Monthly Archives: July 2015

Resiliency Training- What It’s Really Going to Take to Bounce back

A friend handed me a newspaper article offering eight tips on ways to develop resiliency. When I read them it hit a nerve. The tips were a bit trivial and didn’t go far enough, as far as I am concerned. After mulling it over for a few days, I went back and revised the list (which I’ve left in italics). Here (in boldface) is my take on what it takes to be resilient:
1. Build and maintain strong relationships….The truth is, your relationships are about to go through a hurricane. Those who have stood by you to this point may fall away. It may be because they haven’t addressed their own issues. It may be because they just haven’t experienced what you’re going through. Some you’ll need to detour from. Some you’ll need to drop entirely. To deal, you’re going to want to pull away and “tough it out.” But the lesson is, people are not always loving or loyal. Forgive them, which doesn’t mean they’re not assholes, just that you’re not going to dwell on it. Instead, put your time and energy into relationships that are working.
2. Do something every day that is meaningful….Sometimes life doesn’t give you the option to do this. Sometimes it requires long stays in hotel rooms or hospital rooms or inside court rooms. An easier task is if you need joy, do something for someone else. Make a child smile, hold the door for someone, pay for the person behind you in line in the coffee shop or at the toll booth. It will bring you out of whatever funk you’re in and make you realize the world is a bigger place with bigger problems than what you’re going through.
3. Learn from experience that feelings are fleeting and you’re not always going to feel this way. At times it was hard for me to look past the anger, sadness, betrayal, grief even depression I was experiencing. But somewhere deep inside was a voice that said “This too shall pass and the only way out is through.”
4. See change as an adventure….This can be really hard when change is pummeling you day in and day out and hope seems to have abandoned you. As difficult as it seems, make friends with your fear, regret, anger, grief. As Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh says, invite it into your living room. Ask it to put up its feet, offer it a cup of tea. These difficult emotions are going to be with you for a while, so you might as well befriend them. As Pema Chodron says” How do you get comfortable with uncertainty? Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
5. Take care of yourself with a healthy diet and exercise….Better advice: Be gentle with yourself and trust the bounce. A year after my sister’s death we experienced a brutal winter, encased in ice that made it impossible to get out and exercise. So instead I stayed home and made lots of chocolate chip cookies. Many of them I gave away to the police and public works guys who were putting in long hours removing the snow; to neighbors who had shown me kindnesses; to an attorney who represented me pro bono while my father’s angry ex-wife chased me through the legal system, filing frivolous motion after frivolous motion just to antagonize me. But I also ate a lot of them and in the process gained 10 pounds. Until that point, every year I had made a New Year’s resolution to lose 5 or 10 pounds. But it wasn’t until I was 20 pounds overweight that I was actually motivated to lose the weight. I joined Weight Watchers in March with the goal of not only losing, but keeping it off. A year later, not only have I kept it off, but I continue to lose – albeit slowly. My point is, I ate those cookies with wild abandoned, which is what I needed to get me through that desperate winter. And when I was ready – when I hit my bottom – I bounced back. I’d learned that I could trust that.
6. Be proactive. Decide what you want and formulate a plan to get it….Truth is, life doesn’t go as you plan and often it has its own agenda. I have reams and reams of goal lists, action steps, crossed-off to do lists and I am no closer to my goals than I was five years ago, not because I’m not taking steps, but life has had other plans for me. This step is great for those still living under the illusion that they’re in control of their lives, masters of their destiny. Resilience is accepting that life is 10% of what happens to you and 90% how you react to it. The rest, you just gotta let go of.
7. Keep a gratitude log and when you’re stuck go back and look through it…I am a huge proponent of gratitude lists. I have several gratitude notebooks, a journal I write in daily that I always end with five or six things I’m grateful for. I also have a “mindfulness” eating habit where just before a meal I thank all of the people who have brought it to me (farmers, truckers, the grocery store clerks, etc.) wishing them happiness and health. When I look back on these journals though, I find that most of the things I’ve been grateful for are gone. My father, my sister, my good health, a sunny day has given way to rain, etc. Therefore, I’d say gratitude will help get you through moments of intense pain or difficulty so it’s a good habit to cultivate. But it will also show you how fleeting life is, and therefore how important it is to recognize, in this moment, what’s going well because there’s a good chance it won’t be there in the next. The rest, though, you just have to let go.
8. If you don’t feel these tips are working see a mental health professional….My advice: No matter how bad things are, don’t lose your sense of humor. Even in tragedy there is absurdity. If you find you can’t laugh, definitely go see a mental health expert. Also, don’t be afraid to go on medication if you need it. You’d take cough medicine for bronchitis, antibiotics for an infection, the same for anti-depressants. There are some mild ones out there that help put a brick under your foundation when you can’t feel the ground under your feet. You don’t have to stay on them forever, but healing can only take place when you’re grounded.

Believe me, one of the greatest lessons in resiliency is knowing that you’re completely vulnerable and you’ll still find a way to make it through.

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A Note From The Changed to The About To Change

There’ so much to tell you, so much you won’t be able to listen to. So I’ll start simple. Overwhelmed, right? Don’t worry, that passes. And the things you’re worried about right now? They won’t come to pass. And even if they do, somehow you survive. You make it to become The Changed. And yes, boy is life about to change in ways big and small.

TAKE A DEEP BREATH

Scared, right? It’s OK. Just take a deep breath and a look around you. Start picking out the things you like, the things you’re grateful for. For now, concentrate on that. I have a hunch that when you do, the universe finds a way to send you more of that stuff. And even if I’m wrong, it pulls you through the fear. So just try it.

NOT WHAT YOU’RE THINKING

I know you don’t want to hear this right now, but it’s going to take a lot longer than you think. Sure, you have plans, things to accomplish while in the midst of change. Maybe you will. But there’s a good chance you won’t. When you’re changed, you’ll be OK with that. You’ll find peace in veering off course and the chances and opportunities it brings. With the stories you’ll have to tell because of it. Even the friends you’re likely to make because of it.

THERE’S STILL A LONG WAY TO GO

Will you miss the things you are holding on so tightly to right now? A little. At times, you’ll feel a pang of pain over all you’ve lost. But it’s just a reminder of where you’ve come from and how you’ve learned to let go, not hold so tightly. And that makes you smile, like a rainbow through the raindrops.

It doesn’t matter how you get here: kicking, screaming, ranting, raving or sullen and insolent. You will get here. You will be changed. Forever. And after a spell, you’ll find some gratitude. And then you’ll know you’ve healed.

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The Brave New World of Stage IV Cancer

Recurrence is a funny world. It’s the one thing we all dread until it happens. I think it’s because our brains are meant to solve problems. Once it has all the information it needs, it begins to come up with an explanation that is settling and a plan for a future. In my case, once all the tests were done, my brain had decided that my body had a repairing glitch. Having driven a lot of old cars with strange glitches, like windows that wouldn’t roll up in the rain. or wouldn’t start on an incline, my brain was used to computing a solution to the problem. It has resolved that with some minor medical intervention I’d be able to get back on track. After all, I felt and looked incredibly healthy.
When I went in for my hash-out-a-plan appointment, I was not ready for this strange new world of Stage IV Cancer with its new vocabulary – incurable and a goal of palliative care. To me, palliative care meant hospice. And the fact that I felt  so good and was still healthy and we were still entertaining more aggressive treatment meant we had loftier goals than that. I was willing to make a deal. I’ll take the word cure – in all of its forms -off the table when speaking about my cancer. But my goal is flat out remission, the “cure replacement word.” And I’ll settle for not knowing if I’m actually cured until I die from something else.
When I left the doctor’s office that day I felt demoralized by the new lexicon. And then I got angry. I decided that night that I define wins in this battle, just as I draw the battle lines. Not cancer. Not my doctor. Me and my body.
The next time I saw my doctor I told him adamantly, ” Remission is in my future. And that’s my story until it’s not my story.” He smiled and nodded. And now I see, remission is only part of my goal. The other part is to change the way we talk about Stage IV cancers, because many of us will live long, healthy lives, go on to fight other cancer battles and die from completely unrelated causes.
What I mean is this: No matter what our diagnosis is, what our doctor says or what language he or she uses, it’s the story we tell that defines our battle. Cancer is so unpredictable and its remedies are changing so rapidly, no one has an answer for any of us. And when there are no answers, there are choices. And our choices can change, just was we will be changed by them. We don’t have to be afraid. We can take the risk and enjoy the ride. It doesn’t mean that at times I don’t have that pit in my stomach feeling. Then I remind myself: It’s just the roller coaster of life – and that’s the feeling you get when you’re on the downhill glide.

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It’s an evolution not a revolution

Hello old friend. It’s been a while since I’ve written and so much has changed. At the beginning of the year, you know, the month of January when you’re fresh and bold and ready to make the changes you need to get things done and feel accomplished, I made my appointment to have my final implants put in. Long story about why I haven’t had it done sooner. A story that gets even longer. Implants are a same-day surgery which require a whole bunch of silly tests and doctor sign-offs. One of those tests was a routine blood test. Nothing to write home about. Until my oncologist called out of the blue looking to schedule an immediate appointment. That appointment led to a few more blood tests, a couple of scans and a phone call in a restaurant from the oncologist to say the cancer is back, riddled up and down my spine and rib cage.
How was it that I didn’t crumble right there and then? Some things I’ll never know the answer to. It had been only two years since I’d undergone the horrors of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Two years since my sister took her life, unable to live with the ravages cancer had left her with. And here I was at the precipice again.

January gave way to February and then to March, whose frigid air blew in a new drug regime that include a painful monthly shot in the ass and one in the arm and a new daily pill. Combined, they forbode of hair loss, fatigue and a continual pain in the ass.
Stage IV cancer is a different world from all the other stages. But it’s still a world and one I can live in. It brought with it a new vocabulary – incurable, inoperable, palliative care. Words I didn’t want to hear or believe. Ones I’ve since stricken from my dictionary. And so I revisit this blog with a new message, a new story that looks differently at the past as well as the future – but a future that still is bright and full of hope. And so old friend, walk with me as I tell you my tale.

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