Finally, This Is My Real 5-Year Anniversary

I was going to write about something else for this week’s post until I realized that I had another five-year breast cancer anniversary to share: the end of my radiation treatment.

It had run for six weeks, five days a week — going to the cancer center became a daily habit. But on October 23, 2017, I rang the gong signifying the end of treatment, said my good-byes to the radiation oncology staff and left them with baked goodies.

Cancer treatment felt like a never-ending vortex of scary experiences…but it did finally end.

With 2022 being five years since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve had a number of anniversaries to share this year. What makes Oct. 23 significant is that it marked the end of all the “tough stuff” that people scare you with about cancer. By that date, I’d put the diagnosis, surgery, chemo and then radiation behind me.

Because 2017 had been a miserable year, when radiation was done I thought I could finally take a deep breath. I’d waited for this point in my treatment for a long time and decided that I would lose myself in the spirit of the holiday season.

The problem was, you never really get rid of all your concerns. You release some, but others show up to take their place. I finished radiation…but wait, there’s more! Now I was going on tamoxifen and that brought a whole new set of issues, and yes, fears, with it.

So I spent Christmas season doing my best to enjoy myself but the holidays passed by and left me feeling a little empty. I’d expected a lot out of them and they didn’t deliver.

I had wanted to be free of all my worries but that’s not how cancer works. In fact, that’s not how life works either. It took me five years to figure out that I couldn’t get what I wanted, but what I could make of it was beautiful in its own way.

Admittedly, it was a tall order. After cancer, I tought the world would shine with joy, but that wasn’t realistic. Cancer isn’t the kind of disease you say to, “done!”, brush your hands off and walk out the door. It tags along behind you, if not as the disease, then as its shadow.

Fast forward five years to now…ok, ok, I know what I got wrong back then.

I had felt like life owed me something amazing because it had put me through cancer. I thought I deserved a post-cancer life that was perfect. Of course, it wasn’t. And it still isn’t.

So if there’s something to celebrate, it’s that I learned a few things over the past five years.

This holiday season I’m not going to be expecting things to wow me. But I am going to be enjoying the fact that I am still physically active and working the same university job, expanding my horizons as a new yoga teacher and finding fun ways to spend my time. And mostly, that I have moved past the feeling of anger that I felt about cancer and found some gratitude to fill its space.

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I know I keep going on and on about how much better life is when you’re not carrying the burden of anger, but honestly, if I’d known that acceptance would lighten me up this much, I would have done it sooner!

Why I Stopped Believing in Ghosts

So, I have a confession to make.

Throughout my primary and middle school years, I thought I had powerful extra-sensory perception. Actually, it might have even been longer than that, although I’m embarassed to admit it.

I blame my older brother for this. We were in grade school and my grandma had just passed away. Due to the arrival of a number of relatives for the funeral, we were left alone to entertain ourselves. As we turned off the lights for sleep, he and I somehow got on the topic of extra-sensory perception and decided to test it out.

One of us would think of a number and the other would guess what it was. I guessed correctly, over and over again. I would “see” it through my closed eyes as I concentrated. I didn’t miss a single one and my brother was very impressed.

When I was young, my older brother convinced me that my mind had special powers. Well…he wasn’t exactly wrong.

I fell asleep that night believing that my dear grandmother had imparted me a special gift with her passing, and I felt that I had undisputable empirical evidence of it.

In reality, my claim was on shakey ground, but I had already convinced myself that there was something magical there. In fact, I began seeing “evidence” of it everywhere. These couldn’t have possibly been coincidences, could they? I started fearing that if I could see something as a possibility, it would actually happen. As a result, I fought to keep certain thoughts out of my mind. Avoidance, anyone?

Some years later my older brother admitted he had fibbed to me that night, that no matter what number I “saw”, he would pretend that was the number he was thinking about. He thought it would be funny.

But by then, the latent fear of my thoughts was ingrained in me, even though I knew that triggering event had been a lie. What was true, however, was that my mind had always been very powerful. In one instance, I experienced intense pain that I couldn’t explain, lasting several days. While I was vaguely aware that this pain disappeared upon the release of a stressor, I didn’t realize that it was psychosomatic –literally something my mind created that had been expressed in my body.

My mind also had the power to hijack my thoughts, amplifying negative feelings. I was anything but grounded. I managed to plow on, garnering notable academic achievements. But there was always a sense of fear in the background and since it ran unchecked, eventually it overtook me and pointed my life’s path in a direction quite different from that of my peers.

Wish I’d realized way back when that life could “magical” in its beauty without having to be supernatural and out of my control.

Lacking awareness of how my mind operated meant that I didn’t realize why I was making the decisions that I was. It took years, even decades, to understand that so many of the things I had feared originated in my mind, affecting my interpretation of whatever input I was receiving.

Now, after all these realizations and a number of painful lessons, my world is not as “magical” as it used to be, but I am better rooted and grounded. And that feels a lot better.

What about “ghosts”?

When I live in the present, I am safe and secure. Those unexplainable occurences that I attributed to otherworldly origins have become much more explainable. And I’m well-aware of how my mind has twisted meaningless common things into terrible foreboding ones.

There are quite enough frightening things in the material world (cancer, wars, having my email account hacked…) that there’s no need to search the paranormal world for their cause.

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A 2021 survey of 1000 Americans revealed that 2 out of 5 people believe in ghosts. I am not here to contradict their beliefs, and frankly, when I talk of “ghosts” I don’t mean spooks. At the same time, I learned the hard way that my mind wasn’t always reflecting 100% truth. I was compelled to take inventory of what was bouncing around in my noggin and decided that, while I can’t neatly explain everything going on around me, it’s harmful to let my thoughts run wild.

Nothing to Fear but Fear…Sort of

About five years ago around this time of the year, I had an uneasy feeling.

So, let me back up. The previous August 2016 I had felt a small lump in my left breast. It wasn’t all that different from another lump that I had gone to see my Nurse Practitioner about in late June 2016, and she had put my fears to rest.

Still, she noted that I hadn’t had a mammogram since 2013, so she wrote me an order for one so that I could keep on track with my screenings.

But I dragged my feet on the mammogram. And when the August lump appeared, I decided to wait until it disappeared–you know, like they always did–before setting up the appointment. Because going into a screening knowing that I had a lump seemed terrifying.

You can’t hide from your fears, but that didn’t stop me from trying.

It didn’t disappear. I kept feeling it, pressing it to see how squishy it was, did it move about, was it getting bigger. And all the time, wondering how long it would last. It was hanging around longer than I expected.

But I still waited because I was afraid. I didn’t want to go to the mammogram and have the technician look concerned. Maybe she’d call the doctor in and the doctor would look concerned. Maybe they’d suggest more tests.

I *knew* it was nothing because it had to be nothing, but I didn’t want to risk having the medical professionals think it was something because that would be terrifying to me when I really knew that it was nothing. I didn’t want to experience that fear needlessly. I was afraid of being afraid.

So I waited until around this time of the year in 2017, when, after talking with my mom, we both agreed that getting the lump checked out would relieve my building anxiety. I imagined a pleasant conversation with the Nurse Practitioner as she would say, “Don’t worry, it’s nothing.”

Except that’s not what my NP said. Her expression went from friendly-smiley to concern, and she told me that I needed to get that mammogram done as soon as possible. All that fear that I’d tried to avoid by not getting the screening suddenly hit me at once. As the NP left the examination room, she admonished me to not put the mammogram off.

The order that I got read, “Mammography and Diagnostic Screening”. The left breast on the picture on the sheet was circled. I think. To be honest, I don’t remember much more than that. To an outsider, I was just going to have a suspicious lump checked out. But inside me, there was a tornado of anxiety whipping around unchecked.

I know I know I know…but at that time, the fear of what might be overpowered common sense. So I waited.

I had waited six months simply to avoid fear. I was so afraid of the fear that I was willing to risk my life–even though I hadn’t see it that way. The overwhelming need to not experience fear trumped everything else because it was so horrible that I couldn’t seen past it. Nothing else mattered.

Believe it or not, I didn’t realize that I had been suffering from severe anxiety for a number of years. It was always bubbling right by the surface, occasionally boiling over, but never sufficiently dealt with. It had built up throughout my life through an unfortunate series of events and I had become worse and worse at shaking it, but the two years prior to my diagnosis brought some of the longest bouts of chronic anxiety and feelings of worthlessness.

And all that fear that I had, that reason for not getting the lump checked out, that fear that almost cost me my life? Cancer was what forced me to face it. The most feared disease that I could have imagined ironically put me on the path to finally dealing with one of the most crippling issues of my adult life.

No, I’m not going to say that I’m thankful for cancer. Because that would be ridiculous. But I can now step back and see the worth of fearful experiences and understand that sometimes it’s the horrible things that push you into the most meaningful personal growth.

Before You Meet Your Oncologist, Be Aware…

…they don’t pull punches.

This is critical to be aware of when you’ve gotten your cancer diagnosis and are meeting your oncologist for the first time. We all go into that exam room fearful but hoping for good news. We want reassurance that it’s going to be okay.

The problem is, your oncologist can’t tell you that. They can’t say that you’ll get through this fine. Because they’re not going to promise you something they cannot guarantee. What they can give you is statistics. However, that may come in the form of something like, “You have an 85% chance of surviving…”, which sounds great, right, “…for 5 years.”

Is it good news or bad news? Their faces won’t tell.

Now, I don’t know how you feel about this, but honestly, when I heard that I thought, um, is that the best you can give me?

While I adore my oncologist, there was no cute wrinkled nose, no “I’m sure you’re gonna be okay” warm-and-fuzzies. It was all, “this is what’s next.”

I’m convinced that oncologists start their day by practicing how to deliver information without emotion, without giving away whether the news is good or bad. As patients, we literally hang on every word, every hesitation, every wrinkle on our oncologist’s face for an indication of just HOW bad the situation is. Some will reveal more than others, but in my own experience, it was “just the facts, ma’am” for quite a long time.

This could be very frustrating. I learned that I needed to get the “rah-rah” encouragement elsewhere.

On the plus side, however, I knew that if something was bad, my oncologist was going to tell me. He wouldn’t be like that friend who assures you your ugly outfit looks good just so that they don’t hurt your feelings. So if it’s any consolation, you’ll leave the office knowing what’s up, and what the doc doesn’t know yet if they’re still waiting for results. No false promises.

That helps get your head past the diagnosis and moving forward into treatment.

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I remember when, after my final infusion, I developed a horrible nail infection that landed me in the Emergency Room. I was stabilized, pumped full of antibiotics and my wound cleaned out. As I recovered, my ER doc came back to see how I was doing because he knew I’d just finished chemo and was familiar with the cancer experience. He told me that he was about to go notify another ER patient that they had liver cancer and wanted to take a breather and come talk to me before he had to break the news to them. It was obvious that he was moved by his patient’s plight.

So this was a great reminder for me that even though the doctors may seem to be stone-faced, they are by no means stone-hearted.

Does Mindfulness Make a Difference?

Yes, yes it does.

I am AWARE.

What used to feel like a jumbled mess of emotions and sensations before, now makes sense to me. Intense feelings don’t come at me as quickly as they used to and there’s more space between a stimulus and my response to it.

There is a PAUSE.

I may still feel overwhelmed by circumstances when something unexpected happens, but now I know what’s happening and can pull myself out of it.

That doesn’t mean that I’m perfectly calm and don’t get frightened, anxious or frustrated. I do. You can see that in some of my posts, because I try to be very honest about what I’m experiencing in the moment. But no matter how deeply I dip into fear, I don’t stay there.

I can find the CALM amidst the CHAOS.

When things get intense, I know how to feel into my body. I recognize the physical sensations and I focus on releasing them. Smoothening them out. Breathing through them.

All those abilities were always available to me, but I resisted calming myself. I am aware that on some level I used to feel that anxiety was a necessary way to express my fear; that it was necessary to descend into fear to express my emotional state to others, so that I would be taken seriously. While it sounds odd to read that now, it was only through learning that I was able to soothe myself that I learned I didn’t need to commit to the torture.

I return to the PRESENT.

When I start thinking about fretful things in my past or fearing the possibilities of the future, I can now recognize that my mind has drifted away and I can pull myself into the present, feeling into my bodily sensations. I can break through the dark tumult that’s enveloping me. And suddenly, the noise is gone and I’m standing with my feet firmly planted in my room. I hear the birds and I find peace.

I know I am SAFE.

I have learned how to feel into my body to help it bring me back to the present and away from fearful thoughts.

I realize that there were behaviors that I engaged in during times of anxiety in the past, like pacing back and forth, that actually soothed my nervous system. Just as rhythmic rocking soothes a child. My body was wise and knew what I needed. When, years ago, the burden of my workload chained me to my desk and prevented me from movement, my anxiety skyrocketed and became almost unbearable. That was a clue, but at that point in my life, I didn’t know how to listen to my body.

Now I know what I must do to calm down and I allow myself to do it. But this change didn’t come about suddenly.

It takes PRACTICE.

Practicing mindfulness meditation when I am at peace allows me to build up the habit that carries me through difficult times. I practice daily. Somedays I can focus on my breath perfectly; other times I lose myself in thought shortly after I’ve begun. Regardless, I don’t give up. Even the “bad meditation” days are better than no meditation at all. Each session strengthens my mindfulness habit.

Every day. No matter what. It makes a difference.

Making It Through “Now”

My recent post, Just Show Up, about releasing the need to fight through breast cancer treatment, left out an important concept.

My cancer diagnosis was what I deemed the “worst-case scenario” from the viewpoint of everything that came before. The overwhelm was a tidal wave that caught me and spun me around. Disoriented, I struggled to breathe and find my footing, but it was too much and I was poorly equipped to deal with the news.

Taking on everything at once doesn’t help you keep it together, it tears you apart.

I went through the motions, stumbling through the appointments that now multiplied in number. There was so much information to wade through, decisions to make, upcoming treatments to fear.

Then a co-worker whose wife had been diagnosed with cancer some years before sat down with me and gently offered a valuable piece of advice.

I didn’t have to handle everything at once. Some the decisions could be made later. Each day would bring answers and more clarity. There was no need to load up on all the information. It didn’t help anyone get through these days, all it did was weigh them down.

The path through this entailed focusing on what needed to be done now, and then working on doing that and only that. Just taking that one easy step forward.

All that stuff in the past and the things to come, you can release them. Don’t carry that extra burden with you. Just focus on what’s happening now. And now.

Could you get through the last moment? Good.

Now just get through the next.

Well, At Least the Mammogram Was Clear…

Last week was surprisingly rough.

That shouldn’t be surprising, given that it was my “scan-week” of the year, but even I was taken aback by how I’d felt.

For at least two weeks prior, I’d had that low grade, persistent anxiety simmering, the kind that you can *mostly* ignore during the day, but wow, does it rear its ugly head at night. I’d fall asleep, only to wake several hours later and then the mental battle of focusing on my breath vs. intrusive thoughts would begin. You’d think that by now I’d be better at shifting my focus, but meditation is always a work in progress.

Another year of cancer remission! Normally, this would mean I’d relax. But not this year…

Tuesday was my 3-D mammogram. That’s the one that verifies that I’m still in remission from breast cancer. Oooo, just a tad bit anxiety-provoking, but since I had seen my oncologist not even two weeks before and he’d already checked me out, I wasn’t overly frightened. I admit, it didn’t help that I couldn’t bring my husband for support (hello, COVID), but I felt positive going in.

And everything looked good. For that day it calmed my scanxiety.

But by Tuesday evening, I was frightened again.

This had ceased to be about breast cancer. Now it was all about my heart. I mentioned in a previous post that I’d been having little “heart episodes”. My blood pressure monitor kept signaling “irregular heartbeat detected” and my heart rate monitor would show funny spikes when I was working out. The app I was using for measuring heart rate variability (HRV) would show heartrates up to crazy numbers like 262bpm, and from time to time I’d get heart palpitations.

To complicate matters, the Herceptin I had been given for my triple-positive breast cancer is known for its cardiotoxicity and there are heart-related side effects associated with the endocrine therapy that I’d been taking for the past three years.

But on top of that, my heart would pound when I got anxious. No matter what I did, I couldn’t ignore it–I could hear it. And that pounding made me even more anxious.

That sounds like a never-ending loop right there.

Somehow I made it to Thursday and my cardiology appointment. The mere thought of having a scan that focused on my heart was anxiety-provoking but the medical assistant engaged me in conversation and kept my mind occupied. Even my blood pressure came out as in the 120s/80s (can’t remember the exact number), which was quite normal. She ran the EKG and went to get the doc.

So is there something wrong with my heart, or isn’t there? I bounce between those two possibilities.

So right now this story is running long, but the bottom line is that my EKG was perfectly normal. The cardiologist, an older man with a gentle voice and pleasant and calm demeanor, asked a lot of questions…and ultimately told me that he didn’t think my heart had issues.

But he suggested that we run a couple more tests: echocardiogram and 14-day monitoring. That way we could rule out anything serious.

And I, the one who hates scans and the anxiety they bring, felt so much relief that he was willing to humor me, so that I would definitely know if those “episodes” I’d experienced were real or not.

I have everything scheduled now. And wouldn’t you know it: I didn’t experience any weirdness all weekend. No perceived skips, no palpitations. I am rarely aware of my heart beating and no longer hear it in my ears.

So I had several days’ reprieve.

Sunday night I felt it again. Let’s see where this goes.

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I had mentioned to my cardiologist all those technological gadgets that I had, my blood pressure monitor with irregular heartbeat detection, my heart rate strap that can measure R-R intervals, my watch that has optical heart rate monitoring capabilities. And he said, the new tech has its benefits but it can be inaccurate.

Hope to find out soon just how inaccurate.

What I Learned By Hunting Virtual Ghosts

The drive to conquer my fears is why I insist on playing Phasmaphobia even when I dread the thought of it.

Phasmaphobia is marketed as a “horror” video game, the kind that I actively avoid. The concept is simple: you and up-to-three other networked players enter a haunted building, set up equipment and collect evidence of a ghostly presence. There are different tasks to complete but the ultimate goal is to gather enough data to be able to determine what type of ghost is haunting the premises.

Oh, yeah. And also to get out alive.

Because depending on how long everything takes you to do, sooner or later, the ghost is going to hunt you.

Sure, I’m fine as long as I’m sitting in the ghost-hunting van.

Now, there’s a lot more that I could say about this game, specifically about how it’s set up quite intelligently to be unnervingly terrifying. And there’s Articifial Intelligence involved, which means that the ghost can recognize some of the words that you say (hint: don’t cuss!) that will get it angry and on the hunt faster.

But this post is not a review of the game.

This is an observation that this silly game picked me up and threw me to the ground. It was a reflection of real life, because it perfectly reproduced ME, under acute stress.

By that I mean, tight chest, rapid breathing, elevated heartrate, shaking hands, the whole shebang. I get that gamers go through that, but for me, this meant more. These reactions were exactly the kinds of physiological responses to anxiety that have increasingly plagued me through the years.

People who can handle high levels of stress with cool distance have always impressed me. In fact, I’ve come to see that as a superpower. Being able to maintain mental space around you so that the walls don’t come closing in, squeezing breath out of your chest. That ability to think clearly when things are falling apart around you.

I have often thought, what would my experience be like if I could just dampen that physiological response. Well, Phasmaphobia has given me a chance to practice that.

I don’t do so well when I’m in a dark haunted house, getting threatening messages from the resident ghost.

I imagine myself going into that onscreen home, doing what I need to do, seeing the signal that the ghost is on the hunt (flashlight starts flashing and the front door closes and locks), and very calmly moving to a hiding place and waiting out the event. Declaring to the ghost, “You don’t scare me! I had cancer!” This is, after all, just a game. I’ve been through far worse things in my life.

But, no. Really, I’m kind of a mess. I can’t breathe, I can’t maneuver through a doorway, I drop things and do stupid stuff.

But I’m also stubborn. And playing this game with others like my husband who is unimpressed by the potential terror and shrugs off my disbelief that he’s not unnerved at all (note: he’s also played way more video games) makes me all the more determined to use Phasmaphobia as a “safe space” to practice my calming skills. I can remind myself that the fear is not real, that I’m only looking at a screen and that I walk away from the computer at any time. I don’t have to feel this way.

I am currently a work in progress. But I’ll get there. And once I do, my self-confidence will open the way to conquer other terrifying situations.

Once I stop being scared sh*tless.

I Am An Imperfect Meditator

I meditate. It is a daily habit that I engage in with the best intentions, but I am a victim of my wandering mind. Some days are better than others, most days I struggle with distractions.

Often, I can be halfway through a sit before I realize that I’ve been clenching my jaw or tensing my brow or gripping some other part of my body, thinking I’ve been relaxed but I’ve been kidding myself.

There are times that I’ve managed to stay with my breath, and then start getting excited that I’ve stayed with it that long, and then start imagining how I might look, staying with my breath…and of course, then I’m no longer meditating.

Yep. Welcome to the noise in my noggin’.

So it goes, day in, day out. Everyday, once or twice a day, or maybe even more. Some days feel like a complete waste, like I’ve got a freeway running through my head and have no idea what I’m doing.

But once in a while, I get a few moments of golden light. They may just flicker in and out, but when I look back at those moments I know everything flowed.

And those mindful sessions make all the other ones worth the effort. Every time I pause before reacting. Each time I recognize my body’s physiological response to a stressor. When I remember that I don’t have to respond with anxious energy. That I get to chose what happens inside my head. That I can just say, “Sh-h-h-h.”

That I can stand back and observe the storm without getting sucked into the whirlwind.

I meditate and often don’t do it well. But I still meditate. As of this posting, 1,380 days in a row, originating with the most frantic breaths shortly after my cancer diagnosis. Even through chemo, when I thought I wouldn’t make it through the night. Sloppy meditation sessions that seemed to be going nowhere.

Change doesn’t require force, it requires consistency.

Those imperfect meditation sessions have changed over time, imperceptable on a daily basis. Perhaps they have worn away a few rough edges the way constant drops of water oh-so-gradually wear away a stone. And just as an indentation forms where the drops hit, so meditation has molded a little basin for me, a bit of extra space in my mind that provides just that much more breathing room.

I am still at the very start of my mindfulness journey, so imperfect and stumbling. But even with the little that I have achieved, I am light-years ahead of who I was before I started, wide-eyed with fear and not knowing how to stop the rush of emotions.

It was terrifying then because I didn’t realize what was happening. Now I know, and that makes all the difference.

Inviting Gratitude, Gently

Since this week is the Thanksgiving holiday in the US, it’s a good time to revisit the practice of gratitude. I wrote some time back about my nightly practice of writing down three things for which I was grateful. It was a lovely way to close the day on a positive note, as I would always be able to jot something down, even if my day was difficult.

Nightly gratitude journaling started feeling forced, certainly not the point of the practice.

However, after a number of weeks of this, I found it harder to be consistent. I would skip days, and often on the days that I could find something to write in my journal, the process would feel forced. The more I had to work to pull out little things to be grateful for, the less meaningful they became. Eventually, and regrettably, I stopped the nightly practice altogether.

Apparently, this is to be expected. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues from UC Riverside found that journaling once a week was more effective for boosting happiness than doing so more frequently. I can see why this would be. Everyone has stressful days that can wring any semblance of happiness out of us. Yes, while I found something to be grateful for any given day, if the overwhelming feeling was that of negativity then I was simply going through the motions of trying to find something–ANYthing–to write down. For me, this waters down the effectiveness of the exercise.

But writing on a weekly (or less) basis allows me to focus on the most powerful feelings of gratitude, and those have a stronger uplifting effect on me. They last longer and evoke a joy that daily journaling couldn’t.

In my life, there have been times that have felt very dark and heavy. In the moment, I have not always been able to find anything positive in them. Take, for example, cancer. Those weeks around my diagnosis were literally the most terrifying of my life, because I felt that this situation could actually cost me my life.

Quite frankly, if someone had told me then that I should stop and think of all the things I was grateful for, I might have told them to go to hell. The intensity of what was taking place right then–the shock and disbelief, the despair, the sheer fear–was too great to let in any light. For someone to have suggested that I should essentially “look on the bright side” would have felt like they were dismissing the reality of what is cancer.

For me, the process of letting gratitude come to me was far more effective than trying to snatch it out of darkness.

But as I passed through those worst weeks, I noticed things that bobbed up to the surface that I could be grateful for, so much so that at times I was overwhelmed with gratitude for how events had unfolded compared to how things could have been. I still had cancer and my life was still upended, but I felt a sense of grace about it all.

So if were to give one piece of humble advice to someone going through desperate times, it would be to remain open to the possibility that no matter how dark things may seem right now, when you finally have a chance to take a breath, you may see that glimmers of hopeful light have been shining through all along.