Mid-treatment, I went through a very painful & trying episode of mucositis. After the second cycle of chemotherapies, tenacious ulcers began to take over my throat & tongue. Swallowing was painful; chewing excruciating.
At first, I willed my way through the discomfort. Using the tools I’d learned in prenatal yoga to breathe through pain, I managed to gulp down some high-nutrient smoothies. After a few days, however, it hurt to even talk, let alone drink anything. The doctors recommended IV hydration & pain meds. Though I am not a fan of narcotic painkillers, I succumbed after my naturopathic physician pointed out that such extreme side-effects needed to be combated with equally potent remedies. “I can give you herbs,” she said, “but that would be like trying to put out a fire with a water gun. Right now, you need a high-powered hose, & you need to eat.”
I tried various combinations of painkillers over the course of the next days, but they either didn’t work or made me vomit. The pain was debilitating. I couldn’t eat, sleep or sing. I was quickly losing morale. One night, after throwing up liquid morphine, I felt frustration & confusion rising inside me like a rushing tide. I wept as my loved ones comforted me, letting the emotions flow out of my body with my tears. Afterwards, emptied & exhausted, I silently prayed: Please help me understand what I need to learn from this experience, so I can move forward on my path.
The next day, my dear friend unexpectedly came over with a gift. I mouthed “Thank You” as she handed me a book on one of my favorite artists, Alex Grey. Excitedly, I flipped it open & almost dropped it when I saw the page it had opened to. . .
My eyes welled up as I read the prayer printed underneath the close-up of Grey’s painting, but this time the tears were saturated with gratitude. I felt my Soul was speaking to me through Shantideva’s words, reassuring me of my strength & the importance of this experience in my healing journey.
I hugged my friend, angel incarnate, as we both cried & laughed incredulously. That night I recovered my resolve. I recommitted myself to practicing patience (plus I was reminded that honey & bone broth offer surprisingly soothing relief). Before going to sleep, I opened the book again to the image of Grey’s Avalokitesvara. I studied the scene on the bottom right corner of the painting of Gautama Buddha with his disciples & the three people that sparked the Prince’s quest for enlightenment: a sick man, an old man & a dead man. The figures are miniscule next to the Great Lotus Bearer, but no less significant. After all, it was only once Prince Gautama saw dis-ease that he was inspired to help alleviate the suffering of the human world. Witnessing sickness awakened the compassionate nature of his heart.
Suddenly, the thought struck–what if I welcomed this painful experience as inspiration that might lead me to enlightenment? Maybe the mucositis was asking me to awaken my own compassionate nature. My mind reeled. “But I’m already compassionate! I care for others & wish for nothing more than their happiness & wellbeing.” I closed my eyes, deepened my breath & focused on my heart. I stayed there, making space for the lesson to show itself, until something fell into place. I realized I’d been measuring my compassion in the way I lovingly related to others, but did not easily extend that compassionate love to myself. If I were a close friend, I would’ve offered kindness & hugs. Instead, I had been so intent on trying to fix my situation & manage my pain that I had become desperate & resentful. I was ready to change that, to open my heart up to myself. That night I prayed: May I turn into all the things I may need.
Thank you, mucositis, for teaching me how to soften into self-love. Thanks to you, Universe, for nudging me ever closer to my light in that period of darkness.