up, and I truly don’t give a rat’s ass about the feeling of my toes in their socks. I am itchy, and I know I’m supposed to just notice it, but I give in and start scratching. Now every part of my body clamours to move or be touched. My neck hurts, so I put my hands under it. I start making lists in my head. I feel like a failure. I am a failure. I am one with the failure to do this thing that is supposed to help me stop being a failure.
We debrief and everyone else found it a serene and uplifting experience, confirming my failed mission to become mindful. I ponder quitting, but that seems worse.
I go home to my zen husband who smiles at me and doesn’t understand why I have a squirrel in my head.
This morning, I make my Nespresso and feel mindful. I am in the moment. I can do this. I simultaneously turn on the machine and pour milk into the whipper thing. The coffee pours out … onto the counter. I’ve been so busy congratulating myself on my ability to be present that I forgot to put the coffee cup under the machine. I smile and don’t get pissed off at myself. (Victory!!!!) I clean up, and mindfully drink the blessed elixir. Now I am off to the gym to see Igor, the Evil Trainer, aka Jared.
Stay tuned on my one and only goal for 2015. Mindfulness.