“Holistic Medicine” and Other Words I Never Used to Like
I was never that girl who liked yoga.
All of my friends did it, but I found it boring. When my mom died, yoga didn’t calm me – it made me feel mad at all the people in the room with their “pretend” traumas. When I was a new mom, yoga didn’t make me feel connected to my baby – it made me feel ridiculous that I was sitting around chanting my baby’s name with people I didn’t know. I didn’t even try to do yoga when Shawn died because I knew that it was likely to trigger all sorts of negative emotional responses.
It’s not just yoga that I never liked – it was everything that came with yoga. I didn’t like the idea that if I was trying to get exercise, I also needed to be connected to my spiritual self. And in general, I didn’t like people who talked about the idea of mind-body connection. It was entirely outside the ethos of Western science and medicine that I followed.
But grief can do strange things to us, and it certainly has for me. For the first six months, I tried much more traditional therapy, and on the whole, it was helpful. I liked my individual grief therapist and I liked my spousal loss group. As the months wore on, I tried a loss group at my church, which integrated religion into my grief group. By the end of the summer, I thought I had landed in a pretty good place emotionally.
And then I was reminded that grief is not linear. My September slip back into misery encouraged me to try EMDR and other techniques like EFT and visualization. A few friends gently told me that there might be a place in my life for an anti-depressant or two. I thought about it, but I knew that what I was feeling was situationally dependent. I’d use medicine if I needed it, but I wanted to exhaust other options first.
Nature helped, I found. Joshua Tree was healing as were my runs, which I tried to do outside more frequently. Even Austin’s 2-hour baseball games were rejuvenating.
So when my friend Rosemary encouraged me to try a day at her seminar on mind-body medicine, I decided to give it a shot. Last Sunday, I met her and our other friend Pleasance at this retreat where they were spending five days immersed in the subject. Pleasance and Rosemary are both yoga teachers (!!) and we talked a bit about my previous resistance to doing anything that was in the general category of “touchy-feely.”
“I’m just trying everything,” I told them, “and I figure that something, somewhere, is going to help.”
“I get that,” Rosemary said, “and you might find that part of one therapy helps one aspect of your grief, and part of another therapy helps some another way. There’s not necessarily one way to heal.”
I liked that idea.
My favorite talk that day was listening to the head of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, a doctor named James Gordon, talk about trauma and transformation. I took so many notes that I ran out of paper and I loved his opening line: “Trauma will come to all of us, so….relax.”
Everyone laughed. He was talking to a room full of doctors and social workers and teachers and therapists. Many of the people there spent their lives trying to negate the terrible aspects of trauma, but what he was asking us to do was to think about trauma as inevitable and as a potential growth experience. He talked about the reactions people can have to trauma – withdrawal, inhibition, flashback, etc. – and he reminded us that PTSD is a natural consequence of utterly abnormal situations.
“Trauma,” he said, “often challenges the integrity of our body and our sense of ourselves.” No kidding, I thought. He went on to talk about how anxiety can affect our bodies, and how to quiet “hyper-arousal” after trauma. All I could think the entire time was, “this is how I feel when I’m trying to go to sleep. I used to be able to put my head on the pillow and just fall asleep, but now my heart races.” My body needs to sleep but it can’t because of my mind.
Mind-body. Body-mind. Maybe there was something to this type of integrated approach.
After a lengthy discussion of the work that’s been done around the world to heal communities broken by war, natural disaster and gun violence, I think Dr. Gordon realized it was a lot of information for everyone to absorb. “Okay,” he said, “I think we all need to stand up.”
When we did, he told us a story about a man he met in a war-torn region. The man had been tortured and lived with terrible PTSD. Dr. Gordon asked him to try an experiment to help free some of his emotions. “I want you to laugh – a big, hearty belly laugh,” he had said to the man. Then he demonstrated to all of us what this looked like when he did it with the man. It was hilarious. Here was this old guy throwing his head back as he roared with laughter and then slapping his knee at nothing at all. He was just fully and completely laughing for no reason whatsoever.
After he stopped, he told us the end of the story: he was able to get the traumatized man to do this laughing exercise for a few minutes, and in the end, it was the start of the man’s healing. “For those two minutes of laughing,” Dr. Gordon said, “he was freed from his captors.”
I smiled. What a great story.
“Now,” Dr. Gordon said to all of us, “it’s time for US to laugh. Go ahead – laugh fully and completely even if you feel ridiculous. Just keep laughing for two whole minutes.”
Oh my God, I thought. This was exactly the kind of stuff I hated. But I was trying new things, right?
So I laughed. I laughed at myself and I laughed at the other people near me who looked funny and I laughed at Dr. Gordon. I really laughed, and then I almost cried. It was a lot of emotion at the same time.
I turned to my friend Pleasance and smiled after it was over. We chatted for a while about grief and loss and what it’s like for me to live a life I never planned. I realized as we were talking that I felt just a bit lighter.
The whole day was outside my comfort zone. But it was healing, at least a little bit. And what I’ve found is that every little bit counts. Even two minutes of laughing can bring some freedom. That’s a good thing for me to remember.
Maybe someday I’ll even try yoga again.
Prior to my husband’s illness, I regularly swam at my local fitness center. I had learned a swimming technique called Total Immersion where you are totally present in the moment, much like yoga. In fact, I called it my “meditation.” I enjoyed it, but when my husband became more ill toward the end of his radiation treatments, I stopped swimming. The elliptical in the cardio room was easier to get in and out of and back home. Since his passing, I haven’t been able to go back to swimming yet. I’m afraid it will be too much of being “in my head.” So I still do the elliptical and watch the TVs in the cardio room, which offer a distraction—although often I get angry at the news, but that’s another thing altogether. I’ve gone back to my Zumba class also, and the friendship and support of the women I’ve known there for several years has been great.
I’m glad you mentioned laughter as a healing mechanism. At night, like you, my mind would race and I would play the loop of “what ifs” and “why didn’t I do…” over and over and either couldn’t go to sleep or I would wake up at 3 or 4 in morning staring at the ceiling in the dark. One thing that I found was a saving grace was watching something silly or funny on TV just before bed. I wound up watching at least two episodes of “Bob’s Burgers” every night. One at dinner time, as I ate from a tray in front of the TV, and another episode at bedtime. I’ve seen them all now, but am going back and watching a few favorites again, along with some new shows that make me laugh. Like you said, every little bit helps.
I love that. I haven’t really tried funny TV shows, but I think that’s a great idea. I tend to like the dramas, but God knows that I need more laughter in my life!
Actually, I envy your running routine! I started studying yoga more than forty years ago and it helped me with grad school stress. I loved it! But later in my forties and raising a family, I got into hiking on the beautiful trails out here west of dc in the Shenandoah Valley. (Hi neighbor!)
Now I’ve gotten into the gym plus some walking. So whatever works for you. Although all the mind body stuff I did really transformed my experience of life and death. So I recommend it. Whatever you’re drawn to or a friend brings you to! It’s great. Death opens up a lot of new doors, doesn’t it?
It does! That’s definitely not something I expected. But I’m hopeful that trying all of this new stuff will help me to heal, bit by bit.