May 2021. I’ve just emerged from a miserable month of headaches, body pains, doctor’s appointments and a mind hijacked by a carping self-sabotaging voice that told me my life was meaningless, useless and irrelevant. The fact that I turned 68 in the middle of the month may have had something to do with this existential crisis. I don’t understand how I came to be this age.
It’s not that I hate obvious signs of ageing, such as my arthritic knee or my white hair, but I was shocked when my daughter showed me a close-up photo she took earlier this week that featured extensive wrinkled skin around my neck. ‘It’s just because you have your vest zipped up like that,’ she kindly said when I involuntarily exclaimed ‘I look so old!’ I guess I am not as immune to the western cultural obsession with youth as I’d thought I was.
I feel overwhelmed with the continual adjustments I seem to be making. Like not being able to commit to the day’s plans until after I wake and find out how my head and body feel today. Like having to leave the aqua class early because a headache is looming. Like not walking in the nearby forest because my knee becomes too painful. Like trying to remain functional when gripping pain clamps my head and plunges me into despair.
Enveloped in my personal survival misery world, I am always surprised to hear that others have similar or probably worse pain and disability. I see women a few years older than me, gingerly lowering themselves into the aqua pool and moving slowly. Sometimes I think ‘That’s my future’. I don’t want it to be my future. Do I have a choice?
I marvel at the persistence of one woman who despite years and years of pain in her feet and back still comes into the water, her hair in a smart bob and her spirit spunky and resilient when we chat over coffee later. I am inspired by another 60+-year-old slim, tanned woman who tells me what an amazing difference strength training has made to her body and well-being. She’s recovered from serious injury and is powering on through life. I don’t seem to have their resilience. I don’t seem to have their wisdom.
I stumble across YouTube clips of Dr Gabor Mate´, a Hungarian-Canadian physician with a special interest in the way childhood trauma can influence physical and mental health, including addictions, autoimmune disease, cancer, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and many other conditions that show up in childhood and later life. Maybe it’s his matter-of-fact humility; maybe it’s his deep conviction of the importance of the mind-body connection; maybe it is his lament that trauma is rarely included in the training of medical practitioners. Something in his message penetrates my sad heart.
He uses an approach he calls Compassionate Inquiry based on compassion for self (and the client, if one is a health or therapist professional). Instead of having one’s nervous system (that has been primed by childhood experiences) make reactive assumptions about problematic situations or relationships, compassionate curiosity is used to investigate the feelings behind the reaction and to find ways to heal the hurts that lie behind those feelings.
It’s not rocket science. It’s not new. It sounds like mindfulness. I’m familiar with that. I used it when I was counselling adolescents. What does jolt me is the realisation that it’s about compassion, especially self-compassion. I can’t believe how many times I have to learn this lesson. Obviously, I have never learned it well enough for it to become ingrained in my repertoire of responses to life challenges, because here it is again and I know in my bones it is truth for me.
Perhaps Google or Facebook was listening, because, the next thing in my Facebook feed was a video from poet David Whyte inviting people to join his Three Sundays in May series. The topic: The Poetry of Self Compassion. I can’t wait to hear his melodious Irish-American lilt and revisit this essential aspect of self-care.