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Relief Through Reiki: Alternative Healing

Text by Lynn Darling

I'd always been skeptical of alternative medicine, but when breast cancer struck and anger overwhelmed me, I gave it a go -- and found unexpected relief.

The rage had begun, as cataclysms often do, suddenly, like the first drops of rain that touch your cheek as you walk down a busy street. You blink and look to the sky and there is not even time to register the idea that a storm is coming before you are drenched to the bone, staggered by the suddenness of it.

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For me the moment had come as I lay alone on a high, padded table in a darkened room, which was nearly empty except for the enormous white machine that loomed over me, a dead white plastic thing, like something out of "Star Wars." 

I was naked to the waist. My feet were strapped together with a rubber band so that I wouldn't move. My arms were raised above my head, slightly bent at the elbows, my hands fitted into stirrups. It was the first of 37 radiation treatments for breast cancer. 

I lay there tense and waiting, until a technician reminded me that I had forgotten to remove the pink hospital gown I had been given to wear over my jeans. "You forgot to take off your johnny," she said.

I felt the first tickle of irritation that was only the fanfare for what was to follow. It was that word -- johnny. It was such a stupidly cute word to designate the thing I wore, the thing that had erased everything distinctive about the women who wore it, the women who waited their turn each day out in the waiting room filled with easy chairs and small tables strewn with magazines and half-done jigsaw puzzles, the women who were sitting there now, their bald heads wrapped in turbans and baseball caps, and wool hats and silk scarves, the women with complexions grayed by chemotherapy, insurance worries, fatigue, and pain. 

Women sentenced to wonder for the rest of their lives if what was happening to them was for the only time or the first time. It wasn't a johnny we were wearing, I fumed to myself. It was the uniform of the prisoner.

What was wrong with me? I wondered, puzzled by my reaction to such a dumb little detail. I had breezed through the pre- treatment session, when the technicians had mapped the tumor site and then tattooed my chest with tiny, permanent blue freckles that would serve as markers for the radiation beams. 

I joked about being turned into a medieval map, the ones where the dangerous places were marked with the warning "This way there be monsters." And cancer was a monster, against which we had only these primitive options: to burn, to poison, to slice away. 

With that thought in mind, radiation had reduced itself in my imagination to a mere inconvenience, one that entailed daily visits to the hospital for nearly seven weeks, a minor sunburn, and possibly fatigue. But nothing like the nightmare of chemo. I was not the shell-shocked neophyte of eight months before, reeling from the diagnosis. I was a veteran, of 18 weeks of chemotherapy, of surgery and recovery.

But now, lying on the table, all I could think about was the position I was in, and wonder why it seemed so oddly familiar. Of course: It was the position of erotic welcome, that of a woman lying in bed, smiling at her lover. A wave of humiliation surged through me, so strong I thought it would knock me off the table. I lost all perspective; it didn't matter anymore that I was lucky even to have this option. 

I felt naked and exposed in a way I never had, the memories of pleasure my body had both given and received violated and debased. Crazy images clashed in my head -- Henri Matisse's painting of smiling courtesans, and black-and-white photographs of French women, their heads shaved and their clothes stripped off, branded as collaborators for having slept with Nazis during the war. 

I thought of my own bald head, and the hair I hadn't had since chemotherapy, and I fell apart. My rib cage heaved, and the tears ran down. The technicians came running into the room. They had to stop the treatment until I could "get control" of myself, as the pale, young doctor attending the debacle had put it.

When it was over, I shook off the abashed young woman who tried to help me off the table and stumbled out of the room, unable to look anyone in the face.

Outside, as I left the waiting room, I saw a small sign: "Reiki sessions today." I had heard of Reiki before. I live in Vermont, where water witches advertise in the yellow pages. So on the whole, Reiki was a pretty minor item in the ever-growing catalog of woo-woo to which I initially dismissed it.

A Reiki treatment itself is simple. The patient lies down fully clothed in a peaceful setting while the practitioner stands over her and, with a series of lightly placed hand movements, becomes the medium for chi, the energy of the universe. 

The idea is that the practitioner acts as a kind of lightning rod for the energy, bringing equilibrium to distortions emanating from a specific organ, or body part, or the individual's psyche.

I was less than receptive to the idea that some sort of human telephone wire could do any possible good. As a child of the '60s, I weathered many of the experiments the counterculture had to offer, but I have remained a pronounced skeptic about any alternatives to traditional medicine and psychology beyond meditation and yoga. 

Over the years, I've greeted most of the more out-there stuff with amused indifference, but others have provoked downright hostility.

When my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1995, I was infuriated by friends and acquaintances who offered, along with their suggestions of cures to be found in faith healing, shamans, and ground sharks' teeth, the implication that if I didn't get him to try these things, I would be responsible for his death.

Claptrap comes and goes. By the time I was diagnosed, no one was offering me sharks' teeth, but I did read way too many books claiming that people damn themselves to disaster by their own fatalism or failure to lower stress levels. Having breast cancer, I found, was bad enough without the news that it was apparently my own fault.

Still, nothing I had tried on my own to get control of my anger was working. My rage terrified me: It seemed to come from nowhere. I needed help.

A few days later, I knocked on the door of a well-tended, white wood-frame house that sat under a hill with the propriety of a cat occupying its rightful place in your favorite armchair. A small, softly smiling woman met me at the door. 

JoAnne's white hair was tucked back in a bun that gave her a sense of timelessness, and her blue eyes contained a tranquility that could have calmed a cobra, much less the freaked-out whirligig of nerves that stood huddled on her doorstep. She led me into a darkened room with the low ceiling and close proportions of very old New England houses. 

I took off my shoes, climbed onto a narrow bed, and was soon cocooned under a heavy handmade blanket. There was no sound except for the sighing of the wind in the old wood and the occasional scrabble of small creatures looking for shelter from the cold.

I closed my eyes and tried to meditate, while JoAnne gently placed her hands on my eyes, ears, and head, working her way down to my toes. At first all I felt was the calming warmth of her hands on my eyes. But as I relaxed, I slipped into a state somewhere between waking and sleeping -- what scientists studying touch healing call a liminal state, which is said to resemble a spiritual trance or self-hypnosis.

Gradually, all the emotions that had been roiling through me came to Technicolor life, assuming shapes that twisted and transformed themselves. The rage was at first a roaring, pounding wave, slamming into a rocky beach, and then a rain of needles falling all around me. Oddly enough, the cascading imagery wasn't alarming. It seemed natural, as if I were in a waking dream or, to hark back to my hectic youth, an acid trip.

Eventually, the scene changed. I was inside a warm cave, but glaring at me from the darkness was a weasel with sharp and snapping teeth, who ran furiously around the cave, ready to attack. I was afraid, and my mind cartwheeled away. For a while I was aware only of the silence and the cradling hands. 

Eventually I felt safe enough to return to the cave. I looked around anxiously for the weasel, yet when I found him he was asleep. I wanted to touch him, but somehow I knew that if I did, he would return to his snarl.

At some point in my strange, dreamy state, I left the cave and was standing on a hill, looking into the woods that covered the slope beyond. There was the weasel, running in great looping circles. He was free and far away. I was thrilled, and yet oddly sorry to see him go. He was so strong, so alive. 

That's when I noticed that in my hand I held a long leash that kept us connected. In that moment, I understood what it meant: The rage I had felt had been scary, but it had also been powerful; it had given me an energy and an authority I hadn't felt since the diagnosis. A part of me didn't want to let that go.

JoAnne ended the session by cupping my heels and then toes in her hands, which gave me a sensation of tremendous safety. When I opened my eyes, I wasn't exactly a cup of softened butter, but I was much, much better. 

Having seen my emotions, having given them shape and form, they no longer consumed me. I knew the anger was still there somewhere, but it was contained now. It wasn't me.

The next day, a friend asked me if I still felt "that Reiki glow." What I felt wasn't a glow, but something better. It was as if the bands of anger that had been wrapped so tightly around me had released and dropped to the floor. "No," I said. "I feel free."

Does that mean I now believe that the universal life force is transmitting itself through a diminutive woman with a face etched in kindness? No. Not really. It only means that whatever Reiki is, and whether or not, by any quantifiable measure, it works, it works for me.

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