My son, Andrew, entered the Ironman race in Boulder a few weeks ago, startling himself and me by completing it -- just 20 minutes short of the cut-off time of 17 hours. At the start, he'd given himself a 50-50 chance of finishing: swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, then running a full marathon of 26.2 miles, in 90 degree heat, at altitude of 5,500 feet. He'd never swum that long, biked that far, or run a marathon, let alone done all three in a row.
Halfway through the bike course, his face and body overheated, his head hurt, his energy dropped, and his stomach and digestive system stopped functioning, causing him to vomit. For the last three hours, he couldn't keep down anything -- water, nutrients, electrolytes. The doctor who saw him puking up water advised him to drop out.
Yet he kept going, from 6:50 in the morning until shortly before midnight. When he knew he was going to make it, he picked up speed and at the finish line, did a victory dance, jumping like a fiend, punching his fists and wiping tears from his eyes as the crowd chanted, "You -- are -- an -- Ironman!"
"What kept you going?" I asked the next day.
"It's all mental," he said. "You just keep telling yourself: You can do it. You can do it. Keep going. Don't stop."
I've been thinking a lot about the power of the mind, neuroplasticity, and how Andrew's triumphant mindset might be applied to other aspects of life, like healing the body. For three months now, I've been suffering from extreme vertigo, where I'm dizzy every minute. Most days I can't drive or walk straight.
Hold it -- You've probably experienced some form of dizziness and are about to suggest a remedy. Almost every person I tell about my vertigo has had a bout of it and knows a cure.
Trust me, I have tried them all. My case seems unique -- what the doctors call "interesting." You may aspire to be an interesting person, but in medical jargon, you never want to be an interesting case -- a euphemism for "We have no fucking clue."
I've seen doctors and alternative healers, had MRI's and CAT scans, which show an enlarged mass in the inner ear, a condition I probably was born with.
But they can't be sure. As Dr. Stephen Cass, my otolaryngologist, says, "The inner ear is a black box. The tiny organs are encased by the hardest bone in the body, so we can't go in there and see what's happening."
The docs assured me the dizziness would resolve in about three months, but it hasn't. All they can offer now is to kill the inner ear -- with chemicals or surgery -- so there'll be no more wild signals going to the brain and it can adapt to receiving info from just one ear.
Early in this saga, I began wondering if I could harness the power my son had used -- the mental determination that overrode his body symptoms -- to heal my inner ear.
A friend recommended the book, You are the Placebo, by Joe Dispenza, a chiropractor who, at 26, was run over by an SUV, causing six vertebrae to shatter and pierce his spinal cord. The back specialists he consulted wanted to implant two steel rods along his spine, after which he might learn to walk again, but would probably have chronic pain. If he did not have the surgery, they warned, he'd be paralyzed.
Dispenza refused surgery, and left the hospital determined to use his mind to put his spine back together. After 10 weeks of lying on his stomach, meditating and visualizing the reconstruction of his vertebrae, he could walk without pain and treat patients again.
The book was stuffed with examples of other miraculous cures, but I soon stopped reading. I've known people who've healed themselves of "incurable" disorders, but healing is mysterious. What heals one person doesn't necessarily heal the next, who follows the same regimen. Even if I bought Dispenza's recordings and attended his workshops, I was doubtful that I'd be able to change the structure of my inner ear.
Then another friend sent me a video of a TEDx talk given by Alia Crum, PhD, who teaches psychology at Stanford. An adorable-looking blonde with an athlete's toned body, Crum described four experiments she'd conducted with colleagues that demonstrate, she said, "how our mindsets matter!"
In one experiment, they recruited 48 hotel maids, who work on their feet all day, using a variety of muscles. When asked if they exercise regularly, though, most said they don't exercise at all.
The researchers split the women into two groups, measuring their weight, blood pressure, body fat, and satisfaction with their job. They gave one group a 15-minute presentation, informing them: "Your work is good exercise. You have an active lifestyle." They told the women they could expect many benefits: healthy weight; a healthy heart; less chance of getting sick, suffering anxiety or depression; better sleep and better moods. They did not give the presentation to the second group.
Four weeks later, they brought both groups back and measured them again. The group that didn't get a presentation showed no change, but the other group had lost weight and body fat, showed a significant drop in blood pressure, and reported liking their jobs more. They hadn't changed their lifestyle or joined a gym, Crum said. "As a result of a simple, 15-minute talk, the whole game changed, producing measurable effects on well being."
Wonderful. Inspiring. But here was my problem. The transforming message for the women came from people outside, but no one outside was telling me anything positive. I was afraid I wouldn't get better, and even more scared I might lose function in the other ear. How could I create a rosy mindset on top of those fears and feel it was authentic?
After long consideration, it came to me that I could let both be present. I could accept the fears -- their function seemed to be to prevent me from being disappointed and feeling foolish if the positive mindset failed. But if it did fail, so what? Wasn't it worth trying?
I thought of Andrew on the Ironman course, when his body was screaming, "Stop!" and the heat and altitude were sapping his strength, and yet his mind kept telling him he could do what most of us would consider impossible.
I went back to Dispenza's book and tried the meditation, which left me feeling upbeat and grateful. And still dizzy.
My ear is going to heal or not, but in the meantime, I realized, I could choose to put my energy into creating positive thoughts and emotions, even if they seem unreasonable. At the least, I'll experience more joy and ease. When fears take the stage, I can change the channel, and turn to Emily Dickinson's poem, "I dwell in Possibility." (see below)
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I dwell in Possibility -
A fairer House than Prose -
More numerous of Windows -
Superior - for Doors -
Of Chambers as the Cedars -
Impregnable of eye -
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky -
Of Visitors - the fairest -
For Occupation - This -
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise -