My sister was watching me practice yoga the other day. I was attempting Warrior III with one eye on the TV and the other on the floor, windmilling my arms to keep from falling over while I tried to balance on one leg. It was funny, so she laughed, which made me laugh.
And then I fell over.
“Have you ever done laughter yoga?” she asked me. I thought she was making fun of how clumsy I was, but she was serious.
“Let’s do it,” she said, and because I love yoga and I love laughing, I agreed.
She pulled up a Laughter Yoga session on YouTube, and together, we set out to become laughter yogis.
But there were no strange poses, no breathing exercises, no downward facing dogs. There weren’t even yoga mats. Instead, there were just a whole bunch of people sitting on chairs, facing the practitioner.
She began by introducing herself. She said her name (Gita Fendelman), and then she burst into laughter.
Then she encouraged everyone to join her, even if the laughter was just forced. (Apparently, our bodies cannot tell the difference between real and fake laughter--they are equally beneficial.)
She said her name again, and everyone laughed. My sister and I cracked up along with them.
Then she said her diagnosis: Parkinson’s Disease. And she laughed again.
Whatever I thought Laughter Yoga was going to be, it wasn’t this. I was expecting to laugh at things that were actually funny: I expected to hear some good jokes. I expected to fold myself into such impossible yoga poses that I had no choice but to laugh my way free of them. I expected to laugh at others doing the same. I expected to see a dog scamper around the room, licking people as they tried to keep their balance, or a cat sit stubbornly beneath someone struggling to hold plank pose. You know, funny stuff.
Parkinson’s Disease is not funny.
I felt a bit sick watching this. It struck too close to home. Illness always makes us aware of our mortality, and laughing about it felt like sacrilege. This was something so serious, so awful, so...grave. But here was this Gita woman, laughing--joyously, even--about her Parkinson’s Disease.
She encouraged everyone to join in, laughing about her Parkinson’s Disease. Hesitantly, they did, but I couldn’t join them. It felt like too much. She had gone too far. I couldn’t laugh about illness.
Illness is not funny.
Then, seeming to add insult to injury, she had them clap their hands and chant with her, “Very good, very good, yay!”
I was about ready to shut the video off until she encouraged others to stand, introduce themselves, share their diagnoses, and laugh. Around the room they went. There was absolutely no cynicism, no sarcasm in their words. There was unity and purity as they laughed together about their chronic diagnoses: cancer, diabetes, even menopause.
Suddenly, they were equals. Everyone in that room was facing a health crisis.
And this realization made laughing seem...possible.
So my sister and I tried it. We (fake) laughed about our troubles.
(Fake laughing was about all I could handle at this point.)
My name is Kirstyn. (Feel free to fake laugh as you read this.)
I have right temporal lobe epilepsy, and the seizures are slowly damaging a part of my brain. I also have migraines and fibromyalgia. (Again, go ahead and pretend to laugh.)
Very good, very good, yay.
Without the laughter, those statements are pretty grim.
When I was first diagnosed with fibromyalgia back in 2014, I was not given any new medications to treat it.
Instead, they sent me to a physical therapist and they enrolled me in a two-day class at the Mayo Clinic.
The first day of class was informative: a bunch of nurses told us all to slow down, take care of ourselves, accept that we won’t be able to do as much as we once had. (Not really what I wanted to hear.)
The second day, we saw Dr. Amit Sood.
There were about 20 people in Dr. Sood’s classroom, including a woman who had traveled from Japan, a young married couple from Indiana, and one other Minnesotan.
Our common bond? We had all been recently diagnosed with a chronic (or terminal) condition.
Very good, very good, yay.
The room was heavy with that reality. You could tell the young married couple had spent a lot of time crying. The Japanese woman was in fierce, angry denial. I myself was a shell.
Dr. Sood (who studies stress, well-being, resiliency, and happiness) stood in front of us and explained that despite our diagnoses, we could train ourselves to be happy by practicing presence, gratitude, and kindness.
Then he showed us a slideshow about paying more attention to flowers and butterflies; he had us write down things we were grateful for, and he had us look into a stranger’s eyes and wish them well.
I am not kidding.
I did what he asked, but the whole time I was thinking about what a waste of money and time this class had turned out to be. This is not going to fix my problems, I thought. I still have three chronic conditions, no job, no children of my own, and no driver’s license. Counting the petals on a daisy will not change any of that.
I was annoyed that the Mayo Clinic--the last word in healthcare--could not take away my health problems. Instead, they just handed me a pamphlet called “Living with a Chronic Condition,” told me to accept my new limitations, and reminded me to stop and smell the roses.
Needless to say, I didn’t do any of the things that Dr. Sood recommended.
I was so pissed afterwards that I even stopped keeping my gratitude journal out of spite.
I did not want this version reality to be true. I wanted something or someone to take me away from it, to change it, to transport me to an alternate dimension for a second chance at life. I wanted a pill or a potion or a spell or a prayer or a charm or a rabbit’s foot.
I wanted something that would act on my behalf. I did not want a stupid pamphlet telling me to simply accept my illness, because that put the burden of responsibility squarely on me.
I did not want to be my own rescuer.
I was too busy believing that the Universe had wronged me and owed me a few miracles to pay for Its crimes.
I was too busy being angry to practice presence, kindness, and gratitude.
I did not want to pay attention to anything except how miserable I was. I did not want to show kindness to anyone, even though I craved the kindness of others. I did not want to hunt for small gratitudes among the wreckage of my life.
Gita Fendelman and Dr. Sood aren’t the first people to say this stuff, either. Jesus said something pretty similar in John 16:33: “In this world you shall have trouble (or tribulation, or oppression, or whatever the translation says). Cheer up! I have overcome the world.”
So even Jesus said it: Life is going to suck. Be happy anyway.
Very good, very good, yay.
I have wasted a lot of time ruminating on all of the suck in my life, and it has never made things better. It is a snare I fall prey to so easily, and it’s one that I tend to sit in once I’m stuck. I don’t like it there, but neither do I want to do the work to climb out of it. I always want the alternate universe, the magic pill, the rabbit’s foot, not the pamphlet.
I want to change my circumstances and not my outlook.
Even though that is not possible.
There is no cure for epilepsy or fibromyalgia.
I may never have a natural born child.
I am not sure if I will ever be able to work full time again.
My family will never look the way I had imagined.
Very good, very good, yay.
There are still days when all I can see is trouble, that the very idea of attaching any Very good or Yay to my circumstances feels nearly impossible.
But Jesus--and the researchers--say otherwise, so I’m giving it another try.
Since the laughter yoga with my sister, I’ve picked up my gratitude journal again.
I’m learning to be present, to pay attention to the details of my life:
Since there are no daisies to count the petals on in December in Minnesota, I have turned my focus on the beauty of snow. I study the complex tessellations of the flakes that land on my sleeve, and they take my breath away. It's a bit magical—I feel like an eight-year-old on a snow day.
I pay attention to the pudge in my daughter’s palm and the way her quick fingers wrap around mine, and I am thankful that at ten years old, she is still willing to hold my hand. This simple act of attention has made me savor the word daughter, a word that felt impossible last year.
I love watching her beautiful eyes widen with surprise as we read Harry Potter together before bedtime, and I am so happy that I get to share this experience with her, that the plot twists are new to her young mind. I know the story inside and out, but watching her hear it for the first time has allowed me a vicarious enjoyment, and I am thankful for this borrowed youth.
I take advantage of every opportunity to tell her that I love her, that I chose her, that I am so happy she is mine. I tell her that we are her forever family, that we will love her even through the hard times. There have been hard times with her (Very good, very good, yay!), but coming together after they pass to reaffirm our love and care for her has been healing for both of us. We need each other.
I am noticing the sweet subtle kindnesses my husband extends to me: turning on the seat warmer for me when he starts the car, rubbing that spot around my shoulder blade that always gives me trouble, taking my fingers into his hand as we’re drifting off to sleep. These things happen so regularly that I confess I have taken them for granted. But I’m paying attention to them now, and I’m trying to return these everyday acts of love: dropping unexpected kisses on his forehead, baking him cookies, telling him how much I adore his perfect lips and muscled shoulders and strong arms and cute little ears.
I am thankful that my sister pointed this out to me: she saw the good in my life that I could not see. And she is part of the good in my life. I love her sense of humor and her enthusiasm, her charm and her talents and her compassion. I love the way our relationship has grown, that a friendship with the deep roots of sisterhood has blossomed and flourished between us.
I am thankful for the time to read and write and create and travel and be a mom and make my home. This time is a precious gift, even though it came wrapped in disability. But it’s time that I wouldn’t have otherwise. My disability made it possible.
This may not be the life I thought I wanted. (Not even close.) But it is the life that I have, and I think there is something sacred and beautiful about acknowledging and accepting what is rather than wishing for what could be.
This life that I do have is worth my presence, kindness, and gratitude.
Very good, very good, yay.