“You just do it. You force yourself to get up. You force yourself to put one foot before the other, and darn it, you refuse to let it get to you. You fight. You cry. You curse. Then you go about the business of living. That’s how I’ve done it. There’s no other way.” ~Elizabeth Taylor
Most of us will experience hard choices, stressful events, and difficult situations that will impact us in one way or another for the rest of our lives.
Hard times happen. They teach us lessons, make us stronger, and give us a deeper sense of self. After all, would sitting in the sun mean as much if you hadn’t of experienced the storm first?
Within the past six years I’ve experienced what can only be called “hard times.”
I lost my stepmother to advanced melanoma in August of 2009. Soon after, I was diagnosed with a rare pancreatic cyst, followed by months of testing and an eventual distal pancreatectomy with splenectomy in November of 2010 for the removal of same.
I developed massive complications followed by three more operations and over six months of recovery, with more surgeries still to come.
At the same time, I tested positive for a BRCA1 mutation, which led to a long period of intense screening, doctor consultations, and decision-making regarding what possible surgical steps I needed to look at in order to be proactive in prevention.
I then made a job change after twelve and half years with the same firm. Within a few months of starting with my new firm, my elderly father had a heart attack, was hospitalized, and then spent months rehabilitating. I was his primary caretaker.
Shortly after, in May of 2013, I was diagnosed with stage 1a triple-negative breast cancer, underwent a lumpectomy and five months of chemotherapy, lost all of my hair, and developed a severe blood clot.
At the end of 2013, less than a month after finishing chemo, I elected to have double-mastectomies. In February of 2014, while I was still recovering from bilateral mastectomy surgery, my father fell in his home and suffered a severe head injury.
This led to a long hospital stay and, finally, a move to a nursing home. Then came the arduous task of cleaning out his house and taking care of his debt-ridden estate. Oh, did I mention personal bankruptcy following my cancer treatment and mastectomies?
I didn’t put all of this out there to whine or say “poor me.” But I do know this is quite a lot to go through, particularly in the short span of only a little over half a decade.
My rare cyst, surgeries, complications, blood clot, and cancer tried to kill me, but they didn’t. The stress alone could have killed me, but it hasn’t.
The countless demanding decisions could have pulled me under, but they haven’t. All the emotions and, at times, overwhelming depression might have taken me out too, but I didn’t let them. I keep living; keep moving forward, one step, one day, and one situation at a time.
My father had been on hospice care for several months. He passed away on December 3, 2014. I’m still in the midst of grieving, but I’m glad to have developed some tools to help me along the way.
1. Confront your struggles head on.
We want to bury our heads in the sand and pretend everything is fine, as if these bad things aren’t happening to us. We try to numb ourselves from the pain and reality of the situation. I know I do this. But eventually, you have to face it head on. There is no other way.
There will be times of great heartache when you are forced to make life-altering decisions in which your mind and emotions will play opposing roles. With some of what I have faced, I had to make logical, sound decisions based on the facts available to me at the time. I certainly didn’t discount my emotions, but I moved through them with my eyes wide open.
2. Realize it’s a process, and the process takes time.
Nothing will happen right away. It will take time, and you will travel from one emotion to another and then back again. And it takes as long as it takes. These things cannot be rushed.
Also, we have to remember to take it easy on ourselves throughout the process. For me, this goes back to self-medicating or numbing. I quite often stumble back into old, self-destructive habits. I’m human, not Wonder Woman. Although I like to think that maybe Wonder Woman wouldn’t have survived everything I have.
3. Kick, scream, get your groove on, and then get spiritual with it.
Realize that it’s okay to be angry. Find constructive, creative ways to let your feelings flow out of you.
Climb a hill and once you get to the top, scream until your heart is content. Paint something. Beat up your bedding. It’ll only make it more comfortable. Get in some serious cardio, if you can—try dance. Make yourself really sweat. Then try yoga and/or meditation to even you out.
Dig down deep and take a look inside yourself for what you believe. Whatever higher power, spiritual path, or religious belief gives your soul comfort—whether it’s at home, out in nature, in a church, encircled by loved ones, or in solitude—take a look at finding out what that is.
4. Play out your fears about a situation.
With any given situation, play out the scenarios and then ask yourself, “and then what?” What will I do if this happens next? Keep asking what you’ll do next, how you’ll continue moving forward. This will move you from a fearful, stuck mindset into a more active, productive mindset.
5. Accept that not everyone will have your back.
This may be the hardest lesson to learn. I found out, most painfully, that some people kept their distance; or better yet, were willing to take advantage and kick me when I was down.
Surprisingly, these are often people you thought you could count on the most. Still, others will not only step up, but they will hold you up through the worst of it.
While this can be an incredibly painful lesson, I believe it is a very necessary one. Interpersonal relationships, like life, are fluid. People will come and go. Some people are around to play with us in the sun, while others will weather through storms and seasons with us.
I don’t think it’s meant for us to know who’s who ahead of time, only that this is a fact of life and that you will be okay. Maybe this also teaches us to be more grateful for each relationship, past and present, good and bad. Some of these people will be your greatest teachers in life, whether you or they know it or not.
The best lesson I learned is that you have to keep your focus on the people who stick around instead of the ones who bail.
6. Change your perspective.
I now choose to believe that adversity is meant to knock us on course, not the other way round. Focus on looking at the situation differently. I can say from my experience as a cancer patient, you often have to find humor in the small things. This helps get you through each day.
Even recently, I beat myself up over not yet becoming the perfect picture of optimal health after cancer. I had to realize, with everything I’ve been going through, the fact that I’m still standing at all is true testament to my ability to overcome. This has to be enough for now. Just as I am, I am enough.
7. Look forward to the sunshine.
After every storm there is calm, and then the sun shines. If you keep remembering that, you will make it through.
Give yourself the opportunity to feel and process every thought and emotion. This is what the experience calls for. We all know what happens if we bypass or bury our emotions. We must allow the process to happen and give ourselves the space and time to feel everything.
Eventually, hopefully, we find ourselves grateful for those hard times, which in turn may make us appreciate the good times even more. I am continually working on all of this, but then again, isn’t that the point?