Mysterious Illness and Melting Ice

Ice slowing melting & refreezing in our pond (March 22, 2022)

I recently read Sarah Ramey’s memoir, The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness. Published just last year, it is described this way:

“In her harrowing, darkly funny, and unforgettable memoir, Sarah Ramey recounts the decade-long saga of how a seemingly minor illness in her senior year of college turned into a prolonged and elusive condition that destroyed her health but that doctors couldn’t diagnose or treat. Worse, as they failed to cure her, they hinted that her devastating symptoms were psychological. …Ramey’s pursuit of a diagnosis and cure for her own mysterious illness becomes a page-turning medical mystery that reveals a new understanding of today’s chronic illnesses as ecological in nature, driven by modern changes to the basic foundations of health, from the quality of our sleep, diet, and social connections to the state of our microbiomes.”

Book Jacket Cover

I haven’t experienced the horrifying stories she recounts with medical personnel, but I know others who have. I think it helped that I was usually drawn to alternative practitioners, though Sarah had her own horror stories with alternative practitioners. She finally found help with practitioners of Functional Medicine, and my own primary care nurse practitioner is aligned with that field. For that I am grateful.

I identified with the mysterious nature of auto-immune chronic conditions–when I reflected on it, I realized that they have been a part of my life for many years–most recently, Hashimoto’s thyroid disease, SIBO, adrenal fatigue, and borderline diabetes, but earlier in my life there was endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, and gradually developing multiple chemical sensitivities, and multiple food sensitivities. For most of my life, I managed to work and keep my balance, but it became more and more difficult. Finally, when I turned 65, and could access Social Security and Medicare, I retired from my work as a full-time minister.

I wondered at the time if being released from the stress of full-time work might bring me relief from the illnesses, but that was not to be the case. Instead, I was better able to manage living with the illnesses. But it is a delicate balance. If I eat well (for me that means no refined sugar, no gluten, low carb, lots of vegetables, and meat, while avoiding the list of specific foods that give me problems), if I rest when I am weary (which is spending some variable part of every day lying on the couch), if I take certain natural supplements (for example, I take Berberine, which has been shown to be as effective as Metformin for helping blood sugar balance), and if I don’t overdo it anywhere, well then, I have some energy to do things I love, to write, to garden a bit, to learn new things, even the miracle of building our little pond last year.

Sometimes, I can forget that I have these illnesses. Some days I wake in the morning rested and glad to greet a new day. I might have several hours to work on projects. I tend to get more weary and achy as the day goes by. And during these two years so far of COVID, I have been glad for the many opportunities that the world on Zoom provided. But then, something happens that upsets the balance, and I am sunk into a lower level of functioning, just barely able to cook my meals and take care of the basics. Most recently, I think that my body might have reacted badly to my second Shingrix vaccine. The last four weeks have been mostly couch weeks: reading books and watching British mysteries on Roku. I hope that I am emerging from that now. It is not easy to know what upsets the balance–all I can do is respond to it.

Because I am always asking questions about meaning, I appreciated the connection that Sarah Ramey made between our chronically ill bodies, and the larger ecology of the earth. I think about that too. I wonder if my own body is mirroring the afflictions of the earth I love, is somehow sensitive to the larger web–global warming, the prevalence of forever poisons, the loss of communal connections, the ecological balance which human beings have undermined. If that is the case, can I love my body as I love the earth? Can I grant her that self-care that has been neglected for too long?

One aspect that Sarah Ramey sees as critical is our need for human connection. I was reflecting on how for much of my life I made connection through activism, through shared work. I still feel the impulse to act for justice, in small ways, but there are less opportunities now for the connection that used to be a part of it. I have also felt more isolated since retiring, and, of course, since COVID. Maybe I need to learn something new–to nurture connection that is not at all about work or social justice, but about something more elementary. Can I be cherished, not for what I do, but for my being? Can I cherish others in this way? Can I also cherish myself in just this way? Perhaps it will require a kind of spring melting of some other kind of hidden ice. May it be so.

Hard to see, but there is a thin clear layer of ice on the surface of the pond this morning, but more of the winter ice is melting each day. March 26, 2022

Miracle of Ocean

Crescent Beach September

Yesterday late afternoon, with the weather up to 80 degrees, I went to Crescent Beach. Would it be the last day warm enough for me to go in the water? Maybe, maybe not. But without expectations, I set up my chair on the sand, and walked down to the edge of the water to feel the cold splashing on my feet. Its temperature was mildly cold not frigid, much warmer than early summer. There were a few more waves than usual. Only a small group of children were in the water, jumping into the waves as they broke on the shore.

I have become a bit timid about waves, as I have gotten older. The tide was low, and there were lots of round stones to walk over, so I came back to my chair and put on some swim shoes, so I’d have better balance. Then I walked back out and stepped right in. I moved quickly through the breaking waves and past them to about my waist level. The rhythms of the water rose up to my shoulders, and then back down, lifted me up and down, too, but gently. I dove into one wave to cover my head, but then I just stood facing the sea, watching the waves come in, letting them carry me up and down.

Here’s the amazing thing: after being in the water, the waves, for a long time, and then staying longer still, I began to be washed in a sense of joy and happiness. It felt miraculous because this whole past week, I had been feeling exhausted and achy–a classic flare up of the auto-immune conditions I struggle with. But somehow the water washed all of that away, and I was filled with a physical sense of well-being and playfulness.

When I go into the water, I usually pray to the Mother Ocean, I give her my worries and struggles. She is one kind of divine presence, larger than I can ever be, and the source of all life. But it wasn’t my small prayer that shifted me–it was the very energy and power of her presence all around me, it was the waves dancing with me, it was my body responding to the waves. It was unexpected.

Filled with this lovely happiness, when I came out of the water, I walked along the shore looking at stones and shells, and I found several pieces of sea glass. I love that the ocean can transform these broken bits of human invention into tokens of beauty. Since I have been thinking lately about the ancestors, it came to me that sea glass is a kind of gift from people who came before. I’ve read that it can take 20-40 years in the waves, sometimes longer, for glass to be tumbled to create this patina. So someone a long or short time ago made the glass, touched it, discarded it.  I am holding this connection, broken yet made whole again, and so I prayed for friends and family who needed healing.Seaglass

After my walk, I sat in my chair and ate some yogurt mixed with cocoa, honey, cacao nibs, and blueberries. I started reading the novel Barkskins by Annie Proulx, which begins with French settlers in Quebec taking down the forest. (Another way to try to understand colonization.)  Isn’t it a picture of happiness, to read in a chair on the beach, sun on my shoulders?

monarch catepillarOn my walk back to the car, one more fun surprise. This colorful monarch caterpillar on a milkweed plant just past the beach roses.

I wish I could share with you the happiness of being in the ocean, of walking on the shore finding sea glass, of reading on the beach on a September evening, of finding a monarch on a milkweed.

But the happiness was triggered by actually being in the ocean with its waves dancing me up and down. So if you are feeling timid about walking into the waves, whether literal or metaphorical, please know that on the other side little miracles might happen. Joy might find you.