At the end of one of my last quarters as a full time professor, I had the most disturbing thought.
It is a thought that is often surprising and disappointing to realize is still buried in the depths of my mind despite how much “work I have done”. It is the thought that I have learned is nothing short of the shrillest of alarm signals from my body that my tendency towards auto-immunity is flaring up. It is like a siren ringing, “Hey lady! You listening yet? ‘Cuz if not, I'm just about to throw a bit of a temper tantrum.” Unfortunately, it doesn't always sound as loudly or as clearly.
Over the years, I have learned that if I don’t listen to this (or one of the other alarms), then the “temper tantrum” that my body will throw is usually a flare up of fatigue and joint pain. Sometimes, it is a bout of depression, anxiety, or insomnia though. After working with so many patients over the years, it seems we all had these alarms. These “alarms” come in many different varieties, as do the “temper tantrums”. But we all seem to have them. And, sometimes we listen to them and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we respond by loving ourselves more, and sometimes we respond by punishing ourselves. This time, I did listen and avoided being diagnosed with a third auto-immune disease. After being largely in remission for nearly a decade. Sometimes we just need a reminder to give ourselves the permission to listen. Hopefully, this story will provide you a gentle reminder that it is OK for you to listen also.
My dreamy job was tearing me apart For 2 years in my late 30s, I took the train down the breathtakingly beautiful Southern California Coast to teach courses in medical philosophy and homeopathy at the first accredited naturopathic medical school in California. It was kind of a dream job. Every morning, I would ride the train along the coast to do my work which was discussing topics of health and healing with 1st, 2nd, and 3rd year doctoral students in the naturopathic medical program. Seriously, how lucky does one get?
There was only one problem. It was never my destiny to remain at that job forever. It seemed clear from the beginning that I had particular work to do at the school. And disappointingly, the work I had come to do was done sooner than I expected. It was time for me to move on, and coming to this realization was tearing me up inside. The work had started to irritate some old wounds that needed a little more space to heal. Just like a scab needs some air to breathe in order to heal sometimes, so do we. This wound deep in me became obvious at the end of a particularly difficult quarter when I was especially tired. Somehow it seems the best lessons always come when our guard is down….
My students had worked especially hard that quarter. They overcame many challenges and achieved significantly higher marks on their final exams than their counterparts. Though frustrated with the process at times, they were engaged and discovering so much about the nature of healing. I had also worked hard. The new school was implementing a new curriculum which meant my courses were often being developed along the way. And support staff was limited. Which meant that my hours were long and my nights writing lectures were even longer.
That quarter, we had all worked hard and exceeded expectations though. Exceeded expectations of everyone except ourselves, that is.
That part of me gets a little confused sometimes It was a long and stressful quarter. But, my students had done well. And we had all learned a lot. It was a time that merited some celebration, some reward. Or at least some rest. During my walk home from the train station that day though, I realized that part of me is just a little broken. That part that regulates when and how I reward myself. And this part of me has to be connected to auto-immunity in my body, because they always seem to come together.
It is that part inside that knows when I deserve reward and when I deserve punishment. That part that can accurately tell the difference between what is rewarding and what is punishing. Whatever the case, that part of my brain that determines when to reward and when to punish doesn’t always work correctly. And on this Friday afternoon walk home from the train station leaving my rather dreamy job, I realized that I was in an environment that was too irritating to that wound in my system that makes me punish myself unnecessarily.
I would soon learn that my body was feeling the stress also. Markers in my blood for signs of auto-immunity had already started to elevate. Including one that suggested that after being “clean” of signs in my blood for auto-immunity for nearly a decade, I could receive diagnosis of a third auto-immune disease. Fortunately though, after years of meditation and practicing the art of healing, I do sometimes listen to myself. And that Friday afternoon, I passed my test also.
The test of Life As the school quarter was ending with high performing students and a whole lot of hard work was wrapping up, I deserved to reward myself. Instead, on my walk home that afternoon, my thought was “Hey you know what you should do? You should go eat a piece of pizza! You know that will make your joints hurt.”
Ummmm…. What?! Excuse me? Please come again…. That food will make me hurt so that is what I should eat? Even after all of these years, I am still using food to punish or reward myself. Even worse, my thought was specifically to do something to hurt myself? Huhn. Wonder how long that thought has been directing my lifestyle choices.
This is also when I started to observe that for some of us, especially those of use with tendencies towards auto-immunity or addictions, that part of us that knows when to reward or punish, it.... well, it gets confused. When we have worked hard and deserve rest, we will push a little harder. When we are feeling lazy and would feel better moving our bodies, we watch one more episode of “Housewives”. When we have been overindulging in unhealthy foods and would benefit from more nutrient dense healthy foods, we cleanse or fast.
I don't know if the thought causes the disease or is rather just simply another symptom of the disease. It seems like the latter is more likely the case, but that isn't as important as what the signal means. It means that it is time to bring some balance into my life in the form of taking a little better care with myself.
Healing is powered by self-love, not self-punishment This tendency towards self-punishment becomes especially obvious in the New Year. Often, we will over-indulge or be less disciplined with healthy living habits during the holidays. Then in the new year, we will do a cleanse, begin a restricted diet, or an intense exercise program.
And listen folks, healing and health is powered by self-love, not self-punishment. Promise that. Maybe that's part of why only 8% of us succeed in our New Years' Resolutions.
So this year when you set your new years resolutions or any other health goals, be clear with yourself: what is the motivation? Are these goals because they should or ought to be achieved? Are you doing it because in the past you have eaten or lived a certain way? Are you doing it out of self-punishment?
Or, are you setting the goals or intentions because they will help you live your life more fully? Are the goals that you have set for yourself an expression of those things that matter most to you? Are you doing them out of love for this one beautiful life? Because it feels better to care for yourself than to hurt yourself? Then and only then are you living life with style. And living life because it is an expression of those things that matter most to you is how you practice the art of healing. Let's have more of that in 2017.
BTW, I never did get that piece of pizza that day. I got a pedicure instead. And day dreamed about an even dreamier job.