Now we are Four

IMG_20131019_2222124 years ago today. I got up, went to the gym for an hour and then went shopping to Marks & Spinster with my folks, where we stopped to have a pot of tea and an apple turnover. ‘What a beautiful day’ I thought.
Little did I know that an hour or so later my heart would traumatically tear away from its root, contacting emergency services as I struggled to unlock my apartment’s door for the ambulance and my parents to get in.
2 days later I woke after 2 emergency heart operations, having lost several pints of blood and being put on ice, hallucinating about Chinese nurses and caretakers and hippopotamus and Aladdin.
The years between have been full of cancer scares, cameras up/in every orifice, depression, PTSD, the loss of 2 jobs, a mini stroke, loss of field vision, losing my driving licence because of health issues, severe anaemia, a crash with a double decker bus ……..

I began blogging a little before this. In fact, it was in anticipation of planned heart surgery. I’d been planning a holi-holiday to Peru (Macchu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, Nazca Lines – all terribly exciting) and because so much of the adventure was at high altitude, I decided to check in with my Cardiologist. I watched as her face dropped on examination, and she rushed me in for an echo-cardiogram ‘just to check’. I waited to see her for the results as the ward emptied and we were the only two Left Standing.  It wasn’t good. I had an underlying heart condition, which had worsened and required surgery within the next 5 years – she would need further tests and a referral to a surgeon in order to determine when.

The trip to Peru was cancelled – the first of many holidays I’ve had to cancel since.  I was never all that keen on Macchu Picchu if I’m being honest – I don’t really like edges, as I get a bit drawn to them and a little too intrigued about what happens if I go over the edge. In the end, my heart decided it couldn;t really wait for the NHS and so it broke early and impetuously.

In between all that, I had the small matter of my testicular cancer diagnosis the previous year before my emergency incarceration. I know – it never rains but it pours, right?I had some counselling as I was going through it all – the orchidectomy, the chemotherapy. the waiting for surgery. Which is what led me to the blogging. I found it a cheaper way to process and capture some thoughts and feelings – so, if you’re reading this, you’re kinda my cheap therapist. But I don’t know if you’re qualified or not. If you are, I’ve got a bargain. If not, just don’t go telling my secrets to people, because you’re bound by confidentiality, right?
Today I was at the gym. There were 2 crutches left by the side of my treadmill, and I saw a woman struggling to climb on to a Stepper Machine. I recognised the determination on her face, and the struggle she was experiencing.
4 years have passed. I’m not currently employed, and it’s not always easy.

Step by step ….

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Today I sewed on a button

button

Today I sewed on a button.

That may sound so inane, so simple, so easy.

Yesterday, I found it overwhelming to even think of sewing a on a button. So, for me, it’s progress.

This is not the story of me climbing Everest, or winning an Olympic medal, or even overcoming a traumatic injury. It’s just one day in which I managed to overcome so low, dark, depressed feelings. Just enough to complete what would ordinarily seem a simple and straight forward task. And even now I’m belittling an achievement, making light of it. It’s just a button, right?

Getting up was difficult. A night with little sleep, which becomes a pattern during times like these. Everything spirals, and what didn’t worry me yesterday worried me in the night. So it feels good to put on a fresh pair of clothes. A clean pair of trousers. I’m halfway in, skinny legs covered, and pulling the waist up, zipping up, and realise the button is missing. They’re active wear trousers, a special kind of stretchy material that’s all treated with insecticide and UV protection and waterproofing and all sorts of marvels. But without a button, I can’t wear them.

And that’s the day ruined. But I drag them trousers off, and find another pair. In a few minutes, I’m at least dressed, and manage to feed myself and take some pills and have a cup of tea.

The Epic Search begins. Not the Third Ring, not the Keys To Time, not the Golden Fleece. Just a sodding button. High and low – every button but. Surprising how many buttons you can find lying around when you want one particular button. The right button. Because, if it’s not the Right Button, I’ve Completely Failed.

It’s located. I sit myself down, consider this to be a Mindful Task. It will calm and self-soother me, so it can help with the dark mood. I focus on the needle I’ve pulled out, and the black thread I have chosen – it has to be the right thread or it will look STUPID.

And I try, and I try and I try to thread the needle. And I fail, and I fail, and I fail. Again, again, again. The mindfulness becomes a barrage of self criticism, and encompasses everything I haven’t achieved today, yesterday, this week, this month. I can’t even thread a needle now.

I gave up. I just couldn;t face it, and halfheartedly mention it to family in the hope that Someone Else Will Do It For Me. Rescue me, save me, from my own failure.

The morning comes, slow and inevitable and unwelcoming. The trousers remain on the floor, the button unsewn. A cup of tea, pills, some toast.

Today is another day. Another attempt. I pick up a thread, a needle, a button. And I try again. Cursing the size of the eye, cursing the state, of my eyes, licking and sucking the thread to straighten it. I try to think mindfully, to focus on process and not outcome. perhaps I will be able to thread it this time, perhaps not. I am in the process of doing it. This time, I have not given up.

Unbelievably, astonishingly, I reach the summit. I climb Everest, I find the Golden Fleece, I knock out Goliath. The thread is in, and I tie it off before it escapes. I hold the button in place, and I thread in and I thread out. In and out of the back, in and out of the front. A slow but determined rhythm develops, and I try to breathe with it. This is process. This is determination. This is The Moment for which I am grateful.

I’m wearing those trousers, and the button is still on. This is the small tale of that moment, when I dragged myself out of gloom and despair and failure.

I sewed on a button.

A Beehive In My Heart and marvellous errors

the four chambered heart

Last night, as I was sleeping

I dreamt – marvellous error! –

that I had a beehive

here inside my heart.

And the golden bees

were making white combs

and sweet honey

from my old failures.

– Antonio Machado, quoted in The Fourfold Way by Angele Arrien (Harper Collins, 2003)

This time last year I couldn’t bear going into work.I was told it was a kinda PTSD response. Entirely natural, it turns out, following life threatening illness or surgery.

Seems like it all just caught up with me.

I had a few chill pills, a lot of love from family, some workplace support, and a really helpful therapist. I’d chosen her to ‘do’ EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) on me. In fact, we just talked, and I learned the difference between ‘surviving’ and ‘thriving’. Day to day survival had been challenging enough. The very thought of going beyond that, into ‘thriving’ was – and still is – challenging.

I returned to work. I survived again. I’d planned to practise thriving this year. Looking at some volunteering work, finishing off some writing project and starting some new ones. Some courses to sign up for. Some of it’s been achieved. Then I had investigations around anaemia – colonoscopy and endoscopy, cameras should into orifices they had no business being – and the DVLA and my consultant have confirmed I’m not allowed to drive.

All of which is a shock, and things I’d have found very challenging to cope with this time last year. So there’s progress. I’ve achieved a counselling qualification, and some form of hypnotherapy qualification, and at least a working understanding of the power of the mind and trance work.

I haven’t yet fallen in love. Although my heart breaks easily and pretty much every day. Smiles, looks, smells and touches can all promise more than they give.

As part of my own recovery, I attended the first part of a training in ‘shamanic healing’, which I wrote a little about in an earlier blog the raven, the beaver and making happy tracks in ordinary reality. I’m not a Shaman, and I don’t claim any special insight or spirituality, but I wanted another way to help understand the impact of trauma and healing, and found it helpful and grounding. I do use much of the knowledge  on myself, and in my work as a psychotherapist.

Recently, I finished reading The Four Fold Way by Angeles Arrien, which develops some of the shamanic/First Peoples understanding. The Paths of Warrior, Teacher, Healer and Visionary are explained from the perspective of native spirituality – very ‘New Age’, I’m sure.

The Healer is encouraged to ask how they help heal the four chambers of the heart daily:

“Am I full hearted. open-hearted, clear hearted and strong hearted?”

Some simple questions I now practise. Am I full hearted? How many times have I approached situations or people in a half hearted manner?! To be half hearted is a ‘wrong placement’ – how much healthier, stronger, empowering to be ‘whole hearted’ or ‘full hearted’!

Am I open-hearted? Not naive – but opening and softening my heart, rather than closing it down through defensiveness or fear.

Am I clear-hearted? Do I have clarity of purpose, or am I doubtful, ambivalent or indifferent?

Am I strong hearted? Physically, I’ve been all too aware of the vulnerabilities of my heart over the last decade, but this is a question about courage. Can I be authentic and courageous today? The author, Angeles Arrien, locates the etymology of the word ‘courage’ to the French coeur, or ‘heart’ and “the ability to stand by one’s heart or to stand by one’s core.”

Instead of asking when someone became anxious, stressed or depressed, the shamanic healer might ask;

When did you stop dancing? When did I stop singing? When did I stop listening to and telling stories? When did I sop enjoying silence?

The ‘shadow’ of the Healer is the Wounded Child of the South, preoccupied tieh the Four Universal Addictions:

The addiction to intensity.

The addiction to perfection.

The addiction to the need to know.

The addiction to being fixated on what’s not working rather than what is working.

Shadows, addictions, hearts and minds. Warriors, Teachers, Healers and Visionaries. All parts of my world. sometimes helpful, sometimes unhelpful.

And as for love – that’s another adventure yet …