A Joyful Affirmation of Life

Seventy years ago, acclaimed pianist Russell Sherman made his professional debut at the age of 15, playing Beethoven’s Sonata in F minor, Op. 57, No. 23 “Appassionata”. We had the rare privilege of seeing him perform the same sonata last Sunday, with vibrant power and vigor, in celebration of his 85th birthday, at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center. With the beauty of Rockport Harbor and the summer evening sky as a backdrop, Sherman held the audience in a rapt, hypnotic trance, as he seemed to channel the very spirit of Beethoven with breathtaking runs of prestissimo notes the length of the keyboard, resonant crescendos, and powerful chords, interspersed with nuanced passages of delicate, heartbreaking beauty. Would that we could all celebrate our 8th decades and beyond with such a joyful affirmation of being alive! A distinguished artist-in-residence at New England Conservatory, Sherman also performed Beethoven’s Sonata in E major, Op. 109, No. 30, and the Variations and Fugue in E-flat major, Op. 35 “Eroica”. 

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Healing Hands: Physical Therapy for function, mobility, and comfort

I  have discovered a unique, highly effective form of physical therapy that combines the best elements of personal training with muscular therapy. Valerie Ruccia Eagan has developed her own brand of physical therapy that uses hands-on techniques, core- strengthening, and flexibility-building exercises, as well as mind-body energetic work. Her method cuts to the root of physical pain and mobility problems to provide deep and lasting healing.

I know this works because I have experienced the benefits of Ruccia Therapy myself. I came to her with years of vise-like pain in my neck and shoulders due to a whiplash injury that prevented me from turning my head to either side or even looking up without excruciating pain. Within a year, she had contributed significantly to eliminating the pain completely, allowing me to drive, do yoga, exercise at the gym, and move my head and neck freely once again. I added acupuncture and massage to her treatments, and she was able to coordinate effectively with the other therapists, which speeded the healing. This coordination was important to me because I believe in the benefits of combining modalities in the treatment of many conditions, especially chronic pain.

I have explored the treatment of pain, both in my writing and personally, because I have an inherited connective tissue disorder called Marfan Syndrome that causes chronic pain in joints throughout the body due to insufficient amounts of a protein called fibrillin that provides the elasticity and “bounce back” to keep the body’s “scaffolding” intact. The resulting inflammation often leads to spasms in muscles and misalignment of joints that can cause daily pain, interfering with walking, sitting for extended periods, working at a computer, and even watching a movie or play that requires turning the head in one direction for a length of time.

Unlike most other physical therapists with whom I have worked over the years, who typically use ultrasound and exercise programs such as leg lifts or back extensions, Valerie Ruccia Eagan adds a more whole-body approach. She integrates life experience, trauma, and emotional stressors into the experience of pain and discomfort. She also recognizes and senses how all parts of the body are interconnected and should not be treated in isolation.

She examines my range of motion while I am lying on a table, determining the exact location of trigger points that prevent movement due to muscle tightness or inflammation. She appears to have an uncanny awareness and sensitivity to which areas of my body are holding tension or in a deep and subtle “lock down.” She then uses deep tissue massage, myofascial release, craniosacral therapy, as well as pressure on trigger points until they release to restore freedom of movement. The sensation of release is often profound, affecting parts of my body that are remote from the area of work: Neck tension, for example, may disappear as she works on the lower leg. She then uses a variety of guided gentle exercise, including movements of joints, neck, or shoulders to “re-educate” the body about the possibilities of pain-free movement.

A graceful focus on the body

I asked Ruccia Eagan to explain the genesis of her technique, which she began to develop at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. This approach has a European influence, which differs from conventional American physical therapy. “My Canadian, Swiss, and European-oriented professors emphasized healing techniques for muscles, ligaments, and tendons, affecting the ways in which the body moves,” says Ruccia Eagan.  “I learned for example, how to hold a limb gracefully and with respect for what the patient is experiencing, moving it in a way that allows it to release into better alignment, the body’s innate wisdom.

Ruccia Eagan became convinced of the effectiveness of such a body-centered approach by observing how it helped patients in rehabilitation settings during her internships. “I had a severe stroke patient who was so rigid that I could barely move his limbs enough to evaluate him. But after my mentor used therapeutic touch, he became so flaccid and relaxed, the rigidity was gone. I was astounded and spent years incorporating the principles of therapeutic touch into my hands-on, mind body approach.”

Awakening body and mind

Ruccia Eagan refined her technique over the decades so that she is able to feel energetic or physical blocks in the patient’s body through her hands, and then pinpoint the location of trigger points that are the source of painful blockages, or the pathways that will release them from elsewhere in the body. “I can sense when a limb is rotated or has a torque and needs to be released from the restrictive physical structures ‘pinning’ the limb in the twisted position,” she explains. “Locating and releasing these restrictions – such as those causing low back pain— sometimes also releases buried memories of trauma or difficult family relationships. Often, the body waits until the person is ready and ‘whole’ enough emotionally to reawaken these memories. And when that happens, not only is the pain relieved, but the person can begin to heal, developing the strength and motivation to make necessary life changes.” Ruccia Eagan’s approach is multi-modal, also combining her own unique small and large ball work, core stabilization, rhythmic relaxation exercises, and aquatic therapy.

My whiplash pain is almost gone, but I am still working with Ruccia Eagan, as she continues to uncover and unravel decades old muscle “lockdowns”, the result of various traumas and injuries. As we all age, our bodies try to adapt to pain and dysfunction. Valerie Ruccia Eagan continues to help me find release, freedom from pain, and a more fully functional life.

Valerie Ruccia Eagan can be reached at: Valerie.eagan@gmail.com. Her office is located in Lexington, Massachusetts.

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Filed under Aging, alternative medicine, chronic illness, Chronic Pain, complementary medicine, Healing, Marfan Syndrome, Massage, Physical Therapy

Report (expanded) From the Front Lines of Midlife Dating

When I was 50 I bought a pair of jeans with the brilliant brand name, “Not your daughter’s jeans”.  I bought them because I liked the name and the way they fit: Rather than being made out of a handkerchief and designed for the micro pelvis of a teenager, they were still low cut, snug, and well, admit it, “sexy.”

Later in my 50s, when I became single after three decades of marriage, I realized that I had no idea how to “date,” and that any available men would not only be nothing like my daughter’s boyfriends, they would also be nothing like the boyfriends I had dated in my 20s, before my marriage.

Now, several years after my divorce, I am ready to report back to my fellow mature single women from the front lines of dating.  Note that we’re talking here about men in what I call the “appropriate” age group: 50s, 60s, and 70s. I draw the line at anyone even close to the age of my adult children.

I was rather surprised to realize that a nice variety of single men exist in this age group who combine some or all of the following qualities: 1. Intelligent; 2. Interesting; 3. Witty; 5. Amusing; 5. Attractive; and 6. Interested in dating me.

I also learned that the differences between these men and my twenty-something dating experiences fall into four simple categories: 1. Food (Romantic dining while keeping out of the emergency room); 2. Dating Activities (Maybe it’s time to hang up the hang gliding); 3. Sex (Alternatives to the little blue pills); 4. Ghosts of the past (Time to finally let them go).

The Food (romantic dining) category is actually part of a larger category, called *Actually paying attention to what goes into our mouths.* Those of us who have passed sixty and are lucky enough to have fairly manageable health issues still need to devote more time to maintaining our bodies than we used to. At this age, if you’ve got a body, you’ve got a condition.

So if you like to cook, as I do, how do you make a romantic meal for your honey? Well, if he has diabetes, watch the honey and freshly baked bread. He may also be gluten free, lactose intolerant, vegan, or go into anaphylactic shock if he eats shellfish or nuts, requiring a trip to the ER. He may be unable to digest tomatoes and other “nightshades,” or certain kinds of fruit. If he has a history of kidney stones, even the holy grail of dark leafy greens may be off limits (oxalic acid). Add to these dietary requirements things that he may actually hate: One former beau is one of thousands of people who have a genetic anomaly that makes cilantro taste like soap; so ditch the pesto and guacamole.

You begin to see the complexity in what should be a simple, nurturing activity of feeding your lover. I have found that a fresh piece of wild-caught (never farm-raised, chemically-drenched, overcrowded), salmon with a (non-oxalic) salad, rice or roasted red potatoes (except perhaps for the nightshade thing) goes over well with most men. If he has a fish problem, and is not vegan, I might substitute a grass-fed steak (or buffalo—if cholesterol is an issue and if he can deal with the home-on-range, playing with antelopes national nostalgia); or free-range chicken, all of which deftly head off any antipathy to the commercial beef and chicken industries. If he is vegan, fresh pasta with non-parmesan pesto–assuming cilantro is OK and he is not gluten free–would work. There is, of course, gluten-free pasta that is not bad, but perhaps safer to stick to roasted vegetables drizzled with olive oil.

Dessert is a gastronomic minefield of potential disasters, and will require a follow-up article.

The Dating Activities category is filled with hopeful news, at least for me. What I have always loved most to do is theatre—drama or Broadway; concerts—early music, or oldies, sixties-era performers; fine dining—obviously with the above “Food” restrictions taken into account; interesting lectures, you get the idea. I was born with a genetically non-Amazon body, so skiing, hiking, tennis, boating, and other outdoor activities were never in my wheelhouse, so to speak.  The good news is that many men of my age, even if they were once athletes, seem content to dial back the muscle-flexing now, so romantic ambles on the beach or through the forest, or among quaint shopping areas seem to suit quite nicely, in between cultural events. One formerly avid skier took me up and down a mountain in a cable-car gondola, just to show me the spectacular view.

Moving right on to Sex. This is a big category, since women in our generation, especially if we have been in long-term monogamous marriages–or at least thought we were–have had no youthful experience with the reality of STDs. So when we become single, we have to learn the very information that our children learned in third grade. I am not emotionally *wired* for multiple sexual partners, so my post-divorce pattern has been serial monogamy, with regular STD testing and safe sex, which can include very enjoyable snuggling.

Having only one lover at a time has of course limited my capacity to generalize about sexuality in men of this age group, but I do have some opinions based on my own admittedly small sample, and augmented by frank discussions with other women my age. (Yes, gentlemen, women do talk to each other about such matters, as well as many other subjects that may surprise you.)

The near-constant television ads during football games touting male sexual performance pills seem actually like overkill.  Yes, a man in his sixties or beyond may not be sexually the same as he was in his twenties, but many such men have so much more to offer: They can be patient, tender, skilled lovers who respond well to enthusiastic encouragement. I think the emphasis on “performance” misses the point, makes too many men feel nervous and perhaps inadequate. Instead, we should be focusing on the emotional connection, the realities of our bodies, and the delights of discovering mutual pleasure. This can be achieved even when dealing with illness, chronic disease, cancer treatment, or serious injury. At least this is what my co-author and I found when we interviewed couples and experts for our latest book, In Sickness As In Health: Helping Couples Cope With the Complexities of Illness.

We learned that couples can create satisfying sexual connections when they look deeply into each other’s eyes; ask questions (“Does this feel good? How about this?”), and develop the courage to speak truths that may be hard to say out loud.

This barrage of male performance pill advertisements also does not address what many women really want: a “heart-to-heart” connection, in which the true nature of each person is seen and respected without judgment; a relationship of trust, honor, and integrity: and a nurturing, caring love that transcends the body; all while sharing laughter and the joy of being alive.

Which brings me to Ghosts of the Past. I would wager that there is not a single person in our age group who has not suffered pain—emotional and/or physical; deep regrets, loss, grief, disappointment, or other “slings and arrows” of life. But I think what women want out of a relationship (described above) is what all humans want. Despite histories of suffering, sadness, and trauma, we can finally drop the role-play and bravado of youth. We can come together to support each other with understanding, acceptance, and kindness. We can help each other feel safe at last, within the haven of nurturing relationships that help heal body and soul. One of the stories in our book is about a couple that had been unable to either commit or let go of a stormy, 20-year relationship. Then she was diagnosed with a terminal illness. The tempests suddenly subsided, and they decided to marry at last, spending the last several months of her life peacefully and happily re-discovering the abiding, deep love that had been holding them together all of those years.

After all, if we can’t love each other, why else are we on this planet?

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Filed under Intimacy, Sex and intimacy

Restoring Order to Post-Traumatic Stress

As the horror of April 15th recedes from the national news, we in Boston are still in shock from the senseless results of evil. It seems as if everyone in this city and surrounding areas is joined in a caring network of personal connections and we are all feeling a kind of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), similar to warfighters back from combat.

However, as my co-author Barbara Kivowitz and I learned in researching and writing our new book,In Sickness As In Health: Helping Couples Cope With the Complexities of Illness, trauma after violent catastrophe is a perfectly rational response to an irrational situation that will take months, if not years, to comprehend. In the wake of Boston, one positive step we can take now is to use this time of national healing to finally remove the concept of “disorder” from the conversation about Post-Traumatic Stress. It is not a disorder to experience stress as the result of violence. Rather, it is an expected, normal response of all living beings. We should react to violence in our midst by coming together to dispel chaos, fear and confusion by thoughtfully creating order in our community once again.

The families directly changed by the bombs in Boston remind us of the military service members and their partners whom we wrote about in our book. Like others, we did use the word “disorder” when writing about the warfighters’ experiences, in deference to their diagnoses and opinions of the treating clinicians whom we interviewed. The accumulated effects of months or years of combat exact very real health tolls that include depression, chronic pain, sleep problems, volatile emotions, and the risk of suicide, creating long-term challenges for both the wounded and their families.

And as observers of the Boston experience, we now see important parallels between wounded warriors and civilians. As a result, we think the idea of “Disorder” should be permanently removed from the diagnosis, treatment and discussion of Post-Traumatic Stress. Calling it a disorder does not help anyone heal, and puts an unfair stigma on a group of people who should be helped not judged.

The Boston victims also brought to light the important differences between military personnel and civilians: Soldiers prepare for combat with body armor. They are alert to danger, with muscles tensed, and ready to fight. In the sunshine of Boylston Street, the brutally unexpected explosions and shrapnel tore into people’s bodies as they were relaxed and cheering. Even those who were not in the vicinity of the bombs were vulnerable to the shock of that day, physically as well as emotionally.

Even with such differences acknowledged, the brave military couples we interviewed—along with the trauma experts who cared for them—have valuable lessons to share for civilian couples and families in the aftermath of sudden, serious injury. Among their insights were these suggestions of how to begin to restore order:

• Allow yourselves to experience and share your feelings with each other, even if they are painful.

• Talk about what brought you as a couple together in the first place, what bonds you together as a family, and what you admire in one another.

•  After you talk, sit together in silence. The air clears and anxiety is subdued. In that stillness, love and strength persist and can affirm your bonds.

• When the injured person comes home, set aside time to engage in any familiar family activities that are still possible and that bring you together.

• Be balanced about providing emotional support. One person has the injury, but others may be afraid, angry, and sad, and in need of clarity and compassion. Just as airlines instruct us to put on our own oxygen masks before helping children, couples must create order in their own lives and relationship to provide a solid healing environment for the family.

Make no mistake: those who face down trauma are the definition of brave. So, as our fellow citizens embark on their uncharted journeys to healing we think it is time to remove the stigma of  “disorder” from our vocabularies. Let us recognize them for the intrepid life explorers that they are. In the words of Anne Frank, “Where there’s hope, there’s life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again.”

We as a nation need to stand up and declare that there is nothing disorderly about that.


Filed under Healing, Health, mental health, Uncategorized

Pat Robertson is Dead Wrong

My OpEd in today’s Chicago Tribune:

A person with Alzheimer’s is not “kind of” dead. Not by a long shot. And televangelist Pat Robertson should know better than to speak flippantly from a position of authority on a matter that is complicated, nuanced and deeply personal.

As we learned through interviews with many couples, as well as with medical, spiritual, legal, rehabilitation and psychological experts, while writing “In Sickness As In Health: Real Couples and the Effects of Illness on Their Relationships,” couples find their way to deal with illnesses and catastrophic injuries.

We know what we are talking about when we say Robertson should beware of trying to make blanket statements without the benefit of knowing all the facts and issues. We have found that dealing with illness is a deeply intimate part of the couple relationship. What is right for one couple may be completely wrong for another.

When illness invades the couple relationship, partners ask themselves and each other some really hard questions: “What do I want to do for this person whom I have loved for many years?” “How much of my life do I give up to take care of my beloved?” “How do I sit by my beloved’s side and watch her suffer?”

Robertson’s assertion that divorcing a spouse with Alzheimer’s is justified because she is “gone” is more than simply callous and insulting to anyone who has ever loved another. It goes to the heart of both morality and medical ethics. Physicians struggle every day to counsel families about the right time to cut off life support. Ethicists struggle to balance the impact of devastating disease with the persistence of the essential self.

To announce that someone is “gone” when she still has an emotional life — not to mention sensation in her skin, organs and tissues — is to dismiss her as a human being.

For those who find themselves at the intersection of lifetime love and overwhelming obligation, the right path is often painful and difficult to find. Robertson should have counseled this husband — and all partners grieving over the illness of their loved one — to seek psychological support, medical information, spiritual guidance and ultimately to look inside themselves and their relationship to determine the right thing to do. Instead he advised the husband of the ill woman to make sure the wife has custodial care before divorcing her and starting all over again.

He presumes too much.

Barbara Kivowitz, a psychotherapist in Boston, and Roanne Weisman, a science writer and author in Boston, are co-authors of the forthcoming book “In Sickness As In Health: Real Couples and the Effects of Illness on Their Relationships.”



Filed under Aging, chronic illness, mental health

Amanda West: The Healing Power of Music

Early on in my journey toward healing, my daughter gave me a soundtrack to keep me company: CDs of a number of songwriters and musicians from her generation whose messages she thought would be useful for me in my travels. She was right. Through powerful lyrics, compelling melodies, and beautiful voices, I began to hear universal truths and realize how music—whether of our own time or of centuries past—cuts through our thoughts, assumptions, beliefs, to the essence of a humanity we all share. We are not alone.

There is truly a healing power in music, and Amanda West is one of these remarkable musicians who holds this power in her songs. She calls herself a “philosophical folk songstress,” and with good reason. As I listened to her songs, sung with a voice of angelic purity, I heard, with astonishment, lyrics that seemed to describe my experiences and feelings with eerie accuracy. How could someone so young (relative to me!) seem to understand just what I was going through, and to offer the wisdom of such an “old soul?” I had to find out, so I wrote to ask if I could interview her, and she graciously agreed.

Just a few of Amada West’s lyrics:

“Times like these I have to believe
That we are part of something grander than we’ll ever know
Maybe all I really want is all within me
And I think all I really need is already here

“There are two things every traveler must remember,” he told me
One, you will always return
And Two, you cannot fight the journey, so you gotta just let it carry you
You gotta just, just let it carry you

And I want to travel with you
For as long as it’s what we are meant to do
And I know a day will come when you or I must go
But for time in my life spent with you I am so grateful.”

© Amanda West: “Ready to Travel”

I discovered a profound and thoughtful woman, with a deep commitment to social justice, human rights, and the social struggles and health of women. She uses her music to convey messages of personal healing and hope, as well as to contribute to social change. Amanda sang before she could talk, and began playing the guitar and writing her own songs at age 11. Her degree is in anthropology and she traveled the world to study the human experience in other cultures. Her musical influences include the folk songs of the sixties that her parents played at home, as well as contemporary singer/songwriters such as Sarah McLachlan, Alanis Morissette, and Loreena McKennitt.

All of which is noteworthy, but did not quite explain how she could write such powerful lyrics about relationships: love and loss, trust and betrayal, and the triumph of faith and compassion:

All the truths

That created my wounds

Were dug out today:


You are as you are

And I am as I am

And to save us both we can only separate


And in the morning

I will turn your ring around

Your heart will be

Your own again

© Amanda West: In the Morning

Amanda has had her own suffering in life: she was struck by a car and severely injured in high school and, while in college, was mistakenly diagnosed with terminal cancer. Later on, she encountered aspects of human suffering in her travels that led to her song, The Age of Disillusionment. She also had her share of painful relationships, though she is now happily married. “I needed to be able to grasp and understand the dark side of life,” she told me. “And this understanding created an emotional space that has opened me up to work through suffering and hard times with compassion. I want to be able to do that for others, not just for me, and these songs come out of me through that space.”

“That’s why the world is on trial in my mind
and I just need time, to be, to see, and to breathe on this,
to know to hate to have to hold to love to be on this
to wander, to wander, and to be
on this side

Nothing’s looking like it used to…
Nothing’s feeling like it used to…
This is the age of…
is the age of disillusionment”

© Amanda West: The Age of Disillusionment”

Go to her website to hear some of her music and read her astonishing lyrics.


Some of my favorite songs, besides the ones mentioned above: Fantasy – a chilling reminder of the victimization of women; and In the Morning— the most heartbreakingly beautiful, and true, description of the end of a relationship I have ever seen.

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An Odyssey of Healing

It has been a long time since I have written here; I have been on a journey of healing, and have now assembled what I hope are useful facts and insights to report. Unlike the stories of physical recovery that I have written about in the past, this was an inner journey of emotional repair and rejuvenation, launched by a shattering of trust. On this voyage through my interior landscape, I have begun to understand more than ever the intimate connections between body and mind. I have also learned that when something shatters within us, it can create a spaciousness for joy, love, growth, even rebirth. It can also reveal one’s true nature. Like my recovery from a paralyzing stroke many years ago, this is a story that continues. Now, however, I can begin to report on what I have learned about healing from emotional trauma.

In future posts I will write about powerful mind-body modalities that include reiki, jin shin jyutsu, tong-ren, and trauma energetics; explorations of ancient philosophies such as the Tao te Ching, as well as more recent psychological teachings; and bodywork such as reflexology, craniosacral therapy, and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), just to name a few.

I will also write about the importance of community:  the small army of caring friends and family whose wisdom and love are like a rising tide keeps the boat afloat, buoyed also by the crucial ingredients of laughter and fun!

But first, I will write about the healing power of music – the subject of the next post.


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