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Goat Academy: Situation 1

In my last “Situation” post, I said that nature’s elements could be brutal.  The Melanoma diagnosis I received in 2012 was, to my way of thinking, one of the elements.  It didn’t seem that much different from a lightning strike or the kind of powerful wind just that can do some serious damage.

Damage or not, I like to think that my life has that same ability to rebalance that nature has so beautifully demonstrated after almost every kind of disaster I can come up with.

A few years before this diagnosis, I suffered a traumatic brain injury after a fall from a horse.  That did some serious damage, too. But at the time I was insistent that the brain injury I suffered from would not derail what was then a new career as a therapist.  I was used to overcoming almost any challenge.  12-hour workdays let me see this obstacle as just another something to overcome.   

When cancer came along, it was back to the drawing table with my “can do” philosophy. 

After diagnosing the Melanoma, the general surgeon told me I needed a second surgery, done by an oncology surgeon, to make sure we removed all the cancerous cells.  A lymph node biopsy would be needed in order to assess whether the cancer had spread. 

Should I attempt to push back against Melanoma with the force that the medical world deemed appropriate? I wasn’t sure.

For a while, I wavered between a “good guys” and “bad guys” characterization of the elements.  After the one-two punch of a brain injury followed by cancer, I settled on “bad guys” for a time.   Sinister, gravely voices shoved the sunlit breezy rustling, baby-bird squeak-chirping, and the fluttering wings aside.

Now I wanted to fight back.  I scheduled an appointment with the second surgeon.  

Then this occurred to me: Attempting to go after every last cancer cell might turn out to be nothing more than a way of avoiding some kind of wise voice built into it. It seemed more likely that I should think of Cancer as a message, and follow its prescriptions, whatever they turned out to be.

Aware that I had been working too hard to compensate for the brain injury, I sensed that what I really needed was rest.  

I decide against following the advice of both surgeons.  I skipped the surgery and lymph node biopsy and investigated what changes I might need to make in order to heal–an alternate path, and, yes, an uncertain one.  But I felt I should get out of my body’s way and let it do its own healing. 

Once I set out, I would stay alert for Cancer’s wise voice. And hope to God that it had one.

Beyond the body’s rest, I also needed to look inside, if for no other reason than the possibility that this element had come about to tell me something.  Some big life message that I had missed for one reason or another.    

Then I learned from alternative cancer studies that many cancer patients exhibit type-C personality traits, something they had learned earlier as a way to cope. People with type-C personalities fail to share their feelings or attend to their own needs, and generally put others first. 

I thought I saw this tendency in myself.  I had always enjoyed working hard.  A day of intensely focused work gave me a sense of accomplishment–fruits of my labors that I could be proud of. A second career as a therapist gave me the added joys of helping others bring positive change to their lives. 

I liked the work of attuning to others and teasing out their inner-expert.  As an extra bonus–albeit one born of my unconsciousness–this focus on others gave me the ability to push away the things in me that didn’t feel good.

Vulnerability, uncertainty, and lack of clarity weren’t states of mind that I was completely comfortable with.  I lacked the awareness to cultivate the same wellness-building and growth-promoting connection with emotion that I routinely prescribed as “good medicine” for my own clients. 

With the Melanoma diagnosis, I stepped back from my practice to focus on my own health, knowing that on some level that this would entail coming face to face with disowned feelings.  Despite this purposeful dive into a new arena of self-investigation, some unconscious part of me continued to defend against what I didn’t want to face. While I sifted through what I was beginning to know, I referred my clients to other psychotherapists who I felt could better care for them while I focused on myself. 

Garage, Sweet Garage 

So, what was my response to this new information? Not wanting (or knowing it would be best) to hand over control to the Elements, to get quiet and listen more intently to their message, I did what you do when you’re not only unenlightened, but vaguely contrary.  I changed course.  I found a way to focus less on myself, my needs, and my pesky feelings with a single phone call to acquire some male kid goats.   

I cleared out my garage to make room for new life. I adopted baby goats Leo and Orion, gifted by a friend who had an eighty-goat herd and dairy in Cumberland, Wisconsin. I picked them up from the farm, loaded them into a dog carrier, and drove thirty miles back to my farm on Highway 46.  

Dwarfed by the large carrier I thought would barely contain them, they stayed jammed towards the back, peering out warily in my direction. Finally, I was able to snag each by the leg and remove them gingerly from the car. I installed them in their new home, a small metal pole shed with a dirt floor with two south-facing windows and a kitchen door visible from both.  The kids’ abrupt change of residence was, no doubt, a shock. As they were transferred from dog carrier to pole shed, they were dubious of their new surroundings. I’m pretty sure a garage and a wire wrap-around fence enclosure were not on their bucket list of places to stay–a barnyard prison, so to speak. 

They made mental notes of security weaknesses to leverage as a means of escape.  Captivity and confinement could be tossed aside as soon as they had a good plan.  Frequent sidelong glances towards my dog, Gobo, and me added to their arsenal of tactical information. 

Their plan to spring from the farm seemed to recede from their consciousness around day four.  That’s because I was delivering the milk.  Lots of it.  They were ready every time I came out and they required milk twice a day.  Pretty soon, I was the most special person in their world, and they wouldn’t dream of leaving me.  

The twin kids would climb over each other to get to the bottles. A three-minute duet of staccato sucking noises followed. Whichever finished first would shove the other out of the way and latch onto his brother’s bottle to get the drizzle of remaining milk.   

Weeks passed.  Woozy under the influence of rich goat’s milk, the inside of the garage became less prison cell, more childhood home; their “jailer” became someone to love. Leo, who wouldn’t have anything to do with me on adoption day, would now climb onto my lap and gaze dreamily into my eyes, the farmyard version of Stockholm Syndrome. I fell in love–direct access to the heart via livestock ownership. 

During my consult with the oncology surgeon, the friend who accompanied me asked what would happen if I didn’t have the surgery.  “The cancer will come back,” the surgeon said without hesitation. Not “could,” not even “would.”  Will was the word he used.  He avoided the “condition” that would typically be built into that particular declaration.  That single word will (and its forced certainty) made me strangely curious.  There seemed to be an absence of the context that time (or a good rewrite) would provide.  A shift, changing the word “will”–to “could”–and “could”–to “won’t.”  I wanted to live in the story of “the cancer won’t come back.”  A warm glowy home instead of a prison. 

Eventually, my story, like the goat’s, received an edit.  I added my “inner expert” to the cast of characters.  I skipped the surgery and followed my heart.  I read all the stories of unexpected and miraculous recoveries I could find, igniting in me what panic had erased.  Trust in my ability to heal.   

Walls of a garage changed from “prison” to “home” with a slight change in story structure–a slant.  Following this wizardry as best I could, I rewrote my own story to give it a better slant, too. 

Time moves on and a story changes–a story of a “Type C” at one time missing out on life’s joys, but now living a bit more within their range. The story of goats whose prison becomes a beloved home they wouldn’t dream of leaving. Time broadened the understanding of living beyond cancer just as time broadened the goats’ understanding of “the prison” and the “woman who runs it.” Hardship fades from memory, brains rewire, and trauma gets rewritten.

Jumping to the end, past all the twists and turns, I thought about how goats, garages, and scary cancer news might shift and change over time.

Scrambling the beginning, middle and end, I grabbed onto the “happily ever after.” With a determined spirit, I started living the ending as if it were now; I started living the “ever after.”   

As I fed my goats and stared into their dreamy eyes, I imagined myself as someone who doesn’t have cancer.

Orion finished his bottle first, shoved his brother, and looked at me. I jumped into a different story and Leo and Orion jumped alongside me.

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Family

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Beliefs

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Auto-Thoughts

From the beginning: "A" Discovery

You might notice that Auto-Thoughts begins with the first letter of the alphabet.  All of the remaining Markers will follow that same pattern:  Auto-thoughts, Beliefs, Consequences, Dig…. (So will the Tools.  You’ll see)

Shut up!  In 2012, this was my most pronounced Auto-thought, directed at goats and people and, especially, myself.

While I never uttered the words aloud, it was a constant theme.  Why had everyone from my goats to the guy on his cell phone at the gas station become insufferable in their chatty-ness?  Mornings became my time to think and Google, which I did with a cup of tea, from bed.  Truth be told, I did a lot of my Googling in this upstairs bedroom at all times of the day, sitting on my mattress aside a big heap of window and door trim stashed under the eaves. Between Google searches, I listened to my own chatty thoughts which sometimes took the form of a question.

“Did my slant create the cancer?”  I asked the empty room.   The trim-less walls and windows stayed silent.

If I wasn’t Googling the number of coats needed for the dark stain I would need to apply once the trim was in place, I was Googling to find out what others did to “cure” cancer.

I read research that discussed the Type C (for cancer) personality—fearful, stoic, and inauthentic. I noted these qualities in myself.

Fun Fact:  we’re born with many of our most ingrained qualities.  And what we’re not born with, much of what we acquire, quality-wise, happens early on.  I learned that the best way to get along with people was to be masked and silent, so that became one of my most defining qualities.  Although I wasn’t aware of any of this, it gave me a certain sense of safety to quietly recede to the back of the room.

This is how “Shut Up!” became the primary Auto-Thought I began my Elements work with.  As I yearned for a quiet place from which to gather my thoughts, I kept a tight fist on my status quo:  head down as to avoid conflict and unwanted attention.  At the same time, my goats and everyone else within ear shot got louder.

One morning, between the Google searches, came this thought about “shut up”:  Maybe others seemed to talk tiresomely and ceaselessly because I had so silenced myself.  I was the common denominator.  I had identified loudness as my nemesis, but it was actually my self-enforced silence.

I had no idea how to fix this.

And yet, I felt lighter with this realization.  It seems I had unearthed an important recognition centered on a single Auto-thought.  If I was lucky, this “Shut Up!” might point the way towards even more self-discovery.

Reader's Action Step

Identify some of your own Auto-thoughts.  They’re any thought that you have more than a few times a week.  They can be positive or negative.  The negative ones often manifest negative emotions and/or events.

You might find it difficult to catch yourself thinking automatic thoughts in the beginning.  I find that I can be more aware of random thoughts when I’m doing a “mindless” task, like washing the dishes or weeding the garden or, at this time of year, shoveling snow.  Just before or after a task that takes some focus is a good time to catch yourself “thinking” about the task at hand.

Automatic thoughts can be positive, neutral, or negative.  Here are some examples in each category:

Positive:  


Neutral:  I’m so hungry!  I’m so tired!  

Negative:  

  • There is never enough (fill in the blank–hours in the day, money, support…you get the idea)
  • I’m late / behind!
  • I look frumpy / fat / old.

Now select one of the negative Auto-thoughts, and write it down. Sit with your intuition for five minutes, staying open for clues about what the Markers might be ready to show you.  Jot down anything that comes to mind.

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The Elements

The earth’s elements, particularly wind, fire, and water, can be brutal.

Virtuosos of unpredictability, they can turn anything on its head in a second. High-speed winds take off part of an outbuilding roof. An out-of-control fire begins making its way to a neighbor’s house. A ravenous eagle eyes a free-ranging chicken before deciding that it will be lunch.

After purchasing a 1930s farm in Wisconsin, the elements became a daily encounter. I had made the decision to move to this farm because I was exhausted by my work as a clinical psychotherapist. I was drained. My hope was that cleaning up this overgrown farm, connecting with nature, and maybe growing and raising my own food might wake me up, ignite me.

Nature’s potent Elements did just that. Maybe not in the way I expected, or would have wanted. But in their own unique way, they changed me.

Not long into my new farm life, I discovered a mole on my lower right leg that was rapidly increasing in size. I showed it to my new local doc. He referred me to a surgeon at a nearby hospital, who removed it and sent it to the pathology lab. I scheduled our “results” meeting a week out, promising myself I would make health a bigger priority. I thought of this as a belated thank you to my physical body for getting me through what I’d come to think of as a close call.

On “results” day, the surgeon looked fidgety and nervous. Strange, since our first meeting was relaxed and amicable. After a very little bit of small talk, he said, simply, “It’s Melanoma after all.”

“Oh, no no no,” I countered. I refused to accept this news. It never occurred to me that this might be the turn our conversation would take, especially on a day when farm cleanup was to have all my attention.

He pushed on. ”This will require surgery, another surgery where we’ll cut a wider swath. One of your lymph nodes will need to be biopsied to see whether the cancer has spread.”

The two of us seemed to face off. I squared up my body with his, but my expression trailed off to the right. I was unable to find the right words. ”I’ll need to think about it,” I said. Cancer wasn’t the plan, and, besides, I had come to believe the body could find its own way towards health if I just helped it along. Surgery didn’t feel like my path.

“Thinking about the surgery is not an option,” he replied. He was looking at me, but his voice felt like something I needed to set aside and deal with later. This was my body. This was my life. I wasn’t great at following instructions, no matter how well-intentioned or well-informed.

Cancer now joined the other elements, a new brutal force I wasn’t prepared for. I thanked the doctor, and as I left, I said I’d be in touch. 

As I drove away, my mind wandered to farm animals, maybe as a way to push “Cancer” away. I was thinking that I wanted to adopt some goats. Goats felt like the answer.

The big farm mess was still waiting for me when I returned. There were big piles of trees and the remains of old buildings and a sorry-looking dog house that needed burning.

I wanted to see the elements in a better light. I rounded up the kindling and the lighter and the newspaper to ignite the first pile. We all face difficulties at one time or another in life. Some we can sidestep and some we can’t. We haven’t yet found a “cure” for storms, high winds, or even wild predators; and we don’t engage in the futility of the attempt. This is probably fortunate–imagine the imbalance we might create if we were to succeed.

Tomorrow, I’ll tackle Cancer, I thought as I grabbed the butane lighter.