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The Medicine You Don't Have to Take

We don't usually see our self-image -- who we perceive ourselves to be -- as a work in progress. But maybe we should, rather than let it serve as an excuse not to change.
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Before my first child was a year old, I came down with a blinding headache that knocked the wind out of me. The doctor diagnosed a sinus infection after one glance up my nose with those little reverse tweezer spreaders. He gave me the prescription, the thing you go there for, and off I went to take my drugs like a good girl.

But in this case, the drugs didn't make me feel better and in fact I began feeling a lot worse. Reluctantly, Cigna decided they couldn't avoid sending me to a specialist and he couldn't hide his concern when he used the little tweezer spreaders. He declared my sinuses abscessed and proceeded to drain them immediately. Not only was the procedure very unpleasant but seeing what had been hiding in my sinuses was downright disgusting. It seems that the original doctor made a correct diagnosis but hadn't brushed up on which drugs actually kill sinus bacteria. In fact, the wrong antibiotic had allowed the bacteria to flourish.

Follow-up x-rays showed that most likely permanent damage had occurred and a complete recovery was not in my future. What was in my future was a full blown sinus infection every 90 days. We just celebrated my son's 32nd birthday. That's a lot of sinus infections. Over the years, it was determined that I had no physical abnormalities that could be surgically corrected and different drug therapies were unsuccessful. Finally a Mayo specialist said to take my drugs four times a year and everything would be fine. No big deal.

Fast forward to a recent trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. My tender sinuses were acting up causing the whole side of my face to hurt. My hostess, a dear friend, insisted that I try her neti pot. It looked like a tea pot in which she put warm water and a little scoop of salt. She taught me how to lean over the sink, turn my head, and pour the warm water through one nostril as it came out the other. When I lifted my head and blew my nose, it cleared my sinuses and alleviated the pain. She promised if I used it every day, my sinus problems would be a thing of the past. I smiled and said to myself that she just didn't understand the longevity and severity of my sinus issues and no pot was going to cure me. But it felt so good that I bought my own when I got home and began using it religiously. The next sinus infection cycle came as always. But the one after that never came. I skipped a sinus infection for the first time in over 30 years thanks to that little pot.

I'm the first one to tell you that once you are sick, it's probably best to take your medicine. Even though my high risk cancer was, in my mind, most certainly a result of emotional dis-ease, once I had a raging 11 centimeter breast tumor taking over my lymph nodes very quickly, I immediately began 8 months of intense treatment. In fact, my bone marrow transplant was one of the most emotionally healing experiences imaginable. And once one of those regular sinus infections came on, wild horses couldn't keep me from that bottle of antibiotics. It's what we do when we are well, how we may avoid being sick in the first place, that should be on our minds.

In the quiet of the very early morning, I was sitting in the dark in my living room, clearing out the e-mail that comes through during the night on my Blackberry. Deciding it was time to get rid of some of the regular junk, I scrolled down to the bottom of the first one and clicked on the unsubscribe link. I watched the "requesting" blue line at the bottom of the screen move so damned slow and fought the urge to use the back space button which would cancel the whole procedure because it seemed impossible to wait another second. I remembered my first Blackberry and how painfully slow it was, although when I first got it, just having internet capabilities on my phone seemed nothing short of miraculous. Then I couldn't wait to get the higher speed version, but now, in the peace and quiet of my home, long before my day even had a chance to get really stressful, I simply couldn't bear to be patient while the blue line made it all the way across the screen.

This A-type behavior is contrary to the principles taught in my regular Bikram yoga practice and yet it seems easy to practice those things in the safety and security of the studio at 108 degrees and 40 percent humidity. It is much easier to be "present" under those circumstances. You almost have to just to survive it. They say it prepares you to handle any stress. But we are very good at compartmentalizing in our lives. Good breathing in yoga class. Barely breathing when the "requesting" line takes forever to load.

My massage therapist, a wise woman, tells me to take short breaks during the day for constructive rest. Just lie down for a short while to rejuvenate body, mind and soul by connecting to your breath and being present with yourself. It sounds wonderful, doesn't it? And even though I have the opportunity and believe in its value, have I actually done it even one time?

Our self-image, who we perceive ourselves to be, is not usually a work in progress. We are good at believing that we are who we are and we do things a certain way because of it. A highly motivated person, it is hard for me to see constructive rest as anything but slacking. That is foolish, of course, and I know better, but it is ingrained. Sometimes we use our self-image as an excuse not to change, feeling we should be accepted and loved for who we already are. Can we force ourselves to examine the big picture and truly decide not just who we are, but who we want to be? Are we brave enough to admit the effect of certain behaviors on our health and then make the change necessary to improve the quality of our lives? And why is it so hard? I do know one thing. Despite being overjoyed to see that full bottle of antibiotics still in my cabinet, the one that was waiting for the next sinus infection that never came, there is a part of me that feels a little lost. Those quarterly events, no matter how dreaded, had become part of my story, ingrained into my self-image. Now I am not the woman who gets the infections every ninety days. I am the woman who stopped the infections after thirty years. I'll take the latter. Now that wasn't so bad, was it?