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Karen Stewart, MA, and David Stewart, PhD, are psychologists who work with individuals, couples, groups, and organizations in their Durham practice.

On Being Toxic!

By Karen Stewart, MA

Karen Stewart, MA

At the beginning of this year, I was very ill. Pseudomonas, a hospital acquired infection, had caused me to become severely septic (toxic!). By the time I made it to the Emergency Room my blood pressure was below 70, my bodily temperature did not register on a thermometer and my heart was beating wildly and erratically. Fortunately, after being resuscitated in the ER, I received a course of IV antibiotics and was discharged after several days. I was very lucky.

I gradually recovered and returned to work. But only recently—six months later—have I begun to feel like I am almost back to normal. As I look back at the experience, while I wouldn’t have chosen it, I consider it an unexpected blessing.

Some people have assumed that I would have been afraid during the crisis, but I was not. I felt entirely present in the moment, highly aware and very conscious of all that was going on around me. I knew that the person who was being cared for on the other side of the curtain was unresponsive. The nurses were calling out to him and then his mother arrived and was very distressed. Eventually he was taken away. I wondered if he had died, but when I asked a nurse, she said with a note of pride “no one has died in the Duke ER today.”

I watched as EMTs and police arrived and observed the tenderness and camaraderie between them and the nurses, doctors and staff. I watched as the nurses arrived for their shifts rested and as they grew tired during the day. I felt the professional care and concern of all of the staff who tended to me and their genuine relief and joy when I began to respond to their interventions. At one point a nurse related that if my heart rate did not come down they would have to “do something.” I began to meditate and an image came to me of a dove alighting on and resting on my chest. My heart rate did indeed start to return to normal. During the entire time, as I was feeling so present in the moment, I also felt “held” in the presence of something that was beyond me.

The experience was clarifying—choices and priorities that had seemed complicated and difficult were suddenly clear and obvious. In the months afterward, even though I was quite ill, I felt happy and peaceful. I didn’t worry about anything and was just able to focus, for the first time in my life, on simply taking care of myself. As I felt better I automatically wanted to return to work and take care of things that needed to be done. The happiness continued.

Then in late May I realized the happiness had dissipated somewhat and upon reflection I recognized what had occurred. I was able to see what I had lost. There were three things that had governed my life during those five months and I had begun to lose sight of those guiding truths.

I have known those three principles are some of the major keys to happiness but had never experienced them so profoundly nor for so long. Recognizing and naming them immediately brought back the happiness and I return to them as a touchstone whenever I catch myself drifting into past problems or worrying about the future. Here they are:

Live in the present, accept what is and do what needs to be done at that moment.

Give up expectations and get comfortable with not knowing. I actually began to love not knowing because it kept all possibilities open.

Be grateful for all that I have.

These precepts represent the wisdom of the ages and are present in all religious traditions in one way or another. They do not mean that one becomes complacent but that one’s actions are fueled from a place of peace and are more grounded. Doing what needs to be done might be going to a protest, writing a letter to a legislator, giving money to a worthy cause, volunteering. It could also mean resting, taking a walk, visiting a friend, caring for children, going to work. Staying open to possibilities helps us to be more flexible and creative. Being thankful for what we have is one of the most important things we can do.

When I remember these truths a sense of calm returns and once again I am in the present in the Presence. I had to become toxic myself to really get this lesson and I hope that it will help me to remain healthy in this toxic world.