Monday, March 19, 2018

The kindness revolution

The hairdresser says my hair looks brittle, dry and sad. I ask her to chop off the split ends and ten minutes later, my hair is twenty centimeters shorter. I feel lighter, like I've gotten rid of something that was weighing me down. A haircut in Ecuador only costs about seven dollars and yet I hadn't had one for almost a year. Why? I don't know. For some reason, I never treat myself to anything. But that is about to change. Even though it's not New Year's or my birthday or anything of the sort, I have decided that from now on, I will do something nice for myself once a week. 

Last week, it was the haircut and this week, I went for a massage. My back has been killing me ever since I got back from Mexico and the spasms wakes me up every night at four a.m. That is almost three months of agony and no sleep and yet I hadn't done anything about it, except complain. There is a massage place just up the hill from my house but no matter how many times I've walked by, I had never stepped inside, until today. Why? I don't know. I immediately felt welcome there. The massage therapist greeted me with a warm smile and Buddha was everywhere. There were statues and elephant ornaments in every corner and words of wisdom decorated the walls. I laid down on the table and the masseuse relieved my pain with aroma therapy, electrotherapy and healing hands. Afterwards, she served me tea and told me that they also offer a specialized electro-magnetic therapy for people with arthritis. 

Serenidad Spa Terapéutico 
I didn't make an appointment, but maybe that will be the nice thing that I do next week. Or maybe it will be having sushi for lunch. Or treating myself to a nice cup of hot chocolate at my favorite cafe. Or buying something for myself, other than medication. Or letting go of something that I'm holding onto. Or maybe, you know, just using kinder words and being nicer to myself.

Every day, the cleaning lady at work takes my face between her hands, kisses me on the cheek and says:

"Que preciosa! - How beautiful!"

Each time, I cringe, mumble thanks and quickly brush my hair back to cover at least half of my face. A daily dose of cortisone for over two months has made my face balloon to the size of a football and I don't even recognize myself in the mirror anymore. My mum says to think of it as free botox but honestly, I'd rather have my wrinkles back. (Hah! There's a sentence I never thought I would say). I know it's shallow but the puffiness makes me feel bigger than I am, although the doctor's scales claim I've lost a significant amount of weight since I was in the hospital. So why do I feel the need to hide? I don't know. Trust me, I am aware of the fact that there are more serious problems in the world and this really has nothing to do with roundness at all. It has more to do with how a disease can change you and mess with your head but that's a topic for another day. Today is about kindness. 

Bye long hair. Hello round face.  
Every time someone asks me how I'm doing, I give the same reply. Everything is fine, except my right hand is still useless. Why do I say that? It's not even true. I'm using it to type right now. I'm using it to hold a cup of tea. I may have dropped and broken every single drinking glass I owned but thankfully, I still have a few cups. Sometimes, it frustrates me to think that just a couple of months ago, I was practicing handstands and now, even a simple downward-facing dog is impossible. On the other hand (pun intended), maybe the nicest thing I can do for myself right now is not to practice yoga at all. It will come back eventually, but until then, my mat can rest in the corner. 

Why are we so hard on ourselves? What if we tried to turn that around and instead treated ourselves the way we do our friends? We certainly deserve (and need) the kindness as much as they do. What if we all acted with generosity, love, support, understanding, patience and compassion towards others as well as ourselves? Would the world be different? Would we feel different? 

I don't know but it can't hurt to try. Now, tell me - will you join my kindness revolution? How can you spread the word and do something nice for yourself today? 

"My philosophy is kindness" (Dalai Lama)

Sunday, February 25, 2018

10 things I'm grateful for this month

It's been almost a year since I last wrote a blog post about things that I'm grateful for so it's about time for a new one. I've actually kept a gratitude journal during the challenging month of February and here are some of the things I've noted down: 

1. Being able to walk again! For every day and every step, I get a little bit faster and a little bit stronger and I can't wait to be climbing mountains again soon.

2. Gentle, restorative yoga. I may still be far from my regular practice but at least I'm back on my mat where I belong. 

3. The tax return that ended up covering my hospital bill. 

4. Skin on skin contact. Was there ever a greater form of healing?

5. Being back at work. Not just working with motivated, curious students but also hanging out with other teachers, making jokes, doing crossword puzzles and talking about other things than being sick. 

6. Vegan mango yogurt. Delicious.

7. God. For showing me that even when everything else is taken from us, we can put our faith in him and trust that there is a divine plan behind every struggle. 

8. Pan de Quinoa. Pretty much the only gluten-free bread that I've been able to find in Ecuador. 

9. People that don't run when things get ugly, uncomfortable and less than perfect. I just love you. 

10. Last but definitely not least, every single person that has helped me in some way during this month. Be that through buying groceries, driving me to doctor's appointments, sending messages or holding me in your thoughts and prayers. All these drops of kindness became an ocean that carried me all the way to the shore.

Thank you ❤

Monday, February 12, 2018

What happened next

So I won't be able to dance salsa on my birthday after all. It's still a couple of days away but if I've learned anything from my current condition, it's that I need to set more realistic goals. Reactive arthritis turned out to be chronic arthritis and while I'm improving every day, aches and pains still affect my daily life and make certain things such as salsa-dancing, practicing yoga, carrying groceries, making a ponytail, opening a bottle or walking up a hill nearly impossible. For now. I will definitely be able to all these things again in the future, it's just taking me a little longer than I initially thought to quite literally get back on my feet. 

Let's look on the bright side. Getting the right diagnosis means getting the right medication, which means getting better. I can walk again. The bruises are fading. I'm in less pain and even though some things are still difficult, there is also a lot that I can do now that I couldn't do a week ago. Typing this text with both hands, for example! 

I went for a doctor's check-up the other day and as I was complaining about feeling tired my doctor looked at me from behind his desk, not unlike a principal lecturing a student and exclaimed: Elisabeth! (for some reason he calls me by my second name). Do you even understand what happened to you? This was something extremely powerful and severe. Now is the time for you to rest and let your mind catch up with your body. 

So, I'm trying. And as I do so I can't help but reflect on all the different areas of my life that this bombshell has affected. 

Body, mind and spirit

I downloaded Louise Hay's book "You can heal your life" last week. I've read it before but I thought this might be a good time to read it again. Interestingly, she says that chronic arthritis is caused by feelings of guilt. My first reaction was to wonder what I have to feel guilty about so I meditated on that and here is what I found: 

I feel guilty about... quitting my permanent job to continue living a hippie dream life, leaving friends and family behind, missing birthdays and Christmases, not exercising enough, not making enough money, not paying taxes, eating chocolate, messing up relationships, walking away, not walking away sooner, not spending enough time with friends, not working hard enough, having to borrow money, not being perfect, not being 100% vegan, not having settled down with a husband and kids or whatever else society thinks a woman of my age should have done by now... and a million other things.

Yeah, okay. That's a rather heavy load to be carrying around. No wonder my back hurts. Anyway, what I like about Louise Hay is that she doesn't want to add to feelings of guilt, instead she offers the tools to change negative thought patterns and start over and do better. So that's what I'm working on right now. Not focusing on what got me into this situation but instead trying to find solutions to create a better future. 

This whole experience has been as much of a mental challenge as a physical one. Restrictive movement has led to all emotions staying in my body and getting stuck, which means that there have been many days where I simply haven't had the energy to be positive and happy. So to all the friends and family who've let me be angry when I've needed to be and who have patiently watched as I've raged in fury over my body's sudden incapacities - thank you. At the end of the day, I believe God gave me this test for a reason and getting through it will only make me stronger. 


What happens when you've been dating this really great guy for one month, then wave hasta luego to go to Mexico for a couple of weeks and return turning into someone that you don't even recognize yourself anymore? Well, if you're lucky, he sticks around, shrugs his shoulders and patiently puts up with this new version of you. That's not to say it's been easy. In fact, there were times when I felt like trying to keep up with a dating life was making the situation worse. Here is a guy who hadn't even seen me without make-up prior to this event and suddenly he has to help me take a shower? Okay, so he doesn't mind that part so much but what about watching the same girl that he took salsa-dancing on a first date stumble and fall when trying to walk to the kitchen? Not to mention the mood swings. I'm not the best version of me right now but to be honest, this whole thing has brought out some of his not-so-shining colors as well. So we try to laugh about it and take it one day at a time. What else can you do?

Work and finances

Out of all the affected areas, this one may have taken the biggest blow. My hospital stay turned out to be very costly and the long-term medication that I need is ridiculously expensive. I have no savings and for all the days that I've been unable to work, I have no income either. In my ten years as a teacher, I think I've used one or two sick days per year maximum so not being able to do what I'm hired to do has also been an extreme mental frustration. But I've simply had to accept the situation for what it is and I'm more than happy to be going back to work this week. I'm also fortunate enough to have parents that can help me out for now and as soon as I'm better, I will have to find solutions and figure out how to get financially stable again.

This disease has certainly been and continues to be a challenge but step by step, I'm making my way back towards a "normal" life. Let's see what happens next...

In Mexico before food poisoning and before arthritis. Hoping to be back to my regular yoga practice soon.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger

You know what I need to get better at? Communicating! I declared this to my friend as we were chatting on the phone in the first week of January 2018, trying to come up with resolutions and good intentions for the new year. I had just realized that I have a tendency to expect others to read my mind and then get upset when they don't and this was something that I really wanted to change.

Maybe the lesson that I need to learn this year is how to express my feelings and needs before it's too late, I mused out loud. My friend, who might have been at the receiving end of my upsetness a couple of times, agreed. Sure, she said kindly, that sounds like something you could work on.

Although perhaps I should have been more careful with what I was wishing for because the universe was certainly listening and taking notes. But how could I have known that I would soon be hospitalized for the first time in my life and without any mobility in my arm and leg, I would find myself helplessly at the mercy of others. 

To understand how this happened, we need to journey back, all the way to Mexico... 

The last days of my dream holiday in Mexico were a nightmare. I had severe food poisoning and let's just say that staying in hostel dorm with ten other people when you need the bathroom every half hour is not fun. Feverish and dangerously dehydrated, I was able to fly home to Ecuador thanks to a couple of miracle pills from a Mexican doctor, who recommended me to let my body do the rest of the work on its own as soon as I landed. Back in Quito, I went straight to work, fighting through the nausea with probiotics and a lot of Gatorade. 

One week later, my body said stop and screamed for a break. The thermometer showed a 39'C fever and red achy spots were covering both of my legs, making it difficult to walk. It's the food poisoning, my doctor said and sent me home with antibiotics. Two days later, I was back in his office looking like bees had feasted on both of my eyes. I also had terrible cramps in my upper back that made it impossible to sleep. Even so, the doctor sent me home once again, handing me some drops for the eyes and told me to take it easy for a couple of days. 

The following night, my right hand and left foot swelled to the size of tennis balls and the shooting pain was impossible to ignore at this point. I called my friends who literally picked me up and took me straight to the hospital. There, I was met by concerned-looking doctors and quickly rolled away in a wheelchair. For a couple of days, no one seemed to know what was wrong with me so instead they put me through one test after another until my arms were blue from the needles and I was pumped full of pain killers that either made me throw up or had no effect whatsoever. When I started begging the doctors to please cut my hand off as I couldn't stand the agony anymore, they gave me cortisone which at last provided a bit of a release. 

This hurts.
So there I was, having to push an emergency button every time I wanted to use the bathroom and with two nurses holding me up every time they thought I should take a shower. I was in the hospital for five days before I was allowed to go home with a bag full of medication and a diagnosis stating reactive arthritis. Still unable to open a water bottle, put on shoes or even cut my own food, I have been completely dependent on help from friends since then. 

Never underestimate the universe and its teachings. Nothing could have made me feel more vulnerable, more humble and more helpless than this experience. But I've learned my lesson: I can't rely on people to read my mind - if I need something, I have to speak up. I've understood that sometimes, being strong means showing weakness. How this will affect my relationships in the future remains to see but what I can truly say at this point is that I'm one of the luckiest people in the world.

There will never be enough gratitude to express how I feel about the angels that have surrounded me throughout this time. From my family far away who've kept my spirits up by texting constantly and making themselves available for panicky phone calls at three in the morning to my local sweethearts who've checked in, come to see me in the hospital, yelled at the doctors when I wasn't getting enough help, signed papers when I couldn't write, brought me food and given me an endless amount of soft, sweet hugs. Your support means everything to me. 

At least the view from my hospital room was quite nice. And how ironic is it that I bought this book in Mexico, just before falling ill?
I still can't move either of my hands properly so this text has taken me about a hundred years to write. Apparently it's quite common that the inflammation moves around in the body so if it's not my right arm that is out of the picture, it's my left. I'm still limping but I can walk a fair distance by now and I keep praying that each day will be one more step towards recovery. I'm grateful for all the parts of my body that don't hurt (such as knees) and I know for sure that once life gets back to normal, I'll be better at appreciating the things I've always taken for granted. Like washing my hair, getting dressed, opening doors or carrying a bag of groceries by myself. 

My goal is to be able to dance salsa again on my birthday two weeks from now and I hope you will join me on the dance floor. Let's celebrate not just the turning of years but more importantly friendship, life and movement. And until then, let's try to remember to enjoy the little things and cherish each day of health.

In recovery

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Qué padre! - How cool!

He has the longest eyelashes I've ever seen. It's hard not to notice them as he's thrown himself down on my beach towel uninvited. We are sitting side by side with our knees touching and it's all just a little too close for comfort. In broken English, he's already asked every girl on the beach to help him with his "problem", i.e. he's bought too many beers and now needs someone to help him drink them. Poor little Mexican guy. Why he's decided not to take no for an answer from me I don't know. Maybe it's because I speak Spanish. Maybe it's because I'm traveling alone and don't mind having someone to talk to. Maybe it's because once we get past the opening line about beer, he's actually a nice guy. Apart from the fact that he wants to cheat on his girlfriend but we agree to disagree on that particular subject.

Both knees are mine
As we watch the sun set over Playa Langosta in heavenly Cancún, I share some things about my life with him and he tells me about his passion for karate and the sudden death of his mum six months ago. He also teaches me about the history of his country and explains the symbolism of the Mexican flag - red for the blood shed by his ancestors, white for peace and green for the well-being of the Mexican people. And in the middle an image of a snake being eaten by an eagle, representing what the Aztecs saw when they first arrived at the place that is today the capital. After watching this good, strong animal devour something so bad and evil, they came to the conclusion that this must be where they should settle down.

Sunset over Playa Langosta
I get up to leave and tell my new amigo that I'm certain his mum is still with him. She's in the pink sky watching over him and wanting him to be happy. His eyes water and as he leans in to hug me goodbye, he offers me some advice of his own:
Life is short, he says. Please enjoy it. Do what you want and don't worry about what anyone else thinks. We only get one life and no one else can live it for us; the choices that we make have to be our own and the only way to make them is to know what we want. 
The following day, I've booked a tour to Chichen Itza, one of the seven World Wonders. I don't sleep well the night before and wake up with awful menstrual cramps but I still choose to go. It's a painful 3-hour bus ride until we arrive in a small Mayan village, where we make a stop before continuing to the ruins. Short men dressed in white wish us Ma'lob Ja'atskab K'iin - good morning. Our guide translates as they tell us about their traditions, culture and history. They show us their beautiful handicraft and I know immediately that I want to take one of the figures made of healing stone home with me. One of the young Mayans help me pick out a statue that is supposed to bring love and then tells me that if I go around the corner, I will find a shaman that can bless it for me. 

I do as I'm told and a man half my size greets me with a toothless grin. He has never heard of Finland so he decides to call me "Elena de Ecuador" instead and then begins the ceremony by splashing me with water that smells absolutely divine. Next, he lifts up a bowl of incense and directs the smoke towards my belly while chanting in a language incomprehensible to me. Finally, he blesses my stone figure and instructs me to bring it out into the full moon light to give it the power that will heal me and my family. I want to give him a hug but it seems inappropriate so I just smile and say Dios bo'otik - thank you.

As I walk away, I notice that my period pains are completely gone. 

Chichen Itza
The rest of my holidays are filled with similar adventures but also beach life and some much needed rest. I see a crocodile one day and when I get home all excited, my Mexican host simply responds: Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you not to walk on that side of the road. Well, thanks for the heads-up. Then my amiga arrives and together we explore the magic of Tulum while ringing in the new year surrounded by new friends. We also go on bike tours, road trips, dance and eat tacos. And then I get food poisoning, just to make sure the Mexican experience has been complete.

Signs are everywhere in Tulum
Three rather unpleasant flights later, I finally get home to find that the neighbors above me have been throwing food and cigarettes onto my terrace. This in turn has attracted birds and one dove in particular has now made my little outside space her permanent home. I'm about to chase her away when, just out of curiosity, I decide to look up the meaning of this spirit animal first. To my surprise, this is what has to say: 

The dove's mission is to remind you that in order to soar, you must first move your wings and allow the wind to take you to new heights. What you see right now is reality shifting in ways you never thought possible and what you're truly looking for is just around the corner. The most chaos happens just before your dreams come true. 

After the turmoil that was 2017, I'm hoping that means 2018 will bring some peace. Maybe there's wisdom in stillness. Maybe there's peace in a decision that's been made. Maybe it's time I stopped running and started figuring out what I want. And yes, the dove can stay. She's not so bad. Although I hope she doesn't mind sharing the full moon light with my little Mexican love statue.

Tulum beach

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Power of Words

Please, tell me what to do! I'm on my knees, looking towards the sky and begging God for a sign. I have an important decision to make about my future and in this moment of distress, all options seem impossible.

Nevertheless, the only response I get from the almighty above that day is silence. Instead, I watch as friends and boyfriends are swept away in front of my eyes, I'm called for an endless row of medical exams and I despair, feeling completely lost in this world. What is the universe trying to tell me?!

Now I understand that a Christmas catharsis was necessary. By holding on to the past, I had no room left for a future. I needed time to heal but I was actually never alone; God was just busy cleaning and making space for what was to come. Something greater. 

Around the same time that I asked for a sign, a new person came into my life, so subtly that I didn't even notice at first. But I see him now and despite the fact that our Spanglish leads to confusion at times, I also hear him - loud and clear. He talks to me about his relationship with God as if it was the most natural thing in the world. As if they were old buddies who drive each other crazy but can't bear the thought of ever being apart. 

Every morning, this new person asks God to bless my day and every night, he expresses his gratitude to the universe for keeping me safe. It's too soon to tell if he's an angel in disguise or just another passerby but this I know for sure: he's not here to break my heart. He's here to put it back together and to restore my faith. In fact, having him here reminds me of my childhood when I spent most of my days either at the sports field or at church. Those were my playgrounds, my safe places and I'm happy to be back there. 

Last week, I was given a new group of students to teach for only five days. Our topic for the week was "The Power of Words" so we listened to speeches by influential people such as Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela and learned how to express our thoughts and ideas. By the end of the week, the students prepared their own speeches and on the very last day, they read them in front of the class. As I had been monitoring and helping the students while they were writing, I knew that one of them would talk about Jesus. Still, I didn't quite expect her words to move the audience the way they did. 

When she stood up in front of us, I got goosebumps all over and suddenly, there was absolute silence. The only way that I can explain what happened is that it felt as if a presence much bigger than us had entered the room. When my student started reading, I couldn't hold back the tears and when I looked around, I saw that everyone else sat completely mesmerized as well. She finished the speech and looked up at us, a bit taken back by our reaction. Are there any questions, she asked hesitantly and I tried to speak but no words came out. Fortunately, another girl found her voice, raised her hand and said: 
This is not a question; I just want to say that was the best speech I have ever heard. 
The audience broke out into a spontaneous applause and the speaker happily returned to her seat. Just like that, the moment was gone but I will never forget it. 

That night, I sat down to talk to God and thanked him for reappearing in my life. This time there was an answer - a roaring sound, like thunder rolling in over the mountains. God was laughing. 
I've always been here, love. I never left. 
I instantly recognize his voice and I smile, looking down at the symbols of "faith, hope and love" that I had tattoed on my ankle seven months ago, trusting that I would some day believe in them again. Then I look up and to my surprise, I see a humming bird through the window. This is extremely unusual as there are no plants whatsoever on my little terrace. But I understand why it has come to visit - this spirit animal is a symbol of joy and playfulness and it reminds us to enjoy the simple things in life. It also invites us to open up to love and lightness in our emotional life. 

So maybe this is how it works. We travel around the world searching for ourselves, only to come back to who we always were. We climb mountains and learn how to fly, only to find our roots. And even though I haven't made my final decision yet, the signs have shown me that no matter where I go and no matter what choices I make, God is always by my side. I believe he brought me to Ecuador for a reason and I trust that he will let me know when it's time to return. I honestly have no idea what's next but I have faith in something greater. 

Miracle happening outside my classroom

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Tinderella 2

Yes, I'm addicted. No, not to drugs (relax, mum), alcohol, food, the internet, cigarettes or Tinder (sorry for the misleading title). I'm hooked on a love that isn't love. It's a love that is abuse, confusion and misuse of power and the grip that it's had on me for the past two years has made it almost impossible to break free. Until now. 

My most read blogpost To the beat of a broken heart was published over a year ago, when I thought that my great love story had ended and I officially said goodbye. That was, however, just the beginning. Since then, my "love" and I have said goodbye a thousand times and yet we always end up gravitating back towards each other. The dealer needs the addict as much as the addict needs the dealer, doesn't he? It used to be all about the fun. We would get high together and the ecstasy could last for days, weeks or even months. But I was the one suffering from the withdrawal symptoms. And every time I crawled my way back up, growing stronger, my dealer would return, more than happy to intoxicate me again. And I was powerless to resist. Even though I knew that our relationship had become destructive and that it was driving me to some very risky behaviour at times, I was always willing to go back for more. 

About five months ago, I managed to break free for a while. I sobered up and got some of my power back. I created a Tinder profile and started using lighter drugs. They didn't get me quite as high but they also didn't hurt as bad. First, there was the amazing artist who took beautiful pictures and told me that he loved me after just one week. Then, there was the charming soccer player who made a million promises and didn't keep a single one. There was also a salsa-dancer who got his ego hurt when I didn't fall for his lines and an intellectual filmmaker who turned into a friend. 

And then there was the one that I actually liked, even though he wanted to take me camping on our first date. After some negotiation (I'm not really a camping kind of girl), we went out for drinks instead and quickly bonded over suicide scars, random jokes and an unconditional love for animals. He made me feel appreciated, cared for and safe and didn't bolt even when we ran into my dealer on one of our dates. Unfortunately, however, between two jobs, five dogs and a lot of marijuana, there wasn't much space left for me in his life and I wasn't willing to settle for second place (or fourth or fifth for that matter).  

So when my dealer came back once again, I'm ashamed to say that I relapsed. Actually, scratch that. Why should I be ashamed? I'm human, after all. But then one day I woke up and couldn't take another second of this life. Of destroying relationship after relationship for someone who isn't capable of being in a relationship. Of wasting two years of my life loving someone who only loves himself. Of lying to my family and friends because I can't deal with the look of fear in their eyes when I mention his name. Of spending all this time thinking I'm not good enough only to realize that actually he's not good enough for me.

So I gave back the needles and the pins and asked my dealer to take his poison and hit the road. For good this time. Let's just say it didn't end well but at last, I'm free. Somebody get me 14-day medallion because I haven't been using for a couple of weeks now. And I feel rather spectacular having stood up for myself. I walked away with my head held high, not because I did everything right but because I'm willing to learn from my mistakes and move on. Maybe it's not so much about who we can't live without but more about who we can actually live with? 

Of course I will need rehab but not through Tinder. My account has been closed for a while now and it will remain that way. Swiping for matches can be a fun experience and it can lead to some interesting encounters but it's not for me. It may be good for the ego but it doesn't feed my soul. I'm not interested in short-term flings and false promises. I want real conversations and genuine connections. Maybe some day, I will meet someone who is looking for the same things but until then, I'm quite happy just being me.