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How Do We Heal?

Yesterday we got my husband's treatment schedule, which will structure our lives for the next two months. The science and technology are nothing short of miraculous. We are blessed, grateful, humbled to have these medical resources available to us.

But healing - which I define as moving toward greater wellbeing - is so much more than eliminating disease (or, in my case, chronic pain). Wellbeing, as I understand it, does not require the absence of illness, pain, or disability. We can be sick and have wellbeing. We can be in pain and have wellbeing. We can be "healthy" by conventional measures and suffer deeply from a lack of wellbeing.

Medical treatment is all about war - fighting, conquering, killing, winning. Of course we want the cancer to be cured. We will engage in the fight along side our care team. But we can't let the paradigm of war take over our life. We also need to optimize the conditions for healing, which include mental, emotional, spiritual, social, relational peace. For him to heal from cancer, and for me to continue to heal from chronic pain, we will need to cultivate and attend to our wellbeing.

In the same way that fear feeds the cycle of chronic pain, and a felt-sense of safety supports healing from chronic pain, resolving acute illness also involves limiting fear and cultivating safety. This will be our focus in the months to come. Medical settings don't exactly support this path. Most of us associate them with danger and fear. That was certainly our experience the first few times we went to the Cancer Center. But we've also found that the people there (all of them - the admin staff, technicians, nurses, doctors) mitigate the fear and overwhelm with kindness, attentiveness, warmth, humor, and optimism. We come out of an appointment and (most of the time) we feel well cared for. It makes a huge difference. And it has definitely not always been my experience with medicine (!)

Then there are habits and practices we are focusing on to support our felt-sense of safety. One of those is staying in the present moment as much as possible. I've observed my thoughts heading down the path toward catastrophe as I consider what might happen. I can feel my body become activated, tense, agitated. When I notice it, I stop and engage a practice that brings me back to the here and now - grounding, breathing, orienting, moving my body. I appreciate that doctors have to catalogue side effects, and put preventive and protective measures in place to minimize them. And, I also know that if we start thinking about them or trying to "prepare" ourselves for them, we'll spiral into anxiety. Worrying, or trying to steel yourself for what may come, might seem like a good idea but in my experience, it's nothing more than "anticipatory suffering." Why begin to suffer before the bad stuff actually happens? That just triggers a stress response. And stress compromises healing and undermines wellbeing. And there's the nocebo effect (the opposite of the placebo effect) where the mind creates the physical reactions that it has been told to expect. If a person is given a pill and told it will give them a headache, it's very likely they will get a headache, even if the pill itself is harmless. It makes me wonder how often side effects and discomfort from medical treatment are exacerbated by all the warnings we receive.

To be clear, we're not putting our heads in the sand. We'll will do what we need to do to prepare - arrange for support, stock the house with foods and supplies, study the lists of the best movies on Netflix - but beyond that it's going to be about meeting the challenges as they come, taking the very best care of ourselves that we can.

Safety is also relational. Our nervous systems are constantly communicating with each other, generating and receiving subtle messages of safety and danger. Stephen Porges, who created the polyvagal theory, calls this the "neuroception of safety." According to Porges, "neuroception takes place in the primitive parts of the brain, without our conscious awareness.” It's not about what we think or what we tell ourselves. It's about gut feelings. We feel safe when those close to us are attuned to our needs, showing up authentically, sharing thoughts and feelings honestly, communicating with compassion and kindness. When a person hasn't had that safe attunement in childhood, they are less likely to feel safe in relationship as an adult. The nervous system is predisposed to perceive danger. But this can change with corrective experiences in later relationships.

My husband and I have always held the intention to cultivate mutual safety in our relationship with each other. We have each had painful experiences in relationships where that safety was not present. We are intentional about being a corrective experience for one another. And, as in any intimate relationship, there is inevitably misattunement, disagreement, triggers, and tricky dynamics. This healing journey gives us an opportunity to deepen our mindfulness of and commitment to the practices that nourish safety within and between us.

Connection is another condition that supports healing. In 2012-13, after my spinal fusion surgery, I was mostly immobile for six months. My mother came to stay for the first couple of weeks, and Lonnie (now my husband) was with me as much as he was able, given the demands of his job. It's funny - in my memory he was there all the time, even though I know he wasn't. His presence more than anything else made me feel like I was going to be ok, that I'd get through this, that I'd come out the other side in a better place. Now I have the opportunity (not that either of us would have wished it!) to be his "rock," to be by his side with presence, attunement, and compassion. It will be the most important thing I can do for him.

During my recovery from surgery, I was also blessed with help from friends who brought meals, did errands, drove my kids where they needed to go, and came by to cheer me up. One of my friends set up a website where folks could sign up for the tasks we requested. It meant the world to me - it was like being surrounded by a circle of support and holding. I can still taste my friend Scott's matzoh ball soup! As hard as those months were, with the pain, immobility, and tedium, I remember feeling happy.

We will need help in the coming months, I'm sure. Why does it feel so hard to ask for? We all want to provide support to others. It makes us feel good. But asking is tough. It's the crazy cult of individualism that runs through our culture. Or the idea that everyone is already too busy, overloaded, and depleted - that to ask for help is a burden. And there's shame around being less than 100% "able." But like so many other aspects of our culture, the first step in rejecting that toxic paradigm it is to name it. So I hereby set the intention to reach out rather than heroically try to go it alone.

These healing conditions - safety, support, connection - are exactly what I try to support in my clients as a coach, my kids as a mom, and my friends and loved ones. Even my dog - she's a rescue who carries trauma from her early life. She needs holding, touch, reassurance, and messages of safety too. My connections with other beings - more than anything else - has taught me how healing happens, how wellbeing is sustained, and what compromises them both.

Regardless of what befalls our bodies, may we all experience safety and connection. May we be attuned to one another. May we cultivate and enjoy wellbeing in all aspects of our lives.


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