Thursday, June 01, 2006

My story

Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now...” Bob Dylan

By the time I decided to work in the natural healing arts, I had already had one successful career. As a journalist, I spent decades listening to, and telling, other people's stories for such publications as the Dayton Daily News, Orange County Register, and the Los Angeles Times. I tried not to let my editors pigeonhole me, but for some reason, I kept getting assigned to write about health – or more specifically, about health problems. Maybe that was because I'd dreamed as a child of becoming a doctor, and was still interested in the subject even though I'd long since given up that ambition. Or it could have been because, on my own time, I had volunteered to become a firefighter and emergency medical technician, and was the only person in the newsroom who could not only check blood pressure but help a co-worker get through a grand mal seizure. Over the years I covered just about every illness or injury that befalls humankind, and all the gee-whiz pills and procedures modern medicine was using against them. Patients, “victims,” survivors, families, doctors, nurses, scientists, and counselors all told me their stories. I nodded sympathetically, took good notes, and then tried to do each of those stories justice in a thousand words or so before moving on to the next one. I did spend a bit more time on one particular story: for two years in the 1980s, I worked with the first "AIDS victim" (as they were then called) to go public in the mainstream media, first locally, then globally in international syndication. I helped him tell his story in his own words until he was no longer able, then I carried on to cover his last days and memorial services. Eventually, I became a fitness columnist, turning my attention to a new form of exercise every week and urging my readers to get in shape. I was in my mid-30s then, living in image-conscious Southern California, and I took full advantage of the fitness beat by doing my best to keep up with the people I wrote about, though I stopped short of following them into plastic surgery.

Years later, I was forced to pay attention to my own story for a change. By then I was an editor-in-chief, running my own business, spending way too many hours at the computer. I was frail, stiff, overweight, out of shape and plagued by chronic health problems. I exercised fairly regularly – or so I thought – taking regular walks of a mile or more, doing some aerobics or tai chi here and there, but it was hardly enough to stay in shape. I didn't realize how far downhill I'd slid until, at age 50, I tried to climb a mountain. It was just a leisurely day hike, only 5 miles and 5,000 feet up, but I barely made it to the top and then struggled to climb back down. That night, I was so sore I could hardly climb the stairs to get to bed. Even worse, I'd posed triumphantly for a photo near the top of that mountain trail, and when I looked at that image the next day, I had to face the difficult truth that the fat, sweaty, middle-aged woman in it was me. I knew then it was time for my life to change, but I had no idea how dramatic that change would be.

From that point, I made my own health a priority, no matter what deadlines loomed over me, no matter what urgent needs interrupted. I began exercising regularly for at least two hours a day, picking up where I'd left off years before with aerobics, tai chi, qigong, yoga, and weight training. I lost 25 pounds, got into the best shape of my life (so far), and finally learned the hard lesson that fitness can't be stored. I kept going, and after about a year I realized I was getting so fit that the constant pain I'd had for nearly two decades, left over from a car accident, was dissipating. After another year, other aches, pains, and limitations I'd assumed were just part of aging disappeared as well. I don't exercise two hours a day, every day, anymore, but I do exercise every day and I plan to keep it up for the rest of my life.

I hadn't planned to share my newfound good health with others, but about the time I got myself fixed up, several family members suffered serious health problems, the kinds of problems that modern medicine could address but not solve. As doctor after doctor admitted there was only so much they could do about my loved ones' ailments, I began researching, then actively studying alternative healing methods. Although fairly new to me, these so-called alternatives were actually hundreds, even thousands of years older than the pills and procedures today's doctors were offering, yet still considered “unproven” because they hadn't been the subject of drug-company-funded controlled scientific studies in 20th- (or 21st-) Century North America. Whenever my loved ones benefited from any of these alternative methods, I was inspired to study that one even more. The more I learned, the more I realized I wanted to share those new skills not just with my family, but with others who needed that kind of help.

All that has now brought me full circle to the person I am today: a gray-haired fiftysomething finally accomplishing the dream of the little girl she once was. I'm now a Reiki Master in both Western and Japanese styles, a Thai Yoga Therapist, an aromatherapist, a practitioner of yoga (from the Ayurvedic tradition of India) and qigong (from Traditional Chinese Medicine), and on my way to becoming a doctor – not a medical doctor, but a doctor of naturopathy, focusing on helping people heal themselves naturally. In doing so, I'm also following in the footsteps of my great-grandmother, a natural healer who traveled the hills not far from the same mountain that taught me that important lesson, helping those who didn't have access to medical doctors, or taking on cases the medical doctors had written off as hopeless. As I continued my studies, I was surprised to discover that at least some of her methods came from the Cherokee, which made sense when I also discovered that she was part Cherokee, and therefore so am I. And I wasn't surprised at all to learn that in Native American medicine, some of the same questions I so often asked as a reporter are considered the keys to healing: “Who are you? Where do you come from? What are you doing here?” Not coincidentally, barely a month after I became an ordained interfaith minister, dedicated not to any particular faith but simply to healing, I also learned that in Native American medicine, the spirit is at least as important in healing as the physical body. So the healing methods I offer are a globalized amalgam of indigenous traditions from Asia to Appalachia, informed not only by my training and experience, but each and every person – patient or professional – I interviewed as a reporter, not to mention all of my own and my loved ones' health challenges.

As a practitioner of natural healing methods, I remain in awe of modern medicine. I'm glad medical doctors, as well as their skilled procedures and powerful prescription drugs, are available to us, at least those lucky enough to have health insurance. I'm not trying to compete with medical doctors or steer anyone away from the essential help they offer. I do not diagnose, nor do I prescribe. I am simply here to help those who want to take more responsibility for their own health and support them in those efforts in ways that medical doctors can't. Doctors have little choice but to focus on illness and injury. My job is to focus on wellness and health.

In my new career, I have learned the value of a person's story in a whole new context. In order to heal ourselves, we must not only tell our stories, we must rewrite them. You are the author of your own life, and you are the only one who can decide what happens next. As a veteran journalist as well as a natural health practitioner, I can help you take charge of your own story, so that it can take you where you want and need to go in life.

I still haven't given up journalism, although now I practice a deeper, more personal form. After all, I'm no longer just an observer. And I'm once more an editor-in-chief, this time of a modest little publication called The Reiki Digest, with several similar publications in development.

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