I’ve spent the past two weeks at Mayo Clinic- the nation’s #1 hospital- in Rochester, Minnesota. To begin, imagine a city purely built around a hospital. But not just any hospital- a medical mecca where desperate sick (and mostly quite old) people travel in search of answers. As you walk down the street, you see shops selling wheelchairs, toilet seat raisers, fake hair, and ostomy supplies. You’ll also pass a neurological recovery house, lung transplant home, and a Ronald McDonald House that has seen better days. Your eyes will light up upon seeing an IHOP, but you’ll quickly realize that this is an International House of Prayer, not pancakes. Upon entering any Mayo lobby, you’ll find a 90-year-old man playing Phantom of the Opera, or perhaps an even heavier piece, on the piano. What a great post-graduation vacation destination!
Having stumped the brightest minds at the University of Chicago, Northwestern, and Emory, I had been toying with the idea of applying to Mayo for quite some time. In my head, if medical relief for my puzzling autoimmune conditions existed, I would find it at Mayo. I was counting down the days until my trip there (probably said by no one else, ever!) as I was filled with hope that I would leave feeling better. As it grew nearer, however, I began to feel more and more anxious- what if they didn’t have any answers? What if I had blindly placed all my faith in getting better, in enjoying my summer, in having fun, in being happy- all in the hands of a few doctors whom I had yet to even speak with? These worries certainly crossed my mind, but I kept telling myself that I just had to make it until Memorial Day. Once I was at Mayo, all would go up from there. Hope persisted.
But it rapidly declined…
From how I set the scene, you can probably infer that the depressing environment did not help me cling onto this hope. Nor did participating in a class to learn how to use a device for an overnight medical test, in which we signed in by date of birth, and my classmates were all born in the 1930s. Nor did getting an excess of IVs, collecting my urine in a huge jug and carrying it around for 24 hours, or- perhaps best of all- drinking barium (which I definitely do not recommend!), getting barium paste injected into my rectum, climbing up steps to a portable toilet atop what might resemble a lifeguard chair, and having three technicians watch and take photos of me as I try to pass the barium into the toilet- fun stuff! All of this, coupled with the doctors’ current thoughts that most of my symptoms stem from a progressive connective tissue disease for which there is no treatment for, have certainly tested my hope.
I have felt more hopeless than ever before, but I just can’t shake all the hope out of me. I don’t know what logical, scientific, religious, or spiritual reasons I have to maintain hope- but I do. It’s kind of like my own version of Nike, Just Do It: Hope, Just Have It.
Barack Obama sums up my thoughts well- “I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that my new comfort object is a rock.
Three and a half years ago, at the beginning of my freshman year at Emory, I was rushed to the emergency room after getting hit by a flying beer bottle while out on an afternoon run. My mom often comments on the irony of this hospital visit- out of all of my medical conditions (type 1 diabetes, food allergies, asthma, etc.) that she feared could require emergency treatment while in college, this absurd accident is what landed me there. Well, the irony continues, as this week, just a few days before graduation, I was again rushed to the ER, not because of any of my preexisting conditions, but due to a crazy car accident.
I had been feeling physically terrible for the past several days, perhaps a result of these autoimmune flare-ups I get, in which my temperature elevates, blood sugar goes awry, stomach fills up with pressure and pain, and I become confined to my bed and the toilet. Feelings of hopelessness, anger, and depression filled within in me- this was supposed to be the best week, yet here I was, missing out on everything because of my medical conditions. A war arose between my body and my mind. I tried to tame it, to practice the mindfulness techniques I have studied, but it’s easier said than done. Somehow, this semester, my body allowed me to travel the country for graduate school interviews, get accepted into an outstanding PhD program, and defend my thesis with highest honors. But celebrate these accomplishments with my class? No, said my body, I’ve had enough.
On Wednesday morning, I woke up feeling awfully weak and in great stomach pain. I was actually contemplating going to the ER, out of desperation from the discomfort I was in. However, I doubted that the ER doctors would be of any help with my complex autoimmune conditions. I also reasoned that given the lack of trauma or injury, I would probably be wasting my time there. So, I reluctantly decided against going to the ER and kept my graduation photos as scheduled. I should have gone to the ER.
Upon sitting down in the backseat of Lyft, on the way to my hair appointment, I was surprised to see how old my driver was. While there is definitely no “typical” Lyft driver, they must be somewhat tech-savvy and tend to run on the younger side. Anyway, just seconds after my driver had offered me some sour candy (I declined), I was thrust forward and screaming louder than I knew I could scream. Shocked, terrified, and confused, I evacuated the car, made it to the sidewalk, and kept screaming. The past few days had been filled with tears, but not a panic like this. Bystanders asked me if I was okay. I said I didn’t know. Worried because I was holding my head and back, they followed the directions of a passing truck driver, who said he was an EMT and had yelled out the window to lay me down.
I found out from the bystanders that it was a pretty traumatic hit-and-run accident- “like what you see in the movies, when a car just whips out, smashes another car, and drives away,” someone said. We were driving at full speed, dramatically rear-ended by this unknown man, leading us to hit the car in front of us. Considering the circumstances, it is quite amazing that we are all okay. I was the only one suspected to be seriously injured. My neck is very sore, and I should probably stop writing this piece soon, but it could have a much more tragic ending.
So how do I feel now? How should I feel now? Why did this happen to me? And why now?
Throughout my ambulance ride, CT scans, and lots of waiting in a brace, I strove to focus on my breath- if I just keep inhaling and exhaling, everything will be okay, I told myself. And it is. Instead of trying to figure out exactly what happened, or worrying about this accident’s impact on my plan to do yoga teacher training this summer, I tried to focus on the present. It is hard to put a positive spin on this story. But it does make me grateful for my health- while it is far from perfect, I must acknowledge and thank my body for what it can do, rather than fight against it. It does put things into perspective. It does build character. And it does make me even more excited about incorporating elements of trauma-focused healing in my career.
As I have probably said before on this blog, I do not believe that everything happens for a reason. But I do like this Cheryl Strayed quote- “You don’t have a right to the cards you believe you should have been dealt. You have an obligation to play the HELL out of the ones you’re holding.” This card sure was an ironic one, but I’ll take Cheryl’s advice.
A few weeks ago, I attended a special themed “Practice Peace” yoga class (please don’t kill me for incorporating another yoga intention here, but this is honestly what is getting me through everything right now!) While I initially approached this class thinking it might be relaxing, it was intentionally quite physically challenging. Practicing peace during a restorative yoga class is easy- it doesn’t even require practice. Therefore, this class was designed to practice finding peace within ourselves in the face of adversity. Throughout these 75 minutes, my teacher reminded us to keep the internal the same while the external changes, to maintain internal harmony amidst a constantly shifting world.
For the past couple years, I have been struggling with gastroenterological issues- most notably persistent bloating, which has recently intensified. Thinking about my internal and external self has led me to ponder my mind-body relationship as I attempt to answer this question: How can I practice peace when my stomach looks like this?
I look like I am six months pregnant. My stomach used to curve inward. Now it protrudes outward, sometimes so far that I cannot see past my toes. It feels hard and full of pressure, which causes me great discomfort. Every time I eat, no matter what I eat, it gets bigger and bigger. I am least inflated in the morning, which perhaps explains why I enjoy waking up and exercising at 5am- it’s when I feel best and most like myself. I cannot fall asleep because of my stomach. Instead of choosing my favorite outfits, I desperately search for clothes to conceal my bulging belly. Thank goodness for flattering lululemon pants.
I have seen the top gastroenterologists at the University of Chicago, the “motility wizard” at Emory, and experts at Northwestern. I have tried just about everything, except for the suggestion of my most recent gastroenterologist, which was a medication from planetdrugsdirect.com- it was only $20 and included free shipping! When I explained that I thought this sounded a bit sketchy and asked if it was illegal, he informed me that it was “not that illegal.” My further research revealed that while it might combat my bloating, it is not approved by the FDA due to irreversible neurological damage and sudden death. Concluding that a bloated life is certainly better than no life, I did not purchase this drug.
This past weekend, I saw my endocrinologist at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation gala. “You look great,” he told me, with a smile. “Look at this!” I exclaimed, directing his attention towards my stomach. “Well, as we know, your body is strange, and there are many things we just do not have answers for.”
The next night, I lay in bed staring at my “believe” medal rack, which is filled with race finisher medals and age group awards. How on earth did I earn these? My eyes gaze back and forth from my stomach to my medals. I was so proud of my strong, lean body. Where did it go? Who am I now? My distended abdomen does not pair well with neither my preexisting medical conditions- food allergies and type 1 diabetes- nor their associated disordered eating cognitions that I have long struggled with. (I do not know why this issue is so rarely discussed, but I strongly feel it should be! For a super interesting but sad article, read this. I by no means have diabulimia but can definitely relate to these complex psychological and physiological relationships).
For the first time, my invisible illness is becoming visible. Although it may not seem that noticeable to others, it is quite physically and mentally distressing. If you were to lift up my shirt, I am certain you would agree. No matter how well I treat my body, it seems to attack me. My stomach is causing me great physical pain, but even greater is the pain of seeing my body as unfamiliar. Is this what an identity crisis feels like?
Yet somehow, on a path that is currently under construction, I can develop peace within this body. I am determined to keep this “practice peace” intention strong. This peace is not a surrender to my body- I will continue to relentlessly pursue medical treatment- but I must work towards accepting that there may not be an answer, at least not right now. Believing that I will eventually look and feel better is comforting, and I do believe this. Rather than feeling like my mind and body are at war, however, I can practice cultivating peace no matter how my body behaves. I will never “find” peace. It is not a destination, but a process, a practice. I may not be able to control my physical body’s autoimmune attacks. But with time and practice, I can sharpen a more powerful weapon- my mind.
“Let go.” This seems to be a buzzword in the world of yoga, mindfulness, and compassion meditation that I have recently immersed myself in. In such practices, we are instructed to “let go” of cognitions, emotions, and behaviors that are not presently serving us well. Lying on my mat in the candlelit yoga studio or sitting on my meditation cushion listening to my instructor’s soothing voice, letting go of my daily stresses about upcoming assignments or graduate school applications is relatively simple. While this brings temporarily relief, I am now realizing that I, and perhaps many of us, have difficulty acknowledging and letting go of our deeper demons. So if it is not our daily life hassles, what must we let go of to cultivate internal peace? Expectations? Rigidity? Black-and-white thinking?
If you have been reading this blog, you know that, for nearly two years now, I have been struggling with a mysterious leg injury compounded by my body’s autoimmune conditions and inability to heal. However, as a compulsive runner, I must do a Turkey Trot every Thanksgiving. This tradition began in high school, when I was severely anemic and ran an unofficial Thanksgiving Day 5 miler in a forest preserve with my aunt. This was followed by 10k road race PRs, along with a 5k on crutches. Since I was unable to run last year but just had to participate, I speed-walked the 5k, which probably strained by legs more than a slow jog would, and then spent the rest of the morning crying on the elliptical, feeling sorry for myself, and working my body to the point of physical and mental exhaustion. When my dad asked me if I wanted him to sign me up for this year’s Turkey Trot, my initial thought was of course- it’s Thanksgiving, I am runner (but haven’t been able to run in months,) I must do a Turkey Trot. But I slowly turned inward and began confronting my feelings…I had trained my brain to find joy in suffering, yet I realized that alternate paths existed that were not characterized by suffering yet resulted in the joy, challenge, and growth that I craved. Turning to such a healthier outlet from the start would have been the logical choice, but humans are more than just rational beings.
“Be stubborn about your goals and flexible about your methods”
For a strong-willed perfectionist like myself, this is very difficult, yet also quite rewarding. I reluctantly let go of this year’s Turkey Trot and instead participated in back-to-back gratitude themed yoga classes. While I did not achieve exactly what I had initially envisioned, these activities involve the same goals- physical challenge, self-improvement, and a profound sense of community. As I reflect on the past two years and my resistance to let go of running, I still feel rather conflicted. Running remains a central tenant of my identity- I still read my Runner’s World each morning, listen to running-related podcasts while on the elliptical, and fantasize about destination races. If I have held on to something that is not physically serving me for two years, maybe that means it is a critical part of who I am. Maybe I shouldn’t just let it go.
But at the same time, I have found great joy in being a beginner yogi. A few weeks ago, I heard a podcast interviewee, a runner who had recently discovered triathlons exclaim, “It’s really fun to be a novice at something,” and I’ve been thinking about my personal experience with this ever since. In my first year sidelined from running, I never thought I could possibly find another pursuit I truly enjoyed and was therefore reluctant to try any new activities- I was good at running and I would soon be back at it. This has not turned out as planned, but letting go of my rigid beliefs and learning to accept, rather than expect, has allowed me to discover a new passion. In fact, being a beginner means no expectations, measurable improvement, and childlike play and curiosity- what prevented me from realizing this sooner?
Letting go is difficult, scary, and uncertain, yet also quite liberating. I cannot say that I have fully (or even nearly) let go of running, but I am okay with this. While standing on my mat on Thanksgiving morning, my teacher offered the intention, “It is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.” My heart and mind were radiating happiness that morning, embodying the gratitude of my newfound passion. Gratitude for my yoga community. For finding joy in being a beginner. For persisting in my goals yet relaxing my methods. For finally beginning to let go.
Age. At face value, this is a rather simple concept- the length of time that something has existed. As a 21-year-old, I have existed for 21 years, and that is fact. Yet society often complicates this construct, extending its meaning, applying assumptions, and broadening its implications. For instance, in upper-middle class America, we expect individuals of my age to be in college, working hard and, perhaps, partying harder. We expect them to be at a certain developmental stage, hanging out with peers of the same age, and doing things that college kids do. Perhaps this schema of age is logical to an extent, but I am an outlier- an old soul trapped in the body of a 12-year-old.
I cannot recall a week in the past year where I have not gotten mistaken for a 12-year-old (read UNACCOMPANIED MINOR! for some examples!) At the same time, I am often told I have an old soul. I am the youngest person in the Cognitively-Based Compassion Training program I am enrolled in at Emory by at least twenty years. If you look at my most recent text messages and missed FaceTimes, you’ll find that many are from my former campers. My bulletin board sums it up well- photos with my favorite professor, girls I babysit, younger cousins, famous runners, and 40-year-old Tibetan monks. So how old am I?
I was home for fall break last week, and, aside from my family, my most meaningful social interactions were with Emma, my 9-year-old former camper turned friend, and Sam, my 35-year-old yoga teacher. When discussing fall break with my peers back at Emory, they naturally asked if I saw my friends from home. This caught me off guard. Did I go out with for drinks with a group of girlfriends from high school? No. But did I spend time with friends? Absolutely- I babysat for a young girl that I’ve known since she was 5 and chatted in the yoga studio with a teacher I just met this summer. Is this the traditional sense of friendship? Probably not, but think about all those moving stories about unusual animal friends!
“Surround yourself with people who make you hungry for life, touch your heart, and nourish your soul”
I came across this quote on the airplane, and it prompted a number of questions. Namely, is there a distinction between our physical age and the age of our soul, and what makes our souls connect? I realize this is quite abstract- after all, how do we define the soul? To me, the soul is the human spirit, the energy within each of us that brings meaning to our lives. Every now and then, we find a like-minded soul- someone whose energy we are mutually attracted to, and a meaningful social relationship blossoms. In my opinion, the soul is ageless, and thus a like-minded soul can be found in an individual of any given age.
Emma and Sam are 26 years apart, but if I described what I value in them using the statements below, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell who is who:
Finishes my sentences because I seem to have told her all of my funny stories and she remembers every detail, indicating what an incredible listener she is
Assumes that I am clearly not fasting on Yom Kippur because of my type 1 diabetes, demonstrating that she understands and respects my medical condition, no explanation needed
Greets me with a hug and warm smile and asks “how are you?” with sincerity
Answers: 1. Emma, 2. Sam, 3. Both
Perhaps verbalizing these feelings dilutes their meaning, but both Emma and Sam constantly display qualities that I aspire to embody. While age might bring wisdom, I strongly believe that wisdom can come at any age.
I do not have a tight group of same-age peers. I sometimes struggle with this, yet I cannot control who my soul connects with. In learning from friends of a wide variety of ages, I have realized that age is perhaps one of many artificial barriers our society constructs. Once we can accept this, we see that perhaps we are all ageless souls- a beautiful realization.
About a year ago, I wrote a post called Believe: My Personal Faith, which discussed the word I was using to deal with adversity- specifically my enigmatic autoimmune conditions leaving me unable to run. At the time, I was wholeheartedly engrossed in the power of the word “believe”- trusting that this was temporary; that my body would soon decide to heal itself; that I would one day be happy, healthy, and flourish; that I would stop complaining to my family and stop withdrawing from social interaction, because I would soon run again and everything in my life would be better. This word will always hold a special place in my heart. In the past few months, however, I have realized a fundamental flaw in my philosophy. Placing all faith in a brighter future prevented me from relishing the present. In essence, my persistent belief was a defense mechanism, providing comfort that this mental anguish was temporary, that the pain would soon pass.
There is no doubt that the word “believe,” allowed me to endure, but my definition of strength and belief involved constantly pushing my body to its physical and mental tipping point- thinking that my life was not fair, beating myself up for it, and justifying that if I just tried harder and suffered further, I would eventually get what I deserved. To me, believing was going, going, and going coupled with frequent emotional outbursts- life isn’t fair, I hate my body, why me?
In my last post, I mentioned the two wonders that a life without running has brought me. Podcasts were the first, and I am now going to discuss yoga. I began practicing yoga regularly at the beginning of the summer, and it has utterly transformed my outlook on life. By uniting breath and movement, body and mind, I have learned to approach hardship with acceptance rather than reactance. This may sound a bit abstract, but it’s actually quite simple. Instead of getting bogged down by the time it takes to measure out all of my portions of food, I acknowledge this annoyance, measure it all out, and get back to my homework. Rather than waking up in the middle of the night with a low blood sugar, becoming angry about needing to take glucose, and scrutinizing myself for inaccurately predicting the exact dosage of insulin to balance the carbohydrates in my dinner, I simply acknowledge the annoyance and go back to sleep. Instead of demonizing my body for inflating like a balloon anytime I eat anything, I tell myself that it’s okay to be upset and move on. I am in no way ignoring the pain that my illnesses cause me on a daily basis, but I am substantially minimizing the mental toll they take on me.
Yoga is not about self-improvement, it’s about self-acceptance.
This quote sums up what yoga has brought me- the ability to accept the reality of being unable to control my body. Rather than relentlessly attempting to move forward, I am stopping to breathe. I am uniting my mind and body- using the core principles of yoga to heal.
I am currently in a course called The Dalai Lama’s Ethics, and we are learning about the importance of self-compassion. Before practicing yoga and taking this course, I would’ve dismissed the term “self-compassion” as weak. Indulgent. Unnecessary. My only self-care involved waking up when it’s pitch black, when some of my peers are still up from the night before, cranking out cardio to the point of exhaustion, and feeling extremely guilty upon ever not doing so. Sure this alleviates stress, but I doubt that this was what His Holiness envisioned. I don’t know why, but after all these years, everything changed on my yoga mat. I realized that destructive thoughts and behaviors were leaving my body in perpetual fight-or-flight mode and decided that something needed to change. Since being more aware and accepting of my distressed somatic symptoms and cognitions and actively striving to breathe both on and off my mat, I have realized the truth in the Dalai Lama’s emphasis on self-compassion. In order to have compassion for others, we must first accept ourselves. For many years, I felt alone in my struggles with medical adversity. Since I was such a unique patient, I doubted that any of my peers could possibly relate. But an inability to physically feel what I feel does not necessarily prevent them from treating me with compassion. It is only a few weeks into the semester, but being open and accepting of my own struggles and empathizing with those of others has already taken relationships to new levels.
I still want to push myself to my greatest potential, and I still have hope. I still believe. I have concluded, however, that believing without breathing, acknowledging, and accepting is unsustainable. Now, I breathe and believe.
Although I do not believe that everything happens for a reason, I wholeheartedly believe that sparks of light can be found in the darkest of times. I have written before about my struggles with losing an integral part of my identity- about not being able to run- and my stubborn and mysterious injury has not ceased to agitate me on a daily basis. An inability to run, however, has forced me to seek out other outlets to find the stress relief, strength, clarity, and inspiration that my soul craves. My running hiatus has now lasted more than a year and a half, but I have finally discovered two very bright stars- podcasts and yoga- in what was once an abyss. These are not just additional interests or hobbies, but fundamental lifestyle changes that I will continue to appreciate once I run again. This post is a collection of my favorite podcasts; a yoga-related piece will follow shortly.
Before discussing my personal favorite podcasts, I must mention the benefits I’ve experienced from making podcasts part of my daily routine. I begin each morning with 90 minutes on the elliptical. 90 minutes is a large chunk of time. Not only do podcasts make this time go by faster, but they make it truly worthwhile. Rather than merely burning calories and getting an endorphin rush, I am quenching my intellectual curiosity before most of my college peers are awake! Perhaps the best part of podcasts is that they generate more questions than answers- I find myself thinking about these ideas throughout the week, and as an aspiring researcher, I am constantly coming up with interdisciplinary questions to pursue in the future. Additionally, podcasts have exponentially increased my awareness of the world. It is rare that a day goes by without me hearing something related in a class or from a friend and want to interject (but don’t want to be that annoying person!) “I heard on a podcast…”
Here are my top podcast picks- try some of them out, and please let me know what you think! Also, I should mention that the “I don’t have time” excuse does not apply to podcasts- listen while you’re working out, cleaning, cooking, or driving. Enjoy!
Running On Om
The runners and yogis interviewed on this podcast are not merely runners or yogis, but wellness pioneers who use innovative practices to create meaningful change in the world. Each episode explores the mind-body-spirit connection by providing raw conversation with those who have achieved success not by following a traditional path, but by doing their “om” thing. They take what they have learned through their passion off of the road or mat and into the world. For example, Dr. Melody Moore, a clinical psychologist has integrated empirically-supported psychological treatments with yoga interventions for adolescents with eating disorders. I am constantly inspired by the stories on ROO, and they have significantly influenced my future career goals.
This is not a podcast that I typically listen to. As I grapple with my personal religious beliefs, however, I have found the selected episodes below extremely thought provoking. The number of religious ‘nones’ in our country is rapidly increasing, and these episodes explore this phenomenon. Here are some key questions they address- Do we turn to religion because it easily provides us with beliefs, belonging, and behaviors? Can boutique fitness studios, such as SoulCycle or CrossFit, that many now claim is their “religion” fulfill these key functions? When we are raised with religion, stray from it as young adults, and then have kids, why do we innately feel guilty and thus raise our children with religion? What is the future of morality, be that religious or secular?
As someone with absolutely no interest in economics, business, or anything of that nature, I was reluctant to listen to this podcast. Well, one year later and I have listened to more than 100 episodes! Each week, Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt discuss “everything you always wanted to know but never thought to ask.” Sometimes they explore questions that I am already familiar with, like the concept of grit or organ donation, but use the most creative means to address it. For example, I am fascinated by the ethics and medical process of organ donation, but on Freakonomics, I heard from the economist who devised the algorithm to help transplant recipients find donors. Other times, the topic is something I’ve never really contemplated but am suddenly curious about- like why it seems there is a mattress store on every corner!
As a psychology student, I am naturally drawn to this podcast, which is hosted by NPR’s social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed almost every episode, but my favorite one is definitely Dream Jobs. It discusses the practice of job crafting, or creating a career that combines our passions with our skills, and of cognitive crafting, or reframing how we interpret our daily work. For example, hospital custodial staff who aim to provide a more pleasant experience for patients, such as offering to get them a glass of water, or informing a physician that they haven’t had a visitor in weeks, feel much more of a purpose than those who see their jobs as simply cleaning. Furthermore, these individuals identify as healers, and find greater meaning in their work.
This has been my mom’s favorite program on NPR for years. Although I do not listen to it regularly, this selected episode provides a great overview on the power of the mind in healing the body. I find it ironic that some people are opposed to psychoactive drugs for fear that they will change their brains. As this podcast demonstrates, placebos, virtual reality, and meditation can be just as effective in physically changing the brain’s neural circuitry. Rather than demeaning the placebo effect, this podcast argues that we should be harnessing its power. I’m quite interested to see where this goes in the future, and it is especially relevant as I begin to bring yoga and meditation into my everyday life.
This is not what you’re thinking. He wasn’t a jock, a rebel, or a nerd, and this wasn’t a love affair. It goes more like this…
A 20-year-old white Jewish girl and a 40-year-old Tibetan monk walk into 7-Eleven. They buy Slurpees, smile incessantly, and take selfie, upon selfie, upon selfie.
My friendship with Jamyang Gompo, “James Lama,” began in the fall of my sophomore year. We were both in a small interdisciplinary course called Science and the Nature of Evidence: Are We Our Genes? James was one of six monks in his cohort of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, a partnership between Emory University and His Holiness the Dalai Lama designed to bridge western science and eastern spirituality. Every two years, Tibetan monks from various monasteries are chosen to study science at Emory for four semesters, after which they return to India and teach science to their peers.
While I didn’t personally interact much with James during class, I couldn’t help but notice his smile-he was constantly radiating this jovial energy, and his vibe intrigued me. On a whim, I invited him to get lunch in the Emory dining hall. Shortly after our first meal together, he asked me to be his philosophy tutor for the following semester. I had never taken a philosophy class, but I agreed. The rest is history. Just five months later, my family was on our way to O’Hare to pickup James from the airport. Some of my fondest memories are from James’s time in Chicago- riding on the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel, ordering Lou Malnati’s pizza, playing board games, cruising around in my dad’s convertible, and watching lots of Tom and Jerry.
The king of selfies
James couldn’t get enough of the “lightening fast” Boxter
This blog post is much overdue, purely because I could not (and still cannot) conceive how to express our relationship through words. If you know me well, you know that when I talk about James I get so excited and happy and just can’t shut up. For now, I’d like to share the most integral lessons I’ve learned from our friendship, along with some photos that I guarantee will make your heart smile.
Simplicity is a gift.
This was going to be James’s first and only time staying with an American family, so I wanted him to choose all of our adventures, meals, and daily activities. I was struck by the distress that choices brought James. He insisted that I choose everything, and I quickly learned that the plethora of trivial choices that we all make each day is a foreign concept to James. In the monastery, every single monk eats bread and jam for breakfast every single day. There is one kind of bread and one kind of jam. When my mom offered James various types of cereal, oatmeal, bagels, and toast for breakfast, he said just bread would be fine. When she put orange marmalade, grape jelly, and strawberry jam on the counter, James could not believe the myriad number of breakfast options in a single house. The same thing happened when I asked James what pizza toppings he wanted or what board game he would like to play- he always insisted that I choose.
In the United States, we are conditioned to think that more choice is better, yet having to make countless minute decisions each day exerts cognitive resources that could perhaps be conserved, and thus devoted to more valuable pursuits, if our lives were simplified. I can’t help but think how many hours I’ve wasted standing in front of my closet throughout the years, when I could just be wearing a red robe like James!
Full presence is powerful, and patience really is a virtue.
Before James came to Chicago, I wanted to plan where to meet at the airport, so I asked him if he would be checking a bag or only bringing a carry-on. James could be an icon for the growing minimalist approach and downsizing movement in our country- he arrived with solely his school backpack. The bag I carry around campus weighs significantly more than what James brought for a four-day trip! But because he was not carrying around any extra baggage, he was able to be fully present, aware, alive- something we should all be striving for.
Living in the present frees us from dwelling on the past or fretting about the future, but reaching and maintaining full presence is quite difficult for many people, including myself. When Uber was taking ten minutes longer than expected to arrive to take us to Union Station, I became extremely frustrated and worried that we would miss our train home. Based on my visceral reaction, James grew concerned as well. I explained that if we missed this train, we would have to wait 30 minutes for the next one, and that the train ride was an hour long. He informed me that the train ride from his monastery to the closest airport is three days. Well, that sure put things into perspective!
Cultural barriers are an illusion.
Before meeting James, if you had told me that one of my closest friends would be a Tibetan monk, I’d tell you that you were crazy. What could two people of such disparate cultural upbringings possibly have in common? A lot- intellectual curiosity, a love of learning, a desire to find and emit positivity, and a drive to develop meaningful connections with others.
James is the Knenpo of his monastery, which means he has achieved the highest level of Tibetan Buddhism philosophical study and now acts as president. But our typical conversations do not concern philosophical principles or scientific inquiry. I have not become a devout Buddhist monk. I do not turn to James for spiritual guidance. Rather, I turn to him to feel happy. I do not think of James as a holy religious figure, but simply as a good friend. He loves Starbucks coffee (but the closest one to his monastery is 10 hours away!), wearing Ray Bans, and telling jokes. His favorite American joke is why was 6 afraid of 7 (my mom had to bite into an imaginary apple to explain that 7 “ate” 9!) and for his birthday, my family sent him a selfie stick, a Tom and Jerry (no words makes for easy understanding!) DVD, and a children’s joke book. He exclaimed that we “knew just what he needed”- not what I would have ever expected a Tibetan monk to say!
In a world full of religious, ethnic, and cultural conflict, our friendship highlights the ability of humans to find meaningful connections regardless of background. Sure, the language barrier creates challenges at times, but we usually just end up laughing- acknowledging how hard we are trying to express our thoughts so that the other can understand. Smiles and laughter make up the most potent language of all- the universal language of friendship.
So that’s the story of the first boy I brought home from college! It’s definitely not what I expected, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. James is now back in India. His two years at Emory ended a few days after his stay with my family, but we still talk via Facebook multiple times a week. He is truly one of my closest friends, and I am confident that it will remain this way for many years to come.
Note: I have been a bit apprehensive about posting this piece. The tone may strike as a contrast from my typical upbeat stories, but it’s just not everyday that I get hit by a beer bottle while running, spontaneously cross paths with inspiring individuals, or develop a guiding life mantra! I initially created this blog to share my active adventures while living with chronic illnesses, and I feel that accurately depicting the daily struggles of dealing with autoimmune conditions is imperative. I promise that my next post will be more cheerful, but in the meantime, I hope you enjoy a raw look into my mind.
American parents are notoriously known for making their children feel special. They truly believe, and instill in the minds of their offspring, that they are different from the rest, outstanding, exceptional. But there are some realms where being special is a curse rather than a blessing. The medical field is one of them. Throughout the past several years, I have been told by countless distinguished physicians that my body is “very interesting,” that my medical history is “quite strange,” and that I am “unique…more unique than most.”
While I do hold an enormous appreciation for research, tremendously value the heartfelt relationships I have developed with my physicians, and am glad to ignite their intellectual curiosity, perplexing the University of Chicago’s most decorated doctors certainly has its costs. Comorbidity is the norm rather than the exception when it comes to illness, but I take that to an extreme. If I was just a “typical” patient- one with diabetes who responded to insulin in a predictable manner, one with food allergies who reacted moderately, or one with a defining set of connective tissue disease symptoms, rather than symptoms from a variety of clusters- my medical trajectory would be fairly straightforward. But I am unique. My conditions are labeled “undifferentiated,” as they do not fit a presently defined syndrome. My hematologist suggested that I attend medical school and try to study individuals like myself, whose autoimmune systems have gone awry. I appreciate her confidence in my scholastic ability, but no patient wants to be told to go find her own cure far into the future!
Most of the time, I am able to maintain a relatively positive attitude- focusing on what I can control and pleading that my body cooperates. But sometimes I just cannot stand feeling that my body is constantly fighting against me. I exercise for a minimum of 90 minutes a day and weigh 97 pounds when I wake up, yet I often get so bloated throughout the day that children ask me if I am pregnant. I rarely eat dessert, and when I let myself have a treat, my blood sugar skyrockets so high, becoming pretty much unresponsive to repeated insulin injections and leaving me feeling quite ill. When I wear a dress on the train to work, I get an itchy red rash on the back of my thighs from the seat, perhaps due to some residue of food I am allergic to. So I often do feel angry, but then I get mad at myself for feeling this way. I have a loving, supportive family and have had a very successful college career. While many adolescents are stuck in the hospital, I am out living an active life. I should be grateful; these thoughts of anger are absurd.
But every now and then, my conflicting emotions are validated. While reviewing an extensive array of symptoms at a new rheumatologist last week, the fellow remarked, “Any symptoms of anxiety? Depression? I mean, how could you not!” The next day, at my annual checkup, my pediatrician took a break from thinking about my puzzling body to discuss my plans to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and future career goals.
“So what’s the secret? How do you do it?”
“Do what?” I asked.
“All of it. What keeps you going? Most young people who have grown up with chronic illnesses have given up by now.”
I do not think either of these people intended to induce so much emotion, but I was crying the whole ride home. I cannot pinpoint why, but I have felt a plethora of conflicting feelings in the days since. Frustration at the voids of modern medicine. Anger at the seemingly impossible feat of attaining mind-body harmony. Grateful for the resources that have allowed me to cope relatively successfully. Miserable for all those children and young adults who have fallen victim to their illness. Most of all, though, validated.
That night, the suggested intention in my yoga class was, it doesn’t get easier; you just get stronger. I felt as if the teacher had read my mind. My body is exceptionally unique, and my chronic illnesses will not relent. They will continue to throw me physical, social, and mental curveballs for years to come. There will be good days and bad days. I can work towards accepting that. Unless some miraculous medical discoveries are rapidly made, it will not get easier. But I will continue to get stronger.
Once again, this blog has seen a lengthy hiatus. For a time, I had mentally resigned. I created Miles with M.E. to share my “running reflections and autoimmune adventures,” but my running career for the past year and a half has consisted of countless orthopedic and physical therapy visits yet little progress. A blog chronicling my frustrations with my body’s seemingly inability to heal would certainly not prove enlightening. Thus, in a mental slump and confusion of a worthy purpose of this blog, I simply gave up- until two special people came into my life. We all know those corny sayings about people walking into and out of our lives and those special individuals leaving footprints on our hearts. More profound, and less corny, I feel, are those who stay in our heads- fundamentally changing how we think, how we interact with others, how we see the world.
You may remember Jim, the cancer survivor who befriended me at the Winship 5k in October of 2015. I think about Jim quite frequently, and last month, we met for lunch at the Emory Farmers Market. We hadn’t seen each other since the race but had emailed back-and-forth every now and then, and Jim suggested that we get together. In my original post about Jim, I discussed how he restored my faith in humanity, and our recent discussion had an even stronger effect. Jim came to lunch extremely prepared. He had spent the previous day analyzing my running form in online race photos and subsequently researching corrective exercises, and he brought resistance bands with to demonstrate them. He also pulled a supplement beverage out of his backpack and informed me of the vast benefits he had seen with his own autoimmune issues by incorporating fermented foods into his diet. Most meaningful of all was the extent to which, explicitly and implicitly, Jim informed me that I was in his thoughts and prayers. I have often questioned whether pure altruism exists, but if it does, Jim embodies it. This man, whom I have spent no more than a couple of hours with in my life, truly cares about me. He is a compassionate healer seeking to rejuvenate my body and mind, and he has encouraged me to believe in the goodness of the world.
Now, let me introduce you to Lexi. I met Lexi in Club Med Sandpiper Bay over spring break. While her official title is fitness instructor, I think mender, warrior, or spiritual gangster are far more appropriate. Never before have I met someone who radiates such positive energy. I had practiced yoga occasionally throughout the years, but it wasn’t until Lexi’s class that I felt anything deeper than physical exercise. The quotes she read about calming the body and quieting the mind and the words she spoke about human interconnectedness- the oneness of the world- captivated me. I got to know Lexi quite well throughout the week, and what perhaps stood out most was her awareness of the world. During morning power walks, she would just notice ever little detail in nature, beauties that the rest of us would mindlessly miss. She was present and child-like, always trying out new ways of playing with her body and encouraging guests to do the same. I have learned about the positive effects of mindfulness, spirituality, and play through my interdisciplinary classes and various podcasts and articles that I read on my own. It wasn’t until I saw someone embody these qualities, however, that I gained the courage to incorporate them into my own life. I was quite comforted to learn that Lexi has not always been like this- that we can all actively change our ways of being- and that she still feels she is on a spiritual journey- that no one is perfect, that we can always grow if we so choose. Saying goodbye to Lexi was extremely difficult, but she reminded me that we are all connected. Before meeting her, I would have found this extremely cheesy. Now, however, I find myself wholeheartedly believing in oneness- I truly feel that her teachings are present within me.
So, you may be wondering- what do Jim and Lexi have in common, and what do they have to do with Miles with M.E.? These two individuals reignited my positive energy and instilled within me a creative purpose and determination to spread goodness in the world. While this blog may, at least for some time, not be narrowly focused on running, my hope is that my posts offer glimmers of happiness, spark creativity, or inspire you to actively choose to enhance your holistic wellness. I would be lying if I said I no longer complained every time I am upset or have an autoimmune flare, but Jim and Lexi have truly empowered me- allowing me to realize that I am in control of the energy that surrounds me. I have become increasingly aware of and bothered by the plethora of gossip and complaints in our daily interactions and thus made greater efforts to seek out environments that support my thriving.
It is difficult to fathom how one person can have such an enormous impact in such a short time. What I am still reconciling even further is the question of why I met Jim and Lexi. I find it hard to believe that the timing of these encounters was purely coincidental. Skeptics would deem it as chance, and I have previously expressed my rejection of everything happening for a reason. Religious folks like Jim would say that God brought us together. Perhaps I am somewhere in the middle then, feeling that some spiritual energy brought us together. I will continue to grapple with exactly what I believe, but I am alright with that.
Thanks to Jim and Lexi for radiating positive energy and empowering me to rekindle this blog.