Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Life's Path

Life doesn’t usually turn out as planned. We start out our adult lives with the heady idea that we can do what we want, make our own choices and find our place in the world beyond. Some know right away what their passion is and follow it doggedly; others wander along, often making a few wrong turns before they find a path that feels right. Of course, there is never a truly “wrong” way, because every path we take offers a learning experience. It’s what we do with those experiences that counts.

Even the most predictable path includes roots that trip up the traveller. Some of these trip-ups don’t hinder much, but others can truly stop us in our tracks so that we just can’t continue the way we were going. When we’re stopped long enough we often feel we’re losing our way completely and we might never get "on-track" again. This loss of bearings is a signal that we should pay close attention, because a possible fork in the path might lie just ahead, a fork requiring fresh consideration.

I experienced this kind of trip-up when I was diagnosed with a chronic illness. I thought that I wouldn’t be hindered by it, but I soon discovered that this diagnosis created a fork for me.
My illness, Crohn’s disease, is mostly invisible. Only those that spend time with me on a day-to-day basis can attest to its effect on my health. I was diagnosed twenty years ago, after almost eight months of debilitating intestinal uncertainty. The diagnosis, then, came somewhat as a relief: there’s a name for my problem. And they have drugs to treat it. I decided to be stalwart and not wallow in self-pity. That choice was not a considered one: I was simply wanting my life to get back to normal.

But I soon discovered that these drugs that were effective at controlling my intestinal problems caused me all kinds of other symptoms, which were even more debilitating than the first ones. I felt as if I had a severe flu, with achey joints, a ridiculously pounding headache that intensified with movement and total lethargy. The dosage was lowered and lowered and I was able to cope; but then the gastroenterologist said that the dosage was so low that it probably wasn’t doing much, so he put me on another medication, more specific to the ileum—the part of my intestinal tract that was damaged. I was taking the second drug for not even a month when I had a Crohn’s flare-up and was spending most of my day in a bathroom. I also lost five pounds in two days, and I was already underweight by about twenty pounds.

Another drug, an anti-inflammatory, was prescribed by my family doctor, but only for a few months  due to its harmful effect on the liver, bones and teeth. My intestinal problem improved, and I got high from the initial adrenal rush that the drug caused. I was racing around, completing chores and projects that had been too difficult to accomplish for months, if not years. That “high” dropped off as the dosage was lowered, and I settled into a more normal range of activity while also experiencing internal bleeding and intense abdominal pains throughout the day.

Because of the bleeding, iron was prescribed by my GI doctor. I was finding that all the pill taking was quite a routine; I had to plan for them throughout the day, dependent upon meals and so on. The second daily dose of the specific Crohn’s medication could only be fit in just before bedtime. This was fortuitous, when I realized one night while waiting to fall asleep that the abdominal pain began twenty minutes after taking that pill. The next day I didn’t take the morning dose and had only one or two of the pains. I didn't take the evening dose either, and the following day had no pain. I never took that medication again. (I also did not return to the GI specialist who had prescribed it.)

When the course of the anti-inflammatory medication ended, I was doing better, but I knew I needed to take control of my health. I did research on the effectiveness of dietary change on Crohn’s disease. I talked to other sufferers and learned what diets they had tried. I visited a naturopathic and homeopathic practitioner and followed his recommendations after his allergy test: no dairy or wheat, tea or chocolate (I had mighty trouble omitting the last two, but I did to start with).

Most importantly, I allowed myself the time to process my new reality. I hadn’t done that previously; I had said, “This disease will not affect me,” and carried on. The truth was, it had been affecting me for months, and it was going to affect me for the rest of my life. I could either pay attention to this fact and find effective ways to cope with it, or be constantly dealing with an unpredictable set of symptoms.

My analysis opened up a whole new path to me. Through therapy and copious reading of psychology books, I came to understand how I hadn’t been mindful of my inner state. I could see how I had internalized any negative emotion I'd previously felt, and it literally “ate” at my insides. I had not set boundaries or been proactive either. My body literally forced me to finally become aware. My new mindfulness was an awakening for me, but a death to the life I had created to then.  I soon realized that I was at another crossroads, a place where the road forks.

Every life path will come to such a fork, sooner or later. This is the place where we must make a choice and be true to ourselves. Afterall, our paths are our own—no one else shares them. They may accompany us while they travel their paths, but in the end we are the ones that know every step of the way. We all need time to make a choice when we discover a fork. We might have to take a completely unknown path, and risk losing some travelling companions who don’t accept this decision. Or we might go with the path that seems more worn, because it’s the accepted path to take, and taking it won’t upset anyone. We will no doubt need support for our choice once it’s made, because none of us is travelling totally alone—we all have connections to others that sustain us and help us grow. 

I have followed a fork that veered away from my former path. It wasn’t an easy choice; it was probably the most difficult choice of my life, because it affected my family, especially my children. But it was the healthiest route to take at the time, and because the decision was my own, I am able to live with it peaceably. Although my health crisis precipitated my new path, I’m sure that I would have discovered another similar fork without that provocation, sooner or later.  I needed to stop and take stock of where I’d been and where I was going. Through my analysis I discovered—and continue to discover—truths about myself: my strengths and weaknesses. This knowledge continues to change, just as my life path does. The one thing I do know is, whatever choice I make along the way, I am the one who must follow the course I choose, wherever that takes me. 

Respect your life's path; you are the one who must walk it to its end, so take care and pay attention to the roots along the way.