Every once in a while, as a writer, I sort of “disappear” — taking a break from blogging and social media to fully immerse myself in finishing a new book. I’m happy to say, in 2015, you’ll be able to see what I’ve been so busy working on (and why I’ve been so quiet)!
Baltimore author Donna Jackson Nakazawa discusses her latest book, The Last Best Cure, on Wednesday, April 16 at 7 p.m. at the Perry Hall Branch, sponsored by the Friends of the Perry Hall Library. The award-winning science journalist and writer recently answered questions for Between the Covers about her book.
Before The Last Best Cure, you authored another book about autoimmune diseases, The Autoimmune Epidemic. What insights or new knowledge did you gain between that book and The Last Best Cure? What was going on in your life prior to writing these books?
The Autoimmune Epidemic focused on how modern chemicals in the world around us and in our diet are overwhelming the human immune system, contributing to rising disease rates and chronic illnesses. The Last Best Cure takes this research a step further and investigates “psychoneuroimmunology,” a new field of study that investigates how mind states, such as anxiety, fear, worry, rumination, anger and pain, can end up damaging our immune function in much the same way as environmental chemicals. Prior to this, I was struggling with my own health crises. The Last Best Cure is my chronicle of a one-year doctor/patient experiment to see if altering my mood state might shift my inflammatory markers and perhaps even improve my physical well-being.
The Last Best Cure has received much critical praise, described as a book that will offer hope for recovery, and change and save lives. What is the most important insight or piece of information you want readers to take away from your book?
I want people to know that there already exists an understanding as to how we can activate the healing potential of the brain. Understanding how to do this gives us powerful tools, ways to change the messages our brain is sending to our cells and our body. Everyone deserves to live the life they want, and these tools can help us all achieve a greater sense of well-being, and even joy.
You were already an award-winning science journalist and writer when you began writing these last two books. What was it like writing professionally about a topic that was also very personal to you? Were there any “aha” moments for your own life as you were writing?
At first, I was only going to write about my personal experiences in the introduction to The Last Best Cure, but my editor thought readers would want to read more about how I also went on this transformational journey myself. She thought it would help convey to readers that we can all take this journey, no matter what physical or emotional health challenges we face. There was so much that I realized along the way about adversity, self-respect and how they play a role in adult illness. Now I’m profoundly grateful to have taken this journey: Life is sweeter, relationships are better and it’s a better, more meaningful way to live.
In addition to being about healing and recovering personal joy, The Last Best Cure is a story about a health epidemic. What steps do we need to take now to secure a better health outlook for future generations?
We need to absolutely, completely and radically change how we view the doctor/patient relationship. If we keep up the current “medical factory” model we’re going to see very little progress in managing chronic health issues. Right now, 133 million adults in America have chronic illnesses, not counting the 22 million with addiction – and these numbers are rapidly climbing. The tools to help patients participate in their own healing and facilitate greater well-being exist; it just requires that physicians incorporate new practices into their doctor/patient paradigm. In order to do this, we must change the way we as a society view treatment, health care and the doctor/patient relationship.
Are there any new books in the works?
Yes, one due out at the end of next year called Childhood Interrupted: How Adversity in the Past Writes the Story of Our Future – And How We Can Change the Script (Atria/Simon & Schuster). It’s a deeper, more extended study of how childhood adversity can create changes in the brain and in our immunology that impact our health long into adulthood – and what we can do to reverse those effects as adults. I’m telling cutting-edge stories of science, about how even very common forms of childhood adversity can reset our immune system to be more stress-reactive, sparking a state of chronic low-grade neuroinflammation for life. I want to help readers understand how the stress we meet in childhood can determine our lifelong “set point” for emotional reactivity, inflammation, disease and depression – and what we can do to reverse the impact of early adversity and trauma years later, in adulthood, to regain our physical and emotional well-being.
How long has the Baltimore area been home to you? What do you like best about living in this area?
My family moved to Baltimore four years ago from Annapolis; my mom and my husband’s parents were already living here, so it just made sense. What I like best about Baltimore is its people. Baltimoreans are real, genuine, honest, intellectual, creative, smart and energetic. They’re committed to their community and engaged in making this a better place to live. We love it here. It’s a vibrant place to be.
Thank you readers, I just found out that last night THE LAST BEST CURE hit #10 on AMAZON in BESTSELLING BOOKS IN HEALTH MEMOIR! That made me smile, and I realize I have all of you to thank for spreading the word, one woman, one reader at a time! In gratitude, I thank you.http://amzn.to/1dIIyVd
I really enjoyed a great discussion today with Dan Rodricks, the host of the NPR show, Midday, on WYPR, Baltimore’s Public Radio station. Dan is smart, genuine, and asks great questions. We really delved into why I wrote The Last Best Cure, the science behind it, and how I hope it can help readers with chronic conditions. You can listen to the entire show by clicking on the podcast at this link: http://wypr.org/post/last-best-cure.
This photo has nothing to do with this show — I am just reposting it here because I like it and it makes me smile!
I spent this weekend at a two day meditation event with one of my dearest friends, and together we soaked in the amazing wisdom of Syliva Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg, who came together to teach as a duo on this snowy, rainy weekend in Washington DC.
My favorite nuggets:
Sylvia Boorstein’s teaching, “May I meet this moment fully, May I not complicate it, May I meet it as a friend.”
Sharon Salzberg’s teaching: “The most important moment of meditation is the moment you sit down to do it.”
And Syliva Boorstein’s teaching about how to handle being in busy, harried family life and not lose one’s hard won peace in the midst of it: “Try not to fall into other people’s states of mind.” I find this really wise as I raise teenagers…
My deepest gratitude to these two wise teachers.
I am particularly grateful that at the end, I received the joyful gift of a warm hug from Sylvia Boorstein, who was so kind to say such lovely things about The Last Best Cure when it came out last spring. As I told my friend Elizabeth, who is one of those wonderful kinds of friends who always keeps me honest with myself, as I grow older, I hope to become more like Sylvia Boorstein — she pretty much glows with metta. And to please remind me, when I am overreactive and small of mind, by saying, “Remember, you want to glow like Syliva Boorstein.”
Sometimes, just to meet someone whom you admire so much, whose teachings you follow, and to see how their presence changes those around them — because their compassion and loving kindness comes from such a deep wellspring the whole room can sip from it — well, that is a teaching in and of itself. Thank you Sylvia Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg (whose fabulous new book is just out, Real Happiness at Work).
I’m just about to announce my next book project — which I’ve signed for with Atria/Simon & Schuster. I’m going to be looking for interviewees for this one! So, stay tuned…I’ll be reaching out to you, my amazing, faithful readers.
Yesterday I was struggling to manage a few swirling mind states — you know, those fears, resentments and regrets that well up, or at least they do for me. I just could not find any inner compassion for my own life mistakes. My suffering was mind-wrought, and doing me no good, but even knowing all that I could not manage my thoughts.
Then I remembered a type of meditation that has helped me get unstuck in the past. It is taught by many but my favorite version is by John Makransky. It’s called “Identifying Benefactors and Receiving Love.”
So I got it out again, that tape, as a rescue remedy (you can listen to his free 13 minute audio version at this link).
It’s pretty healing stuff. Here’s how a “receiving benefactors” meditation works, in case you feel inclined to give it a try.
Makransky asks us to first think of people in our lives whom we might think of as benefactors, those who have wished for our “deep well-being and happiness.” Often, these are, he says, the people we most liked to be around at earlier points in our lives. A dear aunt or grandparent, a friend of our parents, a teacher or professor or coach, someone whom it feels good to remember because we knew in our hearts that they wanted the absolute best for us. We felt safe by their side.
Thinking of my Own Benefactors
I think of my Dad, of course I think of him. I think of how one day, when I was 11, a year or so before he died, we were sailing. As I took the tiller on that blue-green Chesapeake day, my Dad turned to my mother and asked — despite my buck teeth, my horn-rimmed tortoise shell glasses, my frizzy blond hair that inspired my brothers to call me “lampshade head” — “Isn’t she just so beautiful?” As if he saw something incandescent beneath my profound gawkiness.
Someone who believes we are beautiful, even when we are gawky and awkward, and who knows we need to hear it precisely because we are gawky and awkward, that is a benefactor.
I think, too, of my father’s mother, whom we called GranMary. GranMary always called me “my darling girl,” no matter how old I was. The last time I saw her shortly before her death, she patted my hand between her palms, and, caught in a moment of dementia, asked, “You are going to Jay’s play tonight, aren’t you?” She was talking about my father, who had been dead for 30 years. She was reliving one of those buoyant, excited moments of mothering: the opening night of the school play her son had written and directed — albeit half a century after the fact. “Jay and I have been rehearsing his lines all afternoon!” she said with pride, leaning toward me, our knees touching between the sofa where she sat and the ottoman on which I perched. “He has his lines down,” she said proudly, patting my knee.
I recall how she turned and glanced around the room, as if expecting her son to come through the front door of her assisted living apartment. How she somehow seemed to know who I was and yet not understand that I was also her dead son’s now grown daughter.
“My darling girl. You are coming to Jay’s play? Oh, you must!”
I wanted to go to my Dad’s play, yes. See him as a 17-year-old, directing, acting, taking his curtain call via some kind of magical time reversal. Or see him on any single day of his life – still alive. But there is no such magical clock. I think of how much my father’s mother loved him, how it broke her heart to lose her son without warning. “The worst thing,” she once told me, in her earlier, lucid years, “is to lose your child while you still live. It’s an unnatural pain.” How she loved us all. How she would tell us at the end of every family party or dinner or day, just that: “I love you all.”
I think, too, of the aunt who comforted me through the years after my father’s death. My Aunt Nan wasn’t related to me, she was my parents’ best friend and our neighbor. When he died, the summer I was twelve, I began spending Saturday mornings at her house, making pancakes, and school day afternoons climbing the pine trees in the field in front of her driveway. We’d run around in her yellow Volkswagen Beetle; the same one in which she’d driven me to kindergarten seven years earlier — she’d also been my kindergarten teacher.
She’d leave surprises for me in the mailbox, knowing I picked up the mail when I got off the bus. One day there was a small toy Leprechaun sitting in the mailbox, his pliable legs and arms crossed, as if he’d been waiting patiently for me.
Years later, when I moved to New York, Aunt Nan tirelessly helped me to find my first walk up apartment. She’d moved to Connecticut, and on weekends I’d recover on her couch in the country in front of her fireplace. We often had a cup of tea together as she listened, patiently, dearly, to my stories of work and love in the city. One day I gave her a porcelain tea cup.
When she died a year ago, her daughter said she had wanted me to have that tea cup back, and gave it to me.
I keep it on my desk beside me and I always think of her when I see it, every single day.
I think of my mother’s mother Gammer; how she was there to hold me with open arms the day my mother broke the news to my brothers and me that my dad had died. I think of the New Year’s Eves I would spend with Gammer well into my twenties if I didn’t have a boyfriend. Each time I ditched or got ditched by a guy, she would send me another small tiny ceramic frog with a hopelessly beautiful cliché note that simply read,
“Dearest Donna, I guess you will have to kiss a few …” After a while frogs began to appear with no note at all whenever a relationship bit the dust. Her collection still makes me smile.
I think of them all, my father, my two grandmothers and my aunt.
“Bring them to mind,” Makransky says. “Imagine their smiling faces before you. Envision your benefactors sending you the wish of love, the wish for you to have deepest well being, happiness and joy.”
It is enough to make my breath slow, my throat catch.
I try not to think of whether I deserve their love, or whether those I’ve loved and lost would in fact be proud of me, when I haven’t done half of what I thought I’d do in my life, have been cranky too often and selfish and have my share of regrets and resentments that are, well, the reason why I am doing this meditation.
They were all so resilient, so upbeat despite the sorrows life threw their way. I am not as resilient, I fear, as the ones who came before me.
The Benefactor Meditation
“Allow the soft healing energy of their love into every cell of your body and every corner of your mind.” Makransky’s voice continues. “Bathe in this. Heal in this. Rest in this.”
He suggests we bring one benefactor more to mind than the others, and let that connection “energize the magnitude of the radiance we feel ourselves receive.”
I imagine, of course, my Dad. He is standing before me. I try to brush aside the worry of whether he would be proud of me or not so proud.
“Join your benefactors in their wish for you while receiving the radiance of their love, repeating the wish for yourself in your mind,” says Makransky. May this one have deepest well-being, happiness and joy.
I can’t help but think of the scene where Harry Potter gazes into the mirror of Erised — the name backward for desire — which shows the deepest wishes of one’s heart. How he saw his dead parents waving to him, their heads nodding.
“This one,” I hear my father say. “May this one have deepest well-being, happiness and joy.”
My eyes prick with tears.
I hear Makransky’s voice: “Rest in this love until you feel complete, whole.”
Sometimes, I have found I can’t recall the exact contour of my father’s face; the crevices, the smile lines, the five o-clock stubble. But in this moment I see my father with utter clarity. He is smiling at me, as if to say, Remember what I taught you as we sailed together, as we took in the whole wide sky and bay. Remember that this world is a magical place. Remember to be amazed.
I imagine the love of my dad and the beautiful women whom I have been so blessed to be loved by, how they loved me. How I want to carry that love forward, pay it forward, in the way I am in the world.
As I open my eyes, I feel washed of something. Of all the swirling fear and regret that consumed me just fifteen minutes earlier. I feel a compassion for myself. For all beings.
And I am okay with what is. I trust in my capacity to be here, with what has been, what has not been, and what is.
Try the Benefactor Meditation for Yourself — It’s Worth it
Who are your benefactors? Can you imagine them standing beside you, sending you so much love and well-wishes? How does that feel? Give it a try.
It has been a busy month. My son graduated from high school, my daughter graduated from middle school, I turned in my story for MORE Magazine on women, chronic illness and friendship (I’ll keep you posted on when it will appear — a mega thank you to all of you who participated!), joined in several wonderful The Last Best Cure Virtual Book Club groups with wonderful readers, and took my son with me on a work trip overseas that combined some work meetings and interviews with pleasure.
Right before we left, I was cleaning my office in anticipation of starting my next book project (more on that soon), and came across a magazine story I’d written 18 years earlier, chronicling the months after my son was born, when he was suddenly hospitalized at a few weeks of age for a major surgery to correct a life-threatening condition. The story brought back many memories of the stress and terror (if you’ve ever had an acutely ill child, you know what I mean) of those days, and I wept as I read it.
I wept shockingly, in a way I do not think I wept during those long days and nights, 18 years ago. As if, for the first time, I could feel my fear, because it was finally safe to experience it, enveloped as it is now by my gratitude, 18 years later, that my son is here, so unequivocally full of life.
Rereading the words I’d written, reliving those emotions made me realize two essential things. (You can read a copy of Fortune’s Child below; I apologize if it’s hard to read — it’s a scan of the original — click on each page and then click again to enlarge.)
First, it goes without saying how lucky we are that this baby who almost got away is here with us now, that he survived. And second, as I recalled the fear that reverberated through every fiber and cell of my being during that long year, I wept for something else.
I wept for the very young mother I was then. I found myself wishing that my older, kinder, wiser “now” self might beam back in time and sit beside that young woman, comfort her, hold her as her infant son was whisked out of her arms and away to intensive care.
This took place, I should point out, for those of you who have read my writings in The Last Best Cure about ACE scores, in the same hospital in which my own father had died when I was a child. It felt like an old record replaying, as I watched helplessly as this person I loved, too, also struggled for his life.
I wanted to go back and squeeze my young self’s hand and help her to forgive herself (I felt so certain it was my fault that my son was so sick). And to forgive the whole spinning world, which seemed cruel, unnatural, allowing a child to know so much pain. I wanted to give her a gift and say, Hey, in 18 years, you and this lovely young man will walk the streets of Paris, and you will be able to breathe in deeply, and he will be able to too, and your cells will resonate with that lightness of being that rides in with joy.
Oh my legs hurt, and I sometimes tripped on those Parisian cobblestones, and I often couldn’t keep up with my long-legged boy, given my GBS history, as we went from the Musee D’Orsay to the Tuileries to La Fete de la Musique. But he put his arm around me, slowed down, found a cafe where I might rest, and later, on we went.
The combination of finding this article, and taking this trip made me realize that although in the past 18 years there has been a whole heck of a lot of the Pain Channel, much time in the hospital, a lot of doctors (many brilliant, as in the attached article), and times when life seemed unbearably bleak, the truth is we just don’t know, can’t know, what gifts might lie ahead. We have to hold onto that — that we just don’t know what good might yet come — in our darkest suffering. Suffering is often replaced by wonder, the Life Channel flickers back on. We are not static, time is not static, pain is not static, even when it feels that way. Currents of joy come again — and it is so important to learn how to really be in that current, when it flows our way.
My son’s being here is a miracle. My healing (although not “cured”) from twice being paralyzed and so much else often feels like a miracle. My father’s early death was a tragedy, but my surviving and healing from that, too, is something close to a miracle. I could not have guessed that these things would come to be.
We just don’t know what joy is ahead of the suffering. We don’t know. But we know that everything changes. And that includes the Pain Channel transforming to the Life Channel.
Below is the rest of that article, Fortune’s Child, written and published in 1995.
What is the direct relationship between letting our mind drift — ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, focusing on distressing thoughts, what’s going wrong, what isn’t fair, or what we’re afraid will happen next — and our cellular and physical well-being?
Although we can’t peer inside our cells in real time and see how mindful calm versus a racing mind have radically different health impacts, a new study published in the journal Health Psychology, sheds new light on the question. Researchers at U.C. Davis Center for the Study of Mind & Brain have conducted the first study which shows the direct relationship between using our mental resources to manage ruminating thoughts and stay with our immediate experience — and lowering our levels of the inflammatory stress hormone cortisol.
High levels of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland, are, as we know, associated with physical or emotional stress. Prolonged release of the hormone contributes to wide-ranging, adverse effects — and are linked to every physical and mental disease imaginable.
Sometimes it helps me to remember what “stress” really is. Stress is really a euphemism for our thoughts. Our racing, self-flagellating, ruminating, resentful, could-have, should-have, wish-I-had, wish-I-hadn’t thoughts that catch us in their trance. Or what I call, in The Last Best Cure, the “Pain Channel.”
All too often we can’t get out of the Pain Channel’s trance. We can’t turn the Pain Channel off. We keep tuning into what it has to say, and as we do, those thoughts help promote the production of stress hormones and cytokines that are, in turn, linked to higher rates of depression, heart disease, autoimmune disease, you name it.
Other research tells us that in the lab, the negative cellular impact of stress hormones look a lot like the negative impacts of the toxic chemicals I wrote about in The Autoimmune Epidemic.
So, here is my reminder equation.
Stressed State of Mind = Pain Channel.
Pain Channel = damaging stress chemicals circulating in our body.
Damaging Stress Chemicals = what scientists call the “Negative Floating Brain.”
“Negative Floating Brain” = greater likelihood of emotional and physical health challenges.
Greater Health Challenges = more likelihood of being in a Stressed State.
This is not to say that our state of mind creates disease. That’s far too simplistic.There is so much at play — genetics, diet, environmental toxins.
But stress chemicals certainly add to our “barrel” of factors that work against physical and emotional healing. And even if moving away from the “Pain Channel” and the Negative Floating Brain doesn’t necessarily mean we overcome whatever physical challenge we face — turning down the “Pain Channel” volume can’t help but make us feel better, whatever chronic condition we’re up against. (For more on how I see that, see my OpEd for PBS’s online magazine, Next Avenue, called, “I’m Not Cured but I am Healed.”) (I really think the title should be, more accurately, “I’m not Cured, but I am Healing.”)
The practices that help us walk away from the Pain Channel and the Negative Floating Brain really do make a difference, and they are worth our time and our commitment.
For me, as a science writer, reminding myself of the science every day helps me remake the commitment to meditate, focus on mindful breathing, loving kindness, down dogging, laughter, nature walking…all of it. The science is my guide.
Post-doctoral researcher Tonya Jacobs PhD says that in the above study, researchers taught study participants attentional skills such as mindful breathing, observing mental events, and practicing cultivating benevolent mental states, including loving kindness, compassion, empathic joy and equanimity.
Individuals whose mindfulness scores increased showed a decrease in inflammatory disease-promoting levels of cortisol.
“The more a person reported directing their cognitive resources to immediate sensory experience and the task at hand, the lower their resting cortisol,” Jacobs says. She adds that training the mind to focus on immediate experience may reduce the propensity to ruminate about the past or worry about the future, the thought processes that have been linked to cortisol release.
We are all walking around listening to the Pain Channel way too much of the time. And we know that the negative floating brain damages our immune system and our cellular health.
The question is, what are we going to do about it?
In hopes that they might prove helpful, here are two upcoming offerings.
The first is being offered by the phenomenal health advocate Elisa Rodriguez, who is launching one of the first The Last Best Cure Virtual Book Clubs to discuss and encourage us all on the journey … I’ll be joining in for a one hour discussion. I’ll also be sending signed bookplates to participants. To learn more, see Elisa’s video here. I’ve spoken with her several times now, and wow, she is just amazing. The beauty of The Last Best Cure Virtual Book Club is that you can join from wherever you are, and Elisa has found a way to make it easy and accessible to all.
The second is an upcoming retreat by my own beloved teacher, Trish Magyari, whose work I feature in The Last Best Cure. Magyari will be teaching a one day “Befriending Yourself” Mindfulness Retreat” on Saturday June 15 at Baltimore Yoga Village in Mount Washington (Baltimore, Maryland) from 1-5pm. Trish is a life-changing teacher. If you can take this opportunity to work with her, do.
I hope to hear from you about your own efforts to stay on the path. What is working for you today?
I treasure meeting my readers — there is nothing, really, that I love more about what I do than that moment of connection when I meet readers face to face. You all humble me, in the way you meet your own challenges with such grace and dignity and humility and determination.
Yes, women with chronic conditions may be fatigued, but I find my readers to be an extraordinary force of nature.
Like many of you who have chronic conditions, lots of travel can be hard on my system. That, coupled with my keen desire to be fully present on the homefront with my teenagers as much as possible (my oldest leaves for college in the fall!) means I can’t plane hop as much as I’d like to to meet the wonderful groups of amazing women who are gathering to talk about The Last Best Cure from Albany to Chicago to Vancouver. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be there.
So, here’s my offer. If you are planning to read The Last Best Cure for your book club, and gather a group of say 10 women or more who are reading the book, I’ll “drop in” by Skype or speaker phone or whatever works best for you — and we can have that “small group chat.” I’d love to.
And since it’s nice to have signed books, I’ll send signed The Last Best Cure “Book Club Bookplates” to book clubs (like all bookplates, they adhere to the page) so you’ll have author signed copies.
Let me know what you think of my virtual book club tour idea! Any ideas to improve upon this concept? I’d love to hear. If you reach out to me and let me know you’d like to schedule a date, we can follow up by email.