Even Nightmares Can Heal

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If you don’t believe me, ask my friend Alf. He’s easy to find; since he rarely leaves his nursing home bed. Alf had been a football star, an actor, singer, and script writer. He was a golden boy, a big man on campus. His curly blond hair, impish smile and bad boy personality got him into lots of beds.

He lived this life, pursuing success and pleasure for over twenty years, and he says he was miserable the whole time. “Why couldn’t I have my dreams? Why couldn’t the world see how great I was?”  Then he developed multiple sclerosis (MS,) and started losing his marvelous physical abilities one by one.

Alf was desperate. It took years for him to be diagnosed. He had no idea why his hands wouldn’t work or why he could no longer run. Was he imagining it, or doing it to himself somehow?  He didn’t know. He became more depressed and angry. When he finally got a name for his condition, he was able to seek help. I met him at our local support group and we became friends.

What saved him from poisonous depression was learning to accept. “I realized that I hadn’t done anything to deserve the gifts and talents I was given, and I hadn’t done anything to deserve the suffering and loss, either. I had to let go of all those unrealistic dreams and beliefs and accept myself as I was.”

Then he faced an even bigger challenge. For ten years, he had said that what he hated most was having to depend on others.  When anyone helped him, he felt like a burden. Having others take care of him infringed his freedom.  His worst fear was being forced to live in a nursing home. But his MS continued to progress, and now he is there.

Fortunately, it’s a really good facility, Laguna Honda Hospital (LHH), the public rehab hospital in San Francisco. But still, he is in bed 24 hours most days, has to be fed, diapered, washed, totally dependent on the nursing staff.  He can still write, with a speech recognition program on his computer. He plays computer scrabble, watches TV. And that’s about it.

He is living his worst nightmare, but, like Lady Li, he has found it surprisingly good. He says he’s happy and feels lucky, even blessed to be where he is. He has restarted work on his essays about life and sex. He writes ironic poetry for the residents’ newsletter.

When I come by, we do a crossword together and talk; with other visitors he watches football or converses.  He has quite a few, way more than most LHH residents, testimony to how much fun he is to be around. The nurses sometimes hang out in his room on their breaks. I know that Alf’s message of acceptance has helped many of his friends, including me.

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7 Responses to Even Nightmares Can Heal

  1. Esther Roberts says:

    One of the aspects of your articles that I value so much is the authenticity that comes through in them. When the now is filled with challenges, your stories knit together the harsh bones of today and help me look beyond to something more transcendent. Thank you so much.

  2. Will Fudeman says:

    Thanks again for writing, David.

    I’ve been treating a guy who was diagnosed with Liver cancer 8 months ago for a few weeks, and he can only afford to pay me about 1/4 of my ordinary fee, and I feel great about the time we spend together. Today he arrived with a big grin on his face- I taught him some qi gong exercises last week and he loves practicing them at home, and he feels good, better than he’s felt in awhile, and he’s enjoying his time with his wife, on the 2 days he’s still able to work, and while he’d love to beat the cancer (he’s taking some Chinese herbs that have been successful for some people), he did say that he’s been appreciating his life more since his diagnosis. He’s certainly been good for my attitude toward the frustrations and annoyances in my days…

  3. Hi David,
    Thanks so much for these great reminders.
    I had a personal experience along these lines when I decided to take care of my mother who had alzheimers. Whereas I’ve heard many people say it was giving up their life, an extreme sacrifice, for me there were so many gifts in it. My mother and I, in her early stages, discussed parts of our lives that we never would have shared if it weren’t for the alzheimers. Our relationship developed a closeness and intimacy that hadn’t been there before. Strange, but true. I watched a woman who was very depressed in her life become happy and grateful as her thoughts and mannerisms formed in a more childlike manner. Of course this was just one phase of the devastating disease and eventually she moved into blank stares and her connection to life seemed to be a thin thread. All of it, including her death, was an important part of my spiritual journey. I am so very grateful to her.

  4. Toni Gilbert says:

    Hi David, Perception is everything. It is good when we can be flexible, like your friend, and accept what fate has dealt us. Life is always worth living…you just have to find the right level of consciousness.

  5. Angelee Dion says:

    “Chuang-Tzu said we should accept as a gift everything that comes, even death. ”

    How profound to read these words the day after my father gave me and my whole family this precious gift. He did not want to “prolong the inevitable” though he could have fought and lived another month or two. He spared us and himself that suffering by letting go, surrounded by his family, just two days after he said he was ready for the exit. It was a beautiful death for which I will always be thankful.

  6. June Spero says:

    Thank you. How easy it is to forget how to be grateful for all that we are given.

  7. Belinda says:

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