The Mind Body Connection – Guest Blog by Tara McCaughan

Introduction – by Jack Sheehan

Main Article – by Tara McCaughan

When we understand the mind-body connection we no longer view emotional pain & suffering as a separate entity from the physical structure. In fact, both are intrinsically intertwined on a systemic and cellular level. Trauma & emotional turmoil can have a profound impact on our physiology and can manifest themselves through various challenging somatic experiences. Likewise receiving a difficult medical diagnosis can trigger an array of uncomfortable and unsettling feelings, and can have a significant impact on our mental well-being. Dealing with chronic illness or pain is one of the leading causes of depression, anxiety, and addiction, but to name a few. Learning to live with any condition that debilitates or restricts every day life can cause unimaginable suffering. It usually involves an all encompassing grieving process – angerdenial, and depression, with an ultimate goal of eventually landing on some level of acceptance. Essentially it is letting go of the life you once lived, acknowledging that it may never return to it’s original form, but realising that with some changes, you can and will proceed to the next phase of life in an emotionally healthy and happy way. Sometimes that can feel like a hopeless endeavour. But believe me, it is possible. Your self-worth and identity are not determined by a physical condition or illness. The future may be filled with some frightening challenges, and there will always be bad days, but with the right supports you can continue to live, sometimes more fully than ever before. I hope this blog post can help you begin that process.

An so, instead of boring you with the theory of psychosomatics, or research on how chronic illness can impact mental health, I thought I would treat you to a much more authentic piece of writing – the mind-body connection personified so to speak. Enter this week’s guest blogger – the inspirational Tara McCaughan. After receiving a life-altering diagnosis of stage four brain cancer, Tara embarked on the most gruelling (but subsequently rewarding) path to healing not only her physical body, but her emotional well-being too. She is a wonderful friend of mine and I am so grateful that she agreed to share her story through our blog. While we are all unique and have our own individual tales to tell, sometimes it can be comforting to hear what another has gone through, reminding us that we are not alone. Tara uses her Instagram page @lifebehindtherainbow to document her experiences. Feel free to give her page a like & a follow! She also hosts a beautiful podcast ‘Scratching the Surface’. I suggest checking it out, in particular an episode she did with with a nutritionist, where they explored the best ways to manage a chronic illness through diet and natural therapies. If you, or someone you know, is suffering from an illness it may be very helpful. I will add the link at the end of the post!

Tara, a fellow writing enthusiast, depicts her experience with such a creative flare. I am in awe of how she so vividly captures emotion through her descriptive use of the English language. “I am not the same rogue, unhealthy, stress-head who over-thought everything”, and “I wasn’t in need of fixing at all… I was simply in need of rest, restore, and growth” are particular stand-outs for me!

I’ll let you see for yourselves! Enjoy the wise and comforting words of my brave pal…

Finally Learning to Live

By Tara McCaughan – Life Behind The Rainbow

 

The diagnosis no one wants to hear, especially at twenty-eight years old. I could cringe at the memory of the exact day Dr Flannery (THEE best brain surgeon in all of the land and my personal hero) told us it was “as bad as it gets, it is malignant, the highest grade, the rarest type of brain tumour”. I knew from a short phone call with my lovely, kind neurologist that there had been a big medical meeting around a table just days before, about the best plan of action for my care, treatment, and therefore MY future. My lovely partner Stephen who had been nervously fumbling a lined jotter with our pages of nonsense questions that we had written together the night before, just dropped the notepad to the floor and started crying. I grabbed it up immediately, embarrassed, and started rhyming off our trivial questions making myself louder than Stephen’s sniffles. In hindsight, Dr Flannery knew I was experiencing shock. Looking back, I wish I had dropped to the floor like that stupid, ugly notepad and started to take in all the facts and medical plans right then.

 

For my entire life, my biggest phobia has been anything to do with veins- cannulas, needles, injections, jabs, plasters, wrists, blood… One sure thing about cancer is that it involves A LOT of all of my biggest fears. I woke from having my head cut open in April 2020, with a drip coming from my brain to prevent clotting; one arm hooked up to fluids and the other to morphine pain relief, and a catheter in because I could not stand, never mind walk to the bathroom. In the beginning, I was unable to talk, eat by myself, hear in my right ear, or hold anything in my dominant hand. In fact, I had no feeling in or on the left side of my body. I was frustrated because after the six hours in surgery removing the clementine from my brain, I could not remember how to count, read, spell, write or recall many simple things. For a long time, it felt like Cancer had gripped my life, scrunched me up like a dead flower, and started picking petals off. One. By. One. It felt like cancer was extracting pieces from me week by week, month by month, treatment by treatment, like J.K. Rowling’s Dementors – slowly, gradually, painfully. I felt literally stripped bare, faced with my biggest phobia, and feeling pain that I did not know was possible- so agonising it made me vomit on occasion, pass out at times, and shed A LOT of tears. I do not think a person can get any more vulnerable.

 

No matter what my counsellor, friends, family, or partner told me, I struggled with self-doubt. For months I simply felt ‘outer body’ like my own physical being belonged only to the medical staff who poked and prodded me, and to cancer itself as it stripped me of my identity as I had known it my entire life. THEY were making the big decisions about ME for ME, with often “no time to waste”. For too long I was angry for not having time to consider other options, or to even fully understand what I was agreeing to have done to MY body. I felt not worthy of all the kindness people were giving me daily. I felt incomplete, broken and lost.

 

Still now, the biggest struggle is the emotional battles in my mind. I don’t feel like the same person emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually. Day after day, I wonder to myself, “who am I?” Have I actually changed, transformed somehow like a metamorphosis? Or am I still ME, just a bit broken, fragile, in need of fixing? I have concluded that it is all of the above. Of course many things are the same, for example the people in my life, my surroundings, my community, my identity, my purpose for fighting- this I know will never change. I am grateful for that. Cancer has a funny way of making you appreciate things you took for granted in the past- ‘before cancer’. Before a diagnosis of any chronic illness, of course we prefer to live blissfully unaware of how our mindset, burnout lifestyle, risky behaviours, and built-up symptoms may be seriously affecting us. After all, it is only when we know better that we can do better. Ample research suggests that lack of mentally processing difficult life events, sets our body systems off kilter by storing repressed traumatic memories, and I firmly believe that dis-ease causes disease. For my entire twenties I don’t remember one substantial period of time that I felt comfortable enough in my own skin to be able to sit with my own thoughts and not judge, scold, or run away with them, creating ridiculous, anxiety-provoking, untrue ones.

 

Cancer forces you to look at yourself through a microscopic lens. This is not exactly welcomed and it is not even intended. Of course everyone handles distressing life events, and in particular coping with the Big C, in their own way. Some courageous people choose to ‘go it alone’ without even sharing with family or taking much time off work to process this colossal shock. Processing my illness was for a few months totally non-existent, but not without its symptoms. I had to have multiple ECG’s to monitor my heart as I was having sharp pains in my chest which my nurses told me was just stress and anxiety manifesting into physical symptoms. I pushed boundaries; I was angry and irrational about the most trivial things; I was wrongly insisting I could travel, I could party, I could remain un-phased by my drastically changed reflection in the mirror; and I was purposely yet unconsciously pushing the one person I wanted and needed the most away…

 

I still don’t feel like ME a lot of the time. I struggle to connect with the smiley, tanned, long-blond-haired girl standing tall on my phone home screen. She is slowly reappearing, slowly growing in confidence again as the weight goes back on, the energy builds, the zest for socialising comes back. But there is a new realisation that cannot be shaken… that ego, image, luxuries and material THINGS do not make her happy- they never, ever did, at least not for long. I am realising that the human body is just a vessel to transport our over-thinking minds around in search of moments that make us go ‘ah ha, this is what life is all about’. I am not sure if it is the same for all cancer survivors, but I swear I heard a faint whisper reassuring me that facing my fears and all the horrible changes, was going to be more than worth it.

 

This is not a sad story to be pitied, but one of transformation, growth, and some might even, say of bravery. I am not the same rogue, unhealthy, stress-head who over-thought everything. I care about and give my time to totally different things now. I procrastinate on more meaningful things that inspire me. And when I get curious now, I follow the ‘spark’, as Elizabeth Gilbert calls it in her book ‘Big Magic’. In the last year, I have been determined (and stubborn enough) to do my own versions of physiotherapy in order to rewire the neuro-pathways in my brain. I have road-tripped around an entire country; hiked mountains; given talks to wellbeing groups; and created and recorded a whole series of a wellbeing podcast. I became so inspired by the power of natural plant medicine that I became a Wellness Advocate for doTERRA essential oils, and enrolled in Aromatherapy and Chinese Nutritional Therapy. I am proud to be able to write this blog post independently with passion, enthusiasm, and hope that it may resonate with even one other person.

 

For me, the processing, acceptance, and healing began on Jenny Morris’ reflexology bed. I had sought a recommendation for ANYTHING I could try for chemotherapy nausea, and not only did Jenny help with the physical pain and sickness of my cancer, but her gentle hands opened the floodgates for my coiled-up, suppressed emotions that had been causing the chest pains, the sleepless nights, the irritability, and the (what I now know as) fear that displayed as anger to those who definitely did not deserve it. BAM! Within a few months I was talking openly to anyone who asked; I was bawling crying regularly as I acknowledged the trauma; I started researching, reading, and listening to every single thing that even hinted at the idea of ‘healing’; and I allowed myself to fully accept my own reflection. I finally realised that I could not bear to see my bald, scarred, radiation-scalded head and had been too disgusted to look in the mirror for an entire summer, only glimpsing at my eyes in a compact mirror on the rare occasion I bothered to put on mascara.

 

A stint in hospital for a life-threatening operation from which you wake up with tubes in numerous orifices and not wearing what you went to sleep in, is one sure way to end prudishness, embarrassment and body shame. Although I wouldn’t say no if my body miraculously decided to grow sexy curves, I have learned to appreciate the skin I am in. Now, I have very few inhabitations. I was never very body confident and was one of those teenagers who got changed very quickly and discretely in the changing rooms. I always felt out of proportion: too tall, too skinny, too bony, too flat. But I can honestly say I would march onto a packed nudist beach right now and dance on the shore- who actually cares!? I have realised the utmost importance of fuelling my body with nutrition, much like a plane must be fuelled to fly. I have learned to eat the rainbow every single day, but also to allow myself treats on occasion- tends to be celebrations and when my hormones are out of whack. I allow myself to enjoy a large glass of red wine, zero guilt, just sheer enjoyment as the velvety liquid warms my body and soul from the inside out. I could put up a strong argument that there may be nothing better than sipping red wine by an open fire on a comfy sofa with a best friend, as the elements batter the window, sharing woes and laughter, so comfortable in their presence that you unlock deep parts of yourself even you weren’t fully aware were there. I have learned from nature that nothing is expected to flourish every day of the year.

 

I see nature as lots of little miracles happening right before our eyes. The changing colours of the seasons; the sounds from treetops; a majestic rainbow lighting up and enveloping a whole city in seconds after a cool drizzle of rain has stopped; the fact that one day can have all four seasons. I find awe and wonder in growing flowers and plants; I could watch bees and ants at labour for hours; finding a comfortable seat on a cliff top and watching waves form and crash; collecting beautiful shells on the beach to decorate my home and for keepsake- a physical memory of happy times. Before I travelled around Asia and lived in Australia in my early twenties, I won’t lie I was quite terrified of so many birds and creatures. Fast-forward and now I feel a deep healing from walking in nature; understanding cycles of life, getting mesmerised for moment after moment watching an ant or a bumblebee at work, and really immersing myself in the truth that we all derived from the same source.

 

I learned to love with my whole heart. Is love really love unless you reveal all parts of yourself, dive in head first, feel terrified but excited all in one, truly know, own, and offer up even the parts you despise in yourself- your true authentic self? I have learned to live in the moment as best I can and as much as my chronic fatigue will let me; I always did try to be a ‘yes man’ but there was always limits, fear, worrying about what other people thought. I am SO grateful now, every single day. The smallest, silliest ‘cute’ or intriguing thing has tears brimming in my eyes. The new me is less scared to have boundaries, to say ‘Nah I’m sorry I’m just not feeling it’ about a plan, a meet up, replying to someone right away. I have pyjama days in the middle of the week, not opening the curtains if I choose and I love it. I don’t do that thing I used to do when I came off night shift and cleaned the whole house before I felt I deserved to rest. I speak my truth easily now to friends, family, strangers… Why let words spill out of your mouth that don’t sit well with your values, your gut feeling, with your heart?

 

During my months of processing the shock, I learned that I am brave and stronger than I knew. I continued medical treatment whilst also empowering myself to avail of varying therapeutic holistic healing modalities including: aromatherapy; deep tissue massage; acupuncture; distance healing; cancer-specific counselling; chakra cleansing; and regular reflexology- the driving-force to it all. My loved ones think I am crazy for acknowledging Cancer as a gift: a lesson. Cancer forced me to stop, rest, reflect and re-evaluate my life. This journey to discover who I really am, has ironically saved me. Despite my oncologist repeatedly telling me “remission is not possible with this type of cancer”, and our IVF doctor asking “why I would put myself through this procedure for a goal that the odds are against me ever reaching”, I wholeheartedly believe that this opportunity to retreat inside myself has actually cured me. I feel free.

 

Nine months on from the end of gruelling chemotherapy, I am physically getting back to me. My weight, hair and skin tone are slowly settling back to what I am used to. How ironic it has taken me the same length of time to heal back to optimum health as it takes an impatient, hopeful, excitable first-time mother to grow another human to full term. Maybe I should feel like a butterfly prospering from my cocoon? I wasn’t in need of fixing at all… I was simply in need of rest, restore, and growth… I am ever in awe at the healing that is possible when we open our mind and our heart. I have been lucky enough to have my mind unlocked, and my heart opened to a life full of light, joy and contentment.

Love Tara,

https://open.spotify.com/show/29lyLY8LFVjqCApr9diE0o

https://www.instagram.com/lifebehindtherainbow/

 

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