Fuck the power of positive thinking. Spirit is far superior to the brain.
“Show me how you fight.”
“Show me how you live.”
“Show me who the fuck you are!”
– Aaron Eckhart in “Bleed for This,” the new Ben Younger biopic based on the life of boxer, Vinny Pazienza.
Do you know about Vinny Pazienza? Or maybe you know him better as the Pazmanian devil? Don’t feel bad if you’re drawing a blank. I had never even heard his name before I went to the screening of “Bleed for This” last week. Of course I didn’t know his name—I didn’t even know the World Series were presently happening until I called a friend last night and she was like, “can I call you back. I’m watching the World Series.” And I wondered who was playing but forgot to google it because I just really don’t care. So it’s no shock that I didn’t know about the life of a pro boxer from the 90’s.
Vinny Pazienza is known to have the greatest comeback in boxing history. In 1991, on the heels of great success, a grave car accident left him with a broken neck. Doctors gave him the unsettling news that he may never walk again and that the boxing ring was undoubtedly only a part of his history—not his future. He wouldn’t have it. Fueled by fierce determination to fight again, Pazienza passed on spinal fusion surgery and opted to be fit with a halo—a medical device screwed (literally) into his head for a few months so his upper body would remain entirely still while his bones mended. The halo was a risk; spinal fusion would guarantee a future that involved full mobility while the halo simultaneously put him at risk to never walk again BUT if it worked, he’d have a shot at the ring. His friends, family and doctors saw him as delusional—all were confident that he would never fight again. Ignoring the doctor’s orders, Vinny secretly trained while inside of the halo—an act that is incredibly dangerous considering that one misstep—one bump or fall— could push the screws through his skull impacting his brain. He had a shitload of passion and determination. He needed to fight, he needed back in the ring—nothing would deter him from getting well. Indeed, he returned to the ring within a year and won his first fight back. It was a title win… he got one of those big belts.
In the movie, the bloody story is supplemented with inspiring music and montages, ramping up the audience to get busy living their own life with an equal amount of passion and perseverance. Music and montages can make the most horrific experiences seem almost desirable, can’t they? Life isn’t like that. I’m sure it was an incredibly challenging year for him—I’m sure it SUCKED. But he had a goal, and he had a fervor and zeal that kept him moving toward that goal— that kept his cells bursting with energy. He was not “thinking positively,” his spirit was at work. And THAT gets my rocks off.
The ecstasy I felt watching Vinny conquer his injury reminded me of “Meru.” Do you know about Meru? Meru is a Himalayan mountain with a summit at 21,850 feet known to some as the new Everest—in fact, it’s technically a harder climb with its icy vertical faces. The first completed ascent was made in 2011 by a team of three pro- climbers—Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, and Renan Ozturk. It was their second attempt as a team.In 2008, the three gave it an honest go but they made the calculated decision to descend before triumph due to dangerous weather conditions. Chin, Anker, and Ozturk were determined to reach Meru’s summit to spite the painful conditions, and after a couple of years, they decided to play with mother nature at her most violent…again. This time, they had hard-earned knowledge of the mountain and they were set to succeed. But, five months before their planned ascent, Ozturk had a skiing accident so brutal that it has continued to be referred to as”near-fatal.” His vertebrae were shattered, he had a cranial fracture, and was facing a stark future.
Five months later, he climbed Meru with Chin and Anker and made summit—a task that verges on inhumane. Just in case climbing the mountain twice wasn’t enough, they also filmed and completed a beautiful documentary called—wait for it— Meru. Like Pazienza, Ozturk was determined, dedicated, and full of life- force-passion—nothing would stop him and nothing did. He had a full recovery and continues to climb today. How the fuck? Thankfully, you don’t need to have a passion for fighitng or climbing a mountain. You don’t need to “live on the edge” to know what I’m talking about.
When I was first diagnosed with Lyme, I KNEW I would beat it. I wouldn’t live with it. I wouldn’t be a person that “managed symptoms.” I imagine it was the same way Pazienza and Ozturk looked their fate dead in the eye and said “no.” I had no choice. I loved life too much to be inhibited by an illness. I was too determined to experience the abundant juice and zest. I refused to suck on a dry orange. But then I got sicker, and it got scarier, and I got more and more beaten down and worried that maybe I didn’t have what I needed to beat it. And in those moments, I needed to remember two things. I needed to remember that *some things* are beyond my control. Let me be very clear. I know people who were not as lucky as Ozturk and Pazienza. I know the people who are stuck in wheelchairs for life because of freak accidents. People that are not actively choosing to put themselves in danger, die or end up paralyzed. It’s “unfair” and I am in no way suggesting that if those friends of mine had a little more determination and passion, they would reverse their condition. NOPE. I believe that certain things are beyond our control. I’m not a monster. I needed to have compassion for myself and my reality BUT I also needed to remember the stories that prove the impossible IS possible. Lyme IS curable. I needed to remember that healing could happen even when the doctor (a human being with an MD that makes mistakes all of the time) swears it can’t. I needed to see the people who were hit with the “irreversible” obstacles, REVERSE them. And that includes all of the people who are in a wheelchair AND living their best lives. In fact, that’s even fucking cooler.
About one year into my illness, I was crying on the phone with a friend— a friend who had a complete recovery from Lyme. Crying about how sick I felt, about how lost and alone I was, about how weak I was, how ugly and depressed I had become, and how completely terrified I was. I was pacing back and forth in my bedroom fueled by anxiety. She wouldn’t listen to my complaints or my symptoms. She kept redirecting my attention to my heart. “You need to get in touch with the most powerful part of yourself. Think back and remember a time where you felt the most powerful. Think about how you felt before you got on stage for the first time or something..I’m sure you have something.” I stopped pacing. I did.I felt a surge of energy boil in my core and overflow into the rest of my cells—my fire.
I was in the fourth grade. I was uncool, becoming more timid by the day, and a complete liar in an effort to make friends. I felt more and more ashamed of who I was on a daily basis. Was it my father’s abuse catching up to me, was it the school I was in, the cruel kids I was surrounded by? How had I gone from an entirely confident and optimistic kid to one that profusely sweat and blushed with embarrassment at the sight of herself? I sat upright in the school auditorium waiting for my name to be called: I was signed up to perform for the Storytelling contest that day in front of my whole grade. I had been practicing, “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” with my mother, and I felt READY. I didn’t know I wanted to be an actor yet. Looking back, I don’t know why I was so excited, so ready, so talented. I just was. The teacher in charge called my name and I walked confidently up to stage. I was handed a microphone, I turned on my heels to look out at my peers and something happened. They couldn’t touch me. I was free. I was lit up and ready to explode. And I did. I was brilliant and I knew it. I held the audience captive—even the girls who would have loved to hate me— they couldn’t. I sparkled through my last line and figuratively dropped the fucking mic. I wasn’t surprised that I won—I knew I would. THAT power—the kind I had before my brain knew *too much* about life.
I tapped into the power I felt when I auditioned for Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School—the steadfast confidence and the surety that I WOULD get accepted. I was 13 and the audition process was a day long—performing monologues, improv, interviews, memorization tests. I walked into one interview room that had wall-to-wall mirrors in it, and I eyed myself sweeping across the floor. My back was straight, my heart was full, and I was being PULLED forward. I wasn’t pushing or forcing. I was letting passion carry me. I did get accepted and within one year everything took a nose dive. My brain became too active, my father started using drugs, I was distracted by boys, I hated myself, and self-medicating was the only solution. Brene Brown says we can’t selectively numb. We can’t. As I numbed my dark thoughts, I also numbed all of my passion until I was left empty.
By 19 years old, I had cleaned up my act and started thawing out. My passionate light was burning again and melting away all of the icy stuff, but I never fully recovered. I still knew too much—I still thought too much. I used my brain to outsmart my humanity forgetting that while my heart might be where the scary feelings are, it’s also where my power is. When I got sick, I needed my spirit more than ever. I needed to get out of my own way, shut the thoughts down. I needed to tap into the part of me that shouted “I AM CAPABLE OF ANYTHING. I’VE GOT THIS.” I started closing my eyes and remembering that pure feeling in my body and every time I tapped into that same power I felt at 9 and 13, I felt brighter and lighter and stronger and way more capable of accessing full health. It’s no easy feat when you can barely find the energy to get out of bed, let alone the PASSION to get well, but if I could just tap into it every now and then, if I could just find the surge to keep going then I’d keep going and slowly but surely… I went.
I love being alive. There is so much sweetness, so much power in this life and I want IN. I want in. I use that same passion, the same drive, the same need that Ozturk used to get up Meru and that Pazienza used to get in the ring, to experience this life free from illness. The same fire I used to mount stage at nine years old, and the same fire that fueled my admission into LaGuardia is what keeps me going—I am determined to live my best life. While I am about 1,000 times better than I was, I am not always free from illness and pain (and I highly doubt that Ozturk and Pazienza are free from pain). I woke up today exhausted, with pain in my joints and sore feet. I’m not going to run a marathon today (or ever because I have no desire to), I’m not even going to do yoga today. But I have two choices: To obsess over my pain and my fatigue, beating myself into a deeper darkness, OR to take a little trip into my lively spirit and let it do the steering. I got out of bed, I drank a green juice, and I got to the coffee shop to do some writing. I’m in warrior training. It’s more hardcore than surviving Meru or getting my nose broken for some big old belt. I’m in training for mind, body, spirit thriving and thinking has nothing to do with it. It’s pure fucking spirit. It’s heart. And all of us have it.