Recently I had a visit from a friend. Her life has been all over the place (literally, all over the country) for some time now, so I was glad to have a chance to sit down with her and hear what she's been up to. It turns out that, in addition to everything else, she has tinnitis - a condition (of various and sometimes unknown cause - that strike a chord with anyone?) that entails constantly-ringing ears. Including at night, so she can't sleep - the most sleep she's gotten in at least a year is four hours in a night.
She went through a battery of tests to figure out what the cause was. (The last doctor in a long series gave her a "We think that it might have been caused by . . . which could perhaps have come about as a result of . . . and may resolve itself eventually I think, but there's no telling when . . . ." And that was the guy with a clue. Can't imagine anyone else has had an experience like that!) During that time, the folks at the VA (she's a military veteran) put her through a battery of services based on every imaginable theory of the cause. Apparently (and I think this is pretty cool), the VA has "classes" for various issues - apparently some kind of cross between lecture/information presentation and group therapy. It's not the same as psychiatric treatment and certainly not medical treatment. But honestly, isn't this something so many people could use, in so many areas of life? (Is this sort of like what Resolve does? I don't subscribe to all of their ideas, and I've not been to a meeting, but I think it's great that they offer what they do.)
Anyway, they put her in a class for people with mental disorders (perhaps the ringing was all in her head), and in another one for people with PTSD. (She said that it was traumatic just listening to what the other participants - mostly women - had been through, but when they came to her, she could only say, "No, nothing like that. Never felt inclined to barricade myself in my home. It's just that my ears are ringing - I've been trying to tell you!")
Finally, they put her in a class for people with chronic pain. She was skeptical of that one, too. The instructor, a man, told the participants to write down their life's major goals in a few words - something at the level of breadth that one would want on one's tombstone. (So, not "bake twelve dozen cookies by Christmas," but "spend as much time as I can with the people I love." You get the idea.) After the participants thought about and discussed their goals, the instructor asked them to think about and write down what they could do to move in the direction of that goal.
My friend's response: "I can't move in the direction of my goals, because I have this ringing in my ears, so I can't sleep, so I can't remember anything, so I CAN'T FIND MY CAR!"
She was kidding, of course. Obviously she has a literal problem moving forward, but he was trying to get the people with chronic pain (and chronic ringing) to think in a new way. For one thing, they spent all their time thinking about exactly one thing: the pain, and how they could get it to stop. All their mental energy was devoted to solving one problem, the problem they defined as an obstacle to every other good thing in life. Eventually, life reduced itself to simply a battle with the pain.
(I want to note here that I don't mean to belittle the debilitating effects of chronic pain. I suffer it sometimes, with the endo. But I know there are much worse forms. And I think it will become clear that I identify with this problem.)
The instructor asked the class to stop defining their lives in terms of the pain they suffered, and the things that they (as a result) could not do. The ordinary daily chores that they would have done but for the pain, the project they would have finished (or started) but for the pain, everything about the pain and what it meant they couldn't do. And to take a step further back - so, the stay-at-home mom who's a brilliant cook and wants nothing more than to host a big Thanksgiving dinner for her whole family: an attainable goal, even a humble goal - but for the pain that makes her so exhausted she could never do all the cleaning and cooking necessary for such an undertaking. She needs to let go of hosting Thanksgiving dinner (and oh, what a letting go that would be). And accept that she may have to order rotisserie chickens, or let someone else cook the food, or even have the dinner at someone else's house, because - her fundamental personal goals are not to show off how well she can baste a turkey, but to build community for the family she loves. She can do that from the sofa. She doesn't want to. But she can. And if she chooses to create community from the sofa, she can achieve the most important things to her in life, in spite of the pain. If she never lets go of cooking the Thanksgiving meal, she will achieve nothing. In that case, she lets the pain define her life, instead of deciding herself what she wants her life to mean.
Annoyance at losing her car aside, my friend signed onto this fellow's theory. Though she's not in pain, she found it applied to her life as well. And, she said, when she decided to proceed with living her life - not spend all her time praying novenas and seeing doctors in hopes that the ear-ringing would stop, but going and doing the other things she would have wanted to do if her ears hadn't been ringing (even if that means a less ambitious to-do list to account for the fact that she is always tired) - she didn't notice the ringing so much. It didn't go away. It didn't get quieter. But it didn't bother her as much as when she spent all her mental energy fighting it.
I was blown away by all of this. Technically, I suppose, nothing the fellow said was earth-shattering. It's all sensible and logical and consistent with what I already think about the living of a meaningful life and the carrying of crosses and all of that. But he wrapped it all up in one neat little meaningful package - a package of brilliance and wisdom that I need engraved on my eyelids so that I never forget it.
I'm happy to say that these are things that (in a fragmented way, not in the wise and far-seeing way he presented it) I had actually already started thinking about. In the last few years of fertility treatment, I started trying to sort out my muddled head by asking myself questions like, "What is it you really want? And why?" It was much too easy, of course, to reflexively answer the first question with something like, "A baby," or "To be able to [!] get pregnant," or "Not to be infertile," and the second question with, "BECAUSE." But even then I knew that that was not an answer.
At some point I started coming to clarity that what I wanted was a family. I had never wanted a baby anyway - I wanted maybe a dozen. I always balked at the idea of having one baby as winning in the IF wars. (I am not criticizing mothers of only children. I hope it's clear that my point was sorting out my goals.) And finally it hit me that I didn't care whether I had a baby - or multiple babies - at all, though I had let myself become confused into thinking that was what I wanted. I wanted a family; adults would be fine. And they didn't have to be related to me. Indeed, people all over the land have realized, long before me, that a loving and genuine community is a blessing, and it needn't consist of a mom, a dad, and their ___ children, plus one dog, one cat, two SUVs, and a white picket fence. Deep in the throes of infertility treatment and repeated failures and depression and desperation and misery, we believe that's what a family is, and, indeed, what a family has always been. Not to knock picket fences (I love them), but even within the Christian tradition, "family" looks like that for a minority of people in a minority of places for just the smallest little bit of history. Indeed, throughout human history, family looks like almost everything else. It's the people who need you and whom you need now, today, where you are, whether they need a shoulder to cry on or a plate of hot food or someone with whom to share life's joys. Or whether you need any or all of those things. You will. We all will. And if you have small children, then those people are definitely your family, because they need you and they can't fend for themselves. That's an obvious one, but we can't get mentally lazy and stop there.
So for me, the goal is clear: be part of a loving family. (Wow. I've never made it that succinct until this minute. And put like that, I know I have every reason in the world to have that goal - because I had a broken ugly dysfunctional family growing up. There's lots of things I'd like to do, and probably many of them I will accomplish; but this one is the essential.) And I have the chronic illness (infertility), and the classic reflexive response: I can't move toward my goal, because the obvious concrete step is to have a baby, and then after that another baby, and this illness is preventing me. And the response of this instructor is so elegant: what can you do, starting from where you are, to move toward your goal? Things you can do. I can't have a baby. But there are about a thousand things I can do. Over the last few years, I've started to look around the edges of the infertility and go about doing them.
I need to stop asking myself what I can't do because of the infertility (well, we all know what that is), and even what I can do in spite of the infertility, and move on into - what can I do? Maybe this blog shouldn't be "just being infertile," but "just being while infertile."