My last two weeks have been hard.
Brief recap: I was in a car wreck outside of my parents neighborhood. Only minor injuries, but the car was very close to totaled. When we moved the car into my parents’ driveway, my mother came out to check on us and slipped on a patch of ice and broke her hip. After a total hip replacement, she had several complications. Seventeen days later, she is still in the hospital but hoping to be home soon. Add to this a myriad of small and not-so-small struggles, such as my husband choking and then getting pneumonitis, and I can’t remember when I last slept a full night or even sat still.
I am utterly exhausted, but I am grateful to find that, despite being under an enormous amount of stress, I am nowhere near the end of my rope. I have been under much greater stress before. So, I have learned a few things about how to survive and even thrive in a crucible.
Stressful situations tax all the senses leaving little time and energy. Resources like books, counselors, or even church are simply out of reach when the minute by minute needs stack up. Soul searching has to happen on the fly. Personal growth must take place without the typical sources of food and light. One of the tricks I have learned is to find inspiration in silly little details around me. I look for meaning in little phrases or images that I find repeated in my surroundings and use them to comfort myself.
Here’s a few things I have been trying to learn these last weeks.
1) Stay UnFROZEN
The kids in my son’s school are hooked on the movie Frozen. I love seeing them belt out the songs with abandon, because the deep messages in this story move me. I was a frozen young woman once. Troubling things happened to me, and I was told to “conceal, don’t feel.” This never worked for me. When I would have even reasonable, righteous anger, frustration, sadness, or grief, I believed that I had to conceal it or I would not be accepted. This concealing made me fearful. It left me cut off from anyone that could have warmed me, as if I was surrounded by ice. I became so afraid of the potential negative consequences of my own emotions that, ironically of course, the onset of any emotion would overwhelm me with fear of losing control. I see this movie as a metaphor for panic disorder. It has taken me decades to learn how to be angry, to recognize grief, to accept sadness or frustration and not to just feel panic at the onset of any emotion. It has taken so much effort to melt myself. Now, in these situations that remind me of those days, I need to remember to stay unfrozen. I need to feel. Not just for the events of today but for all those past times when I smothered my own cries in blankets of ice. I need to let tears fall, to curse, to bang on the wall. I need to stop the impulses to hide myself away and to reach out instead to those warm ones around me. And to sing. I need to remember to sing like a child again.
2) Everything IS Awesome.
Well, with my son at least. He has weathered the stress and even thrived despite the uncertainty all around him. Though none of us would have chosen these events, through them has learned many valuable lessons about compassion, loyalty, and patience. The greatest joy of being a parent is the opportunity it gives to see life through your child’s eyes. Fundamentally, as long as my son thinks life is awesome then it is.
But as The Lego Movie says, “Everything is cool when you’re part of a team.” I know my son has done well because we have worked hard on many fronts to build a team around him that we all can trust. His school is intuitive and responsive to his needs. No matter how exhausted he was after late nights at the hospital, or the many worries he was being exposed to, he and I both absolutely trusted that each day at school was going to be a good day. I am so relieved to have found a school that truly works as a team. I did not need to explain the situation or ask for any special care, because he is treated like “a Special” there every day.
We also had many family members join together as a team to help make his days pleasant and positive. His father and step-mother went out of their way to spend extra time with him. Aunts, cousins, grandparents and great-grandparents all chipped in to create wonderful one-on-one experiences that made heavy days seem light and magical to him. Every bit of energy I have spent in the past on maintaining relationships paid off a thousand-fold as these precious people surrounded my son with love. I have been astounded at my seven-year-old’s ability to understand and communicate his wants and feelings lately. My husband and I may be finding communicating a challenge during these stressful days, but somehow we are raising a son that is fabulous at articulating his needs and confident in our ability to meet them. I know with all these hearts around him helping me to listen that he is getting his needs met. Indeed Lego is right… Everything is better when we stick together!
3) What the Blank!
I need to learn to share my laughs even when they might be embarrassing to me, so hear goes. My parents are always very proper in their language, so on the night of all the accidents, my husband and I were trying to censor ourselves despite our frustrations. We were rather liberally whispering the word “Blank” to each other. As in, “Where the blank is the ambulance?” or “Why the blank is the ambulance not here yet!” Finally, after 47 minutes when the ambulance did arrive and we were still waiting another half hour (for no apparent reason) for them to actually start moving, my son said in a conversational tone from the back seat, “Why the blank is it so dark out here?” We laughed until we cried!
4) Flashbacks are a girl’s best friend.
During childhood I was in some bad car wrecks… like the roll-over kind and the fatality kind. Every fender-bender I have ever been in has given me flashbacks. I used to think, Flashbacks are “Blank” and I tried to avoid them at all cost, but lately I’ve been trying to see them more positively. A flashback is just a memory, and memories can be plastic. They can be re-imagined, re-narrated. If I choose to put in the work, a flashback can be an opportunity to re-envision my most painful moments and find in them something redeeming.
Like flashbacks of hip surgery. I had five hip surgeries as a teenager. Seeing my mother suffer, I remember the pain and how difficult it was each time to relearn how to walk. That was back in the 80’s, and I didn’t get the level of care we have been able to provide for my mom. Back then, they said I was too young to take pain pills because I might get addicted. In the months before surgery, I had taken so much Motrin I had a stomach ulcer, so by time for surgery all I got was Tylenol. I was always sent home one day after surgery, no home health. I was never given a wheelchair or walker, instead I spent months on crutches. I was expected to do my own PT. Those days were such a painful struggle. I can let these flashbacks make me feel weak, defective, and dependent all over again, or I use them to speak to me of my own strength, bravery, and endurance. I can use the leftover anger of those memories to fuel myself to fight for better care for my mom. I can seek within myself a deeper understanding of who I was in order to better move towards who I want to be.
With sleepless nights, I’ve been having flashbacks of all my hardest days, like the fearful days of cancer and divorce. Tiredness gives me flashbacks of the debilitating chemo fatigue that was so relentless. But I have also had terrible memories of that horrible feeling I had at my son’s previous school when I would drop him off dreading what bad experience the day might bring. I can get stuck in those moments and relive all that dread again, or I can use them to grasp for gratitude. Memories of hard days can make these not-as-hard moments become sweet by comparison. Instead of fearing that I might be weighed down by the heaviness of the past, I can gratefully let those memories wash over me and remind me of just how much lighter my days now are.
5) Where’s the Beef?
Lately, I have gotten to used to being the cheese in the sandwich generations. My grandparents are entering their 90’s, and my mother spends increasing amounts of her time caring for them. I have always helped my mother with this, but she certainly bears the most responsibility. She has also pitched in on the four days a month that I work late and picked up my son from school and cared for him until seven or eight at night. She looks after my dad and works at his office making most of the business decisions. With my mom out of the picture, I’ve suddenly be upgraded to being the big beef in our family sandwich. The problem is that I still keep having a cheese mentality. I’m used to just melting along, staying gooey and soft, and keeping everyone happy, but trying to stick with that routine left everyone screaming, “Where’s the beef?!” It is difficult to adapt to a new family role on the fly, to suddenly have to be the tough one. It is hard to suddenly have to make decisions for your parents and grandparents. It’s challenging trying to balance the needs of older relatives and my very young son, and to feel like my best effort is not fully satisfying anyone. I am thankful to have a loving husband who tried very hard not to feel neglected. I am thankful to have a team to help with my son, and I am thankful that my mom is expected to make a full recovery and get back to being the beef again. I can see, however, that in the future I will have to continue to adapt to changing roles to help our little family stack up both healthy and tasty.
6) #Hugfest (Note to self: No one is making a “Hug Bet” with you!)
I don’t watch much TV, so all the extra time in the hospital has super-saturated me with a bunch of commercials I had not seen. The hug ones catch my eye. I have two distinctive personality traits that are always at war with each other. I am an introvert, and my love language is touch. This means that I deeply respect and value the personal space of myself and others and yet I still really want to be touched. I remember as a child, at about age five or six, when I was declared too big for holding hands or sitting on laps, how terrible it felt, like I had a bubble around me. I was too quiet and shy to ask for the human contact that I really needed. My introverted self has a tendency to quietly go about my business, making stressful situations that are taxing me to my limits look easy. I have difficulty speaking my needs, most especially when what I need is a hug. I never initiate a hug. I never ask for a hug, but I am always so glad when someone chooses to hug me. I know that I have passed these days so much easier because I have a child who loves snuggling and wallers all over me at any chance, but I realize he will not always be this way. I hope someday I can learn how to become bold enough to break my own space-bubble when I really need to.
7) Trust Your Power (It’s better than batteries!)
Cicero is quoted as saying, “Gratitude is the greatest of all virtues and the parent of all the others.” I humbly agree. In my time of greatest trouble, I came to believe that gratitude is the greatest power of all. Working through that darkness, I wrote:
Losing almost everything I held dear had given me a new path to thankfulness. Real gratitude slowly began seeping into my life. I did not feel thankful. I chose gratitude as an action instead.
The ancient Romans understood that gratitude is not an out-of-control emotion whipped into and out of our hearts with all the winds of change in our lives. They defined gratitude as a virtue, a quality that could be developed. To them gratitude was something to work at, to cultivate, to be in control of, a solid foundation under their feet.
Gratitude as a virtue does not regret the ‘negative’ feeling emotions that naturally surge in the messiness of life, but instead looks past them to find a bedrock underneath it all.
I don’t have to feel happy to be a grateful person. I can simply choose to act in a grateful manner. Gratitude leads me to measure others, and myself, more generously. I can’t value myself until I value the people around me. I can’t accept my own success or failure until I learn how to accept others. I can’t be thankful for the breadth of my own life until I am truly thankful for the fullness of the lives around me.
And there in the darkness I made a miraculous discovery. I found that gratitude protects me from bitterness. A thankful heart sets me free.
In times of stress, I need to keep my focus on the things for which I am truly grateful. I need to speak and act and live out my gratitude. Gratitude is power. My thankfulness for the deepest things in life, such as the extreme thankfulness I have for my son, is my surest anchor in any storm. I need to trust this power and lean on it.
A thankful heart can still set me free.