There are two questions I’m going to bet almost every single person is asking themselves these days: When is this awful pandemic going to end and how am I going to get through it?
The answer to the first one is, no one knows. But Michael Fine has advice for the second: If you have your breath, you have everything you need.
“This is a change; a new normal that we are going to have to face,” he said. “If you can be comfortable with whatever it is and be filled with hope and faith, you are going to be OK no matter what.”
Fine knows all about change, and how painful, scary and devastating it can be. Ten years ago, the 52-year-old Glenview dad got into a devastating car accident in which his left arm was ripped off his shoulder, leaving him in chronic, debilitating pain to this day.
I sat down with Fine, an attorney turned yoga instructor who calls himself a “Transformation Facilitator,” to hear his powerful story of rock bottom to better-than-ever new normal, along with his thoughts for those struggling to cope with life during Coronavirus.
“I was driving to work on the first nice day of spring and a big, red concrete truck crossed the center line and hit me head on at around 40 or 50 miles an hour,” Fine began. “The next thing I remember was waking up in intensive care. When they told me I lost my arm, I didn’t believe it because I could still feel it.”
After six weeks in the hospital and eight surgeries, Fine went home. He explained that although full of gratitude to be alive, his problems were just starting.
In addition to mourning the loss of his father, who had died six weeks before the accident, Fine learned his mom had stage-four lung cancer. Then there was financial stress; hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical bills that his insurance company was refusing to pay. Not to mention never ending intense physical pain caused by Chronic Residual Limb Pain Syndrome, also known as “phantom pain.”
“I still feel the arm as if it was attached to my shoulder, as if it’s encased in a block of ice and being squeezed all the time in a vice,” said Fine. “I was also taking 35 pills a day, many of which had side effects, so my ability to think clearly was severely limited.”
Fine said he spiraled into a depression, and about five months later tried to end his life by taking a bottle of pills.
“My wife and oldest son found me on the kitchen floor and took me back to the hospital where I was under 24-hour surveillance,” said Fine, who is married to Illinois State Senator, Laura Fine. “I wondered, ‘How did I fall so far so fast?’ I came out looking for a new way forward. I had to figure out how to get off all the meds and get my life back.”
Fine explained that he began to take an Eastern approach to health care, trying pain-reducing methods that included Reiki energy healing, craniosacral therapy, massage, cupping therapy, cryotherapy and acupuncture.
His acupuncture practitioner recommended he try Hatha yoga, a yoga practice that takes place in a 105-degree room with 40% humidity and incorporates 26 postures and two breathing exercises. Fine said he “hated” the first class, but after he finished, he noticed his pain level was significantly down, so he started practicing regularly.
“The series systematically works every muscle, bone, tissue, organ, joint, and tendon of your body down to a cellular level,” Fine explained. “It works through a series of tourniquet effects cutting off blood flow to every area of your body so fresh oxygenated blood rushes through those areas clearing out plaque and scar tissue to bring your body back to homeostasis. Everything in your body starts to work the way it should so you start feeling better.”
Nine years later, Fine estimates that he has attended 2500 classes. Four years ago, he became a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) and has been teaching Hatha Yoga at studios on the North Shore, including Win Athletic Club in Glenview, and all over the world. His most recent teaching trip was to Seville, Spain. Fine is teaching Zoom classes during the quarantine.
“There hasn’t been one time I’ve walked out of a class when I didn’t feel less pain than when I walked into the class,” he said. “I practice every day.”
But the physical advantage to Hatha yoga is just the beginning. According to Fine, the emotional and spiritual benefits are the silver lining.
“It stinks to live with chronic pain, there’s no sugar coating that. But I wouldn’t trade my life now to have the life I had before I lost my arm for anything,” Fine said. “I now have the tools to deal with internal triggers; stress, anxiety and fear. Everything in the world can be controlled by your breath. Hatha yoga is a 60 or 90-minute breathing exercise that teaches you to slow down your breathing and you learn to find comfort in the discomfort.”
He said the goal of Hatha yoga is to live it off the mat, using breath to control life stresses, which of course, includes living in the era of Coronavirus.
“People don’t like change. They fight against it,” Fine said. “This is change. This new normal that we are facing, just like the new normal I had to face when I lost my arm is about facing it with hope instead of fear and blame. Instead of putting all your hopes and dreams on how you want it to be exactly, how about being comfortable with however it is and adapting, improvising, and embracing?”
In other words, if you have your breath, you have everything you need.
How to Help:
Many are finding that helping others is an effective way to help combat feelings of powerlessness in the face of COVID-19. Here are some organizations that need your help in Chicago and the Bay Area right now.
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Jackie Pilossoph is a former television journalist and newspaper features reporter. The author of four novels and the writer of her weekly relationship column, Love Essentially, Pilossoph is also the creator of the divorce support website, Divorced Girl Smiling. Pilossoph holds a Masters degree in journalism and lives in Chicago with her two teenagers.