Friday, April 4, 2008

Yin and Yang Take Sick Days.

The stairs looked impossible. Here we were, one of us marginally better than the other, both of us with some sort of bronchitis, at the bottom of the outdoor steps leading to our doctor’s office. Maybe we both moaned. I don’t know. I did. I was annoyed that I had to climb steps with compromised lung function.

So, after a two-hour-and-twenty-minute wait [“I guess it’s busy out there,” the doctor says ingenuously] he comes in. My sweetie pie has acute bronchitis. I am somehow less sick. He gets antibiotics. I decide to take Chinese herbs. A kind of race-you-to-the-finish-line deal.

We only went because he was so sick I made an executive decision to take us both for some expert advice. This was after two days of active moping, errands when I probably shouldn’t have been driving, and a lot of bad-movie watching. And moaning and complaining to each other about how terrible we felt. And drugged 11-hour nights of heavy sleeping aided by Nyquil. Which of course we had to go out and find because who keeps that crap in the house?

I had anxiously watched my husband for signs of something worse. My brother had just died of lung cancer which was misdiagnosed for two months back in the beginning of the awful odyssey as being a ‘hard’ pneumonia. Because he didn’t smoke. Hadn’t really been sick as an adult. Had he been a smoker, lung cancer would have been suspected and a tissue test forthcoming. Only when my brother begged for one did he find out what was really going on. So as I am watching my guy struggle with congestion, etc. I immediately go for the worst case scenario. When the doctor listened and said “I don’t hear any pneumonia” I breathed a sigh of relief. Twenty-four hours later, he is better and I can put that scary scenario away for now. I know he is better, because:

His yang energy is stronger. And how do I know that? Oh. Little things. Here are some of them:

“Are you going to be done with your email soon? I’d like to check mine.” Said in a peremptory tone of voice. Not the soft, sick tone he has been using.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but could we do something with the stuff on that chair so I can read later?” The stuff is cardboard and decorative papers and photos left over from my brother’s memorial service. My sister and I made up two large boards of pictures of the various aspects of my brother’s life. It was very hard to do, and a very good thing to do. I realize I don’t want to move it in order to hold onto my brother. There will be a lot more of this, I am sure. Okay. One thing at a time . . . I move it and it isn’t terrible. And I can always sit in the chair, too.

“Are there any clean clothes?” Uh, yeah. I’ve been quietly sneaking away from our nest in front of the TV to put clothes in the washer. They are not folded. [PLEASE.] But they are clean.

“I have to call some patients.” And he finds their numbers with no problem - definitely a ‘tell.’

“Do you think I can work Saturday?” Why don’t you ask if I think you are an idiot?

And best of all? “I’m hungry.”

And me. How do I know I’m getting better? What does yin do? I washed my hair, cleaned the kitchen, finished all the laundry [which is still not folded; but it is sorted], and heated up some soup. If I can manage it, I will change the sheets.

Afternoon arrives and our energies flag. He starts telling me that I better take it easy. He doesn't ask how I feel. It’s so perfectly yang protecting yin. He makes a place for me to sit down and draws me to him. I am cold and definitely overdid it. He is not moving, back in that place where he has definitely used up his energy. But I saw some blue sky and know tomorrow he will be better. Especially if we each take care of the other in the way we both do: I will watch him carefully and read him for signs he needs something; food, tea, water, vitamins; and he will let me go only so far before he demands I sit down . . . you’ve done enough, you must be tired. You have to rest, now, and so on. Maternal watch and offer, versus boundary setting. Yin and yang. Both are necessary.

I will have to be careful. Grief injures the lungs, according to Chinese medicine. My surviving brother is also sick with something very similar. The winter after my father died, all of us came down with bronchitis. So we need to take care of ourselves and balance crying and looking back with taking joy, again, from life, and looking ahead.

Monday, March 31, 2008

A wise Chinese physician once said . . .

[Be patient, Mark, this is for you.]

Years ago, Woody Allen (whom I now boycott) made a movie entitled "ALICE" which starred Mia Farrow as a housewife who consulted a famous Chinese doctor to help her deal with certain psychological issues. (I don't know: Is boredom an issue? Or is it a state of mind? Do we care?)

Anyway (I promise not to have too many more parentheses) Dr. Yang, the Chinese doctor in the movie was drawn with mythic strokes; his herbal prescriptions seemed to have far-reaching effects on Alice, and spurred her to make changes in her life. I don't remember all of the reviews, but it they weren't glowing. It was kind of an offbeat movie. But the thing is, the character of Dr. Yang was based on a real person, not the same name, so don't get any ideas. And I got to meet him, take a couple of classes with him, see him for my own health issues, and bring a patient to him. His knowledge of Chinese medicine and herbs was, simply, staggering. His understanding of Chinese energetics, upon which herbal and acupuncture treatments are based, was brilliant to the point of elegant simplicity, the kind of simplicity you get to after so many years of study and immersion, you arrive back at the beginning; completely turned around and seeing with new/old eyes.

He was in his 80's at the time. English was not his strong suite, so I had to listen carefully. He spent a long time on my pulses, tongue and face. He made notes in Chinese and gave orders to minions. Then he gave me packets of herbs in a powdered form: Just add water, hold your nose and swallow. But they were so powerful that after just one day, my tongue and pulses completely changed. And I had several periods of free association that were so deep and far-reaching, I still refer to them for inspiration.

The problem was, they were also very expensive and after a couple of months I could not go back. But I had a wealthy patient who was willing to see him and have me accompany her to take notes and observe. The patient had a large non-cancerous growth and was trying to avoid surgery. I had tried to tell her over and over that the growth was a result of internal cold; a solid mass that accumulated because she was so depleted and kept pushing herself. But people of her ilk do not want to be told that. They just want ways around the inevitability of running out of gas.

I watched the doctor do his initial evaluation. Then he spoke:

"You are 4-cylinder car trying to go like 6-cylinder car. " Goosebumps. Just that morning my patient had revealed she had had a strange dream in which she was in a car trying to go up a hill and she could not make it and kept sliding back down.

My patient tried to explain that she had a very demanding job and that she needed more energy. She was trying to reason with him. The doctor looked at her compassionately, and in a deep and resonant voice said: "Mind has no limit. Body has limit."

That was basically the end of her entreaty. There was simply nothing she could say to that. It was an essential truth of stunning simplicity, and not at all the way we learn to think about the body-mind.

In terms of the male sexual ability to perform, this is also apt. There is not necessarily anything wrong with you if you have mental/emotional desire, but not enough energy to complete the job. You are not always supposed to be able to. The body has its way of protecting your essential energy (kidney jing) or life force -- a finite amount you are born with -- so that you do not use too much of it and compromise your health. Or age before your time. This happens in response to two basic things: Aging, which is inevitable; and a too-great demand for energy.

That said, there are certainly things one can do to optimize your response. But first you need to evaluate what's really going on. It may be your yang that is depleted, not only your yin. Or it may be both. For instance, depleted yang could leave you colder or paler than normal. You might notice your workouts are harder to complete. Depleted yin is what is responsible for hot flashes or certain heat symptoms, among other things.

Do you get enough sleep? Sleep is the great restorer of yin and yang energies. Without enough sleep, we age faster, have slower responses to immune system challenges, and don't always feel vital sexual energy, to name just a few of the many ways lack of sleep affects us. Just because caffeine can sharpen our senses and prop open our eyelids after a poor night's sleep does not mean that the rest of our bodies are following along.

The second thing to look at is: are there any underlying physical conditions that would cause your response to be compromised? Your doctor would be the one to determine this. You can also consult a practitioner of Chinese medicine for an energetic diagnosis that would take into an account any lifestyle habits that might be impacting your general health. Moxibustion, the practice of using smoldering 'moxa' -- a preparation of the herb mugwort -- on certain points is extremely beneficial for bolstering/warming up male yang energy and yin.

In short, without seeing you face-to-face, and with very little information, it would be difficult to give more than a general opinion on what you could do. The beauty of Chinese medicine is that it gives an individual a differential diagnosis based on that person's specific imbalances and often uncovers the beginning of sub-clinical conditions before they become more serious. And the treatments are also very directly addressed to a patient's body, not to the disease or condition as is common in western, allopathic medicine.

Be gentle on yourself and do not have the expectation that to be male is necessarily to be able to perform at will. To be male, is, after all, to be human.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Poignant Farewell, A New Beginning

In Chinese Medicine, the functions of the liver [yin organ] and gallbladder [yang organ] are paired. In terms of five element theory, they are considered ‘wood.’ [The other four elements being fire, water, metal and earth.] When you think of wood, think sap rising in spring . . . and that lovely pale color green – the green of just emerging shoots from the still-cold ground; new, fresh grass; the pale green haze enveloping trees in early spring.

This green is what my brother Julius hoped to see one final time. It was an exciting time of year for him, a happy, invigorating time. Sap rising, new life beginning. But he only made it to the first day of Spring, then died during the early morning hours of Good Friday, at the darkest part of the night, just before there was any lightening in the sky.

He had no choice, really; he had outlasted every prognosis, squeezing breath and life from a body full of metastasized lung cancer. He had endured stereotactic radiation several times a week which miraculously killed off the many bone tumors, giving him maybe 6 more months and cutting down the terrible pain from those places. But at the end, he literally had no lung left to expel the carbon dioxide accumulating in his body. And he left us after slipping into a gentle, painfree coma.

I tell you all this, only so you can understand that there is a new beginning, a greening of possibility, after a sad death such as his. He was loved, and cherished, by his wife and stepdaughter, and by his mother, and by his five siblings, all of whom appreciated Julie for the unusual person he was. His memorial service was jammed with mourners. People literally left because there was no room to even stand. We each spoke about our brother in the most truthful ways we could, to try to capture for the ‘outside’ world who he was for one last time.

And after that, we each slept deeply and completely.

Because something utterly painful and sad was finally over, and we could begin to live again without waiting for something so dreadful we didn’t dare dwell on it before it happened.

And with each day, aided by the small messengers from the earth -- tips of leaves from flowers to come, the growing gathering of birds on the feeders, sunlight lasting longer into the evening -- our spirits feel lighter, and possibility grows in our hearts. You see, we learned something from my brother. His will to live was so strong it fed a denial that kept him from doing what would have made him happy, from living his last months as happily as he could have. And we have each decided not to do that. Not now, not ever. It was not a good strategy; it did not work. It was painful to watch and exhausting to maintain. And if that is an inadvertent gift from him, so be it; we are not looking too deeply into the ‘whys’ anymore. It is a lovely gift; a way of embracing life. We will take the best he had to offer – his love of and excitement about the natural world and gardening, his brilliance in architecture and design and enthusiasm for different ways of doing things and his final lesson. And he will live in us as long as we remember who he truly was.

There will be many more tears, but there will be grateful smiles and an embracing of life in a way none of us have ever done before.

Thank you Julius, for who you were and what we learned.

Godspeed, my brother.

Julius Traina
September 1, 1952 - March 21, 2008

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Case for Starbucks

What’s so terrible about being pumped up with adrenalin and full of caffeine? Well, I can think of two or three things right off the top of my head . . . adrenal exhaustion and the much put-upon lining of the human stomach, to begin with. Coffee is a hot bitter herb, pretty yang as yang foods go. And what it ‘gives’ us imbibers is a rush of hot energy, a certain snappiness to our tongues, the illusion we are smart and fast and productive. Sort of the opposite of sleepy couch-potato-ness, putzing around not doing much, meandering through a morning, afternoon, and in worst/best case, evening.

But yin is kinda really important, too. Yin is that calm, thinking-things-through-at-our-own-pace energy. The slowed down, subtly-colored, quiet energy humming in the background of our bodies, running things we don’t want to pay attention too [digestion, heart beat, secretions being produced etc.]. It’s the quiet classroom, for once no one talking, kids with bent heads doing an assignment. Or the person in the back of the restaurant, sitting alone, quietly reading through lunch. You get the picture. The unheralded underpinnings of life, and so on.

But, yin is also a rainy day, dark, a bit foggy, a kind of I don’t really want to go to the office [NO! WAH! DON’T MAKE ME LEAVE THE HOUSE!!!!] energy, sometimes.

Like today. Fog. Everything dripping. Ice, snow, drippy, slushy GREY and WHITE with some brown thrown in to increase the depresso factor.

Suddenly that cup of coffee I never finished this morning and left in the microwave is calling to me.

I took a shower to ‘wake up.’ You know how HARD it is to get in a shower on a wet drippy day? And get wet without even getting to the car? I have not stepped one foot outside, and I had to get wet. And I didn’t like it. Because even though I put on nice dry soft clothes, I am going to have to go out to the car and it’s going to be more of the same.

And I am definitely going to finish my nice hot coffee first and probably stop at Border’s which has the best coffee on my errand route. Unless you count the deli with Green Mountain coffee . . . or Perennial Chef, or, well, even STARBUCKS.

There are worse things.