August 19, 2021

Mary Oliver’s Words Remind me that I am Responsible for Saving Myself.


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I like to believe that everything in my life has a purpose and every challenging experience carries with it a gift and an opportunity for healing.

This time, it showed up in the form of a new diagnosis of COPD.

It has been stalking me for a long time. I was diagnosed with asthma when I was four years old after the death of my beloved grandmother who was like a third parent.

Louise Hay and other transformational teachers say that lung issues are connected with unresolved grief.

Breath = Life. Without it, we cease to exist.

My lungs were strengthened when I was on a swim team from ages 11-18. I felt accomplished and not like the kid who couldn’t keep up at times.

My parents didn’t limit my activities and wanted me to feel like a “normal” kid. The only thing that made me different was regular doctor visits for allergy tests and injections and dietary changes (I was allergic to peanut butter, spinach, and rye bread) that blessedly, I grew out of.

When I would wake up with what my mother called croup, I would wheeze my way into my parents’ bedroom and my mother would accompany me into the bathroom and turn on the shower so I could breathe in the steam. It helped to open my bronchial tubes and ease the barking seal cough. I can’t count how many nights that happened, but I know I felt loved. I also felt like a burden, although my parents assured me that I wasn’t.

My adaptive response was to be the consummate people pleaser, not wanting to let anyone down, so attempting to be exemplary in all areas of my life. I would set my goals so high that if I didn’t achieve them, I felt bad initially but then cut myself some slack, because after all, how could I possibly reach such lofty heights? If I did match them, then I felt extra good.

In all of my career choices, I was in a helping profession: social worker, therapist, interfaith minister, socially conscious journalist, transformational speaker, and author. I volunteered, as inspired by my parents who donated time and money whenever they could. Even though I tell others about the oxygen mask metaphor—that we need to put it on ourselves first before we put on someone else if we are on an airplane—there are times when I forget that I am sometimes on the floor from oxygen deprivation.

Where that has led me: I am writing this piece from my hospital bed with a nasal cannula delivering oxygen. Every four-hour breathing treatments, as well as other medications and rest, are refilling my tank.

Friday night, after a full days worth of work doing telehealth sessions with my therapy clients, during which I coughed and wheezed, going through nearly an entire bag of lozenges, I contemplated going to the ER. Instead, I went to bed early and woke up to whistle wheezing. I breathed in steam from the vaporizer I had running all night. I transferred to the living room, sleeping for a few more hours upright in the recliner. I convinced myself that I could wait it out until sunrise since my oxygen sats were between 94-98.

I sat up and watched Golden Girls reruns. At 5 a.m., I took a shower and packed my briefcase with what I thought I might need in case I was admitted, hence the presence of the laptop I am using to write this article. By six, I was in the car, rather than calling 911, figuring I could take the 15-minute drive just as I had seven years earlier in the midst of a heart attack. My rationale this time was that there would be no traffic at that hour and if I called for an ambulance, it would disturb my neighbors. Who does that? Apparently, I do.

By the time I was halfway there, I could feel myself struggling to breathe and panic set in. I couldn’t pull over. I knew I needed to get to the ER as quickly as I could. I parked and headed for the door, feeling like I was either going to pass out or vomit. The security guard at the door whisked me into a wheelchair and after gasping out that I could barely breathe, I was quickly ferried to the room where four staff people surrounded me, placing an oxygen mask over my face, inserting an IV, running a COVID-19 test, which thankfully came out negative, and changing me into a gorgeous hospital gown.

Even with the mask on, I still couldn’t catch up and soon found out why. My oxygen saturation was 82, dangerously low. COPD was caused in part by 14 years of exposure to secondhand and thirdhand smoke on the job while employed in psychiatric and addiction settings. A myriad of emotions, primarily, anger and fear. I am processing them now and what it will mean for my life. I don’t like living with limitations.

After a few hours, I was ferried up to the room where angels in scrubs have been providing exemplary care. My family and friends have been showering me with love and prayers and healing energy. The loud and clear message is scrupulous self-care. In many ways they tell me that I need to let go and not feel like I have to take on the troubles of the world. I have called it “savior behavior,” as I have thought I had the power to fix, save, heal, and cure all the boo-boos.

Witnessing all the chaos on the planet has taken its toll on my physical and mental well-being. My writing has been an attempt to change what I can. And sometimes it still feels like it isn’t enough. I question if I was born to be here in perfect timing to be of service. I know that I can’t turn off the news. Not knowing what is going on isn’t going to make it go away. I need to find ways to shake off the heaviness of it so I can breathe freely.

Mary Oliver’s words remind me that I am responsible for saving myself and I can provide that example for the others and together we can save the world.

The Journey by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.



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