September 10, 2016
There are moments in life when there is nothing else to think other than, “You could not make this shit up.” And in those moments, there is always a choice about how to react to what is happening. I recently wrote about overcoming my fear of re-immersing myself in the ocean and my most recent dance with overcoming PTSD. As I shared, I was taken down by a large wave and unintentionally guzzled heaps of ocean water as I was heading back to the shore. On the heels of that experience, I went to a friend’s dinner party and mistakenly ate a salad dressing that had raw egg. I am highly, highly allergic to eggs. I became incredibly ill within 24 hours of these two events. I could hardly eat anything and, when I did manage to swallow a dry piece of toast or sweet potato, the aftermath was not pretty. This went on for 10 days, and during those days, moments and seconds, when I once again found myself in pain and exhausted, I faced the reality of how that felt, not only physically, but also emotionally.
Around Day 5 on the couch, I realized I have a choice. Who do I want to be? Do I want to turn backwards and return to the familiar persona of the scared sick girl, or do I want to fully step into my hard earned, trusting and calm sense of well-being? I chose the latter. I stepped wholly into that new character. I continued to take care of myself and never allowed myself to fall back into the evil land of damaging fear and mistrust of my body. Even when I was sick as a dog these past weeks, I did not retreat to hating myself, feeling as if I have failed in maintaining my health or believing I am simply always to be the sick one. Those thoughts are bullshit, and I have the choice of whether I decide to give them power and credence or not. So this time I opted to follow, more accurately create, a different path than before. Even though I knew there was something (perhaps significantly wrong) inside of me, I placed my energy and attention on the outcome and the overriding certainty that I am strong and well. When I went to see my doctor in LA, he confirmed that my body was fighting against the egg and some nasty bacteria in my stomach. When I heard that news, I was not surprised and again made the choice not to give fear my power. I purposely did not even register the name of the bacteria or Google it to see what havoc it could wreak on my system. Instead, I focused on what was needed to treat the problems and move on. Where we attach our thoughts leads the way for the mind and body to follow.
After navigating the last 8 months in the aftermath of my most recent surgery and having all kinds of things stirred up over the past few weeks while ill, two important things have contributed to what feels like permanent progress in overcoming 20 years of PTSD (which in the past has manifested in brutal and debilitating panic attacks, depression, anxiety, fear and chronic migraines). There is something sneaky and involuntary about how PTSD creeps into your life after acute illness, but there is something concrete to combat its stealth nature. The choices one makes in building a healthy foundation in between those moments of illness rewires the muscle memory. Did having cancer at an early age and experiencing the related physical and emotional ripple effects have a lasting impact on me? No doubt. The experience of acute illness and how it forced me to face my mortality left a trail of wreckage in its wake. Yet, time and healthy choices have altered my relationship to that part of my history and the knee jerk reactions it registered in my nervous system. The more I have learned to take care of myself and build a strong, healthy lifestyle, the less vulnerable I feel to the fears around losing control of my health and well-being when issues do arise. And it is a choice. Do I choose strength and wellness in my head, or do I fall prey to the fears and the noise? I believe these two things go hand in hand. I chose wellness and strength, but had to build some confidence in that choice through the way that I have been living and treating myself for the past many years.
So, in the end, the decision to overcome my fear of entering the ocean ended up being way more powerful and lasting than I expected. I had signed up for an hour of swimming and found myself sitting 24/7, as I was ill these last few weeks, with this part of myself I have wanted to heal. By no means do I believe overcoming PTSD is as easy as flipping a switch, but I do believe it starts with walking through the door marked, “I choose health,” instead of defaulting to the one labeled, “I am stuck in sickness.”