Panic Attacks, Anyone?: Everyday Magic, Day 985

Remember the sky

It’s 5:47 a.m. when I wake, trying to figure out how to fit my laptop into an antique desk that’s falling apart. My worry about the dream desk starts galloping into many manner of other worry, from the sublime (climate change) to the ridiculous (having to wake early for a gig next February, and what if I didn’t sleep well the night beforehand?). I steer my mind as best I can away from the tar pits of habitual anxieties (“don’t think about the kids, don’t think about the kids, don’t think….”) and thoughts catalyzed by the shock of cancer and trauma of treatment. But still.

Lately, this human has been easily tipped into tiny or not-so-tiny panic attacks, usually in the middle of the night (their breeding time) and sometimes, out of the blue, mid-morning for no apparent reason. Realizing who the little man is behind the curtain is — the after effects of the cancer diagnosis most likely, come out to roost in prime time now that I’m through so much of the recovery — doesn’t help all that much except to remind me that this is a common kind of thing. I work enough with people living with serious illness to recognize how, months after being spit out on the beach from the whale of chemo, surgeries or radiation, the terror catches up with us.

At the same time, as a person prone to anxiety (I come by it honestly given my family and ancestral history), I’m not unfamiliar with my friend, the panic attack. I say “my friend” purposely here because I’ve learned it’s best not to run and hide, call the panic names or otherwise diss it, but get present enough to breathe, name what’s happening, and remind myself of some logic (hey, there’s nothing I can do to reform Mitch McConnell, so let it go). It’s helpful to tell myself that  it’s just anxiety talking, and all will be sunnier in the morning. Yes, I have meds to take proactively or as needed, plus this great Gaba (an amino acid that helps calm the brain) supplement to spray into my mouth, and a lot of breathing and relaxation practices. I also know that in the middle of that panic gripping the center of my belly, it’s likely I’ll forget everything I just named here, so I lie in the dark, and aim my thoughts toward remembering how to breathe and what to think.

Remember the river too

I’m also far from alone. Friends and family often reply, “me, too!” when I tell them of a recent running of the bulls in my body and mind. Maybe it has something to do with a particularly energetic full moon lately, the reality that we are in the sixth age of extinction (200 species vanishing a day, Greta Thunberg recently said, and yes, she’s right), and so many people and other species experiencing so much avoidable suffering born of oppression, greed, arrogance, and ignorance.

Perhaps it’s also a natural response at times to the reality of being human. When I was talking with Neela Sandal, my integrative physician, last week, he told me an old story from India that included the question, “What is the most amazing thing in the world?” and the answer, “That everyone is dying and no one believes it.” Mortality is a kick in the ass, and it makes sense that given how much we live in a death-denying (and at times defying) culture, that sometimes the space between a sense of control and the reality of life’s fragility and mystery fills with adrenalin.

So for all of us who occasionally experience any size panic attack in any nook and cranny of our lives, it’s good to know that we’re in good and honest company. Sometimes there’s a quick fix, and often there’s not, but there’s always time, turning us from the temporary into the next moment, then the next. Like now when I write this to you on the porch, breathing easy and appreciating the wind, the first leaves falling, and the occasionally monarchs migrating through on their way to somewhere else. I tell myself now and also in the middle of panic to  embrace some measure of gratitude: remember all those I love and who love me, remember the sky, remember the river, remember the wind and how it’s always moving and changing.

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Counting on the Other Side of Cancer: Everyday Magic, Day 984

When life feels out of control, I start counting. I first noticed this habit/neurosis/coping mechanism when I was in labor for my oldest child. I was in too much pain to count the seconds of each contraction, but between them, I couldn’t stop counting. My mind was immersed in a world of ascending numbers, which made me realize I had been counting seconds in quiet moments throughout the pregnancy, maybe as my way to prepare for the Olympic event of birth.

It’s no wonder that many days, especially closest to the eye cancer diagnosis and surgical/radiological treatments and long recovery period, I’ve been counting. I counted (first days and eventually in hours) out how much time passed and would need to pass during those five long days between when the tiny gold bowl of radiation was implanted under my eyeball and when it would come out. Since there, it’s been how many days since the diagnosis, first surgery, and second surgery — a way to measure the immeasurable thunderbolt of initial fear, then the stretch of road unfurling around surprise bends and drops toward healing.

Today it’s 133 days since I heard those dreaded you-have-cancer words. It’s 87 days since the first surgery to initiate Operation Tumor Melt and 82 days since the second surgery to remove the bolster rockers (radiation implant). But just this morning, I found myself counting forward, not backwards: it’s only six days to the three month anniversary of beginning treatment, and by December 14, it will be six months past, by which time I see myself (so to speak) even more healed and healing, especially since the medical treatment takes a while to resolve and dissolve that tumor down to just a wispy scar of itself, inert and of no danger to me.

What I believe in is beyond the reach of numbers, but healing is like that. Eventually the physical reminders and tiny irritations, the prednisone eye drops and dilating eye drops (to blast scar tissue off the lens of my eye) will be as distant as any visceral memory of the pain of contractions. The lessons of all this will come into view over months and years in ways that name or don’t name themselves to me: what it means to be mortal, the power of love, the mystery of healing, and how vast and uncontrollable time is. What I mean by the latter is how much we all get to learn (unless we die quickly and unexpectedly) about how the future is not what it’s cracked up to be or what we get to map out in numbers or letters, although intention, prayer, and contemplation help.

As I move toward seeing myself as generally okay, out of pain and danger, and healthy, I notice I’m not counting as much. Instead, I’m sitting here watching the last few raindrop slough off the gutters and into the flower beds, so overgrown from three months of no weeding that it’s not worth even beginning to find the ground beneath it all. I’m listening to the soft  and whirling waves of the crickets as well as to a jazzy version of “Jet Song” from West Side Story. I feeling the subtly moving air on my arms. I’m counting on such arrivals to where I actually am, breath by breath instead of number by number.

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When Life Reboots You: Everyday Magic, Day 980

It occurred to me recently that I’m in the middle of a big life reboot. Thanks to the eye cancer, treatment, and recovery time, I’m in a different season of my life than summer would have led me to believe. But that’s what life reboots do: they strip us down to the essentials of staying alive, then re-orient us to see and even be in the world a whole new way.

I realize that all of us get rebooted in our lives, and usually more than once, catalyzed by a medical diagnosis, a big loss and plunge into grief, or an old dream dying or dead. But everything can and does change with seemingly happy things too: falling in love big-time, finding the job of our dreams, or moving to our seemingly forever home. What we thought was the life plan, the itinerary of our own invention, or the trajectory we were supposed to live turns out to be a dry husk of a once high-flying insect. Just like when we reboot our computers, we have to shut down the old ways, wait for a new start, and enter some kind of password or otherwise invoke magic words or deeds to begin again. Unlike the computer, when the screen comes online again, it doesn’t often have all the same icons staring at us.

For me, the reboot started April 28 when the ophthalmologist told me I definitely had a tumor in my eye. It continues and will likely still keep unfolding over the coming months as the radiation treatment plays out its tumor-dissolving magic. Late spring and summer have become something else indeed.

Instead of going swimming two or three times each week, driving to meet friends for lunch or wander through Kohls to see what cool shirts are on sale, and going here and for gigs and meetings, I’m home, watching what is usually high summer move through me like the wind through the trees, also rooted here. The gains are more abundant than the pain (just about all gone), fear, and anxiety. Each night, we make time to sit on the porch, and in the dark, listen. We can usually make out at least four different kinds of katydids interrupted by the the tender and mournful call of the barred owl. Daytime, like right now, I’m also on the porch, hearing swirls of wind topple through the osage orange trees while a bird I cannot see pierces the waves of cicada humming (or roars). The soundscape continues to open up.

My work in the world — and I don’t just mean how I make a living — opens up too. For the last year, I’ve been considering ways to make a living without leaving the house as often, and boy, is that coming true with a vengeance. Some of my coaching client are coming here now, and over watermelon on the porch, we talk through new essays, website copy, and what a poem truly wants to be. The urgency that has driven the rambling hippie school bus of my livelihood for years is no longer onboard, and that bus is parked somewhere in the back 40. Instead, I’m letting come to me more than ever what my best ways are and could be to grow Transformative Language Arts — the ways we can use writing, storytelling, theater and more to enhance our lives and world (yup, and the Patreon campaign is part of this).

But there’s another closer-to-the-skin layer of my work: to listen more, be stiller, and trust more deeply that what’s mine to do will make itself evident (while resisting what’s not mine).  Every chance we’re given to see our storyline — what we thought we were living, who we thought we were — fall away is a gift.

When the World Opens Its Heart to My Ears, Cicadas and All: Everyday Magic, Day 979

It has been a time out of time, or perhaps more accurately, a time landed right in time. Unable to use my eyes as much, I realize how most of my waking hours are encompassed in seeing. Like Dracula, I also have to forgo direct sunlight and generally aim my days toward deep shade. Add to this the pain (thankfully very much receding!) of this eye cancer odyssey, and I burrow deeper into the dark, so far from my regular natural habitat. But there’s nothing like pain and healing to guide an anxious mind out of its usual hamster cycles and into the real.

For a writer who loves reading, movies, watching James Corden Cross-walk theater videos, and visually scanning the world for so much of my orientation, this has also been a deal. But for all ills, there are remedies, and the best one I discovered is to go outside about 8:30 p.m. each night to the chartreuse padded chair Daniel once got at a thrift store for his first college dorm room, and sit still on the night porch as dusk travels to dark. It’s taken a while for me to stop resisting what this body has been telling me lately in no uncertain terms: shut up, and close your eyes already. But when I do, the rewards are immense.

In July, twilight comes calling with a cast of thousands. Sitting out there last night with Ken, my eyes closed for an hour, we counted at least six different kinds of cicadas, starting with the low soft click of the green winged cicada, then the back and forth mild buzzsaw of Tibicen bifidus. Eventually, we got to the steady sweet roar of the plains cicada, a sound I describe as he wheels of a wagon moving across the prairie although the wheels, spokes, and wagon are made of cicadas, and of course, the wagon is hauling cicadas. (If you want to hear these and others, check out this site).

Tree frogs leapt into the fray for short or long stretches, and of course, the crickets showed up as they always do when it comes to getting any party started. These thousands of insects and amphibians not only coordinated their wild rushes into circle hums or steady chirps of green joy with their fellow specie comrades, but they also blended their sounds — something beyond and encompassing the essence of music — altogether. The plains cicada stretched their journey song into multiple cycles, then stopped on a dime. The tree frogs jumped in the gap, then paused. Suddenly, everyone from all directions started again.

We listened, my dreams merging me with the sounds as I dosed in the chair. I wanted to lie down to sleep in the house, but Ken urged me to wait for the telltale call of night, heralded by the Katydid. “When will the Katydid start?” I asked, and just then, the Katydid whisper circled over us. “Listen carefully,” he said. “There are two Katydids,” which we quickly named Katy Did It and Katy Didn’t. (Hear Katydids here).

Back inside, I sat in the beautiful healing darkness, serenaded by the hum of the air-conditioner, the snore of the dog, the padded rush down the halls of the running of the cats. From outside, I can hear the barred owl calling. There’s also the drumming of my hands on the keyboard, writing this before I forget, mostly with my eyes closed while the world opens its heart to my ears.

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Oh, For the Relief of Pain!: Everyday Magic, Day 977

When the anesthesiologist and nurse started me on Fentanyl last Wednesday, I told them I loved them both, and I meant it. By the end of the five days of hosting the gold heart of radioactive seeds in my right, the pain around in my eye and temple was so intense I was up most of the night before surgery. But once I got to the surgery prep room, told the good people around me of my nausea and pain, all manner of relief ensued: the nurse gave me a small cotton ball with peppermint oil for my nausea, then inserted some additional meds into my IV. The anesthesiologist gave me a Tylenol, then okayed the heavier narcotic which proved to miraculously fast-acting. In the body space where big pain resided, peace and joy rose over the land of my life within minutes.

All of this has me thinking a lot about the lengths I could go to to outrun pain, which are considerable. I can’t imagine slapping a kitten or stealing a car, but my mind along with the rest of me would toddle up desert mountains without water for pain relief. When I consider the times in my life when physical pain has ruled the roost — those three natural childbirths, a horrendous bout with an upper G.I. bleed once, and a history of dancing with migraines since I was a teenager — I know that when I’m in the grip of something painfully gripping, I would easily beg at the altar of pharmaceuticals for anything to take that pain away, and if that’s not possible, put me to sleep until it’s over. I have no doubt that had I given birth in a conventional hospital rather than a marvelous free-standing birthing center, I would have happily called out, “yes, please!” if an epidural was offered, forgetting my commitment for as healthy a birth as possible for the baby.

Then I consider the kind of chronic pain so many people I know live with — constant back agony, heart-numbing depression, myriad sharp pain throughout the body without rhyme or reason, and so many other physical and mental states equivalent to the ROUS (Rodents of Unusual Size) in The Princess Bride. There’s also the pain of the social body born of prejudices and biases: constant attacks on the self for not being white or straight or thin or whatever else enough. Lately, there’s the immense and needless pain of what is being done to thousands of migrant children, locked in cages without food or bedding, alone or crowded without enough ventilation or tenderness to survive on without incurring damage. We may not be experiencing such pain directly, but that’s the thing about pain: knowing it in enough intimacy often helps us tilt open the door of our own heart so that we can better see and respond to the pain of others.

My 12 days of surgery and migraine tussles suck of course, but perspective tells me it’s just a drop in the fuck-it bucket of what so many others are going through right now, whether it’s a six-year-old Guatemalan boy trying to keep a toddler fed on a concrete floor in Texas, a neighbor down the street carrying the shattered pieces of her grieving heart to the empty bed tonight, or someone who cuts me off in traffic because he was up most of the night with shoulder pain.

“Oh, for the relief of pain!” is a human chorus, coming back around at every turn if we look widely and listen deeply enough. What those of us harboring pain would do to relieve it is just as vast and complicated, and although this is surely what I always warned my students against — vague generalizations — I’m vaguely generalizing that a lot of pain in this world is fed by what we do or try to do to relieve the root of suffering. The opiate crisis, a rash of suicides, our collective issues with over-consumption that severely and negatively impact our climate and even our own survival — they all create ripples of pain, often without resolving the original pain or with replacing it with something even more vexing.

But that’s the thing: not all pain can be relieved. Some of the Turning Point writers I work with live with acute and constant pain from years of harsh chemotherapy or progressive neurological diseases. Some of my friends, surviving without beloved partners or parents or siblings, carry that vivid emptiness with them daily. Some of the people who brush past me in the food co-op or bank are hurting in an alphabet of pain most people can’t imagine.

All we can do is say it: I’m hurting. All we can do is ask: please help, or please just sit here with me cursing this embodied moment of sharp edges. All we can tell ourselves is, “Yup, it’s bad now, but I have hope it will be better tomorrow,” even if we’re repeating this refrain tomorrow. And all we can say is “I love you” to the world, even if temporarily disguised as a smiling nurse and anesthesiologist on the small island on what hurts surrounded by the bigger beauty of life.

Please support me creating a lot more writing, transformative writing workshops, and a new podcast series on the power of our stories! You can support me on Patreon, get cool perks and weekly inspirations for your creative life for as little as $3/month. More here.