What Bob Marley said is true – “You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have”.
This summer I learned just how strong I could be when the only choice was to push through or curl up in the fetal position and fall apart. As tempting as that fetal position was, it wasn’t really an option. My fiancé, Greg, fell very sick at the beginning of July with an autoimmune disease where his immune system was attacking the blood vessels throughout his body. This condition is a type of vasculitis known as Eosinophilic Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis (Churg-Strauss Syndrome). Because of the severity of this disease, Greg was admitted to the hospital for 4 weeks and now that he has stabilized is now being treated with a chemotherapy drug known as cyclophosphamide once a month in hopes of maintaining remission.
It can be devastating to watch a loved one suffering with health concerns and exhausting to try to balance work, home and hospital visits but I learned a great deal about resilience from this experience. Here are the top 5 lessons I learned when my life was turned upside down:
Look for the silver lining of the really dark cloud
Finding the silver lining and remaining positive during potentially devastating times may seem impossible but having an optimistic outlook can help to deflect the stressors. A positive outlook is a choice and you are in control of whether the glass is half-empty or half-full. You may have days where you have to search high and low for those little nuggets of positivity but they are there. Methods of honing a positive outlook is a whole article in itself but the most helpful method I found through all this was to be playful and express gratitude for all the little things. I made it my job to make Greg crack a smile when he was feeling his worst and in that playfulness that I brought with me to the hospital I found strength and the ability to get through each day.
Self care is health care
To survive the last few months, I made my own self-care practices a priority – I booked myself a pedicure, grabbed coffee (and wine) with girlfriends, binge watched Netflix in pyjamas and exercised. The treatment plans I create for patients always include encouragement to take time for themselves and to set aside time for those practices that help them feel fulfilled but that can be easier said than done. The easiest way to prioritize your self-care is to actually schedule it into your calendar just like you would a dentist appointment or important meeting. Another common barrier to prioritizing self-care is the feeling of guilt but self-care is not selfish. You need to take care of yourself to be able to serve others in the way that you want.
Honesty is the best policy
It is important to understand the situation you are experiencing, as it really exists; to have an honest view of it. During times of stress, tragedy or trauma a state of denial is the common default response that is only beneficial for a very short period of time. Being honest with yourself about the situation allows you gather resources and create an appropriate plan of action. Acknowledge your reactions and emotions rather than numbing yourself to the pain or overreacting to the experience and at the end of the day you will be better able to deal with whatever life throws at you.
Make connections and lean on others
If there’s ever a time to ask for help, this is it!
It can be scary to admit that things aren’t going well but your relationships with those around you offer a reservoir of strength when life gets hard and you aren’t sure how you will keep all the balls in the air. This is the time where it’s in your best interest to pass some of those balls you are juggling to others and not feel like a burden to them. People want to help during times of crisis and often don’t know what to do so giving them something to do is not something you should feel guilty about. I am someone who doesn’t like to ask for help but during Greg’s time in the hospital I found it really hard to keep up with household chores and our poor dog wasn’t getting the attention he needs but when I started to ask for support and help, people really stepped up and everything became easier to handle.
Celebrate the small victories
When trying to survive when your life is in turmoil and the chaos feels insurmountable, measure your successes. Set small goals (like going to bed early or fitting in exercise) and congratulate yourself when you reach them. These small victories remind you of the progress you are making and progress makes you feel happier and more satisfied. Don’t wait for “someday” to be happier. If you dwell on your shortcomings or the tasks ahead you may feel like just giving up…or giving into the temptation to curl into the fetal position. Celebration of successes gives you the boost to keep persevering. How did I celebrate while Greg suffered at the hospital? I congratulated myself for every workout I completed and made sure to enthusiastically cheer Greg on through his treatment.
Caring for a loved one strains even the most resilient people but small practices can help maintain that resilience and help you come out the other end of the turmoil stronger. If you are struggling with the stress, do not hesitate to reach out for support. It is critical to take care of your own health during times of stress and Naturopathic Medicine is the perfect complement to your self-care practices.
Dr. Jen Newell is passionate about helping people embrace health, feel amazing and easily incorporate “real” food into their busy lives. Her mission is to make health accessible and achievable, and to inspire patients to live an active, vibrant and healthy life.
Jen has a clinical focus on digestive health, food sensitivities and healthy nutrition; mental health and stress-related illness; women’s health, hormone balance and fertility; optimal aging; and dermatology. She focuses on integrating healthy foods into one’s diet in a medicinal and therapeutic capacity and providing individuals with nutritional support that is easy to incorporate into a busy day. Dr. Newell practices at the Integrative Health Institute in Downtown Toronto.
Jen – I’m so sorry to hear about what you’re going through. Over the 3.5 years I spent trying to care for and support my dying parents in kitchener I definitely found all of these to be true. Leaning on others for help was the hardest but I’m not sure why – it’s exactly what I was doing for my parents.
I would add that for me, going to familiar places and seeing people who knew my story and who I didn’t have to re-explain what I was going through was very helpful. I could go, get the type of support I needed (coffee, a massage,a conversation), but not have to get into the story of why. Yes, I look like I haven’t slept in months, you’re right, I don’t have much patience, and yes, I just started crying out of no where (when you hold so much emotion every day evenually your body releases it regardless of your intent). IHI was, and continues to be, a safe, welcoming, loving place for me during these times and I’m so grateful to have found this team of practitioners. So thanks.