May 6, 2020

The meaning of wellness

I was in Tbilisi, Georgia this summer when Goga, the personal trainer I hired, asked me to translate ‘cancer’ by typing it into an app on his phone. We had been carrying on conversations in halting English between sets and I had just jokingly told him to take it easy on me, after all, I have ‘the cancer’.  

He looked at his phone, frowned. ‘This not good word.’  

He told me to it type again, thinking I made a mistake. 

Happy for a longer break between tricep dips, I took my time, punching each letter of C-A-N-C-E-R slowly. When the Georgian word popped up, Goga was still confused.  

‘No- this word means you die.’  

His reaction is not uncommon, despite more access to information which dispels the taboo and fear around Cancer- this group of diseases involving abnormal cell growth- and despite evidence to the contrary; I’m still here. And thriving. 

But Goga’s reaction also made me think; everyone in the world has an idea of what cancer is, of what illness looks like, but what about health? I’m an emissary from that country where things don’t turn out the way you think, and I’ve not only survived but I’m thriving while living with an incurable disease. So what does wellness look like? Which category do I belong it; the well or the unwell? Am I a semi-success at wellness? 

What does wellness mean to me? 

When I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma in 2009, I was a self described ‘covert type A’ who scoffed at fevers and the concept of ‘slowing down’ and if someone had told me I needed to love myself more, I would have kicked over their quinoa bowl. But on a deeper level I knew something was wrong and longed to make drastic changes. When I was diagnosed I wrote, ‘ 

For me, it was a relief to hear what was wrong. The plasma cells in my bone marrow were rampaging, multiplying, squeezing out the red blood cells and it was time to begin doing something about it. I was also tired of being tired all the time. And you just know when something is not kosher with your body.  

I had been living a lifestyle familiar to a lot of us: we feel we are getting away with something by working post-human hours, over-stimulated and addicted to busyness- I’m so stressed, I work so hard- that it becomes a badge of honor. Look at me: I’m so bad-ass I can survive 14 hours days on coffee and still out-manouevre kids decades younger. 

My innate rebelliousness came in handy when I was handed the prognosis: Multiple Myeloma is incurable and considered fatal. I also have a visceral reaction to unsolicited advise. The amount of information and statistics flooding over me was overwhelming, so I turned inside. Fortunately I had a practice of meditation that I could draw from. Writing helped to clarify my confusion. And slowly, as my body was weakened by the treatment, my expectations began to loosen- of myself and my appearance- until I discovered those expectations were not my own, but internalized from the world.  Slowly I crossed over to the idea that the journey to wellness is journey of owning myself- instead of expecting someone else to fix me. 

Relief, I know seems a very odd reaction to being diagnosed with a serious blood cancer, but relief it was, because once I knew what was wrong, I could do something about it- mind you, all those years of ‘doing’ had been problematic too. I wrote about my diagnosis, announced it from the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival, raised money and awareness for my orphan cancer, went through a stem cell transplant and was declared in complete remission. 

But I was still busy, not with the business of healing Lisa. I was making the disease a mission- not Me.  

When I relapsed in 2012, right after my wedding, I thought: what am I missing? There’s yet another lesson, yet unlearned. I couldn’t let fear of the disease to run my life. Yes I was rattled, but I decided to get curious about what healing and wellness mean. Rather than living in the disease I chose to reframe the experience. I talked myself into overcoming. 

And while I took the medication my oncologist prescribed and readied myself for a second stem cell transplant, I also dedicated myself to healing through nutrition (Hippocrates Health Institute- three week life transformation program which meant copious amounts of wheatgrass and sprouts, but also learning about how the immune system works), Ayurveda, juicing, energy healing, cranio-sacral therapy, fasting, drum circles, acupuncture, meditation and yoga- which I had been studying when I was first diagnosed- basically anything and everything in the complementary realm I could throw myself into. 

Certainly the raw food diet helped (I’m no longer on it) natural supplements helped (I’m no longer taking all of them) the hours of meditation and visualization and yoga did its bit (I manage a few minutes a day now for meditation and my yoga practice is steady but erratic) 

Add in good habits until they start squeezing out the bad…blah blah blah. 

But today I understand wellness is not merely linked to a formula or menu of modalities or a set regime. They help, but the architecture of healing- that was all my responsibility.  

Perhaps when I was initially diagnosed, it was too early in my understanding and development to put all the pieces together. It’s taken a while to drop my perfectionist tendencies and learn to listen; to listen to my body and my bones. Embedded in our bones is divination, stories and memories. I think it’s not a mere coincidence my disease started in my marrow. Your biology is your biography and vice versa. There are many traditions which believe you don’t end at your skin and bone, and what manifests in the body, has its roots in the emotional and spiritual. 

And you know: self-knowledge can be confronting, but we must know ourselves as deeply as possible. It’s the centre of our life’s work, the unearthing; there’s never an end to it. Our most embedded stories- the ones sitting in our marrow- are our best teachers.  

As my pathology of perfection fell away, I gratefully entered my second complete remission in the spring of 2012, intending to stay healthy and wondering what wellness will look like for me now. Oh the perils of labeling, filing, placing ideas in a box, or scrolling through social media feeds! Is what wellness looks like: Lean bodies, luminous lighting, smiles for miles, gleaming piles of organic produce? 

Here’s what I learned: Wellness is a lived experience, that for me, has been understood by going to the places that terrify. Sometimes when it doesn’t feel like your fabric is going to hold, that’s when it all makes sense 

This working on yourself is a messy business.  

Cleaning out your mind, your heart and spirit should be undertaken as regularly as we clean our homes and service our cars, not only as a way to get rid of undigested food and emotions, but as a way to develop the faith in yourself and your inner compass. Clear out the crap so you can get in contact with yourself. 

The quality of your thoughts can influence outcome but maybe we need to stop defining wellness and even writing about it; we need to live it. It’s an embodied experience and my wellness will look different from yours. 

So, for instance, wellness for me means redefining success. As a born introvert I’ve pushed myself against my innate nature for so many years, making myself sick in the process. I’m sensitive, so ridding myself of toxic relationships, cutting down on socializing – listening to myself and putting my needs at the centre of my experience- that’s what works for me, though it may not work for you. So even though the industry I’ve been a part of encourages the opposite, all the bothersome stuff like what you ‘should’ do drops away when you are dealing with your mortality. In my world, dedicating myself to words, intimacy, nature, reclaiming my right to rest and scheduling in retreats, is not a luxury but a necessity, though I love them too. My love tank needs to be full. 

Committing to diverse perspectives of what wellness means and yet defending a sacred space when you find it for yourself, that’s how you begin a revolution.  When the guidance shifts from outside yourself to the small, soft boss voice inside, signaling you are an active participant in your wellness, that’s a revolution. 

The most subversive thing you can do today is to reclaim your wellness- which by the way, doesn’t always translate into a relaxed, quiet, chanting version of yourself. I’ve had to be a gangster to reclaim my health in a world that pushes you in the direction of becoming fat, sick and dead. Wellness is disruptive. 

Today I don’t think of myself as a semi-success on the health spectrum because I’m living with disease. Rather I’m a goondi of good health, the wild woman of wellness, la boss di tutti i boss of healing…a gangster, a godmother, the CEO of SLA: Save Lisa’s Ass. 

And here’s the thing: wellness doesn’t mean you will not get ill. It does not mean you will not deal with all sorts of health issues. But once you join the cool justice league of wellness vigilantes, and stop being a stranger to yourself, you will be equipped to face the challenge. Like a super heroine. Like a super soul. 

First printed in Elle magazine, September, 2018.


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