This past Thursday evening I received a phone call from Linda, a member of a group I attend called Real Talk for Women. Real Talk is an aptly named group which just a few meetings ago allowed me to unload to fifteen other women my struggle with Malignant Melanoma—especially the prognosis put forward by the medical report indicating a near certainty that the cancer cells had–or were now—making their way to my blood and lymph systems. Linda’s voice was upbeat and friendly, but with a hint of the critical nature of the information she was about to impart. “Do you have a pen and paper?” she asked. “You should probably write this down.” “There is a machine called Kangen which helped a seventy-two-year-old friend heal from a serious form of cancer, Linda said. “It changes tap water into water with a high alkaline content. She drinks gallons of the stuff a day, enough to tip the scales of her system from acid to alkaline on a routine basis.” She charged ahead, unaware of my familiarity with the problems of acid to alkaline imbalance in the body: ”Cancer needs an acidic system to survive; she beat her cancer, in part, with this machine. I think it would be well worth your time to investigate further.”
I could feel a small wave of irritation rising as I dutifully took down the details of the machine and a quickly advancing opportunity to talk to a local expert on the machine. Then, in an apparent afterthought, came the kicker: “I’m not saying you’re doing anything wrong, so I hope you don’t hear it this way.” This insured that any words which followed would be deciphered as a pronouncement of my ineptitude and that I was, in fact, doing it wrong. “I think you should find any way you can to tap into life’s joys—watch sunsets…have fun.” She went on to expound on the many ways she had found joy in the last twenty-four hours, highlighting my recent inability to feel joyful about anything. “I watch sunsets,” I told her, with the lame and guilty tone of a five-year-old caught by a parent in a halfhearted tooth-brushing episode. “I think I’m doing quite well,” I said with a false and defensive brightness, searching frantically for some grateful-sounding closing remarks that would end the phone call.
Wondering at my discomfort with well-intended and potentially life-saving advice, I cast about for some scrap of self-awareness. A distant one surfaced: Linda was someone I wanted to be–outgoing and the center of attention, full of life and energy, and matriarch of a large family who was present like clockwork at the important holidays. She was confident in what she knew and didn’t hesitate to offer advice. My anger, as a road sign, offered me this: In assuming that I didn’t know the things I did, she reflected the constant “one down” position I often took, underselling my own knowledge and expertise. I had made the mistaken assumption that a deferential way of being and relating imparted a message that I was non-threatening (read: nice). And it had made it’s way from a way of being to my being–my very definition of self.
Barb was right. My life had become devoid of joy. Not recently–as in “I’ve made a slight dalliance from the path leading home”–but over decades. How to right this imbalance was beyond me, and had been beyond me for years. If I had known how to right things over that stretch between childhood and now, I certainly would have. No one in her right mind chooses to be cut off from life’s juice—unless it serves her in some protective way. This had now become a puzzle of gigantic proportions, with serious consequences for leaving it unsolved. It was complex, with threads woven throughout my fifty-five years that needed to be traced and seen in tandem with fabric of my life story. Beyond my current understanding. Probably beyond Barb’s, too.
So, the difficult truth: the fact that Barb could so easily read my life situation didn’t in any way insure that she could solve it. Barb couldn’t know, for example, that at this juncture, I needed to do less, not more. While she appeared invigorated and strong going 100 miles an hour, I had burned out with that speed as a constant. This truth, though difficult, was at the same time, vaguely liberating. Among the many sources of expertise out there on cancer, I was my primary resource. I didn’t have the energy to pursue more than the direction offered by my own wisdom. It was trying to keep pace with filled world with those I assumed knew more than me that had perhaps compromised my immune system in the first place.
The expert inside of me (not me, really, but a wiser, bigger part of me) was going to have to step up and help solve the puzzle. My relationship with my expert within has not always been friendly, even if she has been a faithful and loving–and sometimes annoyingly right–friend. We’re still getting acquainted, but I will tell you this. The Expert Within doesn’t lay out the terrain ahead of time, like those DVD jacket plot summaries which let you in on the broad brush strokes. It doesn’t set up plot line and characters like a friend maximizing the impact of a juicy bit of gossip. Mine stingily doles out information in small bits, little a string of bread crumbs to be followed one bit at a time, down sometimes overgrown, dimly lit paths. Her information pops up in annoyingly inconvenient ways–a flash of sudden anger, lingering symptoms of depression, and worse, serious accidents and illness. She leaves me the independence of decision-making to ignore her over and over, and to endure the painful consequences of this non-compliance, amping the consequences on each go round to get her point across. Yet, when accurately deciphered, she is without fault. Her paths often end with the reward of light bulb moments, popping up in my own familiar words and imagery, the coming home portion of a long and difficult journey. And when followed consistently, she opens a door to a greater than imagined understanding of life.
The Expert Within urges me to write this, even when it means that the cards I once held close to the vest now need to be laid down, and in the burst of open disclosure, I loose the hand. It makes me expose those embarrassing parts of myself–the one who wants to be cared for and her arch nemesis, the one who doesn’t want to be told what to do, even if it means having to do it all. Boot to bootie, then carrot-and-stick, she applies whichever the moment calls for. She throws out hints that the sacrifice of victory is a tactical move, positioning me to redefine the notion of winning from above-it-all to one-with-it-all. No more battling; nothing, even, to push against.
My work as a marriage and family therapist has backhandedly assigned me a role as a an expert in the field of medicine and behavioral health. For now, I’m laying aside that role and taking up another, the me that’s not all that in-the-know. But as I champion the role of my inner expert, and tell you the story of getting to know her (and follow her promptings), I hope that I will help you to do the same. In my reading of other accounts—something I’m doing more of recently–it seems that there is no one correct step-by-step approach. Just as there is no one expert with the last word on “doing life” right, inner expertise is as varied as we are as individuals. But we can probably all learn, or at least take courage from, each others stories. As I’m writing this, the sky outside my office window goes from red, to orange, to a foggy series of nuanced greys, lighter and lighter with each layer from ground to sky. I notice it all. It’s progress.