Posted in coping with chronic illness, coping with life threatening illness, living with chronic illness, overcoming adversity

Playing Life Poker? What Trumps What?

Every play rock, paper, scissors when you were a kid? There’s a hierarchy in the game and the goal is to try and always be the one to come out on top. When facing a challenge we look for ways to overcome adversity. Our goal and our only goal is to find solutions that will outwit the challenge or put it to rest. That’s great when talking about tangible things like overcoming debt, fighting illness, parenting teenagers; we can develop strategies that minimize the stress caused by these life events. Think about the moments before you find the solution and you’re in that place of suffering; what do you do with suffering?

When I was a freshman in college I changed my major three or four times the first year. There was a period of time when I was in the teacher education program and my professor Dr. Sacca was teaching us how to determine for ourselves as students and a tool to teach our future students about what is important in the lesson. He said, “Repetition for emphasis.” His point was that if something comes up more than once in the lesson it will most likely be on the exam. So in life, when we experience suffering from life interruptions over and over, what do you cultivate to overcome that pain?

I told you that story because at the end of the show Criminal Minds (I’m obsessed with profiling serial killers…don’t worry just a phase) the voice over is a quote pertaining to experience the agents just experienced. I heard this quote yesterday and wrote it down, then said to myself, “Gee this sounds familiar”. It was familiar because the last time this episode aired I had written down the same quote in my notebook, “repetition for emphasis.”

The lesson expressed by Ben Okri is, “The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love, and to be greater than our suffering.” In these moments it’s important to remember that we’re spiritual beings having a human experience. We as a species have survived because we’re adaptable and teachable. We are social creatures allowing us to teach each other ways to overcome adversity and avert negative experiences in the future. We love and have the capacity to comfort and be comforted alleviating isolation and vulnerability.

The quote by Okri is one of those “in your face” lessons that we must not only read, but assimilate into every cell of our being. We need to infuse creativity, endurance, transformation, and love into all of our actions, thoughts, and beliefs. We’re greater than the interruptions that intrude on our lives. Tattoo that quote on your heart and use it as a guide when you need to make the tough decisions life requires of you.

Facing a chronic or life-threatening illness?  Looking for education, support, and inspiration?  Visit http://www.survivingstrong.com

Want to explore how to use art to release suffering?  Visit http://www.timetolivecreatively.com

Posted in Caregiving

We All Suffer

Welcome to Caregiver Friday!!

I’m doing a lot of research about the impact that a diagnosis of a chronic or life-threatening illness has on each of us.  It’s not only the person with the diagnosis that’s impacted, but the family (caregiver), friends, work colleagues, etc.  As a caregiver you experience suffering just as the person with the diagnosis suffers.  The outward reason for the suffering may not be the same, you’re not the one directly battling the physical impact of the disease, but you are facing it on the emotional, spiritual, and financial fronts.

The biggest thing for many about suffering is that it’s rooted in separation and isolation.  Suffering often rears its head when you begin to go inward and due to responsibilities as a caregiver begin to withdraw from life as you knew it.  We’ve talked about how a caregiver is like an air traffic controller, trying to coordinate all the activities to care for the patient.  When is there time for connection?  How do you, the caregiver. stay connected.  Connection is probably better than most of the antidepressants on the market (taking the neurochemical imbalance out of the picture).  Connection validates our lives and provides the support when times get rough.

One of the things to consider when you experience suffering is, “What am I actually missing, longing for, or desiring?”  Isolation and separation keep our minds running on overdrive in a circular fashion.  It’s like being on a treadmill unable to get off.  When this happens, you go fast, but you don’t get anywhere.  This effort is unrewarded adding to the despair.

What will you do today to end your suffering?  You can’t eliminate the physical experience of the diagnosis for the patient, but you’ve been doing all along makes them know they are loved and important to you.  How do you know you’re loved and important?  How can you plug back into your life?  I hope you find a way to eliminate the isolaotin and separation.  Feel free to connect to me…write a comment below or email me at greg@survivingstrong.com

Posted in after the diagnosis, coping with chronic illness, coping with life threatening illness, living with chronic illness, Living with Illness

Is There Any Escape From Suffering

Suffering is a funny thing because, not literally, but it’s something we see all around us, but don’t necessarily know how to change.  I was watching American Idol last night and they had their annual Idol Gives Back episode.  They told amazing stories about hope, compassion, and collaboration.

If we follow the story of the Buddha, it wasn’t until he was an adult that he encountered suffering.  His life had been sheltered and full of privilege, but once he left the safety and security of the palace walls the reality of life, and it hit hard.  He endured a tremendous amount of suffering in order to achieve enlightenment and his perseverance had been the north star for many a follower.

What we get from The Buddha is that we all suffer.  I know that you believe your suffering began when you were diagnosed with a chronic or life-threatening illness, but you probably were suffering on more subtle levels prior to crossing the illness threshold.  What causes suffering?  Our attachments are at the root of our suffering.  I bet you’re wondering what you’re attached to.

We’re all attached to our identity as a person who has their health.  That saying, “but I was healthy before I was sick”, says it all.  The fact that we live with what was instead of what is causes suffering.  This isn’t about accepting a health challenge, but knowing and understanding your health challenge and the actions requires to attain health and healing.

There’s a famous saying, “Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional”.  For many facing a chronic or life-threatening illness it’s the misery level that can be controlled, but we place it in the category of something happening to us, instead of us colluding with it.  What do you want to change about your level of misery?  How would you like to change your story?  Can you escape from suffering?

Posted in Partnerships

Holding the Pain

It’s amazing how certain things in our lives keeps showing up.  In my conversations for the past twenty years with people like you, those newly diagnosed with a chronic or life-threatening illness, the same words and phrases continually appear.  Our human experience is shared and our emotional and spiritual lives are ways we can express ourselves to others.  Here is something I wrote back in 1997 that I found this morning:

July 2, 1997

What is it that makes us ready to open our heart to a pain which is so pure and genuine?  Being incorporated into someone’s life the way a cat hair may get crocheted into an afghan.  The opportunity to bond with an individual or family in such a way that when the person is alive you’re a godsend and afterwards all you represent is death and emptiness, or do I?   What else might I be?  I hope I can restore people’s faith in human nature.

Somewhere when a person has been violated or betrayed, either by someone else or their own body, I arrive and ask them to trust me, to help them navigate this new life.  I try to reverse or make better all the ills they have suffered in their life or are currently suffering.  My attempt is to help the person clean out the wound and be able, once again, to connect to the human essence of compassion and connectedness.

I like awake wondering how to relieve a person’s suffering.  As I write I realize it is about bracing myself for a bumpy roller coaster ride which will continue until the calm of the coaster station arrives at which point the person has died.  May I have it backwards, perhaps the roller coaster ride doesn’t start until the person dies or maybe it starts the moment the doctor says, “I’m sorry to tell you…”  I guess we need to look at who’s at the control panel–maybe we’ll both be surprised.

So the real question becomes, “How do you measure a year?” as the question is posed in my favorite musical RENT.  Maybe love is the only yardstick to use anywhere.  That being the case, can I be on the lookout for such a blatant experience?  Will I know it as it happens or will I need to look back and say; this was a sign of love.  A measure of that person’s trust, not to do harm, faith to be true to my word and genuine in my emotions throughout our journey together.

So for now I will get in the car with you on this ride.  I may not be able to take the fear out of the ride, but maybe it’s really about being able to scream with you as we go over the huge drop on the roller coaster–that freedom to release and have witness to the experience.

I offer this post with admiration, love, and support for your journey.

Posted in after the diagnosis, coping with chronic illness, coping with life threatening illness, living with chronic illness, Living with Illness

Loss Is Inevitable…Suffering is Optional

When mental health professionals talk about grief they are usually talking about grief in response to death.   It’s the most common form of grief and the most widely acknowledged in our society.  Western culture doesn’t like to talk about death but following the death of a loved one the grief hits and takes center stage in the life of those still alive.

I’m thinking about grief as it relates to loss.  We all experience little deaths throughout our lives that don’t result in our ultimate death.  Loss is inevitable in our lives.  We experience loss from the moment we’re born.  At the time of our birth we leave the safety and warmth of the womb only to be brought into a world that is cold, loud, and overwhelming.  We begin experiencing loss in that moment.  When I think about the progression of life and how and when grief kicks our butt I think of a graph.  Loss is a constant in our lives.  We get hurt, we get sick, we fail a test, our friends move away, etc.  It’s when a major life event intersects with these daily losses that we experience grief.

Think of the day our were diagnosed with your illness.  The intersection of the diagnosis along with all the other stresses creates an emotional and spiritual tsunami.  Our interpretation of the event is what creates the suffering.  It’s our attachment to something we believe we had and deserved that causes our attachment to something that was fleeting all along.

We live lives that are filled with loss.  How we learn to befriend those losses is what determines our level of spiritual stamina.  It’s our ability to understand that loss is part of life and doesn’t detract from all the good things in your life.  The problem comes when we keep trying to fill the holes created by the loss and it’s like filling a hole that has no bottom. 

How do you handle loss?  Are you prone to suffering?  Would you like to change that world view?  Check out the website for more information…http://www.survivingstrong.com

Posted in after the diagnosis, coping with chronic illness, coping with life threatening illness, living with chronic illness, Living with Illness

Thomas Merton and Suffering

When I stumbled upon the works of Thomas Merton I was amazed at how prolific he was as well as the impact he could have with such a short life.  His is one of the best auto-biographies because it doesn’t follow the time line you would assume from a man considered to be one of the world’s greatest theologians and mystics.

I’m particularly interested in different religions views on suffering because it seems to be part of the process for those facing a health challenge.  The suffering isn’t necessarily physical, although it often is, but emotional and spiritual suffering have to be taken into account when discussing the role suffering plays in our lives.

Merton said, “Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you tryo to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt.”  That’s a powerful quote and one that seems counter-intuitive to logic.

How could suffering increase the more you try to avoid it?  I’ve been sitting with this for a while and then I just felt this deep sense of sadness.  Suffering increases as you try to avoid it because the avoidance is and of itself suffering.  There is a struggle that gets put into play the moment you try and keep what you think is suffering at arms length.  I know the idea of embracing struggle seems absurd, but by bring it in close you take the wind out of its sails making the situation more manageable.

No one wants to suffer, especially when facing a health challenge.  We each suffer in our own way and that journey of embracing suffering is highly personal.  How will you decrease your level of suffering?  What if you simply redefined what it means to suffer?  How would you face your health challenge differently if the focus were on wellness and healing instead of what you perceive to be the obstacles to wellness.

Bringing your suffering in close allows you to acknowledge how heroic you are on your journey to wellness.  Give yourself every advantage and leave the suffering to the martyrs who believe that suffering pays a dividend…we know better!

Posted in after the diagnosis, care for the caregiver, coping with chronic illness, coping with life threatening illness, Emotional Health, living with chronic illness, Living with Illness, Spirituality and Health

Pain and Suffering

We often hear the words pain and suffering in the same context.  When it comes to lawsuits we ask for damages to compensate for pain and suffering.  Are they really the same?  How to the two impact our lives when facing a health challenge?  I once heard a saying, “Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional”.  At the time I believe that was focused more on emotional pain than physical pain.  It does offer another vantage point on the pain and suffering dialogue.

My most recent educational venture was to discuss healing trauma through nature.  Will Taegel (www.earthtribe.com), the course intructor,  gave us a definition of suffering:  Suffering = Pain + Interpretation.  I heard this an began to wonder about the equation and its impact on those facing a chronic or life thretening illness.  Was he saying that when we experience physical pain, it’s the interpretation that determines if we suffer?

As you can tell I do believe there is a split between physical and emotional or spiritual pain.  This leads me to another idea.  Is physical pain intensified when our emotional pain or spiritual pain is high?  You know I believe strongly in the mind-body connection.  The conclusion would be that emotional and/or spiritual pain would intensify the physical pain and would be the precursor to the negative interpreation and therefore we suffer.

I hear story after story of those with illness experiencing sadness, even bouts of clinical depression.  Does suffering come when we don’t do anything to alleviate the pain?  I watched a Japanese documentary on depression.  The Japanese are new to acknowledging depression as a condition that needs treatment.  The documentary focused on individuals as they begin taking anti-depressants.  The reality is that being diagnosed with an illness can be a contributing factor to suffering.  It becomes the lens through which we interpret everything, makes sense since the illness usually impacts all areas of our lives.  Do we gain anything by suffering?

On Friday I wrote about caregivers and the importance of avoiding martyrdom.  Martyrs are in a constant state of suffering, by their own choice.  My hope is that when facing any illness you choose not to suffer. Of course there will be things out of your control, but it’s up to you to set the ball in motion to alleviate the pain and eliminate suffering.  If you’re in physical pain, don’t hold out till the next doctor appointment; get on the phone today and get something to alleviate the pain.  In our age of pharmaceuticals, pain control has improved greatly…don’t suffer.  If you’re in emotional pain, get thee to a support group, therapist or coach to walk you through the pain…don’t suffer.  If you’re in spiritual pain, find a clergy person, guru, spiritual director, engage in a spiritual practice…don’t suffer.

It’s unfortunate that pain is often accompanied by chronic and life-threatening illness.  Avoid the interpretation that pain is punishment.  Don’t buy into the no pain/no gain philosophy used in physical training arenas.  When facing illness the idea that pain builds character is crap…pain hurts!  My hope is that you choose not to suffer.  How have you avoided suffering as you face your illness?  Share your ideas so we can begin an important dialgoue about pain and suffering.

Posted in after the diagnosis, coping with chronic illness, coping with life threatening illness, living with chronic illness, Living with Illness, Relationships

Disappointing Looks

Having a chronic or life-threatening illness is difficult enough without feeling like you’re responsible for the world.  It’s amazing how many people will get annoyed because health gets in the way of “having fun”.  It doesn’t seem fair and yet I hear about it all the time.

I was talking to a friend of mine that I’ve known since college.  Over the past few years she’s been having some health issues and the doctors are still looking for a definitive diagnosis, but they have some preliminary findings.  What they don’t have to diagnosis is the experience of the illness my friend is having on a regular basis.

She shared with me that she’s hesitant to make plans with people because her health, at this time, is a bit tenuous.  It’s the next thing she said that caught me off guard.  She said that she’d rather not make plans than worry about people rolling their eyes at her because she has to cancel plans.  Is that ridiculous?  Can people be that self-absorbed that the intrusion of illness on your friend’s quality of life is looked at as an inconvenience?

If people have been friends for a while then it shouldn’t be a surprise that limitations may arise and compassion should be the only response.  We’re intelligent beings, couldn’t you alter the plans to something that isn’t so energy draining?

I hope the world would be a bit more forgiving, but maybe I’m deceiving myself.  Could it be that we live in such an ego-centric world that another person’s suffering shouldn’t interfere with our fun?  Is that practical?  Is it even possible?  Do you have any stories like this in your life?  If so please share so that people won’t feel so isolated in this issue.