I quit high school at 16, a few months after my father died. It wasn’t a decision as much as a collapse into catatonic trauma. I overdosed on sleeping pills during class and awoke in the infirmary on a cot with my grandmother sitting beside me. Disoriented, I felt awash in shame that my high school studies had come to this.
When I moved to Nashville from Atlanta at 13, just weeks before my mother died of cancer,, I was an A student. Slowly my grades disintegrated and I fell into a crowd that skipped class regularly and got high at the edge of the school grounds. When my father died, I dropped even the pretense of studying; I just slept at the back of the class with my head resting on a stack of books that I never cracked. Life felt hopeless and I saw no path to a better future. Might as well take drugs and numb myself to the life that had betrayed me.
When we arrived home after my overdose, I begged my grandmother’s permission to quit high school. I couldn’t stand the thought of one more day slogging through the motions when all I saw was a bleak future filled with pain and loss. Much to my surprise, she agreed and I officially dropped out of school. I felt like I was defying a system that didn’t support my needs and I was determined to find my own way, even through the opaque, dreary clouds of depression that descended for interminable periods each day. With no schedule, I filled my hours with numbing sleep until I felt groggy and disoriented most of the time. Even in my despair, I didn’t want to harm my health so I curtailed the excess sleeping. In fact, shortly after dropping out of school, I decided to quit all but one of my ingrained habits: I stopped smoking, drinking, taking drugs and eating meat in the course of a few days and it stuck.
Regardless of my deep depression, my willpower was formidable on all fronts except for sugar. I couldn’t resist all of the treats Granny always kept on hand, from to the fancy chocolate icebox cakes she bought at a specialty store, chocolate chip ice cream with fudge sauce, Godiva chocolates, which at that time were truly good chocolates, and endless bags of Reese’s peanut butter cups. The chocolate treats numbed my pain but I gained about 30 pounds and my blood sugar got totally out of whack. One day at the grocery store my head started spinning and I had to grab a shelf to keep from crashing to the floor. Somehow I made it home to the refuge of my bed, where I stayed for the next few days until the dizziness abated. Rather than seeing a doctor I self diagnosed and eliminated all sugar from my diet. I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to spend time upright. The strategy worked except when I indulged in even a few bits of fruit. One grape and the dizziness would return with a vengeance.
Freed from school routines, I spent most days in my bedroom studying Hindu and Buddhist meditation. I had discovered a Swami who was popular at the time and, at least in my mind, he became my distant guru as I read his books and practiced his advanced yoga poses. Swami seemed so fit, healthy and wise.
Desperate for help with my dysregulated blood sugar but mistrusting medical institutions, I wrote a letter to the Swami describing my condition and asked him for help. I didn’t expect a reply, but about a month later I got one! When I grabbed the envelope from the mailbox, a bolt of energy shot through my hand. I shook with anticipation as I tore open the envelope. Once released from its confines, the letter burst with electricity; I nearly fell over from the strength of it. The Swami offered a prayer for my healing, but his energy was the most potent part of the correspondence.
Almost immediately I felt better. My new found health barely seemed possible to me and I tested the waters by eating a sugary date. Nothing. No dizziness, where just days before a single raisin would send me to bed in a swoon. Slowly I added sweets back into my diet with no deleterious effect. To this day, I believe there was more to my healing than simply the power of my own belief. I truly felt a powerful energy and I know the swami had access to advanced spiritual powers. Over the course of a few years my blood sugar fully regained equilibrium and it stuck. I didn’t go back to my old ways of eating chocolate fudge for breakfast followed by cake or cookies, but I continued my love affair with chocolate desserts.
The tragic irony is that the Swami, who rose to fame in America, lost his way. He engaged in numerous affairs with students, lost his yogic conditioning and died prematurely from health complications related to diabetes. Unfortunately, healing doesn’t always go both ways. Some teachers are quite skilled, even brilliant, at healing others, but haven’t a clue how to untangle the messes of their own lives. This is a lesson I would learn far more personally with two Zen teachers in years to come.