I’m Responsible For My Own Suffering?!
The Beginning of Healthier Choices
In 1993 I jumped at the opportunity to be transferred back home to California. I loved the lush green of northern New Jersey where I lived for 6 years, but the humidity and the distance from my parents, old friends and the Pacific Ocean were too great.
Being back in southern California meant easier access to healthy options like yoga classes, organic produce, meditation centers and metaphysical bookstores. I rented a house with space for a vegetable garden and began to grow much of my own food. I experimented with vegetarianism, adopted a macrobiotic diet, and started meditating.
Although my MS symptoms continued to ebb and flow, I had a strong suspicion that what I ate and what I thought would make a difference in my health.
A “Great Physician”
At the time I had a boyfriend who introduced me to Zen Buddhism and the beauty of the Green Gulch Farm meditation community in Marin County. As often as I could, I joined him on Sundays in the barn-like zendo at Green Gulch and listened to wise words from monks in flowing robes. I loved that there was no dogma; it didn’t feel like religion with a capital “R” to me. It felt like a philosophy for wise living, and one I could embrace. And the tea and muffins in the courtyard afterward were heavenly.
One talk had a profound impact on me. The monk explained that Buddha was a “great physician” who sought to heal the world’s suffering. He then described the “4 Noble Truths” of Buddhism, saying:
“1. Life is filled with suffering. This is the diagnosis.”
“2. Suffering is caused by craving or ignorance. This is the cause.” Then he presented hope:
“3. Freedom from suffering is possible. This is the prognosis.” And,
“4. There is a path of 8 interconnected conditions you are responsible for: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. This is the prescription.”
This really blew, and then opened, my mind. I’m responsible for my own suffering?! But I didn’t bring on my MS! Or did I?
Seeking Meaning in the Metaphysical
At the urging of a dear family friend, I dug into the meaning behind my MS. What conditions in my life caused the MS to show up? This was a tough question and one that I was only able to fully answer after years of contemplation and growth.
My friend gave me Louise Hay’s Heal Your Body, a directory of physical illness and corresponding metaphysical explanations. Hay’s definition of traits leading to Multiple Sclerosis included: Mental hardness, hard-heartedness, iron will, inflexibility, and fear.
Stubborn? Sure, and maybe strong-willed. But “hard-hearted”? It didn’t resonate. Nor did “inflexibility” or “fear” — at least not then. Years later, as I became more self-aware I could finally admit to having those traits too.
Creating My Own Meaning
Since, at first I couldn’t fully embrace the traits Hay listed, I created my own explanation. My 1985 explanation of how I “invited” the MS into my life still rings true today:
Due to years of conflict in our home — Dad the yeller and verbal aggressor, Mom, for many years the victim who turned to food for comfort, and me, the not-going-to-take-anything-from-anybody-stand-up-to-my-dad-and-protect-my-mom child warrior — I was always primed for battle.
I began to see my immune system as a proxy for my mental hyper-vigilance. I believed it was always on, with its soldiers ready to defend and protect. If my immune system didn’t have a real battle to fight, it would create a fake one, even if that resulted in friendly fire, with me as the victim. My own soldiers were attacking my central nervous system because they needed to fight. I was, in fact, addicted to the stress response.
Looking back with 30 years’ experience, I can see why the MS emerged.
I was a good daughter and student, overeager to please my parents and teachers. I was encouraged and rewarded for getting A’s, knowing the right answer, and landing the lead in the school play. What I didn’t understand was the toll that striving for perfection took on me.
By high school I rebelled and partied as hard as I studied for my AP courses. I had a volatile relationship with my dad, with frequent stressful conflicts. I also had a sweet tooth with a particular fondness for apple fritters, cinnamon raisin bagels and grande nonfat lattes, sweetened with a pink or blue packaged artificial sweetener.
Today I know that the stress of people-pleasing perfectionism, alcohol binges, sleep-deprived nights, arguments, and sugar have much to do with disease development and perpetuation. With hindsight, it seems so clear — “Duh!”
But now I feel only compassion for that sweet girl who was trying so hard to get love.
It is little wonder to me now that my behavior created fertile ground for the MS to set up shop and stay for the duration. Until I understood that I could largely control the outcome of my health and wellbeing, and until I understood how to do it, I would experience many more MS flare-ups.
Now I’m curious about you. What insights have you had about what was happening in your life prior to your first autoimmune symptoms? Share your insights in the comments below.
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Take good care!
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