Healing in Addiction & Cancer

This morning while walking to church, these mystical truths grabbed me more completely:

More and More I can understand that I can heal myself and live or I can heal myself and die, my physical condition is not an indication of my wholeness.

More and more, I will get well not out of the fear of dying but out of the joy of living.

I have written about these two affirmations in the past.  Reflecting on them again this morning further enhanced my understanding.  Here are some of those thoughts:

  • Although I continue in recovery from my addiction to alcohol and drugs, I consider myself to be “healed” from the addiction.  That healing and continued recovery was never based in a fear of dying, but initially in a hope to live, followed by an absolute joy in the life that I experienced over the past three decades + of sobriety.  That peace and joy certainly passes all understanding I could conceptualize while in active addiction.
  • Emma and I just returned from a 5-day cruise.  When diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in August of 2017, and given a 3-6 month prognosis, we certainly never imagined taking such a trip.  As I wrote in my last post, I can attribute outliving the initial prognosis, not just to my excellent medical treatment at Touro Infirmary, but also activities like gardening.  I have written often how I consider having an attitude of gratitude, support of family and friends, a spiritual life in the School for Contemplative Living and at Rayne Memorial UMC are all integral parts of my cancer treatment plan.
  • In the same way I am “healed” from my substance abuse addictions, today, I more fully embrace being healed from the factors that led to my cancer.  As the 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous remain integral to my ongoing recovery, so too my medical treatments, gardening, support network, and spiritual life remain integral in my cancer recovery.
  • Less and less, I see the two recoveries separately.  Rather, whether alcohol addiction or cancer, the healing has less to do with mortality – ultimately, none of us get out of this alive – but with the joy and meaning in living, whether I have one day, one month, one year, or longer left to enjoy being on this earth.

My truth is that today is the best day I have lived, and tomorrow will be better.  I am truly blessed.

Brief Medical Update

My last chemo round ended on Wednesday before Thanksgiving.  I suggested, and my oncologist agreed to put off further chemo till after the holidays and our January cruise.  I expect I will do a few more rounds of chemo in the next month or so with the hopes of then being fortified to go several months without treatments.

Physically, I am doing very good.  Yesterday I spent a couple of hours working in the garden turning soil and adding compost.  My energy level is reasonably high.  Compared to when I started chemo in October of last year, my health seems much better today.  My appetite is good and I am in little pain.

The medical news I am most pleased with is from the results of my Friday bloodwork.  My alkaline phosphatase levels that were ten times the normal level when first diagnosed with cancer are now completely within the mid-range of normal.  The level is important because it is one measure of bone deterioration from the metastasized cancer.  The normal level indicates a dramatic slowing of the deterioration process.  As well, all the 50 or so measures from my most recent blood test are either normal, or slowly moving in that direction.

 

 

Cancer or Not – I have 22 Varieties of Seeds to Plant

One of the things I enjoy about living in New Orleans is year round gardening.  We do not have much down time to just clean and sharpen tools.  A few weeks ago we harvested our lemon and satsuma trees.  We still have bok choy and greens growing in one bed.  With an average last frost in early February, I am currently weeding, composting, and turning soils in our raised beds.  In two weeks I will start some seeds indoors.

We plan to expand our gardens this year.  Last week my order of 22 varieties of heirloom/organic vegetable and herb seeds arrived.  I spent a good bit of time choosing the seed types to match what we want to grow and will be able to grow.  To maximize our limited sunny ground space, I chose squash and melon that produce small fruit so that we can grow them from pots hanging in the sun.  We will focus on plants that have grown well in the past two years – okra, peppers, basil, cucumbers, and eggplant and will continue experimenting with some of our less successful crops like tomatoes and tomatillos.  We are adding beans and brussels sprouts to the garden, along with our usual range of herbs. Given our abundance of seeds, I will germinate at least double what I intend to plant and give the surplus to friends and a local middle school’s urban garden student project.

I am always energized by weeding, watering, and tending to crops in my personal Garden of Eden.

I am fortunate that I enjoy working in our gardens.  I consider such activities as integral to my stage four cancer treatment as chemotherapy and my monthly x-geva injections.  I have no interest or need to demonstrate the value of gardening to my cancer treatments as an empirical or scientific truth.  I consider the treatment value as a mystical truth.  In his book Servanthood, Bennett Sims writes that a mystical truth

is the deepest level of truth available to human experience.  It means that the opposite of a grasped truth is a truth that does the grasping. The initiative in seeking and finding such truth is generally not one’s own, but comes unbidden by human resolve or expectation. . . mystical truth is confined almost entirely to the category of experience.  The mystical while common in human experience, cannot be fully comprehended or satisfactory articulated.

My experiences with mystical truths result in an affirmation of beliefs.  For example, a mystical truth for me is found in Matthew (7:7-8) in my recovery from alcohol addiction.

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

This is such a core truth that I have no interest, desire, or ability to explain or particularly articulate the truth.  I know and have experienced the truth of the statement.  I fully attribute my gardens as one reason why I have now lived 13 months longer than my initial cancer prognosis.  I know too that I still have much to do on this earth and will continue to walk down that road of recovery (and gardening).

I am truly blessed.

Living Forever in the New Year

A while ago I got past the idea that with my cancer diagnosis I could not plan more than a month into the future.  Today, with my first regimen of chemo behind me, coupled with my monthly x-geva injections, I am feeling better than I have in a couple of years.  I am able to commit to early morning events because I now wake up by 6:00 AM as opposed to dragging myself out of bed at 8:00 AM.  Two months ago, riding my bike 2 miles was exhausting, but now 10 miles is not a problem.

I picked up a book recently called How To Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations by Marc Freedman.  The book is not about the taking health supplements, or freezing your body in liquid nitrogen for a future thawing.  Rather, and in a similar way to the Parker Palmer’s On The Brink, Freedman deals with the relationship of older and younger generations to the benefit of both.

The relationship discussed in the book considers a subject in which I have considerable interest – mentoring.  I have written about this elsewhere.  Freedman got me thinking about this subject anew.  In the past year, I intentionally pulled back from professional responsibilities in academia including formal teaching.  However, I continue to have a keen interest in mentoring and the reciprocal benefits to all engaged in that process.  That is where the Freedman book hit me.

I considered several mentorship projects in the past year but was reluctant to begin the long-term process to bring them to fruition.  A good bit of my reluctance was not knowing my ability and longevity beyond the next chemo round.  I am comfortable making plans that extend into the spring, but was hesitant to think much beyond that, as I blogged about with my gardens.

But applying Freedman book process very much aligns with my experience in cancer recovery.  As good as chemo and x-geva might be, I know too that the attitude and actions in my mental and spiritual lives are as integral to my cancer treatment as the medicines.  My oncologist will not offer a prognosis today because I have consistently proven his past estimates wrong.

So, into the New Year I am taking the attitude that I will live forever and I am going to fully engage with some of my half-formed projects I have been hesitant to commit to fully.  I still understand that 30-days from now the cancerous tumors and bone lesions might be back in full force or that I could be hit by a car, struck by lightening or die from any number of incidents.  I have lived under the “being dead in 3-6 month” prognosis for past two years.  I am now ready to live forever!

A Christmas I Was Not Supposed to See

Our family at The Fly getting ready for the holiday.

In August of 2017, my gastro doctor told me that I likely had three to six months to live.  My oncologist suggested I get a back-up for the fall course I was teaching as I might not make it to the end of the semester.

So here I am 16 months later, feeling considerably better than I did back then.  I am riding my bike regularly, working in the yard, and going on a cruise in January in preparation for a longer stint of travel this spring.

My four rounds of chemotherapy in the fall were very successful.  My monthly x-geva injection has stabilized the bone deterioration of my metastasized cancer.  I have received excellent medical care from Touro Infirmary.  Now, my oncologist will not offer a prognosis for me as he notes that I have outlived all expectations to date.

But there is much more than the medical and physical to my being alive.  I have reasons to get up every day, one day at a time.  That understanding from my three decades of recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous has proven absolutely key.  I thought about this when working in the garden over the past couple of weeks.  We had good crops this year and we are looking to expand in 2019.  As I have cleared for new beds and hacked through some of our tropical backyard jungle, I initially thought if my future chemo proved less effective and I was not able to eat again, then the garden produce might not be of use.  But then I thought too that we have family and friends with whom we already share our crops, and if we could not eat the future crops, we would just share more.  I thought too that our gardens are a small step we can take to support our earth in this time of environmental devastation and our government’s inaction.  But mostly, I thought, today I am able to work in the garden – I cannot predict what tomorrow will bring any more than when told in the summer of 2017 I had 3 to 6 months to live.

And there is more than one-day-at-a-time to my continued health:

  • My wife and best friend Emma has stood by me through the good and bad, particularly in the last year.
  • My faith community at Rayne Memorial is a key to my spiritual path and my cancer treatment.  I have many friends and opportunities for service that feed me physically and spiritually.
  • My weekly meeting with the School for Contemplative Living has led to friendships and a spiritual path that have led me down roads that I would never find alone.
  • The book studies that began at Emma’s store on the Artists Way and now moved into other creative directions also provide a community and insights to grow with.

A couple of weeks ago, Emma and I celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary.  Tomorrow, we will celebrate a Christmas that I was not supposed to see.  Now it is not so much a matter of just being alive, but also to live a life of meaning.  Being able to do so is the best Christmas gift I could receive or give.

I am truly blessed and grateful.

Letting God be God in Recovery

No, he said, he did not go to church.  “But you do believe in God?” I asked, hardly daring to hope he did not.  He paused for a moment and looked up at the sky, where big, spreading clouds streamed by.  “God isn’t the problem,” he said. – Patricia Hampl, Virgin Time: In Search of the Contemplative Life, p. 43

As I have posted before, when I got sober, I came to grips with God as a higher power, and am quite content with the direction and faith communities in which I seek and travel today.  In his new book On the Brink of Everything Parker Palmer writes (p. 105):

And why have faith, if God is so small as to be contained within our finite words and formulae?  To write and live in faith, we must let God be God – original, wild, free, a creative impulse that animates all of life, but can never be confined to what we think, say, and do.

This understanding resonates with me.  I well recall as an elementary school student being made to memorize the call and response of the Baltimore Catechism.  It seemed a perfunctory chore at the time without any meaning.  I could never memorize the responses correctly until put to the task by two matronly great aunts, who apparently I feared more than the nuns.  Though I got the lines in my head, the words still had no meaning.

My greatest “aha” moment on this journey came 7 or 8 years ago when I was sitting in an AA meeting and heard the Third Step read, though I had heard the same words at least 1000 times before: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.”  My mind became completely focused by understanding this as an action step and one of liberation as well.  I was no longer confined by the Baltimore Catechism or any other dogma of my past.  As Parker Palmer mandates I must let “God be God” without any of the limits imposed by the baggage I collected over the years.

Like so much in my life today, whether dealing with cancer, maintaining an attitude of gratitude, or the liberation to follow a spiritual path toward true self, the genesis was found in the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.  For that, I am truly blessed.

 

 

Happy Birthday to Emma!

Fall 1999, somewhere along the Buffalo River in Arkansas on our first cross-country adventure.

Today is my bride, Emma’s, birthday. I am grateful that we have been able to grow together and experience all the adventures, here in the South and abroad, of life with family and friends, career choices, geographic moves, and a slew of canine friends.  Over that time, we have always been there for each other, supporting our mutual and individual dreams.

In our 20 years of knowing each other, she has never seen me drunk or high on illicit drugs – though she has experienced many of the “isms” that the recovering alcoholic continues to deal with one day at a time – like anger, self-righteousness, resentment, pride . . . the list goes on . . . and has never wavered in her love and support.

Besides being my best friend for the past two decades, today Emma is my rock and strongest supporter as I deal with the uncertainties of cancer.  There is no way to know what tomorrow will bring, cancer or not.  We have only today . . . and today, we celebrate the birth of Emma Marie French Connolly, my wife, partner, spouse, lover, confidant, and light of my world as we each travel down that path toward our true selves.

I am truly blessed.

Chemotherapy vs an Alcohol Hangover

Thirty-six hours ago I started my first round of chemotherapy.  After the first 4 hours at the Touro Infusion Center, I came home with a portable apparatus that continues to pump the chemo into my system.  I have spent my time sleeping, trying to sleep, being nauseous, watching the numbers go down of the remaining 5FU cocktail pumping into my system, punctuated by three rounds of reasonably intense vomiting.  As instructed, after the third regurgitation experience in less than 24 hours, I called the oncologist, who ordered another anti-nausea script and instructions if I vomited again before morning to go straight to the ER for a fluid IV to keep from dehydrating.

Suffice it to say chemotherapy has not been pleasant experience.  I expect feeling better by about Sunday, a couple of days after I am off of the pump.  Then the process will begin again in a week or so for three more two-week rounds.  The immediate side effects of the 8-week regimen should be over by the time of Emma and my 19th Wedding Anniversary on December 11.

My oncologist said from the outset that if I could not “tolerate” the chemo regimen, other treatments could be tried.  My response has always been that I was not opposed to chemo so long as it was doing some good and not simply a shotgun approach to treatment.  As I explained in an earlier post, the former is the approach after my recent biopsies.

Today while laying there I compared chemo’s physical side effects with hangovers from my years as a practicing alcoholic.  I thought of one of my last really bad hangover experiences some 30 plus years ago.  I had been working on a project that was very important for me to complete.  It was so important, I had not touched a drop of alcohol for nearly one week so that I could complete the task.  On the final day of the project, I knew that if I spent another 8 hours, the work would be completed to my satisfaction – something I could feel good about.  I got up that Saturday morning and started working.  After consuming a pot of coffee, I knew I only had a few more hours more work.  I would succeed and prove to myself and everyone else that I could function.  I was a bit tense and on edge from all the coffee and went to the refrigerator to find something to calm my nerves a bit.  There were two unopened bottles of beer.  I knew that I could handle two beers without deviating from my project plans.  I drank them.  The last thing I remember was walking to the corner store to get more beer, project unfinished.  I “came to” the next morning about 5:00 AM with my head pounding, gut wrenching, and most importantly, my mind screaming for my failure once again.  Later that day when delivering my incomplete project, I was sucking on antacids and soft drinks just to keep from vomiting while I spoke.  It would be several days before I felt “normal” again.

There are many similar stories I could tell.

While laying in bed just now, I compared that experience with my current physical condition with chemotherapy.  I certainly feel no worse physically today than I did back those 3 decades ago.  And more importantly, today the chemotherapy is based on a reasoned approach to wholeness whereas the alcohol only took me deeper into the depths of despair.

This morning my gratitude list contained the following:

Grateful today for:
– being able to truly appreciate one day at time, and one hour at a time.
– having the time and resources to take care of my illness.
– I keep saying that the best training I have had for dealing with my cancer today is my years of recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous!

I do not know where this chemotherapy journey will lead me – perhaps to the ER room before the day is out.  But, one day at a time, one hour at a time, and one minute at a time, I am grateful for the opportunity to live life on life’s terms today, and for the support my community of friends provide on this journey toward true self.