Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Stop Negative Thoughts

Before I started therapy, my mother used to live in my head. She'd watch everything I did, and provided a constant stream of negative feedback. If I did something wrong, she'd yell at me and let me know how stupid I was for not seeing these consequences ahead of time. If something was wrong, she'd explain to me how it was all my fault, and that this was evidence of how rotten I was. If it wasn't my mother, it was my grandmother ("You dummy!") or my father ("Goddamnit, get your $#!+ together!"). They would scream at me, in my head, all day long, and then made sure to take a thorough inventory of everything I'd screwed up, and tell me all about it as I was trying to fall asleep. It was a brutal mental onslaught. And no matter how much I screamed back at them (in my head), I couldn't get them to shut up.

Finally, I asked my counselor: "How do I get that voice in my head to shut the f**k up?" (I had an awesome relationship with my counselor.)

"I'm so glad you asked," she said smiling. "Most people don't have the courage to admit they have that voice---or voices---in their head. They think it makes them crazy. But that's perfectly normal. Would you like to do some EMDR* on it?"

"Yeah! That's be great."

EMDR, for Eye-Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, is a type of therapy that allows the patient to detach from emotionally-charged memories, and look at them from a less personal point of view. And my counselor had special training for trauma recovery designed in Seattle. And she knew what was coming, because it was something true of all people...

What I discovered was, it wasn't my mother, or my grandmother, or my father yelling at me. It was ME. It was my inner child, scared and insecure, who had put on Masks of Authority to appear like my mother, etc., so that I would pay attention and be careful. It was actually a perverse form of self-love, where I was trying to protect myself, by getting mad at myself. When I was screaming back at myself, all I was doing was yelling at my most vulnerable self.

So, instead of fighting fire with fire, my counselor gave me a new thing to say:

Hi, I understand that you are trying to protect me, but this is not helpful right now. If you could leave me alone for a little, I'd be able to concentrate on this more, and be more careful. So, could you please be quiet for a little while? I appreciate your trying to help, but I'm okay right now. Thank you.

Later that night as I was setting about some chore, the Voice started up with it's barrage of negative commentary. I stopped and recited what my counselor told me. And, like magic, the voice went away! A sense of lightness came over me, and I was able to complete my chore in peace. I even did a really good and thorough job. So I stopped again and told my inner child:

See? Everything worked out! You don't have to yell and scream at me for things to work out. It's okay. I've got this managed.

Since then, that voice is mostly gone. Oh, sure, it pops up every now and again, but I just remind it of what I told it the first time, and it goes away again. I am, for the most part, left at peace. And it's a beautiful thing.

Try it! Share your result here!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thankful Thanksgiving

This year has seen so many wonderful things for me, I can't even begin to describe. I've been able to do physical therapy, and all my doctors have been able to see great progress. My disease has a cure, even if we haven't been able to get access to it yet. I've been well enough to help take care of my step-brother, himself, a disabled Vet. I was well enough to cook our entire Thanksgiving feast, something I haven't been able to do in years, and though I was exhausted afterwards, I felt whole, having been able to complete my part in our annual traditions.

That's one thing that is really lost when one becomes disabled---our ability to participate in events that help us feel the flow of the year. When the flow of our lives is interrupted by a disease, what used to be the change in seasons is now a change in doctors and medication. What used to be the delicate passage of time has become the ticking off of days in a prison, never knowing when, or if you'll ever be set free. When life becomes about symptoms and self-care, spending energy on holidays can be impossible. It's easy to become detached, and feel outcast. Because we can't participate, we lose touch with the sense of joy we used to get.

It can be even worse for caretakers. They can feel caught in the middle, wanting to have fun, but feeling guilty for being well, and being able to enjoy these times, while their sick loved one cannot. They may lose their own sense of joy in the holidays because diseases don't take a vacation, so neither can they. They may try to go out and have fun, only to worry the entire time that they're away, so that going out and trying to take a break can be even more stressful than staying at home (at least you know nothing's going wrong, then).

And I was going to write some Pollyanna-ish things about, "If you can't do what you love, do what you can instead!" But honestly, that can make me more depressed than just trying to pass on the holidays altogether. Doing holidays half-assed, that is, not being able to do the things I used to do, but doing something close to it, to try and recapture that old feeling, just ended up being a reminder of why things sucked now. It was honestly much easier to just let go of the holidays altogether. That was something that happened on planet wellness. I didn't live on that planet anymore.

Here on this new planet, we didn't have winter holidays. It just got cold, you got a break from appointments, and you had to be really careful about stocking up on medication because the pharmacies closed on weird days. Presents aren't given, because no one has any money for anything extra anyway. Time is spent, instead, on studying the new changes to Medicare, which require a degree in government-speak before you can understand them.

Winter was the time when other people spent as much time indoors as me.

Now that I'm starting to make visits back to planet wellness, I can say that it's really good to be home again. I'm not going to be "here" for Christmas yet, but my doctors and I are working on it. And yes, I'd rather it be an either/or thing. I don't want it to be the "this is what I can manage" holidays. I either want the holidays the way I want them, or I want to skip them entirely. If I try the middle road, it hurts my heart more. I "miss out" more if I try to do the holidays in a way that's new, because I can't manage tradition health-wise. I miss the holidays less if I don't participate at all.

Of course I want to enjoy the holidays. But if I can't, then I'd rather do without than be teased by visions of what I used to be able to enjoy. So my real suggestion? If you have to have holidays, find a culture that's completely different and start following their holiday traditions. (There are a lot of traditions from Asia that celebrate the seasons in very beautiful ways.) If you are religious, and following the Holy Days is important to you, contact your local church. There are usually volunteers who will bring the ceremonies to you, as an act of service, if it's too difficult for you to make it out.

Now, for caregivers, if you still want to go out and enjoy the holidays, without the baggage of guilt for leaving your sick loved-one behind, my suggestion is: take a "Guest Book" with you when you go out. When you talk to folks, ask them to take a moment to write some well-wishes to the person you had to leave at home. When the party is over, you can bring the Guest Book home for them to read, to let them know that people were thinking of them, and that they were missed. Bringing home a doggy bag with samples of all the goodies from the party is also a good way to help the sick person feel included. As they read, they can sample the treats, enjoying the quiet after-party with just the two of you.

By asking other folks to send their well-wishes, you also strengthen the sick person's ties to the community when they can't go out themselves. You're doing them a service by making sure they're not forgotten at the celebration. This means a lot to us. We feel included, even though we're not able to be there ourselves. It's easy to feel left behind, even if the cause of our not going is no fault of our own, it can feel like exclusion. It can feel like people don't want us around, even if that's far from the truth. A Guest Book is solid evidence against these fears. It shows us that our presence was desired. It shows us our value to the group, and also reminds the group that we still want to be around, even when we can't. (That helps keep future invitations coming.)

I am thankful that I was able to enjoy "Turkey Day" in the way I like. I had missed it. But I'm also thankful of the path I chose when I couldn't enjoy the day like I wanted. It helped me survive the heartache.

I hope you are staying strong through this time, whatever path you choose for yourself.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Guide for Talking to the Chronically Ill -- Call for Submissions

How many times have you heard from your healthy friends and family that they want to show support for you, but "I just don't know what to say..."? Have you ever wished for a guidebook that you could hand to healthy people, so that they would know what to say? Well, I am working on exactly that.* And I would like your help.

I want to teach healthy people how to communicate with people with chronic illness. I want to teach them how to be brave, how to be supportive, and what we want to hear. If there is someone in your life who is having trouble knowing what to say, I'd like you to write me and tell me what you what to hear from them. The more stories submitted, the more options we can present them.

What would you most like to hear from your family?
What would you most like to hear from your friends?
What are some of the best supportive comments you have heard?
What are the worst things you've heard?
If someone wanted to approach you to discuss your condition, how would you like them to ask?
What do you wish people understood about chronic illness in general?
What do you wish people understood about your chronic illness, specifically?
What do you struggle with most, as a result of your chronic illness?
Do you want people around you to help? If so, how do you want other people to offer assistance?
Other thoughts? Comments?

Please say whether you would like credit, or whether you would rather remain anonymous. Feel free to submit previously written works, blog post URLs, etc. (along with permission to reprint).

Send your submissions to: pamc.writer(at)yahoo.com
Include your NAME (or Anonymous), CITY, STATE/COUNTRY
Your DIAGNOSIS(es), HOW LONG (you've been diagnosed), whether you're DISABLED (and DATE)
(Include links to your blog, Twitter handle, etc., if you wish)

Submission Deadline -- December 15th

*I've been gone from here working on this, and other fun surprises coming later this month!