Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Pitfalls of "Playing it Safe"

A Guest Blog

- by the Juggling Librarian...

The past past few years have been a roller-coaster ride for me. I was a normal, healthy, active student at university, studying fine arts and just discovering my strengths and femininity when a mysterious spinal cord infection hit. Suddenly I was plunged into a world of hospitals, wheelchairs, physiotherapists and neurologists.

I have a neuromuscular condition that causes severe weakness in my arms and legs. Since 2003, my limbs have become progressively weaker - to the point of near paralysis. After several rounds of intensive spinal cord rehabilitation, I learned how to walk again, despite a prognosis of never being able to do so. I continue to have ups and downs - periods where I cannot balance my weight and sometimes fall. These relapses often occur when I overextend myself - when I push myself too hard through work and exercise - or when my immune system is weakened with a virus or infection.

It is frightening not knowing when my legs will fail me. It seems reasonable to play it safe, and avoid situations that pose a risk to my health. Doctors and other health care professionals have encouraged me to stay at home and apply for disability benefits. It is tempting to heed this advice and avoid work and other activities that may compromise my physical health.

But that's not who I am. I am a risk-taker and constantly resist definitions of myself as a disabled individual. I am also stubbornly independent and strive to live a full and productive life despite my limitations. After losing the ability to walk, I went back to school and obtained a Masters degree. While undergoing rehabilitation for my legs, I continued to take graduate courses in library science - still allowing me to use my artistic abilities but a great and very sensible choice for a disability such as my own. After graduation, I moved to a new city and started working full-time in a job that I love. In my spare time, I attend ball and pilates classes - and help with ReBuildingYou. I am accomplished in my professional and personal life because I push myself.

After living with a neurological disorder for six years, I still haven't found the balance between playing it safe and engaging in the activities that I love. Sometimes it's a struggle making it to work, and walking through the building to my office. At the end of the day, I'm usually at the point of collapse - my legs stop working, and I require assistance with the simplest of tasks. Fortunately my reserve of energy is replenished after a good night's sleep!

Sometimes I wonder if overextending myself is self-destructive. Why do I feel compelled to to this? I constantly test the limits of my abilities by pushing myself to do more and more. I learned this strategy in spinal cord rehab (aka bootcamp), where the physiotherapists and occupational therapists worked my muscles to the point of exhaustion. I learned that a small degree of discomfort and pain is sometimes necessary to improve muscle strength and endurance.

At the same time, I understand the importance of nurturing myself. Hot baths, heating pads, and plenty of rest help to replenish my energy reserves. Every morning, afternoon, and evening, I close my eyes and consciously "check-in" with my body. If I push myself too much, my body will give me not-so-subtle cues to let me know that I have reached my limit. My legs become flaccid - like noodles - and the wall becomes my best friend.

As a person with a disability, I have discovered that the key to living a full and productive life is to frequently test my boundaries. I haven't yet learned how to strike a balance between maintaining physical health and engaging in work and play. My condition fluctuates over time, making it difficult to predict how my body will respond to different activities.

Testing my boundaries and not 'playing it safe' actually helps me and is an integral part of my rehabilitation because if I didn't do that, my limits - the imaginary safe-zone bubble that we all have around us - would continually shrink, day by day. I would achieve less and less and that would be contrary to living as full and productive life as possible... Which is something that everybody of every age deserves to try, regardless of ability.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Seasons of Emotional Pain followed by Amazing Joy

Seasons of Emotional Pain followed by Amazing Joy

With Valentines Day and talk of love, the last few days have been a time of difficult reflection for me. Several people I love very much are going through transitions in their lives - perhaps transformations. Particularly because I love them, I can't help but feel their pain. I was looking for a way to give them a little hope when I realized that no good friend - and certainly not a counsellor - can do that better than just by 'being there'. Quietly standing by their side while they experience what may well be a whole season of excruciating emotional pain.

Just love them and be there. Not an easy task...

Seems life is a bit like a series of seasons - which I know has been said so often it's almost a cliche... But, please don't surf away from this page yet. Hear me out... Could there be a bright side to the emotional pain you're in right now? I have a thought...

Spring is a time of birth and all things 'new' - and can (maybe 'should'?) last until your teens... Then, in an ideal world, an exciting summer proves beyond all reasonable doubt that life is just wonderful. Of course, this would be followed by a gentle fall with amazing colours and a sort of 'dormant' period of frozen winter relieved by some cheerful holidays. What a perfect life that would be...

Of course you've probably found out by now that life is rarely perfect... Rather than one life equalling one year of four seasons, you may experience several 'years' in one lifetime? And of course we never know in advance how our time will be paid out...

I'm not a fan of fall or winter but, in my stubborn experience, fighting it makes it seem more miserable and longer. Go with it: prepare for it: refasten the shutters when they blow open: ride it out. Wrap up warmly and snuggle in front of the fire with a hot chocolate - after shoveling the drive and stacking the firewood - and wait for spring which will come.

I have observed the same pattern applying with people's lives and I would be very interested to hear your story? A tough, unpleasant experience - which can last for months or even years - is followed by a beautiful spring, which is ever more fantastic with real self-growth. Followed by another summer. To bask in - and reflect on - that growth. Hmmm...

A reward that can make stormy weather worthwhile? I wonder. (I never felt that way at the time, that's for sure!)

Often the first fall is a real showstopper - a life changing illness or life event, perhaps? Sometimes people never really recover from their trauma. Or they might recover enough from the fall to get to the winter. And then spend their whole life in a relatively cold, dark place, afraid to take another step further, just in case they unleash the fury they've experienced before. They may experience the occasional winter storm but never again do they experience the warmth and joy of another spring and summer. Unless...

If you can find it in you to accept the fall (not your prognosis). Prepare and address the winter... If you can bear to hang on and really 'be' with whatever experiences you've had, then the next spring could be even more wonderful. And just imagine how beautiful that summer would be?

And if you're unlucky - or lucky? - enough to have to suffer through yet another fall and winter, I believe the following springs and summers are progressively breathtaking. This is what I've observed and I must admit I find myself almost embracing it.

Of course there are spring and summer storms too. Usually shorter. And warmer and lighter. Not lasting so long. Short and dramatic.

The second (and third?) springs and summers are there, ready to reward you for enduring painful autumns and hard winters. Wonderful, beyond description. Waiting for you to be able to trust and tolerate, explore and 'be with' your experience. When you're ready. At any time. It's never too late to transform an unspeakable fall into a beautiful spring.

Warmer, 'new', kinder seasons, just waiting to soothe your soul and heal your bruises.

With all these thoughts raging in my mind, I head to the beach. It's a cold day with a biting wind with tiny frozen haildust blowing in over a choppy sea. My dog looks at me as though I have finally lost my grip on reality, that I would walk in this weather? But I need to touch my wisdom tree and run my hand over her gnarls and black, almost fossilized, bark. She is my wise mentor who was wrenched out of the earth and blown violently down towards the sea... She hung on and hung on, eventually digging in, sprouting new roots and reaching toward the sun.

Never again will this tree stand in quite the same (vertical) way but she is magnificent in her new horizontal position. There are birds, busy hatching up among her leaves. New life and buds on her branches. I feel immediate peace and a kind of stillness when I stand under her canopy with my hand running over her bough.

Fall and winter only enhance her well weathered beauty now.

Getting to that 'good place' can be anything but easy...

Sometimes you see babies on TV whose faces look old and burdened and aged beyond their months or years. Trauma and hard times befell these tiny souls too soon. These are the precious babies who survive droughts and are left over from wars and only a mega-dose of love and nurturing can hope to restore these little lives.

On the other hand, I know the nicest older couple, who met whilst they were in their first Spring. I delight in reminiscing with them. Their life has been a long and beautiful first summer. With the odd summer storm. They walk the beach, daily, hand in hand. Life is still an Indian summer for them and I pray that it will go on endlessly.

For myself, my first spring was fair. I was healthy and strong, ready for a summer full of electric storms, longer and more dramatic than some. My first fall was stormy and colder than I expected. Winter was long and deep - in fact I had moved to Canada and my psyche, not realizing that all of Canada is not equally frozen, dug in and hibernated!

My second spring was a spring that can only be experienced in the far north, where the ice remains right up 'till summer. Summer was short. Very beautiful but short. During my second fall, my emotions were still living in Northern Canada, unaware that my body was slowly moving south. Eventually they caught up. Winter was shorter, despite the terrible fall, although there was one particularly nasty storm. My third spring is happening as we speak and is gentle and more lovely than I can describe, marred only by the feeling that I somehow need to fill every moment and cram in all that I missed while I was hibernating for years. I'm dealing with that illusion...

I never stop marveling at how life is experienced so differently by every one of us. And at how I can never guess what that experience might have been for someone until I truly listen to them.

My conclusion isn't really a conclusion... In that it's fluid and still evolving. Right now it seems to me as if there is no 'right way' - or wrong way - for life to be?

If you are incredibly lucky you could live your entire life in a first Spring and Summer. Or a 'textbook life' may follow the seasons of just one year? But in no way is any one way usual or 'normal'... I don't think there is a 'normal'?

Depending on what fate has planned for you, one thing seems certain: for every hard fall and winter you endure, the following spring and summer are ever more wonderful. They can be... If you let them. If you can bring yourself to trust... And, of couse, fall colours can be magnificently beautiful, followed by a crisp, clear winter.

As a mother I'm torn, wishing for a carefree and sunny life for my children. I cannot bear the idea - or reality - of them being in emotional pain. I hurt for them. I have to try and hold back because my instinct is to rush in and smother and give advice! I also find myself wishing for them the natural prize of sharper focus and deeper love that seems to follow a trauma well healed? More and more I see weathering storms as 'worthwhile'. I wonder what other ways there are to real personal growth? There must be other ways? If you have stories I would greatly value hearing them...

My heartfelt wish for all those in emotional pain - particularly those I love - is to hang on tight. Ride this violent roller coaster and know that it will come to a stop, eventually. Trust, deep in your soul, that the most beautiful spring and summer you can imagine are just around the corner. And know that those who love you, including me, are here whenever you need a hug.

You're right when you shout that you will never love this way again. Never...

First there is a tender young plant. Often just one bud. Which sometimes, very sadly, dies. And at that point the plant does look very bare. Winter can be long and hard - and often the best thing to do is to put your tender plant in a safe, dark place to rest and recover its strength. When the spring comes - and it will - new growth and new buds and a thicker, healthier plant will be there. A new 'you'. This is my experience.

With the warmest love,