Living anyway, up at the sharp end

Ladies, gentlemen, and others, we can do this.

The tracks have been laid. All we need to do is acknowledge them, and accept where they can lead us.

The most recent relentless global pandemic was HIV. (Note: We still don’t have a safe & effective vaccine for it.) It changed all our lives forever, in ways that most people no longer notice.

My first nursing job was on a unit that specialized in HIV, in 1991. The treatments were new, the extensive effects of the disease still poorly understood, and everything was still very much in flux. Sound familiar?

We were pretty sure how it was transmitted — hence the dawn of Universal Precautions, where old nurses had to learn new tricks, like putting on latex gloves and a mask while running to a code blue. My class learned it alongside our other skills, so we usually found ourselves promoted to leading operations until the “dinosaurs”, who otherwise knew what they were doing, got kitted up.

What I learned from my patients then was that, in facing such a horrifying illness, basics matter:
– good nutrition,
– good information,
– adequate activity,
– relentless adaptability,
– cheerful determination,
– true friends, and
– emotional integrity — the only ballast burly enough to keep a person upright through wave after wave of bereavement and harrowing loss.

Obviously, those lessons tailored my response to my own ghastly illnesses. The more science discovers, the more sense it all makes.

“Emotional integrity? Huh?”
This is closely related to “radical presence” and “radical acceptance”, useful terms in trauma therapy.

This sense of the world spinning out of control, all bets are off, legitimate fear and uncertainty, not sure how we’ll survive, the horror of realizing that we can never go back to our pre-Covid-19 reality? That’s all traumatic, in the psychological sense. It’s legitimately frightening and disruptive of life.

This pandemic is a profound, global, traumatic event, and not everyone is handling it well — some leaders especially.

When dreadful things happen, we want to fly, fight, or freeze.

Flight:
Pandemics can travel with — or to — you, so, as Europe learned during the Black Death, running tends to make things worse all over.

Fight:
Pandemics don’t have faces. They can’t be punched or shot. Doesn’t work.

Try telling that to the weird extremists screaming for their imaginary right to kill and die without even trying.

Ah, denial. It’s so predictable, and it does not help.

The opposite of denial is emotional integrity.

This is the knife that cut through the fog after my Dad died; the sharp anguish somehow opened up my eyes to the silvered beauty of morning mist on the trees, and the bottomless comfort of being around my brothers — the only people to be similarly wounded by the loss, and whose sense of humor is as quirkily angled as mine.

There was no point pretending he wasn’t dead. Nothing would bring him back.

There’s no point pretending that Covid-19 and all that goes with it isn’t happening. Nothing will undo its intrusion or the consequences of our leadership and our collective actions.

It’s okay, and healthy, to let go of the fact now & then and focus on something equally real but maybe more fun, or at least more pressing. Doesn’t change the new reality that awaits the return of your involvement in dealing with it.

The weird and counterintuitive point is this:

Starting from “This is what’s real, and it truly sucks” opens up the barn door and lets out all the good feelings too.

Suddenly the air smells better, my real friends matter more, priorities simplify, internal muddles settle down… Although I become more keenly aware of the grief and loss and pain, it’s also natural to be more aware of the things that help me bear it. It worked then and it has worked through all the 21 years (, 3 months and 21 days) since then, in which I’ve lost far, far more than I ever imagined was possible. (Long-term spoonies and the much-bereaved, you get it. Like many, I’m both.)

You know how the sun keeps coming out and the world keeps turning even though you’ve just had a loss that leaves you almost prostrate? There’s a reason. Open up and let it in. It’ll wash through and leave you stronger.

Emotional integrity is learning how to stand and face the feelings, look straight at them, acknowledge them, name them, assert what they are. Then release yourself into the wider view that incorporates and surpasses them. Grief is complex anyway, so it makes sense, when you face it, to expand awareness enough to accept feelings that don’t suck, too. It’s weirdly freeing.

Sounds odd, but it works. 5 thousand years of meditative development and ~50 years of neurological and psychological science all show this. Powerful tool; simple, though not always easy, to use.

I write this to remind myself, because I’m struggling.

I’ve lost another friend to suicide (not impulsive; she was truly done with her life), on top of the Covid-19 reality and the slaughter of my homing dreams and the shockingly multifarious personal devastations of 2019. Oh, and worsening disease with spreading & intensifying CRPS and either worsening neurovascular dysfunction or maybe a vascular manifestation of EDS, which recently killed a most excellent friend who was my angel of survivorship.

So yeah, tough times. Absolutely craptastic in so many ways. (But it could certainly be worse. I finally reside somewhere safe & kind, and I’m truly grateful.)

But still, I live. Still, I walk. Still, I love. More than ever. Still… I must find a way to go forward.

I don’t have to feel good. It’s a tiresome fact of my life that I almost never do. (The last time was a little over 2 years ago, in a successfully pain-killing vitamin C and Epsom bath after the right meds, my lover peeking in and giggling, and the songbirds going nuts outside.)

I just have to continue to feel — and remember not to close the door too hard or too long on grief and pain, because then I lose joy and wonder as well.

We can do this. We can all learn to do this. I mean that in pure sincerity.

It’s worth the effort of learning to do so at will, and not wait for the rare gifts of unavoidable joy to bring back a bit of life. I think we have to go out and get it, thorns and all.

Of course it hurts. Is that the point? There’s so much more to life than just all this terrible pain. I know that, even when I don’t feel it.

This is the diamond-hard point of “living anyway.” I never said it was easy. What I have said, often, is: there’s a future worth having — we just have to live long enough to get to it.

L’chaim: here’s to living… long enough.

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