Self-care on the tough days

I really like Darlene Cohen’s description of “down ‘n’ dirty comfort” on the days in which you’ve hit your limit. Cohen lived with painful rheumatoid arthritis for many years, and unfortunately she is no longer with us. She died from cancer earlier this year. She knew what it was like to hit bottom, and she had some wonderful ideas about what to do about it. Cohen wrote in “Turning Suffering Inside Out: A Zen Approach to Living with Physical and Emotional Pain:”

Even though it’s an ideal time to “embrace the suffering” or learn to “dance with disaster,” you don’t care. Furthermore, you don’t care that you don’t care. You’ve had it with trying to expand your consciousness. You hate your life and everybody in it. Nobody else cares; why should you? You’re at the end of your rope. It’s time for down ‘n’ dirty comfort. What you need is whatever will get you through the next few hours. (p. 36)

Now, I’m a big fan of reframing, of seeing the lessons in our suffering that help us to develop more wisdom, compassion, and love. But I think that on the days in which we feel most frustrated and downtrodden, we find our greatest compassion in our compassionate actions toward ourselves. If it means pampering ourselves for the day, then so be it. Cohen wrote that when we feel this crappy, we can “start with a refuge, a place to which to retreat when you can’t cope–just to find out what relief feels like.”

She advised us to write a list of activities that can help us feel like we have a refuge:
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“What to say to someone who’s sick” – A blog response

Ideally, you would be able to take the time to learn good communication skills (see below) before talking to your sick friend/family member.

But what if you don’t have time to learn good communication skills before visiting or talking to your sick friend/family member?

If you are going to visit a sick friend or family member very soon and you want some ideas about what to say, my suggestion is to focus more on your presence than your words. Your presence speaks volumes. Try to focus on listening to the person with 100% of your being. In the moments that you are with your friend or family member, listening to him or her should seem like the most important thing in your life. If your mind wanders to your “to-do list” or to some concern in your life, catch it, and focus on being there for your friend/family member. If there is an “awkward silence” don’t worry about it. Breathe deeply during the silence and then let your friend or family member know that s/he doesn’t have to say anything, you are there to support him or her in whatever way possible and you are glad just to be there with him or her. If you can’t think of anything to say then be honest, say something like, “I care about you and I’m here for you, even if I don’t know what to say or do.”

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A blog response to “What to say to someone who’s sick,” an article by Bruce Feiler.

I went through hell when I was really sick and in a lot of pain, but it was my own unique hell.

The blogosphere tends to oversimplify the complexity of serious issues with clever titles and tips. Five ways to resolve conflict. Ten ways to be happy. Eleven ways to be unremarkably average. Just read a blog post and your life can be so much better afterwards. But I was surprised to read a clever tip list like this in the New York Times concerning “what to say to someone who’s sick.”

The author, Bruce Feiler, a cancer veteran, wrote two lists with the do’s and don’t’s of communicating with friends and family members who are ill. I have no doubt that Feiler had the best of intentions in writing his article. He went through the hell of cancer and he didn’t want others to have to deal with the same kinds of frustrations he dealt with. But Feiler forgot that his hell was unique and that his preferences as a patient were unique.

Let’s start with his first “don’t” tip, “What can I do to help?” Feiler thinks this question unnecessarily burdens the patient. But that is just his opinion. Personally, I loved when friends asked me this question because I was often in need of help and it was hard for me–Miss super independent–to admit it. When I was severely ill, I frequently needed a ride home from the hospital and I was so glad when someone asked me what they could do to help. “Pick me up,” I would respond. Sometimes I had to take a taxi, if it was, for example at 6am or if I couldn’t find a ride. It meant a world of difference to me to have a friend or family member pick me up instead of taking a taxi. I basked in the care and warmth of my friend/family member the whole way home.

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Living with uncertainty

Earlier this week I went to my doctor to have my moles checked out. It had been three years since a doctor looked at them. I explained to the doc that I am at high-risk for melanoma cancer because:

1) I lived in Florida during my teenage years and got so burned that my face looked like it had been microwaved,

2) I was on immunosuppressant medicines for 13 years, and

3) My maternal grandparents both had moles that became cancerous, though the moles were removed early (level 1 or 2).

My doctor looked at my back and then asked me to wait as he wanted to consult with a colleague. Some 15 minutes later (good thing I brought a book) she came in and looked at the moles then asked me how long I had had a particularly  large one.

“Många år” (many years) I said in Swedish. She assured me it was fine then. My doctor said that he couldn’t remove all the moles that all of his patients had. We just have to live with some uncertainty. I told him I knew lots about living with uncertainty.

I’ve lived with uncertainty for so long that coping with a long-standing sense of uncertainty has become a part of my way of life. In the five or so years after I was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease (1998) I tried to control everything that I could to maintain some semblance of security. I did not want to get sick again so I washed dishes twice or washed my hands many, many times. I don’t like labels, but you could say it was probably some version of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

It took many years of mindfulness practice, therapy and self-awareness to loosen some of the habit patterns that I developed during the years that my illness was most severe (see the article I wrote: Is Your Need for Control Out of Control?). The illness almost killed me and triggered an enormous amount of suffering and I never wanted to go through that again. Strangely enough, I handled acute episodes of illness quite well, even when I was hospitalized and not allowed to eat for weeks at a time.

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IBD or Cancer?

A question from one of the IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) support groups on Facebook went something like: “Which would you rather have, IBD or cancer? Someone said that cancer is easier put into remission than IBD and IBD never goes away.”

My response:
Whoever said, “IBD never goes away,” is wrong. The docs can’t find any signs of it in my body and that has been the case for 5 years now. Nothing is permanent. That person was probably having a hard day with IBD and my heart goes out to him or her. I think that everything we “get” gives us an opportunity to grow and increase our awareness, compassion, and love. The specific kind of ailment is not all that significant in the grand scheme of things. We can die and suffer from lots of different ailments, not just IBD or cancer. I did have a couple of brushes with cancer, which were not life-threatening. I also had a few severe flares of IBD that were life-threatening years ago. I got to face the existential issue of “I am going to die someday,” which made me more appreciative of everything that I normally took for granted. The experiences I had with heavy suffering from severe IBD opened my heart. I’m glad that all signs of IBD are gone from my body and yet I am also grateful for what IBD taught me — how to care for myself and have deep compassion for others.

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