Letting Go, Painfully

I try to avoid “stream-of-consciousness”posts, but occasionally I’ll let one through. This one stings a bit…

I am tired. Physical fatigue is easy for me; getting emotionally wrung out is exhausting.

Events that have taken place over the past several years have demanded a release of expectations, a relinquishing of normality, how I think life “should” be.

Cancer was the big one. I used to wake in the morning, hoping that my diagnosis had been a bad dream. That I could laugh and shake my head, thinking, “Phew! Glad THAT wasn’t real!” And then go about my day, forgetting the fear and immersing myself in blissfully boring everyday life.

But that’s not what happened. I would wake in the pre-dawn hours after sleep had left me to the darkness, coldness spreading through my belly as I remembered that I had cancer. And in the midst of the fear of dying was that wrenching feeling of having to let go of wanting things to be different. Still desperately holding on when it was too late to do so.

Attachment leads to suffering. I know this, but I cling nonetheless, stubbornly refusing to accept change.

I was given a bit of news several days ago, too disorienting for me to even define in this post. Like cancer, it caught me off guard, and I cling to wanting things to be different. To be “normal” and uninteresting. I’m compelled by my need to fix it, make it comfortable and easy to accept.

I need to get.a.grip…

Yet another thing I wish I could control. But I can only paw at it from the outside.

Now I’m engaging in emotional calisthenics, to try to find a notch on this slick surface that I can stick my finger into and get some sort of grip.

I wish this wasn’t the case. I’m disappointed that I feel the way I do. I tell myself, I should be more tolerant of what happens. But it’s the hope that things will stay the same that makes change so difficult.

I twist my thoughts into origami, trying to find a comfortable shape. It takes a lot of massaging to smooth out the edges and make this morsel easier to swallow. Every time I mull it over, it cuts me again.

At some point it is no longer the matter itself that causes pain. It’s all the emotion layered on top of it.

So I’m tired. Letting go, yes, but so slowly. You’d think that it would get easier with practice but even the process hurts.

Of course, holding on hurts more.

Releasing Stress Bubbles

I’m constantly working to keep anxiety under control. For me, one of the most common feelings associated with stress is that of it being “in your face”. There is no buffer and therefore no easy way to give yourself time to pause. Emotions rush at you.

I’ve developed visualizations to give me some space. I’ve already written about getting perspective and keeping anxiety at arm’s length, but sometimes I need another way of freeing myself from stressful thoughts. So I use bubbles!

Oooo, bubbles!

When I get caught up in thoughts of a stressful situation and I feel like the images are right in front of me, I imagine pulling back from the scene. What is transpiring before me continues, but I slowly move away, and as I do, the periphery of my vision starts bending inward. As I pull back, I realize that I am inside a bubble with finite edges.

I keep moving backwards through the wall of the bubble until I’m standing outside it. The actions within are still taking place, but they’re no longer coming at me. I watch from a safe distance, feeling secure.

I may allow the bubble to float away or I can pop it if I choose. Or I may stay with it for a while, observing without getting drawn back in.

Sometimes this becomes a game, particularly if I wake in the middle of the night and find myself in the grip of fearful thoughts. It’s usually not enough for me to back out of one bubble. There may be many. Sometimes I leave a bubble and then realize that I’m standing in another, even bigger one.

When my mind is particularly active, the bubbles keep coming.

But eventually, I get to the point where I am standing outside of all the bubbles, watching them floating before me, the figures or events looking small and not menacing at all. That is the perspective that I need to create myself breathing space.

The metaphor of a bubble is a lovely one because bubbles by themselves are playful, beautiful and, of course, ephemeral. Just as the bubble does not last forever, the events in our lives, no matter how stressful, don’t last forever either. The bubble reminds me that all things pass.

I’ve even brought a little container of soapy water with a bubble wand to work. Blowing bubbles (when no one’s looking) in my office slows my breathing and requires some focus. A controlled exhalation is needed to not pop the prismatic ball of soap-water before I can send it on its way, taking my worries along with it.

A stressful event taking place inside a bubble seems less frightening.

When I cannot do this indoors, I may take a break and head outside, letting the bubbles float off into the breeze. I might make someone else smile in the the process and that gladdens my heart.

It’s silly and fun and reminds me not to take everything so seriously. And if I can send my cares off in bubbles, giving me even a temporary reprieve from anxiety, then perhaps what might have seemed like an overwhelming crisis may feel more manageable.

“The Human Side of Cancer”

I first learned of Dr. Jimmie Holland’s work through her obituary in the New York Times, following her passing on December 24, 2017. As a psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, she was credited with pioneering the field of psycho-oncology, which addresses the stuff that goes on in your noggin while you’re making your way through cancer treatment.

Years ago, Dr. Holland became frustrated by the fact that cancer patients were questioned about how every inch of their bodies felt, but oncologists neglected to ask about the state of their emotions. I’m grateful for her recognition of this fact and I completely agree with her. The psychological experience of cancer is a critically important element in treatment, one that is too easily overlooked by hospitals and physicians in their rush to address physical symptoms.

The late Jimmie Holland, a psychiatrist who happened to be married to an oncologist, understood the many psychological pressures affecting cancer patients.

I highly recommend Dr. Holland’s book, The Human Side of Cancer: Living With Hope, Coping with Uncertainty, which still sits by my bedside even though I finished reading it well over a year ago. While I read it cover-to-cover, it works just as well as a reference text, set up so that you can go to the section most relevant to you.

For me, with a background in psychology, this book was exactly what I was looking for, but certainly psychology degrees are not necessary to utilize what’s on these pages. The book was written for both patients and caregivers, for those undergoing treatment and those on the path of survivorship, dealing with a poor prognosis or experiencing a recurrence. There is information appropriate for all these varied situations and all types of cancers.

The book is divided into 16 chapters, followed by a listing of resources. The chapters are as follows:

  1. What Is the Human Side of Cancer?
  2. The Tyranny of Positive Thinking
  3. The Mind-Body Connections and Cancer
  4. The Diagnosis: “I Could Die of This”
  5. Working Together
  6. Coping
  7. The Human Side of Cancer Treatments
  8. The Human Side of Specific Cancers
  9. All Medicine Doesn’t Come in a Bottle: Psychological Treatment
  10. Alternative and Complementary Therapies
  11. “I’m a Survivor–Now What?”
  12. Staying Healthy
  13. The Goal is Control
  14. The Last Taboo
  15. The Family and Cancer
  16. How Do I Go On?
At some point, I had to stop tagging pages because, honestly, I wanted to tag everything.

I enthusiastically plowed through this book because Dr. Holland was writing exactly about the things I’d been thinking about. Most of the parts that I tagged for future reference were in the center (chapters 7-11), but in its entirety, the book is invaluable. Dr. Holland provided numerous examples of situations that her patients experienced in addition to offering practical advice on a variety of topics. So many sections spoke directly to questions that I’d had, such as, “Did Stress Alter My Immune System and Cause My Cancer?, “Are All These Problems [from treatment] Worth the Long Term Gain?” and “Am I a Cancer Patient or a Cancer Survivor?”, to name several. I was surprised by how many issues that had been bothering me showed up in the pages of this book.

Cancer is never an easy topic, but thoughts about potential outcomes and treatment consequences are the reality that cancer patients live every day. This book addressed everything about that reality, and it was perfect for where my head was at the time I was reading it: having had surgery, chemo and radiation, still undergoing monoclonal antibody infusions. My hair had just begun to grow back in and I was happy that the “worst” of my treatment was over, but I was facing the uncertainty of the future.

I remember reading The Human Side of Cancer and being excited by how relevant the material was to my life, and simultaneously wondering why this wasn’t required reading for anyone receiving a cancer diagnosis. Or every oncologist on the face of this planet.

If you are a cancer survivor, current patient or caring for someone who is, I encourage you to get a copy of this book. You might not realize how much you need it.

Paying a Compliment, the Happiest Transaction

~There are precious things that cost nothing.~

I’m currently taking a class via Coursera.org by Prof. Laurie Santos of Yale entitled, “The Science of Well-Being“, which I expect to cover in more depth in a future post.

The purpose of the class is to present research on happiness, why we don’t have it (the things we think will make us happy, don’t) and how we can get it (what actually makes us happy may be surprising).

Of the many studies that Dr. Santos discusses, one in particular caught my interest. University of Chicago researcher Nicholas Epley investigated the impact that social connections have on our happiness (“Mistakenly seeking solitude“). Briefly, he found that individuals who made even superficial contact with someone else during their commute to work on a train not only felt happier, but the person with whom they struck up a conversation likewise felt happier that day.

Making an effort to bridge the gap between us benefits everyone.

But this can be uncomfortable to do. Quite often, people taking public transport keep to themselves. Even if we know that striking up a conversation might be pleasant – and even increase our happiness – we may feel too self-conscious to engage with a stranger.

This made me think: some of the most rewarding interactions that I’ve had with strangers have consisted of merely eliciting a smile from them. That is a very brief connection with another human that ends up bringing both of us joy.

And the best way to do that? Pay them a compliment. I have been gifted with the most beautiful and sincere smiles from others by complimenting them on something about them that was genuinely laudable, resulting in good feelings that last an unexpectedly long time. Try it and see!

This world needs more diverse people finding common connections with each other.

Furthermore, when you open yourself to finding something to compliment about another person, it is amazing how quickly you can locate it. Your eyes see things more brightly and happily, and that feeling is passed on to your recipient along with your kind words.

Then, if their smiles last long enough for their good mood to positively benefit someone else, perhaps that simple act of a compliment can send a ripple that becomes something so much bigger.

What a lovely gift to the world.

Cartwheeling Down the Hall

Although I don’t do so often, I can still knock out a proper cartwheel.

Since it’s a “wheel”, you only need a lot of space moving forward, not width-wise, so presumably, it should be possible to cartwheel down a hallway. After all, gymnasts manage this on a balance bean only a few inches wide.

But that’s not what happens to me. Even when there’s physically an ample amount of space for gymnastic endeavors, psychologically there is a perceived narrowness.

That lack of space exists only inside my head, but it’s powerful enough to hinder even an attempt at a cartwheel in our apartment.

I imagine limbs thwacking against walls coupled with lots of pain and regret.

This post, of course, is not about cartwheels. It’s that I often approach life events in a similar way. There is a narrowness of view and fear of pain, and these limitations take up real estate inside my head. While in reality, there’s enough space for emotions to express themselves and enough time to work out any arisen problems, those imagined walls confine my actions.

Yeah, there are moves that I will *not* be able to manage no matter what.

Were I to close my eyes and trust my abilities, cartwheeling through the little hallway from my galley kitchen to our dining area would be no big deal.

But faith in myself has been eroded away and my sight is influenced by not only things that came before but also the discomfort of what may come in the future.

Breaking through these barriers takes work, and while I’m up for it, it is a process. The trick, of course, is to generate enough confidence to cartwheel down that hallway while I still remember how.

Finding Peace Among the Koi: A Visit to Deer Park Monastery

This past Sunday, July 28, the monks and nuns of Deer Park Monastery (Tu Viện Lộc Uyển) graciously opened their grounds to the public for a Day of Mindfulness. This Buddhist monastery, in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village Tradition, is nestled in the Escondido highlands, in northeast San Diego County.

My daughter and I were delighted to join in since the monastery is within a reasonable drive from our home. It was going to be a hot day, and I figured that there might not be a big turnout, even though this seemed to be the only Day of Mindfulness offered during the summer months at the monastery.

I couldn’t have been more wrong! Apparently, many were in need of a Day of Mindfulness, and 400 of us showed up.

This was our first trip to Deer Park. Following a welcome with singing, we participated in a walking meditation. My daughter and I were clearly more focused on taking mindful steps and enjoying the beauty of our surroundings instead of exactly where on the grounds we were, and as a result, had trouble locating the small meditation hall where all the first-timers go following the walk. By the time we figured out where it was, the room was already packed with people. We managed to eke out a small space at the very back for ourselves to sit and listen.

I have never sensed such peace and spaciousness in the midst of so many bodies. The monk who spoke was gentle and funny, originally from Sweden, and it was a pleasure to listen to his introduction to the practice of mindfulness.

Following this explanation was a short break, and my daughter and I headed for tea. Cups in hand, we sipped as we sat outside in the shade behind the Tea Room, feasting on the glorious sight of the hilly terrain, serenaded by birds and wind chimes, and cooled by mountain breezes. Not what you would expect on a 90+ degree day during the summer. This felt so peaceful.

Done, we waited for our turn to wash our cups. Dharma sharing was next, but we never made it back to the small meditation hall. I admit I have a weakness for koi, and the lotus pond under the trees called to us.

At the lotus pond, I lost myself and found bliss.

We sat and watched the fish. I had had a difficult week, but those worries had not followed me to the monastery. In fact, all I felt was bliss and a lightness of being. Any thought that might have agitated me sat about six feet away, teetering precipitously on a rock surrounding the pond, ready to lose its balance, plunge into the water and be gulped up by one of the majestic koi. There, I was not bothered by anything. I don’t remember the last time I enjoyed such peace. We sat in silence for an hour and a half, breathing in, breathing out and filling up our senses.

I rarely go into the Southern California sun without my umbrella, and on this Sunday it not only saved my scalp, but also a tiny life.

The only break in the calm was a disturbance at one end of the pond. A bee was furiously treading water, looking like a teeny motorboat driving in circles. I rescued it with the end of my umbrella so it wouldn’t become fish food. The koi, I presumed, were well fed, and the world needs all the honeybees it can get.

I could have kept the fish company for the rest of the day, but lunch was upon us, so we made our way down the dining area (we were finally figuring out where everything was!). Everyone stood quietly in line as the scent of curry wafted through the air.

Four hundred visitors descended (ascended?) upon the monks and nuns diligently preparing our delicious lunch. By the time we got to the food, some platters were empty, but there was still more than enough to put on our plates and enjoy a mindful meal.

A much-needed reminder to slow down.

I had practiced mindful eating before, but this was a novel concept for my accompanying teenager, who often ate paying more attention to her phone than to her plate. We chewed silently and slowly, savoring every bite. The tastes of the curried tofu, rice, steamed carrots and salad were vivid, the colors on our plates glowed brightly. My daughter, halfway done, leaned over and whispered to me, “This is the most delicious salad I’ve ever eaten, and I’m already full!”

Ah, if only we could enjoy such preciously appreciated meals at home! At least I had one convert now.

We waited in line to wash our dishes – the sensation of soapy water followed by a cool water rise was refreshingly pleasant on such a hot day.

Our last stop before departing the monastery grounds was a visit to the bookstore. There were more people than books, and it seemed like the two nuns handling the payment transactions were a bit overwhelmed by everyone’s enthusiasm for making purchases. We indulged in coconut ice cream and visited the donation box before heading home.

Floating Cloud Stupa – we admired it from afar and look forward to visiting it the next time we are on the grounds.

We are looking forward to our next trip to Deer Park Monastery, with a visit to the Floating Cloud Stupa, which we only saw from afar this time. When we return, we won’t get “lost” again, because no matter where we are on the grounds, that’s where we want to be.

You know, I used to be funnier…

This is not the post I was originally going to write.

I was going to relate the feelings of loss that I’ve experienced. And if I feel them, cancer sufferers who are in worse situations are hit with a tenfold intensity.

However, I decided against that. As I noted earlier, attitude influences our perceptions of a situation. That’s certainly not earthshaking news, but the extent to which that happens constantly smacks me upside the head.

There are bright spots in cancer. My Nurse Navigator, herself a triple-negative breast cancer survivor, would say, “You’re gonna either laugh or cry,” and as patients we do find things to laugh about. It’s just that we want to be the ones to point those things out. Calling yourself Yoda because you have a few long hairs on your head can be done in a light-hearted way. Having your neighbor laugh at your bald pate after a strong gust of wind rips your head scarf off, not so cool.

Sitting down and plunking out a humorous piece used to be really easy. There were so many things in life to laugh about, and it was no sweat to find the funny in everything. But it’s a harder squeeze now with cancer in my rear view mirror.

Alright, who’s up for a Nerf gun battle?

Not that I want to hide behind doors in Groucho glasses ready to nail people with seltzer water. But being able to generate a little bit of lightness would be appreciated. And when you throw financial stressors, cancer, work pressures and gradually dissipating self-esteem into that environment, pulling out a sincerely funny post seems almost impossible.

This is not how I want to go out, as the grumpy old lady who sits by the window all day, watching the kids in the neighborhood and ratting them out for the smallest infraction. No, I’d rather be the fun old lady who brings out popsicles and water balloons and gets in trouble along with those kids.

Same old lady. Different attitude. Yeah, I can swing that.