This morning I woke up on an island off the coast of southern Brazil (Florianópolis) and set out to hike to what I’d been told is the most beautiful beach on this island.
The thing is: I’m not a hiker. I’ve spent the majority of my adult life with extreme muscle weakness, headaches, dizziness, nausea ... my daily life is confined by my physical limitations. Don’t get me wrong - I’m stronger now than I think I’ve ever been. The last few months, I’ve finally felt stable standing and dancing on one leg (thanks to my wonderful Lyrical Jazz dance teacher Tracey Durbin teaching via zoom twice a week!). And thanks to practicing relevé (tippy toes!), I was nimble on my forefeet to navigate the slippery roots and steps 🙌🏼
Three hours later, we arrived at the peak of this crazy overlook above the beach.
Three weeks ago, I sold my home in Portland, Oregon, put my belongings in storage, and set out for a journey around South and Central America. This adventure is a major part of my process healing with metastatic cancer (which I still have, but is improving). It’s a process of release. Release of making plans, release of productivity and of “doing”. Release of knowing what comes next. Release of my beautifully constructed bubble, release of my familiar surroundings, and release of the man I love.
Release of CONTROL. Ooooh I love to feel like I’m in control of my surroundings. (keyword: “feel” 😂). I want to control the light and the sound and smells and EVERY detail. Part of this is my personality, and it’s majorly amplified by sensory hypersensitivity due to multiple traumatic brain injuries.
But now, I am immersed in a profound experience of letting go, and allowing my life to tumble forward into a dark and mysterious unknown. Surrender to trust that the universe - in all its chaos and darkness - will ultimately unfold in the most perfect way. When I surrender to this powerful wave, I can finally stop the torrential outpour of my life energy toward controlling and planning and *making* my life be a specific way.
This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
It took quickly growing, extremely painful, and multiplying tumors to force me to stop what I was doing and examine my life. To finally stop working as a doctor, and turn my energy inward. To recognize that what I’ve experienced as my core identity needed to change.
I view these tumors as merely a symptom of something deeper off-balance. And as I heal my spirit and make my way toward center, coming home to myself, I find strength in ways I could never have imagined. As I release energies and identities no longer needed, I emerge stronger and brighter and more ME.
Today was one of the most powerful shifts I’ve felt in a long time.
Standing in the parking lot with my friend (an avid weekly hiker), he asked, “Are you sure you want to do this hike? It’s going to be hard.”
“How hard?” I asked.
“It will be an 1800-foot total elevation gain over 3.5 miles.”
“I have no idea what that means (the most ‘hiking’ I’ve done is a one-hour walk on trails behind my house)... but I WANT to think I can do it. Let’s try.”
We immediately encounter the steepest grade I’ve probably ever walked up in my life (considering I first collapsed at age 16, and went on to experience progressive often debilitating muscle weakness for the last 2 decades, I’m right now the strongest I’ve ever been as an adult). I said, “I don’t think I can do this.” I already had a headache.
But my friend kept walking. So I followed. And followed. I put one foot in front of the other, climbing slippery muddy rock ‘stairs’. I pondered who on earth brought all these rocks here and made this path?? As my heart rate skyrocketed and legs required pressure from my hands to take each giant step upward, I just kept telling myself: this is what I’m doing now. I’m going to do it. I want to be the functional person who can do this!
I often stopped to marvel at the bromeliad flowers growing on tree branches, or the tiny monkeys scurrying through the jungle canopy (or just stopped to catch my breath before launching upward yet again). Every time we came upon a slight flattening of the path, I thought, “Ok, I did it” ... but NOPE it just kept going up and up and up and up and up. OMG.
We had to jump from rock to rock to avoid the muddy path, often reaching for trees or vines for support. At one point I had to take a running jump across a stretch where the path was pure mud; fortunately, my friend stood on the other side (having gone first with his long legs) with outstretched hand to catch my jump on the other side.
Much of the time, I had to simply commit to a series of jumps to navigate through the muddy jungle path. I’m grateful for the network of roots crossing the forest floor, making little pockets for my feet. Sometimes the climb was so steep, we were on hands and feet to scramble up the path. This was an incredible challenge not only for my muscles and coordination and balance, but also cognitively!
After 3 hours climbing endlessly upwards, we finally broke through to open sky with the most beautiful white sand beach below. I couldn’t believe I’d made it. So many times I had wanted to quit ... except what would I do? We were in the middle of the jungle with no way out but on my own two legs. So I just kept going. There was no other way. And incredibly, my legs didn’t give out once. And now we had this majestic expansive view!!
But now was the hike down to the beach. Aaahhhhhh down basically a rock face. With my melty legs, I had to maintain muscle control to eccentrically load walking downhill (without slipping on the stones). And by this time, it was high noon and the sun shone brightly in the southern Brazilian sky.
Finally, we reached the beach and I happily surrendered my exhausted body to the saltwater waves.
After a bit of rest (and a long walk around the lagoa aka lagoon), we set out on the uphill return (because this beach hides on the other side of a tall wooded ridge ... so it’s uphill both ways!). On the way back, I truly thought I would melt into the ground. Stops were frequent, I was constantly breathless, and at one point I even laid down (and quickly got up to avoid being eaten alive by bloodthirsty mosquitoes).
All said and done, we ended up hiking 6 miles / 5 hours (30 min break at the beach). It was the most difficult physical thing I’ve ever done. I often quit walking after 10-15 minutes because it elicits a strong headache, dizziness, and nausea. The reason I love dance so much is there is no impact to hurt my head (even walking on pavement creates significant concussive impact on my herniated + therefore squished brain). I can’t believe I completed this hike! It was incredibly rewarding - especially because I got to see so many beautiful things that I’d never have otherwise gotten to see in this land untouched by vehicles.
And I’m incredibly grateful to my friend who led the way, encouraging me to sit and rest when needed but quietly moving us forward. I’m reminded of a video I saw years ago of a polar bear cub who fell in the water, and the mama bear swam behind the cub but didn’t help her pull herself out of the water. Instead, she stayed nearby to reassure the cub while letting her see that she could do it for herself. I felt like that baby cub today, who - with much struggle and finding her own strength - was able to pull herself up. Knowing my friend was with me the whole way.
Today I discovered I am no longer disabled to the degree previously experienced. Most importantly, I released a part of my identity that felt limited. At least, the line where my limitations lie has been moved SIGNIFICANTLY. And I am so proud of myself.
I invite you to reflect: where may you have assigned self-identity to perceived limitations...where in fact your capacity is far greater than imagined?