This post is Part One of a series that addresses healing from serious illness. As more parts go up, you'll be able to access them via the label at the bottom of this post, "tai chi and qigong for health recovery." Just click on it, and all the posts in the series will come up.
Okay so if you've found your way here because you are in a situation where you've received a diagnosis of a chronic disease, including Parkinson's, Multiple Sclerosis, Fibromyalgia, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Alzheimer's, welcome. Maybe you've had a crisis diagnosis like cancer and you are facing one of the most terrifying and difficult experiences a human can have. I hope you hang in here for a little while.
When you are handed a diagnosis of a serious and / or chronic disease, you are handed a huge weight and burden as well, which is the medical concept of the disease, the statistical evidence, the prognosis for "people like you." Maybe you've been told that people like you typically get worse over time, or, in the case of a crisis diagnosis, are likely to die. Maybe your doctor (and a whackload of pharmaceuticals) can help you manage it or delay it, although chances are you'll be managing a ton of side effects too.
Your doctor might have given you some literature that mentions Tai Chi as a therapy for what ails you. Some more enlightened doctors might recommend Qigong (it's less well known than Tai Chi). I know this happens because I get occasional phone calls or emails from bewildered people who stumble into this site because they've just been handed a grocery list of things they need to do to help themselves, and this is one of them.
There is a certain gear switching that it's helpful to do when you go from your doctor's office to my world. I don't care much about statistics or "people like you." I care about you as a whole person. My perspective is that you are a unique and you bring a unique set of things to the table, and I want to help you sort through your stuff and get as much as you can from your life. This is advice I would give to anyone who is faced with a scary diagnosis or a major health challenge, but the information here will apply to some degree to anyone who is looking to make Tai Chi and Qigong a part of their lives.
Why I'm doing this series: I have experience working with people with Parkinson's diagnoses, as well as people with Multiple Sclerosis, Fibromyalgia, Alzheimer's, Chronic Fatigue, chronic pain, and a host of other issues, and there is a bunch of information I have that I always try to remember to tell them, but often don't because once they come to class, we're too busy working on the Tai Chi and Qigong itself. This series comes out of that experience but I'm also writing it in order to address some common fears and concerns that people have when they're looking for a solution to chronic illness.
You Have Choice
You always have choice in terms of how you deal with your diagnosis and your health. The tiny menu of not very positive options your doctor can hand you is only a small part of that. I am not doctor bashing: I'm just saying that the treatment strategy that you work out with your doctor is not your whole strategy for dealing with yourself. You still have the rest of your life to deal with.
The choices are probably not the choices you wanted to have, and that sucks. But you do have choice. Mainly, you can choose to stand up for yourself. You can choose to give yourself the best shot possible at getting better, managing your symptoms, or maximizing your quality of life.
Avoid the "Magic Bullet" Approach
When you're facing a major health challenge, you need to cover all of your bases. This is not a time to turn into a scientist and just tweak one variable at a time so you can discover the one thing that will work for you. This is the most basic kind of fantasy that many people have with regard to health and wellbeing: we think there is one answer and that once we've got it we can stop trying. That is part of the natural human tendency to be lazy about stuff, but it is not helpful at all.
This is why potions (one week it's goji, the next week it's acai) and superfoods and exotic supplements are so popular: people fantasize that they are going to do one thing or find one thing that will transform them forever. That is not science. It's fairy tale thinking.
Tai Chi and Qigong will make a fabulous part of your overall healing strategy. They can contribute to the miracle of getting better despite the heaviness and seriousness of your illness. Tai Chi and Qigong are also hard work. It will probably not feel like a miracle when healing happens for you. Chances are it will feel like you worked hard and you slowly climbed up the hill back to a state of better health. And it won't happen only because you took up Tai Chi or Qigong. It will happen because you did that and a bunch of other stuff. It will happen because you threw everything you had into healing.
One way to understand the arrival of serious illness in your life is that your system is telling you that you need to be kinder to it. Ask your body what it needs. Start with simple things: a nap, a bath, some kind, focused attention, some deep breaths, a glass of water.
Accept that it could take a while. You didn't get into a state of chronic illness overnight, and you might not experience instantaneous healing. Might not. I believe it is possible to heal very quickly. Miracles do happen. However, any healing journey should be approached from the perspective that it will take as long as it takes, whether that's an hour or ten years. Be prepared to try different things, and to address all levels of your being as part of your journey. Like any journey, you have to take action (even if that action is getting lots of rest).
You Are Not Alone
My philosophy, developed as I've dealt with many spiritual, emotional, occasionally physical kicks to the head, is that we all have stuff to heal. Whatever you are handed - psychologically, spiritually, or physically - is your project here during your time on earth, and it is yours to heal. If you have a chronic, progressive disease, you have been handed something especially extreme. The difference between you and evidently healthy people is that you probably can't ignore your symptoms. It is now time to focus on yourself and your health.
This list includes a number of things that will help support good overall well being and are necessary to any program of health recovery or disease management. (I think they're necessary to optimal health, too. Anyone can use these protocols to help themselves feel better.)
1. Diet. There are a huge variety of ideas out there about optimal diets for humans, but there is a consensus that it's a good idea to eliminate processed food and focus on a whole-food (i.e., real food) diet with minimal additives. I think there's enormous benefit to be had by returning to the idea of getting a decent meal, three times a day. Simple.
2. Water. It is becoming cool these days to claim that the (paltry) "eight glasses a day" that were recommended for so long are excessive and will only lead to more trips to the bathroom and some kind of, I don't know, waste of time? Many people will argue that you should simply rely on the body to tell you when it's thirsty, and there is a certain beauty to that, but wait a minute wait a minute.
If you've ever been a chronic dieter or experienced any of the very common disordered eating patterns that many people deal with, you know that it is very easy to lose all sense of when you are hungry, or to ignore your hunger (for a while, anyway), or to eat far past the point of no longer being hungry. My experience has been that thirst is an even trickier sense, even easier to knock right out. When they start drinking more water, many people find that they suddenly realize that they are more thirsty, sometimes intensely so. This is a part of the body waking up to the fact that it doesn't have to live in a state of dehydration any more.
How much: Take your body weight in pounds and divide it by 2. That number is the number of ounces of water you should be drinking daily. (A liter of water is about 34 ounces.) I know it's a lot, but it will make you feel so much better, and your body will thank you for it.
REALLY IMPORTANT NOTE: If you drink this much water, you must include some salt in your diet. I cover my needs with a daily half teaspoon or teaspoon of solé, a solution of natural salt in water. This also takes care of trace minerals if you use a high quality salt like Himalayan or Andean pink salt. More info about how to make a solé here. Dr. Fereydoon Badmanghelidj is a medical doctor whose work with water and claims about its healing powers are absolutely fascinating. Your Body's Many Cries for Water is a good place to start reading about water.
3. Supplements. It is possible to get very lost in the supplement aisle of the average grocery store, especially in this era when there seems to be a new designer supplement coming out every five minutes. My approach is to ensure that I'm getting a good base with a high quality multivitamin / multimineral, and to add to that as necessary. For me, that means getting additional magnesium, B complex, and omega-3s. For you, it might mean something different altogether, but it is worth getting into at least a basic supplement. Evidence is building that some diseases, including Alzheimer's, are actually manifestations of nutritional deficiency. Our food supply doesn't have sufficient vitamins and mineral to support good health, even if you're eating a lot of produce and whole food. Factory farming sucks. Taking a basic supplement can help you with this.
4. Work on reducing or eliminating things that drain your resources. You will not heal if you are continually exposing yourself to the same stressors and conditions that contributed to your illness. It is worth considering all aspects of your life and how they impact you when you're approaching the task of healing. You may benefit from working with a therapist, energy healer, or other practitioner to help you discern and identify factors that need to be managed differently or eliminated altogether. Before you dismiss this advice because you don't think you have stressors or you think you are managing them perfectly, just consider that you might be numb to the reality of your life situation or that you might not be the best judge of what you can and can't handle. Often, the patterns that are most damaging to us are invisible to us. Get a third party perspective on this.
5. Build your resource tool kit, including books, online articles, mainstream and complementary practitioners you trust, and daily practices you can do to help yourself. Be aware that a basic Google search on any medical information will be dominated in the first few results pages by mainstream medical sites that offer the same information as most doctors. Google the name of your disease plus "recovery" or "recovery strategies," then go to the fifth or sixth page and start looking for alternative or complementary information. I've had good luck using "I recovered from" and then the name of an illness to find information about real people who sorted themselves out. You can start right away with short meditations for health and wellbeing, freely available all over the place. I like the Meditation for Health podcast by Robert Puff - any of the episodes labeled "Guided Meditation" will talk you through a short relaxation technique. This episode is specifically for when you are suffering physically or mentally - very helpful to sort yourself out if you are in crisis right now.
NOTE: It is important to develop some discernment when trying to sort out quackery or vague New-Age philosophies of illness from solid strategies that may not be part of mainstream medicine but do have a good shot at helping you. Otherwise, you can end up chasing a bunch of red herrings. I'll cover how to choose the most effective alternative and complementary strategies in a future post. In the meantime, make sure you investigate options thoroughly. Just because a solution is alternative doesn't mean it shouldn't make sense to you. Be open minded, but make sure your brain doesn't fall out!
Next post: The whole truth about making Tai Chi and Qigong part of your healing strategy. We're talking how much practice time you'll need, potential roadblocks, and advice for sticking with it.