Wednesday, July 20, 2016

How to Cope With the Pressure to be Over Trauma

My pre-cancer self knew nothing of the disease. I stumbled through the four and a half months it took to get a diagnosis like a kindergartener in a graduate course.
At six and a half months in, I had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. By then, my bright red, hip-to-hip scar, missing nipple and asymmetrical breasts gave me a pretty good handle on cancer’s physical effects.
Getting my head around the emotional consequences was infinitely harder.
Looking back, it’s not like I didn’t feel anything. I was miserable, fatigued, lonely, stressed, angry and overwhelmed. But, unlike physical scars, the severity of those wounds wasn’t obvious when I looked in the mirror.

I had no idea then that recuperating from the emotional devastation of cancer was going to be even harder than recuperating from the physical damage.

In fact, people I trusted told me the exact opposite. As soon as I got home from the hospital, friends and family expressed relief that “the worst is over” and returned to their regularly scheduled lives. A cancer survivor I knew and one of my doctors assured me that cancer would take a year of my life and then “it would be over.”
On the one-year anniversary of that first frightening mammogram, I was nowhere near over cancer and hit a new emotional low. Luckily, I was seeing an oncology therapist. She pointed out the futility of trying to conform to a set end date and empowered me to believe in my right to experience cancer in my own way, at my own pace.
With her help, I learned how to cope with the pressure to be over the trauma of cancer:
1. Focus on Support: When we’re sick, we go to a doctor. It shouldn’t be any different when we’re emotionally traumatized. I had no clue how to get out from under my misery, fatigue, loneliness and anger when I started seeing my therapist. Working with her helped me slowly face and dissect the pain behind my emotions and get to a better place.
2. Focus on Healing: As a five-year survivor, I can honestly say I’m not over cancer and probably never will be. I have, however, healed to a great extent and am much less emotionally distraught than I was during my dark days.
3. Focus on Connecting: Talking with other patients and survivors let me know my emotional struggles were normal and I wasn’t alone. It may be a club no one wants to join but, once you’re in, belonging connects you to others who are uniquely qualified to provide understanding and validation.
A pivotal moment of healing came a few months after my surgery when my husband and I were invited to dinner by friends. I balked because I wasn’t over cancer and was trying to hide it by telling people I was fine. I was exhausted and sick of lying, but afraid to let others in on how hard cancer hit me emotionally.
When our friends asked how I was doing, I answered honestly and was shocked at the relief I felt. Better yet, the trust I put in them was rewarded with empathy and compassion and I was able to go on with the evening feeling heard.
Dealing with the pressure to be over any trauma isn’t easy, and it’s not something I could have ever done alone. It takes work, time, and a great deal of support.
Trauma takes a heavy emotional toll and:

You have the right to experience your feelings at your own pace. 

If you found this post useful, please share it with your friends on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest. And by all means, let’s talk below!
Image courtesy of Kevin Dooley.
Originally published at CURE.  Read more from Debbie at CURE here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Why I’m Daring to Ask “What Do I Want?”

I was raised to be a quiet, polite, good girl. Of course, nurture alone didn’t form me. As an introvert, it’s entirely my nature to hang back to get the lay of the land and advance slowly. Add to that the fact that I’m big sister to eight brothers and sisters, a wife and mother of two and you get a lifetime of putting others first.
Back when I was a practicing attorney, one of my lawyer friends told me I was the most assertive person she’d ever met. I was shocked, but maybe she was right. When push comes to shove I know how to shove back and my legal career did teach me to curse like a sailor. But, that persona was cultivated to get the job done. It’s not my default.
It never really hit me how hard I found it to say “Yes” to what I wanted until I got breast cancer. Once I became mindful of letting “Yes” into my life, I launched a blog, wrote two books for cancer survivors, got passionate about volunteering and picked up speaking engagements.
Then, the unthinkable happened. I got old enough to get a glimpse of the empty nest.
Sending both of our children to college wasn’t exactly like getting a pink slip. It was more like the premonition that haunts you immediately before getting the ax. But the good news is that the universe is merciful and I was being eased into obsolescence as a full-time nurturer.

With time to think I realized I had just scratched the surface of saying “Yes.” I believed Joseph Campbell when he said, “The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.” But, how do you know what your big adventure is if you don’t ask the bigger question, “What do I want?”

Once I dared to ask the question a lot happened. First, asking the question interrupts the involuntary impulse to automatically consider someone else’s wishes. (Him: “What do you want for dinner? Me: I don’t know, what do you want?) Second, asking the question forces me to actually come up with an answer. (Me: “What do I want for dinner? Hmm, I need a minute to think about it.”)
The beauty of daring to ask what I want is that I get to decide how to act on the answer. Self-awareness brings a choice between standing up for what I want and letting it go. Whatever I decide, I get to create self-satisfaction and luminous generosity, untainted by the resentment of giving in again and again.

Daring to ask “What do I want?” is the Abracadabra! that unleashes magical possibilities.
 (Click to Tweet!)

I wrote the following a few years after my cancer diagnosis. Like so many other things I jot down, I wrote it to me:
You Deserve to Stand Up For What You Want
How often have you slammed the door against what you want,
because you let fear trump desire?
How many times did you not ask,
because rejection hurts like hell?
How easily have you given in,
because making others happy is safer than finding your own happiness?
Say “Yes” to yourself because it’s what you want,
and that is justification enough.
Take the risk and feel (a bit) guilty.
It won’t kill you.
You and I have survived things much scarier
than saying “Yes” to our desires.
We’ve measured up before,
even as we were falling down.
When push came to shove,
we knew how to (wo)man up!
Which brings us to this question:
Knowing what we have been through and how truly short life is,
how can we even think about stuffing down our desires?
Pull yourself up tall like a mountain, take a deep breath, let it out slowly
and recognize the truth that lives within you:
You are enough.
And you deserve to stand up for what you want.
Do you tend to put others first? I dare you to ask, “What do I want?” It’s a simple question, but you never know where the answer might lead you.


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Image courtesy of Nicole Pierce.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Who Owns the Voice in Your Head?

When I was in the fifth grade, my parents walked across the street to meet my teacher for a parent-teacher conference.
Of all the teachers I’ve had from kindergarten through law school, Mr. Clinton gets the “World’s Best Teacher“ award hands down. As a model student, I was hardworking, intelligent and got good grades. I’ve had many excellent teachers, but what made Mr. Clinton special was what he gave me that my father never did.
He genuinely appreciated me as an individual and let me know it.
As I watched my parents make the short walk to my grammar school, I was certain they would return with a glowing report of which we could all be proud.
No such luck.
Instead, my father harangued me for the next hour all because Mr. Clinton, who had only wonderful things to say about me, also said:
“Our little Debbie has discovered boys.”
I don’t remember any congratulations for my stellar accomplishments as a fifth grade student. There was no recognition of the obvious affection my teacher had for me. There was only criticism and dire warnings should I veer from model student to boy-crazy dropout.

I was ten years old and that was the dawn, as best as I can remember it, of the voice in my head that heckles, “You are not enough.”

Now I ask you, who do you think owns the voice in my head?
It seems obvious now, but it wasn’t always. Forty years later, when I was working through cancer with a therapist, she made the connection when I mentioned regretting something I had not done. To her, my hesitance made perfect sense given that I had been conditioned to feel, “Why bother if it’s never enough anyway.”
Over the years, the voice in my head became a part of me, adopted and given my name and my voice, indistinguishable from my true self and certainly from my father. Its truth settled into my soul, because what you learn from pain sticks with you.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Silencing a broken record from the past and revealing your true inner voice takes awareness.

What’s the story behind the voice in your head? Oftentimes, the voice in your head traces back to experiences from your past. It might be uncomfortable, but tracing the voice back to a particular time or incidence brings awareness and helps separate your true inner voice from lies you’ve been taught.
Listen to and question what you tell yourself. Do you hear a faint echo of another’s voice coming at you from somewhere else in time? Is the voice loving or is it critical? Do you feel inspired by the voice, or limited and small? Is the voice in your head serving you or holding you back?
Take inventory. As my therapist pointed out during our conversation, I’ve actually accomplished a lot in spite of my nagging voice. I was enough to put myself through college and law school, get and stay married, have two children despite years of infertility and miscarriages, and get through cancer. Taking stock refutes the lies told by the voice in my head and puts it in its place.
Practice compassion. If a good friend needed your support, would you talk to him or her the way the voice in your head talks to you? Are you able to comfort and nurture yourself when you need it, or do you beat yourself up? We are all comprised of energy and light. If your inner voice is mean to you, it’s not originating from you but from a place outside of you.
Of course, sometimes even your true inner voice has difficult truths to deliver. With awareness and compassion, you can take that advice and better yourself. But, if the voice in your head is just mindlessly repeating an old story someone else made up about you long ago, then someone other than you owns that voice.

Image courtesy of John Haslam.
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Monday, January 12, 2015

How to Ditch Fear & Get What You Need

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.” Mick Jagger
I gave him the full mama bear hug and kissed the side of his head before sending him off with the usual parting words of a mother, “Have fun and be good.”
Only he wasn’t my child.
How did I know he needed mothering at that moment? Simple. He asked.
There were at least thirty of us at a neighbor’s house observing the pre-Junior Prom, picture-taking ritual. My son’s friend was there alone, his mother unable to attend. When it came time to leave for the prom, parents sent their children off with huge smiles, kisses and hugs.
As I released my hold on my son and sent him over to his father, his friend looked at me, extended his arms and said, ““My mother isn’t here and I need a hug too.”
As I hugged my son’s friend (for longer than I thought he would let me) it struck me that I had just witnessed this seventeen year old boy put the formula for getting what you need into action:

Awareness + Permission + Action = You Get What You Need

  1. Awareness: You can’t get what you need if you don’t know what you need. Are you as aware of your emotional need for affection, validation, understanding and support (just to name a few) as you are of your physical needs? If not, is it because you don’t think you’ll get them met anyway? If you want to have any chance of getting your needs met, you have to own them. No one else is going to get real about your needs until you do.
  2. Permission: Once you’re aware of your needs, do your best not to judge them. Whatever you need is valid and has merit. Viewing our needs through the prism of judgment causes us to shame ourselves into silence and inaction. Had my son’s friend thought he was being silly or juvenile, he never would have asked me for a hug before he went off to his first prom.
  3. Action: You know what you need and you know your needs have merit – now take action! Be brave and ask for what you need. You can be subtle or take the direct approach like my son’s friend, but you’re not going to get anything until you come out and ask for it.
Most of us let fear stop us from working the formula to get what we need. We’re afraid we’ll be judged, uncomfortable with vulnerability, or we’ve been rejected too many times before. Plus, fear keeps us playing small, believing we’re incapable of finding creative solutions to getting what we need.
The only way to ditch fear is to acknowledge it and then promptly ignore it.

When I was in the midst of cancer treatment, I was overwhelmed by daily responsibilities. Afraid to acknowledge I needed help, I soldiered on until it got to be too much. Finally, I talked with my oncology therapist who suggested, among other things, that I simply ask my husband to help me with the grocery shopping on the weekends, rather than continue to do it myself during the week.

When I heard her suggestion it was like a cloud lifted. Why did I think I had to do it all myself? And, why had I forgotten that we used to do the grocery shopping together every weekend before we had children, simply because we wanted to spend the entire weekend together?
Of course, my husband readily agreed to shop with me on the weekends and we’ve been doing it together ever since. I often joke with him that our big date of the week is going to Whole Foods on Saturday mornings.
Finding the courage to ask for what I needed reminded me that most people, and certainly my husband, respond generously. And here’s the kicker – at the moment the openness it takes to ask for what you need comes together with that generosity, a beautiful bubble of abundance and gratitude is created.
Do you struggle with getting what you need? Have you had the honor of showing up for someone who needed something from you?
I’m going to practice what I preach and ask you to join the conversation in the comments below. I answer every comment and would also love to see you share this post on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. Thank you!!

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Image courtesy of Jeremy Brooks

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Time to Settle In
& Get Cozy!


It's getting colder, the holidays are upon us and, all of a sudden, I'm feeling the need to slow down and get cozy. Of course, that means hot chocolate, marshmallows, a comfy throw and my favorite holiday movies.

What brings you comfy, cozy happiness? Whatever it is, make sure to allow yourself to luxuriate in it this holiday season.

Don't think of it as goofing off. Think of it as prioritizing live out loud joy at the very top of your "to do" list.

You deserve it!

Wishing You & Your Family
a Happy & Healthy
Holiday Season &
a Very Happy New Year!



Friday, December 12, 2014

Entering the Quiet Behind 50,000 Thoughts

Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day. – Deepak Chopra

I've been meditating on and off (mostly off) for a couple of years now. I wish I had a good excuse for letting my practice lapse, but I don't.

It's not that I don't have time, because I do.

It's not that I can't sit still, because I can.

The issue is my inability to keep my very rambunctious monkey mind from beating on the walls and making a ton of noise.

In other words, I don't do stillness well.

That's why I was stunned the other day when I tried meditating in the tub. I was trying to relax my muscles after a long day. The lights were off and a lavender candle was burning. I didn't get into the tub intending to meditate, but figured if I couldn't find stillness there, I couldn't find it anywhere. 

I closed my eyes and attempted to still my mind, but it wasn't working. The factory that is my mind just kept spitting out its daily quota of the inane and completely forgettable.

Frustrated, I took another approach and deeply inhaled the lavender air and sat in the lotus position.

My mind continued to race, but I slowly became aware of something different rising up from underneath the noise.

I can't describe it, but it was unpleasant, as if my body was experiencing an inner pain I couldn't pinpoint. 

My thoughts became accusatory, "Why can't you be still. You're just trying to get out of meditating by making yourself feel sick or something."

But the feeling wouldn't go away. As I sat and struggled with it, slowly it made itself heard:

"Dying. Of. Thirst."

Except for a cup of tea that morning, I hadn't had any water that entire day. Unfortunately, being dehydrated isn't rare for me. What was rare was actually feeling thirsty because I've become desensitized and am usually able to completely ignore my body's cravings.

Ironically, as I meditated surrounded by water, I was finally able to enter "into the quiet that's already there." Connecting with my body (which was clearly suffering) allowed me to respond and I immediately got out of the tub and gave myself what I needed.

Find the stillness within isn't always easy. But meditation is always worth the effort,  even if all you realize is that you need a drink of water.

Have you ever been shocked by what arose within you when you quieted your monkey mind? Let me know in the comments below; I answer every one.



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