Anna is slowly healing. She goes to Pulmonary Rehab Monday through Friday where she walks, bikes, lifts tiny weights, and stretches. Tuesdays are the exception because that’s the day she goes to the clinic to see various medical personnel and her counselor. Yesterday, while waiting for her during one of her appointments, I was reading Jesus Calling. It’s a daily encouragement…like God calling you to tell you just how much He loves you.
It started out, “This is a time of abundance in your life…you are now traipsing through lush meadows drenched in warm sunshine…” at about this point I literally sighed, scoffing at these words. Abundance?!? A Meadow?!? Uh, no, I’m sitting in a hallway-turned-waiting-room on a rain soaked, dreary Durham day. My daughter is struggling to recover from her lung transplant. This isn’t my home. I am not working because I am busy taking care of my daughter and without working in my counseling practice I don’t make money. Hello! Abundance??? I don’t think so.
It was a lovely rant. As I stopped to take a breath, I realized instantly that I had missed the point. All those things that are hard in my life right now are true. I am also deeply loved by God. I could stop here and that would be enough. But wait! There’s more! My daughter is being cared for by one of the top lung transplant teams in the country. We are warm and dry on this cold wet day. I have access to healthy food and clean water…I am living in abundance! Sometimes it just takes tilting my brain to see things from a new perspective.
After 25 days in the hospital for her double lung transplant, Anna was discharged! I don’t say, “Anna went home” because home is in CO and she can’t go home until she has fully recovered. She went to our apartment in Durham. It’s our cozy ‘home’ here. People in the Duke Lung Transplant Program refer to home as their Durham home and home-home as the place where they lived before coming here. People come from all over the world to receive a life saving lung transplant at Duke University Hospital. One of Anna’s transplant buddies is from Israel!
This journey, while a tremendous gift, has not been easy. Anna battles feeling discouraged. At 28, she wants to live a “normal” life. She wants to be like most 28 year olds: healthy, finding meaningful work, living on her own, dating, getting married, having children, enjoying time with friends…While she is grateful for this chance to live, at times it’s hard to keep her perspective on the good.
A reality for humans is having sorrow and celebration all mixed together as we travel through life. It’s healthy for us to allow ourselves to sit in the sad space at times. It’s part of grieving our losses. The things we don’t have in the moment are real and it’s important to acknowledge that. It is also important to remember the good. I find it helpful to keep the two in my mind at the same time rather than all one or the other. As I grieve a loss, I visualize the good, too. Neither one discounts the other, they are simply allowed to be in the same sphere of acknowledgement. It helps to bring balance to sorrow and celebration. 🙂
Do you remember a time when you did not prepare adequately for something that resulted in a negative experience and then you spiraled into a pool of shame? I do! I’m an Adjunct Professor for Dr. John Townsend’s Masters in Counseling graduate school at Concordia University in Irvine CA. Recently, I was teaching a live class and couldn’t get a video I wanted to show to work. I did not prepare, I just assumed I would have no problem.
After class I started beating myself up for not having taken the time to prepare the video for class. I went into an accurate yet harsh spiral that moved into an inaccurate and harsh spiral. I could feel all of this icky energy in my stomach and hearing the message, “You should not be a professor! You are not good enough for this task!” I felt the all too familiar pull toward a shame spiral over it.
Eventually I also employed skills to battle the spiral. I reminded myself that I was using a harsh voice. The truth is I wasn’t prepared and it took away from valuable class time. The harshness came from a meanness toward myself which then shifted to inaccurate shaming statements that I shouldn’t be teaching and that I’m not good enough. I made a mistake, yes, but that is not a definition of who I am.
I didn’t magically feel better after battling the shameful harsh judge inside of me, but I did stop the powerful avalanche of all the ways I fail from dislodging and suffocating me. The next day, I shared this experience with my husband and later a trusted group of women (we had scheduled this gathering weeks before-I’m so grateful for God’s perfect timing!). It felt good to speak it aloud and also hear their encouragement. We all need it!
This reminds me of the power of Dr. Townsend’s book, People Fuel. We need others to hear our hurts and help us activate our healthy coping skills. Our healing journey is just that, an ongoing journey. For me to ignore or dismiss the disappointment I felt would only set me up for further damage and deny my actual experience. That denial would lead to stuffing my authentic experience and pretending I was fine. This pretending leads to disconnection with others because I then project the “I’m perfect” facade and no one can relate to that. The disconnection with others leads to unhealthy behaviors like quitting things I love after making a mistake (I have a history of doing this!). Instead, I embrace my reality because it gives me an opportunity to choose community over isolation, healthy over unhealthy, and growth over stagnation. This embracing also reminds me that perfection is unachievable and never what God intended. 🙂
I was pondering the struggle of a butterfly as it makes its way out of a chrysalis. I was thinking about the word for that and catharsis came into mind. That isn’t exactly the right fit but I was considering how important it is not to stop a person from releasing deep emotion; just like the butterfly who struggles to get out of the chrysalis. If we snip the chrysalis and free the butterfly it will drop to the ground, its wings useless. The struggle is what strengthens its wings and enables it to fly, a critical component to a butterfly’s life. If we do the same to a person, pluck them out of their internal struggle, they may not strengthen necessary parts within.
Catharsis involves a process to free oneself of profound emotion. If I say, “Oh you’re fine, just move on” or “Look at the bright side of life”, the person is being encouraged to ignore or push down his real emotional experience. There is power and freedom in allowing our emotions to rise to the surface and spill or even gush out of us. If we can do that with others who are willing to hold that emotion with us, the healing is exponential. The job of the holder is to be there, which communicates, “Yes, I see your pain. I will not ignore it. I will not tell you to ignore it. I’ll sit with you as you feel it. I’m here. You are seen and not alone.”
Sometimes people need words, some need silence. Some people need physical comfort, some don’t. As one who sits alongside another in her pain, ask how you can best support her in her pain. She will likely tell you. “Just be here with me.” “I need a hug.” “Tell me it’s ok to be so sad.”
Stay away from moving her to fix or solve her problem. She will either get there on her own as she allows her pain to be felt or she will ask for your help in what to do about the situation. If she doesn’t, at some point, after lots of tears, you may ask, “Would you like help figuring out what to do about this?” If the answer is no, accept the no and don’t press the issue. You can say, “If you ever want to talk about the pain or solutions, I’m here. Just ask.” If the answer is yes, search together for solutions. Avoid having all the answers. Let her explore, too. Even the searching for the next step is part of strengthening her wings.
For some, simply the experience of purging the emotion and being literally or figuratively held in that space is all he needs for healing. Some pain doesn’t need a solution or a next step, some simply needs to be felt and released. And sometimes that same pain comes back again, and needs to be released, again. It’s all a part of the healing process.
Sitting with someone in their pain is not easy. That’s why many of us avoid it or try to smooth it over so the person doesn’t make us uncomfortable. Press into that. What’s that about you that you avoid emotional pain? Maybe you have your own catharsis to experience!
Sometimes the best self care is being heard by someone who cares. I was recently feeling a bit down. I spent time with God, reading His words (the Bible), sat in my favorite chair with my dog, did yoga, and went on a walk. These are all self care activities I need on a regular basis to fill myself up but on this day, nothing seemed to help. By the end of the day, I finally called my husband and told him I was down. I told him why and he just listened. He was compassionate with me and gently said things like, “That’s hard,” and “I hear how sad you are right now.” He didn’t tell me what to do to feel better or how I should just snap out of it. I didn’t need any fixes, I just needed to be heard.
As I talked with him I also explored some of the factors contributing to my sadness. It felt good to connect the dots. He didn’t connect them for me but instead just listened with compassionate responses so I knew he was listening to me. Toward the end of our conversation I started to feel the darkness lift. Just speaking my experience was helpful. That was what I needed to move through my sadness and out onto the other side.
I know that in all circumstances there is no one size fits all. There are times when I want help figuring something out and will ask for ideas. It’s important for me to keep up my self care as well. That said, there’s something super powerful and healing about being heard, being seen, and validated in our experience.