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Cancer, Depression, Anxiety & Reiki

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This is part two in a series by Leah Alexandra Goldstein. Follow this link to read part one, “A Choice.”

On April Fools Day in 2008 I got a phone call from my dermatologist in Baltimore who told me that the ugly freckle she’d removed from my left thigh two weeks earlier was a melanoma tumor. I was 20 years old.

At the time I was living in Massachusetts and found myself on a flight to Baltimore the next morning scared, confused and a bit numb. I had a very painful surgery to remove a three-inch diameter circle of my body around where the tumor had grown and a lymph node biopsy to see if the malignant cells had propagated.

I was lucky — lucky to have health insurance, parents, friends, and and other family members who loved and cared for me, and medical professionals who acted assertively and caught my cancer before it spread.

I had physically dodged a bullet but my mental, emotional, and spiritual states were another story.

A 2009 video I made about my experience acquiring skin cancer, having surgery, and obsessively fearing it will return (no sound)

I was depressed and disconnected. Even though there were loving people in my life, I felt alone. I was preoccupied with the fear that my cancer would come back. I coped with the anxiety and depression by numbing my mind with drinking, drugs, and sitting in the sun without sunscreen as often as possible. Admittedly not a very healing or sustainable solution to my despair.

A drawing from my 2008 sketchbook

A drawing from my 2008 sketchbook

A year later in the summer of 2009 I moved to Philadelphia to work on a fabulous documentary film project with Glenn Holsten and to work at a local youth center coordinating an internship program. My melanoma scar was physically healing really well and I got good reports from the x-rays and blood tests my doctors regularly requested.

My life looked pretty together on the outside but I felt lonely living in a new city. I also felt like I was walking around with an electrical socket on my left thigh. The trauma my body had gone through and the effort of my nerve endings to reconnect was disturbing, fascinating, and frightening.

Drawings from July 2009

Drawings from July 2009

I was lead through my work coordinating the youth internship program to The Reiki School + Clinic. As soon as I arrived I knew in my heart, head, gut, and thigh that I needed a treatment. I told my first Reiki practitioner about the cancer scar, but nothing about my mental health state, insomnia, self medication, or fear.

The Reiki sessions I received that summer were unbelievably healing.

Reiki is a holistic healing practice, mostly facilitated through gentle touch, that originated in Japan through the teachings of Mikao Usui toward the end of the 19th century. It helps the receiver tap into their own inner wellspring of healing.

Placing her hands on the top of my head and moving down in small time increments over the course of an hour to my feet, my practitioner held the space for me to heal. Being stationary and present for an hour at a time during that summer of turmoil was a miracle. I learned more about what was happening in my body and mind by being present with myself.

Some of the underlying circumstances of my depression and anxiety — genetics, survivor’s guilt, unhealthy relationships, substance use, over-working, a dearth of spiritual practice in my life — were revealed to me intuitively while I laid still during my sessions. Even though I wasn’t ready to address much of the intuitive information that came up during my Reiki treatments that summer, it was beneficial to have those clues for my healing down the line.

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Though I’d had a very healing experience with Reiki in the summer of 2009, life was filling up with other priorities. I was ambitious in my work life and devoted much of my energy to growing my freelance website development and documentary filmmaking business. I fell in love and I traveled a lot. I went to parties, stayed very busy, and kept any indications of depression and anxiety to myself as much as I could. I went to therapy and I managed appearances. Four years went by and I didn’t really think about Reiki much after the summer of 2009.

In the autumn of 2012 however, the tides of my paranoid and depressive symptoms perked up again. As my mental health took a turn for the worse I stopped regularly doing activities that I loved, or maybe I stopped doing activities that I loved and depression and anxiety expanded to fill the space in my life that remained. Either way, I isolated into a few very close relationships so that my clients, acquaintances, and family wouldn’t know how scared and sad I was becoming. By the summer of 2013 the few relationships I’d been exclusively leaning on and hiding in began to crumble underneath the weight of my distress.

I was terrified of being alone. Obsessed with the future (anxiety) and obsessed with the past (depression). My fear materialized in physical pain — stomach aches, nausea, and chronic colds. By August 2013 I was so consumed with depression that I no longer wanted to be alive, and that was alarming. I knew that if I didn’t invite change into my life I wouldn’t be able to keep living.

In a very rare moment of solitude when no one was available to babysit me for a short stint of time, I closed my eyes and heard the message, “go to the Reiki School, that’s the first step.” I listened and went to the website. A Reiki 1 class was starting a few weeks later. I signed up immediately.

The Reiki School + Clinic breaks up their courses into four levels. Reiki 1 is a thirty-six hour class focused on self-practice over twelve weeks. I was initially taught twenty-four hand positions and told to practice them on my body every day in three-minute increments.

I learned to recite the five precepts of Reiki daily: “Just for today I let go of worry, I let go of anger, and I am grateful for many blessings. I work hard and honestly and I am kind to all living things including myself.”

The Reiki School + Clinic adds on three more principles: Listen without advising, practice without expecting, and discuss without diagnosing.

When I started to practice setting those intentions daily and was still with myself during self-Reiki treatments, I started to get intuitive direction about changes that could happen in my life. Unlike traditional meditation, you are not asked to clear your thoughts during a Reiki session. In fact, it’s really interesting to observe what thoughts and information arise. My relationships with other people needed to change. Exercise and endorphins needed to re-enter my life. I had to clean up what I ate and drank — the things that literally create my body’s cells and impact my internal landscape where all mental states are played out.

For months I suffered from maddening sleeplessness and couldn’t last for more than two hours at a time without taking a sleeping pill. When I started giving myself a brief Reiki treatment before bed, I fell asleep so quickly and started sleeping through the night regularly.

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As these small changes began to build on one another — as a direct result of my Reiki practice — my once untended well was filling up.

I’ve been able to connect more genuinely with other people, which is at the core of meaningful human experience. Realizing that I am not alone on a fundamental, spiritual level is an enormous gift of my Reiki practice and this chapter of mental health recovery.

Each time that I’m able to reach out to someone else and ask how they are feeling, I remember that I am not alone and that I don’t have to be isolated in fear, depression, and anxiety — and neither does anyone else.

I recently graduated from Reiki 2, and as I start to work with Reiki clients of my own and offer Reiki to my friends and family I’m reminded that one of the best ways for me to treat my mental health challenges is to be of service to other people. When I can get out of my own way, let go of my own agenda for “success,” and stop investing in my own self pity, I am able to get into the flow of life and I’m greeted, without fail, by a healing peace that is always available to me when I remember to acknowledge its presence.

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Leah Alexandra Goldstein

Leah is the designer and website manager for OC87RecoveryDiaries.com. She has worked on documentary films that have screened on Ovation TV, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and on Netflix. She is a graduate of Smith College with a dual degree in the Study of Women and Gender and Studio Art with a concentration in Electronic Media. Leah is also trained as a Reiki master. You can see her work and sign up for her mailing list at imleahmoon.com.

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  • Diane

    Thank you for rays of hope

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