Saturday, October 13, 2012

Working with all things

"A witch works with all things." -- Karina BlackHeart
This past year had brought me many places I never expected to be -- I am now teaching at a college in Victoria, BC, across a continent and a national border from the place I thought I would always call home.   I arrived here at the end of a winding journey across North America that required that I muster power and resources I never imagined I had.

But none of the events of the past year challenged my sense of who and how I am in the world more than my visit to a medical clinic in northwestern Washington in late August to have a basal cell carcinoma removed from my face.

In late October I will go back for a second procedure to (hopefully) remove the last of the cancer.

Before August, I hadn't set foot in a doctor's office for over five years.

For the first thirty three years of my life, I had depended on pharmaceuticals to manage my asthma, in the process ravaging my adrenal glands and spiking my cortisol levels.   I had dealt with doctors who made me feel ashamed of my body, throwing me into a cycle of brief attempts to bully my body into health with scattershot changes in my diet,  followed by crashes into feelings of guilt, failure, and hopelessness.   I was struggling with depression and well on my way to diabetes and heart disease and convinced there was nothing I could do to change it.

And then I met an herbalist and an herb (Elecampane) who would change my ideas of health and healing, my experience of living in my body.  Feeling the way Elecampane cleared my lungs and the grief they held allowed me to feel my body's capacity to heal and change itself with the support of a plant's living medicine. 

I grew more and more uncomfortable with pharmaceuticals manufactured through toxic processes and with approaches to medicine rooted in a mechanistic model of human biology.   And as my trust in plants and in my own body deepened, I reached a point where I felt like I needed to entirely renounce a medical system that seemed like it had only alienation and frustration to offer me. 

I was rejecting the dogma that health care is a service performed on people by doctors in favor of a belief in medicine rooted in rich relationships between people and plants and a belief in the intelligence of the vital force that animates us. 

There was power in that renunciation to be sure -- it sharpened and deepened my dedication to the Craft that I was beginning to recognize as my calling.

But in time it hardened into a personal dogma.

It was the mirror image of the mindset I was rebelling against -- and it was flawed in exactly the same ways.  I was rightly angry at the refusal of so many in the medical system to acknowledge the value of any approach to healing that was outside their own realm of experience and expertise.   But I was imitating that same closed mindedness by insisting that there was nothing worthwhile for me to find within the realm of conventional medicine.

And like any dogma, it stopped me from thinking and feeling and questioning in crucial ways.

And for the better part of a year and half it kept me from addressing my skin cancer.    I explained it away with partial truths.   I told myself that it was going away when, in fact, it was growing.    But, finally, I was forced to admit that it was a cancer and that it needed to be cut away.   And that I needed a doctor to do that.

When someone I love and trust finally pushed me to see what I was refusing to see, I was lucky to find a doctor willing and able to quickly schedule surgery for me, an uninsured patient with no primary care physician.   Smart, compassionate, and skilled, he got most of the cancer on the first attempt.   And when the lab work came back showing that the margins weren't clear, he was quick to contact me and help me figure out the next steps.  I was lucky that way.

In the end, my medical care will cost me roughly what I usually make in two months of teaching and seeing clients -- a lot more than I can afford to pay, but far better than the medical bills many people in the U.S. are dealing with.

In some ways, the process has reinforced my critique of the medical system in the U.S.

At no point in the process has there been any discussion of why I have this cancer, what other problems it may point to, or what I can do to prevent its recurrence -- all of that is outside the scope and purview of the treatment generally offered to people going to doctors for basal cell carcinoma.  Conventional medicine tends to view this kind of carcinoma as a discrete event.  To be sure, thankfully, it is not life threatening and this kind of cancer is not known to metastasise.   But its also clear to me that no health problem, let alone any cancer, exists in a vacuum.   And to contextualize what is happening, and develop strategies to keep moving my body toward health, I will have to look outside conventional medicine.

But its also clear to me that I need this doctor's knowledge and surgical skill to "remove the obstacle to cure" by cutting away the cancerous cells.   My body can better heal itself, with the support of plants, once it no longer has to deal with the carcinoma.

Matthew Wood writes that

"Whatever people say they believe in terms of spirituality and religion, what they do when they are sick and in need reveals the true basis of their belief system."

I would say that what this brush with cancer has revealed for me is that I believe in working with all things -- with my own knowledge, with my body's own intelligence, with my beloved healing plants, and with other people, herbalists and doctors, licensed and unlicensed, who can see things I can't see from inside myself, and in some cases do things I can't do -- like performing surgery.