Confrontation with Aging

For three months I’ve been disabled by one thing after another.  First the bad cold that was going around, then the endless cough.  The cough put my lower back out, and I didn’t have a clear diagnosis for two weeks.  That was a little scary.  My cleaning lady said she had cracked her pelvis, and had to be still for a long time.  That really scared me.  I had never thought about having to have serious surgery, and being immobilized for a long time.  I also wondered about surgery on my spine, with the same scary future.  Fortunately, Dr. Vreeland, who I was already seeing for something else, said it was a swollen disk, pressing on nerves.  He did an adjustment, which helped a lot with the pain.  I had been taking 3 ibuprofen 4 times a day which reduced the pain, but didn’t stop it entirely.  After the adjustment, I took much less and had hardly any pain.  And he gave me some exercises which quickly improved my ability to walk.

I didn’t think about death as something that would happen to me eventually until I married, at age 38.  Our vows were “so long as we both shall live.”  Now that I was in a relationship that I thought would last, instead of focussing on feeling better and “having a life,” I started having a life — I thought.  Writing a book kept me going until I finished the book, when I fell down into depression.  After I finally got on medication and stopped being depressed, my husband, who had been staying with me because he was afraid I would commit suicide if he left me, told me he had found someone else.  I actually encouraged him to spend a weekend with her, saying that if it ended our relationship, that meant the relationship wasn’t working.  As it turned out, I wasn’t hurt by the divorce, but I was very hurt by the fact that he cut off our relationship completely.  I thought we would go on being friends.  That sent me back into working to have a life again.  I realized at one point, that if I had a “bucket list,” it was to get better so I could have a meaningful life.

On the other hand I thought about suicide a lot.  Even when I started seeing Erica, and knew we had finally got to the bottom of what’s going on with me, I had many days when I wanted to die.  This was when I was feeling the appalling pain I had suffered as a baby left alone too much, which was necessary in order to heal.  I didn’t think about practical means of killing myself, except for Plan A and Plan B.  Plan A was to walk out on a cold winter’s night, out into the woods, walk until I was tired and then lie down in the snow.  Plan B was to stop eating.

I suppose the time I was closest to actually doing something was that first winter in Portland.  I was too much alone, nothing to do, no real way of meeting people.  I did see a psychiatrist for a short time, but I found him cold and judgmental (which might well have been my projection.)  I think he prescribed something called Elavil which gave me a rash and failed to raise my mood.  I stopped the therapy pretty quickly.  It was that winter my brother said “Buddha says life is suffering,” and I hit bottom and started doing Zazen.

It has been a long slow climb out of depression, with many crashes due to the trauma being triggered.  Coming here to Kendal meant giving up activities that had fed my soul and helped keep my body in shape.  It has taken a while for the support of having people around and meals available to begin to show in terms of improvement of symptoms.  Recently I had a scare about a possible computer scam.  Every time I thought about it, I would get a quick chill of fear which would fade, until I was able to call Apple and have them tell me what to do — which was relatively easy.  In the past, such a scare would have triggered hours and possibly days of terror.  I’m also starting to feel that I have a number of friends that I hardly know, but we see each other and smile on a regular basis.

Since this struggle with my health, and my worry about serious disability, I have started thinking about what quality of life would I want to have, what is the point when I would give up trying to get better, and either be OK with what I still had, or be ready to die.  I think one thing that started me thinking this way is the story about Yitzhak Perlman and “Find out what you can do with what you have left.”  I was talking to a friend about this and she loaned me Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande.  He is a doctor who saw that continued medical efforts to cure what was wrong were actually reducing the quality of life.  He explores the whole issue and has a number of recommendations, in particular a dialogue with someone who can help you find out what is still important to you.

So this is what I’m working on now.  I’ve had to accept that Sacred Circle Dance, my major source of spiritual nourishment for over forty years, is no longer an option.  I may get back to being able to go to Neskaya once a month, but that’s really not enough.  I know that I want what my therapist calls “soul” or “wisdom” conversations.  I would like to be part of a group where such conversations are available on a regular basis.  So far, I have found a book discussion group that I enjoyed but was unable to go to half the sessions because of being sick; a writing group that lasted 6 weeks; another writing group that is happening once a month for four months.  What I would like the best is a writing group about seeing your life as a spiritual journey.  I would also like to be involved in one of the ongoing efforts to help the planetary crisis, but I acknowledge that my political and social skills are not really adequate, and my physical and emotional stamina is low.  I remember working on the phones for both Barack Obama and Annie Kuster, and being so exhausted that I had to quit.  One problem with that was that it was essentially alone.  Though I was in a room with other people, we didn’t interact.  One thing that I have learned and finally accepted, is that I can’t do things alone, I really need the moral support of working in a group.  My childhood taught me that I had to do things by myself, that asking for help annoyed people and didn’t achieve help, and most of the things I really cared about were not valued by the people around me.  So this is my current quest: to find out what it still important enough to me to live for, and what level of physical/mental/emotional fitness is needed to support it.

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