There is a feeling we have sometimes of betraying some mission we were mandated to fulfill, and being unable to fulfill it. And then coming to understand that the real mandate was not to fulfill it. And that the deeper courage was to stand guiltless in the predicament in which you find yourself. – Leonard Cohen

People are usually surprised to hear how I really feel about living my life under such extreme circumstances: being unable to move from the neck down after being a competitive athlete my entire life, living in a body that can barely keep me alive, having difficulty speaking audibly when tired and barely being able to whisper. It just boggles people’s minds that I could live my life with so much gratitude for being, so much gratitude for having as much independence as I have, defying what our medical establishment is able to tolerate due to the excellent, compassionate, spiritually-driven circle of women and men who surround me and care for me. The paradigm we have co-created has allowed me to focus on what I truly value – connecting deeply with the people I love and helping them to allow more Love in their lives.

I live an interesting paradox. My body is in hospice, but my mind and my Spirit are experiencing the most joy I could ever imagine in life. How can that possibly be? I could never understand it without living it. It is true that I cannot move, eat, eliminate, without complete dependence on others, however, there is so much I can do that I would never have been able to with a fully, functioning body.

My life has always been about service–service through my psychotherapy practice, service through my interracial gospel choir in New Orleans, service through my nonviolent communication groups and my caregiving and women’s circles, not to mention service to anyone who enters my house, including the UPS man. There’s nothing that gives me more joy than helping someone recognize and allow more beauty and love into their lives, especially self-love which is from where all love emanates. It is only through love that world peace can be achieved.

With my body slowly dying from a neurological illness, the progression happens gradually; I lose one function, one ability after another. Everybody goes through this process during aging, mine is merely accelerated. To me, death will be an adventure when the time is right. After allowing myself many years of grieving, I began to see the brilliance of this curriculum. Suffering is minimal. I believe that grief only becomes suffering when it is not fully felt. My suffering has been mostly emotional. If I’d had too much physical pain to bear, I might be having a different conversation. Earlier in the illness, I broke many bones during accidents: sternum, toes, patella, femur, but they have all healed. Unlike most people with end-stage illness, I am fortunate to have little neurogenic pain. Everything is firing from the neck up, so I am able to strategize my circumstances to avoid pressure sores from becoming septic, aches from becoming chronic, my mind from becoming stagnant, and to free my heart to continually emanate and feel love.

When one is moving toward the end of their life, often dreams can become more vivid. Upon awakening, recounting the dreams of my sleeping state often reveal inner work that is yet to be addressed. Sometimes my dreams merely clear emotional material that is clouding my clarity; dreams are always regenerative teachers. Lately, I have been experiencing my dreams as a bridge to the Spirit world, perhaps to aid my transition.

In one such dream, I was painting columns of an antebellum home a particular color well known to Southerners – shutter green. Shutter green is the color many shutters are painted in Louisiana where I lived and raised my children for 30 years. I frequently dream of the turn-of-the-century home where I raised my family. The house in the dream was clearly a variation of that home and magnificent property. We lived off a highway called Military Road where confederate soldiers were rumored to have marched, thus giving it that name.

In the dream, I was painting these columns with the woman who owned the house. I knew her name clearly. It was Monique (or Monica) Marie Crane. I remember feeling that it was essential to me that the woman feel good about the work I was doing. Her husband would be home soon and I wanted the column he would see first to be meticulously painted. Doing a meticulous job felt almost like a spiritual calling. There was no duress, no external pressure.

I remember looking into a full-length mirror and seeing a very pleasant black man! I can remember moving my arms to see if the reflection would move with me. It did. I was clearly the man in the mirror. The love I felt looking for the man was profound. I can still feel it today as I recall the dream. There was no sense of time, no feeling of enslavement, no sense of victimization. Pleasing others with my craft was deeply satisfying.

After I woke up, I felt such love for this man that I told my friend who is a hospice chaplain about the dream. She affirmed its significance and offered her own perspective. She saw how this man’s life appeared to parallel my life, that I’ve lived life’s circumstances with much gratitude and no feelings of enslavement, despite the lack of freedom of movement. As she described this, I felt the kinship with this man. I felt deep love that I cannot understand cognitively.

We live many lives in one life and perhaps we live many lives in many lives. The I who is, is constant. The I is forever.

The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly. – Frederick Nietzsche

There are times I feel on the periphery of life, that life is an illusion, and not feeling a part of it is, perhaps, less illusory. I’ve heard the theory that our dream life is more real than our waking life. Much of the time, I feel I am living in a liminal state on the threshold of a great adventure.

On the other hand, sitting in my chair twenty-two hours a day, does not preclude me from experiencing a vital and extraordinary life. I thoroughly enjoy the care and relationship with my caregivers, family, and friends. They know how important they are to me and how much I love them. They also know that I love my alone time. I tell them, I love when you come and I love when you go. This statement often relieves any concern they might have about leaving me alone, as I add, I am good company.

Some of my time is spent connecting with people online, supporting people experiencing grief, change, or even perilous challenges in their lives. I enjoy listening to podcasts, my friends’ blogs, archival news programs, or advocating for the latest issue I feel passionate about contacting senators, congressmen, or other officials. I call my chair command central.

The fly can survive the harshest living conditions and still manage to feed, grow, and breed. It is one tough survivor and plays a vital role in the cycle of life. Sometimes I feel like a fly on the wall of life. Often there is sadness when I cannot connect with my family when desired or when I feel out of sync with their lives. If I could fly and visit them on the East  Coast and share their lives, that might be a different story. Recently, I read a book by Robert Monroe titled, Journey Out of the Body, published in 1971, about the author experimenting with separating from his physical body. He was a scientist and took meticulous, contemporaneous notes. When he finally achieved his goal, his hand went through the wall feeling multiple layers of texture until he was on the other side of the wall and could journey freely without the encumbrance of his physical body.

Lately, when I think of myself as a fly on the wall, instead of feeling like there is a wall between myself and others, this wall is beginning to thin, to become permeable. It feels more like a portal, a sacred threshold leading to a sense of freedom I have never felt before in this lifetime. Intuitively, I just know on the other side of the wall is an expanded space of connection and love.

When I was a child, I used to have flying dreams. I could leap from building to building. Flying dreams are common, but often diminish through our lives. I wonder if, as one nears the end of one’s life, these dreams reawaken. Perhaps there is a Knowing that’s getting evoked, like recovering a memory.

People ask me how I could possibly feel so calm, so accepting of my physical circumstance. I sometimes sense a recollection of plans made prior to this lifetime. They are not vivid memories, but more allegorical. The feeling that I am in exactly the right place, doing exactly the right thing, is quite literal.

It is, perhaps, this knowing that gives me the peace and calm that is perceived by others and it is, perhaps, this Knowing that forms a bridge from this reality of matter to the numinous.

Soon enough I will get my wings and fly away from this beautiful life, this identity, this extraordinary curriculum I have so dearly cherish. And in that Knowing, I have no doubt I will assist my loved ones from the other side and be like a fly on the wall, ever persistent and ever present.

Where are you? Here. What time is it? Now. How are you? I’m okay. – Questions Ram Dass suggests during a time of crisis.

Our bodies are finely tuned instruments, whether they behave the way we would like, or whether they are following instructions beyond our ego’s desires. Someone who healed from multiple sclerosis once told me, “Our bodies are desperately trying to heal.” At that time, I wondered why the hell mine wouldn’t. I just knew that if I could heal I would, but something greater must be at work. Nevertheless, I felt betrayed. The feeling that my body was not in sync with my desires and understanding the trajectory of where this could go were more than I could bear at that time.

During my early years, my body was merely a means to an end. I had little communication or relationship with this sacred vehicle that would carry me through life. I had little understanding of how to care for, appreciate, and love this apparatus on which I relied so dearly. Not until my body showed symptoms, did I truly begin to listen.

I was born with an interesting paradox, astrologically. On one hand, I was born under the sign of Cancer. People born in July are often deeply loving, nurturing people, and often with a fear of rejection and, therefore, can have a tendency to sidestep issues, like a crab that walks sideways. I also was born with a fierce determination to meet things head-on and with the inclination of a revolutionary (Mars and Uranus conjunct the Cancer Sun). Learning to harness the latter energies and lean into the former were many of my struggles during my early years. Becoming a competitive athlete was natural to me; harnessing my will and dealing with my fears and oversensitivity were more of a challenge. Some people believe they are limited by their astrology, but I believe we  consciously choose these constellations to help us go beyond the limitations with which we entered this incarnation. Contrary to some beliefs, we are not born as a blank slate, we have Work to do and astrology can be a roadmap for that work.

In the late 80s, when subtle neurological symptoms began to occur I felt immobilized. Fear had taken over and I was afraid to move forward. I remember awaking one morning, still groggy from sleep, and hearing the words, With the symptoms come the Renaissance. I looked in the mirror attempting to ground myself, “What does Renaissance mean? Rebirth. With the symptoms come the rebirth.” I don’t know where this message came from, I just knew I couldn’t forget it. Still immobilized with fear, but with this new possibility, my very intuitive and direct 10-year-old daughter, sensing my trepidation, said to me, “Mom, you need to get a life!” With guidance from unlikely sources, I decided to do just that.

I began singing lessons with a well-known soprano from the St. Louis Cathedral choir. The crab in me wanted to hide, but another part wanted revolution, liberation. I had the intuitive knowing that singing would open my throat center, the area where self-expression can be blocked. To this day, I have a fear of speaking out, a fear that what I have to say will, somehow, hurt another. Causing others pain would inevitably lead to my primal fear of rejection. During the early days, I learned to temper my authentic power and developed an artificially sweet voice to compensate for the overwhelming anxiety. The blockage was clearly centered in my throat.

With this awareness, I gradually learned, ordeal after ordeal, that rejection from others was impossible when I could rely on my own resources; I could trust myself and my internal guidance. No longer being tethered to others elicited a freedom I had never known before this body journey. In my case, I was to learn over many years that illness was a course correction. Many people feel betrayed when their bodies behave incongruently with their wants, but the body has an intelligence that is following instructions beyond the ego. If we befriend our bodies and listen deeply with extraordinary courage, we can open to guidance that heals our souls. Renaissance is possible, if we trust a power greater than ourselves, with faith and gratitude.

This path has not been easy, but I don’t think we come here for easy, especially during this time in history. Recently, I woke up at 3 AM gasping for breath. This episode went on for three hours! I wondered if this was just another symptom I would have to accept, as I cried in desperation. After a few hours, I realized I had some difficult issues to discuss with someone close to me, that my primal fears were triggered and I remembered my voice lessons. (It was during my voice lessons that the symptoms began.) Our bodies know.

What if, instead of accommodating the symptom of breathlessness, I leaned into it, listening to the blockage in my throat and what it had to tell me? Perhaps, if I could do this, there would be no need for the symptom. Once I finally faced this fear head-on, I knew I would not have trouble breathing, again. It was miraculous how free of fear I felt, because I listened to my body’s wisdom.

Sometimes, listening to the body doesn’t tell us what our ego wants to hear. I’ve heard loud and clear that my body is manifesting a teaching much greater than a fear of speaking out and that this rigorous curriculum is not for me to understand fully while I am embodied. This can be particularly true when the curriculum involves a catastrophic illness or injury. It is during these times that we enter the Mystery, where Grace becomes a real possibility.

By opening to our body’s wisdom, we can begin to open to a sense of well-being that is beyond this earthly realm; it is on the level of the soul.

We are one, after all, you and I; together we suffer, together exist, and forever will re-create each other. – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Well, today’s the day for my second physician’s appointment to determine eligibility for the new Colorado Aid-in-Dying law. A major factor determining eligibility is to establish that I am of sound mind.

To determine if one is of sound mind, a mental status exam is performed. The patient needs to be “oriented times three”, as we say in the profession. That means the patient needs to know who they are, where they are, and when they are – person, place, and time. Often a common question that is asked is, “Do you know who the president is?” Please please please, don’t ask me that question!

Allison, my primary caregiver, friend, and partner in discussing philosophy, spirituality, and geopolitical ramifications of the present day circumstances, etc., has been with me every step of the way through this end-of-life learning curve. Allison and I do not shy away from any topic, no matter the depth nor the breadth, and we share a sense of gallows humor that would make other people shutter. It is the sort of humor I relied on in the mental health center while dealing with continual heartbreaking situations. One has to be initiated, in order to share this type of Mash humor, in order to meet each moment. Allison and I are talkers, and when we talk we become so entranced with the content and our brilliance that we become somewhat disoriented, that identifying the date during such discussions becomes momentarily unreachable. We have this joke that when the doctor asks me the date, my reply will be, “Can I call my lifeline?”* It’s not that we are mental status-deficient, actually, quite the opposite is true; we allow ourselves to be transported. I hope and know that Allison will go on to do fascinating, significant Work in the world, when this work together is complete. I know our time together will be a catalyst for both of us. That is the nature of our connection, not a small ask from either of us.

The most common question I get from people is, “How are you able to be so present with this curriculum and be so lighthearted and present with other people’s suffering? Well, my answer is in two parts: I have people like Allison in my life who can go there with me, to be in my pain or to be in my excitement of going on The Great Adventure, both equally as important. Secondly, I have come to understand that I AM much more than my physical body. Realize that I live one injury, one choking incident, one errant bacteria or virus away from death. All my caregivers and friends are well aware of this fact. They, too, have been initiated, by loving me, watching my body weaken over time, and watching my life force grow.

Since I am not quite ready to feel the weight and magnitude of my meeting today, I will offer some other topics Allison and I find hilarious. After I have a choking attack where my eyes bulge and the caregiver is listening intently for that crucial in-breath, my mind is thinking about other things. As soon as I catch my breath and resume the ability to speak, I will often comment on something totally unrelated and banal. Perhaps there is a dissociative process happening, but as long as the choking is not life-threatening, my mind entertains itself, which then entertains my caregiver. Often, this is a moment where comic relief is needed. (I learned humor as a coping skill in my family of origin.) Many people find this type of humor tasteless. I’ve certainly had that reaction from people. Either you get tastelessness or you don’t. Either you experience relief from it or shock. It is, perhaps, an acquired taste. Nevertheless, sometimes we laugh so hard we have tears dripping down our faces. I know what dying laughing means.

When I assess people, I look at physical, mental, psychological, and spiritual well-being. Fortunately, for me the last three are functioning and developing well. Today, the doctor is assessing the first three qualities. Today, I hope he doesn’t ask me that question. Dissociating during a mental status exam would be counterproductive.

The shit is getting real. I am needing to accomplish a multitude of tasks in order to secure the medicine before I can even fully open to the grief for where these practical matters are leading. My grief is personal, but I also feel grief for the people who desire this right to lessen suffering at the end of their life, but don’t have a Masters degree, the capacity for humor, or a support system like I have. For them, the shit is very real and many likely don’t have the resources to complete this arduous task. My wish is for my words to reach them and they somehow feel comfort, that they can reach for the Love that is also reaching for them.

*This line is from the game show Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, aired in 2002?

For my patients who have used this law, I was honored that I could be with them every step of the way, ensuring that they were cared for, and that they had control of the final days of their lives. That’s what death with dignity really means. – Nicholas Gideonse, MD 

When I was a child, I grew up on a natural lake. I was probably in the water eight hours a day. My family called me a fish. As I got older I learned to waterski– two skis, then one, or slalomming. I was on the swim team in elementary school, delegated to the 500-yard freestyle, because I was the one with the physical endurance to swim 5 laps, straight. During the summer I rode my horse, daily. In high school, I was in the snow ski club. And, in graduate school in New Orleans, I rode horses and ran road races in the scalding heat of the Louisiana summers. Needless to say, I was always physically active and athletic.

Running was the first ability I lost. I was 47 years old, with two children, a horse farm, and a psychotherapy practice. Within three years, I could no longer ride my horse and I started tripping and dragging my right foot. While carrying my computer, I fell on the wood floor and broke my patella in half, which led me to a walker. Although I dreaded using a walking aid, I was glad for the safety it provided. That was, until I fell on my walker and cracked my sternum.

With a cracked sternum, standing, sitting, any movement was excruciating. I’d bruised ribs in the past, but nothing like a sternum crack which required assistance for any movement. I was losing my autonomy. Around this time, I began having “accidents,” incontinence particularly disturbed my husband. This affected my dignity.

After failing to engage the brakes in my car quickly enough and finally stopping in the middle of a busy street, I realized that I would never drive another car and risk endangering a life. I was losing my independence. I was still able to drive the golf cart on the farm, which gave me  some sense of autonomy, but all of the chores were left to my husband, which was not our agreement when we purchased a labor-intensive horse farm.

My husband was becoming more and more irritable and resentful. Burdening loved ones is another huge fear to an active person becoming disabled. Each of these losses could lead to major depression, but having been a therapist or in therapy much of my life, I have the internal resources to deal with these stressors. Fortunately, I was not financially dependent on my husband or the government. I cannot imagine the level of suffering people encounter, when terminally ill, who are less resourced than I, either internally or externally.

After cracking my sternum, I was almost relieved to sit in a chair where I was safe from excruciating injuries. “You don’t get the small stuff,” exclaimed the doctor who read my patella x-ray. So, sit in the wheelchair, I did.

Probably the two worst symptoms of progressive multiple sclerosis are heat intolerance and intractable fatigue. I used to call it “crying fatigue,” because all I could imagine doing was to lay on the floor and cry. It was not grief or sadness that led to crying, but intense exasperation, with no emotion attached. Only someone with chronic or terminal illness can understand this level of pain and suffering.

After Katrina, when we had no air-conditioning for a month, in the heat of the Louisiana summer. I remember stumbling to my car with my walker, turning the engine on, sitting in the air-conditioning and crying. I knew I could no longer live in this state of Louisiana that I loved, that the heat and the hurricanes were more than I could bear. I no longer had the endurance of the 500-yard freestyler or the independence to care for myself with a partner who was beginning to resent me more each day. We would move to Colorado. I thought that would solve many problems, but little did I know my life was about to, once again, change forever.

On the way to Colorado, a wheelchair accident resulted in my femur being shattered, the largest bone in the body. It was shattered so badly, that the surgeon had to scrape the pieces together, to screw the stainless steel plate to something. This is where my book Meet Me By the River – A Women’s Healing Journey begins and chronicles my life from devastation to deep gratitude and joy. (Shameless plug.) From the hospital, I was discharged to our new home in Colorado. Six months later, my husband/partner of 11 years left and I, reluctantly and not very gracefully, was to learn how to live alone with this degenerative, neurological illness. Fortunately, I had the financial resources to not be a burden on my family for at least a decade.

Many people facing terminal illness embrace a spiritual life for the first time. Even if they were religious, their beliefs take on greater meaning, much like a spiritual initiation.

I began to see these physical limitations as directed by a higher power. I no longer saw them as punishment or some failing on my part; I saw the Universe as loving and I saw how my ability to impact myself and others was much more effective in this condition. The healing in myself and others was profound. I began to love this illness and see it as a course correction that was leading me to my highest purpose in life. The joy I experienced was infectious. The help I could provide to others was more than I’d ever imagined, with an able body.

As the illness progressed, I began to assess the level of suffering I was experiencing. At some point I knew that my suffering would no longer be a positive catalyst; the suffering would be needless. This pivotal point is different for everyone, depending on their capacity to process the pain and suffering, their level of development, and the Mystery beyond our limited knowing.

In November, the Aid-in-Dying law became legal in Colorado. The most common reasons people choose Aid-in-Dying are loss of autonomy, becoming a burden on one’s family, loss of independence, financial concerns, loss of control of bodily function, fear of uncontrollable pain, loss of ability to participate in pleasurable activities, and loss of dignity. (I highlighted some of the issues that cause me the most suffering in red.) This law is well-crafted to protect the vulnerable from abuse: one must be in the process of dying, be of sound mind, be able to self-administer, and no other person can benefit from this choice.

Opponents of this law often use the word suicide to incite people, emotionally, in my opinion. I have assessed suicidality for 30 years as a psychotherapist. When suicidal, a person wants to die. I have talked many a person “off the ledge.” It is an insult and a misnomer to ascribe suicidality to a person in the sacred dying process, who is finally able to surrender and let go. What a harmful imprint this could leave for the family to carry. Words have power.

All of this being said, my first choice would be to die naturally. Unfortunately, people never die from MS, they die from “complications from multiple sclerosis.” The complications can be: sepsis from pressure sores, choking to death which has to involve a beloved caregiver trying so hard to keep me alive, drowning in my own fluids from pneumonia, or some other horror I don’t yet know about. The best option I could hope for would be failing to thrive, or starving to death, slowly. Keep this in mind when considering choice.

Societies that rule with a more parental, autocratic style usurp one’s sovereignty for making choices for themselves and their bodies, which includes how they might want to leave this beautiful world. These regimes characteristically manifest a disregard for women’s rights, or a disrespect of the Feminine. (I use “the Feminine” as a term applicable to either gender: having more of a tendency toward vulnerability, empathy, and sensitivity. These are values that have been punished for nearly 5000 years.) Hopefully, we are integrating more feminine values moving toward a kinder, less violent world.

In the meantime, if I begin to feel complete with this lifetime and ready to let go and serve my loved ones from Spirit, do not conflate this sacred decision with suicide. This is not suicide. I do not want to die. My life has always been about service and learning to connect more deeply in Love, I know myself and I know this intimacy and animation will continue, and, most likely, express itself in a much deeper Way.

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. – Leonard Cohen

Throughout this journey of chronic illness, I rarely speak of the nearly unbearable grief I’ve experienced, as my body slowly failed over many years, and progressed rapidly over the last decade. I almost exclusively describe the gifts I’ve received by facing the challenges with determination and courage, not so much, the heartbreak.

My children were three and nine when the symptoms began. I remember driving my son to elementary school and praying that I would be able to meet his and his sister’s needs through high school, while my children were completely dependent on me (and I, probably, on them). Who would drive them to school, accompany them to soccer games, dance performances, and Mardi Gras parades? Who would talk to the teachers when they had conferences in school or problems with their friends? How would I be able to go to therapy three times a week to heal myself emotionally to better meet their growing needs? My life had become totally unpredictable and everything was on the table for catastrophic change.

When the first symptom began during the late 80s, my first thought was for my children. What kind of legacy would this leave  them? The terror I felt about not living up to my greatest responsibility and privilege was more than I could bear, or so I thought at the time. I’m sure the specter of desperation followed me and shaded every choice I made during my 40s and 50s. Not all of my choices were well thought out and generous. After all, I was losing my physical strength that had carried me through many challenges – if I could count on anything, I could count on my body – and my body had been the vehicle for much reliability and joy in my life.

I began running road races with my daughter when she was three during the heat of New Orleans summers, I swam laps for miles and miles to restore some semblance of well-being and hope for the future. I believed if I could heal, it would be in the water. This does not describe the radical lifestyle changes I made or trips to India for stem cell treatment and many other alternative treatments.

When I see the look of shock and despair on people’s faces when they meet me, see my profound physical limitations, or hear my story, my common line is, “My life is not a tragedy.” Well, it isn’t, but it has been marked with many tears, regrets, and feelings of despair along the way.

My hospice workers tell me I am a legend around their office, my friends tell me I am a hero. Well, I’m here to tell you I have made desperate choices in my life that have deleteriously affected my children, I have lived with a great deal of fear, depression, and cowardice. I’ve cried an ocean of tears. No one facing catastrophic illness or injury should ever feel reticent about expressing their grief. It is through the cracks where the light gets in.

I have grown through this illness. I probably have grown some heroism. I am also human with human frailties. Human nature is an incredible thing. If I can do this, anybody can do this. About that, I have no doubt.

I ain’t afraid to love a man. I ain’t afraid to shoot him either. – Annie Oakley

We are the authors of our lives. We write our own daring endings. We craft love from heartbreak, compassion from shame, grace from disappointment, courage from failure. – Brene Brown, PhD

What a gift human life is with all its challenges and opportunities for liberation through adversity; as a snake needs a rock to rub against to remove the old skin, humans need ordeals to evolve. It is through adversity that humanity acquirers empathy, increasing its capacity for love. This is one of humanity’s deepest teachings. Love is. Anything in the way of that knowing is, I believe, what we are here to learn from and transform, to turn lead into gold, poison into medicine.

Living a human life is not for the faint of heart. If we dig deeply enough, most of us live with an insidious amount of unworthiness, or shame, imprinted during childhood whether this imprint is conscious or not to our adult selves. In my opinion, one of our greatest accomplishments during our lifetime is to chip away at this shame – the belief that in our core we do not matter or are in some way deeply flawed, that if someone gets close enough, this secret will be revealed. Often this imprint gets projected outwardly as a defense against feeling the unworthiness that dwells in our beliefs about ourselves, the unknown hitchhikers in our individual personas that wreak havoc in our personal lives. With such a belief operating in our core, intimacy, with ourselves and others, can become difficult to allow. It is through intimate relationships that healing takes an accelerated path and poison can become medicine.

Our most unlikely, yet beneficial, allies during our lifetimes are the ones who, often unknowingly, take us into that core, the faulty foundation where untruths mold our beliefs just waiting to be transformed. Of course, we don’t see these messengers as great teachers at first, but over time as we develop the capacity for self-reflection and often through grueling repetition we begin to experience a level of liberation. In my experience, it is only when I am able to feel the shame completely, without turning away, that self-love is restored. This ability may be unreachable for some people, but I believe this is the hope for humanity.

My husbands have been the Trojan horses that provided the grit necessary to take me into the deep, recurring, faulty beliefs that caused me tremendous suffering. They exposed these beliefs often unconsciously and sometimes with cruelty. Learning to not shoot the messenger was key to taking responsibility for my childhood imprints and finding liberation. Often we can become distracted by trying to derail the messenger, in an attempt to invalidate the message, propagating an illusion that we can somehow avoid feeling the shame. Developing the capacity to sit with the pain of “not enough,” is the only way to release its hold over us. To do so requires practice, increasing empathy toward the self, and not taking what seems to be criticism from others, personally.

To look at these messengers with equanimity, we realize they are doing us a great service. I believe the messengers can become more harsh if we resist the greater teachings. This is not to be confused with being victimized by another’s unskillful projections. Discernment is necessary to courageously unwrap the projections and determine what is the grain of truth that is useful for one’s liberation. Multiple marriages can be seen in this culture as a failure, but people are changing quickly and one cannot determine what others might require. Each of my three marriages has been like a different incarnation, one building upon the previous. What ever brings awareness is exactly what is needed by the determined soul. After all, you cannot heal what you do not acknowledge. By my second marriage, seeing the repetitive patterns, I understood that I was the common denominator. Once aware of the pattern, I could choose – shame or self-love.

I have had communications in the last months with all three previous husbands to varying degrees of connectedness. My first husband I call my greatest teacher, because he was creative, intelligent, and brutal in his younger years. In my 30s and while in therapy, it had become apparent that I had embraced a level of victim mentality. With his help and my courage, determination, and a lot of therapy I was able to release myself from the grips of this insidious form of self-hatred. Not everyone needs this level of intervention, but I had been a willful child and not able to change, otherwise. An identity of victim is one of the most excruciating forms shame can take. When embraced with empathy, this pattern can be transformed to self-love. Recently, my daughter asked me to contact her father, my first husband. Over the years, I have forgiven his hurtful behavior and begun to see him as soul family, someone who had agreed to provide this ordeal out of love, to bring us forward in our evolution. I know, this is a generous shift in beliefs, but if one could choose our perceptions, why would anyone choose otherwise? Because of this shift in my perception, he was able to tell me that he loved me, he had always loved me, and he will always love me. Intuitively, I knew this, but the medicine this acknowledgment brought to myself and my daughter was immeasurable.

Shame is an insidious poison that can rob us of our birthright to feel loved and loving in a Universe where Love is the only Truth.

“Death is a part of the achievement of life.” -Mother Teresa

sovereignty

I’ve been thinking about the Aid In Dying law that passed in Colorado by nearly a 2/3 margin and the resistance it is getting. I’ve been exploring my own feelings about people rejecting the law based on what they describe as a caring gesture. I don’t doubt that people are concerned about other more physically vulnerable people being taken advantage of; this is a valid concern. However, having been a family therapist for almost 30 years, I understand that if a dynamic of overpowering an individual already exists in a family, this pattern will likely happen, regardless, as the family member becomes more vulnerable. Haven’t we all seen the elderly or infirmed be unjustly treated as part of an unconscious pathology in a family? Most of us have heard the stories or witnessed family members overriding the dying person’s wishes, overpowering the medical staff with threats, overt or covert. Fortunately, the Colorado law was crafted well with many safeguards for protecting the vulnerable. Otherwise, I would not have supported it.

Another concern I’ve heard voiced is that the circumstances surrounding death is God’s will. Okay, so does that mean extending life through technological advances is God’s will also, even if that means prolonging peoples’ suffering, when the quality of life is diminished, and death is imminent? I don’t mean to diminish the value of suffering; I have evolved considerably through my suffering, but I also know the difference between productive suffering and needless suffering, for myself, and I believe everybody should have the right to choose what they can tolerate for themselves. Through much inner psychological and spiritual work prior to and accelerated by this progressive, terminal form of multiple sclerosis, I have cultivated an inner capacity for suffering that other people may never need, or as Buddhists call, “turning poison into medicine.” Sometimes this transcendence only happens at the end, sometimes not until we crossover. Suffering can be an obstacle to transcendence or it can be a catalyst. We must remember that our soul is in charge. I believe everyone in the dying process should have the right to choose how they make their final transition. The Aid In Dying law allows us the autonomy to decide what our bodies and spirits need.

Many opponents to this law call it “assisted suicide.” As a licensed psychotherapist, I evaluated suicidality in people. People who are suicidal want to die. Most people I know of who are dying and considering the prescription want to live; they just want to have some choice in how they die.

Whose bodies are these, anyway, once we have passed the age of majority? My belief is we have  sovereignty over our own bodies if we are mentally competent. Who are we to judge what decisions other people make or do with their own human bodies? One may judge another for eating meat or for not eating meat. Jack Kornfield, author and Buddhist teacher, once said, “Vegetarians are just not sensitive enough to hear a broccoli scream.”

I have been told that I am the perfect candidate for our Aid in Dying bill. Why am I any more perfect than the person dying from cancer with a family that believes all medical means available should be used to prolong their loved one’s life, which also prolongs their suffering, if that isn’t their wish? What would it take for the dying person to be able to choose a better of quality of death, or what is called a good death?

I understand that this requires a paradigm shift in a culture that is death phobic, as Stephen Jenkinson, the author of Die Wise – A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, so aptly posits. I understand that there can be a slippery slope determining one’s mental status and true stewardship of their body when dementia is a part of the picture. I understand the opponents of Colorado’s Aid In Dying care about others and they fear the vulnerable might be coerced, but this caring should not usurp the dying person’s power of choice, whether one would make the same choice for themselves or not. The law provides safeguards.

If our culture is to become more accepting of death as a part of life, in deed as well as word, we need to confront the fact that we will all die. When we had a more agrarian society, chickens, turkeys, and other animals were sacrificed on a daily basis. On our farm, if we had been more aware, we would have thanked Franklin the turkey for giving his meat so we could live. Actually, the coyotes got Franklin and I was devastated as I went to the grocery store for a Butterball turkey for Thanksgiving, or its organic equivalent. I learned quickly not to name the poultry and make them pets. I am a part of this death phobic culture and perhaps that is why I am so outraged. I feel the resistance internally, the old pattern leaving as the new pattern is forming.

We learn early in our culture that death is bad. When Jordan was two and I was feeding him a lamb chop and Mary had a Little Lamb was his favorite song, he looked at me with tears of betrayal in his eyes and asked me, “Did somebody chop a lamb!?” It was one of those moments mothers fear. I told him that we could thank the lamb for giving its life so we can live. Jordan cried his eyes out. Perhaps if we had been giving thanks for everything that died for our meals, even the broccoli, his heart may not have been so broken. Maybe heartbreak is unavoidable and we need to feel the grief fully when a living being loses its life, whether from cancer, neurological disease, or an elk running free on our land that was needed to feed a family.

I wonder what other deeply held unconscious beliefs get triggered if one who is dying is allowed sovereignty over their body.

Probably my greatest revelation with this cause is that if I imagine having the prescription and I have the legal right to choose, I am freed up to reflect on my life—what is incomplete, what regrets I might have, and finally, whatever is in the way of completely letting go is illuminated. I am free to move to the next level of dying, emotionally and spiritually. I wonder if this is the real issue behind the collective resistance to allowing everyone choice. Perhaps accepting, but truly accepting, that what is at the core of the resistance of allowing everyone choice is our collective fear of facing our own mortality!

Perhaps the patronizing, paternalistic professing of care for others is a cover for the realization that we are not in control of anything, much less our physical bodies. When every state in the union finally accepts Aid In Dying for all individuals, maybe, just maybe, our culture will finally allow death to take its rightful place as a significant part of the Circle of Life.

Riders on the storm. Into this house we’re born. Into this world we’re thrown. Like a dog without a bone. An actor out alone… – The Doors

himalayas

There are times in our lives when we need others and there are times when we absolutely need to be alone. Sometimes discerning the difference is easy and other times we learn by default. In my opinion, there is no right or wrong, just living life with, what Krishna Das calls, a pilgrim’s heart. We learn by following or avoiding the inner promptings we designed prior to taking bodies, by allowing, or avoiding the flow. There were times in my life where resisting the flow was a necessary teaching, not easy, but humbling and has made my ego more pliable, more open to surrender.

I have had many incarnations in my sixty plus years on the planet, including three wonderful marriages, living in multiple geographical locations, and raising two deeply talented children. I used to live in much self-doubt questioning all my choices, but I’m becoming more and more convinced that there are no mistakes. We each do the best we can with the internal resources we have, listening deeply to best adhere to the plan we’ve made for our life. Some people live a single lifetime with laser focus in relatively static relationships; others live many lifetimes in one with a meandering trajectory. There is no better or worse, right or wrong, but merely different curricula. My particular curriculum has been more the latter, many lifetimes including different immediate family members for long stretches of time. Living family life with so much change, yet with deep intimacy, requires an enormous amount of emotional elasticity.

Often there are tools along the way for expediting the journey if we are fortunate enough to recognize them. Michael Brown, author of The Presence Process and South African shaman, generously shares a process that has been enormously helpful to himself and many others, certainly to me. It merely involves reading his book and following the steps with his generous guidance. Recently, I have completed this process for the second time. In short, his book presents a ten week process of developing more presence by deepening one’s self-awareness. By sitting twice a day and following specific instructions, deep change occurs. It is the most effective process for eliciting a deepening of one’s consciousness.

Being at a crossroads in my life and having others I am working with who would benefit from the structure of Brown’s process, I decided to repeat it while helping to facilitate my beloveds. The crossroads I mentioned involves revisiting the question of whether the time is right to enter hospice. The illness has progressed which has accelerated my decision to enter hospice. Noticing internal resistance and needing the stillness the presence process offered, I started the ten week once again.

During my sitting last night, in the stillness and the safety this process provides, I heard, “If I enter hospice, people will give up on me.” It didn’t take long for me to hear the resistance, the blockage to fully opening to the gifts hospice offers. I understand why it was difficult for me to hear these fears, because it’s always been hard to make the hard choices, to go places where others cannot go. As I suspected, some people are moving away from me and other people are coming closer, being attracted to this accelerated form of my curriculum. Michael Brown uses an interesting metaphor involving the Himalayan Mountains to explain this daunting and painful tendency that really spoke to me:

Some people feel drawn to the Himalayan Mountains and they have a picture book of the mountains on their coffee table. They are happy with that. Fewer people have a photograph of the Himalayas on the refrigerator and they are happy with that. Even fewer travel to India to see the Himalayas in the distance and they are happy with that. Some will go to base camp at the foot of the mountains and they are happy with that. Still fewer will go to the summit. Going to the summit is not for everyone. There is no judgment, no right or wrong. People merely have different needs and capacities.

Everybody has their own version of the Himalayas in their lives. Some yearnings are more easily satisfied, some more arduous, but each has his/her own journey. Once we agree to make the journey, there are many lessons along the way, like following the breadcrumbs left in the path as in Grimm’s fairy tales. For me, learning to let go of control has been like releasing a huge backpack on the climb. Developing the capacity to feel grief has been another requirement along this beautiful adventure we call life.

Developing Presence, being present for every moment, no matter what is required, is a tall order for this grief-illiterate culture. Fortunately, there are trailblazers like Michael Brown showing us the way to live more authentically in this increasingly complex culture. One of my favorite lines in his book is, “It’s not about feeling better, but getting better at feeling.” Ironically, when we develop the capacity to feel anything and everything life presents, our sense of peacefulness and joy grow exponentially.

crestone-eagleMany years ago, a close friend who was a hospice social worker asked me to cover her hospice clients while she was out of town. I told her, “I don’t do death.” She then taught me something that was way beyond my 40 years. “Hospice is not about death, it is about life.” Because I had been experiencing subtle neurological symptoms for years and I feared a degenerative, life-threatening illness building in my body, this concept peaked my curiosity as it assaulted my logic. How could dying be about living? Almost like a Zen koan that evokes enlightenment by showing the inadequacy of the logical mind, I had the next two decades to contemplate this paradox, because two weeks ago I became a client of Hospice del Valle in Alamosa.

When I was considering entering hospice, I received desperate messages from friends around the country who had heard I was actively dying. After all, I must be actively dying if I was in hospice. This is one of the major misconceptions hospice workers encounter. Families usually consider hospice only in the last days or weeks of a person’s chronic or terminal illness, which, in my opinion, does a disservice to the patient and greatly limits the level of care available through the organization. The main purpose of hospice is to provide palliation to chronically, terminally, or seriously ill patients (not expected to live more than six months), which includes attending to their medical, psychological, and spiritual well-being and those of their families.

Living in a culture that is death-phobic, no one wants to mention the H word to a person who still has some life in them. What if hospice involved helping to reduce the suffering of persons deemed terminally ill, but still living for many months? The illness I have been living with is a slow, degenerative illness that has only affected me from the neck down. The effects have been devastating, but from the neck up I have been able to maintain a quality of life that is different, but regenerative in nature. Having been a psychotherapist for thirty years, my work has become more selective but much deeper, given my spiritual growth directly informed by what I consider my “spiritual curriculum.”

I had considered hospice for the last year, but since I was not actively dying, I did not consider it seriously. My most experienced caregiver who had worked ten years in a hospice told me that about 10% of her hospice clients lived an average of two years. Working through the necessary emotional stages, I engaged the closest hospice serving Crestone. To my surprise and tremendous relief, I have received care on every level I could imagine—physical, mental, psychological, and spiritual. They are an interdisciplinary team: MD, RN, CNAs, chaplain, and Family Support liaison. Whereas in home health, improvement needed to be noted, with hospice I could let go and receive care on all levels. This is supporting my dreamtime, depth of meditation, and, I believe, allowing me to begin a conscious death with open communication to my Guides on the other side. Intuitively, I have been able to let go and begin my journey through the Bardos.

I imagine that choosing to work in hospice naturally screens out individuals who are not comfortable “doing death.” My experience with each professional is that their level of skill, compassion, and care have surpassed my high expectations. I now know what my friend was saying; hospice has been about improving my quality of life, even though I can die within days. I can also live months and perhaps a year or so. That was never a possibility before I engaged hospice. I am a natural strategizer or I would never have been able to live alone while quadriplegic, but their expertise has taken this to a new level.

I will likely see 2017, but perhaps I might see 2018! With the help of my care team and now hospice, I can continue to lead my psychotherapy group on Skype, share my growing wisdom gained from living in stillness, and perhaps I’ll live to write another book!