I lie in bed surrounded by paper shopping bags filled with tissues and paper towels, which contain mucus that has been streaming out of my mouth and nose for days on end. An industrial fan blows on me as I drip with sweat. Wide awake at 3 a.m., I’m afraid to fall asleep. I fear that I will choke in my sleep and no one will hear me.
I have no energy. The pill the first doctor prescribed directly conflicts with the one given by the second – potential heart failure, says the minute print that came with the bottle. I choose tablet “B” and my face begins to swell. My skin, like marbled meat, has veins of white with pink patches in between. I cannot speak intelligibly, because my tongue has grown. Doctor Two tells me he’s not worried, that I should jump in the ocean.
The next day I arrive at the office without an appointment and am made to wait for a couple hours. I insist on seeing Doctor Three. With my second steroid shot of the week, this doctor tells me what I have known since I was first told I didn’t have strep throat. It was strep throat. He gave me my sixth and seventh prescriptions.
In April and May 2006, my working vacation in Maui – I directed children’s shows in schools – turned paradise into Hell. The person who hired me in Massachusetts to create what became a successful dramatic arts program had taken the reins of a private school in Hawaii. This gig was to be a reward for four years of hard work.
Looking back, I think it was, but not for the reasons I’d been expecting.
It’s possible to work really hard and not earn much money. Theatrical arts had been a passion and I received a small award or stipend for my work. Broken down by hours, it was well below minimum wage. I supplemented what I loved with substitute teaching, bringing on months of 12-18 hour days. The Maui production comprised my eighth and ninth straight months of working like this.
As a guy in my late twenties, I tried to maintain a social life. I dated here and there and my budding romance was making me increasingly unhappy. Complicated phone calls 6,000 miles apart sapped the fun out of getting to know someone. I wondered if I’d ever meet “the one.” All my friends were happily involved or married.
Though at this point I no longer hated my body, made higher quality food choices, and exercised moderately, my on-the-go lifestyle prevented me from practicing much kindness toward myself. Bread and pasta still played a major role.
And then I got sicker and sicker. In the darkness of the Maui nighttime, with warm sea air wafting through my bungalow and palm trees swaying outside my door, I confronted my mortality. Whether catastrophe was imminent or imagined, my whole being was convinced that the end was near. And I wanted to live!
The preceding months had been tumultuous as snags abound when fifty or a hundred people come together to work on a project. Directing had become a chore. The relationship was becoming a chore. And that bread and pasta brought on head- and bellyaches (a wheat allergy I later discovered). What a way to go, I thought. What a waste.
Not having my closest family and friends nearby, I had to work through my assessment alone. There is nowhere better to do this than while watching a sunset on the beach in one of the most beautiful areas on the planet. With one week to go in my trip, I slowly regained enough strength that allowed me the short walk to the sandy shore without creating exhaustion and pain.
I breathed in the lightly salted air. The sweet breaths of life, unhindered by mucus catching in all my airways. I allowed the sand to envelop my feet, rooting me to this planet, reminding me that I was still here. As the waves lapped toward me, I felt the spume from a young family running by as they laughed and screamed and giggled. A smile arose on my lips for the first time in weeks. It didn’t tire me out. Perhaps this was my reward.
That day, I chose full-body and fully embodied wellness. I saw the misdiagnosis and the allergic reaction as a sign that my whole life required reordering, rather than as an isolated incident. I set about rediscovering balance.
The show I directed on the island, one I was too sick to attend though they offered to set up a cot backstage for me, was my last full-scale production to this point. I snipped the stem of that budding relationship. I reduced my commitment load and embraced sleep.
With much of the morass cleared away, new avenues appeared. When I turned the corner that fall, I met my wife. Without a show to direct, we had ample time to spend with each other. Shortly after, I discovered a passion to bring wellness to others and a new career blossoming before me. Without the illness, I might never have opened my eyes to these possibilities. They might never have come. My wife and I spent ten health-filled days on Maui to celebrate our union just three years later.
Debilitating illness need not exist to bring about beneficial changes. Instead of facing our doom, we can take stock of where we are right now. Are we happy in our jobs? Which relationships buoy us? Does the food I eat nourish me or make me sick? What can I change so that I am in balance?
We all have different definitions for wellness. The great thing is, we have the ability to choose it right now.