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The beauty of horseback riding is that you need to learn how to be in complete control while at the same time in complete surrender. It’s a condition you cannot explain until you have climbed on the back of a horse and held the reins in your hand. – via obsessionreflection

Spectre and Clarice

I thought of Spectre as the Patriarch of the horse farm, the head of our horse family, the alpha of our herd, both equine and human. He was the most beautiful horse in the world to me and still is, in my heart. Since he was a thoroughbred stallion when we got him, being gentle was important for us novice riders. Spectre was a paradox; he was both gorgeous and powerful with stallion lines including a big, thick neck and he knew how to strut his stuff, yet he was compliant and sensitive and wanted to please. It’s as if he knew his power and used it judiciously. David bought him for $500, because as many gray horses do, Spectre developed melanomas. The primary tumor near his lymph node was wrapped around his jugular vein, so it was inoperable. We adored Spectre with all our hearts. The previous owner told David that we might have five years with him and that was exactly what we had.

Horses were always special to me. As a young child, I started taking riding lessons at the same stable where my mother had ridden a generation earlier. I treasured her English riding boots she gave me and kept them most of my life, despite being two sizes too large. By twelve, I had a horse of my own and during graduate school in New Orleans, I exercised people’s horses at City Park Stables. Horses were in my blood.

Being able to finally have my own horse farm was a dream come true. Our barn drew an extraordinary community of riders, horses, and dogs. We began learning dressage with Spectre until we found out that he loved to jump! Our close friend, Barbara, a professional jumper, showed him in his first jumping competition ever and he won a blue ribbon! He was a natural, but mostly he was a natural born lover.

Little did I know that a few years later I would be diagnosed with a life-threatening illness as well. I don’t have melanomas, but I do have a progressive, neurological illness that is slowly deteriorating the musculature of my body and has landed me in hospice at 64.

80% of gray horses eventually develop melanomas, but Spectre was young when his developed. Everybody loved Spectre, but more importantly, everybody respected Spectre.

The last time I was thrown from a horse, it was from Spectre. He’d been a stallion for most of his life, but a well-behaved stallion. People who know horses would smile at that statement. I was riding Spectre in the arena with a friend riding Jasmine and little did we know, Jasmine was in season. Usually Spectre was disciplined, and riding with other horses wasn’t a big deal, but I guess he was strenuously trying to contain his enthusiasm and gave the slightest little rear end bunny hop and I was instantly sitting in the sand of the arena. Realizing something was wrong, Spectre turned his head around 180° and looked at me. Thought bubble: Hey, what are you doing down there?

Only 15% of people with multiple sclerosis have as progressive a form as I developed. When I was 33, subtle symptoms began, but weren’t physically evident for another decade. In 2001, my horse Ransom broke away requiring me to catch him when I noticed that I could not run. I would be diagnosed two years later and the physical decline would be rapid.

Spectre’s last day

During our fifth year together, the melanomas were surrounding Spectre’s intestines creating a blockage. Keith, our beloved veterinarian, put on a glove up to his shoulder and relieved Spectre of his life-threatening impaction. David would have happily done this daily if Keith agreed, but he told us Spectre needed to be euthanized. Not wanting him to suffer and knowing that melanoma was a progressive disease, we scheduled it for that evening. Spectre’s appetite was unaffected, so on his last day with us, Spectre was given as much grain and carrots as he wanted. I wonder if he sensed our sadness as we celebrated our five short years together.

A decade later I found myself in a similar predicament. Muscle weakness became evident in my gait first and spread through my body, mercilessly. Peristalsis diminished from my esophagus to my intestines. Eventually, bowel problems similar to Spectre’s and difficulty swallowing would manifest.

I have a high tolerance for suffering, because in my heart, I believe it can be for a greater purpose when the suffering is emotionally regenerative rather than avoidance of the inevitable. Learning to discern the difference has been both rigorous and liberating. The feelings of helplessness from having a terminal illness only became bearable when I realized I could choose some of my circumstances.

Due to the slow progression of this illness, I often feel like a correspondent reporting from a war zone hoping to educate and empower others about their choices.

Update from the war zone– I have been choking while eating and needing help eliminating for six years. Despite the choking, I have chosen not to have a feeding tube, choosing quality of life over quantity. I designed my diet to strengthen the mitochondria of my cells, hoping it would clear the illness, but it hasn’t. I began to see that there is a greater plan at work for me and for all those whose lives I touch so deeply and being a reporter from a war zone is a large part of that plan. A feeding tube and a colostomy are not in my plan. To protect my kidneys, I agreed to a urinary catheter six years ago. Moving around with a catheter is something I’ve learned to live with; it is acceptable, despite having pulled it out once, accidentally. If you can imagine pulling a balloon through a penis, it was almost that bad. Wars zones elicit graphic images and dying is messy.

Being unable to cough or blow my nose, I have decided not to be resuscitated should I have a recurrence of pneumonia; drowning in my own fluids is not a form of suffering I need to re-experience. Images of waterboarding and other torturous methods come to mind. Inserting a nasogastric tube is one of the most painful and common procedures performed in the ER. Experiencing the suction machine was similar enough to determine a redline for me. So, no more 911 calls or ERs. If it were to restore me to a healthy life, that would be different.

Being virtually quadriplegic and living alone is not for most people. Fortunately, I have had the internal and external resources to pull this off. I have a care team of exceptional people who support me in this experiment. I have the opportunity and the joy to affect people all over the world with my writings and conversations.

I have learned a great deal from this curriculum from the inside out. I believe everyone has the sovereignty to choose for themselves how to live and how to die. More opportunities are being made available to empower those who choose to use them, from DNRs to MAID (medical aid in dying).

I believe as we evolve, we live more from our hearts (souls) than from our heads (egos). I know this, because my head would have given up long ago. Being a psychotherapist, I have come to understand that people make the best choices they can based on their level of development. We all have consequences for our choices, both good and bad– that’s how we evolve. In my heart of hearts, I believe that is what we are all here for.

I feel comforted knowing that the aid in dying law is passing state-by-state. If one meets the rigorous criteria to determine eligibility, it can reduce needless suffering that often plunges the dying and their families into helplessness and debt.

Nobody wanted to see Spectre suffer needlessly. He taught me a lot about having the courage to make the hard choices, despite my grief. I believe we humans have the same right, when death is inevitable.

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When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe. There can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are made for. – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

When I was a young girl, my father had a 1923 Ford Model T antique touring car that had a crank on the front that needed to be turned to start the engine. I’d heard you had to be careful it didn’t jerk your arm out of socket when you cranked it, it had quite a kick! The purpose was, in my seven-year-old understanding, to create a spark for the engine to start.

In looking back over the 40 years since completing my masters degree to practice psychotherapy, I recognize that I have played that same role with the people I served, to create a spark to get their psycho/spiritual engines going. This is neither a responsibility I take lightly, nor has competency come easily. It is a sacred task so deeply-rooted in my being that I believe I must have agreed to it prior to incarnating. My desire to serve has been just that pervasive throughout my personal and professional life and the joy I experience when their metaphoric engine gets running is profound!

Learning to hear the call of this sacred assignment began while I was still in single digits of age. In order to be effective, however, I had to reach a level of confidence that was not easy to come by. This journey toward self-love was wrought with many challenges, but I came into this world with a fierce desire to serve and I came to realize that in order to serve others, I first needed to heal myself. With this awareness, I started a life of seeking that led to many teachers and disciplines to help overcome my limitations. I’ve spoken before of my greatest teaching – to learn to trust my inner authority, which I believe is the only way to truly know one’s power. The experience of learning to drive a manual transmission in the late 60s served as a useful metaphor for understanding and developing this teaching.

Our parents and our older siblings serve as our first authority figures to help us practice vital lessons of personal power. When my brother was 21, he became my instructor and his 1968 GTO with a clutch that was about to fail became the instrument of my education. He knew the clutch could fail if handled recklessly and, believe me, he let me know it. What a set up for high tension. I knew if I didn’t learn fast, I’d be in serious trouble with my brother. What a perfect metaphor. My lack of confidence in life manifested as a fear of my own power (acceleration). Engaging the clutch unskillfully would immobilize the engine abruptly and infuriate my brother. Immobilization (shutting down) was my go-to strategy for warding off anxiety. My brother amplified the voice in my head creating reluctance, (fear). He taught me about the friction point, the point where the clutch and acceleration meet for forward motion. When met with accuracy, there was no damage to the clutch. To add to this tension, I was learning to drive a manual transmission in the hill section of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Engaging the clutch with your left foot on an incline could cause the car to roll requiring quick use of the brakes, also with your left foot. If there were a car behind me, catastrophe could ensue. The tension was great with the potential for collision with another car. You get the picture.

This mirrored a conflict that I refer to frequently in my life – immobilization versus empowerment, clutch versus accelerator. Applying the brakes offers more control, but I only have two feet! As I became more proficient at driving a stick shift, I felt less immobilized in life, less afraid of my power (acceleration). This has served as a good example of meeting my fears at the exact point where acceleration is required, to avoid stalling in the middle of traffic, to avoid a collision with fate, or my brother’s rage.

Another powerful metaphor was learning to waterski on one ski. Learning to ski on two skis was elementary growing up on a lake, but learning to slalom demonstrated the next level of proficiency. Learning to slalom, one needed to be able to shift one’s weight from two skis to one. This required shifting one’s whole equilibrium from two points of contact to one point of contact. Having the tendency to lose myself in relationships, the kinesthetic sense of balancing over my own center of gravity reminds me of learning to slalom. I often felt this shift after a divorce. After processing through the stages of grief, I always felt empowered when my center of gravity shifted over one ski, my ski!

And there is the snow ski metaphor when you have to lean forward as you ski downhill in order to navigate through the snow without losing your balance. Intuitively, we lean backwards to compensate for the downward slope. Leaning into issues sometimes means going against one’s intuition and one’s comfort zone. Thank you for indulging me in exploring these teachings.

Having spent most of my life in my body learning kinesthetically (in motion) to be still and listen deeply has been a huge gift that my ego would never freaking have chosen. Nevertheless, it has served me well. This carnal (physical) curriculum is not for the faint of heart. If my heart were anymore faint, I could never do terminal illness nearly as gracefully. As I live this end-stage form of neurological illness, I can see things in slow mo. My life force is growing exponentially as my body is weakening. My identification with this blessed vehicle is shifting to a greater me, the part of me that is more aware of other dimensions. There are times when my perceptions and my sense of love is so heightened that I know that transition to Spirit will be a minor step. Each time I experience this, fear of the unknown diminishes.

In their published work, James Lawley and Penny Thompkins assert that “metaphor is an active process which is at the very heart of understanding ourselves, others and the world about us.” I have much gratitude for the teachings that surround us when the intention is self-reflection that leads to empathy. After all, teachings that lead to having greater compassion for ourselves and others is the essential work of this time. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes so beautifully reassures us to not lose heart, because We were made for these times.

“We never face death unless death unequivocally faces us.” -Christine Longacre

Freedom three

As many of my friends and readers know about me, power has been a significant, rigorous teacher in my life. I believe we are here to work on a particular life lesson or lessons during our lifetimes. For me, the struggle between trusting my own power and abdicating my power has been a recurring theme that shaped my sense of self and ultimately formed my emotional and spiritual well-being. Ignoring these teachings had catastrophic effects on my psyche which led to profound anxiety and depression. Much like playing the childhood game with my brother, “You’re getting warmer, you’re getting colder…” the symptoms shaped a more powerful me. Eventually, abdicating my power began to manifest very subtly in my physical body, where I could no longer ignore it.

Perhaps the source of this illness is arbitrary and abdication of power is not the pernicious cause I suspect, but, regardless, I am in the end-stage of a degenerative, neurological illness which has rendered me unable to move any muscle below my neck. Eating meals results in choking and aspirating which indicates the need for a feeding tube, or gastrostomy if one is to prolong life.

My first professional job was to set up a social service program in a children’s home for profoundly disabled children, facing the end of their lives. These children were given blended foods forced directly into their stomachs with a syringe. They could not taste the foods and also could not object. These were the choices of the medical establishment made in concert with the families in the 70s. I have chosen to not have a feeding tube. There is no right or wrong. In my opinion, the power to choose is not just a right, but necessary for the liberation of my soul. Autonomy has always been important to me; I found my power and my voice by exercising my own right to make my own choices.

Another potentially life-threatening symptom is weakness of my core muscles, resulting in shallow breathing and accelerated heart rate. I choose to live at 8000 feet altitude, despite the breathing difficulties. Again, my choice. It may not be the choice of others, but we live in a pluralistic society of diversity. It is important for me to honor other people’s choices as well as my own. Elimination is another bodily function I cannot perform on my own. Other people’s choices may include a colostomy. I choose to draw a line where others might make other choices for themselves. Isn’t that everybody is right?

My hometown is aesthetically beautiful and offers a caring, intimate community that will accommodate my specific needs, being housebound and bedridden. As a psychotherapist, my love of group dynamics can manifest in this caring, progressive community. I participate in or lead nine groups per month from my chair I call “command central.” Quality of life is more important to me than quantity. My family understands this about me and they are supportive. Ironically, when I was a competitive athlete with many blue ribbons, I never felt as powerful as I do now despite being unable to move a muscle.

A wave of options is moving through the country, state by state. In Colorado it is called the Colorado End-of-life Options Act which has been sensitively and thoughtfully crafted. Organizations that oppose this movement consider these options to be assisted suicide. In suicide, the person wants to die. Assisted suicide is illegal and will continue to be illegal. In my profession, I “talked people off the ledge,” which I was extremely successful doing; you just had to show them some hope. With a terminal illness, people want to live, but death is imminent. In order to qualify, the bill requires two different physicians to assess that the individual will likely die within six months. There is a fear that coercion could be a concern. If one physician suspects coercion or an inability for the person to make an informed decision for themselves, a referral is made to a licensed mental health professional for counseling. In my opinion, patients vulnerable to coercion by family members will unfortunately have that dynamic regardless of the increased options available. A hospice or care team, led by the physician should know the patient well enough to provide the necessary protocols to support the individual and family at this vulnerable time. The end-of-life option is for the purpose of lessening pain and suffering at the end of one’s life by prolonged, ineffective Herculean medical efforts.

I have seen families devastated and overwhelmed by the pressure to prolong their loved one’s life, but instead end up prolonging their pain and suffering which, in fact, diminishes their quality of life. These families have been devastated by the unnecessary medical treatments, literally torturing their loved ones while they take their last breaths in agony. I do not choose this for myself, my family or my loved ones.

From what I understand about the trajectory of my illness, my life will end with either suffocation from choking, sepsis from pressure sores or pneumonia. I have executed a DNR that precludes hospitalization for these circumstances, however each will involve tremendous suffering for myself or loved one. The Colorado End of life Options Act would provide comfort and empowerment during my final transition. No one is required to use this option, but everyone deserves the right. Support our politicians to vote yes on HB 16 – 024 and SB 16 – 1054 and let our last breath be  taken with love and peace.

 

“Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.” – Stephen Colbert1924-Ford-Model-T-PO

At my friends’ design, I began a five day personal retreat. Due to my physical constraints, I modified it to be solitary, and concurrent with my nine friends’. For me, beginning a new year is always joyful and auspicious. Consciously honoring the passage of another year is a feat I choose to highlight. During my first meditation I had some fond memories beginning in my latency years through adulthood and I wanted to share them.

Someone said to me the other day, “You have an engineer’s mind.” I never really thought about that, because psychology and spirituality are so central to my Being. However, mathematics was my best subject and I did very well in statistics, a subject that I notice was cringe-worthy to others in graduate school. I was the person in the family who frequently assembled washers and dryers and the toys for the children. Upon seeing a hammer at a friend’s house when he was around six years old, Jordan excitedly exclaimed, “You have a hammer like my mother’s!”

My family was a doing family. I haven’t identified with doing for quite a long time, given my physical circumstances, but I remembered my father collecting antique cars. He had a 1929 Model A Ford and a 1924 Model T Ford touring car. I remember around age eight filing the rust off of tiny parts of the engine that was splayed all over the garage floor at the lake where I grew up. Doesn’t everybody work on antique cars and learn mechanics by osmosis? I was horrified when my father acquired a 1950 Silver Dawn Rolls-Royce. My 16-year-old self found it ostentatious and refused to ride in it in daylight. It was actually pretty cool, as the turn signals raised out near the side doors and were lighted. The back seats had a glass desk that dropped down like tables on airplanes. The class tabletops were perfect for separating lines of cocaine, but that is for another blog entry (that will be very short, if you’re curious). My wheels ambulated a ten year old 1962 Willy’s Jeep, my first car. I could take the top and doors off and it was like my Barbie camper as a child. The problem was that it needed a ring job that was worth more than the car, so I had to carry a sixpack of oil around with me. The muffler occasionally fell off and I needed to get under it to clamp it back on, so I always needed tools. What do you mean, other 16 year olds didn’t have this avocation?

I guess we were a mechanical family. When people complain about automobile repairs, I notice that I know quite a bit about the parts, just not much about the inner workings of the engine. I learned to drive a stick shift in my younger older brother’s GTO. He was a good instructor teaching me about the friction point between the clutch and the acceleration and compression when braking, but his car was losing the clutch and if I let it grind at all, he was furious with me so I learned to drive a stick shift very quickly. For a while during college when visiting home, the Rolls-Royce became the party mobile. The transmission was on the column in an H design, very fun to drive. I guess I took for granted that other people didn’t know to be extremely careful when cranking a Model T to be sure you don’t dislocate your shoulder.

My older older brother sold Snap-On tools for a while, an excellent quality tool. He also worked on foreign cars and Harley-Davidson motorcycles. I didn’t get to drive any of those, but I was an avid passenger. While down with the flu in college, I put a Harley-Davidson model motorcycle together in my spare time when not studying math. Perhaps that was preparation for purchasing a Honda 350 modified dirtbike to avoid hitchhiking.

Understanding my propensity for recklessness on my motorcycle, I sold it after six months. I tended to bungee cord my fashionable chunky high heels on the back of the bike and ride barefoot. I never told my children about this behavior until they were beyond the age of danger. I didn’t want to glamorize recklessness. I did however always wear a helmet with a face shield, which came in handy when riding a few hours down to Key West on the weekends from college. I was fortunate that the worst calamity with my motorcycle happened when I got off and forgot to put the kickstand down. I know, that’s why I sold it. I knew the statistics for fatalities in Dade County were high. Math.

During the late 90s, I learned to drive a vintage 1950 Ford tractor pulling a bush hog. A few years later I graduated to a new Kubota tractor. I soon learned to drive a two horse trailer with living quarters to take my horse to the veterinarian at the LSU vet school. I happily could drag the arenas on the horse farm with the harrow and mow the fields for hours at a time. Riding the tractor was almost more joyful than riding horses.

It surprises me when I know things that other girls don’t know. Growing up with brothers did have its advantages.

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Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. more...

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