2020-04-28
When I got cancer, I blamed the Army.

Cancer induces opposing attitudes.

First, it's not my fault: X caused it. (X = smoking, bad genes, fatty foods, bad chemicals, too much sun, not enough sun, etc.)

Contrarily, one thinks: this isn't fair. I've lived a fine, healthy, law-abiding, spiritually sound life. Pick on someone else. I don't deserve this. No one does.

If you're a veteran, as I am, the military is a handy scapegoat for nearly everything that goes wrong in your life-and not entirely without reason. Many people learn to gripe, grouse, and bellyache in basic training. Old soldiers, sailors, Marines, air-people, and coast guards don't necessarily face more pain than their civilian buddies. They just have cruder tools with which to complain. And boundless self-pity.

In uniform, we were abused, assaulted, and challenged by our superiors. Some of us were shot, rocketed, mortared, land-mined, strafed, or IEDed while serving our nation.

That sort of thing seldom happens when one is flipping burgers, raising kids, or trading stocks. Old grunts deploy colorful vitriol even after taking a plain vanilla dose of service, much less a bloody side dish of combat.

Personally, when I began to suffer the worst pain of my life--more accurately, the worst pains of my life, pains that I'd not felt even after being shot, rocketed, or satchel-charged--I realized that my military training had not only put me in harm's way.

In fact, it had prepared me to heal myself.

Really.

My epiphany: the military wasn't only a cause of my pain. To be fair, it can be a source of healing and self-repair, too. As my personal discoveries go, this was big. Looking back, my three years in the U.S. Army, supposedly spent to keep a teetering Asian domino from falling into Commie hands, had not only given my brothers, sisters, and me pain, and plenty of it. It had taught us how to cope with pain, too.

I leanred this when I stopped to remember the stuff that I had learned deep in my subconscious back in the Day. That's when I learned to use old pains to combat new ones. You needn't be a combat hero to transform your old pains into remedies, either. All of us have coped with pain. Cancer doesn't produce worse pain that we can deal with. Just more of it.

I blamed the First Air Cavalry for many maladies even before I learned I had the Big C. Even now, after my revelation about the restorative powers of military life, I'm not sure I can exculpate the First Team for all my woes.

I'll get to the Zen of the Infantry soon.

First, the woes...

I bear several scars and tote metal shards from my duty as a combat platoon leader with the First Cavalry. Before I learned of my colorectal cancer two summers ago, I was already diabetic. Agent Orange may have been a partial cause of both illnesses. (The defoliant was sprayed lavishly on the jungles around our sector of I Corps in the mountains near the Ho Chi Minh Trail.) But it wasn't just shrapnel or scar tissue that I attributed to my 1968 combat stint. I had the standard invisible scars, too. Fireworks sound like incoming to me, even now, 38 years after I came home. Every Memorial Day when our town rifle squad fires three rounds for those who die in war, I want to dig a foxhole and dive in.

When I had nightmares after cancer surgery last summer, I blamed the Cavalry. I saw NVA sappers in my hospital bathroom. Was it the narcotics? Dilaudid? Morphine? Fentanyl? A mind-altering drug cocktail made me wary of entering the enemy tunnel system in my hospital latrine.

My radiation and chemotherapy began in April 2004 followed by a five-hour surgery. A tumor and three cancerous lymph nodes were excised successfully, and a temporary, reversible ileostomy (like a colostomy, but lower in the digestive tract) was implanted above my right belt line.

The ostomy deposited poop in a neat plastic removable appliance as my colon healed. (Sorry for that detail.) I had pain, but who doesn't? Certainly one expects unpleasant consequences from a long surgery. The rule of thumb is that it takes a week to recover from every hour you've been rendered unconscious by anesthesia. The thing is, however, I was never able to control my pain. Not in the hospital, nor when I got out. My stomach wall hurt where an eight-inch incision cut muscles. My butt hurt.

The cancer was gone, but the pain stayed.

I'm not a whiner. My fine dentist, Dr. Martin Wohl, will confirm that I don't ask for Novocaine for ordinary dental work. I'm tough. Ran three marathons. Trained for a triathlon in 2000. Broke five bones in three separate sports accidents. Had seven prior surgeries. No self-pity allowed. C'mon. This little surgery wasn't gonna take me down.

While recovering, stifling my moans - I CAN TAKE THIS!! This all you got? Show me something tougher, Mr. Pain King - I started walking, and then jogging, slowly.

Three weeks after surgery, I contracted two infections. Maybe I'd ruptured an internal muscle or ripped sutures while walking downstairs backwards (because normal stair descent hurt too much).

One infection was particularly bad and deep.

My nearly sainted wife, Kit, rushed me to the local emergency room (a half-hour away) on three consecutive days. Each trip was worse. The third time, I got a bonus: a jostling 125-mile ambulance trek to Boston for yet another surgery. Interventional radiologists (who knew there were such specialists, who use high technology to perform operations while watching a screen?) inserted a catheter to drain my internal infection through a new hole. In my tender derriere.

I sat on a plastic rivet connecting the new catheter to another plastic bag for six interminable weeks.

Bad fluids were draining on one side while poop collected on the other. In the hospital, I had a Foley, too, a fancy euphemism for a urinary catheter. I had no place to store my pistol. Well, okay, I don't have a pistol. I resembled The Man in White, the guy in Catch 22 who was encased in a cast from head to toe? One IV delivered his nutrients: a catheter drained his wastes. Every night a nurse switched them. until, mercifully, he died.

That would be me. The man in white, that is. In my case, the man in a floral Johnny.

Just sitting down hurt. Bad. I could sit for ten minutes at a time. No more. 20 minutes of sitting meant taking extra painkillers and super-duper pillows. Standing hurt worse. Lying down hurt. Turning in bed took more strength than I had left. I'd have to think about where to place my hands and feet before I could roll over. Walking hurt. Climbing steps meant gripping the railing, hard, and rising a stair at a time.

I stumbled and limped. My back spavined. Accumulated pains from cancer, surgeries, radiation, and chemotherapy hurt more than when getting shot in my right thigh, or getting RPG fragments embedded in my lower legs, or being concussed by the block of dynamite (wrapped in bamboo) that blew out my right eardrum.

I tried every pill and palliative doctors offered. I was ecumenical. I took morphine, Dilaudid (synthetic morphine) and all the Oxy-drugs that people knock off drugstores to get (including Oxycontin, Oxycodone, and Percocet). They helped, for a while.

No drug fully eradicated the pain.

But here's the good news.

Kit had already opened my mind to the therapeutic benefits of acupuncture. Janet Sinclair, a local practitioner, stuck pins in my legs, arms and belly. My pain shrank. I felt better! The scars dwindled, too, as I watched. The pain didn't disappear, but it hid for a while. I thought healing thoughts while Janet did her magic. Touch is healing, you know. She might have been pricking me at random spots with a safety pin for all I knew. I might still have felt improvement.

But she actually knew what she was doing, which helped.

Another friend took pity on me. She taught me yoga. Mary Schjeldahl taught me "baby yoga," mainly simple stretching and breathing, but it was yoga nonetheless. She came to our house. She treated me and another friend who had been hit by a truck while crossing a local street. Really. We shared yoga and gentle moans.

Without preaching, Mary taught us that Eastern relaxation techniques could enhance Western medicine. By concentrating on breathing or holding a pose, even when doing so was a little painful, we realized that we were letting go of bigger pains.

I was learning to meditate without the baggage of "Learning Meditation," capital L, capital M. This was meditation lite, meditation entered via an open back door.

Mary, our sweet, kind, personal yogi, patiently allowed us to fumble, stumble, and bumble our way through the Mountain, Dog, Cat, and the Corpse (my personal favorite). She didn't try The Warrior: too hard for tired old warriors. My wife and daughter make the arduous pose -- imagine imitating a bullet in flight -- look easy. It hurt me just to watch them do this gymnastic feat.

Mary helped with breathing, stretching, and meditation. Hurting diminished. What could be simpler? Shouldn't recovery be harder than this?

Gradually it dawned on me that I had felt this way before, though at first I couldn't remember where or when. I knew that I hadn't appreciated just how peaceful this feeling was the first times that I'd experienced it. My body memory told me that I'd done so not once, but many, many times, years and years ago.

Then I figured it out.

I'd first encountered this Zen-like state while doing routine drill instruction in Basic, Advanced Infantry, and Officer Candidate School Training. Really. The Army teaches recalcitrant, rebellious young men and women, like me, or rather, like the rotten, spoiled rotten kid I once was, to submit to authority, to give up our bodies for the greater good.

Submission is also at the heart of most religious and meditative practice. Islam, for example, means "submit to Allah."

I began to remember dimly just how tranquil I'd felt while standing at attention, facing left, facing right. I recalled my body reacting automatically, easily, and by reflex to commands like about column left, march; double-time, march.

My epiphany floated me back to parade grounds at Ft. Dix, Ft. Benning, Aberdeen Proving Grounds, and Camp Evans. I recalled standing with my First Cavalry platoon at stiff attention on a landing strip in the Nam Vietnam as General Creighton Abrams pinned a silver star on the chest of someone from our unit. Even though the heat from the tarmac was withering, well over 100 degrees, I gladly displayed military stoicism to my guys. I didn't move a muscle, standing before my men at taut attention. Immobility made me proud, peaceful. I gave myself completely to Thor or Odin, the Viking god who controls self-abnegation.

I was the essence of the young lieutenant. I was a ramrod of imperturbability amid the chaos of Vietnam.

So it hit me--yes, I already knew yoga.

Not in my head, I knew it in my bones and sinews. I knew how to hold a pose, quietly. I knew that the pain of acupuncture would lead to the release of pain, from experiencing those transitory pains in my military days. They taught that pain and stoicism are linked and even, can it be...healthy? So I thanked my healing military gods along with Janet, Mary, and my new medical gods and goddesses, surgeons, and healers. It's all good. The Zen of the parade grounds has its place in the pantheon of self-help. Just submit to your internal drill sergeant. You'll be okay.

Me? I'm feeling better. My appliance was removed, my colon was stitched back together, and I'm cutting back on Oxy-drugs. My body is like an old summer camp, the plumbing creaking and clanking as it comes back to life following a dormant winter. The new pains are tolerable, the pain of healing, and the adult version of stewing in one's diapers for hours every day.

So here's the best healing advice I can offer you.

Take these all in moderation: surgery, anesthetics, pain-killers, acupuncture, yoga, and of course, meditative Army drill practice. It may work for you even if you've never worn a uniform or heard the bullets fly.

Company! Atten-shun!

Empty...your mind!

Let your body...heal!

That's an order.

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