The Compassionate Navigation of Radical Self Care
by Kelli Gray Meisner
Sometimes being a woman is amazing, feeling the air on my skin as I dance on the beach, communing with my female ancestors, the spirit of the ocean and the moon reverberating in my body. Other times, and more often than I prefer, the patriarchy seems to dominate and suffocate the very marrow out of my curved hip bones.
I recently went through a health challenge that invited me to open up to my femininity and beckoned me to fully embrace being a woman. It was also an invitation to begin to offer myself the nourishment and compassion that I have so freely given to others my whole life.
The hard earned liberation and freedom of the feminist movement also invited the pervasive celebration of a multitasking superwoman, which is now the accepted norm in the United States. This misguided and unrealistic cultural expectation that women are able to give 100% of herself to the family and also give another 100% in the workplace is not sustainable. Basic arithmetic reveals that this is not physically possible; if you subtract 200 from 100 you get a negative number.
That negative number describes how most women, including myself, feel at the end of every day –depleted. Yet we continue to give from an empty vessel, frequently having to dip into our own body stores in order to get by. Essentially, we have been eroding ourselves for the benefit of others. This all too common practice, is not only required and encouraged, but this dangerous self-sacrificing paradigm is celebrated as the ultimate perfection of being a woman.
Radical Self Care is a notion I began to incorporate into my life in the last decade. It began after the birth of my second son and subsequent fall from grace labeled as postpartum depression/psychosis. At that time, I didn’t recognize it as Radical Self Care as much as self-preservation and survival. As I continued to traverse life I began to refine this practice, and just like all practices in life, my Radical Self Care practice evolved.
What first started out as making sure I ate three times a day, showered, and got at least six hours of sleep, transformed into a deeper practice which included self-massage, communication practice, finding sisters on the path, journaling, setting stronger boundaries and making time for meditation. Radical Self Care became the anecdote to the unsustainable cultural trap I found myself in. It became the salve to my soul, which felt in extreme conflict between internal and external needs and expectations. I got good at Radical Self Care, I even gave a public Dharma sharing on it and shared my experience with anyone who would listen.
Then my relationship with Radical Self Care came to an abrupt fork in the road… I discovered a lump in my breast which forced me to reconsider everything. It intensified the fear that was fueling my Radical Self Care practice and I discovered that using fear as fuel causes giant productive fires which always lead to inevitable burnout.
I have always been good at circumventing fear and using it to fuel my productivity and to persevere above adversity, in other words, I am good at fighting fear by trying to control the circumstances of my life aka pretending that I am in control. This is a skill I learned by growing up poor with a hard working, single dad and also from watching almost everyone in my life deal with addiction, or more accurately, having addiction deal with them. I mastered this skill in my early adulthood when I became a single mother and raised my first born son while on welfare, food stamps, and public housing all while completing my college degree.
This skill served me well, until there was no choice but to intimately feel the fear, because it backed me into a corner which I could not fight or control my way out of. It felt as though a trap door dropped out from beneath my feet, it was a bitter-sweet moment of surrender to fear and the dissolving of an illusion that I was in control.
I found the lump while lying on the couch, adjusting my body and breast to make room for my younger son to lay with me. It was the evening before my older son’s surprise 16th birthday party. I put a call into my doctor and she referred to the breast care clinic to begin the investigation of what the lump in my right breast was. The initial ultrasound revealed a large cyst (normal) with two fixed masses (abnormal). Nothing could have prepared me for the primal fear of death that led me to agree to the immediate biopsy. Lying on the examination table with my breasts exposed, a foam wedge under my right shoulder to provide a better angle for the procedure, my body began to tremble. I figured the trembling was related to a combination of a cold room and my fear of the procedure, the pain, the blood, and the results I would then have to wait for.
Little did I know that the most challenging part was yet to come. As the radiologist got the biopsy gun ready (yes it is a literal gun that shoots a needle in order to harvest tissue samples), an unfamiliar feeling came over me. The trembling of my body began to intensify and I began to really shake and get tingly all over, I was beginning to feel paralyzed lying there. Initially, I tried to push it away, I tried to quiet the quaking by closing my eyes and taking deep breaths, but the feeling continued to grow and grow.
It was only moments before the procedure started that I finally recognized what the feeling was, it was intuition. An intuition that rose from the core of the Earth herself, through the ashes of all the women who had come before me. At that moment, I surrendered, I cried, I said, “I don’t want to do this!” I explained that I wanted to give my body time and space to heal this growth on its own. In that moment my body was pleading with me like it had never done before. I immediately knew that my intuition was in direct opposition of the doctor’s recommendations and of my own mind, which was ripe with its own rational medical training and knowledge. In that vulnerable, fully exposed, bare-breasted and heart wide-open moment laying on the table, I made the decision to embrace fear, honor my intuition, and practice compassion with myself.
Radical Self Care took on a new urgency and energy that day. In making that decision I was truly using my voice and I realized that I was tapping into a deep and shared wisdom as old as the Earth herself and it scared me beyond my current capacity of understanding.
I told the doctor with voice shaking, body trembling, and warm salty tears rolling down my cheeks, that I wanted to give my body a cycle (one month) to heal this. He politely disagreed and simultaneously honored my decision as “personalized medicine” and ordered a repeat ultrasound with biopsy in one month. He also informed me that most women do not make this decision, most women want to know what is growing inside of their breast, take care of it and move on. I was purposely making a choice to wait and not know, which was totally out of character for me. The doctor warned me that this would be difficult.
I left that appointment feeling an unfamiliar mixture of triumph, failure, regret, apprehension and heightened anxiety. As I sat on the bench outside the office, my first reaction, was to shame and blame myself for being too afraid to go through with the procedure.
I didn’t realize at the time that giving voice to that decision, which on the surface was prompted by fear, was really my first step into Radical Self Care through the doorway of compassion. That doorway opened me to a new level of faith and vulnerability that would change the course of my life forever.
Up until that point in my life I made most of my decisions using my head and logic. I am a smart person and my head has usually steered me in the right direction. In my early life I lived in mostly unpredictable circumstances, which led me to rely heavily on logic and control and to trust my thoughts above anything else. This was how I kept myself safe.
In this case, my head told me to get the biopsy which was the only way to know if the masses inside the cyst were cancerous or not. It was the more logical choice and the only choice that would give me concrete answers, it was also the choice most women make. My heart immediately thought of my children and that the responsible thing would be to get the biopsy and find out what was in my breast and deal with it quickly in order to minimize disruption to our family life. But deep in my womb I heard something different, something I will be uncovering the truth of for the rest of my life. My ancestral body told me to wait, not just one month, but a whole season (three months), and to look into other testing, other healing modalities, surgical options and to listen deep within myself for the answers. I agreed with the doctor’s recommended recheck and biopsy in one month, but inside I knew that I had no idea what would come next. It was simultaneously exciting, terrifying and daunting. I was finally going to have to walk the talk of digging deep for Radical Self Care, healing navigation, asking for and receiving help, and above all else practicing self-compassion.
I made a conscious decision to press pause to the life I was living, eject that tape, put in a new cassette into the tape deck and hit play and record at the same time. I embarked on a healing path which would involve more financial resources then I was comfortable with. I worked with conventional doctors, naturopaths, acupuncturists, my chiropractor, massage therapists, music healers, breath work, thermography, essential oils, dry brushing, self- breast massage, castor oil packs, painting yellow iodine all over my body, guided visualizations, meditation, coloring mandalas with my son, religious and copious journaling, extra sleep and rest, hibernation, open and honest conversations, and reestablishing boundaries which had grown weathered over time. All the while, interlacing Maitri, a concept I learned about while reading what would become my new bible, The Places That Scare: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times by Pema Chodron. Maitri, defined by a quick google search can be summed up as “compassionate care.”
My personal interpretation for Maitri is acceptance of life exactly as it is with compassion.
My habit energy before this experience would be to label the lump as “bad” and go into full fear cover up (productivity) mode to get rid of it. Instead, my intuition offered me the opportunity to STOP (doing), DROP (into my heart/breast), ROLL (with the information), and LISTEN (from inside for direction). Similar to a fire drill but with a divine feminine spiritual twist. It was a whole new world that was not only unfamiliar but one that was challenging and humbling. I took the juice that was my life and simmered it into a glaze then into a reduction, which was sticky and richer and full of flavors that I had never experienced or tasted before. At times, it was too hot, too sticky, too sweet, too salty and I had to adjust the seasonings as I went. I had to become the navigator of my life, not based on the seas of circumstance around me or the opinions of the many weathermen, but now guided by the swells that arose from the inside. Uncharted territory to say the least.
I soon came to understand that the ebbs and flows of life are less intense when I’m in tune with my inner compass and navigating from the inside. With this new knowledge, I used all of the information and opinions I was getting and took them inside, digested them through my body, and navigated my way to appointment after appointment and finally to a decision. I decided to surgically remove the entire cyst with the masses inside. I was uncomfortable with the idea of the needle biopsy rupturing the cyst in order to reach the masses, I didn’t want to violate the cysts structure. I felt that the cyst formed around the masses as my body’s way to protect me. My surgery date was scheduled for about three months to the day after I found the lump.
I likely would have doubted my decision about the surgery had it not been for the hummingbird that flew in our front door over my head while I was making the appointment. That was a pivotal day in my healing process, the fact that the surgery date would allow for a whole season to pass provided me with relief. I tend to over think my decisions and the hummingbird, which has always been a sign to me to slow down, was the natural affirmation I need to stoke my faith and give me strength and sanity to keep going. I decided to pursue all the other healing strategies that resonated with me in the meantime. The signs from nature, the provocative reading I was doing, all of the healers on my team and the space I created in myself, through Radical Self Care, allowed me to alchemize and transform. These experiences were sobering, to say the least. They also required me to shed the skin of the woman who grew the lump and embrace a new phase of my life with a different internal compass.
True north is true north and you don’t even need a compass to find it, the North Star is there every evening.
Each of us needs to know when to take the helm and chart the course, and also when to sit back and allow others to contribute to the journey. The secret is that no matter who is at the helm, we always have the opportunity to navigate. During this navigation the most challenging and rewarding thing to practice was to have compassion for myself along the voyage, despite the challenges I was encountering. This is when I realized that I had initially embraced Radical Self Care from a place of fear. In this new experience, Radical Self Care was now fueled by radical self-compassion.
Navigation was my primary job for those next two months before the surgery. I had my high points and my low points and if I am being 100% honest I would admit that most of that time I found myself somewhere right in the middle. Fear, anxiety and uneasy feelings began to arise as the surgery date approached. I was afraid of surgery altogether, and I was already beginning to mourn the loss of my unaltered breast. I had a repeat ultrasound scheduled for the Friday before my surgery, which was for the following Monday.
My surgeon had originally advised me to cancel the ultrasound because he stated it didn’t matter anymore since we were going to be removing the cyst and they would biopsy once it was removed. But, again, my intuition guided me to keep that ultrasound appointment. The week before the surgery was a living hell; every single negative thought that I could possibly have came and went and came and went and some decided to set up space in my brain. I eventually called a friend who is a psychic and had a short session in order to center myself before the surgery because I was beginning to doubt having the surgery and I was feeling like a mad woman on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Interestingly, I ended up getting quite ill the day before the biopsy and had to call in sick to work. A day at home alone spent mostly in the bathtub only contributed to the amount of nervousness that was flowing through my body, but since I was sick, by the end of the night I was completely drained and went to bed early.
I woke up the next day, the day of the ultrasound and I was surprisingly calm. My husband asked if I wanted him to come with me, but I told him this is something I wanted to do on my own. I arrived at the radiology department and was immediately whisked into a room. This time, it was a man who would be doing the ultrasound on my breast. To my surprise, the ultrasound only took about five minutes, the first time I had this done it lasted at least a half an hour. He left the room and told me he would share the information and images with the doctor. Now I’ll tell you right here that I had noticed some changes in the lump that week and I suspected it was smaller, but I also knew that just because the cyst was smaller didn’t mean that the masses had changed.
I will never forget the look on the radiologist’s face when he came back in the room with the ultrasound tech. He was holding the images in his right hand and his glasses were perched halfway down the bridge of his nose and was looking at me with a mixture of curiosity and confusion. He told me that he wanted to repeat the study and watch with his own eyes to confirm what the pictures were indicating. By this time I was kind of having an out of body experience just waiting for what the hell they were looking at so intently. He had the tech turn on the sound waves and changed the settings several times and the exam was growing longer and longer and my breast was beginning to throb in pain and I just wanted it all to be over. I wanted to scream at them, “Hey can you stop hurting my breast because in a couple days it is going to be sliced open….” I resisted this urge, closed my eyes and focused on my breathing.
The radiologist then looked at me and said, “It appears things have changed, get dressed and come in my office and we will talk this through.”
When I made my way to his office, which was really a small dark room with tons of computer screens, he had my images up on the screens, he looked at me and said, “You know this rarely happens.”
By this time, I figured he had good news since I was fully dressed and he wasn’t breaking out his biopsy gun. Then he said he wanted to talk about the surgery. He was confused why I wanted to choose the more radical procedure, and when I explained my reasoning he said he understood.
He then said,” You’re going to need to cancel the surgery.”
I was shocked and wanted to know what he saw. The images from the new ultrasound revealed that the cyst shrunk by 40 percent and that the two masses had each shrunk by 60 percent. He then informed me that when something shrinks by at least 40 percent it rules out cancer, therefore I didn’t need surgery or a biopsy.
I don’t know how to put into words what I felt at that moment but the closest notions I can think of to describe it; are elation, bliss, and shock. Within seconds my body was flooded with relief, a deep feeling of gratitude, and a vibration that whispered to my soul “I knew it.” I offered to share with him about everything I had been doing and everything I had learned about my self during the process.
He looked at me with curiosity and listened for about a minute then interrupted me and said, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.” I could tell he was as surprised as I was, possibly even more so, he asked if he could put my case in his “teaching folder.” I replied, “Hell yes!”
He then told me that it would be a good idea to have a repeat ultrasound in three months, just to monitor. I left that office feeling like I had never felt before. I came home and shared the news with friends and family, and except for one person, everybody was amazed and very supportive. I fell into bed and wept and wept, it took me at least a week to fully grasp the miracle that had happened.
I will never forget the look in my youngest son’s eyes when I told him the news. He said, “You see mom, we really can heal our own bodies….”
Writing this has given me many moments to pause and reflect on my experience and every time I discover a new lesson. First, fear is a necessary and instinctive fuel in acute situations but in the long run, compassion is a much more sustainable fuel source for this wandering and constantly changing path called life. Our bodies are much more intelligent and amazing than we give them credit for, even when we don’t realize it.
Speaking our truth is the only way to true healing and when we speak our truth we give others permission to do the same.
Human beings have an innate ability to listen to the Earth when that intention is met with time, space, silence and reverence. The illusion of control is a wolf in sheep clothes. For me, Radical Self Care gave way to Compassion, which I now see as synonymous with Love. With an unexpected swift kick from my body and the Universe/ God/ Source/ Earth (however you choose to refer to that unexplainable and omnipresent energy) I was able to surrender to fear through compassion; which allowed me to own my power, speak my truth and most importantly choose LOVE.
I am immensely grateful I was initiated into the process of the compassionate navigation of Radical Self-Care, which I now refer to as Radical Self Love.
Peaceful Steadiness of the Heart/ Shraddha
About Kelli Gray-Meisner
Kelli Gray-Meisner is a woman in constant pursuit of revealing her purpose on this planet and balancing that with living in the 21st-century with the heart and soul of somebody who prefers a much simpler time. She raises her two sons, Dylan (16) and Ayden (10), with her husband living in a 540 square-foot cottage in an urban Zen Center in San Diego. She works as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and community college professor. She took the five mindfulness training’s in the Plum Village tradition at Deer Park Monastery in 2004. Her current interests include; alchemizing community living, secret sisterhood, mindful family life, embodied movement, nourishing nutrition and healthy lifestyle, while peeling back the layers of what it means to live life on purpose and be of benefit.