Getting through the “why me?” days

I think we all experience moments of wondering why we have to deal with a particular health challenge — what is the purpose of it? We might see ourselves as “abnormal” and wish to just be more “normal.” We might look with envy on others who seem to have it “so easy” and wish that we could have some of that ease. When I did my dissertation research, “Why me?” was a commonly reported thought among women with chronic pelvic pain. Some even wondered why God had given them such debilitating pain and illness.

Sometimes we just reach a threshold of not wanting to deal with chronic illness or chronic pain anymore. All of our excellent coping strategies fall by the wayside because we’re just too tired to apply them. We feel mentally defeated in those moments. And we can’t seem to just talk ourselves out of them. The sense of defeat and demoralization is too strong.

When we are absorbed in the “why me?” of coping with a health challenge, it just seems awful. Suffering isn’t rational! The “why me” comes from the feeling of being sucked into a “me bubble” of despair.

So how do we get through the days in which despair seems overwhelming? Here is what I do: More

Zen medicine – part 2

During a mindfulness retreat at the end of 2000, I caught a stomach flu and began to develop grave symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s colitis). I could not sleep more than two hours at night because I woke up throughout the night to pain in my side, telling me it was time to go to the bathroom. I ate only small amounts of the blandest of foods and I was running to the bathroom all day and all night. I managed to get back to my aunt’s house in Connecticut and the symptoms continued to worsen.

My step-mother called me and told me that she and my Dad wanted to help me get to Indianapolis, where they lived, so I could be under the care of their friend, a gastroenterologist. So she set up a flight within just two days.

I had hoped for a good night’s sleep the night before I traveled but it did not happen. I slept only about two hours and started yet another day feeling exhausted. I knew it would be a particularly long day. The whole trip would last ten hours from door to door. But I knew I would only survive if I focused on my sense of peacefulness. I could carry nothing but that peacefulness. I also knew that I would have to rely on the kindness of strangers to get through the day. More

Trying out Zen medicine

In December 1997, I was a graduate student in a doctoral community psychology program at Georgia State University. After the end of my first semester I became quite ill and I was bedridden during the whole winter break of three weeks. I was going to the bathroom upwards of 15 times a day and seeing blood in my stools. I had fevers every day. That was when the doctors first diagnosed me with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). At the time, they said that I had ulcerative colitis, but this diagnosis was later changed to Crohn’s colitis.

Corticosteroid medicines, which suppress the immune system, and “Asacol,” a medicine for IBD, helped me to achieve remission temporarily. But the corticosteroids had a down side; they made me feel restless. I felt wired 24/7 from these medicines. My mind was often racing and it was particularly difficult for me to fall asleep and stay asleep. More

IBD or Cancer?

A question from one of the IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) support groups on Facebook went something like: “Which would you rather have, IBD or cancer? Someone said that cancer is easier put into remission than IBD and IBD never goes away.”

My response:
Whoever said, “IBD never goes away,” is wrong. The docs can’t find any signs of it in my body and that has been the case for 5 years now. Nothing is permanent. That person was probably having a hard day with IBD and my heart goes out to him or her. I think that everything we “get” gives us an opportunity to grow and increase our awareness, compassion, and love. The specific kind of ailment is not all that significant in the grand scheme of things. We can die and suffer from lots of different ailments, not just IBD or cancer. I did have a couple of brushes with cancer, which were not life-threatening. I also had a few severe flares of IBD that were life-threatening years ago. I got to face the existential issue of “I am going to die someday,” which made me more appreciative of everything that I normally took for granted. The experiences I had with heavy suffering from severe IBD opened my heart. I’m glad that all signs of IBD are gone from my body and yet I am also grateful for what IBD taught me — how to care for myself and have deep compassion for others.

Tips for IBD patients

Someone newly diagnosed with IBD asked me for tips on dealing with it today. Here was my response. These are things I did that helped me to cope and to heal from Crohn’s colitis. I have been in remission for over 5 years. These suggestions may not help everyone with IBD.

1-Practice mindfulness. It can help you to relax your nervous system and to develop more self-awareness. It can also help you to cope with difficult emotions. You could try at least 20 minutes of deep relaxation and meditation every day; it made a difference for me. Our nervous systems can easily become imbalanced through stress, which may worsen IBD. Stress doesn’t cause IBD, but it can exacerbate it. See: Psychological Stress in IBD: New Insights into Pathogenic and Therapeutic Implications, The Impact of Autonomic Nervous System Dysfunction on IBD and Effects of Mind-Body Therapy on Quality of Life and Neuroendocrine and Cellular Immune Functions in Patients with Ulcerative Colitis. Know your stress triggers. Managing my stress meant making lifestyle changes to reduce stresses in my life. Stressful jobs always exacerbated my symptoms. In the past five years or so, I have effectively managed my stress and doing so has also helped me feel overall improved well-being. Another blogger, Bob, healed from Crohn’s colitis and credits meditation as being key in his healing process. Bob’s blog: I healed my Crohn’s colitis. Mindfulness meditation and relaxation are not quick fixes and they may not help everyone with IBD to reduce the suffering that goes with living with IBD. More

Watershed

I wrote this piece about 1 1/2 years ago, on the 7th anniversary of my colectomy surgery. I have been free from Crohn’s colitis flares for over 5 years, though almost 10 years ago, the disease threatened my life.

Seven years ago I was preparing for major abdominal surgery. Friends of mine gathered on two occasions in the few days before the surgery to wish me well with my surgery through song, music, and cheers (literally). They helped me to prepare for the challenges ahead.

It is strange to me that it was seven years ago. Seven years is one-fifth of my life! Indeed, so much has changed since that era of my life. At that time, my health hung on a tenuous brink and every day was difficult…and pain, exhaustion, and debilitation were my constant companions. I was physically spent.

Parts of the day of my surgery I can remember as if they happened yesterday. Parts of that day are a complete blur. And a good chunk of that day is completely absent from my memory and my consciousness; I was under general anesthesia.

More

Being in nature, being at peace

Below are a few examples of research findings that suggest that being in nature often has a healing effect on humans. Having encountered a black bear in a park in Colorado, I can say firsthand that it is not always so tranquil to be in nature! That experience was exhilarating, to say the least. But in general, I think that nature does have a healing effect on my psyche. When I am in nature by myself, I breathe deeper and notice more of my surroundings. I explore my curiosity and follow the sounds of trees rustling, the trails of animal tracks and the scents of flowers and earth. Even just being in my garden for an hour is often incredibly therapeutic. I feel the texture of the earth underneath my feet, examine the leaves and fruits of my plants and smile to my brightly colored nasturtiums and gladiolas. I enjoy a sublime serenity when it is quiet (when the rugby team is playing in the nearby field, it is not so quiet!). More

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