Thursday, July 31, 2008

the retreat - in retrospect

Day One: Monday, July 28, 2008, 2:00 a.m.

“Are you happy?”

That question, asked me by my cousin Lorraine moments before I left her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration two nights night ago, caught me off-guard and has haunted me in the 30 hours since.

First of all – why wouldn’t I be happy? Do I seem unhappy?

Oh, who am I kidding? I have been tremendously unhappy for months. I’m so conscious of it, I’m afraid unhappiness hovers around me like bad breath or b.o., subtly repelling everyone unlucky enough to converse with me during the course of my days.

I have a rewarding job that I love (although I often find it incredibly stressful). I am surrounded daily by amazing people who cherish me, and whom I love.

Why should I be unhappy?

I blame a vitamin B12 deficiency. Which I am afraid I now have. I didn’t realize this until Saturday morning, when I was talking on the phone with my sister, and telling her I was a little freaked-out by what I believed to be a retina (one of mine) in the process of detaching.

Our mother had a detached retina several years ago, and I have since had laser surgery to “staple” the dubious retina in my own right eye. (Those are two words – eye and staple – that should never be used in the same sentence, eh?)

I was in the middle of using the computer when I noticed that I couldn’t read the screen. There were flashing lights in one of my eyes (never did figure out which one), and a blotch like a floater that wouldn’t move out of my centre of vision. When the effects didn’t disappear after a minute or two, I started Googling “detached retina symptoms,” and had scared myself into an almost-certain trip to the emergency department of the local hospital when my sister called.

Turns out she occasionally experiences the same thing whenever her B12 is low. She described my experience exactly, and told me it goes away as soon as she takes some sublingual vitamin B12. I was already scrambling through the kitchen cabinet where I keep my supplements before she finished her last sentence.

The visual disturbance disappeared almost immediately. But I was left with the frustrating realization: my B12 is low. The fact that I even keep B12 in my kitchen cupboard should be an indication that this is not an unfamiliar occurrence. I mean, I’m a vegetarian who has often dabbled in strict veganism. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products. But I’ve been very solidly lacto-ovo for a few years now – I love eggs and cheese – and it’s frustrating to think that even this has not saved me. (Then again my sister, who has never been vegetarian, is also occasionally deficient. Genetic pernicious anemia, anyone?)

So I’m now taking two B12 pills per day. (Hadn’t taken any for months.) Had another visual disturbance yesterday (again at the computer). Googled “B12 deficiency symptoms.” Depression, brain fog and insomnia jumped out from the list. So there you go. My unhappiness is really my body crying for cobalamin.

Then again, maybe I really am unhappy. I am certainly very much awake in the middle of the night, and that’s not a good thing.

Why am I doing this?

(The retreat, that is.)

I’m not sure. During my regular, workday existence I often find myself craving unlimited amounts of unprogrammed time, in which I imagine I might do any number of restful, relaxing and restorative activities. I crave sleep. I wish I could meditate without the screaming voices inside my head reminding me of all the things I should be doing while I’m wasting time meditating.

I feel a vague sense of unease – maybe even terror – however, as I anticipate the next few days. At the heart of this discomfort is the knowledge – which I tend to avoid voicing whenever possible – that I am lonely. Have I just given myself the ultimate dare? Can I be alone on purpose?

I haven’t figured out all the rules for my retreat yet, although I have a good working list. No internet. No telephone. I was going to try no computer, but then I got this burning desire to write, and the thoughts don’t come out as quickly when I have to transcribe them longhand.

And even then, I suspect I will make a few phone calls (I’ve been a bit negligent in telling my family about my plans, although hopefully my mom and my sister will read the item I posted on Facebook and not be too surprised or concerned).

No shopping (unless I decide to walk to the local health food store for some iron supplements, which I suspect I may also need in addition to the B12). No banking (except when I go pay my quarterly GST remittance).

Should I just give up now?

No. I want to do this. But what, exactly, I want to do is still to be determined. Am I seeking a crucible experience, where I come out the other side transformed and a little shell-shocked? Or do I want a warm-fuzzy experience where I feel at one with the universe?

To be honest, I just want to shut up the voice inside my head that never stops its high, thin whine of anxiety. I want to figure out where the off switch is. And exercise my ability to use it.

I also – and I didn’t realize it until I sat down to write this – want to write. I miss writing. I write for work – grants, reports, PR material – but it’s not the same.

So I’ve turned off my modem and wireless router (in case I can’t control the urge to open Internet Explorer), and have turned on my computer. Like it or not, I have the feeling this experience is going to be documented electronically.

Day Four: Thursday, July 31, 2008, 3:00 a.m.

It has been a good three days. Insomnia obviously hasn’t gone away, even though I’ve tried giving up ginger tea (the only recent change I could think of that might be causing the sleeplessness). But on the other hand, I’m learning to embrace middle-of-the-night wakefulness.

The retreat hasn’t been what I expected, but I have found happiness, regardless. I journaled about my experience for the first couple of days, but in retrospect it is only so much drama and meaningless chatter. I struggled with menstrual cramps and migraines. I couldn’t decide what to do, and bounced from activity to activity (within the boundaries of my apartment, and the constraints of my “retreat rules”). In the end, I spent several hours on Day One reading back issues of my favorite magazines, and that quiet pursuit was finally enough to still my screaming mind.

Day Two, I threw my healthy eating regimen out the window and bought a bunch of treats (ice cream, strawberries, cake) to take my mind off my ongoing physical discomfort (more cramps, more migraines). Paid my GST remittance, bought some stamps. Got in the habit of going for a walk in the late afternoon or evening. Was a little distressed by the fact that I didn’t seem to be doing much spiritual work, but I told myself if I was happy, it was all good.

And strangely enough, I was happy.

Day Three (yesterday) I spent a lot of time working with my hands: cleaning, cooking, trying to pull staples out of a chair I’m refinishing, knitting. For months now I’ve been listening to the Eckart Tolle CDs that Brainerd gave me for my birthday, but not until now have I really started to understand what it means to be present. Or rather, before now I haven’t spent much time actually BEING present. Present is good.

It has been a good three days. I could continue the retreat today, but no longer feel the need. Ultimately, I guess I had to disengage from my regular life in order to find a way to return to it in a new way. I could go back to work today and it would be all different.

I’m going to enjoy the rest of my vacation, though. And I highly recommend Tolle's A New Earth. It would not be overstating the case to say that it has saved my life.

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