Soft Resilience

by Annie Murray, ’99

I’m no longer a pilot. Far from it. I’m a Navy Clinical Neuropsychologist, and currently the Director of the Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic, the Intrepid Spirit Center, at Camp Pendleton. With Psychology and Neuropsychology, I found a job that was truer to my personality than aviation ever was for me– a nerd who is interested in people and what makes them tick.

“You’re too soft….”

At the end of cognitive rehabilitation treatment, we ask our patients for feedback about the program; things they liked and didn’t like, what we could improve. That was the feedback from a clinic patient, a special forces type, who had lost his leg below the knee in combat and wore a prosthetic. My initial reaction (inside voice) was, yeah, no shit. Maybe you need some softness in your life, and that is why you are here. 

But it also made me sad. This guy did not know anything about me. I have been through “stuff”, too. I am missing parts, too. You just don’t get to see my missing parts, or my scars. My missing parts are kept a secret; they did not earn me any medals.

Women are told to “lean in,” to ambition, to assertiveness, to sucking it up, to the other characteristically male-dominated constructs of leadership and beyond, but what if women “leaned in” to each other instead? What if what women really need is to not feel alone in their struggles, not isolated from their husband, boss, the patient with the missing leg; but especially from other women?

In some weird way, it took losing my uterus, Fallopian tubes, and cervix – all parts that make me inherently “female” – to be a better woman; one with greater depth, empathy, and compassion for other women.

It was a Tuesday night in 2015 when I lost my uterus, about 6 weeks after giving birth to my second son, Jack. Jack was perfect but my uterus was not.

My emergency hysterectomy came at the end of a 3-week period of complications in which I had multiple, post-partum hemorrhages requiring four surgeries, massive transfusion of more than 20 units of blood products – more than twice my body’s blood volume – and resuscitation to survive. My husband – a Navy pilot – had deployed during the middle of all this, so when I woke up from my fourth and final surgery, I was alone.

My husband was flown home for a couple of weeks to be with me, but he eventually re-deployed, and I was alone again. Except I wasn’t really alone because I had a 2-year-old and a newborn, and a metric ass-ton of trauma.

Many years before this, my time at the Naval Academy (’95-’99) were largely spent trying to fit in; never alone, but never really part of the group either. I was never the smartest, the best athlete, the prettiest or the coolest. In fact, I spent most of my time in Annapolis struggling with anxiety, cystic acne and calculus 3. Inside Bancroft Hall, I had a genuine best friend in my roommate, a friendship that continues to this day; but the truth is she was way cooler than me, and she seemed to just “do” the Naval Academy better than me. The other women I befriended at the Academy were the same, and they seemed to breeze through the academic, athletic, and social challenges without any outward signs of the deep anxiety, insecurity and loneliness that I struggled with. The next 10 years of my life were much of the same. I felt out place as a mediocre Navy pilot. I thought at the time that I was the only woman who felt out of place or alone.

I wish I could say that I never felt alone as a woman again, but that would not be true. Before I lost my uterus, my husband and I struggled for years to get pregnant. We tried Intra Uterine Insemination four times before our doctor told us there was nothing more he could do and that our best chances of having a baby would be with IVF. So we did the shots, hormones, blood tests, emotional roller coaster, and everything else that comes with infertility treatments. We were an IVF success story; we had two perfectly healthy boys.

We also had twelve, frozen, 5-day blastocycsts.

This is where things get really awkward, like I am trying to explain the plot of that movie, Memento, or something, and I just end up yelling never mind, it’s complicated, and crying.

But I need to try to explain this; because not explaining the difficult stuff  is why women feel so alone sometimes. We think that whatever went wrong was our fault, or that we should suck it up, we should just be grateful, or that someone always has it worse than us. And then shame sets in, and we stay quiet.

I obviously could not carry another baby after my complications, and we struggled for years in trying to figure out what to do with our embryos. Surrogacy was too expensive and dangerous, and donating the embryos was out of the question for me. I could not imagine a world where my flesh and blood children roamed this earth and I was not their mom, the one who tucked them in at night or kissed their boo-boos. After all my husband and I had been through, I didn’t want to unfreeze and “discard” the embryos (their word not mine). Donating embryos to research isn’t as easy or glamorous as it sounds because they are considered “human product” (also their word, not mine). Continuing to pay thousands of dollars a year to freeze them was not sustainable either.

For those reasons, and a million more, my IVF doctor agreed to do what is called a “compassionate transfer,” an embryo transfer typically done at an infertile time of a woman’s cycle. Since I did not have a uterus or cervix even, it made the idea of transferring embryos all the more non-traditional. I had read about compassionate transfers online (I do NOT recommend doing this. Any choice women make regarding embryos seems to elicit emotion and judgement, the kind so hurtful, you cannot even put into words). I saw this as an opportunity to provide closure from all we had been through in our journey to parenthood, but in a way that held meaning to us. Without my reproductive organs, my options were severely limited, and I saw this as a way to honor what we had been through. In doing the compassionate transfer, our embryos, which were made from my husband and me, became a part of me once again.

Prior to the transfer, our doctor met with us to ask how I wanted the experience to go: any special wishes? (Not really); would I allow a Fellow to observe? (No); did I want to see the embryos beforehand under the microscope? (Yes); did I want valium? (Yes! I mean, No). It was quiet and somber, respectful, though with none of the hope of my other transfers.

Afterwards, the embryologist took my hands and looked deep into my eyes and she did not speak a word. We just nodded to each other, just two women, two mothers in the moment, as she gifted me with the acknowledgement of my grief and the weight of it all. My husband and I were left alone for as long as we wanted, and we held each other and cried.

Then, I got dressed and we went and watched Crazy Rich Asians –drinking wine and crying some more in the dark theater with the fancy seats – because we weren’t sure what else to. It was compassionate, but it still hurt.

I only regret the shame that I have felt throughout this process, and that it took something like this to help me understand what it might feel like to be a woman and not have choice or options. Choosing allowed me a sense of control when everything related to motherhood has felt out of control for me. And I have had really big, deep thoughts about these complicated issues-like what makes “life,” the value of embryos to different people, how we talk about motherhood and choice. And how we are quick to judge one another and try to categorize decisions as either “good” or “bad” when the truth is, we have no idea until we have walked in someone else’s shoes. I have stood and cried with another woman in the very same situation as me, having embryos and wanting more children, but having lost her uterus during childbirth. She donated her embryos. Neither of us judged each other for our decisions, we just acknowledged that it was hard and held space for one another’s feelings.

This isn’t meant to be political or religious, I’m not much of either. I simply hope you can try to consider other experiences, and sit with the stillness of not jumping to judgement of what you think someone “should” do.

There are so many ways that women isolate one another, and placing blame or judgement is just one of them. I recognize that I can share these experiences with you from a place of privilege, that I have a healthy family, and that a few years removed from all this, we can consider ideas outside of personal survival.

In the two years since, I have only told a few friends (and one unsuspecting Uber driver) about everything. Maybe it is because women do not talk about the struggles surrounding motherhood enough, the gray area, the stuff that does not end up on our social media feed. We tend to feel as though we need to have everything figured out on our own, and that is just not reality. We also tend to stay quiet about certain experiences – infertility, miscarriage, mental health issues, children with special needs – and even compassionate transfers – instead of talking about it and forming meaningful connections with other women. Women tend to carry their pain and hide it; while men—like my special forces amputee– are often afforded the grace to do the opposite.

That desire to help other women feel supported has led to my involvement and advocacy for women’s health initiatives and those actions that support mothers, babies, and ultimately, families and communities as a whole. My involvement has allowed me to find purpose from everything that has happened after Jack was born, and it helps shape and give meaning to my experiences. It has opened up my aperture and given me greater perspective: my story is just part of the much bigger picture of the many issues facing mothers – and women more broadly – around the world. We all want to feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

In the past four years, I have found my voice through my work with Every Mother Counts (EMC), a non-profit organization dedicated to making pregnancy and childbirth safer for every woman, everywhere. Whereas I used to worry that telling my story seemed too self-indulgent, I have grown to understand the value in sharing my experiences as a way to connect with women and that my story is only a tiny piece in the tapestry of women’s’ experiences. I have run half-marathons with the EMC running team, because I enjoy running and raising funds and awareness for the organization, but also because it is my version of moving meditation. I allow myself to be amazed at my own resiliency. And my own softness.

More from Annie about Every Mother Counts

Every Mother Counts  (EMC) was founded in 2010 by Christy Turlington Burns with the mission to help women not just survive, but thrive in motherhood. More broadly, EMC identifies  barriers for women and provides practical and meaningful solutions so that all women may have safe, respectful, and equitable pregnancy and childbirth experiences.

The statistics surrounding maternal health care are compelling, and once I became aware, I could not look away. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation with a growing maternal mortality rate despite spending the greatest amount of money on healthcare per capita. In fact, it’s now more dangerous to give birth than it was for our own mothers. Childbirth and pregnancy are particularly dangerous for women of color, as African American women are 3-4 times more likely to die than white women, a statistic that climbs to 12 times more likely in certain areas such as New York City. Research has pointed to systemic racism within our own healthcare systems as a cause for this unacceptable disparity. More attention must be placed on helping woman of marginalized cultures, and finding solutions for those without health insurance or access to prenatal care.

Self-Care – A Closer Look

By Jill (Brest van Kempen) Richards ’94

Dear Sisters,

Hello again.  I’ve been thinking more about resiliency and already shared my two cents on how to enhance your resiliency from a macro perspective, but I also wanted to dig into the nitty gritty of some common symptoms that plague us in periods of high stress and provide some ways to appropriately manage them.  Below are some specific techniques that you can do from the confines of your own home.  None of them are tricky and all use tools that you carry with you 100% of the time.  With that said, read on to learn some ways to rebalance your systems using the wisdom from thousands of years of East Asian Medicine (EAM)…

Breathing 101

You may think you’ve got this one wired as you’ve been doing it all day every day since you arrived.  However, we don’t tend to think about technique during this crucial continuous gas exchange evolution, yet threat of its compromise might serve as a gentle reminder to do so.  While I was teaching engineering at USNA, I would start every class with five deep breaths, which can help your system in so many ways.  Most people are familiar with the “fight-or-flight” response, which is our body’s way of marshaling resources via the sympathetic nervous system to do battle.  Fewer are familiar with the parasympathetic nervous system’s complementary response that sends your body into “rest-and-digest” mode.  Deep breathing, specifically mindfully engaging your diaphragm, can help shift your body from the adrenalin-coursing mode of “fight-or-flight” into a calmer space of functionality to transcend crisis stimuli.  Polyvagal theory, which I hope to better discuss in a future post related to trauma recovery, reinforces the understanding that engaging the diaphragm to mindfully breathe can help restore optimal systemic function.

Fantastic – so let’s talk about technique.  Although you can literally breathe anywhere (and, really, you should, as long as you are six feet away from anyone else), find a space where you can sit undisturbed for a few minutes.  Sit comfortably upright in a chair with your feet flat on the floor.  You can put your hand on your belly if you so choose.  The goal with each breath is to fill your belly with air (thus the hand placement), pause for a count of three, and then use all the muscles of your core to try to put the back of your navel on your spine.  As a bioengineer, I recognize that your breath won’t actually depart your lungs and your navel will not get to your spine, but that’s the movement we’re going for.  Now, give five deep breaths a shot.  This breathing exercise can be used as a stand-alone means of self-care, but is more powerful when coupled with holding specific acupuncture points (a.k.a. acupressure), discussed below.

Acupuncture 101

Before addressing how using acupressure points might best serve you, a quick introduction to EAM Theory is in order. A fundamental tenet of EAM is balance in all things, which is not unlike the Western physiological concept of homeostasis. The human body is made up of increasingly intertwined systems, all of which need to operate within a narrow window of conditions (e.g. blood glucose levels, tissue pH, PaO2, body temperature, etc.) to maintain functionality. If any one of these values either exceeds or falls below their respective acceptable windows, the systemic effect can be catastrophic. EAM views these tangible aspects of the delicate balance of human functionality similar to the Western assessment, albeit through a slightly different lens. EAM further uses an additional characteristic of the human body that is outside the current Western paradigm, the concept of Qi.

Life force energy, or Qi (pronounced “chee”), that which separates the quick from the dead, flows throughout the body along meridians that are laid out in a very well documented circuit.  This circuit does not exclusively follow any other accepted pathways (e.g. the vasculature or neural networks); rather, it is something else altogether.   Furthermore, this circuit has been critically evaluated for millennia such that it has been broken up into 12 smaller circuits known as meridians, which are comprised of acupuncture points that correlate to the 12 organ systems they support (e.g. the Heart system, the Lung system, the Kidney system, etc.).  EAM theory holds that provided one’s Qi is in perfect balance and flowing smoothly, there will be no condition that is literally a dis-ease, for the body, mind, and spirit would then be harmoniously balanced and the whole system would be functioning as perfectly designed.   Better said, sustaining perfect balance means you’ll never get any older and you’ll never die.

Awesome, right?

The problem is that humans are imperfect beings residing in these beautifully engineered houses, which means we are typically less than optimal housekeepers and rarely engage in preventative (or even routine) holistic maintenance in the best of circumstances, let alone during a pandemic. The experiences we live and the choices we make (e.g. high stress, sedentary lifestyles, poor sleep habits, unhealthy eating, etc.) interfere with the smooth flow of Qi, resulting in local, and sometimes systemic, imbalances in our systems leading to dis-ease.  While the human body has evolved to withstand a wide range of circumstances, its resiliency is maximized when its systems are working in balance.

Because I am a member of the mighty class of ’94 whose relationship with EE is highly suspect, I prefer to think of this circuit of meridians as not unlike a collection of garden hoses tenuously linked together.  When you get a kink in a garden hose, there is an excess of water pressure before the kink and little, if any, water will make it past this blockage.  High stress through unforeseen experiences, especially when coupled with unhealthy lifestyles, can similarly introduce energetic kinks into our meridian network and system imbalance follows.  For example, such imbalances can manifest physically as distinctly different pain presentations along the pathway of Qi (i.e. sharp, stabbing, acute pain is associated with an excessive condition and dull, achy, more chronic pain correlates with a deficient one).  It is important to note that beyond physical pain, the psycho-emotional equilibrium will also be impacted in response to our experiences as, sometimes despite our best efforts, we exist simultaneously in body, mind, and spirit.  To clear these kinks in your system, acupuncturists use tiny, disposable needles inserted at key points throughout the body, yet you can self-treat at home with acupressure.

Using Acupressure with Mindful Breathing to Ease Uncomfortable Symptoms

Acupuncture points have been studied for millennia to identify ways their stimulation will correct the body’s imbalances and restore resiliency.  Despite the fact that acupuncture is a holistic style of medicine that has been well evaluated for ages, modern research into its efficacy is only now coming to light.  In fact, a 2016 article in the Journal of Emergency Medicine documented that acupuncture outperformed morphine in acute pain management in an emergency room setting (Grissa et al., 2016), which is wonderful news considering the nation’s ongoing opioid epidemic.  Beyond the management of physical pain, acupuncture treats the whole system in body, mind, and spirit and research into its use for psycho-emotional pain is now beginning to emerge.  With that said, below are some acupoints that may serve you well during the pandemic.

What Can I Do to Calm My Trash?

Although rising levels of anxiety can be well-countered by breathing deeply as discussed above, there are four acupuncture points that can be employed specifically to settle your system.   I teach people to remember their locations with the nonsensical phrase “I hear my gates in my chest.”  The first point is called Shen Men (Gateway of the Spirit) and located on your outer ear (see Figure 1).  The second two are a pair of points known as the Interior and Exterior Gates, the first of which was popularized by the sea-sickness bands that you may have used during Youngster cruise.  Although applying pressure to this point (a.k.a. the Interior Gate) is very effective at reducing nausea, it is also routinely used to manage anxiety.  This point is located at three fingers’ width above the wrist crease in between the two prominent tendons at the center of the underside of your wrist (see Figure 2 – all images taken from Deadman, 2011).  This point’s BFF, the Exterior Gate, is located on the opposite side of the arm.  The easiest way to find it is to place your thumb on the Interior Gate and place your pointer finger on the outside of your arm directly opposite your thumb.  In Ancient China when needles were at a premium, physicians would “through needle” to stimulate both points with one needle.  Fortunately, I still have access to single-use disposable needles and don’t feel compelled to through needle.  The final point in this protocol is Chest Center (see Figure 3), located at the center of your sternum, which is used to settle the Heart and the Lung systems.

Find a space where you won’t be interrupted for five minutes.  Locate Shen Men in each ear with your pointer fingers, gently press on these points, and take three deep breaths.  Find the Interior and Exterior Gates on one arm and take three deep breaths.  Locate these gates on the other arm and take three deep breaths.  Find Chest Center and take three deep breaths.  Repeat as often as you’d like until you calm your trash.

I May Have Eaten Too Many Gluten-Laden Croissants

As many memes have documented, the urge to splurge on dietary intake has been a byproduct of this pandemic for many.  Guilty – I broke my gluten fast to indulge in homemade pain au chocolat and was rather quickly rewarded with a frontal headache (it was so worth it).  In EAM there are six different types of headache, each one corresponding to a different organ system out of balance.  When you develop a headache right in the middle of your forehead, it usually correlates to a dietary indiscretion, which will be different for everyone because everyone is different.  As someone who is gluten-sensitive, a dose of gluten (intentionally consumed or not) will fire up such a headache for me.  Excessive alcohol consumption may inspire a nasty frontal hangover headache.  To help rebalance this system, you can apply pressure to the point He Gu, which is a power point on the Large Intestine meridian.  It is located in the meaty part of the hand between the thumb and pointer finger at the center point of the long bone going to the latter (see Figure 4). Applying pressure to both sides is best and, although tricky, can be done solo.  I find it easiest to ask a friend’s help in banishing such headaches.  You can also purchase a device to apply pressure on this point (wish I’d have thought of that…).

I Might Throttle Someone

Anger, frustration, resentment, and stress is running rampant right now.  We are all outside our comfort zones and the ensuing emotional barrage is not unexpected, which means many have fuses that are all creeping steadily shorter.  In addition to the above points to help calm your trash, you can add a key point on the Liver channel.  Most are familiar with the idea that liver, the actual organ, works non-stop to detoxify our blood.   From an EAM perspective, the Liver system is comprised of the actual organ and the associated meridian network and serves to detoxify our whole person in body, mind, and spirit.  When that system becomes overwhelmed, it stagnates and we become more angry, frustrated, resentful, and stressed out.  To break free of that positive feedback loop, engage this power point on the Liver channel.  You can find Liver 3 on the top of either foot in between the long bones going to your big toe and the next toe over, about an inch or so back from the webbing between your toes (see Figure 5).  It will probably be a little tender, so press gently and breathe deeply.

I Can’t Think

Sometimes when we are inundated with information overload, our system gets bogged down and is unable to effectively process it all to come up with appropriate ways forward.  To help settle the mind, follow the Calm Your Trash protocol above and add an eyebrow massage.  First find Yin Tang, located at the center of your monobrow if you had one not unlike Bert of Sesame Street fame.  This point serves to calm the mind and spirit – press on that point while taking three deep breaths.  Now, take another deep breath in and use your pointer fingers to find where your eyebrows begin nearest your nose.  As you exhale, move your fingers outwards gently massaging your eyebrows to their end.  There are numerous points along your eyebrows whose stimulation will help clear your mind.  Repeat twice more and begin anew until your mind has settled.

I Can’t Not Think

180o-out from the previous symptom is not being able to slow your brain from churning.  While this symptom most often presents as you try to spool down for some much-needed rest, it is not exclusive to impacting sleep, especially when Cable News is on 24/7.  So, turn off the screen and unplug, before finding the next powerhouse point.  This point is easiest found while sitting down with an ankle crossed above the opposite knee.  It is located found four fingers’ width above the medial malleolus (the prominent bone on the inside of your ankle).  If you gently run your finger up from the medial malleolus, you will likely find a little depression – that’s the point (see Figure 6).  Press gently and take a deep breath.   Repeat as necessary.

I Can’t Fall Asleep

In addition to trying everything for combatting being unable to not think, try an inverted yoga pose for 4-5 minutes.  Or, if that brings back nightmares of gymspazstics class, lie on the floor with your rump against the wall with your feet leaning on the wall for 4-5 minutes before you crawl back into bed.

I Can’t Stay Asleep

In EAM theory, each of the 12 primary organ systems have a two-hour window during the day where they are operating most efficiently.  For example, the Stomach is at its best from 7-9 am, which means Great Aunt Madge was right in harping on the importance of a good breakfast.  Twelve hours later the organ system is operating at its least optimal, which for the Stomach is right about the time most Americans overload the system with a heavy meal.  Many people under stress find themselves wide awake from 1-3 am, which is when the Liver system is working at its best and trying desperately to detoxify your system.  If you have introduced a heavy processing load, chances are good you may find yourself waking up in these wee hours.  Should you awaken, refrain from checking your phone and instead follow the recommendations under “I Might Throttle Someone.”

I’m Having Nightmares

Nightmares are a very common side effect of high levels of stress and trauma.  Make no mistake, we are being traumatized as a species.  Every one of us will likely have a horrific personal data point as a byproduct of this virus and nightmares are not unusual.  To help calm your system should you have a nightmare, take five deep breaths while you find the next point located on the palm of your hand.  You can find it most easily by making a gentle fist – it’s located where your pinky crosses the top line on your palm, in between the two long bones going to your pinky and your ring finger (see Figure 7).  I find it easiest to put your opposite thumb on that point and support your hand with the rest of your fingers.  Take five deep breaths and repeat on the other side, after which you can follow it up with the protocol to calm your trash.

I Can’t Possibly Remember Any of That

If the above is too overwhelming, then just remember this… All of the primary meridians begin and end in the nailbeds of your fingers and toe tips (see Figure 8).  You can remind the energy where it is supposed to go by simply gently pinching the sides of your nailbeds on all your fingers and your toes, which will keep your Qi from stagnating.

And don’t forget to mindfully breathe…

Whew, that was a lot of information.  If you have any questions about any of these self-care practices to manage your or how EAM might be able to help you maintain balance, please feel free to reach out.  I can best be reached via email at jill@catalysisacupuncture.com.

In the meantime, take good care of yourselves and breathe easy – you are so worth it.

Cheers,
Jill

References
Deadman, P., Al-Khafaji, M., & Baker, K. (2007).  A manual of acupuncture.  East Sussex, England:  Journal of Chinese Medicine Publications.

Grissa, M.H., Baccouche, H., Bouobaker, H., Beltaief, K., Bzeouich, N., Fredj, H., … & Mouira, S. (2016). Acupuncture vs intravenous morphine in the management of acute pain in the ED. American Journal of Emergency Medicine. 34 (11): 2112-2116. doi: 10.1016/j.ajem.2016.07.028. Epub 2016 Jul 20

Jill (Brest van Kempen) Richards is a 1994  graduate from USNA who studied Ocean Engineering at USNA before joining VP-40 as a P-3C NFO.  Following a near-fatal car accident at the end of her JO squadron tour, she was permanently medically grounded and next flew a desk as an NROTC Instructor at University of Utah where, fascinated by the resiliency of her crumpled body, she completed her Master’s degree in Bioengineering and, compelled by her Navy experience, pursued a second Bachelor’s in Gender Studies.  Following her time in Utah, she took orders as an officer recruiter in Washington State, after which she studied East Asian Medicine at Middle Way Acupuncture Institute.  She graduated shortly before being recalled to active duty for three-years to teach at USNA, arriving in Maryland Board-certified as a Licensed Acupuncturist and a Diplomate with National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).  While recalled to teach Engineering at USNA, she opened a Complementary Medicine Clinic in Brigade Medical where she treated dozens trauma survivors in addition to hundreds of others suffering in body, mind, and spirit.  After her tour at USNA, she and her husband (a VP pilot) traveled the country in a motorhome for two years studying the nation as a family and roadschooling their three kids while she completed her Doctorate in Acupuncture.  Now again a Navy Reservist, she works part-time with the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and is leading two studies with ONR Code 34 (Warfighter Performance) to evaluate acupuncture’s efficacy, one treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the other Phantom Limb Pain (PLP).  She is the owner and Chief Catalyst at Catalysis Acupuncture in Bend, Oregon, where she and her family spend as much time celebrating the outdoors as possible.  And she may or may not have a knitting problem.

Self-Care – The Big Picture

By Jill (Brest van Kempen) Richards ’94

Dear Sisters,
Although I had originally hoped to contribute a post on my experiences using acupuncture to work with sexual trauma survivors at USNA in honor of April being Sexual Assault Awareness Month (which I still hope to share at some point), I have been moved to write something more general that might be of wider use as we move through the growing pandemic.  In attending USNA, we have each been called to serve in different ways, and many are wondering what they can do right now in the privacy of their own homes as we seek to “level the curve.”  Instead of joining the growing population who threaten synthetic trou snapback (and, truthfully, I may or may not have used this societal time out to learn to make croissants and pain au chocolat…), I offer a different perspective to consider.

We are currently under quarantine to limit the load on our medical system to a manageable threshold to minimize the outcome casualties, not to keep us from getting this virus at all.  In fact, your operating assumption should be “It’s coming for me.”  It is.  This virus does not discriminate and wants a piece of everyone. It will find you through something someone touched two days ago that showed up at your doorstep.  Or via your benevolent neighbor’s cookie drop.  Or when the social distancing restrictions are relaxed. Or through your pet tiger (so far, dogs are in the clear).  Regardless of your current underlying health conditions, there are ways you can enhance your system’s proficiency to improve your outcome of whatever you may face.  Improving your own body’s ability to withstand any attack will then strengthen that of our local communities to bolster our nation’s health and inspire global wellbeing.  It all starts with you and enhancing your own resiliency.

My favorite read on resiliency is found in HBR’s 10 Best Reads on Managing Yourself.  In “How Resilience Works,” Diane Coutu explores resiliency as a human characteristic that transcends all professions.  Coutu further asserts that the research on resilience have three common themes.  “Resilient people, they posit, possess three characteristics:  a staunch acceptance of reality; a deep belief, often buttressed by strongly held values, that life is meaningful; and an uncanny ability to improvise.“ (Coutu, 2010)  Those who embody these traits remain unflappable and can even thrive in the worst of circumstances and those who don’t are more inclined to shut down in the face of adversity.

I prefer to be among the former.

To that end, I’ve been thinking about what reminders might be helpful for the Sisterhood of Mother B to encourage us to rely on what bonds us together to best navigate our way forward in these unprecedented times.   My perspective is unique in that in addition to the Navy’s Semper Gumby training, my outlook is informed by the tenets of East Asian Medicine (EAM).  Below I share some self-care techniques from a macro perspective (a micro perspective with a focus on stress symptom management is coming!) that can serve to enhance your own resiliency.

Self-Care 101 from a Macro Perspective

A quick online search yields countless blogs and websites dedicated to taking care of yourself, which I find immediately overwhelming.  Everyone has her or his own way of managing stress and engaging in self-care, which may or may not be optimal and certainly evolves with our life experiences.  In general, as suggested by EAM theory (and Control Systems Engineering), I espouse working to maintain balance: bring good energy into your system to reduce the processing load and maximize your ability to allow this good energy to flow through you into your experiences, some of which hopefully feed your soul.  Let’s break this down a little more specifically…

Bring Good Energy In – Plenty of information is available on how to eat to minimize stress on your body (The Plan by Lyn-Genet Recitas is a great resource), yet this notion goes well beyond what food and drink (and in what amounts) you choose to consume and includes what you choose to ingest intellectually.  Although it’s important to make sure you are eating healthfully and drinking enough plain water (a good recommendation is to consume half your weight in pounds in ounces of water daily), as my 14-year old recently reminded me, you “can’t unsee stuff.”  While there may be temptation to use this mandatory global time out as the opportunity to binge watch The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad, maybe watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood would bring in less convoluted energy?  You also can’t unread and unhear information, which means a daily check on virus updates is wise to stay informed, but hawking those stats throughout the day will only take up limited mental and spiritual real estate that will be better directed elsewhere.

Detoxify Your Life – In addition to Marie Kondo-ing your spaces (seriously, who needs to be surrounded by anything that doesn’t spark joy right now?), fostering positive relationships and cultivating healthy work experiences are a place to focus instead of divesting limited resources into perpetuating toxic ones.  This pandemic might serve as a lovely impetus to shift perspectives and respectfully work through differences.  Along these lines, refrain from engaging in toxic encounters online.  There is so much societal anxiety, fear, and grief, which means plenty of people are seeking online outlets to vent.  Refrain from engaging in toxic discourse, as such exchanges serve no one well.  The bottom line: the more cleanly you live, especially now, the less of an operational “detoxification” load you place upon your system, which frees your resources up to be more flexible to better react to anything coming your way.

Image from nyc.usnaparents.net – Be with our families in NYC!

Let’s Get Physical – Since we all learned the value of daily PT starting with an introduction to PEP, I’ll only mention two of my favorite whole body exercise practices that anyone can start at any level and can be done at home.  Yoga and Tai Chi are invaluable practices that tonify the whole system and settle the mind.  Although I am a huge fan of Rodney Yee whose yoga practices can be streamed online through www.gaia.com, I haven’t yet met the yogi.  My local Tai Chi school here in Bend, Oregon, is offering live free Beginning Tai Chi sessions to the public, which can be found at https://www.youtube.com/user/JianfengChen1978.  Master JianFeng Chen is a Tai Chi International Grand Champion and a brilliant teacher.  Depending on what’s recommended in your local area, just getting out to walk or run can be a mental game changer.

Maintain Healthy Sleep Hygiene – Your system needs good rest every night to repair herself and be prepared to tackle the next day’s demands, especially now.  This concept may be difficult for Type A women who were inculcated in a Brigade culture that reveres doing more with less sleep.  I remember many a Navy one-upsmanship discussion surrounding lack of sleep that could only be trumped by a Monty Python-esque “Oh yeah, well I got up before I went to bed…”  If you are having difficulty getting good rest, in addition to the standard “no screens at bedtime” and “at least 8 hours a night” recommendations, there are some specific techniques I’ll discuss next in Self-Care 101 from a Micro Perspective that may improve your sleep.

Do Something Everyday that Feeds Your Soul – If you’ve not read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, I can’t recommend it more highly and think it is especially relevant now.  Dr. Frankl was a psychiatrist who was an Auschwitz survivor.  The first half of his book describes his observations in Auschwitz and the second evaluates these experiences through a psychiatric lens.  My big take-away is that people can withstand the most horrific of experiences so long as they have an identified passion for living through them.  While we are moving through uncharted territory, it is important not just to take stock of what’s in your larder but also identify your passion, which will look different for everyone.  Mindfully seek ways to pursue that passion daily so that your mind and spirit stay healthy no matter how this pandemic unfolds.

Be Present – This pandemic experience is rife with a wide-range of emotions.  Amidst bouts of anxiety as we process the potential outcomes of this virus, I have felt prone to profound sadness for all the grief our world is experiencing and frustration at the inconsistent management of this virus on individual and global levels – and I am living far from NYC where matters are much, much worse. Although I am not in a viral hot zone (yet), I have had to close the doors to my practice and, like many other small business owners, am struggling with the very real concerns about making ends meet.  I am terrified that my visit with my aging parents over the holidays will be our last.  Yet, along with all of these intense emotions, I have also delighted in the joys of being around my family more and initiating longer check in FT conversations with my folks and other loved ones who are far away.  Not to mention the near giddiness with the liberty of not having to go about a normal routine and the freedom to wear my Wonder Woman Onsie as my day-time pajamas uniform (it’s like a flight suit, BUT FLEECE!)…  All of these are normal emotional responses to the unknown.  Make no mistake, this experience is a traumatic one for our entire species, one that will manifest differently for each of us.  Whatever emotions do come up, refrain from counter-productive self-judgment and give yourself permission to be present in them, which will allow them to move through you so you may then move freely without their baggage.

Engage in Social Activities at a Distance – A common byproduct of social distancing is the possibility to get stuck in one’s own head, which rarely serves me well.  In this time of isolation and quarantine, we are fortunate to have the ability to connect with people online.  I recommend reaching out and checking in with all your circles.  My husband’s college housemates just had an online happy hour via Zoom – brilliant!  My girls are doing Irish Dance class through Zoom and I routinely do Tai Chi through my school’s YouTube channel.  Ironically, the same on-line connections that have facilitated depersonalizing our relationships and celebrating artfully-contrived versions of perfection are also now enabling profound connections rooted in human kindness and unabashed vulnerability.  Choose to spread those real and very human experiences – and this is where the creativity developed in Bancroft Hall and in military service beyond the Yard come into play (motivational recons, anyone?).  Who are more prepared than we to lead our communities to do more with less in unconventional ways?  Weave your passion into your network and shine brightly to creatively spread your joy.

Permission Granted – Before I sign off for today, I want to remind you to give yourselves permission to be still.  If you struggle with giving yourself permission to spool down, I hereby grant you that permission.  Who knows how long our shelter-in-place recommendations may endure, so please don’t feel compelled to tackle your TO DO list yesterday.  Be kind to, gracious and patient with yourselves as we all move into the unknown – you are so worth it.

Until the next time, take good care and be well,

Jill (Brest van Kempen) Richards is a 1994  graduate from USNA who studied Ocean Engineering at USNA before joining VP-40 as a P-3C NFO.  Following a near-fatal car accident at the end of her JO squadron tour, she was permanently medically grounded and next flew a desk as an NROTC Instructor at University of Utah where, fascinated by the resiliency of her crumpled body, she completed her Master’s degree in Bioengineering and, compelled by her Navy experience, pursued a second Bachelor’s in Gender Studies.  Following her time in Utah, she took orders as an officer recruiter in Washington State, after which she studied East Asian Medicine at Middle Way Acupuncture Institute.  She graduated shortly before being recalled to active duty for three-years to teach at USNA, arriving in Maryland Board-certified as a Licensed Acupuncturist and a Diplomate with National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).  While recalled to teach Engineering at USNA, she opened a Complementary Medicine Clinic in Brigade Medical where she treated dozens of trauma survivors in addition to hundreds of others suffering in body, mind, and spirit.  After her tour at USNA, she and her husband (a VP pilot) traveled the country in a motorhome for two years studying the nation as a family and roadschooling their three kids while she completed her Doctorate in Acupuncture.  Now again a Navy Reservist, she works part-time with the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and is leading two studies with ONR Code 34 (Warfighter Performance) to evaluate acupuncture’s efficacy, one treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the other Phantom Limb Pain (PLP).  She is the owner and Chief Catalyst at Catalysis Acupuncture in Bend, Oregon, where she and her family spend as much time celebrating the outdoors as possible.  And she may or may not have a knitting problem.

Emergency Gardening with Rudy

By Renee Runyon ’04

Rudy takes up a majority of my time and energy, but spring is sort of here, and I need to be outside, at least sometimes. Every year, I plant a garden. It’s not usually anything spectacular, but I enjoy doing it, and there’s really nothing better in the entire world than a Jersey tomato. With all the extra time I have in the near future and all the uncertainty surrounding food shopping, I planned to beef up my garden. I have a tiny yard. Like 100 square feet tiny. A lot of it was taken up by pavers that made a little walkway from my back door to the driveway, so my first job was to pull all of them up to make room for more vegetables. I can’t eat pavers.

I still had some leftover seeds I bought last spring, saved some seeds over the summer and fall, and got some more seeds from a friend, so I felt like I was ready. During the few days that the virus became a real thing and everyone was out buying all the world’s toilet paper and hand sanitizer, I was measuring my yard and drawing pictures and researching itty bitty gardens to maximize what space I had. It was time to grow as much of my own food as I possibly could, then learn how to make it better for next year. I repurposed some leftover bamboo floor boards into three raised beds, each about a foot high, so I was going to need quite a bit of dirt.

Being a cheapskate even when I am gainfully employed, I don’t want to spend a whole lot on anything. The fancy potting soil is pricey. Top soil is dirt cheap, but lacks the nutrients the plants will eventually need, so I’d need to buy some expensive stuff, a lot of cheap stuff, and find some free stuff. Under the cover of darkness, I stole the two bags of yard debris that my neighbor was kind enough to bag up and put out front for the town to collect. I dumped them in my garden beds to fill some space so I wouldn’t need to buy so much dirt. Turns out, there was also a whole lot of debris in my own tiny yard, so that all went into the garden as well. Cardboard. Junk mail. Food scraps. Napkins. Old burlap. Coffee grounds. Anything that would create volume and eventually degrade went into my garden underneath the thick layer of cheap topsoil and cheap bagged compost/manure.

When I was satisfied with the amount of soil, I planted seeds. I’ll usually use (or reuse) one of those commercially available seed starter trays and start all the plants indoors, then when the seedlings are big enough and there’s no more danger of frost, plant them outside. This was the first time I’ve ever planted seeds directly in the ground, so I was nervous. Looking ahead at the weather, I knew there probably wouldn’t be any more freezing temperatures, but it was still scary. It became even more scary when things with a 3-4 day germination time still hadn’t poked through the surface after a week. I had to tell myself that it’s colder out there than it is in my kitchen. Just be patient. As of today, I’ve seen some cabbage, spinach, kale, carrots, and beets. I’m not a fan of kale, but my neighbor likes it, so I planted it for her.

Rudy was not exactly stuck inside while all of this outdoor work was happening. I saw him pressing his face and paws against the window. Then he started with this sad, pathetic meowing, and I felt kind of bad, so I set up a giant dog crate in the driveway and let him supervise. He loved it. He could lie in the sun and see bugs and birds and people and dogs. Sometimes, he’d be lucky enough to catch a piece of grass or a weed that the wind blew toward him and eat it.

This year, I planted only stuff that I seem to purchase most often when I go shopping, either at the grocery store or local farmer’s market. It was SO hard to resist the temptation to plant everything I want to eat, like okra and tomatillos and corn (which I LOVE, but I know it’s very hard to grow), but I was surprisingly reserved and tried to make up for my lack of variety with more volume of string beans and carrots and beets and kale-like greens. As much as I want it to, I don’t expect that my adorable little garden will feed me all summer and into the winter, but it’ll be fun to see how far I can make it go.

Since everyone is stuck at home, I’ve been able to see a lot of my neighbors and chat with them.  I’ve received many, many compliments, but I’m not fishing for approval. I love that people are interested and want to talk about gardens and vegetables and my feline supervisor. I think being able to grow your own food is important, and I love answering questions and offering advice. If my little vegetable garden inspires only one other family to plant a garden while their cat supervises, that would make me happy.

Even though I’m not out there on the front lines, I’m doing my best to stay home to keep myself, my neighbors, my friends, and my family healthy. If sharing photos of my dopey cat and my tiny garden brings a smile to someone’s face, even if it is just my mom’

My Hero Wears a Flea Collar

By Renee Runyon ’04

I was called a hero today because of a silly Instagram post about my cat. I laughed because that’s not exactly how I think of myself as I sit on my sofa watching reruns of Mary Tyler Moore, The Jeffersons, and documentaries about serial killers. Things are sucking right now for a lot of people, but I’m truly enjoying all this time I have to myself. A lot of my friends and family are having a hard time with this, and I can definitely empathize, but I really don’t know how to help. It seems silly and insignificant, but what started as a sort of self-serving, photographic journal on Instagram and Facebook of my indoor and outdoor adventures with unemployment (unrelated to COVID-19) and quarantine, has become kind of a bright spot for some (mostly my mom and Aunt Terry) amidst the bad news and scary reality of the situation. Before this year, I tended to shy away from social media, but I like that I can use it now to provide a little humor. This virus is not a joke. It’s something that should absolutely be taken seriously, but I’m here to save the day with a bit of a respite from the gravity of the temporary new normal.

After I lost one of my two cats almost two years ago, I had been thinking about getting another. I kept putting it off because I thought Eddy (from Ab Fab, sweetie, darling!) liked being an only cat. This past holiday season, the time was right. I was going to have some time off of work and there was a kitten that needed a home. A few days before Christmas, I drove over an hour to meet the husband of some lady in some parking lot to pick up this kitten. Other than my squealing, “OH, MY GOD HE’S SO CUTE!” there was no pageantry. After my little outburst, the guy simply said, “She needs the carrier back.” Right. So Rudy and I went home.

I’ll provide a little of my background to illustrate my pretty extensive personal and professional relationship with our feline brethren, but keep in mind that none of that time and experience could prepare me for Rudy.

Ever since I was 7 or 8 years old, I wanted to be a veterinarian. After high school, I went to college and majored in biology so I could begin my journey to my dream job. I got a D in biology. Twice. After another year of trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I enlisted in the Navy. I went to Nuke school, then to the Naval Academy, then to an amphib in San Diego. When I left the Navy, I thought I’d give the veterinary field another go. I became a veterinary technician. As a vet tech, I dealt with all kinds of personalities, both animal and human, but my absolute favorites were fractious cats. I think it was partly because it wasn’t easy and partly because no one else ever wanted to deal with them. The first hospital where I worked had a dedicated cat clinic, where the doctor saw only feline patients. She taught me a whole lot. In the second hospital, the doctor I worked with was a favorite of all the crazy cat ladies (and one crazy cat man), so cat wrangling became a necessary skill that developed rather quickly. That doctor taught me a whole lot more.

My family had a handful of cats while I was growing up. Every single one of them did normal cat things, like run away and hide when I opened a can of soda. Seek refuge in a kitchen cabinet when I turned on the vacuum cleaner. Maybe be curious enough to poke their heads through the crack in the bathroom door while someone was in the shower, but never, ever, ever, EVER enter the bathroom. They all just kept to themselves in general because that’s what cats do.

Rudy is silly. He’s social. He moves really fast and he likes people, animals, loud noises, water, and the vacuum cleaner. He likes to cuddle. He loves to harass Eddy, and deep down, I think Eddy likes it despite her very loud and dramatic outbursts in response to Rudy’s attention. He’s very busy and every day, he does at least one thing that surprises me.

Every few days starting around the beginning of March, I shared photos on Instagram and Facebook of him doing dumb things, like stealing used paper towels or food, playing in the bathtub, or helping me do my taxes. When necessary, I added witty, anthropomorphic captions.

About two days went by without an update on Rudy’s antics and I got a few messages asking where he was and if he was okay. I realized that this furry little orange jackass was making people happy and they looked forward to seeing him, so I rolled with it. My aunt works in a healthcare facility and she said her favorite part of the workday is being able to check her phone and see something completely unrelated to COVID-19. For the last three weeks, updates on Rudy’s tomfoolery are provided at least once a day. I don’t know that I’d be this sane if I didn’t have him. He’s the real hero.