Mantras

I've made my health a bit of a project for the last 10 months. As I round the corner towards the one year mark of some serious physical failure/total falling apart, I can look back and reflect on all the different milestones, cities, and specialists that I have come across during this journey. It has been one of the best years of my life, and it had also been the most physically difficult year of my life. I don't think change is easy for anyone. Some of us are just a little better at riding the waves as they come to shore. Life was incredibly hard for the last five years. I was ready for 2016 to come in and usher in a lot of change, all of it positive. I was in the most stable, sane, and emotionally rewarding relationship of my life. I had just landed an incredible job at an exciting foreign start up. I had a better home and friends than ever before in my adult life. I was ready to not look back.

One time when I was about six, we took a family trip to the ocean on the coast of Washington. We went with a family whose two kids grew up with me and my brother, our stair stepping ages making for the perfect blend of fun, fear, and familiarity that lifelong childhood bonds are steeped in. Those two were like our other siblings. On the last day of this post Christmas trip, we were on the beach climbing and building a sea fort on one of the massive driftwood trees that can only be believed if seen in real life.

The entire trip, my dad had repeated the same mantra over and over and over again:

"Don't turn your back on the ocean."

He warned us of riptide, pointed to the red and white signs along the shore of a swimming stick man, and told us horror stories of children getting lost at sea. It took a few days, but his unwavering conviction made the message stick. The ocean could be dangerous.

That last foggy morning we were gathering sticks and kelp bulbs, shells and other less natural debris to decorate our found fort. We were enthralled in our made up game, lost in play in that mesmerizing way only kids seem to be capable of. We were safe on the shore of our seaside world.

Out of nowhere, a wave of water flooded around the tree. I had been on the sand, and somehow managed to see it coming. I ran and scrambled up to the tree, the heightest branches of which our two friends had already scrambled up to. Our parents were up there as well, and for a split second I was almost certain we all were. Until I looked down and realized my brother was still on the sand, arms outstretched as water began to swirl around his waist.

I reached my hand towards him, as did others. Even now, the memory is a blur, and I'm not sure if it was my Dad or another parent who grabbed his hands and held tight. I know for certain it wasn't my Mom, because she snapped a photo of that very moment. Corbin's face twisted in absolute terror, arms reaching towards an adult. It's a snapshot we still have, and the memory is both the center piece and punch line to a family story we've told for years since.

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I do distinctly remember the moment my brain switched from panic to relief. I don't know if it was something in my Dad's voice or watching the water recede. I just know that at some point I realized that my brother wasn't going to be swept off.

But that was all it took. My Dad's words stuck, and every year after that I would repeat the mantra to myself when we returned to the coast. I even was able to teach them to my own son in December of 2014, when I brought him to the coast for the first time as a single mother. My whole family was around me to echo the words for him.

"Don't turn your back on the ocean."

I've periodically forgotten those words throughout my life, and each time I've paid dearly. Each time I've managed to make it out of the water, although sometimes just barely. Each time I've walked away with a new scar or story that has fundamentally shifted and shaped who I am.

The first lesson managed to last just a bit longer than a decade, all until the day I showed up knocking on the door of adulthood. I was 17 and diving face first into my first year of college. I already had an over 21 boyfriend and had just managed to secure my very own studio apartment that I was going to share with another student for a whopping $425 each a month. This was due to a university wide housing shortage and suddenly made me popular in a brand new group of friends. Needless to say, I felt very grown up. Seeing as how I lived a life with no grown ups around, my place quickly became the #1 location to smoke and drink whatever you wanted until all hours of the night because no one could get us in trouble (sorry, Mom).

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The next 2 years were a spiraling and endless roller coaster of highs and lows, until towards the end when lows became the more common theme. I'm going to spare the specific details, because most of the poignant ones are deserving of their own chapter. When I finally came up for air, it was mid summer and I was 19. It was then that I decided that I needed to become much more sober, if not entirely so. Drugs were a potent and perilous wave for sure, but I was not one for the taking. That was the last time I ever touched drugs of the chemical kind.

The brain however has a wide variety of potential triggers of dopamine receptors. Of these trigger, LOVE is a particularly potent one. That and something else (Hint: it's a three letter word that starts with S) that teenage brains tend to falsely equate with  LOVE. So naturally, right as I was leaving behind one dopamine inducing element, I met and fell in "LOVE" with my now ex-husband.

The best result of which arrived exactly 12 calendar months later in the form of my incredible, smart, and strong willed son who will be turning 5 in less than 3 weeks.

The moment he was born was when I really learned what LOVE was all about.

And in the midst of all that LOVE and "LOVE" I completely forgot about the ocean. I forgot that the waves could come up from seemingly out of nowhere.  And in those first three years of sex, stress, poverty, parenthood, and my ex-husband's alcoholism; I nearly drowned.

The third wave was a big one. And it came at the most beautiful time in my life. During my favorite season (fall), surrounded by my favorite people, in the midst of finally getting to enjoy the sweeter things in a life that I had worked so hard to create. It started with ceaseless back pain and it spread until my five-day-a-week workouts turned into five-days-a-week of struggling to get out of bed. It was coupled with other phantom symptoms. Lightning flashes of migraine, numbness, wandering and stabbing pains, pressure in my skull, and extreme fatigue were all experienced multiple times in that first month.

The symptoms have continued on, along with new and puzzling things like sudden and scarring rashes, panic attacks, throbbing veins, and ceaseless cold/flulike symptoms on and off for the next 10 months. At this point I have seen 2 naturopaths, an acupuncturist, a massage therapist, a chiropractor, a rheumatologist, a joint + pain specialist, a family doctor, many ER nurses and a physical therapist. A neurologist and MRI tech are likely going to be added in the near future.

I sort of have an official diagnosis, at least one that gets my appointments bumped up in priority. But it'll only take you about 5 minutes of Googling "fibromyalgia" to know that it's a complete crapshoot of a diagnosis, and  at best it's a general term for unexplainable pain.

Up until two weeks ago, I was feeling pretty unoptimistic about things. But last week, me and my physical therapist hit a tiny bit of a breakthrough. Or rather, I was forced to take a second look at one the things on the very small list of things that have helped me manage my pain throughout these months. Months before, my dear friend and incredibly talent yoga teacher, Jenna, had lead a healing breathwork retreat for women. Specifically, she had been progressing her teaching to be able to guide breathwork workshops to help women heal from deep trauma.

I largely attended because I was her friend, and I deeply want to support my friends and fellow powerful women whenever they are standing on their own two feet and completely kicking ass. The workshop was powerful for all involved, and I walked away deeply impressed by the impact the work had on a woman who was struggling with...fibromyalgia. She said it was the only thing that had begun to help after years of trials, tests, and treatments, and ultimately chronic and debilitating pain.

This stuck with me, albeit a little unconsciously over the next 4-5 months, and periodically I found myself leaning on the breath exercises I had learned during long plane flights and moments of stress, often with the help of guided meditations from my Leaf app. It helped, sometimes surprisingly so. Honestly, I have no idea how or why I stopped doing it.

But last week I started again. My physical therapist told me that she believes that I may have upper cervical problems that are having a major impact on my nervous system. I'm hoping to get MRIs done soon to take a closer look at this new theory. She has been developing exercises for me to strengthen and stabilize my cervical spine, and is also having me do daily breathing meditations to calm my nervous system.

She guided me through a position I should lay in to ease my tension, and a rythmic style of 2 count inhales followed 4 four count exhales, similar to what Jenna had taught. She told me to visualize my muscles relaxing with each breathe. Lastly, she told me to repeat over and over to myself with every breathe:

"Relax. You are safe. You are strong."

Needless to say, I've found my second mantra.