A Life Lived Backwards


It was late September 1973. I had classic flu symptoms: chills, fever, nausea, sore throat, sinus and chest congestion, cough, headache, diarrhea, and extremely sore muscles and joints. I don’t think I’ve had flu so severe before or since. Usually, the symptoms would begin to wane after a few days; within 2 weeks, I’d be fully recovered. This time, as the weeks wore on, the symptoms worsened. Some gradually went into remission as the body aches became more intense. My joints began to inflame and swell as the tension in my muscles caused my chest, arms, hands and fingers, my hips, legs, feet and toes to deform. The mild scoliosis, kyphosis and lordosis that I’d developed since early childhood became more and more exaggerated. My shoulders narrowed, my hips widened. Severe pain migrated from joint to joint. I felt that I was walking on shards of shattered crystal. By Christmas, I was using a cane or crutches to move about. I went to work whenever possible, often arriving late and leaving early, doing my best to fulfill my responsibilities as a department head. In the coming months, I found myself in a wheelchair for all or part of the day so I could move about when the pain in my legs and feet was so severe that I couldn’t walk on them. My legs at times felt like they would collapse beneath me.

My life had become distorted. Everything was out of focus. Even my doctors were perplexed by the rapid onset of a disease for which they had no name. Much of my time was spent at home resting and seeking relief by soaking in tubs of hot water. In the quest for a diagnosis, my doctor referred me to one medical specialty after another: orthopedics, rheumatology, physical medicine and rehabilitation, radiology, neurology. Definitive answers eluded the most skilled diagnosticians. Like so many other people confronted with a disease of unknown origin, I soon felt like it existed only in my imagination. It had to be a psychosomatic illness of my own making. Psychiatry was added to the list of specialties. It would be many years before I understood that all illness is psychosomatic. It can only exist in the mind and the body. At the time the term was used to describe my discomfort, it seemed pejorative. There was something wrong with me — not my body — me.

As weeks became months, my spirit was crushed. The pain became so intense that I would call friends in the early morning hours. I did not want to cry alone. I sought the comfort of having someone bear witness to what was happening to me. They did not have to understand, only listen. Just talking about the pain, relieved it. I felt I was losing my mind and the frustration of my doctors was not helping. Perhaps, in my misery it was only a projection on my part, but I felt that they were rejecting my claims of severe pain. I felt their confusion and discontent as test after test failed to render a diagnosis.

In April 1974, it was suggested that the cause may be sarcoidosis, a rare autoimmune disease, or possibly cancer. These are diseases that mimic one another. The suggestion of cancer ignited an unprecedented change in me. This line of inquiry, the mounting severity of the pain in my body, and the pressures at work overwhelmed my coping ability. I resigned my job, subleased my apartment and traveled, first to San Francisco and 2 weeks later, Hawaii. I was running away. Considering my circumstance, it would be difficult. I summoned all my courage and strength, gathered the remains of a crushed spirit and off I went.

Each night, I could hardly sleep. Early morning was agony, but I was determined to see something of life. I forced myself to dress and to walk, and walk and walk. My spirit was soothed. I walked the hills, rode the ferries and the famous cable cars. I learned that exercise in the fresh air and magical light of the Bay Area would soothe my body as well. A forced beginning to each day brought comfort that lasted well into the night. In my solitude, I slowly began to discover myself. Not the person expected by parents, and teachers. Not the person I thought myself to be. This was a new beginning.

By the time I left for Hawaii, I’d regained my enthusiasm for life, but I felt something wasn’t quite right. On the flight, I could feel my condition worsening. By the time I landed in Honolulu, I had developed a bad head cold with severe symptoms and all the progress I’d made seemed lost. I remembered the lessons learned on the hills of San Francisco and forced myself to get moving each day. The tropical heat with the balmy trade-winds and the rhythm of the oceans waves added to the success of my therapy. I kept moving, taking time to rest and to nourish myself with the fresh fruits of both land and sea.

One day, I stopped on Ala Moana Beach to rest. Lullabied by the gentle breeze and the waves as they caressed the sand and the rocks, I found myself in a new state that I had not experienced before. My body, my mind felt as they do in that state just before falling asleep and just before fully awakening. I was aware of all of the impressions appearing in my mind, but I felt indifferent to them. It was as though I was watching a film, but I was unmoved by it. In this state, I considered my situation and in a very cavalier manner decided that the worst that could happen would be death. I imagined myself dead and suddenly felt transported outside of my body and mind. I could “see” my body laying on the beach. I was aware of my thoughts. I realized I was neither my body, nor my mind. For the first time in memory, I was only aware of myself, the experience that, by custom, I had named “I”. I continued to observe. Then, suddenly, without any effort that “I- thought” disappeared. There remained only a state of awareness. Not aware of being aware, but awareness itself. Time vanished. Meaning and all judgment vanished. When I returned to my senses, I knew something had changed. I still had pain, but I was not defeated by it.

Each day for the remainder of my holiday, I sought that magical state with varying degrees of success. I continued to feel better, but, on my return to San Francisco and the cold, damp winds of summer, I tightened. By the time I returned to Seattle, not much had changed. I went to see my doctor. When the blood studies were complete, a diagnosis was reached. I had rheumatoid arthritis.

A strong impression survived my holiday. It’s impact dimmed in the ensuing months of trial and error treatments, but eventually life’s experiences led me “home” to that impression. During my “out of body” experience on the beach in Honolulu, I received a message: “yoga”. This “message” was unique — perhaps heard, perhaps intuited. I’ve never been certain which. I’d heard of yoga, but certainly had no understanding of it. Judged through the filter of my Roman Catholic schooling, I thought of it as perhaps witchcraft and most likely cultism. In time this message would change the course of my life to significantly greater extent than the disease that led me to it.