By Sandra Dee Owens
When I was 25 I lost my health.
I had no health insurance and was turned down for disability.
While the lack of health insurance and being turned down for disability felt devastating at the time, I now view this as the greatest gift my health could have received.
In chronic pain due to a degenerating spinal condition (scoliosis) and a series of challenging living situations, physical and emotional strain took their toll on my health and sent me spiraling into unwellness in mind, body and spirit.
Early in our marriage and eight months pregnant with our second child, my husband and I were told that our apartment building had sold and our rent was doubling immediately.
Unable to find an affordable apartment, we secretly stashed our possessions in the dirt cellar of the apartment building, hoping that someday we could return for them.
Then we bought a tent . . . and moved outdoors.
A young nurse at the hospital I worked at threatened to call social services on us, so days before our second daughter was born we moved into a mobile home until finally buying a small piece of land with a burnt-down house on it two years later.
A small, older garage had survived the fire, so we moved our family of four into it, thrilled to finally own property.
There was no running water in the garage that we lived in for eight-and-a-half years.
Due to chronic back pain, I was unable to sit and make jewelry for our fledgling jewelry business or to drive to the craft shows that provided us with the bulk of our income.
I spent years and money we could not afford to spend seeking medical attention. I was told to prepare to be wheelchair-bound by the time I was 40. Finally, deeply discouraged, unable to work and in constant pain, I applied for disability.
A few months later, I sat on my stairs, desperately sobbing over the disability rejection notice.
I felt trapped and optionless. I had put all my hope on being considered disabled.
Whine or try
I was not yet 30 years old, and as I sat on my steps sobbing, I wondered how I could possibly live another 30 years as I was. I saw the years stretching out before me and saw that my life had been shrinking. I was too young to be this sick.
Clutching the rejection notice, I slipped down the stairs and, whimpering in pain, crawled to the rug on the floor below.
Slowly, I began to move my back and neck until the pain became unbearable. Then I retreated to the nearby couch, where I whined internally about how terrible and unfair everything was.
For five minutes.
Then I forced myself to crawl back to the floor and slowly move my stiff, pain-filled body until the pain became unbearable again. Then I repeated the process again and again, allowing myself five minutes to whine and rest.
After an hour of this, I told myself to not retreat to the couch, and suddenly, in my mind’s eye, a bullseye appeared.
Focusing on the center of that bullseye, I held my breath and pressed my hurting body toward its bright red center very slowly.
Then I crawled back to the couch to whine and rest.
For five minutes.
I observed that when I was on the floor and focused on trying, I was not whining. And when I was whining, I was not trying. Every time I got back down on the floor, I made a choice.
And if I had a choice, then that meant I was not optionless.
I felt a flicker of timid hope.
For the next few days, I repeated this routine and began to notice the slightest improvement in flexibility in my back.
But the day after that, I bent over to pick up a shirt from the laundry basket, and my back turned to stone. My husband carefully stuffed me into the back of our station wagon and off to the emergency room we went . . . again.
Quitting a thousand times
After weeks of tiny improvements followed by crushing setbacks, I desperately wanted to be better. Relentless anxiety discouraged me, however, and I often thought “I can’t do this, I quit.”
Un-quitting a thousand and one
But every time I quit, I later un-quit.
Until one summer day, during a prolonged setback and weeks of lying on the couch in agony, I went outside and saw our daughter’s Strawberry Shortcake bicycle lying in the grass.
And suddenly, I desperately needed to coast.
Unable to bend over and pick the bike up, I hooked one toe under the banana seat lifting it just enough to slide under me.
Just being outdoors and sitting on a bicycle felt encouraging. Staring down our driveway, I summoned all my courage to let the wheels roll.
Unable to pedal with such a stiff and painful back, I dragged my feet and let the bike coast down our steep driveway. Before I reached the road “Fear,” that ever-present invisible gremlin, started shrieking in my ear.
“Stop! What are you doing? How are you going to get back? What if you can’t walk home? You can’t even pedal! There is danger in the unknown! Stop!!”
But I didn’t want to stop, I hated my unwellness and did not want to live a shrinking life any longer.
I coasted on. At the top of the next hill, I could see a stop sign and intersection ahead. I had a decision to make.
I could continue coasting downhill to the intersection, drag my feet to stop the bike, ditch it and painfully walk home.
Or I could go through the intersection.
The battle in my head raged. The farther from home I coasted, the louder “Fear” screamed its warnings of doom. But the farther I coasted, the freer I felt.
I knew I had to choose.
My body and mind were weak and terrified, but my soul was dying. I needed to rescue myself.
Coasting to the stop sign, I turned the handlebars, went through the intersection, and rolled away from home and sick.
And suddenly “Fear” quieted.
And my soul soared.
I began to cry, feeling my blood hum with the electricity of adventure.
It was something I had not felt for a very long time.
I did not think about the pain, as it was not the boss of me anymore. I was in the driver’s seat now, and it was a banana seat!
I directed my focus on the beautiful buzz of confidence I felt. I had gone to battle with fear and won.
Slowly, I willed myself to pedal, and though the pain brought tears, I was too excited to care.
I pedaled one mile that day, then slowly walked the bike home feeling triumphantly sore.
The last day
My “intersection day” was the last day of feeling optionless and desperate. It was also the last day I expected someone else to fix me.
I left that mindset at the intersection.
Over time, I mindfully shifted my relationship with discomfort and pain, seeing them as walls to climb over versus obstacles that stop me.
Leaving sick behind
One year later, on my 30th birthday, I drove into the mountains and rode my new bicycle 50 miles north, then 50 miles back. It was my first century ride.
Celebrating my glorious health riding up and down the spine of the Green Mountains, I pondered that I had never truly been optionless.
I had possessed all the tools I needed for wellness – within me.
And I began using those tools the day I left “Sick” at the intersection.
For more info about Sandra, visit sandradeeowens.com.