The Prequel to the “Last” Christmas

I’ll start with the punch line:  The doctors were wrong and I’m still alive.

But, they could easily have been right and the terminal diagnosis they gave me finally made me walk the walk of the philosophy that I had embraced in every major aspect of my life but one:  Off and on (but mostly on) ever since I was fifteen, I had smoked.  I could not possibly have done anything more antithetical to the way I lived and approached most of the rest of my life.  Well, except for food but that’s another sad tale, though it does play a part in this one.

So, there I was, minding my own business, trying to see a new doctor about some middle aged menstrual hijinks I was dealing with, when the doc ordered a chest x-ray because I was smoker.  Let’s call that x- ray the first domino in the cascade of medical encounters I was about to experience.  It came back showing a suspicious lung nodule.  The subsequent CT of the suspicious lung nodule came back showing a suspicious kidney mass consistent with renal cell carcinoma.  Put the two together, the kidney mass and the lung tumor now consistent with metastatic disease, and they equal a cancer that is considered incurable.

I was told that I had six to eighteen months to live.

So, I went for a walk.  Fortunately, I had recently begun a campaign to improve my lifestyle habits mainly because smaller fat women were starting to orbit me.  Walking and healthy eating had become my weapons for improving my life.  I knew smoking and overweight were interferences that had prevented me from remaining healthy.  The irony is, even as my new doc was telling me that I had incurable cancer, he was also telling me how healthy I was because my blood work looked fabulous, I had low/normal blood pressure and was completely symptom-free.  How mind bogglingly insane is that?

My understanding of health – an understanding we at Life University call vital health* – was already serving me well because, as a fat smoker with cancer, I understood the fact that I was unhealthy as hell.  On the other hand, the doc’s way of thinking allowed him to tell me I was a dead duck in one breath and how healthy I was in the next.  It was clear to me that, in my doctor’s mind, all my “health” would do for me would be to extend the inevitable for a few months – I had no chance to survive.  At that point, there was little chance for survival in my own mind.  I did know that if I had any chance at all to survive, I would have to remove the outrageous interference from cigarettes.  My understanding of vital health told me that life could find a way but I surely had given death a head start.

Smoking had interfered with the expression of health in my life and now I was determined not to let it interfere with the expression of health in my death.  Vitalism had always told me that death is a natural part of life and has its own wisdom, just as life does.  In order to die a healthy death, I would not be one of those people who pull poison from a cigarette with her dying breath.  I would walk and be as active as my performance status allowed.  I would give my dying body the best foods in their most unprocessed state.  If doing all that allowed me to survive, it would be a gift.  But, I was more motivated by the desire to not interfere with the natural process of dying.  If my body’s life was designed to express health without interference, I trusted that death was designed the same way.

So, facing a terminal cancer diagnosis, I stopped smoking.  I’m told now by many ex-smokers that a terminal disease would be like a ticket to smoke again.  I’m told by current smokers that there is no way they could stop smoking under that kind of stress.  For me, the possibility of dying a healthy death finally congealed the vital health truth I’d always known but had been unable to live.

As a spectacularly slow learner, I salute each and every one of you who are able to live your lives free from self inflicted interference with your innately engendered health.   And to those of you who have come to your health through the side door, welcome.

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*Vital health” is a model of health care that includes modern vitalism or neo-vitalism, which Life University defines as the “…recognition that the universe itself is self-conscious and, as such, continually creates itself as a dynamic system wherein living organisms are self-developing, self-maintaining and self-healing.”

Post Script to the Prequel:  After several weeks, from Thanksgiving to the end of January, I underwent a multitude of doctor visits, tests, scans, consultations, culminating in surgery on February 5.  I had simultaneous thoracotomy (removing a lung tumor) and nephrectomy (removing the cancerous kidney).  Pathology showed that the lung tumor was benign, meaning my kidney cancer was not Stage 4 Renal Cell Carcinoma that had spread to my lung, as the doctors had thought.  It was actually Stage 1b and thankfully still confined to the kidney.  I am starting on my eleventh year in remission – still trying to learn how to be so grateful for my life that I can be grateful for all its lessons, even death.

Post Post Script to the Prequel:  How is this about the Happy LIFE and the year of living positively?  Well, for one thing, after this experience, you’d think I’d be the most grateful person on the planet, wouldn’t you?  And, I believe that I was indeed thankful to God and every person who graced my life during that time.  Ten years later, a simple little program of “happy habits” has made it clear that gratitude cannot only be something that we feel; it must be something that we do.  One of the simplest actions of gratitude is to count our blessings and, by committing to writing down three of them each day, I learned how much richer my life could be.  And, just so you know, I count each person who reads this far as a blessing.  Thank you.

(Note:  This post, aside from the countless postscripts and notes, was adapted – only a little – from one of the “Vitalism Signs” columns I had the great privilege of writing for Today’s Chiropractic Lifestyles, a publication of Life University.)

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Prospective Mind

I’m thrilled to have had a fellow blogger, Jazmine at Prospective Mind, quote and comment on the Vitalism Signs column I posted in my Positively Happy blog.  Jazmine’s post also resulted in a “pingback,”  which,a s a new blogger (and an old broad), I have no clue what that means.  But, I’m pretty jazzed to know someone is reading my articles/posts and actually spring boarding of then with her own thoughts.

Here’s Jazmine’s post:

“Vital Positivity

by Jazmine

From :Vital Positivity.”

…it may be that no adaptive human behavior or condition will escape being classified as a disorder. I promise you, this is not going to get better as long as there are people out there who profit from selling us on the idea that we aren’t happy. We are creating a culture of people who believe that they are free to pursue happiness without knowing it’s going to take some work on their part to catch it. 

“It’s a very fine line between ‘positivity’ and ‘adaptivity’ and disregarding the seriousness of a disorder. Personally, I think the emphasis shouldn’t be on optimism or positive thinking, but rather a perspective grounded in the idea that change is possible. We do have a need to see our mental health as our responsibility, something that has been slowly fading over the years. I like that this article brings up the point of hard work, especially in a culture that is used to getting what we want when we want it. But we do have to be careful in how we display this message to those who suffer from mental illness. We don’t want to be handing over the blame, minimizing the pain, or putting them down, but it is of absolute necessity to obliterate the mindset that there is nothing we can do if we have a mental illness. Instead we should be asking what this illness and these symptoms mean for the individual and what recognizing these symptoms as a disorder means for our society.”

And here’s my reply:

Thank you, Jazmine, for reading my article and posting a quote from it in your post; I’m delighted about both.  You and I agree that it’s important to understand that each of us human beings has the ability to change our mental functioning if we’re willing to work at it.  And I agree with you that we don’t want to blame or minimize the pain of anyone suffering from mental illness.  

However, I’d like to also add that my fear is our healthcare system is all too quick to push everyone to the “middling ground” of average.  We may even be erring on the side of diagnosing quirkiness as mental illness.  After all, quirkiness is the inseparable twin of creativity and the inseparable twin of genius may be diagnosable mental illness. It’s just that the genius has the adaptability to really rock mental illness and make it work to produce great art. 

I fear that direct-to-consumer commoditization and promiscuous prescription of perfectly legal and prodigiously profitable mind-altering drugs make it all too easy to medicate away the pain and processing that is required for us to adapt as well as possible to the inevitable losses, disappointments, tragedies and injustices we’ll encounter in our lives. 

Yes, we should have compassion for those whose neurochemical make up makes it necessary for them to regulate their neurochemistry through pharmaceuticals.  Let’s make sure that we provide as much emotional support as possible and let’s pay enough attention to them to make sure medication is really necessary – and not a poor substitute for the very hard but very normal work needed to process.  And, let’s make damn sure we’re not just providing a manufactured customer base for the pharmaceutical industry.

Vital Positivity

If you’ve ever wanted to a) enter into extensive psychiatric or psychological therapy, b) get on some psychoactive drugs, c) be diagnosed as bad-moonshine-crazy, or d) all of the above, you may be interested in a career as one of the Desperate Housewives of Tootertown Trailer Park.  Or, you might try simply flipping through the soon to be released “DSM V,” the newest revision and fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for the mental health profession.  I’m pretty sure you won’t have to look too hard to find yourself in there somewhere.  I, myself, am mentioned on several pages, featured in one appendix and have been asked to play myself (and a host of all the other characters that live in my head) in the movie version.

Speaking of having more than one person living in your head, having multiple personalities (or, more correctly, dissociative identity disorder, aka “DID”), was once viewed strictly as an aberrant accident of brain chemistry.  Then, once more became known about DID, it became apparent that DID was actually an elegantly – though bizarrely – adaptive approach to enduring unspeakable abuse on the part of children who developed it.  This understanding of DID as an adaptive strategy may have been one of the seeds for the sea change that is happening in the field of psychology.  

The danger with the traditional view of psychology and the new diagnostic standards, though, lies in the fact that it appears intent on making mental health patients of everyone.  Are you feeling sad because you’ve you lost a loved one?  You could have a Major Depressive Disorder.  Is your three-year-old having a spell of pitching temper tantrums?  Could be Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder.  Careful.  You’re walking in treatment territory – the land of traditional psychiatric therapeutics, a condition-based landscape, which only provides views of symptoms to be treated, even in the most normal adaptive responses. 

That’s not to say that we can’t use some help with our psychological wellbeing.  Even though Americans and citizens of other “First World” countries have more material wealth (for now) than at any time in previous history, we are also less happy, more dissatisfied and suffer from depression in greater numbers.  Soon, if we continue to allow ourselves to be manipulated into dissatisfaction with what we should see as great good fortune, it may be that no adaptive human behavior or condition will escape being classified as a disorder.  I promise you, this is not going to get better as long as there are people out there who profit from selling us on the idea that we aren’t happy.  We are creating a culture of people who believe that they are free to pursue happiness without knowing it’s going to take some work on their part to catch it. 

Now, though, after thirty years in the making, the science of psychology is in the process of fully embracing what is essentially a vitalistic philosophy in the form of a field that’s going by the name of “positive psychology.”  Rather than focus on the constellation of pathological deviations that make up the universe of the human mind, positive psychology focuses on the idea that all human beings are creative, resourceful and whole – that we are innately endowed with everything we need to function optimally.  This is a powerfully different view of the psychological landscape.  It presumes that each of us is capable of our own insights toward solutions, adaptation and growth. 

The view of positive psychology also recognizes that the way we live in the world, as evolving and adapting beings navigating tremendous leaps of social and technological advancement, sometimes results in interference to our optimal functioning.  And, best of all, because positive psychology presumes that we are created to be mentally and emotionally healthy, it has concluded that there are specific steps we can take to remove interference to psychological health.  These steps are not magic or wishful thinking.  Positive psychology – or positivity – is not putting on a happy face or denying that we are experiencing psychological pain or distress or pretending to be happy when we’re not. 

Positivity, as a mindset, is the practice of choosing to see opportunities rather than, or perhaps within, threats.  Just as the vitalistic view of physical health allows us to see an earache as an opportunity for our immune systems to adapt and grow stronger, positivity allows us to see heartache as an opportunity for our psyches to adapt and become more resilient. 

The choice is ours.  The time is now.  Do we want to be a people who recognize that life isn’t always a bed of roses – but that we’re more likely to have roses when we do the work to turn the soil and prune the canes back to the ground?  We can choose to believe that even devastating loss can be overcome if we do the work to grieve and grow and become grateful for what the loss can teach us.  The alternative is to believe that every emotional setback creates a pill-shaped hole in our hearts. 

 

Note:  This is a “reprint” of my column, Vitalism Signs, found in the current issue of Today’s Chiropractic LifeStyles.