Thursday, March 5, 2009

Letting Go of Oprah

I was curled in a ball on the couch under a pile of blankets. My fever was just high enough to make me slightly shiver. I closed my eyes and tried to relax my muscles and my mind. I knew the Tylenol would kick in shortly and I trusted this moment would soon pass. At the same time, this physical feeling and body posture was undeniably familiar, therefore transporting me back to countless times of illness in the past.

I had a strong suspicion that what I was feeling was a result of acute rejection. Unlike chronic rejection, the illness that made it necessary for me to have a second transplant, acute is usually treatable with heavy doses of steroids. Intellectually, I understood that there was little reason for grave concern. Despite this, I did not resist the impulse to allow my thoughts to travel into the realm of worst case scenario. What if this was something serious? What if I was facing my third terminal illness? What if this was the first day of the ending of my life? What if all of my healthiest moments were behind me?

To some, this might seem like a ridiculous and morbid road to travel. After all, I am normally quite a positive person who holds true to the motto: "Be optimistic now, you can always cry later." But for me, for where I have been in my emotional and spiritual journey, pondering the end does not feel morbid or ridiculous at all. Walking beside the presence of death has become second nature to me and thinking about it in such concrete terms is only one mental step forward in consciousness from where I operate normally.

So, under my pile of blankets, I took that step into "what if" and was slightly surprised by my own reaction. The more I thought about shedding this "mortal coil" the more my body relaxed. I was practically melting into the fibers of the couch cushions. Stress was draining out of me and I was feeling a sense of relief I did not even know I needed. All of the obligations, the pressures and the striving for goals were transforming in the fantasy of my life coming to a close. Most of what mattered moments before no longer seemed to be of such value. I was becoming free again.

We all have stories and beliefs we function by. Some of these we may be aware of and others we may not. Certainly, after my experiences, there are many reasons for the work I do and how I do it. Stories play in my mind and tell me that "I must do all I can, while I can" and that I "have a mission." These are inspiring and humbling thoughts that drive my every day attitude and work ethic. What I learned on the couch that day, as stress evaporated along with my fever, is the interpretation of these internal stories needed some serious attention.

For the sake of argument, let's say that I am correct in believing that I have a mission and should do as much as I can regarding that mission while I am here on earth. Let's also say that there is nothing wrong with this as a basic core belief. But how then am I defining the mission and what does it mean to "do all I can"? This is where my feet may have fallen off of the path and ego took over. I shaped the definitions to these things early on in my career and they were all based on external confirmation of my worth. There was a staircase of ways to the top, and the top was Oprah. When I reached her, I would have fulfilled my destiny!

It sounds silly to say out loud now, but I developed a strong attachment to the goal of being on Oprah. As time ticked by, I was becoming more and more impatient and disappointed that Oprah was still nowhere in reach for me. Oprah was in my mind when I wrote, spoke and made plans for my career. At the time, I had no idea that Oprah was tormenting me.

It wasn't until I felt the weight of the Oprah Goal lift from my neck and shoulders that I understood that, what was once an innocent dream, had become a burden too heavy to carry. By being attached to such a specific and lofty goal, I had stopped concentrating on the mission and mostly focused on the outcome. In doing this, I was not only causing myself undue stress but I was missing out on the brilliance of my own life as it was without Oprah.

As a sick person, I am surrounded by the meters of success our culture provides. As a sick person, I have often felt I did not measure up to many of these. To have a college degree, to own a home, to travel the world, to have a full time job--these are the archetypal images I have of what it means to be a grown up. Oprah was going to be my fast track to getting full grown up status. Once again, however, I am now grateful for the wisdom of illness as I look back on the lessons I have learned from a lifetime of being sick and attempting to find worth in an occupation.

Faking It
When I was 16, one of my first jobs was in a sandwich shop. I prepared the sandwiches in front of the customers and one day I had a coughing fit while doing so. My cough sounded horrible even though I was not really contagious and, not surprisingly, the customer refused the sandwich. After a brief confrontation, he left the cafe. I was embarrassed, hurt and confused. My boss was unbelievably kind about the whole thing and encouraged me to not let that one person make me feel bad about myself. What a wonderful man! But I was also not stupid, as much as I tried, I could never stifle the cough when customers were around. Food prep was probably not a good place for me to be.

My next job was in a book store which seemed like a much safer environment. One day I was not feeling well and I was checking people out at the register. I must have had a surly look on my face because the customer told me I "try should smiling sometime." I was taken aback and was not aware that I looked so unpleasant that I deserved this public facial reprimand. Sometimes, when we are very sick, it is all we can do to speak, stand and shuffle the papers around. I simply didn't have it in me to smile too.

In both of these early work experiences, I learned the expectations of those around me were that I should appear and act "normal." Being that I wasn't normal, this caused me stress and I sought elaborate coping mechanisms to fake it. Each job search came with its own questions of places to escape if I needed to cough, public interaction and flexibility of sick time. The pressure I felt to be normal also started me down the path of major overcompensation, meaning I would have rather crawled to work than call in sick.

Balancing It
As time went on, cystic fibrosis became a bigger and bigger part of my existence and the line between life and work grew thinner and thinner. With the strong drive to continue faking it and to appear "normal" (aka employed) sacrifices had to be made somewhere. As my body grew weaker, these sacrifices became more dramatic. It came to a point, when I was trying to live the dream of being and actor and a director, that my days revolved around the next rehearsal or performance.

Each day, I would sleep as much as I could in order to have enough energy for the theater. I did treatments religiously, not so much for myself, but to stay in the game. During a show's run, I would hold out on going into the hospital or getting home IV medications. As a result, each show's closing was followed by a trip to the emergency room and a three week hospital stay. This all seemed perfectly worth it to me.

I'm not judging this approach to living and working with illness. Who knows what is best when you factor in quality of life and the value of pursuing one's gifts. At the same time, however, it must be noted that what I saw as a skillful balancing act at the time was actually quite out of balance. Because I had set work as the priority, everything else suffered. The only social life I had was at the theater and my days at home were quite lonely. I was putting my body under tremendous stress and pushed it well beyond its limits because "the show must go on." I was so attached to the goal that I had very little outside of it.

The question I have now is not whether this was a right or wrong way to approach a career. What I wonder now is where that motivation, the drive to seek normal, was really coming from. Was it coming from a genuine passion for the work, a passion so strong that it deserved to be the orchestrating factor in my life? Was it coming from a place of ego, a need to prove that I was a working actor? Perhaps it was old fashioned denial? In a world where there are no role models for success without achievement, I wonder, could it have simply been that I didn't know any other way to be?

Quitting It:
There comes a time in the lives of many chronically ill people when they have tried every angle and they still can't make their career work. The "balance" I spoke of above no longer gets them through the day and they begin to face consequences of missed work, increased illness and narrowing strategic options. This is often one of the most devastating times in a person's life. The loss of self, independence and purpose can be staggering. The perceived ending of dreams and what seems like years of wasted hard work can make a person feel angry or completely lost. For many of us, we do not go softly into this goodnight and there are many attempts to go back to work before we finally settle into a life without the ever-important career. What we see laying before us is a void too deep to initially comprehend.

For me, saying goodbye to working was the first time I came face to face with my powerlessness over my own illness. Up until then I could still manipulate it, wrangle it like a wild bull, when I needed to. The day I stopped working was the day I felt the bull had won and I was gutted. I was vulnerable to every fear and every dormant thought of my own inadequacy. I had been able to be someone, to have labels, and now I was left with being "The girl who sits on the couch and watched Oprah"? What was my point of existing? Why was I here? And more importantly, would anyone see my life as meaningful? My ego was in a state of complete panic and I had no idea how to live in a world without striving for "success."

What was amazing was that after the sadness and the insecurities passed, I found that it was actually very easy to fill my days. I had projects and routines but also found great pleasure in the flow of freedom. I connected with myself in a deeper way than I ever had and came to love who I was, not what I could accomplish. Over time, I began to wonder how people could live lives so consumed with work! How did they have time for themselves? It was during this time that I began to redefine the meaning of success for myself. Who is more successful, the unhappy movie star or the perfectly joyful Girl on the Couch Watching Oprah? I was beginning to embrace the idea that it may just be the latter.

So, this brings me back around to laying on the couch, under a pile of blankets and letting go of Oprah. Somewhere along the way, after the second transplant, I had clearly slipped back into the old mindset of success. Big conferences, more books, a name for myself: is this what it was really all about? If it was, I was beginning to see it was completely unsustainable for me. I couldn't handle the internal or external pressure. I was fading out of joy right into the need for others to me I was performing as expected. My dreams had become goals and those goals had become burdens. It was time to reframe. It was time to stop being attached to Oprah and discover the way to true fulfillment in my life's work.

It didn't take long before I had the opportunity to practice a new way of carrying this out. I was teaching a patient/family workshop of about 50 people and we were on a lunch break. I scarfed down my food so that I could have enough time to prepare for the next segment. I was in my usual speaker's "chicken with head cut off" mode and searching out a second microphone. In my mind, I needed that microphone and the post-lunch workshop's success depended on it.

As I made my way through the tables of people, participants kept popping up out of their chairs to talk with me. They had questions or stories they wanted to share and that takes time. Time I felt I needed to get that second microphone set up. When I spoke with the first few people, I was polite and to the point. I restrained myself as much as possible from looking over their shoulder, anticipating my next move on the hunt. When the third person stood in my path, I had only made it a few feet into the room and the clock in my head was ticking louder. I was getting frustrated.

As this man spoke to me, I started out seeing him as an obstacle to a very specific goal: the microphone. At some point during our conversation, however, I thought of myself shivering on the coach and letting go of Oprah. This was it, my moment to reframe. I took a breath and stopped glancing over his shoulder. I calmed myself and took a more planted posture. I made myself listen, not humor him, but really listen. In that conversation, I found the joy for my work and the fulfillment I was lacking previously. We connected, shared and were present together. He told me things I was honored to know and responded genuinely. I was not a speaker looking for a microphone, I was a person lucky enough to have a perfect stranger feel compelled to tell me his truth. I was transformed there, in that moment, and never wanted to be a speaker looking for a microphone again.

I never made it across the room that day. With every step, another person stood before me and we connected about whatever had brought us there that day. When the second segment began I did not have the microphone I needed. And no one, including me, cared. This is the work I want to do and the way I want to do it. The beauty is, I don't need to be running a workshop to make this happen. With each person, each day, I can choose to look over their shoulder for that microphone or I can be honestly present. With my life, I can choose to cling to attachments, shadows of goals I set in the past, or I can live it as it best served right now. Is success in this moment taking a nap instead of writing a new chapter? Then so be it. Is canceling a work meeting for lunch with a friend the more healthy choice today? Then it is the successful choice.

Illness teaches us so much. If nothing else, it has taught me that now is all we have. I will never pretend to not have ambitions or desires but those must be monitored so that they do not become burdens. I must define success for myself and not let this society tell me how valuable or not valuable I am. On the day I am laying on the couch with a fever and it is the beginning of the end, what will I remember? The disappointment and angst I felt about not being on national television or the conversation I had in the workshop where I never got a second microphone? I think we all know the answer to that.

So, today, I say goodbye to Oprah. I have let you go and I am free to be successful right now.


Midlife Midwife said...

I'm glad you aren't on Oprah and that you have the time to talk to us...your readers. You certainly have touched my life and for that I am grateful.

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