A Journey into the Dark

Sometimes things come together: I sleep well enough to enjoy my day, and, after checking my daily to-do list, see that there is nothing that really needs to get done. It suddenly occurs to me that I could visit my friends Jesse and Shay, who live a little more than an hour north from me, and have my caregiver Jenna drive me.

When she arrives, I tell her my idea and find out she’s up for it. Let’s get out of town!

The day is perfect for an outing. It’s nearly the end of August and there’s a bit of coolness in the air, the heaviness of summer lifting for a bit.

We leave town and immediately get on the highway. We pass steep hills full of leaning redwoods and pines and I feel my senses awaken. Traveling – even a short trip out of town, always opens up my world, reminding me there’s more to life than the inside of my mind and the confines of my home.

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Jenna and I converse on the way there. She’s only been working for me for a short time and this gives me a chance to get to know her better. She tells me a little about her unhappy childhood – growing up as an only child in a small town outside of Madison, Wisconsin and how she tended to her lonely spirit by climbing trees and watching all kinds of critters. I learn that she has moved around a lot since an adult, until she arrived in Mendocino County ten years ago and realized she had finally found her home.

I tell Jenna I need a break from conversing, knowing that when we arrive at Jesse and Shay’s, there’ll be plenty of it. I don’t want my brain to go on over-load before we get there and spoil the visit.

I turn and look out the window. We are passing through the tiny town of Laytonville, which holds not a whole lot more than a gas station, a general store and a few small restaurants. Old hippies live here side-by-side with rednecks pretty much amiably, it seems to me.

The road flattens out as does the scenery – there are less trees here, revealing gentle hills that are golden brown from parched grasses.

Finally, we reach Bells Springs Road and I direct Jenna to turn right onto it. The car immediately climbs, pavement turning to dirt and gravel. The washboard road jostles our bodies as we drive up and up, rounding one curve after another, a cloud of dust following. Occasionally, there is a break between madrone and manzanita on the right, revealing spectacular views of ridges spreading out for miles, with no houses in sight.

Eventually, just as I am becoming impatient, the road straightens out and we arrive at their driveway, which is steep but short, guarded by a large gargoyle leering at us at the base. We park at the top at level ground and get out.

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I am always struck by the quiet here. I pause and take a moment, breathing in the stillness, which is settling after such a long and bumpy ride.

We stretch our legs and look around before nearing the house. Two large goddess statues line the pathway, almost as tall as full-grown women. Flat rocks nearby them have been carefully stacked creating a natural tower.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The house is unusual – what I would call a Northern California home, probably built back in the 70’s. It is weathered and rambling with two stories and sits amongst trees. Two decks are connected by a narrow walkway, which leads to the front door. As we walk in that direction, we pass potted plants and a large stack of wood, forcing us to walk single-file.

I hear voices call out and see Jesse and Shay out on the front deck. When Jenna and I reach them, I introduce everybody, then hug my friends hard – it’s been too long since we’ve gotten together.

A big oak tree bends over the deck, one of its huge branches almost touching it. Beside us is a carefully and lovingly constructed ornamental terraced garden. There are small, meandering pathways and a tiny pond with a run-off that’s gently burbling. It’s truly a thing of beauty.

Gardening has always been one of Jesse’s passions Faerie GardenIMG_3808 and has kept her busy over the years, but now that she’s in a wheelchair, she can no longer tend to this incredible creation of hers and has taken to making what she calls “faerie gardens”, that line the deck.  These miniature gardens that she has worked on meticulously are made up of tiny plants made to look like trees, with elfin bridges, houses, and even people, and not one of them is the same.

Faerie GardenIMG_3751 They reveal the patience Jesse has, Faerie GardenIMG_3811 which is one of her most admirable traits, along with her great intelligence.

We take our seats and immediately launch into deep conversation. I have known these women for a very long time, so there is no need for small talk and pleasantries. Although I haven’t seen them for months, in many ways it feels like yesterday.

Inevitably, the conversation turns to health. Last year, Jesse was diagnosed with cancer. Surgery became necessary and she has recently finished rounds of chemo. Her hair has just started coming back and when I rub my hand across her head, I’m surprised with how soft it is. She talks about frequent doctor visits, anticipating test results, and the hardship of having to go to Ukiah for appointments, almost 2 hours away. As she talks, I check out her appearance more closely and realize she’s lost a lot of weight, which concerns me. Nevertheless, she seems cheerful and talkative, and my concern, at least for her emotional well-being, begins to wane.

Locally: Cancer Resource Center of Mendocino County https://crcmendocino.org/

It’s Shay, really, that worries me more. She has suffered from depression since she was a teenager. Her voice is often flat, and she sleeps a lot and has little vital energy. Jesse’s cancer has certainly added to her mental state, and so our talk turns to her struggles.

For information and to learn the symptoms of depression: https://www.apa.org/topics/depression/

She has been on antidepressants for some time. At first, she had a hard time adjusting to one medication, but then they gave her some relief. But not long after, the effects abated then stopped working altogether. The doctors wanted to increase her dosage, which she did, and that helped briefly, but then again, stopped working. Discouraged, she cut back, but found it difficult on her body and even though she’d like to go off altogether, it became too hard to do, so she has given up and stayed on them, even though she no longer feels any relief.

She has also gone to therapy, read countless books on depression, quit sugar altogether and changed her diet. But all this has had no effect on her body/mind.

“The only thing that really helps”, she says, “That really gets me out of my head is being creative.” She closes her eyes for a moment. “I can get in this zone and it takes me away from everything and into this other world.”

Shay is an incredible artist, with many interests. Her main focuses have been jewelry, painting and drawing. Her studio is a work of art itself: Sketches are set up here and there. Cups and cases hold pens, colored pencils and brushes in various shapes and sizes. Tiny drawers hold all sorts of beads, necklaces, chains and clasps. Easels lean against walls. There are leather-bound journals with her creations in them, reams of paper for watercolors, as well as others’ artwork – from small sculptures to paintings to help inspire her.

After Shay speaks, Jesse adds, her voice becoming soft, “What’s hard for me is seeing how her depression affects her self-esteem. She’s so damn hard on herself!” Tears spring to her eyes.

I know this to be true. Shay constantly puts herself down, downplays her artistic abilities, compares herself to others in many areas of her life, and often, in her mind, coming up short. It’s painful for me to see this in her. I love my friend dearly and know her not only to be talented, but extremely kind, sensitive and thoughtful. I only wish she could turn those qualities towards herself.

Jenna chimes in, “Well, I’m not clinically depressed, but I have my days and my cycles with it. When the days turn into weeks, I start to microdose myself with magic mushrooms. It works for me. It interrupts the cycle.”

We’re all interested in what she has to say, and barrage her with questions. What kind of mushrooms? How much do you take? Do you get high? Can you take it with antidepressants and other medications?

Jenna answers carefully. “I can only speak from my own experience. I take a teeny weeny bit of psilocybin and I don’t get high. But, I feel…” She thinks a bit, “I feel better, is all I can say. Different. Something shifts inside, and my brain resets itself.” She shrugs, as if to say, “That’s the best I can do to explain myself”. “And I want to be clear here: I don’t know if it will work for you. I don’t know if you can take it with your meds. I don’t have all the answers.” She shakes her head with a sad expression on her face. “And unfortunately, I’ve run out of mushrooms myself and don’t know where to get any.”

We’re all quiet, taking in all this information.

“I do think,”, Jenna adds, “That if you ever try it – don’t do it alone. Have someone there with you. I’d be willing to do that with you, if you’d like.”

“But you don’t have any,”, Jesse says, making sure. “No. But I’m looking. I could let you know if I find anything.”

Shay sighs, sounding weary, but says “Well I like the idea of taking something natural…” She drifts off, “I’m not sure if I’m up for something new.”

I understand this reaction. I’ve tried so many other things over the years and got my hopes up: Maybe this will work. Often, I don’t get the results I want, or it makes me feel worse and/or gives me intolerable side effects. Even something as simple and benign like vitamin B-12 to help feed my nervous system, took me a long time to try out. I just did not want to be disappointed yet again.

There’s a lull in the conversation and suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, their scraggly black, Noche (with a tiny spot of white on the tip of his tail), shows up demanding attention, putting smiles on our faces. More shadows have moved in on the porch, taking over most of the sun spots. As much as I don’t want to leave, it’s best that we get on the road before it becomes too dark.

We reluctantly say our goodbyes and as we pull out of their driveway, I look back and see Shay holding Noche and waving at us.

We’re quiet as we head home as I process the visit. Seeing these beloved friends always warms my heart, but breaks it, too, if that’s possible. I realize I want to “fix” Shay, as others seem to want to “fix” me, but I know it’s not possible and that hurts. Maybe, if Shay wants to try them, those mushrooms will help, I think, as we whiz by trees and hills. And maybe they won’t.

Microdosing – disclaimer:  I am not endorsing the use of illegal or potentially dangerous drugs/medications. The subject of microdosing is only to inform my readers.

Psychedelic Times: “How to Find Psychedelic Treatment for your Psychological Disorder” Posted by Wesley Thoricatha April 28, 2017  Articles, Psychedelic Integration, Psychedelic Therapy 3 https://psychedelictimes.com/find-psychedelic-treatment-psychological-disorder/

“It’s also important to know that not all psychological disorders lend themselves well to psychedelic treatment. While there is no scientific basis for the propaganda that psychedelics can “make you crazy,” it has been suggested that those with latent schizophrenia could have their condition triggered early by a strong psychedelic experience. Keep in mind this is still a new frontier of research, and people with certain medical conditions or on certain medications should absolutely not take certain psychedelics. Any properly run treatment clinic will have a full physical and mental health screening before treatment, and walk you through any  contraindications that may be revealed. We do not endorse any illegal behavior, but from a harm reduction perspective, anyone who chooses underground treatment should exercise extreme levels of research, discernment, and safety precautions throughout the process.”

“Finding Integration Support – Beyond the psychedelic journey itself, integration of the experience after the fact plays a critical role in ensuring that the insights, progress, inspiration gained are translated into daily life in a sustainable way. Whether you are fresh out of an underground ayahuasca ceremony that helped you deal with childhood trauma, or a recent outpatient of an iboga center that helped you detox from an opiate addiction; a few weeks or months of integration support from someone who understands psychedelic treatment is immensely beneficial in securing your new goals, perspectives and commitments.” …

“Releasing the Stigma – One of the most insidious aspects of mental illnesses is the stigma that surrounds them. Despite the statistics that show how common these disorders are, our culture still often adopts a “toughen up and go it alone” approach, leading many to isolate themselves and be fearful of speaking up about their condition, much less seek help. Psychotherapy, prescription medications, and conventional rehab centers do help many people stabilize their lives, but sometimes these routes are not enough to fully eradicate the pain, trauma, and stress that lay at the core of the disorder, leading people to simply numb their symptoms without seeking true healing.” “Radical shifts in behavior, self-image, and wellbeing are something that psychedelics excel at when used appropriately, but not everyone is able to travel abroad for psychedelic treatment or willing to find underground options. The single most important thing that anyone suffering from an addiction or mental disorder can do is to speak up about it to their loved ones and seek help. Shame and stigma surrounding these issues should be forever discarded, as these conditions are an  integral part of the human condition, and everyone faces stress, challenges, and addictive habits in their own way.”

Glamour Magazine website: “Microdosing, Depression, and the Trippy Future of Mental Health Treatments, Psychedelics are a fringe frontier of mental health treatments. But are they safe?” By Deanna deBara, September 5, 2019 https://www.glamour.com/story/microdosing-for-depression-does-it-work

… “Carina*, a 59-year-old therapist in Oregon, sees the ripple effects of the anxiety and stress of our current cultural climate every day in her work—and in her personal life. She has struggled with depression for much of her career, managing it with regular therapy sessions and movement practices like yoga and dance, but when she found herself struggling with a particularly challenging depressive episode in the wake of the #MeToo movement, she began exploring alternative treatment modalities.”

“That’s when she was introduced to microdosing for depression. “So much of depression is feeling stuck,” says Carina. “Microdosing has helped me get out of preservation mode; it helped me get out of the stuck places and see that there are options.”

“Shrooms (aka psychedelic mushrooms) and LSD have a rich résumé of providing a hallucinatory high, and we’re in the midst of a psychedelic resurgence. The recent interest in psychedelics isn’t a throwback to the ’60s so much as it is the potential future of mental health treatment—especially for depression and anxiety.”

“The goal of microdosing is not to get you high. As the name implies, the practice involves taking a small amount—a microdose—of psilocybin (in the form of mushrooms) or LSD every few days. Unlike higher doses of psychedelics, which typically produce the “trip” experience these substances are most known for, the effect of microdosing is much more subtle. Most people start with “around 10ug of LSD (around a tenth of a tab) or 0.1g of dried psilocybin mushrooms,” according to The Third Wave, a psychedelic education resource. (The “right” dose varies from person to person. You should never take any substance without consulting your doctor first.)”

“Psychedelics aren’t legal—they’re currently classified as Schedule I drugs by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, meaning there’s “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” (For the record, cannabis is also classified as a Schedule I drug by the DEA.) That poses some considerable risks. Because psychedelics aren’t legal, they aren’t regulated. There’s no way of knowing what you’re getting, where it’s coming from, or how strong it is, which can put your safety in jeopardy.”

Medical News Today “Psychedelics: Risks and benefits of microdosing revealed: New research, published in the journal ACS Chemical Neuroscience, finds both potential benefits and risks of using psychedelic microdosing to treat mental health problems. The study reveals effects on cognitive skills and sociability, as well as metabolic and neuronal consequences.” By Ana Sandoiu on March 4, 2019 https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324609.php#1

“An emerging body of research is making a case for using psychedelic drugs to treat mental health issues.”

“For instance, two studies published last year showed that psilocybin, the active psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms, alleviated symptoms of treatment-resistant depression.”

“Moreover, the psilocybin did so without causing any side effects of conventional antidepressants. Such side effects typically include emotional blunting or apathy.”

“People who use psychedelics to improve their mental health and boost their overall well-being tend to do so with a technique called microdosing. Taking microdoses of a psychedelic drug means taking only a fraction of a dose that is required to have a full-blown psychedelic experience, or “trip.”…

“The lead researcher is David Olson, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine at the University of California, Davis.”

… “conflicting results may suggest that an acute dose of psychedelic substances affects the brain differently from intermittent microdoses.”

“Side effects notwithstanding, say the authors, the current results are promising because they suggest that researchers can separate the psychedelic effects from the therapeutic ones.”

“Our study demonstrates that psychedelics can produce beneficial behavioral effects without drastically altering perception, which is a critical step towards producing viable medicines inspired by these compounds,” says Olson.”

“This is the first time anyone has demonstrated in animals that psychedelic microdosing might actually have some beneficial effects, particularly for depression or anxiety. It’s exciting, but the potentially adverse changes in neuronal structure and metabolism that we observe emphasize the need for additional studies.” David Olson, Ph.D.”

Refinery29 – “Can Microdosing Psychedelic Mushrooms Curb Your Anxiety?” By Cory Stieg, August 7, 2019 https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2019/08/238497/microdosing-psilocybin-mushrooms-benefits-depression-anxiety

“Microdosing, or taking tiny amounts of a drug daily, does more than just get people mildly high. Specifically, psychedelics such as LSD (which is very similar to psilocybin, pharmacologically speaking) act on the neurotransmitter system, serotonin, which is widely used in traditional antidepressant drugs, says Harriet De Wit, PhD, founder and primary investigator in the Human Behavioral Pharmacology Laboratory at the University of Chicago. “So, there is some neurochemical rationale for the possibility that it improves mood,” she says. Compared to traditional antidepressants, which can take weeks to take effect, microdoses of LSD have been shown to have marginal subjective effects after just one administration”, she adds.”

“All of this points to the greater need for research into promising drugs like psilocybin. Most experts agree that psychedelic drugs have a lot of potential — either taken in microdoses or in combination with psychotherapy with psychological guidance. “This is an exciting new chapter in psychiatric research,” Dr. De Wit says.”

 

Gargoyle Image from https://pixabay.com/photos/gargoyle-cathedral-strasbourg-1663459/

Click the link below for cancer centers in your area. National Cancer Institute: NCI-  Designated Cancer Centers https://www.cancer.gov/research/nci-role/cancer-centers

 

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What About Joy?

The other day, one of my caregivers arrived with Riley – a 2-year-old, small poodle, who has come here before. I forgot she was coming or else didn’t know, but I was having a particularly dismal morning and when my caregiver opened the door and let Riley in, I burst into tears; both from joy and pent-up sadness at having one more day of difficulty. Riley immediately jumped into my lap, and the tears poured out more.

            Listen. I know all dogs are “good dogs”, even the “bad” ones. I know your dog is “the best” dog ever to pad the universe. But I have to tell you Riley is at the top of the list. She is also the Absolute Cutest Dog in the world. She is a true lap dog, weighing about 10 pounds, has the sweetest brown eyes and the best disposition. She is the embodiment of joy.

            Many days, I contemplate what I can do to make myself feel better. I think of meditation, relaxation CD’s, Yoga, or calling my therapist. Serious stuff. Yet, on some levels, all these can take effort or determination. Dogs, on the other hand, take nothing at all to lift your spirits. They embody loving-kindness, unconditional love and acceptance. They jump in your lap, lick your face, are genuinely glad to see you. They don’t judge you; they have zero pretenses. This is refreshing. This is good news. They don’t care if you can’t walk, can’t sleep, are in pain, or have snot on your face. They simply just love you the way you are. And I don’t know about you, but when I’m feeling at my worst, my negative judgments come sailing in. So, to have this little, exuberant bundle of joy come literally leaping into my lap, is a precious gift and a reminder that who I am, right here, right now, is perfect. I don’t need to do “it” better. I’m not a failure for having anxiety and not sleeping (again). Who I am is deserving of unconditional love – no matter what state of mind I’m in.

            Thanks for the reminder, Riley.

Riley
Me and Riley




Introduction to Loving Kindness

Too often a side effect to chronic illness is the harsh way we treat ourselves. When we feel poorly, we often think and act poorly. On top of the difficulties we experience, we may feel we are somehow responsible for our illness or feel inept at coping with it. We think perhaps if we were someone else, we would be handling it better. We hear of spiritual masters who can transcend pain, why can’t we? Why do we still need medication? Why can’t we get a job done on time? Why can’t we do the simple task of washing dishes without it overwhelming us? On top of all that, we unconsciously send hateful thoughts to our afflicted body parts: “why won’t you just work?”

We may feel justified with these insidious self-accusations, or secretly believe we deserve the suffering we are enduring. We may wonder if maybe we did something in a past life that we are making up for now in the form of illness. Maybe we did something (or think we did) in this life that we feel is resulting in our present condition. We may even be doing something we know is contributing to our overall lack of health, like eating junk food, or smoking cigarettes.

The simple fact is even if some of these things have any credence, it never makes us feel any better to harangue ourselves. No one’s condition ever improved and no one has ever cured themselves from an illness by critical self-talk. Ask yourself this: would you ever treat a loved one as harshly as you treat yourself?

 

Book Reviews and Suggested Reading

I’d like to recommend a few books that have resonated deeply with me.

  1. Finding Freedom in Illness by Peter Fernando From the point of view of someone with chronic illness, Fernando uses meditation techniques and contemplation to explore the physical, emotional, and mental difficulties that often come hand-in-hand with chronic illness. Including personal stories, he emphasizes self-kindness as a way to relate to the negative self-talk that can arise with an on-going illness.  He encourages us to be present with all that surfaces in the mind and body, including an entire chapter dedicated strictly on pain. You can trust what he is saying, because you know by his words he’s been there, unlike many health practitioners who haven’t. This is a book to come back to again and again, to remind you what your true worth is. It feels like a real friend.
  2. The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff – Review on the back cover of this book: “Illness is a universal experience. There is no privilege that can make us immune to its touch. We are taught to assume health, illnesses being just temporary breakdowns in the well-oiled machinery of the body. But illness has its own geography, its own laws and commandments. At a time when the attention of the whole nation is focused on health care, Kat Duff inquires into the nature and function of illness itself. Duff, a counselor in private practice in Taos, New Mexico, wrote this book out of her experience with chronic fatigue syndrome, but what she has to say is applicable to every illness and every one of us. For those who are sick, this book offers solace and recognition. For those who care for them either physically or emotionally, it offers inspiration and compassion. Finally, this fresh perspective on healing reveals how every illness is a crucible that tries our mettle, tests our limits, and provides us with an unparalleled opportunity to integrate its lesson into our lives. “Published by Bell Tower, an imprint of Harmony Books, a division of Crown Publishers, Inc.”, 1993]
  3. Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of TREYA KILLAM WILBER by Ken Wilber – Review on the back cover of this book: “Grace and Grit is the compelling story of the five-year journey of psychologist Ken Wilber and his wife, Treya Killam Wilber, through Treya’s illness, treatment, and, finally, death. Ken’s wide-ranging commentary-which questions both conventional and New Age approaches to illness-is combined with Treya’s journals to create a vivid portrait of health and healing, wholeness and harmony, suffering and surrender.” Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1991

Thich Nhat Hanh and The Kardashians

What does it mean to be spiritual? I meditate, do yoga, read books on Buddhism and spirituality. I also watch TV, dance to loud rock and roll and occasionally read People Magazine. When I engage in these latter activities, does this mean I am not being spiritual?

One day I watch a DVD documentary about Thich Nhat Hanh, a well-known Vietnamese Zen monk. I am deeply moved and inspired by this wise and gentle soul. I feel this burning desire to be like him. I vow then and there to be more “spiritual”; perhaps meditate longer and more often, pray daily and more fervently.

But then the next few nights my sleep is more disturbed than usual, which triggers my seizure threshold, and my anxiety is heightened. From there, feelings of dread and despair threaten to take over. Instead of meditating, which I feel I should do, but requires focus and concentration I do not have, I binge watch “The Kardashians”. Where did my resolve go? I feel bad about myself. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to be a truly spiritual person.

And yet upon reflection, those times when I give in and watch TV, I realize that I’m doing what my mind and body need to do. As someone who is chronically ill, I spend a lot of my time, like it or not, inwardly focused, probably more than the average person. I suspect this is true for most people with chronic illness.

For me, this can lead to depressive and anxious states and sometimes, despair.

I do use meditation practice to investigate these difficult emotional states, but sometimes, I need a break! I need distraction and I can get that quite easily with TV.

Many spiritual teachers warn of being distracted through all kinds of activity as a way of separating oneself from what’s going on internally, but for me there is a danger in getting too caught up in difficult emotional states. And this can lead towards hopelessness and despondency.

By watching reality shows like “The Kardashians”, I get a lot of breathing room by entering someone else’s “reality”. It gives me space. It lightens my mood. There is so much drama and antics packed into one show that it takes up most of my awareness: Will Scott Disick stop drinking? Will Kourtney and Scott get back together? Why does Kim act so superior? Will Khloe be successful with her new fashion line? Will Kris stop meddling?

By immersing myself in such trivial things, I lighten up. I take myself and my life less seriously. I get my needed break.

So, can we meditate and watch TV and still be spiritual? Can Thich Nhat Hanh and the Kardashians be part of my spiritual path? My answer is yes.