Shannon Paige: Mindfulness and Healing at TEDxBoulder (Transcript)

It’s 1994, and I’m in the barn with my first husband, and we’re putting away our horses for the night when the barn phone rings, and it’s my mom. And she skips over all of the niceties, and she says very clearly and urgently: “I dreamt that you are sick, alone and dying.” Well, I fell silent, but because it was true. It was a perfect mirror to the words I’d gotten earlier in the week: “Cancer, cancer, cancer,” and hadn’t told anyone because that was all too real, and realness was something that I couldn’t quite deal with.

So I said, “Momma, I’m so sorry, but I have cancer. And I guess I haven’t told you because I’m confused and I’m scared.” And my ex-husband, obviously overhearing all of this that he had not heard, seemed unaffected. And he went through and did the rest of his barn chores, and then he walked over quietly to the barn doors and turned off the barn light and walked out, leaving me to finish my call with my momma in the dark.

So, I walked into the house, a few moments later, somewhat prepared to face his reaction, and instead of turning away from the TV, he yelled over his shoulder, “This’ll be the last time we talk about this, and you’re going to be just fine.” You have to understand, I’m 21 years old. Alone, I faced the diagnosis of a lifetime, cervical cancer. The treatment? Radical hysterectomy.

Radiation? Survival rate of 90%, but no kids. And all of this news was delivered really professionally and seemingly thoughtfully, but with a really kind of quick, “You’re so lucky.” Well, I did not feel lucky. In fact, I would like to give the luck back. And so, refusing to accept the unacceptable, I did battle; I battled cancer.

But I also battled the doctors; I battled the recommended therapies. I battled the luck itself. I battled to save the uterus. I battled and I battled with marginal surgeries and experimental chemotherapy, and I battled and I battled, and I got further, and further, and further, and further away from “why?” Because cancer, it’s hard. And cancer, it’s gross.

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And cancer, it’s mean. I actually dissolved somewhere behind these skeletorish, really black, sunken-in eyes and protruding cheekbones. And, thank God, this hippie, Boulder, amazing, all-powerful wizard of a doctor stepped into that wellspring of ick and falling hair, and said to me, “You are going to live. But we have to get you back into your body. So you are going to follow a sound medical protocol, and you are going to volunteer with horses and with children, most of them as unlucky as you are. Oh, and you’re going to go to yoga.”

Well, I was lost, and I was exhausted, and I had absolutely no fight left. So, I nodded meekly, and I let this kind woman point me in the direction of future that at least she could see for me. Well, the battle with my uterus, I lost. Then the battle with the cancer, I won. Yeah. But that’s not why I’m here. The battle with depression; I was just beginning. I had survived, right? And I had proven statistics right; I had chalked one more up for science and sound medical protocols, and survival is the very definition of hope. Right? Wrong.

Wrong. Because all of the pressure and the anxiety of how I should feel – lucky – was actually killing me slowly. I felt so much shame trying to convince people that I was okay, and/or sharing with them the truth that the depth of my down was so down, regardless of survival, that I was sinking I was sinking, and I was given the response: “But you’re so lucky. You’ve got so much to live for. Cheer up.” Well, I faked it for them, and I learned, as many people in the same position, to just get through.

See, that’s what they don’t tell you about cancer and other really serious life circumstances someone might survive is that it takes an exorbitant amount of energy to convince everyone else that you’re okay. And when life circumstances actually rob you of your ability to take tomorrow for granted, it might also take away from you your ability to smile for real, your ability to connect, and your ability to hope. Why? Because depression is hard.

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And depression is gross. And depression is mean. So through the battle with that depression that was so mean, I began to follow her protocol, and I began to get back into my body. And as crazy as that volunteering and getting to the yoga mat seemed, it worked. And I didn’t know how it worked, but I knew if I showed up with the horses and moved with them, and chased the kids around, and did all I was expected to do, I somehow felt better. And if I stood on my hands and awkwardly wobbled with myself, I somehow felt better. My battle with depression was at least as difficult as my battle with cancer.

So it took me years to figure out why it actually worked. It took me years to actually wonder if my path on the edge of depression and anxiety might actually help somebody else. Perhaps it’s because what was going on had nothing to do with cognition. Depression and anxiety are hardwired grooves in the brain.

They are so powerful, in fact, that they can create a full-system, cognitive, embodied lock-down. Not just in the body or in the mind, but out of your life. I was locked out of my life, and being locked out of my life, and moving and finding some effect in movement, I began to realize that amidst all of this, there was hope, real hope, and this hope was that I believe – no, I want you to understand – I believe to the very core of my being that the body can change the mind. I believe that the body can create empowered states of physical activity that actually inform emotional states of cognitive healing, emotional healing, mental healing. But how? I want to be entirely transparent and very clear that yoga can’t heal depression. Sorry.

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