Redefining Power

I began writing my book, I’m Sick, Not Crazy: How I Took Control of My Health When Western Medicine Told Me it Was All In My Head, as a way to take my power back after an incredibly disempowering experience.  It seemed to me that if I could understand the story of my own debilitating physical illness, then I could reclaim the control over my body and mind that the medical system had taken from me.  Even better, I could help others to reclaim power and control over their own bodies.

When I became ill, I did what most people do.  I went to my doctor and explained my symptoms, expecting to get a diagnosis and a treatment plan.  Instead, what I received was a long series of dismissals from medical professionals.  They minimized my symptoms, insinuated that I was exaggerating, and told me that I was “probably just anxious.”  

By the end of a year and a half of severe illness, my energy to ask Western Medicine for help was utterly depleted.  I realized that I was just one small person, and that the medical system was vast and powerful, and my voice was simply too tiny to be heard.

Instead of giving up, however, I gathered my energy back to myself and began to find other ways to heal.  By taking my power back and seeking my own wellness, my own way, I saved my own life.

Unfortunately, many people going through similar situations don’t realize that they even have the option of reclaiming their own power, which is what I want to talk about today.

For centuries, power has been defined as having power over others; the might makes right philosophy.  Kingdoms were created where one person had ultimate power over others.  People with physical strength, or with superior weaponry or technology have subdued others in order to take resources from them.

Hierarchy can be found today in all areas of life.  In the corporations that we work for, where labor is underpaid in order to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few, and in governments that take from the people they govern, and give little back.  And, of course, in the medical system, which over-charges for care that is questionably helpful, and often leaves people bankrupt.

These hierarchies don’t work.  They concentrate wealth, resources, and authority in the hands of the few.  They define power as having power over others.

Yet, I believe that power is something very different.  I believe that power is found in all of the ways that people take control of themselves and their own futures.  And I believe that power is found in communities of equals who work together towards a common goal that is helpful and enriching to everyone.

When I realized that asking Western Medicine to save me wasn’t working, I had to re-evaluate.  I had to practice radical acceptance of the fact that my body was likely never going to be the same, and that mainstream sources of medical assistance weren’t going to help me.  I had to start researching other ways to get what I needed in order to get well, and I had to trust my own intuitive knowing that there are many ways to heal–not just the one that capitalism says is right.  I had to take my power back to myself and take charge of my own life and health.

There could be many ways that you are giving your power away.  You could be staying in a relationship that doesn’t serve you and will never give you the future that you want.  Possibly you’re working in a job that makes you feel unimportant and pays you less than you’re worth.  Perhaps you’re relying on a person, or a bureaucracy, to take care of you, your health, or your safety, and you’re finding that it isn’t actually working out the way you’d hoped.

Consider, are there ways that I could take my power back?  Are there ways that I’ve been giving my power away that aren’t serving me?  Is it possible to move away from hierarchy and toward equality and community?

After asking myself these questions about my interactions with Western Medicine, I decided that there were ways that I could take control, take my power back, and make myself whole again.

The first thing that I did was join a yoga studio, and I will forever maintain that this move saved my life.  By joining a community of wellness seekers that accepted my body in all of its brokenness and make me feel acceptable, and then showed me how I could still move my body in ways that felt good, I began the process of taking my power back and moving toward healing.

As I slowly began to regain my physical strength, the strength of my mind and heart began to grow as well.  I became a seeker of wellness in my own right, and the doors slowly opened.  After yoga, massage became part of my healthcare routine, and the stuck and stagnant parts of my body began to move and soften.  Then acupuncture and craniosacral therapy became pieces of my healthcare puzzle.

I know that my body will never be like it was before my illness, and that I will always need to work to maintain my health.  However, I am thrilled to be able to tell you that by taking back my power over my own body and healing, I succeeded in creating a body that works.  

Not only am I well enough to function, but I thrive.  People laugh at how much energy I have to be productive, and they joke that I accomplish as much as two or three people usually do.  They’re right, and it’s because I embody my own power now.  I don’t wait for permission.  I decide what is right for me, and I go after it.  I trust myself.

If you’ve given away your power, taking it back is a process, but awareness is the first step.  Once you’re aware, you can start to make moves away from the old definition of power-over, and towards the new definition of power-within-yourself, and power-in-community.  

Rather than calling you out, I’m calling you in to a new way of being with yourself and those around you, and I support you in every step of the journey.

An Interview with Heather Fenwick, Acupuncturist

In addition to this blog, I’ve been working on an “I’m Sick, Not Crazy” podcast, and I did my first podcast interview via Skype on this past Thursday with Heather Fenwick, who specializes in acupuncture and Chinese Medicine.  The interview was fascinating, and I thought that I would transcribe it so that I could share it in writing as well as video format.  After about 5 hours and 16 pages of transcription, I realized that was a mistake, and I decided to just share a few highlights here with you.  To view the entire interview, please check out my podcast, which is available on iTunes, YouTube or my website http://www.jenniferjames-author.com.

First, I asked Heather to give an overview of how acupuncture works to facilitate healing in the body.  Here’s some of her answer:

Heather: Basically, the needles are inserted in a spot that has a little more conductivity to the brain.  There’s nothing in the needles.  So, it’s just a little signal that says to the brain, ‘Hey!  We need a little more help over here.’  There are certain times where there is too much stagnation we call it in Chinese Medicine.  A stuckness, or a tightness of a muscle is a stagnation, for example.  Often times a needle in that point will just say, ‘Hey, release the stagnation.  Things need to flow through here.’ Heather:

In other cases, we would call a deficiency, where there is not enough energy, not enough chi, not enough blood flow in Western Medical Terms.  A needle in that point would say, ‘Hey.  We need a little more neuron firing.  We need a little bit more circulation to this area.

And the brain figures it out.  The body is healing itself.  It’s crazy to wrap your head around everything that your brain can do.  The needles are just there to sort of tap the brain on the shoulder, and say, ‘Excuse me, Brain, we’re here.  We just need a little bit of help over here,’ and then the brain has infinite organizing power to just figure it out and fix it.  Your body fixes itself.

I love that Heather’s answer fits in with the purpose of my work, which is to help you learn how to take control of your own health and healing.  Using acupuncture, you can get your body’s energy flowing properly, so that you can heal yourself.  How marvelous!

When I asked her about cases that she’s worked on that illustrate how acupuncture can effect healing, she gave this example:

Heather: I’ve had a lot of people with physical pain in the body.  Low back pain that is debilitating, and now they can totally function.  I had one patient who had a pretty severe case of scoliosis, and she’d say ‘I ate ibuprofen.  I ate, like, nine ibuprofen yesterday.’  And then she just can’t even stand up.  So, she could just barely drive herself to the clinic. And I’gave her a treatment.  She left and she said, ‘I feel a little bit better, and then two days later she’s like, ‘I feel amazing.  I don’t know what you did, but I’m back to 100%.’

Every now and then I’ll have somebody who comes in and I’ll say, OK.  It’s going to take 4 to 6 treatments and then we’ll re-assess.  And every now and again, somebody’s like, ‘Oh yeah, the insomnia’s totally gone after one treatment.  I’m fine.  My anxiety level is perfect. I don’t wake up feeling foggy headed.’  So, every now and again, I’m surprised at how well and how quickly the medicine works, but it totally depends on the person and a case by case basis, but, yeah, those are the good moments, for sure.

Although it is the exception to the rule, it’s amazing to think that one treatment could make such a huge shift in someone’s health in some cases.  Even the more normal 4 to 6 sessions to reduce low back pain, which is extremely common and difficult to treat using Western Medicine, is a gift.

Then, I asked her a question I’ve always wondered as an acupuncture patient.  What is it that the acupuncturist learns from looking at my tongue?  The answer is fascinating.

Heather: So we look at the color of the tongue.  If it’s more purpley, that’s a stagnation.  Like a bruise, right?  A bruise is considered blood stagnation.  So purple will point toward blood stagnation.  Red is heat.  The tongue can be divided into anterior, middle and posterior, like front, middle and back thirds.  So, the front third is the upper part of the torso, heart and lung.  If it’s red, that points toward heart heat or lung heat.  The middle of the tongue is the stomach, the digestive organs.  While the sides of the tongue point towards liver and gallbladder.  The very back of the tongue points towards kidney and urinary bladder.  We look at the different parts of the tongue to show us these different organ systems.

The tongue is really cool because if you want to know what’s going on inside of the body, look at what’s coming out of the body.  And the tongue is both an internal and an external organ.

It had never occurred to me before, but she’s right.  The tongue is both internal and external at the same time.

For my next question, I asked her how she sees acupuncture fitting into a well-rounded healthcare regimen, and with Western Medicine.

Heather: Western Medicine can be very good for things that Chinese Medicine is just not good for.  If you break your arm and have a compound fracture where your bone is sticking out of your arm, then don’t come see me.

If you have stage 4 cancer, I can help with the effects of radiation and chemotherapy, but at that point, I think it’s best to go to the Western Medical model.  Obviously, I see some limitation in the Western Medicine model, in that they basically wait until it’s too late to try to treat something.  So, it’s always a band-aid kind of a treatment.

For the preventative side of it, obviously, the acupuncture is best.  If we’re doing preventative medicine at the onset, at the beginning of your low back pain, you start seeing an acupuncturist, and you start doing yoga, getting the corrective exercises, then 10 years down the road you’re not that candidate for low back pain.

I very much see them as integrated medicines.  Integrated, as in, they braid together.  The hospitals in China have acupuncture in the hospitals.  People who get chemotherapy get the chemotherapy in one arm, and Chinese herbs on the other arm. So, they can reduce their nausea and their low energy, and it’s very, very effective.  I would love to see Chinese herbs administered intravenously in the hospitals here, and we are gaining some traction for studies that they do and things that they can treat.

But there are certain things, like IBS, that a lot of people suffer from . . . Western Medicine is pretty clueless about what causes that. And, in Chinese Medicine, we have a theory for what causes it.  It’s liver overacting on spleen, and we know how to treat it very, very effectively.

This image of a chemotherapy patient receiving simultaneous infusions of chemo and Chinese herbs is so wonderful.  It gives me hope to think that these two very different types of treatment can be wedded together to create a more holistic and more effective approach to healing.  The knowledge that acupuncture is effective for IBS is extremely helpful as well.  I get a lot of IBS patients referred to psychotherapy because doctors feel that it is a psychological illness.  Unfortunately, treating IBS with psychotherapy hasn’t proven very effective, in my experience.  In the future, I’ll refer these patients to acupuncture.

After this, Heather and I discussed the importance of self-care, self-love, and seeing oneself as inherently worthy.  She told this wonderful story about the Dalai Lama:

Heather: There’s a story about the Dalai Lama. He had been coming to this science of mind meeting, with like, neuroscientists, or neurologists.  I don’t know.  Brains.  Really smart people, at like MIT.  They started to talk about self-esteem and how that leads to different issues, and he was, like, ‘Hey, can we time out for a second?’  And he went back and forth with a translator for a while about the concept of self-esteem because in the Tibetan language, and the Tibetan way of thinking, they don’t have a concept of self-esteem because every single life is a precious human life.  Every single one.

And so, you could see he was really confused, and he was like, ‘Well, how many—do lots of people suffer from low self-esteem?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.  This is a thing.’  And he was like, ‘Well, how many people in this room suffer from low self-esteem?’ And, like, everybody raised their hand, and he was shocked.  The idea of having low self-esteem was shocking to him.  And he’s not conceited at all.  He’s the most humble human being on the planet.

It’s nice to take a step back and see the things that are just ingrained [like the concept of low self-esteem].  It’s like we’re swimming in this water, and then, hold on a second. What about this water?

If you would like more information about acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, Heather recommends the book The Web That Has No Weaver by Ted Kaptchuck.  She also, quite generously, offers herself as a resource.  She says that you can feel free to contact her at her website, http://www.recoveringgypsy.com, and send her a message through the link to request an appointment.

How My Illness Began

Like the rest of my personality and life, my illness was outside of the proverbial box, and I had difficulty explaining what had happened to me when I was seeking help from medical professionals. Part of the difficulty was due to the cognitive effects of the injury that I sustained, and another part was due to the pure strangeness of the circumstance. Whenever I said that I had a whiplash injury, people would assume that I had been in a car accident. When I said that I’d sustained the injury while dancing, people would dismiss me as overreacting to a minor injury. I actually had several medical professionals laugh.

Since I’m writing this blog in support of the book I’m writing, I’m Sick, Not Crazy: How I Took Control of My Health When Western Medicine Told Me it Was All in My Head, I think it’s important that you understand the injury that kicked off my illness, so here’s the description from chapter one of my book (names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent):

The night it happened, Michael, who organized the events, asked me to dance.  I was a little bit surprised.  My relationship with Michael had been awkward, for reasons that I didn’t fully understand, and for months he hadn’t asked to dance with me.  He was highly experienced, so he was fun and exciting to dance with, throwing in moves that I hadn’t been led into before.  Our dance started out fun and easy, and I relaxed into his practiced lead.  Then, to my complete surprise and chagrin, he grabbed my ribcage under my armpits with both his hands, and forcibly flung my upper body backward into a dip.  

As my spine curved as deeply as my body would allow, my head flung in an arc.  Having trusted Michael to lead me with respect, I wasn’t guarding myself, so my body was warm and pliable.  Mid-forced-dip, I did my best to flex my muscles and protect my body, but it was too late.  Michael abruptly pulled my body back up and out of the backbend.  Centrifugal force had its way, and my head continued backward as the rest of me was pulled upward, and my neck made a loud CRACK sound and stretched out from my shoulders like a slinky with a bowling ball stuck on the end.  Something at the base of my skull, on the left-hand side, seemed to become loose and squishy.  Wow, I thought, that felt really weird.  After what seemed like forever, my head caught back up with my body and I stood upright in front Michael, dazed.  

He grinned and said, “I know you like it rough like that.” 

What?

I frowned at him.  He didn’t seem to notice my distress at all, and just kept leading with a self-satisfied look on his face.  Shocked into silence, I unenthusiastically kept following his lead, waiting for the song to end so I could get away without a public confrontation.  When the song ended, and Michael let me go, I was relieved.  I sat down, shaken; taking stock of my body. Rolling my neck from side to side, checking the range of motion, and moving my limbs around told me that my neck wasn’t broken.  I told myself that meant I was OK, and I got up and got back into the dance.

            In the morning, concerned for my own wellbeing after the dipping incident of the night before, I went to Urgent Care.  The doctor took X-Rays and told me that everything looked fine.  No lasting damage.  Relieved that it wasn’t more serious, I resolved not to dance with Michael anymore, and mentally planned to get back into my regular routine. 

That night, I woke up a few hours after falling asleep and vomited until the sun came up.  Over the next few weeks, things steadily got worse.  There were days where I felt mostly normal, and days when I felt like I had been filled with poison and couldn’t see or think straight, and the worst was the nights spent on the bathroom floor vomiting into the toilet.  Never having sustained an injury that didn’t readily heal before, I thought that if I waited it out, I would start to feel better.  

            With the attitude that this was all quite temporary, but that I should get looked at anyway, I decided to go and see my own primary care physician, Dr. Benavides, and explained to her the injury that I had sustained and how I was having so many problems afterward.  I felt certain that she would know what to do.  All of my experience of the medical system before this had shown that they would be able to help me when things got rough.  

When I had pneumonia and was so weak that I couldn’t make a fist, there were antibiotics.  When I had labyrinthitis and was so dizzy that I had to crawl back and forth from bed to the bathroom until it cleared up, the doctors had known what it was and what to do.  I had even been hospitalized a couple of times, but the doctors had been able to diagnose and treat my symptoms effectively.  In my mind, I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Western medicine. 

            Dr. Benavides listened to my story and then had me put my arms out straight ahead of me and resist her while she pushed down.  She said that it seemed that my body was stable, and she wanted me to engage in physical therapy.  She made the referral and I started seeing David, a physical therapist, a couple of times per week.  He was tall and thin, with the coolest hands I’ve ever encountered, which felt delicious when he worked on my neck.  The poor man spent an inordinate amount of time working in my armpit, and he kept telling me to place my hands on either side of open doorways and then stretch my arms open against them to open up my chest.  He said, “I don’t think you could do too much of that.”  I did the exercises he prescribed religiously, but things only got worse.            

My buttocks were extremely sore for several weeks, to the point that I had to buy a cushion for my seat at work and sitting down after standing was so painful that it I groaned.  I started to have a sensation of strangling across the front of my neck.  It felt like I was slowly being garroted all of the time, and sometimes I felt I could hardly breathe.  There was numbness and tingling in my forearms and pins and needles in the back of my neck.  My head felt unstable on my neck like my muscles were suddenly too weak to hold it up.  I was frightened.

From I’m Sick, Not Crazy by Jennifer James

Things only deteriorated from there. It’s still not clear exactly what happened inside of my body, although I have some theories. Diagnoses ranged from brain cancer to occipital neuralgia to multiple sclerosis as I went through multiple medical tests to try to find out what was wrong with me and how to treat the problem. The testing process was traumatic, and didn’t ever give a definitive diagnosis. Eventually, I had to accept that my body was never going to be quite the same, and start looking for ways to minimize the impact of the injury on my life, and maximize my ability to live.

As it turned out, Western Medicine didn’t have the answers I needed, and it wasn’t until an inspired neurologist suggested that I start practicing yoga that I actually began to heal. My book describes the descent into illness, and how I managed to pull myself out of the hole through alternative treatments. I believe that those of us with outside of the box illnesses don’t have to rely on a medical system that doesn’t know what to do with us, and often blames us for what we are going through. We can take control of our own healing and move toward wellness through multiple avenues. It can take some trial and error to find what works for you, but I encourage you to explore, and yoga is a great place to start, especially for physical injuries.