Saturday, March 24, 2012


For some time I have felt rather on top of the issue of personal health. Not obsessively so, just at level one might call quietly smug. (on edit: This is the smugness of youth that hasn't realized we're well into middle age.)

Kept good track of the myriad possible things on the radar that could kill me, including a specific family history of prostate cancer, heart disease, IBS, etc. and whatever flavor of the  month fatal distraction the popular press might throw up.

Always take the stairs, years past of martial arts training, more recently the gym four to five days a week for an hour and a half. Once I understood the link to heart issues, I had even moved through the entire spectrum from dental floss refusenik to twice a day.

Burnout always seemed describe an emotional state. As in, "that job really burned me out for community organizing, I just couldn't do it anymore, so I had to move on to something different." My man was not aware that you could physically burn out your adrenals. Sub-clinically,  it appears, but still. Just was not on the radar.

Leave aside the litany of activities I've engaged in, and things I have done on purpose over the last three decades that piled insult upon injury to the poor little bastards, it turns out my entire personality (this current ego structure) may be toxic to those unsung, kidney-riding, grape-sized producers of over 50 essential hormones.

My Myers-Briggs description starts with something along the lines of "lives in preparation for emergencies."

This is all about mission-readiness. Grew up in a military family. As a small child, once I understood the scenario of possible house fire, I packed a small bag with the items I was sure I would need to grab on the way out, and put shoes by the side of my bed. 

When we flew, which back then was mainly when we were moving somewhere new, I packed what I called my Desert Island kit--things that might be essential were we cut off from civilization (band-aids, a bar of motel soap and sewing kit, candy, comic books...not really survivalist items and nothing you would get thrown off an airplane for today).

Not to draw to thick a line from then until now, but I find myself in a career that while on the upside is focused on helping others, also keeps me focused on natural disasters, their aftermath, and working with specific efforts for immediate aid, longer term recovery and rebuilding.

At night, I'm the one who wakes up to any odd noise, whether it's to corral and dispose of whatever vermin our cat may have brought in to the killing floor under our dining room table, or to discover a leak under the kitchen sink, or just in time to miss catching one of our kids vomiting with a towel.

So the challenge right now is how to notice and try to amend lifelong patterns of seeking -- from a Buddhist standpoint let's call it addiction to -- a feeling of immanent crisis, and preparations for remedies for same. As if you can ever be fully prepared for life.

At a retreat for individuals interested in end-of-life care more than a decade ago, Roshi Halifax once asked us to practice with the following: "Anything that can happen to a human being, can happen to me, and I accept that."

Surely thought I had accepted that by now. Clearly had not.

Working with a shifting landscape of symptoms and anxiety about possible remedies and whether this is recoverable, it has occurred to me to wonder if, at times, all this focus on attention is just one more strategy of preparation for disaster. Life, perceived as immanent or ongoing disaster. Trying to get to that place of acceptance, like the part in the movie Parenthood when Steve Martin finally relaxes and laughs into the moment.

This is all wrapped up in layers of recovering perfectionism

No answers on this one today, I'm in the thick of it.


  1. Interesting to note the patterns. My dream career pre illness was working in international adoptions. Again, always trying to fix the world and forget myself. Still have a heart for that field but if I ever go back it will be with new eyes.

    1. Have you heard about the work of the folks at "Half the Sky?" Tremendous.

      But yes to do such work and to stay effective and whole long term, one would really have to be resilient and anchored.

      I have wondered if those who feel empathy more strongly are also more susceptible to the strains of emotional "weather" around them (inter-personally, and in the larger world). Rereading Joko Beck right now and considering in light of her perspective how working with our own internal "weather" can help us be more resilient in the face of the weather systems we encounter outside ourselves.