My stranger, myself

I have been a cruel stranger to my body for a very long time now, and these past few weeks have taught me that wretched and shameful fact. Just this week, I have learned a lot about myself, both mentally and physically, and more importantly, I have learned that these physical ailments I have been a hostage to since 2009 were my own outcries.  The blood work came back from the lab and I saw my doctor the other day to discuss the results and they weren’t good. There a number of red flags, banners belonging to each house of illness waving across the battlefield of my body. To name a few, they discovered severe inflammation, bacterial infections, viral and fungal infections raging inside my G.I. tract like a storm of infectious doom.  Not only is my stomach and digestive system in free fall, but my thyroid has decided to stop working on me. While this may not be an issue yet since I am still young, it will be within ten years and there is no time like the present to begin healing.

Sitting there with my doctor, as he ran down the list of big fancy medical words that struck fear into my heart with each complex pronunciation, I began to become aware that all of those episodes of pain, nausea, ongoing headaches, fatigue etc. was my body begging for my help and love, yet all I had been doing up to this point was muffling these cries for help with antibiotics, Advil and any other forms of medication that might treat the symptoms yet no the cause. Lets face it, we all prefer to do the adult thing and ignore or run away from any problem.

I came face to face with not only my physical complaints, but my mental. In a way dealing with the physical is easier, you combat the root of the cause and stick to the regiment. With the mental afflictions however, you are lancing boils of emotional pain surrounded by years of dysfunctional scar tissue and doubt.  Another sentinel of health I am working with is a wonderful nutritionist and life-coach.  Walking into her room, I felt a surge of emotion and was already on the brink of tears. It had been an exceptionally difficult week, and as my dear friend had pointed out to me after I told her of my sudden explosion of tears, the body and mind remember each doctor’s appointment. And since I am no stranger to doctor’s offices and receiving frustrating news of , “well we just don’t know what is wrong but take these it’ll help for now.”  Her office was not an office.  It was an oasis. A sanctuary from life and all its troubles.  The room was awash with a warm glowing light pouring from a fountain head of a pink Himalayan salt lamp.  Out poured a stream of healing radiance and I gladly bathed myself in its brilliance.  I sat there across from her, two strangers in a safe spot nestled away from the world, and she gently coached me through opening up to myself after all these years and acknowledging each and every emotion inhabiting my body.

“They are guests, Laila” she told me in her soothing voice, “say hello to each of your guests.”  Reluctantly I closed my eyes raw with tears and looked within.  I pictured myself walking to each room of complaint and pain and opened the doors slowly to meet the guest.  The first door was the door of fear that dwelled deep within my heart.  Upon entering this room I was confronted by a shapeless dark ominous creature.  Here it was, the monster that weighed heavy on my heart and latched itself onto every thought or emotion I have felt or had, and now I must come face to face and treat it like a friend.  I looked at it and we locked eyes in my vision, and suddenly this creature transformed itself into me at two-years old. My two year old self was also crying and threw her arms up to me, asking to be held, loved and felt. I picked up my little delicate self and held her close and the fear was melted away into a softened understanding.

I walked through each hall and entered each room of anxiety, overwhelming doubt and sadness and recognized each specter who soon became friend.  In that room of pink and gold I found peace with myself, a person who I have long ignored and dismissed. I truly regret this time lost with ‘me’ but I now have this knowledge and new-found respect for what my body and mind needs. Be gentle with yourself, those painful pangs you may feel could be the forgotten you just wishing to be picked up and held.

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Behold the 1,000 piece puzzle to life!

The texas sunshine was pouring in behind him through his window, and I could see the steady sway of trees gingerly playing with the fall breeze just outside.  He sat before me as if no time had passed when he was my undergraduate advisor for Global Studies at St.Edward’s many years ago.  It smelled of coffee and aged pages, and the walls of his office were lined with an army of books, atlases and manuals on mapping and cartography collected from all over the world, stood as sentinels of knowledge keeping guard.

I was there to seek guidance as I had so many times during my undergraduate studies, although this meeting was not about which class I should take next semester, I was in dire need of his wisdom.  Upon his academic throne he sat, and I his pupil, across the sea of his desk, which was cluttered and awash with rolling waves of reports and files.  As we completed the ritual of small talk, I finally brought up the reason as to why I arranged this meeting.  “I am lost,” I told him desperately, “lost in a dark room feeling around blindly hoping to grasp something solid and finite to answer the age old question, ‘what is my purpose?'”  He smiled his kind smile I know so well and told me, “hey I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up!” While comforting, it was not the answer I expected.  Wouldn’t a professor who has lived lifetimes have a good idea of what they wanted? Wouldn’t they have gotten all the answers and pieces to the puzzle by now? He shook his head and chuckled at my inquisitive look explaining that no one really has an idea of what they want to be or what their true purpose is.

Moving forward, we waded through the muddied and polluted waters of my anxieties and fears.  This bog of fret was a dangerous place where I frequently stewed and tried desperately not to drown in.  My professor threw me a lifeline and dragged me from the cesspools of my troubles to the shores of relief, and from there, we spoke of my strengths and passions. Maybe I still don’t have the answers, but meeting with my former councilor and teacher provided me with some solace and direction, and the pools of my mind began to clear.

I slowly realized during our talk that I will not see the big picture all at once.  Life is giving me one puzzle piece at a time along my way, and as I collect more of them, I piece this grand mural together, a glimpse of love here, a spot of experience there.  Fairly soon I hope to collect more until the puzzle is completed and I finally find the answer.

It began at the sound of the Qigong

Today was my first class of the ancient Chinese practice of Qigong. This system focuses on meditation, physical postures and stances, and absorbing and adorning yourself with vital energy and nature’s life force by striking the body and visualizing a glowing ball of energy in your lower abdomen.  This is but the tip of the iceberg of what this practice entails and I have only started.

When I first entered the classroom I was warmly welcomed by smiling faces including my sister Alia’s. Speaking of a glowing ball of light, that woman emits her own beams of sunlight and I love basking in her luminous glow.  She has been practicing Qigong for about a year I believe and I have seen drastic changes in her persona.  We lived together for some time and I consider her to be one of the closest and most influential people in my life.  I have without a doubt, seen a transformation in my sister and this was one of the first lessons of Qigong.

We all sat in a circle and prepared for meditation.  Fortunately I have been using the Headspace app and was therefore not too perturbed by this part.  The instructor gently walked us through visualizations of nature and told us to call upon its vitality by imagining ourselves walking through a pine forest. And so I did just that, I projected myself away from this world of fear and anxiety that I live in to a place where nature is alive and well. Where trees stand tall and the air is clean and fresh and where nothing I am afraid of can follow or hunt me. A haven of greenery. An oasis of love.

After ten minutes of mediation and strolling through the woods, my mother and I, being neophytes to this world of Qigong, were instructed in the ways of casting a net to capture the universe’s energy.  Like a fisherman of cosmic energy I imagined my net being thrown into the ocean of life and catching balls of light and reeling them in to be consumed in order to empower me.  We did this nine times and then proceeded to rub an oil on our stomach 36 times clockwise and then counter clockwise.

Then came the bizarre part the practice.  People began striking themselves in certain parts of their abdomen and I could not help but watch in curious amazement.  Their skin began to redden and flush as they struck themselves with either their hands or tools such as sticks.   Some had bruises adorned on their arms and back from what I can only guess was from former Qigong classes. This is what it is all about apparently, putting the body under the correct and healthy type of stress in order for it to grow and prosper. Just like muscle tissue tears and regenerates from lifting dumbbells and weights, striking yourself allows the body to adapt and grow, I get it.  I have always been a fan of the unorthodox and I did not find it challenging to keep an open mind.  I wish to open the trapped pools of Chi that seem to be blocked within my body and plan to therefore continue this practice and invite it to lift me up out of this dark fog of sadness I am trapped in.

I am Atlas of worries

While Atlas carries the weight of the world and heavens on his shoulders, I am bent to the burdens of my own world which sit heavily upon my back, and with each passing day they grow heavier and heavier. The crushing weight of my lugubrious fears keeps me a slave, shackled in place as I struggle to shoulder the heaving sphere of melancholy.  Like Atlas, I am on bended knee, a hostage to my darkened thoughts that consume me both within and without.  I simply wish to escape this prison of my own making and stand free as I watch my world of worries roll away out of sight.  Time and time again, I attempt to rise up against the burden, yet fear debilitates me and I stay where I am, a broken sickly soul.

Chained in doubt and kept in a cage, the only window in this prison I am held in is writing.  It lets in a soft breeze of relief and hope form time to time, and at night I can even catch a glimpse of the stars and moon cast across a darkened blue canvas.  My master is myself, and she wields the whip that keeps me from escape. I am the cure and I am the cause.

The beginning of the end

The sound of rain is gently tapping at my window, awakening me from a rare moment of deep slumber and for a sleepy second I forget where I am.   This cannot be my beloved Bahrain where rain is an rare visitor. As sleep escapes, slowly draining away form my mind and I realize I am back in Austin.

I arrived in Austin, Texas just last week for a medical crusade, both body and mind. Since 2009, my body has played host to many ailments that range from symptoms such as bladder infections and frequent stomach aches. This year, my tolerance for these pestilent pestering plagues has reached an apex of frustration and decided enough was enough.

Before I had initially moved back to Bahrain in 2014 after completing grad school, I had seen a couple of doctors in the States who attempted to treat my symptoms like any other conventional medical practitioner– by throwing medication at the problem and not really looking for the root of the problem.  Nothing seemed to work and I did what any adult would have done, I ignored the problems.

At first I could handle the symptoms and would simply self medicate, mimicing the dosage and prescriptions the doctors in the States had prescribed, after all, medication is accessible in Bahrain and you do not need a prescription like you do in the United States. However after staring my job in the fall of 2014 my ailments began to become even more aggravated.  With the added load of stress, my will to swallow my pain and shoulder the burden of sickness began to weigh down heavy on my mental and physical well being.

I sought help from doctors in both Bahrain and Jeddah who unfortunately could not help me either and actually made the situation worse by pumping my body full of antibiotics, sometimes two types at a time.  Everyday I felt more fatigued and aggravated and felt as if half of me had drained away. My body had been hijacked by unseen hosts and after a year of feeling like half a person I relented and made the decision to venture back the United States to fight the holy war for myself both body and mind. For this six year endeavor has been one of utter failures and disappointments and I fear that if I continue down the path of conventional medicine and persist in poisoning my body with antibiotics, antifungals, then I will soon be beyond repair.

Making the move back to Austin was not easy.  I battled with myself and at times, believed I did not deserve this chance to heal. What would I do about my job? Will this hold on life have a negative impact on my career and personal life down the road? I was consumed by a tidal wave of fears and questions that kept me frozen in place.  However with the loving support of friends and family, both in Bahrain and Austin, my winter of panic began to thaw and I made the journey back to Texas.

And so, this is my little tale of healing, one which will include natural and conventional medicine. You will bear witness to my internal wrangling as I attempt to win myself back from sickness and punish the parasites that have taken over my livelihood.

The Caves of Khaybar

The drive from Jeddah to Harrat Khaybar Lave Field, 160 kilometers north of city of Madinah, was long and started  just as the sun was coming up and I was grateful for the coffee I was slowly nursing as I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes.   We were a caravan of 7 cars headed down a highway that seemed to stretch on forever.   The further north we drove, and colder and more beautiful the scenes around us became. Majestic mountain ranges began to blossom on the horizon and it made the six hour drive to our destination all the more enjoyable.

Within the territories of Khaybar, lies an intricate and ancient geologic system of three lava tube passages believed to be 3-5 million years old, Umm Jirsan being the longest in the Arab region measuring up to 1,890 meters long, 45 meters wide and 25 meters high. These lava tubes were formed by rivers of molten rock that had drained out of a volcano millions of years ago and eventually solidified, leaving behind its fiery wake, an encrusted channel of basalt, ash and sediment.

Eventually the stretches of highway and mountains gave way to the oceans of petrified lava fields of Bani Rasheed, who greyish contrast stood out against the deep blue hues of the Saudi sky,  and we finally made it our destination.  Travel weary and sore, we started to set up camp and I was surprised at how cold it was. I think it was the first time in living memory that I had to put on thermals and a heavy jacket in Saudi.

After setting up our tents, the instructors gave us hard helmets and masks and we were off to explore Umm Jirsan.  We hiked down a steep pile of rocks and crawled through a narrow opening and then we saw it, the gaping mouth of Umm Jirsan ready to swallow us whole into its blackened belly.

Nothing is more humbling then standing before a 3 million year old cave opening.  There was something ominous, and yet wonderfully enticing about it and I took a deep breath and pressed forward with my tribe of fellow explorers and felt the heavy curtains of darkness enfold around us.

Other than our headlights, It was pitch black and it took my eyes a moment acclimate. Once they did I began to look around and absorb the magnanimity of the cave, which held ancient wonders and mummified glimpses of the past.  Umm Jirsan has played host to a variety of animals such as wolves, foxes, bats, birds, snakes and human beings for thousands of years, and is still used by animals for shelter today. As we continued to make our way through the snaking lava tube, we noticed unusual geologic formations, such as hardened molten earth that had solidified millions of years ago and now resembled folds of the human brain.  After inspecting the mounds of rock and bones that littered the floor, I looked up to the high ceilings of the cave.  Twisted formations of basalt patterns stared back at me and they seemed to hold  grimacing faces within their geological swirls.  The air was dense and thick as we kicked up the soft powdery sand that was mixed  with ash and (to my delight) guano charitably left by bats that have lived in Umm Jirsan for thousands of years.

 

Twenty minutes into our hike through absolute darkness, the instructor called us to gather in a circle.  Once we had all congregated together, he explained that in order to truly experience the darkness and silence of this cave we needed turn off all of our headlamps and anything else emitting light and just stand in silence. And so, with apprehension we did. The darkness was crushing and I felt as if the entire cave had turned into a  cocoon that began to wrap itself around me. My claustrophobia kicked in and I struggled to take deep breaths through my mask. I have never experienced the meaning of true darkness until then and I just wanted to run back into the comforting rays of the sun.  We stood there not knowing which was up or down anymore and I wondered how much longer would we have to endure.  Finally after what felt likes hours, a flickering light sliced through the blanket of black. It was one of the instructors who had walked ahead of us and surprised the group with a fiery torch and I breathed a sigh of relief and welcomed the golden flames that softly glowed against the blankets of ash, stone and bone.

 

We continued and after an hour and I finally  felt at ease in the darkness, and soon the cave had come to an end.  The growing light of day spilled into the cave’s exit and we hiked up back into the open sky just as the sun was setting over the lava fields of Khaybar.

 

Nigh time in the desert is truly spectacular and I spent most of the night with my eyes heaven bound looking upwards towards the deep blue and black canvas of the night sky. Before us was a blanket of kaleidoscopic celestial bodies, composed of starts and planets that seemed to wink at us from space.

 

The next day we explored the second cave, Majlish Al Jinn, whose cave opening consisted of a gigantic mound of 6,000 year of swift and bat guano and explored its dark corners. For the finale, we had the wonderful and terrifying opportunity to repel down the side of sheer cliff that fed into the cave opening.

Driving back to Jeddah, covered in a thin layer of ash and earth, I felt grateful for having the opportunity to explore a side of Saudi Arabia I did not know even existed.  As we left the petrified lava fields of Harrat Khaybar and headed towards the city, I began to miss the silence and serenity of the desert and silently promised that I would be back to explore the caves of Khaybar once again.