Having survived my first day back to work on Wednesday February 1st, I woke up Thursday morning at an uncomfortable time and took a hurried uncomfortable shower. This was followed by the uncomfortable old routine of medicine, food, and getting dressed into my uncomfortable grown up clothes. Once in the acceptable corporate costume, I left my warm comfortable house, climbed into a cold pickup truck, and sat in unpredictable traffic with strangers. All of this to spend eight hours interacting in occasionally unpredictable, often uncomfortable situations, discussing and fixing things that my sense of purpose now finds…uncomfortable. Uncomfortable, but familiar.
The sad reality is that, until recently, most of my life’s discomfort had simply become…comfortable.
Squeaky floor boards. The broken door that won’t close correctly. Neglected friendships that need attention. Poorly-programmed self images. Emotional baggage, deep-seated defense mechanisms, and their carousel of bad habits. Ideas, inventions, and businesses not yet started. Or even that plentiful bulge that makes our clothes have poor self-esteem. Across the spectrum, and in nearly every aspect of life, I let uncomfortable things slip away from my daily consciousness until I could barely see, hear, or feel them anymore.
Discomfort became familiar, and therefore comfortable. And that trap is deadly to true happiness.
Phil-ing my head
I was sitting in traffic Thursday (Feb. 2) when I realized it was Groundhog Day, and immediately thought of the movie of the same name. I laughed to myself as I pictured Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, fleeing the police with Punxsutawney Phil driving from his lap. Fated to live the same day over and over again, Phil (Bill Murray) tells Phil (small furry animal) “don’t drive angry…don’t drive angry”as they speed along. Right before that iconic line, Phil (human) complements Phil’s (large rodent) driving & offers advice.
“That’s not bad for a quadruped.
You gotta check your mirrors.
Just the side of your eye. Side of your eye.”
As I sat in the fragrance of exhaust fumes and morning coffee, I found myself glancing around and checking my mirrors- just as instructed by Phil (former caddy at Bushwood). Stuck in morning traffic, realizing I was back in the repetitive daily grind I had fought to overcome, I made the connection to a thought that was hiding in plain sight. In that moment it was painfully clear that the Phils in my head were not the only ones reliving Groundhog Day over and over again. Most of us are.
Just don’t blink
Nine months after the initial injury to my brain and eyes, my vision symptoms escalated and I began to lose more sight. The blind spots were growing in size, and I was seeing the world through relentless flashing and erratic strobes. Following a few preliminary exams, my retinal specialist (and favorite American-Asian-Indian-American superhero) suspected I was bleeding behind behind the retina. This was confirmed with angiography, and he informed me that my eyes had developed a CNVM- Choroidal Neovascular Membrane (there is not going to be a vocabulary test, so worry not.)
This meant that my eyes were growing a unnatural and poorly organized blood supply in the choroid – the blood-rich layer of connective tissue behind the retina. The CNVM was growing like weeds through small cracks in a sidewalk; part of the excessive autoimmune response following the initial injury and inflammation. This irregular layer of blood vessels was now destroying the retina as it leaked fluid and blood, causing progressive blindness. Which wasn’t good (says the guy prone to understatement).
CNVM is most often associated with wet age-related macular degeneration (Wet AMD), the later and more severe form of macular degeneration. Although Wet AMD only affects 10-15% of patients with the condition, it accounts for about 90% of severe vision loss for those with macular degeneration. No bueno.
After nine months of being ill, my health was improving and I was getting better. It was comparative improvement – upgraded from ‘might die today’ – but it was still improvement. I was anticipating the “all clear” from neurology any day, and was looking forward to removing “I wonder if that brain aneurysm will explode in my head today” from my list of worries. The steroids that had wrecked my body, inside and out, were finally at a manageable dose, and the vision loss was stable. And just like that (snaps fingers in the style of “oh hell no”), in a blink, I was moving backwards.
The MD went through several scenarios and treatment options, but only gave one that was going to work for me given all the factors involved. I’m extremely grateful for the advances of science, as only eleven years ago I would have been SOL (google it, if you’re not sure). However, I would be lying if told you that I was anything less than freaked out when he first said “a series of eye injections” followed by “…no, we don’t sedate you. Just don’t blink.”
Since that day in July of 2013, I have had my eyes poked 38 more times (19 superficial shots of lidocaine, and 19 injections into the ‘eyeball’) in order to keep my vision loss controlled. Each round of treatment comes with a concerning list of complications and risks, but there is rarely any hesitation on my part. The physical process is very straightforward, predictable, and methodical: sting, swab, burn, poke, pick a spot, don’t blink, pressure, pop, rinse rinse rinse, and then burn baby burn. I usually bleed quite a bit into the white of my eye afterward, and have pulled off a great The Walking Dead zombie costume in the past. Although I am never excited about the procedure, I can honestly tell you that I have gotten used to it. Overall, its just a lot of soreness and a lot of “dude…the face…what happened?” afterward.
The psychological battle is mostly fear of the unknown and fear of pain, which is natural. I imagine that it can be compared to – although it is much higher on the ‘suck factor’ scale – getting a vaccine as a child and then as an adult. The pain stays the same, but over time we manage the fear through experience as it becomes familiar. Whatever it is that makes it ok, we learn to tolerate physical and emotional discomfort through repetitive experience. This is both a useful and dangerous protective mechanism.
At first, the thought of eye injections made me schedule appointments to follow happy hour (ok, not really), but now I find myself posing for selfies in the chair, letting my wife document with videos, and I often tell the doctor “good job…thanks” afterward. Make no mistake, it is a really crappy experience and nothing I enjoy. But I am truly amazed at how easily I got used to them. Then again, maybe it isn’t really that amazing at all.
Our daily lives are filled with things that we mindlessly look past or perform day in and day out despite moderate to severe discomfort. We lie to ourselves to make it acceptable, but under the surface we lose more of ourselves every day. We get used to the familiar discomfort, and even take measures to defend and justify our habits of self-denial and unhappiness. We were born with joy and love as our birthright, and then bury that light under busyness, routines, and temporary distractions of amusement.
It’s almost all filler
I started writing the About / Who is this Guy page today, and used the following to introduce myself: I am someone who took the time to finally understand that I am not what I do, what I did, what I have, or what others think. I am that I am. The first time I read this, I understood the words, but I had no idea what it actually meant. It took me nearly two months of knocking it around in my head, but I finally came to understand. I framed it in the opposite, listing out all the material things I have of value, all the things I do and have done – good and bad, and all the beliefs – right or wrong – that others think of me. I sat at the table with pages of writing spread out in front of me and my chest heaved.
Nothing that made me of any value was on that list. Nothing. As my holistic practitioner Jenica Mignogna beautifully told me, the only validation I need is that I was born. And here I am.
I was torn between happiness, a sense of calm, and a panicked ego that suddenly found itself no longer in the driver seat. The reality, though, is that forty years of entrenched habits, thoughts and emotions were not going to go away without a fight. My realization was just the beginning, but I was already working on the next question – if I am not those things, who am I?
I started this post with a statement, and have referenced it several times, that many of us are stuck in a pattern of living the same discomfort and ‘filler’ again and again as we drift through our existence (oh…that is why he called it Punxsutawney Filler…now I get it…) Our world provides an endless list of people, events, emotions, patterns, habits, belief systems, institutions, religions, and hundreds of others, that distract us from our pain and higher self.
Please understand that I am not saying filler doesn’t belong. It would be absurd to say this. I am referring to activities and behaviors that are used to mask reality from our consciousness. Pain, while unpleasant, is a way to get our attention. Pain sends clear messages that can tell us “get your hand off the stove,””you need to get out of this relationship,” or “that last shot of Jack was a really bad idea. Wise up, moron.” It is our misunderstanding or denial of pain, and the things we do to dull it, that gets us off track.
The scope of this blog will not allow for deep-diving into the psychology of these behaviors – which can be attributed to a wide range stretching from ‘bad habit’ to ‘please lay on the couch over there, and here is a tissue.’ There are a lot of in-depth and extremely helpful resources out there for you to explore and further learn. In the end, the best path to take is one that gets you clear headed, in touch with yourself, and willing to ask the hard questions.
Say hello to Alice
As for me, I started with some easy stuff and got honest about seemingly simple things that turned out to be not very simple at all. Why did I watch TV instead of read? Why did I hate folding laundry (still do…epic fail on the self-improvement front…)? Why can’t I be on time..and why don’t I care?
I then dug deeper. Why did I procrastinate? Why do I get carsick and have such anxiety in the passenger seat? Why did it take so long to write a blog or book? Why did I listen to music when I really want to write and record a new song? Why did I stay in that abusive relationship, and why did I allow a doormat to be put on my back?
All of it has an answer. Rarely pleasant, but always necessary. And hidden in the superficial surface of those answers is filler. The filler we use every day to get by, protect ourselves, and sustain a false sense of sanity. Our subconscious and ego are far too protective and smart to let us face painful realities – like the fact that we really can’t ride in a passenger seat because we have control issues…and we have control issues because we were robbed of control as a child or used control to navigate traumatic events…and when we sit in a passenger seat it makes us feel like that small child stuck in a bad situation and not able to make things safe. Yep…our rabbit holes go deep. But who you meet at the bottom is the most amazing person you’ll ever meet-you. Be your own Alice – it’s time to jump.
Three months ago, after four years of illness, I started an intensive personal journey to uncover every rabbit hole, find out who/what dug it, and dive in head first to make peace with it. That meant I had to be willing to see it and acknowledge it, which I believe is the necessary first step. Become self-aware of what you do or feel, and then you can start the process of why it happens. Ultimately, the fillers we misidentified as safety and security will be seen for what they are – resistance to love, light, and your authentic self.
When I finally saw things for what they were, I was able to start down a path that allowed me to let them go. I didn’t chase them away, pray them away, overcome them by force, or outsmart them like Roadrunner and Coyote. I surrendered and let them go.
And I guess I know what I need to talk about next time.
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Be that change.