By Kate Kerry Spencer
In every life there are times when all we can do is hunker down, hang on, buy a bagel and wait for the shit storm to pass. Sometimes that storm comes from external factors beyond our control. The company we work for goes under, or goes in a new direction, or needs to reduce workforce, or is bought by a new company that doesn’t need us. And that’s all assuming we had the good fortune to be employed in the first place.
Sometimes it comes on the home front, with a family member or beloved friend or we ourselves getting a diagnosis we are not prepared to hear, much less live. Suddenly, all the cards in the deck have to be reshuffled, and that’s assuming we can actually find the deck and hold onto it.
I had such an awakening in my own life a few years ago. I had just finished writing my first book when my husband’s body went into a complete system failure. This was not a “simple” heart attack; this was a total system crash brought on by a rogue virus he picked up on one of his many work trips out of country. He went from tired, to delirious, to near death in one week. What followed were years of very tenuous health sustained by mountains of ever-changing meds and two mechanical hearts, (the first one failed and had to be replaced in yet another emergency surgery), while waiting for a heart transplant.
The miracle is that against most of the odds, my husband got the heart transplant. And that heart is as robust, resilient and strong as the 15 years of life that were lived by the donor.
There’s an incredible poignancy that comes with a heart transplant and the biggest one is the hard fact that someone has to die, in order for someone else to live. In this case, it was someone just starting out in life. The gratitude felt for this amazing gift is always balanced with the wish that the 15-year-old donor could have lived a full and happy life himself, driven by the force of his own, perfect heart. But that was not to be, as so many things are in this life.
So how, after a long siege, do we reclaim our joy, our dreams, our own life force, both as survivors of a war and the soldiers and generals of the wars of our loved ones? I am still figuring that out, and likely will be for some time. But I’ve found a few practices to be really helpful.
Eat something: I lost 22 pounds during the worst phase of my husband’s illness. I didn’t need to lose a single one. That’s not me saying I’m some kind of major athlete or the goddess of healthy eating. I just know how to instinctively eat what’s best for me and in the quantities that make my body happy.
All of that went out the window when the tsunami of stress hit the fan. I ran from home, to work, to hospital, to work, to hospital, to home in an infinity loop of adrenaline. There’s a kind of swaddling baby blanket of the mind that comes with high stress and elevated levels of adrenaline. It dulls the appetite, blocks the hunger alerts from your brain and makes it really easy to miss meals.
Fueled by a sense of purpose and on high alert, the brain goes into warrior mode. The problem with that is that the adrenaline only lasts so long and it’s not a substitute for regular, steady meals, even if those are eaten with a heavy heart in a hectic hospital cafeteria. If you absolutely hate the cafeteria environment, buy yourself ready-made protein drinks and bars and keep them with you all the time.
Get some sleep: As it turns out, our grandmas were right. Along with a steady intake of brain and body- nourishing nutrients, getting regular rest is critical to our ability to function, make important decisions, foster hope and optimism, and pave a way through to the imagining, or re-imagining of our future lives while being more present in the present.
While extended periods of sleep are best, any time you can catch even 20 minutes of rest can shore up some reserves. As you move out of survival mode, devote some time to making whatever type of sleep area you may have at home into a kind of oasis for your heart. Buy yourself a super soft blanket or fleecy comforter, or trade out your ancient pillow for one that will actually comfort your head and neck. Find a way to get more sleep, even if it’s only 20 extra minutes. Sleep gives your mind a break and space for dreams to grow and take root in your heart, mind and body.
Acknowledge the depth of the loss: You may come home from the hospital, or other related trauma, alone and for good. You may have gone through a long, or very brief, time of convalescence, either for yourself or your loved one. You may have been in the role of caregiver far longer than you imagined or ever wanted to be. You may be both the patient and the caregiver, the recovered and the recovering.
In truth, we are all these things, sometimes simultaneously, at some time in life. Acknowledge this reality. What once was the future may never be, at least how you once imagined it. Be willing to steadfastly reimagine your life and your dreams.
Keep the destination in sight while finding new ways to get there: Some tried and true ways you relied on in the past to get yourself motivated, or give you a sense of fulfillment and meaning, or just give you that baseline of contentment with being, may not be the same touchstones now. Live with that for awhile and see what could be added, subtracted, divided or multiplied to give you a greater sense of purpose, well-being and just plain happiness.
Never give up: We all find ourselves in a dark wood, a waiting room, a board room, a hospital room, or some other unknown place that calls us to know ourselves in a new way. Remember, everything you already know you once had to learn by trial, error and, in the beginning, baby steps. You can do this, and in some significant, brave, willing-to-be-uncertain, certain way, you already have.
Today, before you go out into the world, sit down in one of your favorite places at home. It may be an ancient, wonderfully worn couch, or the edge of your bed, or in a new nook or corner that today feels just right. Sit comfortably and quietly with yourself, paying calm attention to the flow of your breathing. You don’t need to make it bigger, deeper or anything more than what it is: the breath of your life.
Put your hand on your heart. With every inbreath, quietly say to yourself, “This is the breath of a new day.” With every exhale, quietly say to yourself, “This is the breath of a nurtured life.”
Tonight, lie down on your bed, or sofa, or sleeping bag and feel the support of these surfaces holding your body. Put your hand on your heart. With every inbreath, quietly say to yourself, “This is the breath of a peaceful night.” With every exhale, say to yourself, “This is the breath of a brave life.”
Kate Kerry Spencer is a Pacific Northwest writer, editor, and publisher. Learn more about her upcoming memoir, Smoke: A Story of Love, Lies and Cigarettes.
Smoke is the story of fatal consolations--tobacco, denial and deceit--and the second chances that can come to us in the most unlikely places. For this mother and daughter it was a rehab center where the two women wrestled with cigarettes, scrambled brains and each other--and in the process, found the long way back to love.