Monday, January 25, 2010

The mind body connection in diabetic metaphors

Our bodies speak to us in many ways through the mind-body connection; sometimes in metaphors.

I have several diseases packed into one body: type 1 diabetes, osteoarthritis of the hip, diabetic retinopathy, celiac, psoriasis, and trigger finger. As you might imagine, having so many diseases has definitely made me stop and think: What’s going on?

So after years of treatment by doctors of Western medicine, which I am incredibly grateful for, I decided eight years ago to also explore alternative treatments like: acupuncture, reflexology, meditation, guided imagery, homeopathy, herbal medicine, yoga, focusing, chakras, coaching, and more. Each has had its place in bringing greater self-awareness of my body and how it ticks, and even more so, these alternative treatments have also taught me to become more attuned to how emotions express themselves through the body - otherwise known as the mind-body connection. What I hadn't planned on discovering is that sometimes my body speaks in metaphors.

I remember the day clearly when I realized that my diabetes is a metaphor. A friend of mine who worked in publishing had lent me a book on diabetes, whose title I do not remember or else I’d share it with you here. I was a bit resistant at first about receiving an introductory book about diabetes, as I had had the disease for over 30 years already and couldn't imagine what I would learn.

But I read the introductory chapter anyway and was in complete awe when I had discovered something new after more than 30 years of living with the disease. Crazy enough, my discovery happened while reading the definition. Diabetes is an auto-immune disorder where the body's immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys body tissue that it believes to be foreign.

Diabetes, as with other auto-immune disorders, is when your own body mistakenly attacks itself.

That statement hit me like a ton of bricks. My own cells were attacking me. Why would they do such a thing? I had been mistakenly attacking myself for decades. I tried to coax them to stop: “There, there, cells, it’s okay. Play nice with the other cells.” Why can’t they all just get along?

And then I realized that I had often been told by friends and family: You are your own worst enemy. I do attack myself – not only my cells – but also my words, thoughts, and emotions. Was my diabetes, my body, acting out what my mind was saying to me all along?

Diabetes really is about inner conflict, but not only on the cellular level. The inner conflict extends to the emotional as well. So I began to journal, meditate, and ponder about my inner conflicts. What are they? For those diabetics out there who are reading, we all know about the conflict/balance between being independent and also insulin dependent. And there are many more of these conflicts, feeling different/foreign among non-diabetics...The list goes on...

I have since continued exploring alternative methods in healing this inner conflict, such as listening to my body’s voice as discussed in a recent blog entry: “Listen to your body.” I have also turned to guided imagery. There’s a great one on Andrew Weil’s Mind, Body, Toolkit called: “Guided Imagery Exercise: Deep Relaxation in a Place of Healing” where the listener is guided in thanking each part of the body, focusing on how the body has the ability to heal itself, and then going to a calm, serene place. I love that one. There are other alternative therapies that work on finding peace within: Yoga routines focused on detoxification work well, as does tai chi, reiki, chakra work, and focusing.

Although I am still diabetic, with this new found awareness, I have found that my self-care has improved, my A1C’s have gone down, and I am at peace, living life to the fullest.

What about other diseases and ailments? Could they be metaphors too? I don’t know, but let’s find out.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Get creative through self-acknowledgment

Self-acknowledgment is an opportunity to get creative.

I’ve been practicing yoga for over seven years. I actually started doing yoga out of curiosity, and then realized a few years ago, that yoga helps me with a hip injury I developed in 2006. One morning, I woke up and realized that I had lost part of the range of motion in my left hip. (Some of you may remember the story from a “Gluten-free Thanksgiving”). At first, I rushed to see a wide range of doctors and after being sent for x-rays, MRIs, and physical therapy appointments, I still did not receive a diagnosis. But I continued doing yoga and slowly realized that it was helping to alleviate the pain and stiffness in my joints.

I did receive a diagnosis for my hip problem two years later, but I was already hooked on yoga by that time. I have osteoarthritis, a degenerative disease that can be halted through exercise. Besides helping my hip, I also found that yoga is great exercise for a diabetic, as my blood sugars don’t fluctuate drastically while practicing, and I still get the benefits of exercise that we all, and especially diabetics, need to keep blood sugars under control.

A few months ago, I tried a new Sara Ivanhoe yoga video routine at home and was in awe by her last statement. After a grueling, yet uplifting, thirty minutes of contorting my body, she told me, the viewer, to sit cross-legged, take a few deep breaths, and then hold my hands in a prayer pose in front of my heart. So far this may seem typical to you, and it is, but the last statement of the routine really stood out for me.

“Say thank you,” she said, “for taking the time to do this practice and doing something good for yourself today. Namaste.”

“Huh…” I was surprised, “I never thought of thanking myself for doing thirty minutes of yoga.” The thoughts continued, “Okay, Sara Ivanhoe is brilliant. She’s right. I am doing this for me, for my health. I’m helping my hip, and I actually enjoy it.”

And I said, “Thank you.”

Prior to Sara Ivanhoe’s statement, I was simply doing the yoga – to do it. I knew the benefits of exercise, and I knew it was helping, but I hadn’t thought of thanking myself for actually doing it.

I’ve thought of being grateful for a good meal, for family and friends, for a gift, for my paycheck, and I’ve even learned to be grateful for my body once I realized that I wouldn’t be alive without it. I’ve thought of being grateful for the sunrise, a beautiful day, and sunsets as well. I’ve thought of being grateful when someone gives me a lift or helps me carry a heavy bag. Sometimes, I’ve thought of being grateful for God/The Universe/Spirit or however you may call it.

I knew how to be grateful of others, but now I was learning to be really grateful to myself.

This inspired me to get creative with self-gratitude with you. What are all the ways that we can be grateful to ourselves? I am going to brainstorm; feel free to join in!

Some thank-yous can draw upon the mundane: I am grateful that I brush my teeth, take a shower, and clip my nails. I bet you’re grateful for that, too. I am grateful that I have a laundry machine and that I actually wash my clothes despite a preference for sitting on the couch and relaxing.

I am grateful for getting rid of clutter, and knowing how to throw things away or donate them when I don’t need them. I am also thankful for knowing how to smile when I buy or receive something new.

Self-gratitude can also draw upon the sublime: I am thankful that I know how to have fun, laugh, be sad, get angry, and cry. I am thankful that I can dream and imagine. I am thankful that I see colors, shades, and hues, and even know how to match them most of the time. I am grateful that I know what I like and what I don’t like. I am also thankful that I know what I’m good at and when I need help. And I’m grateful that I remember to say thank you when someone else does something kind.

I am grateful for knowing how to say, “No” when someone is invading my boundaries. I am thankful that I know how to say, “Yes” when opportunities pass my way. I am thankful that I know how to enjoy a homemade meal. And I’m grateful that I know better than to make the meal myself when I am in a bad mood.

And I am thankful that I take the time to exercise, and now I’m thankful that I notice it too.

The opportunities for getting creative with self-acknowledgement are endless. Try it and be thankful you did!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Listen to your body

Our bodies have a voice, our authentic voice.

I still haven’t forgotten a conversation I had with a co-worker almost ten years ago. I was living in Manhattan, and I would walk home from work when the weather was nice. He lived in the same neighborhood and would often join me.

One spring day, we were walking up Broadway, the weather was fantastic, and we were approaching the Flatiron district right alongside a city park which was filled with flowers at that time of year. Despite the uplifting nature of a magnificent day, I sensed that I was feeling a bit weak and losing steam quickly. I asked my co-worker if we could stop at a park bench for a moment because I sensed that my blood sugar was going low.

He nodded agreeably, “Sure.” His eyes widened. “Wait; you can feel your blood sugars?”

“Yeah, I can feel when my sugar is high or low, and when it’s normal.” I looked down and opened my purse.

“What does that feel like?” His eyes widened completely in awe of what I considered to be an aggravating episode.

A side note, in all honesty, I was not in the mood to have an educational conversation about the ins and outs of diabetes while my sugar is plummeting. It simply does not feel good, and I would prefer to wait a few minutes to have deep, intellectual conversations once I feel better. But I also wanted to seize the opportunity and clue someone in on the life of a diabetic, and well I didn’t want to be impolite.

“Well, it feels different every time,” I began to explain as I pulled out my glucose monitor and pricked my finger.

“Sometimes I feel intense hunger, and weak, like right now. Other times, I am unable to focus, or my vision changes. I can get tired, nauseous, thirsty. Each time it’s different; it’s never quite the same.” My eyes drifted as I remembered a few times when I was taken to the hospital. “Sometimes I have mood swings. Sometimes I don’t feel it at all, so I check my sugar a lot.”

I looked down at my monitor, and sure enough it was low. So I pulled out some glucose tablets and started chewing. “Would you mind if we sit here and wait a few minutes?"

“Sure,” he sat down with his eyes still wide open, “I’m sorry. I simply find this amazing.” This statement did not surprise me since he was a physics teacher. He continued, “I realize that people sense different fight or flight episodes in their bodies. You know, Darwin's survival of the fittest, like I’ll feel thirsty or hungry, but I never thought of how a change in blood sugar would feel. That’s remarkable that you can sense that.”

“Huh,” I was stunned. I had never thought of it that way before; my body is remarkable for allowing me to feel when my blood sugar is high or low. “I kind of think of it as the body’s survival mechanism.”

“That’s exactly my point.” The physics teacher had spoken, opening me up to a new way of thinking about how the body works.

This conversation may seem like just another talk about diabetes and blood sugars, mixed with science and Darwinism. Yet, it has stayed with me all these years. From my perspective, the Darwinism part was interesting, but I believe it was the first time I was opened to the notion that our bodies have something to say.

The concept didn’t develop in that moment or even overnight for me, and the idea that our bodies have a voice actually laid dormant for a few years until I discovered meditation practice in 2004.

In all honesty, the first time I meditated, I was actually “forced” into it, grudgingly, through peer pressure. Yet, I joined two friends of mine for an all day meditation workshop on a Saturday. We all sat around in chairs for a few hours listening to a lecture about life energy, and then we were told that we would join together in a meditation.

I was up to it. Why not? Perhaps because of that conversation I had with my co-worker many years before, perhaps because of the diabetes, but probably I figured that I was sitting there anyway so I might as well open up and join in.

The guide started the meditation by asking us to breathe deeply for about five breaths; paying attention to how the breath transforms from inhalation to an exhalation and then placing our attention to how our stomachs expand and contract. She then guided us through a body scan, taking us limb by limb, organ by organ from our toes up to the crowns of our heads. She told us to listen to our bodies as we scanned, becoming aware of areas that might be tight or in pain. Essentially, now I know that she was making us aware of the stress that we hold in our bodies.

After we finished the body scan, she told us to concentrate on an area that felt incredibly tight or stressed, and then listen. Simply listen without judgment. Not to the mind, but to the body. What does the body have to say? After a few seconds of intense listening, I heard a faint voice say the word, “fear”.

She then told us to be with the feeling, let it be, and then to breathe in and hold that feeling tightly. After what felt like a few seconds, we were told to exhale letting the feeling leave our bodies and float away into the sky.

We continued breathing, and today I know that some people begin to chant a mantra like “ohm” after such an experience. On that day, we breathed for a few more minutes, and then she told us to open our eyes, become aware of our surroundings slowly, and either journal or draw whatever we were feeling at that point.

This was the day that I realized that I was holding fear in my body. And that was the day when I began my pursuit of releasing that fear - becoming aware of what this fear means to me, its source, and how it holds me back from living my life to the fullest.

I was already aware that my body speaks to me, letting me know about basic survival needs like blood sugars, hunger, tiredness, or thirst, but had never thought that I could discover my body’s authentic voice – and therefore, my authentic voice – through listening to it.

For years, I had been listening to what my mind had to say while my body’s voice took second place. My mind chatter, well all mind chatter, usually consists of thoughts / judgments / to-do lists / wants / desires / attachments / resistance / fears / concerns / worries / hopes / aspirations about what may or may not be in the future and what has already happened in the past or how the past could have played out differently. Usually, mind chatter consists of endless self-created notions of making a person’s life different than it currently is.

I find it exhausting. Mind chatter, in its nature, is not typically reflective of a person’s authentic voice.

Our bodies though tell us exactly what is going on with us. Listening to your heart can tell you about your passions, what will make you truly happy. Listening to your breath can bring you to a place of peace and acceptance. Listening to the parts of your body can tell you where you are holding stress and anxieties, and give you the opportunity to become aware.

Our body’s voice is authentic. And you may find, as I did, that once you hear what it has to say, you begin to live your authentic voice and life’s passions.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Inspiration found in love, death, and disease

I have been hearing stories all week long about loved ones staying by their beloved's bedside during the most medically trying times. What they all share in common is one firm belief that I have come to: The Universe provides us with exactly what we need at just the right time, and it’s up to us to notice and appreciate it.

I just got off the phone with my cousin. Her husband died on New Year’s Eve after suffering for three years from Progressive Supranuclear Palsy . I have absolutely no idea what this means, but I was told that his mind was fully functioning until the very end. His body though progressively deteriorated until he died of pneumonia.

My cousin discussed his actual death with me during that conversation. She informed me that he died exactly the way he wanted to die, at home, surrounded by family. He didn’t suffer. Her voice sounded incredibly serene as she said, “It was actually quite peaceful. I turned to put something on the shelf. When I turned around, he lay there still, and I knew he was gone.” The funeral was short, sweet, and to the point, exactly as he wanted it to be.

I couldn’t help but be moved by the story. Her calmness and serenity was infectious. After three years of hard labor, as she called it “days of work and work”, taking care of her dying husband, my cousin saw the humor, the light, the joy in the situation. Even on his death bed, he received what he had asked for, and she noticed and appreciated it. Isn’t that beautiful?

You may be saying: “Ophir, her husband died. How is the Universe providing exactly what he needed?” My answer: Death is inevitable. We don’t have much choice in the matter. But this man knew exactly what he needed, how he wanted to die, and the Universe provided.

The stories continue. Some of you shared stories with me after last week’s blog entry “The secret to finding true love” of loved ones staying by your side.

One story that really struck me was of a woman with diabetes who was dating a man for six months when she went into the hospital for a kidney transplant. Her sister donated the kidney, which is already moving in and of itself. And this man, who she barely knew, stayed by her side the entire time, through it all. She is incredibly grateful to have met such a wonderful partner to share her life with. She didn’t take it for granted. She consciously took charge of her health, received a donated kidney, took notice of the man’s support and her sister’s care, and lives in appreciation to this day.

I heard more kidney stories during the week, and in the midst of hearing them, I couldn’t help but take notice that these stories had become apparent to me all week for a reason; for me that means writing about them.

I am always amazed by people who stay by their beloved’s bedside during the most trying times. I naturally began to wonder: What moves a person to donate a kidney, stay by a person’s bedside as they lay dying, risk their own lives to save someone else’s?

I can’t answer that. I’m sure each situation is unique. Overall though, I assume it’s out of love, choosing to save a life and give that person more time to be on this Earth, together with you. My mind strayed though, and my intuition took me on a different route. I noticed that in each situation the Universe was providing exactly what the person needed, and they were incredibly grateful, at peace, and serene.

I have never been alone when I’m really sick, even when I was single and living alone. Someone or some presence has always been there to help take care of me, whether a parent, a nurse, a doctor, a friend, a relative, or a loved one.

I remember a time when I was actually physically alone and had incredibly low blood sugar . I was on my way home from a photography class when I lived in Washington, DC. It was January, and night had already fallen. All of the stores and offices were closed, and DC was deserted, as it typically is at the stroke of 5 o’clock. (Or at least, that’s how it was when I lived there.)

I could barely move, let alone problem-solve. I tried walking to a bus stop. The area was deserted, and I didn't know long it would take for a bus to arrive. I didn’t have the energy to walk, and so I decided to crawl to a pay phone. I saw one three very long blocks away, too far away. So, I decided to stop for a minute, gather my strength, and sit on a bench at the bus stop. I sat for a few minutes trying to find some energy when I heard a man’s voice say, “You better get home, sweetheart, it’s getting late.” I looked up and saw a man sitting in the driver’s side of a taxi cab. He had rolled down the window to stop and talk to me. I climbed in the back seat and told him where to go.

I barely walked out of the cab to my apartment elevator, fumbled with my keys at the entrance, and crawled to the kitchen to get some orange juice. Last I remember, I brought the glass with me to my bed side and fell asleep. I heard my roommate when she came home. It woke me up. I checked my sugar, and it was back to normal. I don’t know how much time had passed. But I made it.

I almost died that day, at night, all alone, and yet, I made it. I struggled to get home, crawled on the sidewalks of DC, and yet I did it. I don’t know how I had the energy to carry the orange juice to my bed. But I did it. Call it adrenaline. Okay, probably. Call it coincidence that a benevolent taxi driver just so happened to take the most deserted route in DC on a cold, winter’s night. Maybe or maybe not. But a part of me truly believes that the Universe provided me with exactly what I needed to get home that night. Adrenaline, taxi driver, orange juice, and even my roommate coming home later than me. It was what I needed at the moment to survive, and since then, it has provided me with a lesson to learn from and share.

I am grateful for the experience. It has taught me many lessons from carrying glucose tablets with me wherever I go, to checking my sugars regularly, and to being thankful for how things seem to work out for the best.

No matter what the circumstance - from the very serious like a kidney transplant or sugar for a diabetic and to the mundane (I’ll let you decide what falls under that category) – I have begun to find that the Universe provides us with exactly what we need to achieve our purpose on this Earth at any specific moment in time. This viewpoint requires awareness and a lot of trust. And once I became aware, and developed trust, I became grateful, and ever since, I have found that everything I have ever needed has been there, just when I needed it.

I read what I found to be a brilliant, life-changing article on a related topic by Martha Beck in Oprah magazine which I must recommend that you read as well. The article is entitled: “When and How to Say ‘Enough!’” in which she explains, “There are two ways of going through life: Gather everything in sight, just in case you need it. Or, trust that you'll find exactly what you need, just in time. Guess which one lets you really stop and smell the roses?” Click here to read.