Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Any Day above Ground: After Recovery, What Then?

Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Any Day above Ground: After Recovery, What Then?

Article excerpt

Any Day Above Ground After recovery, what then? By David Treadway

Each day, all summer, I'd set out in my nine-and-half-foot, lime-green tub of a boat called, incongruously, Typhoon. Once past the harbor breakwater, I was at sea. I steered my bow through the swells toward the endless horizon.

I'd spend the day sailing out of sight of land, luxuriating in the feel of wind, sail, and boat; the gurgle of the bow wave, the gentle rocking motion. I'd while away countless hours imagining brave voyages and high adventures to all the distant ports that lay beyond. My possibilities seemed as boundless and infinite as the sea itself. "When I grow up I'll . . . ." Thoughts of my future soothed me like a mother's lullaby.

I was 9 years old, all alone, and felt completely safe. That was then. Now I'm here on this eight-day Buddhist retreat doing walking meditation. But I'm lost in childhood reverie rather than mindfully staying present to the sensation of each single step. Supposedly, I've been training my brain to obey the simple teachings: be in the moment, the future is now, the past is gone, breath by breath, just this--nothing next. I'm not very good at it, and it's the last day. But what I know is that this stab of discouragement isn't the real low-down truth: it's just another passing moment, a passing cloud obscuring the moon, the rustle of wind through the leaves. I smile. I love all the Buddhists' clichZs. Bumper-sticker wisdom works for me!

I've been working hard on integrating Buddhist teachings and meditation practice into my life for six years now. I have a luminescent teacher named Narayan, a sangha of experienced fellow practitioners, and a daily practice, and have been on several retreats. I've been committed to the path, as they say.

None of my spiritual practice prepared me for stage IV non-Hodgkins lymphoma, which turned my life upside down two years ago. I was extremely sick and given a small chance to survive.

During the first year and half with cancer, I was assaulted by chemo, suspicious symptoms, and endless rounds of MRIs and PET scans. I tried to act brave and strong. Oddly enough, in the first weeks, I achieved my Buddhist ideal of living moment by moment with equanimity, acceptance, and gratitude. I spoke easily about the transformational power of illness, the gift of cancer. I thought I'd become enlightened. After all, Buddhism teaches that our sense of self is an illusion, and that nothing exists except the sensations of experience--that everything is impermanent and the key to happiness is simply a matter of accepting life as it is without trying to avoid pain or hold on to well-being. I thought I'd arrived. But in reality, in my first months of confronting the cancer, I was out of my mind, quite dissociative. Buddhism doesn't mean being detached, uncaring, disengaged.

Somehow during my illness, I stopped caring about my life. Not about the people I love--my wife, my sons, my friends, my clients. I just stopped caring about me. And like most trauma survivors, I didn't actually go through the experience of battling the cancer. I was a spectator--a kind of dead man walking. Inwardly, I said good-bye to my comforting vision of a bright tomorrow. Mine was just the opposite of Lance Armstrong's attitude: "I'm going to beat this thing!" I practiced surrender and prepared, as best I could, to die.

But I didn't.

Here I am--remarkably healthy (knock on wood), a walking miracle, and an emotional mess. In the nine months since I completed chemo and stopped having any kinds of symptoms, I've been a quivering mass of heart palpitations, jangled nerves, PTSD flashbacks, and deadly despair. People tell me how great I look, how good I sound. I want to punch their lights out.

I came to this retreat out of desperation. I'm here to learn how to live again, because I might be around for another 30 years. What the hell am I supposed to do with that? …

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