What I Learned When I Stopped Breathing

The day before Thanksgiving, I had what's called a Grand Mal seizure. I went into convulsions and stopped breathing. As my brother put it, I then turned blue. I am not epileptic or prone to seizures, but I do have a brain tumor located in my venal draining duct. The doctors are surprised I don’t have more seizures (but more on that later). It was due to an electrolyte imbalance that prevented brain impulses from reaching my vital organs—you know, like the heart and lungs.

I was on vacation at the time and had returned from an hour of yoga and a run on the beach. After a long shower, I laid down on a deck chair to read a book. As my brothers recall it, they saw my book drop from my hand, but instead of going to sleep, I started convulsing and then went into a rigid state of shock. That was the point at which I turned blue.

Fortunately they were there. They called 911 and did all the right things until I was able to gasp for the breath I needed. I was brought to the area hospital, where a breathing tube was put down my throat. Then I was sedated until they could figure out what was going on.

My wife was mid-flight when this happened. She told me later about rushing off the plane and to the hospital, of sitting in the ER with my sisters-in-law, and explaining to the doctors what my tumors were most likely doing and not doing.

All I remember of this was a series of vague images, like a series of Instagram pictures, of my brothers turning me on my side, of my being carried into an ambulance, its lights flashing beneath a palm tree, and of nurses and doctors rushing around me in the ICU. What I do remember most clearly was waking up in the hospital bed. I remember asking about everyone else, to make sure that my episode did not interrupt my family’s Thanksgiving.

It did of course. But not in the way you might have expected. My event gave us all a wonderful reminder into what is important. So use the lessons my family was reminded of as the New Year approaches—of why it's important to be kind to those you love and to those you don’t, and as a reminder to focus on what you can change and to let the rest go, and that life, no matter how long it goes on, is a fleeting experience, so enjoy it for all it is worth, because I highly doubt it will come around again in quite the same way.

1. Be grateful for your network of loving family and friends.

At some point in time, you will need someone to help you. The friends and family that you love when you are well are the ones you will want around you when you are not. So make sure the people you keep around you are the ones you truly want around you, not the ones you feel obliged to be with. Also don’t wait for a catastrophic event before you share the love you have within you. Take the time to share in the best of times, for they will help you enjoy the journey along the way before the not-so-good times arrive.

2. Be your authentic self.

Sooner or later your true self will reveal itself – most likely when you have the least control of your life. When I woke up, my wife told me I kept asking her over and over again if my family was OK. My concern was not for myself and certainly not for work, but for the people around me. It was a nice reminder, that deep down inside, beyond my conscious thought, love and concern for others is a priority in my life. No matter what drives you or what your goals are, make sure you are happy with the person deep within. That is your authentic self and you'll want to like that person when you have to face him or her in your time of need.

3. Don’t work to live.

My seizure was brought on because I did not listen to my own advice. I pushed myself to get everything done before my vacation so that I could enjoy my time with my family. I pushed myself hard. I re-designed my two websites. I launched a new program, The Mindful Diet in time for the New Year. I completed a series of videos for an online course in meditation called Step to Enlightenment. I then spent what minutes I had to edit my new book, The Conversation.

I figured if I could get everything done, I'd be free "to really enjoy the holidays.” I pushed so hard that I ended up stressing my body beyond its capabilities. Yes, I accomplished a lot, but I would have accomplished so much more if I had pulled back a bit and enjoyed the life I was living as much as I enjoyed the work I was doing.

4. Live your life.

You've heard it before and you'll probably hear it again. There is no road map to life and everyone is different. So make sure that the life you live is truly yours and not someone else’s idea of what life should be. Make sure that it's in balance with your needs, not the needs someone else thinks are important. Sooner or later, it will be just you on a bed, and trust me, you do not want regret being your bed-mate when that happens.

5. Let your difficult experiences be a reminder for the future.

One of the lessons I teach my students is that an experience is not inherently good or bad, it simply is. What makes it good or bad is whether you learn and grow from it. This article is my effort to turn what could have been an unbelievably bad experience, that I would wish upon no one, into a positive one. It is my hope that in the last days and hours of this year, you'll learn from my mishap and enjoy a fuller, richer, more satisfying life because of it.

Pass this along and wish everyone love and a Happy New Year. Let’s make this and every year to come the best one ever.

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