Monday, November 16, 2009

I Choose Life...

I am not one who likes to talk about my private life very much...unless there is a possibility that what I have to say might help someone else. And so in this case, I don't mind telling you that this is the eve of my mother's triple bypass and valve replacement surgery. Unfortunately this is not an elective surgery; my mother needs this surgery to live. Her doctors were very clear with us that without this surgery, she would not be around much longer. And so I should probably be getting a good night's sleep so I can be refreshed for the morning to help in whatever way I can from afar...but for whatever reason I think I will sleep much better if I write this now. I'm not sure if anyone even reads our blogs at the Pyramid...but I know for me, it feels like my personal responsibility to share this. And if one person is inspired by this story, I will feel better.

This started months mother started getting shortness of breath, and found that she was having trouble doing simple tasks. And yet my siblings and I were all going through lots of other challenges of our own so my mother did not want to bother or worry any of us, so she kept this to herself. She totally ignored the signs that there was something wrong and did not tell me because she knew the stress I was having already trying to rebuild the Pyramid and get the fire alarm done. When I think of the selflessness of my mother, I am reminded what a special person she is--and yet I am also frustrated because I know I can handle pretty much anything. It's going to take more than a fire alarm problem to get me I wish she had just told me that she was having problems. I definitely would have taken her to her doctor, but I did not know.

On Halloween, it got so bad that she could not breathe...and so she drove herself to the hospital where she was immediately admitted. My sister called me with the news, and I went to see her in the hospital right away. This was where she confessed her sickness to us---it was heart failure. The doctors told us that her lungs had filled up with fluid--they weren't sure why, but that was why she was having trouble breathing and she could not sleep lying down. They worked for a few days to remove the fluid and then did some exploratory surgery and found that she was having leaks in her heart and valves were sticking. They discovered that she had had at least one major heart attack, probably a very long time ago, although she did not even remember a time when she might have had one.

They scheduled the surgery, and thankfully she has good enough medical insurance so she was not kicked out of the hospital as she waited.

In the midst of my focus on my mother, a very good friend asked me if I was at all concerned that I might have some undiscovered heart condition. Could it be that I had some genetic defect? Well, the likelihood of that is, of course, yes. My father had had several heart attacks in his life. His father had had heart attacks and struggled with angina his whole adult life. His father died of heart problems decades before I was born. Clearly my mother has had heart problems. Her brother had a heart attack. Their mother and father had heart problems. Almost all of them also had cancer in one form or another. Countless other relatives have heart and cancer problems. So there is a pretty safe bet that genetically I am predisposed to some of this stuff.

But many wellness practitioners (myself included) believe that most of what we deal with as health challenges is the direct result of our lifestyle choices. I would guess that more than 90% of what we experience is because of the way we live our lives, and 100% of it is because we are not living fully mindfully, or because we think ourselves to poor health. That means that less than 10% of what happens to us is because of heredity, and almost all of it can be prevented based on what we do and what we think.

So if 90% of it is what we choose, I choose life. Believe me, I have created a life for myself that is far from perfect for most people. But every chance I get, I least daily. I do Yoga and meditate regularly. I try to live mindfully. I follow an almost vegan eating pattern. I don't use substances of any kind. Typically I get plenty of sleep. And I fill every moment of every day with joy. This has been my goal since I was a teenager. If I don't do these things for myself, there is no way I can be healthy.

But please don't misunderstand...this is not about arrogance or me fooling myself to think that my lifestyle is better than anyone else's. As I get older, I am increasingly turned off by the "perfect" people who who think they are "perfectly spiritual" because they spend some time at Kripalu and drink green tea and eat vegan. That may be part of a healthy spiritual program, but it is not all of it. Attitude and gratitude are a huge part of it--and I am so grateful to be surrounded by people at the Pyramid and beyond with amazing attitudes. The truth is that I see myself as just a regular person and my body is susceptible to all of the same ailments as everyone else. I am no better or worse than anyone else. I know for myself that taking the best care that I can of myself is the only way I am going to turn around this genetic code I have. The last thing I want is to come across like someone who thinks he is perfect or knows it all about everything wellness-related. This is not about perfection. It is about learning and sharing.

What I do know is that we are living in challenging times...but in some ways we are also living in the best of times. We have a system of Western medicine that is going to make sure my mother continues to live--I am sure of it. And we have ancient knowledge of a holistic nature to complement this medical technology. In short, we have the best of both worlds. And we have ultimate control over what we do to ourselves, even if we do not always believe that is so.

The people in my family that I listed with heart problems and cancer were also just regular people. But they grew up in times where it was fashionable to smoke cigarettes. Where a part of social wellness was sitting around a table and eating a delicious meal of fried foods--daily. Where exercise for the sake of exercising was a waste of time. Yoga? Meditation? Mindfulness? What sort of weird, New Age quackery was that?

We can blame ignorance for only so long before personal responsibility comes into play. I cannot blame my parents or their parents for not knowing any better. These were very intelligent people who were products of their time. And I could sit around and think "oh, poor me!" with a focus on my possible genetic heart problems. Or, I could choose to take charge of my life...and that is what I am doing now and will continue to do for as long as I have in this life.

As I get older, my level of compassion for people who continue to do unhealthy things to and for themselves yet complain that nothing in their lives is changing or that they are not getting any better is harder for me to uphold. I'm trying to support my mother right now with compassion, knowing that her lack of information about wellness probably caused her current illness--but also trying not to beat myself up for not being able to get it through to her before it came to this.

When I look at what people in general are investing their time and money and energy into, I become even more frustrated. Do you think cigarette companies are struggling financially right now? Sales may be down, but when your sales are so high to begin with and you've done everything in your power to get people addicted to your product, a slight decrease in sales may mean that your CFO cannot buy four luxury homes this year.

And yet I look at the current state of Vermonters' health. I have clients who feel forced to choose between food or medication. Some people are giving up their health club memberships or stopping working with a trainer because the price of cable has gone up. Some people are not getting a massage because the price of fuel has risen so much in the last couple of weeks and no one knows what it will do as we move through the heating season.

In the past I have written a lot about the importance of making wellness a priority. But now as I sit here just hours away from the physical trauma that is about to happen to my mother, I am more aware than ever that we MUST make wellness our priority. We MUST be mindful of our bodies, and we MUST NOT ignore the signs of our bodies because we do not want to be an imposition to our loved ones.

The time is now...we cannot wait until we have more time or money. The commitment to ourselves is the most important one we can make. What are we as a society waiting for?

So if you have bothered to read to the end of this blog post, I thank you--would you please keep my mother in your prayers or send Reiki or whatever else you do? And would you please do me a favor and turn off your text messaging for just a few moments and go for a walk? Would you please turn off the computer and go drink a glass of water? Would you please go smile at a stranger or do some other random act of kindness because you can? If you feel so inspired, would you please share this post with someone who might benefit?

Would you please commit to yourself...and choose life?
Be well!

William Kelley, Ph.D.
Pyramid Holistic Wellness Center