Painful Holidays

We are just past the mid-point of January.  I am finally prepared to talk about the reality of chronic illness and how much worse the Christmas and New Year holidays make it.

I have to admit, the idea of family, friendship, giving and receiving, feasting, good will, and gratitude are very appealing.  And why shouldn’t they be?  Yet, it isn’t difficult to see that most people’s holidays have heavy doses of dysfunction in one or more of those areas.

I, for one do not have a family anymore.  It is hard to see others together and not to be a part of it.

Even those of you who have a family and supports may feel lonelier during the season.  

Some of the obstacles facing those of us with a chronic illness include basic mobility, travel, sitting at a dinner table for a length of time, medication side effects, gastrointestinal issues, alcohol, and so forth.

Many times, a family member or friend will try to include us.  This is well intentioned, usually.  The difficulty is that we often become the focus of unwanted attention.  Possibly it gets worse, with the peanut gallery chatting us up about the “cure” that worked for their “friend”.  

Also, who wants to spend a holiday event fielding questions, some of which are very personal.  We aren’t showing up to give a medical seminar, are we?

Travelling, even just around town can be nearly impossible if you have mobility issues.  Pain and inflammation can be a source of tears and fatigue.  I’m so thankful for online shopping.

Eating during the holidays usually means a deviation from our normal diets.  This can lead to flares in multiple conditions.  What should be a treat turns into a sleepless night and embarrassing discomfort.

New Years is characterized by alcohol consumption.  Many medications react badly when mixed with booze.  Pain medications can become deadly if mixed.  And yet, maybe we remember the years before we got sick and the fun we had.  There can be a lot of grieving.  We grieve for a life or an ability that we have lost.

As for my holiday, it was everything you’d hope for.  I was in the hospital and had two surgeries.  I cried as I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink pre-op on Christmas Eve.  The hospital sucks, but it’s worse on significant days.

So what is my mindful solution to the holiday predicament?  Simply, try not to drown.  Now is not the time to try to swim across the channel.  Rather, meet your minimums and stay afloat. 

You may have to decline certain invitations.  You may have to take more medications.  You may have to spend extra energy to prepare body and mind for other people or “that relative”.  You may have to feel lonely and cry into your hospital pillow.  It sure was unpleasant but the point is that I did what I could to not drown and see the other side of the holiday madness.

Mindfulness means we accept what comes and do what we can or not do what we cannot based on the present moment.

Can you relate?  Tell me your story!


The Case Study of Mister Woo

First, a story.


Mister Woo is a 45 year old male.  Three years ago he was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.

Woo had lived a moderately healthy lifestyle.  He had gone to the gym twice a week, ate broccoli and two portions of fish a week, and subscribed to Men’s Health magazine.

Since his diagnosis of an autoimmune disease, Mr. Woo has upped his exercise routine to everyday, though he feels more tired and needs pain medication to get through just a few hours of his schedule.

He has done a juice fast, consulted experts in naturopathy, acupuncture, Reiki, as well as allelopathic surgeons, though he gave up his health benefits when he quit his job.

He no longer reads Men’s Health but instead spends his days logged into a chatroom for persons with his autoimmune condition and shares links from a huge bookmarks folder he adds to from obsessive Google searches.

Mr. Woo has given up his dream to go on a month long photo-history journey throughout the Netherlands.  He is now planning a trip to a research hospital in Detroit to participate in new clinical trials.

Mr. Woo has started suffering marital problems because he doesn’t share his thoughts and feelings with his partner.  His partner complains that Mr. Woo no longer acts and talks like a regular person but is a walking encyclopedia of his disease.

Woo admits that he becomes mired in debates about diets and supplements.  For all Mr. Woo has tried, his condition has not improved very much.

Today he was diagnosed with clinical depression and required to give up his hunting rifles because he’s been making suicidal threats and gestures.

Mr. Woo is taking a break.  He voluntary admitted himself to a psychiatric inpatient program.

He feels resentful toward his wife and brother who suggested that there was more going on than just his autoimmune troubles.  His wife cries into the shoulder of another man as she feels rejected for trying to help and wishes that Woo would stop yelling at her that she doesn’t understand anything about his condition.  She feels guilty for wanting to go out with her friends and for not having a chronic illness.  She is entertaining the idea of separation.

Mr. Woo’s brother visits him once in the hospital.  He offers Mr. Woo some extra accounting work for his business and wants to take Mr. Woo on a meditation retreat for 3 weeks.  Mr. Woo grudgingly accepts the work but laughs at the idea to go for any type of retreat without the risk of a guaranteed benefit.  He claims that he failed at yoga, “just like everything else”, and that he has the perfect treatment plan mixing biologic pharmacotherapy with a diet infused with Turmeric (which he has bulk ordered from Amazon) and juices made from raw green vegetables only.

Mr. Woo attends a multidisciplinary team session with his psychiatrist, his specialist, a dietician, and his wife.  Mr. Woo walks out of the session and discharges himself from the hospital.  He shouts at everyone in the meeting that they do not care about helping him and that their ideas will make him worse and that his wife needs to cut out her moaning, and no he won’t do couple’s therapy.

Upon leaving the hospital, Mr. Woo checks himself into a motel.  His funds are dwindling as he sits on the edge of the bed washing back narcotic pain medication with a bottle of whiskey.

Mr. Woo is discovered dead by the housekeeper the next day.  It doesn’t appear to be a suicide per se.  It appears that he just wanted pain relief and had been hiding misuse of his medication, pain medication bought illegally, and engaging in binge drinking.  Everything in his system had caused him to stop breathing in the night.

Mr. Woo is cremated.  Two years later his brother marries his widow.  The life insurance company is refusing to pay out.  His former partner has discovered over $26,000 in credit card debt.  Still, every year she runs in a 5 k marathon to raise money for the autoimmune disease research charity.

Mr. Woo died before his four year old son could get to know him.


What the heck was that?!

The above story is meant to be fantastical and is just a piece of fiction.  Yet, I can imagine that most of you have known someone or heard of these similar fates before.  And, maybe, you can see ways that you are like Mr. Woo or perhaps his brother or his wife or his young son.

The point isn’t that we hear a story and we judge Mr. Woo.  The point isn’t that chronic illness and disease are relationship killers or precursors to addiction and suicide.  The point isn’t that natural treatments or conventional treatments are somehow better or worse than another.  The point is not that a meditation retreat would have saved Mr. Woo.  No, none of those make an intended point..

The point I take away from this story is that we, by default, want someone or something to blame.  And yet, that isn’t helpful no matter which person’s shoes you decide to try on.  Maybe, the point is that many little things can build up.  And they usually do.  But, instead of obsession, rumination, and trying to do it right, we come to face that acceptance is the only tangible control we have.

Life isn’t an easy journey.  Chronic illness, be it mental or physical or both, poses many complicated dilemmas that further make life unpleasant and complex.  But I’m here to tell you that, at any point, accepting THIS moment and not taking it too seriously is likely the most positive thing you can do.  I know it’s true for me.



Do What Needs Doing, Then Let it Go

Hello friends!

It has been a little while since I’ve posted.  I was away for surgery.  It was an opportunity to use mindfulness practice.  Hospitals, medications, and pain are not places and things that naturally co-exist with peace.  Yet, they are full of wealth in terms of learning peace.

According to Eckhart Tolle, sharp and acute pain can be a moment of pure presence.  The shrieks I involuntary made as the doctor stabbed the needle into my knee cap without warning proved this to be true.  Yet, it is often accompanied by the grinding misery of suffering.  Suffering is the story about our pain.  Sometimes we want to have our story validated.  We want to get a hug, a get well card, or a pill.  There is nothing wrong with that.  But, there are points when we need to quiet the suffering and find the true nature around us.

What might you replace it with?  My most recent experience showed me the power of watching and counting my breath.  It is one of the fundamentals of all other forms of meditation.  What else worked for me?  Metta meditation, which I will write a post about in the future.  In brief, Metta is fixing your attention on total strangers and wishing them, “May you be well; May you be happy; May you be filled with loving kindness.”  It is powerful in opening your heart and directing your intention.  The focus is off the “little me” and on to the rest of the world and our connectedness with it.

As I recover at home it is easy to feel overwhelmed.  I am reminding myself to “Do what needs doing, then let go.”  There can be a lot of things to juggle in recovery.  There are follow-up appointments, calls to receptionists, blood tests, filling prescriptions, a whole lot of social media, my kitchen counters, and so forth.

It is easy to lose mindfulness in facing this laundry list of tasks.  My reminder is that it is only necessary to do what is necessary in this present moment (say making one call about an appointment) and afterward I do that, it is graceful to let it go.  To return to rest and inner quiet after doing “the thing” is a central part of mindful practice.  Recovery asks and how we answer can mean an easier and happier experience!




I hope you are well!