By Ann McGee-Cooper
When I married my beloved Larry Cooper in June of 1980 I had zero awareness of self care; zero awareness of the importance of daily choices and how these linked to personal wellness. The only self care I was doing was brushing my teeth and taking a bath…and maybe an annual physical if I remembered, and if not I’d just wait until I was sick to go see my doctor. I had just had a hysterectomy so I was meeting with my Ob. Gyn. But I didn’t even know that depression is a predictable symptom following a hysterectomy so I didn’t share this data with my doctor. I’m certain that he asked, “So how are you feeling?” And I’m sure I answered, “Just fine.” I would have been embarrassed to tell him that I was struggling emotionally. I was eager to please my doctor and always expected to be in perfect health in spite of the fact that I was doing little to contribute to perfect health. And besides, I had just married the man of my dreams so why wouldn’t I be marvelously happy and feeling great?
I was fortunate to have a pretty savvy physician, Dr. Maynard Todd. He came to my first appointment with a stack of newspaper clippings about my work. I remember him asking about my very demanding schedule and suggesting that I was burning the candle at both ends and perhaps that was contributing to some of the serious health issues that I was experiencing. These included toxic shock syndrome, passing out, terrible debilitating migraine headaches, frequent sinus infections, sinusitis, life-threatening allergies to wasp stings and poison ivy, rheumatoid arthritis, to name a few.
Now that I have learned systems thinking I can draw a systems loop reflecting the vicious cycle of my health patterns going from bad to worse.
Here is a profile of my life style in 1980. I was Miss Junk Food! Overweight and always on a diet. Yo-yoing back and forth I might add. I would always gain weight when I went on a diet to lose weight and only lost weight when I got sick, throwing up and having diarrhea (which I welcomed because finally I was losing weight!) My creative solution was to keep clothes in my closet sizes 12, 14, and 16. Rarely could I squeeze into a size 12 unless it was a full skirt with elastic waist but I kept hoping.
And then I fell in love with my dentist, Dr. Larry Cooper. What began as a visit to support Larry after his wife died suddenly, (leaving him with two teen-agers) led unexpectedly to a wonderful romance which surprised both of us. We were good friends glad to be able to help each other; I had a frozen shoulder which he helped me learn to stretch back into full flexibility and he had responsibility for a son and daughter, both deeply traumatized by the loss of their mother. So now we had a new challenge. We were deeply in love yet society frowns of a widower falling in love “too soon”.
OPENING A DOOR TO NEW AWARENESS
As we quietly enjoyed a year of learning from each other, Larry took me to a Dental Mid-Winter Meeting in which there were fascinating seminars on wellness. We heard Covert Bailey talk about “Fit or Fat”; and Nathan Pritikin talking about the link between diet and wellness. There were seminars on juicing and the importance of regular aerobic exercise. We discovered a shared interest in learning daily habits that would improve wellness and had fun learning to prepare healthy meals. We both eagerly became vegetarian and Larry had a big request of me. After he had proposed (or maybe even before) he asked if I would make a promise agreeing NOT to bring junk food into the home. His thought was once it was there it was very difficult to resist. But if there were only healthy choices and plenty of them; fresh organic fruits, vegetables, whole grained bread, etc. we wouldn’t fall victim to poor food choices.
Well, I have to admit that I struggled a bit learning to stick with my promise, but I knew down deep that I would be well served by making sure there were no soft drinks, ice cream, candy, cookies, potato chips – all the empty calories that load up our bodies with too much salt, fat, sugar and processed food. So I gladly made that promise and week by week, learned to keep it.
The next big step for me was to discover the many gifts of daily aerobic exercise. Larry always jogged in the early mornings and after we married he invited me to join him. I was not a runner but I could walk briskly and he would jog in loops to stay in range. At first I turned him down, preferring to sleep in instead. But then I began to realize that I was not only missing out on a special time with my new husband but also missing a very special part of each day. When I did join him in a long walk at 6:00 AM, I discovered that I had more energy and got more done throughout the day than when I stayed in bed. Within a few months I was enjoying our daily walks and it became a gift I gave myself each morning. On reflection I realize that it was very important that Larry never shamed me or used guilt to coerce me to walk. He would simply invite me now and then…and continue to enjoy his daily routine.
You can see from the second insert below, some of the many ways we have learned to enhance our wellness. Each was added through the years as we were introduced to new information through friends or reading. For example, a family whose children had been my students at SMU introduced me to John Robbin’s research and books, Diet for a New America and May All Be Fed (which provides great vegan recipes that are easy and delicious). I had never heard of eating vegan and couldn’t imagine how a person could be truly healthy by eating lower on the food chain (omitting animal products). For four days I enjoyed vegan meals in their home, read both books and decided to see how my body would react to a vegan diet. The real motivation that convinced me to make this change was learning that if a person eats lower on the food chain or a vegan diet, 16 people can be fed from the same food resources it takes to feed one person who eats an animal-based diet. Earlier in my life when I traveled in third world countries and saw many people literally starving to death and mothers with no hope of being able to nurse or feed their children, my heart went out to them. How could I possibly help? So when I learned that three times a day, simply by making vegan choices for each meal, fifteen other people on the planet could be fed, this realization awakened my deep commitment to be part of the solution to world hunger rather than part of the problem.
Now here is the great surprise that came next. I was deeply committed to my new way of eating and began to enjoy a purely vegan diet. I knew from the research that it was better for my bone strength, my heart, preventing osteoporosis, diabetes and other chronic illnesses. But I was surprised to discover that I never again suffered from headaches when up until that time I had frequent severe migraine and sinus headaches. My allergies all disappeared as did my chronic sinus infections. And symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis disappeared and only return if I again eat animal products in my diet. Four huge health problems simply disappeared as a result in this change in what I ate. I was delighted!
I haven’t mentioned my weight. As soon as I began to enjoy a vegetarian diet and daily aerobic exercise, which is typically a daily morning walk of almost a mile , I lost the twenty pounds of excess fat I had struggled so long to shed and have maintained a healthy weight and began wearing size 8 (instead of size 16).
Larry Joined me in my daily yoga classes about eight years ago when he learned that Tiger Woods practiced yoga to add length to his golf drives. Larry immediately became dedicated to daily yoga and we both continue to benefit. His posture improved remarkably and his legs, bowed from childhood, have become much straighter.
THE REST OF THE STORY
Fast forward thirty two years and you will see “the rest of the story”.
I have attached my list of self care, (see below), not as a recommendation but rather to share some of the amazing discoveries, each of which have enhanced my wellness in some way.
JOURNEY BACK TO WELLNESS: HEALING FROM BREAST CANCER
I should mention that two years ago early Spring I could feel a pain in my left breast which was diagnosed as a malignant tumor. I went through a wide range of integrated treatments including a mastectomy, four rounds of chemotherapy, 33 rounds of radiation as well as Complimentary Therapy including Ayurveda, Acupuncture, Healing Touch and others. I was extremely fortunate to already have a life style that was 95% what was prescribed to strengthen my immune system, starve the cancer cells of sugar and carbohydrates and give my body the optimum setting for complete healing. It was not only not hard to add the few other habits recommended (such as getting 9 hours of sleep each night), I could tell that it was benefitting my overall emotional, intellectual and spiritual transformation. In other words, cancer was a teacher who brought many significant gifts.
Some people responded to news of my diagnosis with, “Well if you can get cancer after all the many ways you practice wellness, then I give up! What even try?”
My answer is that my twenty plus years of enjoying learning better nutrition and the importance of daily exercise and stress reduction practices most likely delayed my cancer by a decade or two and most likely were responsible to some extent for the extremely low number and intensity of harmful side effects. Also, I have enjoyed abundant energy, optimum body weight and significant slowing of aging, all of which are big advantages. And I learned as early as 1990 that I could avoid migraine headaches, sinus headaches and allergies, and keep my rheumatoid arthritis in remission simple by managing my diet. All these have been huge benefits and wonderful reminders the few times I strayed back into old habits.
As all my medical team noted, it is far easier to prevent illness than to wait for a crisis and then try to make huge changes in life style. Besides, I have learned that most if not all my poor self-care habits were coping mechanisms for a life badly out of balance. Learning to create a highly nurturing life style erases the craving for junk food and a sedentary life style. I deeply enjoy all the habits of self-care that now bless me with high quality energy, refreshing and regular sleep and a very low stress level. The biggest gain has been learning to tell myself highly positive stories about what is happening in my life. For example, “I get to enjoy my work.” “I get to pay taxes and my fair share for the many benefits of living in this nation.” No matter what crisis hits, I have learned to stay calm and get curious. How can this new problem become an opportunity and ultimately, a teacher/blessing?
The concept of self care began for me just a few weeks ago when Bethlyn Gerard, my gifted therapist in Healing Touch and Energy Healing, encouraged me to chart out my practices of self care. I had mentioned that I give myself the gift of a facial each month and she noted that after knowing me as a Client for over a year and our many conversations on wellness, she had never heard me mention frequent facials. She wondered if there might be other aspects of my wellness disciplines that she might not know of. I was hesitant at first but I have great trust in Bethlyn and began making a list of daily, weekly, monthly, annual and other self care.
I was stunned by what I learned. At first I felt ill at ease as I discovered just how many practices I had. It was as if I couldn’t make up my mind. And then I realized that I had a lovely network of many forms of wellness blessing me with a strong, vibrant, healthy self.
I am not advocating all the habits of self care that I now enjoy. I believe each person has to decide for themselves what benefits them the most and how they might want to enhance their wellness. What I do encourage is the curiosity to learn more about wellness and find those habits which bring refreshing wellness and extraordinary quality of life. For example, it might be something as simple as choosing to drink 6 to 8 glasses of water daily which increases energy, flexibility and mental clarity. I learned how I could change the structure and energy within water from the research of Dr. Masaru Emoto (an internationally renowned Japanese researcher) in his book, The Miracle of Water. When I learned that positive words such as peace, love and healing when placed under a pitcher of water literally changed the crystalline structure of water within 24 hours, I began to wonder what it might do for my body. And now daily, with this practice, I enhance the energy in the pure water I drink.
I began to listen to my thoughts, self talk and what I was saying to others. By learning to replace toxic language with nurturing language I have significantly increased my energy and also my relationships with others. For example, instead of telling myself, “You have to drink more water!” I say, “Please enjoy this glass of water and notice how you feel as a result.” Or, “I am giving myself the gift of a refreshing walk to increase my metabolism, strengthen my heart and enjoy fresh air and sunshine.” You can quickly see how this is far more energizing than shaming myself into healthy habits. Coercing myself only creates resistance whereas genuine invitations focusing on the many benefits create a rewarding emotional response to these many disciplines which reward me with a stronger immune system, including body, mind and spirit.
I see this article mostly as a baseline: here is where I started so believe me if I can start, I hope you feel encouraged that you too could make some small manageable choices toward your own health BEFORE a crisis comes calling AND even if you do play the odds hoping your lifestyle number doesn’t come up to collect consequences on your health choices, it is never too late to start making corrections. The body is eager to move toward LIFE and appreciates every obstacle we are able to remove from the path.
I hope you feel inspired and encouraged to join me by giving yourself permission to enjoy the many gifts of enhanced wellness as a result of whatever self care you decide to adopt. Perhaps the concept of self care is as new to you as it was to me only a few weeks ago. I sense that women have less permission to care for our self. I know that most of my life has been focused on feeling responsible for caring for all those around me. But now I understand that I can’t truly give to others what I have not claimed for myself. My friend, Larry Dossey, M.D., suggests in his research and writing that illness can be contagious, but perhaps, so can wellness. If so, I invite you to join me in expanding the circles of wellness by becoming an inspiring role model and give yourself the gift of abundant energy, a robust immune system and have some fun slowing down the aging process.