A Central Ohio writer journals her search for physical, emotional and spiritual self-care.

“We find our path by walking it.”

Those words were in the lobby of my counselor's office a few years ago. At the time, I didn't know my path, which is one reason I was there. My only child was in the throes of addiction, and my 33-year marriage had ended.

Many people, especially goal-oriented ones, wait for the “right time” to tend to their own well-being, says Sophie Lazarus, assistant professor at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center's department of psychiatry and behavioral health.

“We tend to be oriented to when this happens, then I'll take care of myself,” says Lazarus. This can be many things: a college degree, a new house, a last child married.

For me, self-care had become urgent. I needed to preserve both my mental and physical health.

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Our society tends to reward us for external achievement and taking on responsibilities, says Maryanna Klatt, a professor of clinical family medicine at OSU's Wexner Medical Center. “We find it difficult to practice self-care because we have no mentors,” she adds.

Klatt likens self-care to the spaces between logs in a fire, where the oxygen is located. If there is no oxygen, then there is no fire. My wellness journey was a lot about finding the oxygen that fuels my personal fire.

As I was turning 60 last year, which once seemed impossible, I gave myself a gift. I decided to explore ways to wellness. My journey included a silent retreat, a sweat lodge, acupuncture, a deeper yoga practice, a new way to look at food and more.

Finding my path has not been an easy task. But I sensed that it was time to begin living my own life.

YOU EAT WHAT?

Early in 2019, I had a chance conversation with a yoga instructor that led to a major change in my daily diet. I'd been complaining about having to take more Advil every day to manage the arthritic pain in my wrists. The instructor, who is a physical therapist, asked if I had tried an anti-inflammatory diet.

After some research, I realized a couple of key points:

Sugar is bad for you. Sugar and other refined carbohydrates—such as white flour—set off an inflammatory response leading to pain and other problems. Sugar is everywhere, not just in my beloved Thin Mints and pasta, but in cereal, juice and regular yogurt. (See “Researchers Examine the Health Consequences of Excessive Sugar”)

Boo, I thought. This is going to be painful.

What's good for your diet? Real food: vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains, legumes, olive oil and fish.

For the first couple of weeks, I ate a lot of oatmeal.

Sugar addiction is real, and so is the withdrawal. But I made it through the worst part and finally stopped craving it.

I am by no means a purist. I draw the line at eating things that smell like wet dirt, and I won't let a summer go by without peach ice cream or a BLT with garden fresh tomatoes. But these choices are exceptions now, rather than the rule. I've lost weight and feel lighter. Yoga poses are easier. I'm off Advil. I think more about what I eat. 

ACUPUNCTURE

I had my first acupuncture session in February hoping it would alleviate some of the chronic pain in my wrists and lower back.

Acupuncture is based on the theory that vital energy, or Qi (chi), flows throw the body via pathways called meridians. When there is an imbalance or blockage, physical symptoms may result.

During my first session, the practitioner asked questions about my childhood, parenting and sources of my stress. I was asked to stick out my tongue because in traditional Chinese medicine, the tongue is a vital diagnostic tool. Its appearance reflects the condition of both meridian energy and internal organ systems: kidney/bladder/intestines; liver/gallbladder; spleen/stomach; heart and lung. Practitioners look at shape, size, color, coating and other features to pinpoint energy imbalances and devise a treatment plan.

I was told there was a Qi deficit in my spleen area.

I didn't feel anything as she inserted about 40 hair-width needles into my back, legs and head. There was discomfort a few times when she adjusted the needles, but it was temporary. She turned a heat lamp on my lower back and left me lying face down in darkness, quiet music in the background. With needles inserted from my head to my toes, I went to sleep.

The experience was relaxing and rejuvenating although I was dizzy afterward, which apparently is normal.

Acupuncture seemed to work best for my anxiety, as some studies suggest can be the case. But the chronic pain in my back still nagged.

CONNECTING

In April, I attended a retreat with women who belong to my church. A retreat had always sounded like a good idea, but this was my first.

The theme was “Finding Home.” We explored what that meant to us on many levels. We read, we talked, we ate together, we prayed together. We did morning yoga in the light-filled chapel beside a shimmering lake, swallows zooming through the air.

I came away feeling more connected to nature, myself, the church, the women who make it their spiritual home and to all women.

That feeling of connection is vital to wellbeing, Klatt says. “It provides a sense of purpose, and of being part of something larger than ourselves.”

SOLITUDE

At the end of May, friends and I visited the Abbey at Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky. Most everything there is done in silence, including eating. Guests sit by themselves at tables, looking out onto gardens, where hummingbirds and swallowtails entertain. I tasted each bite of the simple food, which I ate slowly and mindfully.

The quiet was a gift. Without the sound of human voices, other senses came alive. The air smelled sweet and clean, and the sounds of wind and birdsong were clear. I sat under a towering sycamore, watching bees in clover, a tiny worm wiggling just below the surface. I moved slower, more intentionally, doing one thing at a time rather than multi-tasking.

So this is mindfulness, I discovered.

OSU's Lazarus says a large part of mindfulness is being fully aware of and accepting what is happening at the present moment, without judging it or looking to the past or the future. Mindfulness is not easy.

An opportunity to practice that acceptance occurred early one morning as I was preparing to sit atop a small hill for meditation and gratitude. I quickly found myself getting irritated, as I listened to far-off sounds that seemed like fans at a baseball game.

Then I realized that the sounds were actually roosters crowing. That made more sense, but I still wanted the noise to stop so I could have the quiet, mindful experience that I had envisioned.

Then I realized my choice. I could accept that the roosters were doing what they do every morning. Or I could get up and leave.

I decided to stay and accept that I was the one out of place, not the roosters.

The lesson I learned was that I didn't need to control or change anything. I could just exist in the moment.

HIGHER GROUND

Early in the summer, my first real vacation in six years was to Santa Fe. This was a place I found supremely spiritual, where the land tells stories about those who walked before us.

I stayed at Sunrise Springs, a wellness resort with a multitude of activities and plenty of hammocks for those who wanted to rest.

The first morning featured a hike through petroglyphs, designs and symbols carved into volcanic rock between the 13th and 14th centuries, primarily by ancestors of today's Pueblo Indians. The powerful carvings depicted animals, people, objects in nature and acts of violence. They seemed to express the human need to say, “I was here. This is what I saw and this is what I heard. This is how it felt.”

I realized another huge sense of connectedness, this time with generations past.

Mindfulness played a role here, too. In northern New Mexico's high altitude climbing is more difficult, breath is harder to catch. The terrain was rocky, and I lost my footing a couple of times. The universal greeting, “Drink water,” made more sense the higher we went.

WORKING UP A SWEAT

Next up in Santa Fe was a sweat lodge, which worried me. It was dark, claustrophobic and hot.

After being assured I could leave at any time, I apprehensively entered the lodge where about a dozen of us sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the small space. The heat was overwhelming. Fortunately, the two-hour session was broken into four segments. The first was the hardest. “Breathe. Breathe. Breathe,” I told myself. “Drink more water.”

Our medicine woman, Concha, guided us as we thanked our ancestors and Mother Earth and shared, sometimes emotionally, our memories, joys and grief. I can't speak for the others, but I emerged from the lodge feeling reborn.

This was a detox like no other. It was also another way to connect with those who shared the experience.

Ohio State's Lazarus says getting out of our comfort zones can be an essential part of self-care. “It's not just getting your nails done,” she explains. “Self-care may not mean kicking up your feet, it might be a sense of accomplishment or mastery.”

RESTING BETTER

Back to my back. It still hurt, some days to the point where I could not bend over to put food in the pet bowls. The pets were not impressed.

So many people, the acupuncturist in particular, told me that I needed a new mattress. For some reason, for two years, I refused to listen. Finally, I did. The very first morning after sleeping on my new mattress, I was astounded. An improvement was definitely made. 

GAINING PERSPECTIVE

Later in the summer, I decided to try Reiki, a Japanese technique based on the principle of using touch to channel natural healing energy. You lie down in a soothing space while the Reiki practitioner lightly touches your head and other energy centers. It creates utter relaxation.

During both of my Reiki sessions, I had visual experiences, which apparently are common. In the most recent session, I mentally traveled through each of the places I had visited during the year. At each, I ascended a little higher through the terrain, and at the end of my session I had a more expansive view of what my pathway had been. A clearer mind resulted. I felt a definitive release from some of the worries and cares that had previously pulled me down.

The ability to gain perspective “is a gift we give ourselves,” explains Klatt. Perspective can contribute to resilience—providing an ability to recover and move on after upheaval and distress.

Self-care promotes resilience, and practicing it consistently gives us more in energy “savings” when something unexpected occurs, Lazarus says.

For four years, I have regularly practiced yoga for both restoration and rejuvenation. Yoga poses strengthen and stretch us, while they keep us in the moment. We learn about self-acceptance and are reminded continually to breathe. We experience, in real time, the connection between the mind, body and spirit.

Yoga has been essential to my daily self-care routine as I continue to deal with the progression of my son's disease: He is homeless, has overdosed on heroin and fentanyl, and is barely hanging on. There have been jail terms, emergency room visits, evictions, car accidents and more.

In recent years, Ohio State's Klatt has been teaching mindfulness-based stress intervention to nurses and physicians. The results of her work, which have been published in academic journals, show that practitioners who participated had reduced burnout and perceived stress, and increased resilience and workplace engagement.

“It's important because it has a ripple effect. If they don't take care of themselves, they can't take care of their patients,” Klatt says. “One of the benefits of self-compassion is that you can translate that to others.”

The journey I followed in my 60th year was incredible. Although I don't know where my path will take me, I know I can find joy and purpose in walking it.

Reprinted from Columbus Monthly Health 2020.