In my work as a clinical assistant at a naturopathic medical practice, I interact with lots of people every day. Many of them share their stories with me as I help them prepare for treatments with the clinicians. I’ve heard about countless experiences, but one woman’s story in particular has stuck with me for quite some time: the story of her near-fatal brain hemorrhage, her unpredictable recovery, and the powerful lesson she took from it all.
I will admit, I was overwhelmed when she first described her experience dealing with the early stages of a subarachnoid hemorrhage from a burst blood vessel in her brain. “It was like a gunshot at the back of my head,” she explained, “The sensation came forward to the front of my skull and my world turned upside down. And I thought, ‘This is it. I’m dying.’” She told me of the day it happened and of the chain of serendipitous events that led to her receiving the critical treatment that she needed to survive. She turned out to be part of the small percentage of people who have survived that particular type of hemorrhage with good recovery and little-to-no permanent neurological impairment. She said that her neurologist was astounded throughout her recovery.
But what impressed itself upon me most about her story was not just her survival, but how she was changed by it. I asked her if she was a busy person before the event; to which she replied, “stupid busy.” She described her pre-hemorrhage life as one full of worry and incessant people-pleasing. She was on medication to bring down her blood pressure and to regulate her sleep and blood sugar levels. She was also constantly stressed and anxious about her family, career, side projects, and obligations to others. One day, her body’s coping mechanisms became overwhelmed by all the stress and she was sent a serious message to slow down by way of a trip in the ambulance to the ICU.
Hearing her talk about receiving an important message from her body reminded me of Dr. Gabor Maté’s work. In his book When the Body Says No, he talks about how the body gives us signs to slow down – such as colds, flus, pain, and small injuries – when we are experiencing excess stress. Eventually, he says, if we do not heed these cautionary messages and can no longer withstand the stress, the body stops it for us through much more serious interventions. This excess stress can be physical, emotional or even spiritual. But the good news is that if we are able to learn to say no to unneeded stress, we can start to heal the less serious illnesses and even prevent more serious ones.
“There was incalculable stress in many forms in my life before,” she said. “I was doing things without considering myself and I was getting sick all the time, not sleeping. And now I just don’t do any of that. I don’t see people I don’t like or commit to things that unduly pressure me. And I don’t feel guilty because I could be dead. It’s as simple as that”.
A particular feeling welled up inside of me as I said goodbye after her treatment, and I will call it inspiration. What she said was right. We could all be dead; it’s as simple as that. Life has no guarantees for us yet we mistakenly put up with the physical, emotional and spiritual stress of today for the promise of an improved tomorrow.
Instead, we can become more attentive to our own bodies. What are our patterns of health, sickness, coping, and stress? How can we notice the small signs the body is sending us? How can respect its messages? It is a powerful and beautiful skill that we can cultivate with practice and patience. And we can start today, wherever we are and however we can, because eventually, it could save our lives.
*This article was printed with the permission of the patient.
Lachlan is a student of natural medicine at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine and a prospective student of contemplative psychotherapy at the Institute for Traditional Medicine in Toronto. She combines her learning from both alternative medicine and buddhist-influenced psychotherapy to develop a new way to address mental health concerns in a truly holistic way- with mind, body and spirit. Her professional interest blossomed out of her own struggles with depression and anxiety, helped greatly by her practices in meditation and ecstatic dance. Lachlan is a spirit, a writer and a traveler who loves the smell of Nag Champa.
For more info on Naturopathic Medicine and Contemplative Psychotherapy, see
Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine http://www.ccnm.edu/
Institute for Traditional Medicine http://itmworld.org/?page_id=275