Column, Funologist

The back story: Quitting 1,000 times and un-quitting 1,001

By Sandra Dee Owens 

When I was 25 I lost my health.

I had no health insurance and was turned down for disability.

While that news felt devastating at the time, I now view this as the greatest gift my health could have received.

In chronic pain due to a degenerating spinal condition (scoliosis) and a series of challenging living situations, physical and emotional strain took their toll on my health and sent me spiraling into unwellness in mind, body and spirit.

By Sandra Dee Owens
“Riding the spine of the Green Mountains”

Early in our marriage and eight months pregnant with our second child, my husband and I and our 2-year-old daughter became homeless when our apartment building sold and our rent doubled.

Giving away most of our belongings, we secretly stashed the remaining possessions in the dirt cellar of the apartment building, hoping someday we could return for them.

Then we bought a tent … and moved outdoors.

Days before our second daughter was born, we moved into a mobile home until buying a small piece of land with a burnt-down house on it a couple of years later.

We moved our young family into the surviving garage, thrilled to finally own property.

There was no running water in the small, older garage, that we lived in for eight and a half years.

Due to chronic back pain, I was unable to sit and make jewelry for our fledgling jewelry business or drive to craft shows that made up the bulk of our income.

I spent years and money we could not afford to part with seeking every kind of medical solution. I was told to prepare to be wheelchair-bound by 40. Finally, deeply discouraged and unable to work and in constant pain, I applied for disability.

A few months later, I sat on my stairs crying hard and staring in shock at the disability refusal letter.

I felt so trapped and optionless that I had put all my hope on being considered disabled.

Whine or try

Unable to imagine living another 30 years as I was, I clutched the rejection notice and crawled off the stairs, sniffling and whimpering in pain to the rug on the floor.

Slowly, I began to stretch my back until it hurt, then retreated to the couch, where I whined internally about how terrible and unfair everything was.

For five minutes.

Then I made myself crawl back to the floor and move my stiff and pain-filled body until the pain became unbearable again.

But this time, instead of retreating to the couch, I stopped and told myself to not retreat to the couch yet. And suddenly, in my mind’s eye, a bullseye appeared.

Focusing on the center of that bullseye, I held my breath and pressed my hurting body toward its bright red center very slowly.

Then I crawled back to the couch, to rest and whine. For 5 minutes.

I realized that when I was on the floor, focused and trying, I was not whining. And when I was whining, I was not trying. It was encouraging to have a choice. When I have a choice, that means I am not optionless.

For the next few days, I repeated this routine and began to notice the slightest improvement in mobility. I was timidly encouraged!

But the day after that, I bent over to pick up a shirt from the laundry basket and my back turned to stone. My husband carefully stuffed me in the back of our station wagon and off to the emergency room we went … again.

After weeks of tiny improvements, followed by crushing setbacks, I desperately wanted to be better. Relentless anxiety discouraged me and I often thought, “I can’t do this, I quit.”

But every time I quit, I later un-quit.

One summer day, during a prolonged setback and weeks of lying on the couch, I went outside and saw the kid’s Strawberry Shortcake bicycle lying on the grass.

By Sandra Dee Owens
“Driver’s seat”

And suddenly, I desperately needed to coast.

Unable to bend over and pick it up, I hooked one toe under the banana seat, lifting it enough to slide under me.

Just sitting on it felt encouraging, and staring down our driveway, I summoned all my courage and let the wheels roll.

Unable to pedal, I dragged my feet and let the bike coast down the driveway but before I reached the bottom, fear — that ever-present, invisible gremlin — started screeching in my ear: “Stop! What are you doing? How are you going to get back? What if you can’t walk home, you can’t even pedal! … There is danger in the unknown, stop!!”

But I didn’t want to stop, I hated my unwellness and did not want to live my shrinking life any longer.

I coasted on. At the top of the next hill, I could see the stop sign and intersection ahead. I had a decision to make.

I could continue coasting downhill to the intersection, drag my feet to stop the bike, ditch it and painfully walk home.

Or, I could go through the intersection.

The battle in my head raged. The farther from home I coasted, the louder my fear screamed its warnings of doom. But the farther I coasted, the freer I felt.

I knew I had to choose. My body and mind were weak and terrified but my soul was dying. I needed to rescue myself. 

Coasting to the stop sign, I turned the handlebars, went through the intersection, and rolled away from home and sick.

And suddenly the fear quieted.

And my soul soared.

I began to cry, feeling my blood hum with the electricity of adventure.

It was something I had not felt for a very long time.

I did not think about the pain, as it was not the boss of me, anymore. I was in the driver’s seat now — and it was a banana seat!

I directed my focus on the beautiful buzz of confidence I felt. I had gone to battle with fear and won.

Slowly, I willed myself to pedal and though the pain brought tears, I was too excited to care. I pedaled one mile that day, then slowly walked the bike home, feeling triumphantly sore.

The last day

My “intersection day” was the last day of feeling optionless, and desperate. It was also the last day I expected someone else to fix me. I left that mindset at the intersection.

Over time, I mindfully shifted my relationship with discomfort and pain, seeing them as walls to climb over versus obstacles that stop me.

One year later, on my 30th birthday, I drove into the mountains and rode my new bicycle 50 miles north, then 50 miles back. It was my first “Century Ride.”

Celebrating my glorious health riding up and down the spine of the Green Mountains, I pondered that I had never truly been optionless.

I had possessed all the tools I needed for wellness—within me. And I began using those tools the day I left “sick” at the intersection. 

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