A Childhood Portrait Reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland and A Question Of Emotional Endurance

I’m the baby, fair budding to become a sunflower, second from left.  The young Queen Mother to my right is my only sister, while the boy doing the Winston Churchill imitation to her right is my middle brother.  Then there is the Eldest on the far left dignifying the portrait with his expression of Supreme Effort.  The youngest among us (who recently discovered this little treasure) was not yet born.


LAST WEEK I RAN AWAY TO THE MOUNTAINS, and I think this is the first time I’ve ever missed posting on or around my Friday deadline.  Not a first-time I’m proud of or would like to repeat anytime soon.  I know there are tools available for scheduling a post to publish even when I’m gone so really, there’s no excuse.  (Not that I think it’s a life or death issue but still, the discipline is important for me as a writer.  So, note to self: research “scheduled publishing” tool and use it at least once before the end of the month.)

There.  Now on to the Easter Portrait.


My youngest brother became Guardian of the Box of Old Photos when my mother died a couple years ago and, during the ensuing sifting, has turned up a couple of gems like the one above.  We had no idea this thing existed.  Indeed, there are a whole series of Easter portraits that he’s uncovered, with a wide variety of outdoor backdrops (let’s play Guess What Military Base We Were Stationed At!), but this one clearly takes the cake.

The photo is of us but actually speaks volumes about my mother.  She was, like most women of her generation, trying to keep up with Jackie-O and, other than at Easter, we were always dressed in jeans and t-shirts, a fact that makes this snapshot-of-an-age even more absurd and delightful.

Ultimately though, I think it’s the accident of lighting that makes it most striking–we’re so illuminated it looks surreal, like we slipped down the rabbit hole in a string of held-hands and landed all dressed up in Wonderland.


Moving on, I wanted to take a minute to answer a question about my last post.  In her comment afterwards, Linda over at Rangewriter asked what I meant by “emotional endurance.”  I thought it was a great question and, because emotional endurance is such a vital tool for dealing with difficult challenges of any kind, I wanted to address it in a regular post rather than just in the comment section.

Emotional endurance is just what it sounds like; the ability to endure one’s own emotions.  (Obviously, pleasant feelings don’t require much effort.  What I’m talking about are the painful ones like sadness, despair, anger, shame, loss, bitterness, guilt, regret, helplessness, etc.)  This skill was actually prevalent among the older generations but, during the current, unfolding age of budding-pharmaceutical options, has increasingly fallen into disuse.

And unfortunately, as a treat-and-cure cultural mindset has gradually replaced the older accept-and-endure one, the threshold of discomfort, pain, or uncertainty most people can continue to live and thrive with has fallen considerably.  Now…please.  I’m not saying medical advances aren’t a miraculous gift and blessing; they are.  Anyone who’d want to turn the clock back a century is, in my humble opinion, extreme.

However, there’s also profound value to be had from the old skill of knowing how to contain, endure, and navigate heavy emotions without needing to immediately escape them.  And nowhere was this made clearer to me than in the rooms of the dying.

In hospice I saw person after person after person, (all elders BTW,) deal with levels of emotional pain and loss that absolutely staggered me.  And, with only a couple exceptions, they ultimately did it without requiring antidepressants or a hastened death.  Over the course of their lives these people had somehow learned to navigate huge waves of overwhelm, fear, pain, and sorrow without losing sight of the beauty, love, and value that also populated their end.

I cannot begin to tell you what an eye opener this was for me.  I had no clue…no clue…how much stronger we are than I’d ever imagined, and if I could only pass on one bit of insight from all the wisdom I learned from the dying, that would be it.  Allow me say it one more time, because that’s just how important this is:

We are far, far, FAR stronger than most of us currently understand or believe.  By a multiple of thousands.  I know this, I’ve been there, I’ve seen it.  And I’m not talking about the rare hero, warrior, or saint, either.  (Although they are totally amazing.  Whew…)  No.  I’m talking about the rest of us.  All the ordinary, everyday, getting-along people like you and me that weren’t created for greatness; those of us who just want to raise our families, work a good job, have some hope, and live a decent life.  Us.

What I’d love to see is a cultural return to the recognition and development of this skill for emotional endurance, all the while keeping the growing arsenal of available treatments and interventions ready as back-up, just in case.  Y’know…for those rarer yet dangerous periods when life erupts into something that really is too much, too hard, too destructive, unendurable.

Can you imagine what we’d be capable of, what our lives would be like, what our world could become, with the power of inner endurance and medical relief at our disposal?

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

A Good Skill Set For Depressives (With or Without Drugs)

I’ve been living with clinical depression for a couple of decades now.  It can be challenging terrain…lots of sheer cliffs and deep canyons that are way too easy to get lost in, especially in the beginning when they can feel inescapable..but after twenty years I’ve learned how to get around.  Mapped out the local territory, made friends with the natives, and built a beautiful life there that I really love and am deeply grateful for.

I’ve done it without antidepressants.  And before anyone gets their panties all in a bunch, I’m not opposed to pharmaceutical treatment. (I so dislike that whole battle.  It’s divisive, distracting, and a waste of precious resources.)  It’s just that, back when I slipped into my first severe episode, I didn’t know what was happening to me.  Depression wasn’t the by-word it is today.  It took a while just to figure out what I was dealing with and, once that became clear, I still couldn’t afford long-term, continued access to drugs.

So it was fortunate I’d already pieced together an alternate treatment plan that was working for me.  It’s complex, eclectic, and tailored specifically to my life and strengths, so there’s no point in going into detail here.  But there were a handful of important skills I had to develop in order to make the whole thing work and I suspect they might be helpful no matter what treatment plan a person turns to.  So just in case that’s true, here they are:


1)  Develop emotional endurance.  A lot of it.  Do exercises.

2)  Trust your instincts, you’re not crazy.  Some studies have suggested that depressives actually have a more realistic view of the world than non-depressives.

3)  Question your conclusions.  Depressives can take that aforementioned realistic view (especially in a severe episode) and translate it to mean everything is futile and unbearable when it’s not.

4)  Develop emotional endurance.  Really.

5)  Depression annihilates confidence so cultivate stubbornness instead.  (Desperation is also a surprisingly effective motivation for short hauls but it’s tough on the adrenals.)

6)  Did I mention develop emotional endurance?

And 7)  Look for light.  It’s a discipline that can save you.  If you can’t find any immediately, then hang on to memories of old light until you can.  Living with depression is a lot like living at night.  Colors fade out and disappear during a descent, and the whole world falls into shades of gray.  But once you figure out where to look and start to see them, the stars in there will knock your socks off.

The Pillars of Creation

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Poll: Do You Think Medical Science Can Someday “Cure” Death?

Update:  There was some confusion about where to find the poll.  Bad post design.  Sorry.  I’ve now moved it up to the top.  Please click on all the answers that seem true to you.

This week, my friends, I’d really like to get your input on something.

The other night, as I was watching the usual parade of age-related drug and medical commercials during the evening news, (the target demographic for network news is pretty unmistakable these days,) I thought I heard a subliminal message running throughout.  If I’m hearing correctly, it’s an oblique, unspoken promise to the general population that goes something like this:

If we (i.e. medical scientific research) can find a cure for aging and disease, then nobody will have to die anymore.

Is it just me, or is there an unconscious (conscious?) expectation being fostered in our public awareness that someday death will be “cured”?

Do you think death is curable?

In order to take a broader pulse, I’ve developed this brief, informal poll.  (Here’s hoping it works.  I’ve never done a poll before.)

If you wouldn’t mind, I’d really appreciate your taking a moment to answer.  In fact, if you wanted to invite anybody else to take this poll, too, well that would be just dandy.  There are various ways to share the link below, or you can always cut and paste the URL yourself.

The more the merrier.

And if you’re as curious as I am to find out if there’s a real paradigm shift taking place (i.e. we’re starting to believe en masse that we don’t have to die) there should be a tab at the bottom of the poll you can click on to see the results so far.

I know the possibilities I’ve provided are pretty limited, so if you have an insight that doesn’t fit in to any of the choices provided, feel free to expand in the comment section.  I’d really like to hear what you think.  This is driving me nuts.


copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Fecal Implants? Seriously?! (Yup.)

rectal bulb syringe


I live for this kind of stuff.

Slate online published an article a couple days ago titled The Enema of Your Enemy is Your Friend by Emily P. Walker. It reveals an unusual, frontier-type of treatment for an intestinal infection called Clostridium difficile that’s killed a lot of people over the years, and which 1.3 percent of patients are estimated to contract during a hospital stay.

Death by diarrhea.  Not a fun way to go.

The traditional treatment for C. diff is a course of antibiotics but for the unlucky who fail to respond, fecal implants are another up and coming possibility.  And before you wrinkle your nose and shake your head in disgust please consider that, in the small amount of documented research available so far, the outcomes are surprisingly good.  From the article:

“It’s true there’s been no major clinical trial of fecal transplants, but the procedure appears in the medical literature at least as far back as 1958… Now we’re beginning to see some more extensive studies. Mark Mellow, a gastroenterologist at INTEGRIS Health in Oklahoma City, recently presented a paper showing that 15 out of 16 C. diff patients whom he’d provided with a fecal transplant remained disease-free after five months. Several other papers presented at the meeting showed similar positive effects, and in every case, symptoms disappeared almost immediately after the transplant.”

Evidently, it works because the foreign feces helps to repopulate friendly flora in the infected intestines.  (Want to know the best feces to use?  Borrow it from a person who lives with you.  Their flora and your flora are the most likely to be a good match.)  In a clinical setting the donated matter is first screened for disease and then mixed with a saline solution to the consistency of a “milkshake.”  (The article is not only informative, it’s fun to read.) Then it’s pumped into the colon where it does it’s magic.

But there’s also an alternative:

“And then there’s the do-it-yourself crowd.  All you need is a bottle of saline, a 2-quart enema bag, and one standard kitchen blender. Mike Silverman, a University of Toronto physician who wrote up a guide to homespun fecal transplants for the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, says it’s entirely safe to do the procedure this way, provided that a doctor gets involved at some point to screen the donor sample. He felt he needed to draw up the instructions because administrators at his hospital wouldn’t allow their doctors to perform a procedure that hasn’t been validated in a large, peer-reviewed study.”

But as Ms. Walker points out in the article, these studies are proving hard to come by.  Pharmaceutical companies not only have little reason to shoulder the substantial costs involved (there’s not enough profit potential for them), there’s actually a disincentive; a natural remedy like this would replace an antibiotic treatment.

Gotta love our health care system’s fabulous cast of skewed incentives.

Needless to say, I’m endlessly fascinated when conventional medicine turns off the beaten path to consider the unusual.  If this treatment turns out to be as successful as it looks like it could be, it would place it right up there with the simple elegance of biosurgery; the use of maggots in destroying necrotic tissue in a slow or non-healing wound.

My hope is always that the adversarial stance so often adopted between different healing modalities will eventually soften and reverse.  It sure seems like the more hands we have on deck, the more solutions we’ll find for not only treating illness, but increasing health, thereby enriching everyone’s quality of life.

UPDATE:  October 29, 2011

It looks like this treatment may be starting to get the acceptance (and application) it deserves.  I just found a headline article on msn.com called Sounds gross, works great: Fecal transplants cure nasty C. diff infections citing the benefits and growing use of fecal transplants.  The article mentions a success rate of 90% for the treatment (yowza!) yet says the transplants are still looked at as a “treatment of last resort.”  I wonder how much of that is due to doctor’s skepticism and how much is patient’s resistance?

In any case it’s interesting to note how quickly fecal transplants are gaining traction as a viable treatment.  With C. diff infections on the rise, the availability of a treatment with a 90% success rate is a godsend.

UPDATE:  July 6, 2011

And now, a recent positive write-up in a professional journal!  The journal Pediatrics published an article on June 14, 2011 covering the case of a child who was successfully treated with a fecal implant.

For those researching, here’s an online physician’s resource called HCP Live, with a couple of other potentially valuable links.  Good luck!

UPDATE:  March 24, 2011

Because I’m getting a lot of hits on this post I thought I’d update it whenever new information comes in.  Today, I received a comment from Kathy Suszek who is a nurse case manager “working with a gentleman who just had the fecal implant done, he tells me his results are “wonderful”. Had 1-2 loose bowel movements, in the past few wks, but much improvement.  Just wanted to share news that is positive for a change.  His provider has had 14-out of 14 success stories.”

UPDATE:  May 2, 2012

Here’s a great article titled Fecal Transplants: They Work, The Regulations Don’t published in Wired Magazine, December of 2011.  In it the author talks about a couple of early trial results on fecal transplants as well as some of the regulatory hurdles involved in getting serious studies launched.  The success rates for this procedure so far are absolutely amazing, but it’s difficult for people to find doctors working in institutions that are broad minded enough to allow it.

I did find this video posted by Integris Digestive Health Center in Oklahoma City where they consider administering fecal transplants to those with recurring C. diff.  

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

The Burden of Miraculous Choices

One of the strangest side effects of my years working with hospice was the collapse of my sense of belonging.  I had no idea beforehand, how much of my identity was tied up with the various beliefs I held and the different groups I identified with because of them.  National, ethnic, familial, political, economic, spiritual, you name it, I had come to define most of who I am by the ideals I held.

But then, as I entered homes filled with beautiful, vulnerable, dying people…who it just so happened believed in a wide variety of  things that were frequently different, even opposite, from my own…I made the unwelcome discovery that many of my ideals were actually fed by lurking, unconscious prejudices that lay, seeping and contaminated, just underneath.

I was naturally horrified.

One of my biggest prejudices was against the medical/industrial complex and especially the pharmaceutical branch.  (Please understand, my admission of a prejudice is not to say there isn’t a problem.  I’m not alone in my concerns about our over-prescription, over-use, and over-reliance on drugs.  A lot of thoughtful people, both in and out of the medical field, are worried about it.)

But for complex reasons, including a couple of personal encounters with disrespectful (and in one case unethical) doctors, I went beyond simple concern into deep prejudice.  I began to think badly of medical, pharmaceutical, and health insurance people as a whole.  I came to question not only their motives but their basic humanity.

I secretly began to suspect they were monsters.

But then one day I had this irresistible urge to work with the dying and as a result, actually entered into the medical/industrial complex as a participating member.  I joined a hospice, took a class, and became a nursing assistant.  I did my clinical hours in a nursing home.  Visited patients in hospitals.  Worked closely with nurses and doctors and even filled prescriptions at pharmacies, delivering them to the people I helped care for.  And lo and behold!  Somewhere along the line, in the gentle, surprising way that grace frequently delivers its gifts, I rediscovered the value, relief, and miracle that modern technological advances have to offer.

I discovered there aren’t really any monsters after all, just an odd amalgamation of deeply caring, deeply flawed human beings.

As a result of this journey, modern medical technology has taken on a slightly different cast for me.  Not so much a cold, uncaring, manipulative, disrespectful power that takes over our bodies and ignores our humanity, but an offering of something extraordinary, a possibility of the truly miraculous.

I had a patient once.  Maggie–dear, beautiful, polio stricken Maggie Full Of Grace–who wrote a little book about her sixty year journey with the disease and it’s after effects.   I read it after she died and in it I found the answer to a question I’d always wondered but never found the courage to ask her.  How did she feel to be one of the last to ever contract polio?  The vaccine was introduced two years later and the disease, for all intents and purposes, was eradicated.  Did she ever feel cheated?  Did she ever think Why me?  Why wasn’t it discovered two years sooner?

I found the answer in her book.  First, she described the terror she and her husband initially experienced in those earliest days, not for her but for their three small children, the fear that they might also contract the virus.  She’d been nursing her five-week old baby at onset so he was particularly exposed.  That description was then followed by this passage:

“One of the greatest blessings I would later thank God for is the presence of the vaccine, the fact that our children and grandchildren will never get polio.”

I started to cry when I read it.  It was as though she was still there whispering to me.  Still trying to answer the secret question, the real question, I so desperately needed to ask her.  She’d been powerless to stave off infection from the polio virus itself, but somehow she’d successfully fought off the bitterness and regret that so often follows in the wake of such trauma.  How?  In the face of decades of the resulting hardship and suffering,  how in the world did she protect her heart from that kind of collapse?

And somehow there the answer was, miraculously written down for me in her book.  Her love for her children and gratitude that they were spared served as her vaccine.   The power of those two emotions filled her heart with a kind of immunity that no bitterness, however real, however justified, could overcome.   It was something I’d always heard but somehow never really understood before, the simple difference between looking at a glass as half full rather than half empty.  Both realities are always true.  Both have an impact that must be absorbed and coped with.  But the choice of which one to cleave to is always ours, which one we’ll ultimately allow to fill our vision and heart.

I’d never understood before, how often I fill my own with emptiness.  No wonder I’ve struggled with so much sadness.

It was the people I met like Maggie Full Of Grace who started anchoring me back into an older place inside myself, turning me into a person far more tolerant and oblivious than I’d been before.  Over time things like politics and religious differences, economic backgrounds and cultural beliefs, all the myriad and ever-multiplying array of opinions that seemed to matter so freaking much beforehand just didn’t anymore.  Over time I became freer and happier and better and more loving…and increasingly confused by the change.

It was like climbing up to the peak of the very highest mountain in the middle of a vast wilderness where I could finally see forever and ever… but then the wind sucked the map out of my hands and blew it away.  The views were spectacular in a way that knocked me to my knees, sure, but how the hell was I ever gonna find my way back out?

(Don’t delete this photo again dammit…it’s my picture!)

How was I supposed to navigate without the instinctive bearings my prejudices gave me?  I’m still, five years later, struggling to figure that one out.

Maggie came forward in time sixty years to instruct me on the brutal, harsh reality of how it really was back then.  Watching her struggle every single day within her twisted, paralyzed body, hearing her stories of those long, painful, uncertain months in the polio hospital, of how many husbands abandoned their wives, how many crippled children were left behind and forgotten, all these things brought that world to life for me.  I finally got it, why the word, polio, used to strike such terror into the hearts of all who heard it.  Why Jonas Salk was such a hero and how the vaccine really was a miracle of deliverance.

Life before penicillin, immunizations, knowledge of basic hygiene, and the vast array of other developments and discoveries we have today was often cruel.  What we were forced to rely on instead back then was Adaptation with all its tools—the human qualities of creativity, determination, strength, patience, fortitude, and grace.  And now, today, we sit at the junction of these two ages, emerging from a period of helpless vulnerability when we were forced to cultivate our deepest, inner humanity just to cope and survive, and entering into an age of blossoming outer powers where we no longer have to simply grit our teeth, accept, and endure.

We’ve discovered a will, an intelligence, and an imagination within ourselves that can generate miracles…and the breakthrough is heady.  It’s created an insatiable hunger within us for more power, more knowledge, more salvation.  We now dream wild and intoxicating dreams of freedom from all disease, all aging, all pain, all suffering.

Even, perhaps, from death.

But I’ve watched a strange and disturbing thing happening as our outer powers increase.  It seems that our inner powers, the long-cultivated wisdom of our deepest humanity, seem to be diminishing as they lay, forgotten and misplaced in the hallways just outside of research labs and insurance offices and fear-filled waiting rooms.  The ancient tools that served us for thousands of years—things like courage, sacrifice, endurance, surrender, the ability to recognize and be grateful for all that we still have—are threatening to atrophy with a current wave of under-use.  And in their place things like fear, anger, blame, grasping, desperation, and bitterness frequently rise instead.

I have hope though.  I don’t think the current trends will last.  I suspect that we’re simply in the first flush of wild discovery and have yet to understand the limits, comprehend the costs, of pure, unbridled dreaming.  After eons of helpless suffering the pendulum is swinging wildly to the other extreme , but pendulums always swing back.   Someday we’ll remember that we can’t just eradicate things like suffering and death because to do so would also eradicate the great arc of wounding and joy that is life.

No.  I think we’ll eventually settle down, find some equilibrium, and begin the practical task of roping in our miracles, tethering and training them, instead of letting them stampede through our lives, trampling the older, extraordinary knowledge we’ve already developed.

Here’s hoping for a divine marriage between the two someday soon.  A day when our modern technology becomes firmly anchored in our ancient humanity, and when our collected wisdom is further deepened by the discoveries and miracles of today.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

A Tiger Penis in Spirits

Whoa.  It was so not what I expected to find in an old neighborhood, clean, really friendly (and evidently quite popular with the jazz crowd) bar on a late Saturday morning in San Francisco.  But there it was.  A pickled tiger penis.

I flew down this last weekend to visit my son and his long-time girlfriend for Mother’s Day and we wound up down in the Potrero Hill district looking for a rain jacket he’d heard about made out of Kevlar.  (What?  Bulletproof rain gear you ask?  But why?)

Well, I still don’t know, but it was sure fun poking around in a boutique that carries that kind of stuff.  It was part high quality, outdoor expedition style clothing and equipment, and part museum (classic knives, steampunk sculpture, and other assorted oddities.)  We were there for a good hour until my bladder made a bathroom search imperative.  There was actually a restroom there in the shop but, in spite of my son’s nearly $300 purchase of gear, the guy who worked there denied me access to it.  Evidently, everything else in the place was available for customer perusal but not, definitely not, the toilet.  God no.  They wanted our money, not our pee.

So we made a beeline up the street to the Dogpatch Saloon, which was such a cool place that I instantly didn’t mind being turned out by their highbrow neighbor anymore.  My son and his sweetheart sat and ordered a drink while I used the (blessedly clean and sunny) bathroom and then joined them at the bar.  That was when I noticed the gallon-sized, glass bottle filled with brownish fluid and something dark and bulky on the bottom, sitting over in a shadowy corner.

Now, my son loves stuff like Kevlar because he’s got the heart of a warrior.  I, on the other hand, love stuff that looks like it came from a nineteenth century, London, back street apothecary because…well…that just does it for me.

Anyway, I asked the bartender about it and she smiled, went and got the jar, and set it on the bar in front of us.  I liked her.  She was an older woman who looked straight out of the neighborhood gang our family used to camp with down in Ensenada back in the sixties–good-natured, weathered, raspy voice, and feeling just fine.  I flashed back to sandy sleeping bags, bonfires on the beach, and those worms we occasionally glimpsed floating around at the bottom of our parents’ tequila bottles.

(The older kids whispered that our fathers actually ate the things after dark, which grossed us out, but we were always asleep by then so we never knew if it was true or not.  We tended to think not.)

She opened the jar and initially tried to fish out the object on the bottom with a utensil but, after two unsuccessful attempts, gave up in cheerful disgust and stuck her whole arm in.  I watched, spellbound, as she grabbed whatever the thing was and pulled it up through the fluid and out the top.  It uncoiled.  It was black.  Tiny pieces sloughed off and were left behind, floating in the disturbed liquid.  Two pendulous sacks dangled off of it, about halfway down.  The tip had barbs.  I think it was about a foot long but it could have been longer.

It’s a pickled tiger penis she said and grinned.  It’s supposed to increase male virility. The owner used to dare people to drink it but now he sells it for ten bucks a shot. Evidently, it had been marinating for a long time.  Years.  I wondered if it originally came from China Town.  The fluid was a random mix of different kinds of alcohol and looked repulsive with all the flecks drifting around in it.  It was hard for me to believe that anyone would drink the crap.  But then I didn’t believe they’d eat the worms either.

All three of us stared at it, dangling there from her hand.  It was disturbing and kind of mythical.  Initially, I had the righteous thought, well, thank God we have Viagra now.  But then I remembered the treatment received by animals in pharmaceutical labs and realized things actually haven’t changed that much.  The burden may have shifted species here in the modern west but our four-footed brethren are still bearing the brunt of it all.  It was a depressing thought.

I looked back at the tiger penis and found myself hoping that at least it worked.  That there had been a night when some aging man struggling with erectile dysfunction left his loving but unsatisfied wife at home yet again and, wandering off aimlessly through the streets, stumbled upon this bar.  Maybe it was on a night that he’d reached his wits end, that he was considering leaving her or worse.  But then he saw the half hidden jar in a back corner, decided what the hell, and tossed back a quick shot after which the lightning finally (finally!) rose inside him again.  He bolted home as fast as his suddenly strong and pumping legs would carry him and leaped back into her bed.  And there, with wild tiger breath hot and tingling on the back of both their bare asses, he gave her the most unforgettable, adoring, jungle ride of both their lives.

It helps me deal with my sadness about the tiger, dreaming that maybe some healing can rise from the ashes like that.

An interesting side note: While I didn’t drink a shot of the stuff myself (…hell no…) I still had a dream that night of a tiger pacing around at the foot of my hotel bed.  There was no lightning but I did wake up in the morning feeling wildish and energetic and really pretty great.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn