Book Excerpt “I Am…”

The following is an excerpt from I Am, I Am, I Am – Seventeen Brushes with Death – a Memoir by Maggie O’Farrell. She had many brushes with death and this excerpt is about her recovery from encephalitis. Her description of recuperation is brilliant.

“Writing about this is hard, not in the sense that it is a difficult time for me to revisit. It’s not that it’s unwieldy or painful material to think about or mould into sentences and paragraphs. It’s more that the time I spent in hospital is the hinge on which my childhood swung. Until that morning I woke up with a headache, I was one person, and after it, I was quite another. No more bolting along pavements for me, no more running away from home, no more running at all. I could never go back to the self I was before and I have no sense of who I might have been if I hadn’t contracted encephalitis as a young child.

The experiences you live through while gravely ill take on a near-mystical quality. Fever, pain, medicine, immobility: all these things give you both clarity and also distance, depending on which is riding in the ascendant.

I recall my encephalitis, in its most acute phase, in flashes, in staccato bursts, in isolated scenes. Some things are as raw and immediate as the moment they happened; these, I can inhabit as myself, in the first person, in the present tense, if you like. Others I have almost to force myself to confront and I watch them as I might a film: there is a child in a hospital bed, in a wheelchair, on an operating table; there is a child who cannot move. How can that child ever have been me?

Of its aftermath, the rehabilitation, I have a stronger sense. The coming home from hospital, the weeks and months of being at home, in bed, drifting up and down on currents of sleep, listening in on the conversations, meals, emotions, arrivals and departures of family life below. The visitors who came, bearing books and soft-toy animals and, once, a man from over the road bringing a basket of baby guinea pigs, which he let loose in my bed, their tiny, clawed, panicked pink feet skittering up and down my wasted legs.

Convalescence is a strange, removed state. Hours, days, whole weeks can slide by without your participation. You, as the convalescent, are swaddled in quiet and immobility. You are the only still thing in the house, caught in stasis, a fly in amber. You lie there on your bed like it draped stone effigy on a tomb. As the only sound you hear is that of your own body, its minutiae assumes great import, becomes magnified: the throb of your pulse, the rasp of hair shaft against the cotton weave of your pillow, the shifting of your limbs beneath the weight of blankets, the watery occlusion when eyelid meets eyelid, the sylvan susurration of air leaving and entering your mouth. The mattress presses up from underneath, bearing you aloft. The drink of water waits beside your bed, tiny silvered bubbles pressing their faces to the glass. Distances that used to appear minor – from your bed to the door, the stretch of landing to the loo, the dressing-table to the window – now take on great, immeasurable length. Outside the walls, the day turns from morning to lunchtime to afternoon to evening, then back again (O’Farrell, 2005, p. 226-228).

 

 

The Interrelated Structure of Reality

“In a real sense, all of life is interrelated. All persons are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

 

 

Mariah Carey at Rite Aid

While standing in line at Rite Aid, I look over at the magazines at the counter. On the cover of People Magazine is a picture of Mariah Carey, with a caption revealing she has bipolar disorder. When I reach the counter, I take a copy and set it down with my other items to buy: a notebook and my favorite pens.

The cashier ringing me up glances down at the cover.

“Mariah Carey’s bipolar?”, she scowls.

“Seems like everybody’s bipolar these days. I think it’s just an excuse. They want attention, or they’re just weak-minded. Sometimes you just got to buck up”.

I look at her tight mouth and flashing eyes and wonder about her life. Does she just “buck up” and push through? Is that how she handles the difficulties of her life?

I must have a shocked look on my face, or maybe my mouth is tightening, because when she looks at me again, she says, modifying her tone, “or maybe she is bipolar”.

“Maybe more people are coming out about it, are being braver”, I suggest.

And with that exchange, I leave.

The conversation bothers me. It’s attitudes like hers that keep brain disorders and mental illness in the closet. All chronically ill people have to push harder to go through life. Mentally ill people have the added difficulty of having a stigma attached, making it hard to feel okay about having an illness that affects the mind.

Why is it such a stigma? The brain is part of the body, not separate from it. So why do we get so judgmental or frightened about mental illness and not as much or at all about other illnesses? Unless someone is violent, it seems no point in being afraid or protecting ourselves. Are we all just frightened of losing control, ourselves? Aren’t we all trying to keep it together on some level, at least some of the time?

Strictly speaking, bipolar disorder is a mood disorder, not a mental illness. For that matter, so is an anxiety disorder. If I’m honest, I feel a sense of relief that I am not labeled “mentally ill”, because I don’t want to be lumped with “those people”. I’m not a psychiatrist, but it seems to me that there is some sort of spectrum. You have people like me on one end, and a paranoid schizophrenic on the other. Am I a better, more respectable, likeable, deserving person because I’m more functional in the world? No.

Personally, I’m happy Mariah Carey is on the cover of People, telling her story. Kanye West gives no apologies for his bipolar disorder. I’m happy Howie Mandell is honest about his plethora of anxieties, even making us laugh about them. When well-known people are outspoken about their mood disorders and mental illness, I think it encourages others to do the same. Maybe by doing so, the stigma of mental illness can slowly slough off because of their willingness and courage; to be vocal about it and be themselves.

We have a long way to go. There needs to be a lot more education about all kinds of brain disorders, until shame is ditched and replaced with compassionate understanding. Everyone can come out of the closet and not fear condemnation. We all deserve to be respected, accepted and treated well by our doctors, friends, and community. We are all part of a greater whole and deserve to be recognized as such. Otherwise, there will remain a fracture in our humanity and we will all suffer from it. And I don’t want that. Do you?

“We’re one but we’re not the same. We need to carry each other”.  ~ Mary J. Blige

“Suchness” – As You Are

“… the most special gift
you have to offer is the
living quality of your
presence, the indescribable
spark that makes you you.
Each soul has its own
multifaceted, jewel-like
character, its own ‘suchness’.
Even though no one can
exactly pin down this
‘special something’,
it’s what people
love when they love you.
Suchness means ‘just so’.
You are just so in your way
I am just so in mine.
We are all just what we are,
and cannot be other than
what we are in the end.
This is cause for celebration”.

– John Welwood
                 
                 
 





Adaptations: Who Am I?

The following is an adapted excerpt from Ken Wilber’s adaptation of Roberto Assagioli’s version of “Who Am I?”.

            “I have a body, but I am not my body. I can see and feel my body, and what can be seen and felt is not the true Seer. My body may be tired or excited, sick or healthy, heavy or light, anxious or calm, but that has nothing to do with my inward I, the Witness. I have a body, but I am not my body.

            I have emotions, but I am not my emotions. I can feel and sense my emotions, and what can be felt and sensed is not the true Feeler. Emotions pass through me, but they do not affect my inward I, the Witness. I have emotions, but I am not emotions.

            I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts. I can see and know my thoughts, and what can be known is not the true Knower. Thoughts come to me and thoughts leave me, but they do not affect my inward I, the Witness. I have thoughts but I am not my thoughts.

            Then affirm as concretely as you can: I am what remains, a pure center of awareness, an unmoved Witness of all these thoughts, emotions, feelings, and sensations.”

Roberto Assagioli is the “founder of Psychosynthesis” (Ken Wilber).

Adapted from “Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of TREYA KILLAM WILBER by Ken Wilber”, p. 125 

Essay: Who Am I?

When I was quite young, I sometimes wondered who I really was. At the time, I didn’t have words to make sense of what I even meant by this. I was called “Katie” by those who knew me. But was this who I was, really? I was the daughter of 2 people called “Lydia and “Bill”, but did that make up who I was? I had a body I walked around in, that got me from one place to another. But my body certainly wasn’t all of who I was. I had developed likes and dislikes: I hated eggs but loved root beer Popsicles. I hated school but loved reading. But those things didn’t completely define me, either.

            These questions, organized around thoughts & feelings & sensations, scared me. If I wasn’t these things, then who was I? Was I nothing at all? That thought really scared me. I knew intuitively, that the adults around me wouldn’t know the answers to all these questions. This concerned me, because usually, adults had all the answers. And if they couldn’t answer this Big Question, then I’d have to walk around with an uneasiness without getting any resolution. I didn’t like that.

            It was not until I reached my 40’s that I realized the questions I had about having a fixed self was called “self-inquiry”. I learned this from reading books on eastern philosophy and some of my experiences meditating. When meditating, I sometimes lost my usual sense of self. Gone was my hold on my identity with my body and mind and all its expressions and projections. I understood that who I was couldn’t ever really be pinned down, but that it didn’t vanish altogether, either. This was a great revelation. It gave me a feeling of great peace and comfort.

            It still does; when anxiety becomes overwhelming, being reminded of a vaster consciousness softens my experience and makes it less frightening. Bringing space to the anxiety begins to relax the knot of tension in my solar plexus, giving the sensations there – room to move. From there, tenderness moves in. Staying with spacious awareness allows the contracted body (in this case, what I’ve labeled “anxiety”) to relax and feel held.

            In writing all this (which took some time), I really had to reflect on all that this brought up for me. So, I asked myself this question: How do I apply this to my daily life? How do I remind myself of vast awareness?

            Letting that idea float in my mind, I put my pen down for a moment and decided to do some yoga. My back has been bothering me for a while, so when I started doing the poses, I paid close attention to those places that felt tense. Ah – I thought – contraction. Yoga places an emphasis on breath, so I breathed into those areas as I went from pose to pose. Breath… Yes – that’s a way to open the body/mind and create space to let those knotted areas have room to loosen up. After a while, some tension was released, and those constricted areas let go a little. When I ended the session in a relaxation pose, my attention was more able to take in the whole of my body, rather than just the painful part. Contraction leading to expansion.            

How about you? Did this post open you up? How did it affect you? What can you do today to bring a bigger perspective into your life – for example, the pain you experience (whether physical or emotional), that’s happening right now? Experiment. And, if comfortable, let me know what happens.