Sunday, July 15, 2018

To leave is to die a little

"Why the sudden departure?" people ask and I don't quite know what to say. There is no simple answer but there is a simple truth: I'm drowning. For someone who used to work as a swimming instructor and who's always felt like a fish in water, these are foreign words. What does that even mean, drowning? Well, right now it feels like my head is constantly under the surface, water is sipping into my lungs making it difficult to breathe and my arms and legs are getting tired. I'm in too deep. I was the one who always used to say that the things meant for us will come easy. They flow. But let me tell you that nothing, absolutely nothing, has been flowing in my life this year. 

Half of 2018 is already gone and to be honest, most of it has been pretty crappy. I continue to struggle with my health, which seems ironic as I've spent my entire life worrying about what I eat and making sure I exercise regularly. Making healthy choices was always my priority and I used to energetically flow on and off my yoga mat. Until one day my body just decided to give up and no longer cooperate. What's the point, one might ask. Seriously. I've watched people around me wolf down hamburgers and pizzas in front of the TV while I sit there nibbling on my miserable little salad and they're not the ones who ended up in the hospital. 

Health issues have led to financial issues as I've struggled to keep up with work and for the first time in my life, I'm fighting to hold down a job. A job that I love so much and that once came to me so easily, flowing my way without much effort on my part. I have enjoyed every minute of my current job and I'm sad to say that I'll be leaving it soon. I've had the chance to work with some amazing people and some of the students have also really made an impression on me. The memories of this place will stay with me forever, not least because of the gorgeous view of the mountains. I'm really going to miss watching the sunset during class. 

Since I started traveling on my own, I've found it so easy to make new friends. No matter where I've gone in the world, I've never worried about being lonely. I always trusted that the right people would show up and stay and they always did. Ecuador has been no different but what I hadn't realised is that going through a crisis could make some of these people leave. So now I find myself holding on for dear life to the ones I have left.  

"I want to be in a relationship," I have said over and over again for the past ten years. One dysfunctional disaster after another, I changed that statement to: "I want to be in a happy and healthy relationship with a good man." And then I met one of those and for the life of me, I can't make it work. I keep dragging us both down and although he usually manages to bring us back up to the surface, I sometimes feel like he pulls me up only to push me back down again. On top of that, I'm terrified that one day he'll be swept away by another mermaid. Perhaps one who isn't quite as clingy. 

Living in constant fear is no way to live. It's exhausting and really makes me feel like I'm drowning. For six months now, I have been fighting, fighting and fighting for the things that I want, thinking that maybe things don't always come easy. Maybe some of us have to fight harder than others and maybe some things are worth fighting for. But I'm tired of swimming against the current. They say that if you don't listen to the signs, the universe will come back and beat you over the head until you do. So now I get it. Maybe it's time to give up and let go. Maybe if I stop struggling, I'll float. 

I'm grateful for the lifelines that I've had during this time. Therapy has been one, work another. Having love in my life has certainly been an important one and so has being surrounded by friends. The strongest one, however, has always been the support from my loved ones back home and right now, that's the one that is pulling me back towards the shores of Europe. 

"Why didn't you tell us?", I hear you ask. "How come we didn't know?" Well, that's because under water, no one can see you cry and no one, absolutely no one, can hear you scream. Also, because I didn't want to be saved. I didn't want anyone to take away my chance to learn whatever it is that this struggle is supposed to teach me. This may be my opportunity to build a stronger backbone and learn how to make my voice heard. Don't worry - I won't actually drown. I'm a good swimmer and I trust that soon enough, the waves will carry me home. 

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Anecdotes from my second hospital visit

Her eyes are black, mine are green. Her head is on her mother's lap, mine is resting on my rolled-up jacket. Her favorite color is turquoise and so is mine. We both have a high fever and we've been in the waiting room at the hospital for over an hour, waiting to get into the emergency room. Every time the little girl starts coughing or I have difficulty breathing, our eyes meet and it helps us calm down. I send a silent prayer asking God to let her in next, even though I'm desperate to get some help as well. Ten minutes later, she's given a bed in a cubicle and soon after, my name is called. 

So the emergency room is an interesting place, apparently. I could easily have written two or three episodes of Grey's Anatomy based on what I saw during the couple of hours that I was there. Here, the staff don't even meet in the on call room to declare their love, they just yell it out in the hallway: Amor! Amor! Amor! I also learned how to call for help in Spanish: Auxilio! Auxilio! Auxilio! Both expressions might come in handy some day, I guess.

We had been there for a while when we heard that there had been a car accident and an ambulance was on its way. The wounded was a woman who had broken her spine, yet she was surprisingly quiet as they brought her in, only groaning a bit with pain. Until the medical staff rammed her board into a table that is. 

It was after midnight when I was finally moved up to a room and then immediately sent for an MRI scan. The male nurse whose job it was to wheelchair me to the exam saw this as an opportunity for a late night chat. "I've seen you here before, haven't I?" he started the conversation. I stared at him blankly; he did not even look vaguely familiar to me. "I remember your name," he continued. "It's so beautiful." The small talk continued as he took me back to my room after the exam, during which I had unfortunately wet myself. (Don't judge. It's a strange kind of exam and I was very, very sick - okay?). There is no way he couldn't have noticed as I was only wearing a gown and it was also his job to cover me up and help me get back into bed. "It was such a pleasure to meet you, Elisabeth," he said with a huge grin as he tucked me in. "I hope to see you soon again." 

The next day, I received a visit from two friendly Samaritans. Although they did not seem too impressed with my lack of enthusiasm over this meeting. "It's very important to keep a positive attitude," the woman said, looking at me sternly. "We must not lose faith, even when we are ill." "Right," I replied, trying to force a smile, despite having battled a high fever for three weeks, not being able to eat for three days and still struggling to breathe. As I woke later from my misery (forgive me), feeling a little better thanks to western medicine (hallelujah), I was amused to find that the missionary souls had left a small gift on my bedside table: a prayer book for prisoners.

Two days after I was hospitalized, my doctors thought it would be a good idea for me to meet with a nutritionist. So, as luck (and faith probably) would have it, there I was laying around in my what-had-once-been-white gown and drenched in sweat when what can only be described as the most beautiful man in Ecuador walked in. George Clooney - eat your heart out. My eyes met McDreamy's and it was almost like the connection that I had with the little girl in the waiting room, except not at all. It was different. For about a second. Until he took out my chart and started asking me questions about my bathroom business. You know, how many number ones and how many number twos and let's be more specific, shall we? At least I could blame my flushed cheeks on the fever. 

I met my hospital roommate the morning after my midnight adventure in the x-ray room, when she thought it would be a good idea to turn on the radio at six a.m. By ten a.m., we had already listened to "Despacito" three times and I was ready to kill myself right there and then. The music never stopped for the five days that we shared a room. Once I was strong enough to walk, I started wandering up and down the halls, dragging the intravenous machine behind me, desperately looking for some quiet and wishing I hadn't secretly wished for a young female roommate. The old man in the room next to ours was suddenly looking much more attractive, so sweet and silent just sitting there in his chair reading. 

One night, however, my roommate and I started talking and it turned out that she, too, had rheumatoid arthritis. She may have been a lot younger than the grandpa next door but she still had twenty years of experience with this autoimmune disease and she was able to give me a lot of helpful advice on how to live with it.

Maybe the universe is on my side after all. 

What I'm learning is that there are no coincidences. Nothing is random, everything happens for a reason. The loss of one friend has brought me closer to another. Saying goodbye to one great love has led me to an even better one. The month that I couldn't pay my electricity bill I met a neighbor in need of a parking space. Since then she rents mine for 30 dollars a month and I have light in my apartment again. My latest arthritis flare up allowed me to meet my hospital roommate, which in turn has helped me to accept my diagnosis as chronic. Until this moment, I had been trying to think of it as a thing of the past, something to move on from as quickly as possible in order to return to normal life. Now I understand that my life will never be the same again. It can still be good but it won't be the same. Everything is different and acknowledging this has helped me see that the only constant in life really is, change. 

PS. I'm not planning on turning this blog into the chronicles of the chronically ill; I hope there are many more adventure travel stories to come in the future. But for now this is my reality and writing helps me come to terms with it.

This picture has nothing to do with the text. I just like to be reminded of the days when I was able to travel. And walk.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

What to do when the lights go out

"Jag orkar inte," says musical genius and EDM superstar Tim Bergling in the documentary True Stories: Avicii. Three powerful words in Swedish meaning "I can't do it." I don't have the energy. I don't have the strength. I'm anxious. I'm in pain. Let me be. Let me breathe. Leave me alone. It's too dark. Help me.

But what if nobody hears you? Or worse, they hear you but choose not to listen? Because apparently money, concerts and fans are more important. What then? Unfortunately for Avicii, the end result was fatal and the world lost another talent and, more importantly, person too soon.

Not a big fan of electronic music, I can't say that I'm too familiar with Avicii's songs, although I don't mind listening (and dancing) to them from time to time. But his words "jag orkar inte" went straight to my heart and the pain in his voice gave me chills down my spine. Because I hear him. I understand. Having been diagnosed with a chronic illness and then prescribed heavy medication for god knows how long, has led me to my second diagnosis in three months: anxiety and panic disorder. This, however, is not a topic that I feel comfortable sharing too much about as I'm still in it and my head is too messy. All I know is that when Avicii says "jag orkar inte", I want to yell: Me too! ME TOO! JAG ORKAR INTE! 

Fortunately, nobody is pressuring me into doing gigs and performing in front of huge live audiences. What is more, I'm getting help. I'm dancing towards the light. I'm being heard. And hopefully, one day, I'll be able to help those who aren't. 

When the still ongoing #metoo campaign against sexual harassment took over social media recently, I chose not to actively participate. Not because I didn't care but because it didn't feel like my battle to fight. It's not my mountain but that doesn't mean I don't admire and support the women that climb it. I just prefer to look up to them from below, cheer them on and draw inspiration from their courage. 

Mental illness is my mountain. It's my battle and I believe I can tackle it and make a difference. I can reach the top and make myself heard. One day, we will talk about mental health. When I've got the strength. When I've got the energy. When I'm not anxious and in pain. When I can breathe.

Until then, let's not let another artist, friend or family member pass away before their time. When someone says: "jag orkar inte" - hear them. Believe them. Let them be. Help them switch on the light again. 

Don't know what to say or how to help? 

This article offers seven useful tips on how to help a friend with anxiety. I would like to add a number eight: Please take the focus off your friend, at least for a while. For someone who is feeling anxious, it can be very difficult to talk about what is going on in their life, but that doesn't mean we don't want to hear about what is going on in yours! 

Sluta inte höra av dig

This is a blogpost in Swedish about the importance of having people in your life that don't give up on you. The main points are:
  • Do not leave a person who isn't feeling well on their own. Give them space but do not abandon them.
  • It may seem like we don't care or like we don't want to spend time with you but that is not the case at all. Sometimes we just can't. Vi orkar inte.
  • People that stick around and keep calling are worth their weight in gold. And trust me, we can see you in the dark. Thank you for shining.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Make a splash, make a mess

Last week, my friend brought me to one of the biggest waterfalls in Ecuador. It's stunning, yet hardly anyone knows about it. It's hidden in the jungle, far away from civilization. No tourists come here and most Ecuadorians don't seem to be aware of this secluded cascade either.

To reach our destination, we had to drive through the mountains for four hours. It was a rainy day and as we were navigating through the clouds, I couldn't help but think that the outside view looked exactly like the inside of my head. Three months of heavy medication has made my mind so foggy that I honestly don't know what is real and what isn't anymore. I often get lost in my thoughts, or absence of such, and find it difficult to keep up with a conversation. Shadows play tricks on me and sometimes I can't distinguish between genuine feelings and ghostlike emotions.

When we arrived, we parked the car and hiked for about half an hour through the jungle. The thick rainforest surrounding us, we walked on in silence while screeching monkeys jumped from tree to tree. The lush green leaves were still moist from the rain and we gulped down the fresh air as if every inhale were our first (or last). For the first time in a very long time, I could breathe. The knot that's been tied around my throat for the past two months started to loosen and I almost felt like myself again. As we approached the waterfall, we could hear it roaring and once we were standing in front of it, I was amazed. It is hard to believe that something so powerful, and so big, can be kept a secret.

Cascada de San Rafael
On the way back, the sky cleared up a little and a few rays of sunshine managed to break through the clouds. The light, in combination with the fresh air in my lungs, helped defog my mind as well. New thoughts began to take shape and out of nowhere, words came flying to me, begging to be formed into sentences. It has taken me a week to actually put them together but still, that's progress. It means that some of the gloom has lifted and eventually, the rest will dissolve as well.

"Do you need more boyfriend material?", my friend asked as I told him that I've been struggling with a bit of writer's block lately. I slowly shook my head in response. No thanks, I'm done with the drama. Despite the fog, it has become clear to me that I don't need anyone to bring me to the highest mountaintop and take my breath away. What I need is someone who keeps me grounded and allows me to breathe. Love is not about waiting for a knight in shining armor, it's about discovering the one who has a heart of gold hidden underneath. I can climb to the top of a mountain by myself, but I do I need someone to help me keep my feet on the ground when my head is in the clouds. Sharp minds can be intriguing but at the end of the day, I want someone with a bit of softness around the edges. Someone who can be my soft place to fall because I do a lot of that these days.

Maybe the waterfalls really have it all figured out - it seems like a great idea to hide out in nature for a while. Let's go with the flow, roar with excitement, create our own music and finally, make one big splash.

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.