“I can’t believe what I’m managing to get through.” ~Frank Bruni
My worst fear was inflicted upon me three months ago: a cancer diagnosis—non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. You came from nowhere
Truth be told though, lots of awful things that happen to us come suddenly out of nowhere—a car accident, suicide, heart attack, and yes, a diagnostic finding. We’re stopped in our tracks, seemingly paralyzed as we go into shock and dissociative mode.
The world I had known ended. It became enclosed in the universe of illness—tiny and limited. I became one-dimensional—a sick patient.
It was a shock. To the point where I didn’t feel. A person who is concerned about mental health and appreciates emotions, it seemed that I avoided the feeling. It wasn’t intentional; it’s how I coped.
My approach was to think and act without thinking and then mindfully, putting my foot forward and moving on. I did what had to be done like a soldier through the minefields. My strategies were actions and an intentional mindset.
The biggest fear of mine was: What if I don’t make it? What if I don’t?
Then I began to control my thoughts and not allow myself to get too carried away by fear or anxiety. As a petite person, with little extra weight, I was afraid of my chemo being too much. When these thoughts were allowed to penetrate my fragile body, terror would set in. If I get sick and pass away, what happens? What if I can’t do it?
My mind started to work. To avoid getting ahead of myself, I made it a habit to put up a stop sign so that I didn’t project too far into the unknown. It was a slow process.
Let me stop here and go on. I felt helpless and in darkness years before my middle daughter, Nava was diagnosed with a lifelong neurological disorder.
I had a noose of bitterness and anger pulled so tightly around my neck that I couldn’t even go to the park with her. To my dismay, I couldn’t bear to envy the babies in strollers who could get up and climb out.
My therapy at the time was a life-saver and helped me move from the unanswerable “why me/why her?” questions to the “how” and “what”: how to carry on with a major disappointment and blow, toward creating new expectations and goals, and what to do with this to still build a good life.
I was able to cope with the changes and continue my journey. This has served me well in other challenges throughout the years, such as my divorce and Nava’s critical medical issues years later, for which she was hospitalized for a year.
So with the cancer diagnosis, I went to the “how” and “what.” How can I deal with this in as best a way as possible? How can I improve my coping abilities? Can I reduce anxiety and fear?
Having studied positive psychology, resiliency-building, and mindfulness, I’ve gleaned some tools over the years that are serving me now through my personal medical crisis.
Let’s look at a few.
Anxiety and staying present
Fear of the unknown is what causes anxiety. Being present is the key to anxiety. Our mind must be able to remain in the present moment, and not spiral outwards. I know my PET scan is coming up, and I’m naturally anxious about the results. To focus on the present and to make today a good day, I remind myself not to think about the future. There’s a lot of intentional work that goes into controlling the mind.
When we spiral, which is what we naturally do as humans, we also accept that. “Permission to be human,” as positive psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar states. It is important to bring ourselves back. It’s not that we don’t go to dark places; it’s that we notice it and don’t linger and get sucked down into it. We can recognize it, and we are able to pull ourselves from it.
When the shock and horror associated with illness has subsided and some patterns or predictability are apparent, then we can begin to see the possibility of expanding our identity beyond that of a patient in chemo/cancer. It is now that I am able to see beyond my illness to the needs of others, and to be more open to those around me.
Being connected to who you really are, regardless of your illness, opens up new possibilities and helps you remember the greater picture Please. Our difficult circumstances are not the only thing that matters to us.
I always remember Morrie Schwartz in the book Tuesdays With Morrie—how he cried each morning (as he was dying from ALS) and was then available and present for all his visitors, to be of help and service to them.
So, I reached out to two clients in order to arrange sessions for my “better” weeks between treatments. Some generic social media posts are created. I haven’t gone personal with this online, so this blog post is a big (public) deal.
Engaging in meaningful activities, even if they are small and making you feel good, is the best way to remain motivated and active. It’s the ordinary things that keep us going. Since I love colors, I wake up and match up colorful clothing and makeup (unless I’m too weak), as that makes me feel good.
I find nature and beauty to be my most healing and soothing sources. If I’m feeling good, I head to the park and sit near the ocean/ocean. I also visit the gardens. I love the view of the vast sky and the beautiful surroundings.
My indoor and outdoor plants are my responsibility. I remove the heads and water them. Then, I take photos of the plants. This is growth and beauty.
Inspiration and inspiration are what I seek. Non-fiction books that tell the stories of individuals who have overcome adversities and other challenges inspire me. I enjoy reading, highlight, and reaching out to authors.
It was a learning experience. A class on creativity was started by someone that I found through this website. I figure it’s a good time to incorporate creativity and natural healing.
How does your life have meaning? Which are your most important values? Which are your strengths? What is your limit?
Choose and Respond
Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist, logotherapist (therapy of meaning and purpose), and author of the renowned book Man’s Search For Meaning, is instrumental in the foundational concept that it’s not our circumstances that define us but rather our response to our situations that determine who we are and who we become.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
And another one: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. It is in that space we have the ability to choose how we respond. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
These thoughts have changed my life and helped me avoid a passive, victim-like mindset.
Harriet Cabelly LCSW is a therapist specializing on grief and loss. für kritische Lebenssituationen. Her skills include being a speaker, author and leader of groups. Harriet is a positive psychologist and an existentialism practitioner. Her private practice sees clients in person and online. She loves helping people deal with difficult life changes and to help them grow. Harriet is also the author of Living well despite adversity: Inspiration to Find renewed meaning and joy in your life. Rebuildlifenow.com is her website.
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