During the summer of 2011 I went thru a REAL rough patch (I can't emphasize those capital letters enough). Everyone experiences messy spots during their lives and the majority of mine all occurred at once. Back to back to back I had one major traumatic event after another all in a short two month time span. Stress is one of the worst toxins out there and I've unfortunately witnessed its destruction first hand. The release of the health damaging hormone cortisol increases risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. It also leads to development of gastrointestinal disorders and can trigger skin problems like acne, eczema, hives and psoriasis (I can vouch for this one - my skin was a mess and it was anything but beautiful). As hard as it was at the time, I carried on and feel like a stronger, more confident person for what I experienced.
Rewind to June, 2011 when it all the messiness began. One of my oldest and dearest friends died very unexpectedly. She acquired some crazy, unknown virus after a trip to Africa and her flu-like symptoms quickly turned into liver failure. Three years later her death still doesn't seem real to me, probably because I was rushed through my grief. I spoke at her funeral and then headed straight to the airport for my destination wedding in Jackson Hole. It was extremely hard and confusing trading my tears for a smile on the happiest day of my life. I was both heartbroken and full of love all at the same time. While I cherish every single second of our wedding, preparing for our big day was very stressful. It was a year of big decisions, desire for perfection, and ironing out all the little special details - I'm only going to do it once.
The week after we got home from our honeymoon the very ugly legal battle that I filed and had been enduring for two years finally had its day in court. Because of a confidentiality agreement I am unable to share any details (nor do I really want to), but I can say it was traumatic, devastating and humiliating. Seeing your dirty laundry on the front page of the paper and being the subject of the evening news is a total nightmare. Talk about stress…
A couple weeks after the trial in early August, my husband started having severe pain in his side. We had just eaten a heavy Southern meal, so we figured something he ate didn't agree with him. The pain got worse and he called his doctor, who is a good friend and was luckily able to see him the next morning - he thought it might be kidney stones. A quick examination quickly revealed a severely enlarged spleen and he sent him straight to the hospital for x-rays. Based on the blood work, the doctor suspected Acute leukemia and waiting on the diagnosis was the worst day of my life. Impossible not to think the worst - my brand new husband and happily ever after crushed. I had to send a text to my family and inner most circle of friends because I couldn't say the words out loud. He has Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML), which is extremely serious but treatable. After a few hiccups in his medication he is on a great path, which is a huge answered prayer.
Ugly, ugly summer that had me in pieces. It took me a while to get to this point, but I almost appreciate the hardships because of the lessons I learned about myself. I survived with more character, strength and self-worth than I had before. This certainly didn't come easy and the drawn out legal mess really did a number on me. I was consumed with anger, barely slept for a couple years and so anxious I could barely function. Not sure how it would have turned out without the love of my amazing supportive husband, family and friends, key advice from my wise father and a really gifted therapist whose couch I practically wore a hole in. The greatest pearl came from my father who shared the story of two of his friends that both faced adversity but chose different paths. One went thru an ugly divorce and it changed her into an angry bitter person - twenty years and she hasn't carried on. The other friend went thru a very humiliating divorce but instead took the high road and chose happiness. He saw me turning down the wrong path and I'm so glad he set me straight. It would have been so easy to fall into the devil's trap and I'm so glad I finally decided to listen to my dad. I chose joy.
As I mentioned earlier, I learned many priceless life lessons from that summer - I'm going to save you thousands of dollars in therapy sessions…Hopefully you won't need them, but life gets messy for everyone at some point!
- Your problems don't define who you are. It took many sessions with my therapist to have this "aha" moment and realize I was still a good person.Yes, I had made some poor choices, but I faced them and I had to move forward and forgive myself. It is SO easy to dwell on mistakes and beat yourself up, which only tears you down even more.
- SLOW DOWN and listen to your body. If you can't handle stress, make changes to minimize your exposure. Yes life is stressful, but control what you can. Being super busy all the time and overbooked seems to be the new norm and it's not healthy. SLOW DOWN!!! I quit my high pressure, high paying job and am now a stay at home mom. This came with obvious financial consequences, but we wouldn't change it for anything. We purposefully don't sign up for every activity out there for our daughter and we prefer our calendar empty. Our little family has time for each other and we thrive this way. Now I'm certainly not saying that being a stay-at-home mom isn't stressful because it ABSOLUTELY is - for me it is a good satisfying stress that makes me happy and fulfilled. After years of insomnia I am finally sleeping and my old frazzled personality is now relaxed.
- Don't allow the mess to consume you! Allow yourself time to get over whatever happened, but at a certain point the horse is dead and it's time to move on. Quit talking about it. If you continue to focus on the problem, it will never go away. (This applies to my legal mess - grief is completely different and requires time to heal).
- Find a happy place - for me it was the yoga studio and in the garden. I have practiced yoga for over fifteen years and it is a wonderful way to turn off my mind and escape thinking for a little while. When my mind would race, yoga would always help slow me down. It clears your head, lifts your spirit and helps you relax - everything a stressed out body needs! I also started gardening and there is something extremely therapeutic about getting dirt under your nails. All bets are off when little critters start nibbling at your roses or eating your lettuce though…Find a healthy outlet that works for you!
- Focus on your faith. Soon after my lawsuit began I searched in my study bible for quotes relating to stress and anxiety. Philippians 4:6-8 was EXACTLY what I needed to hear and I wrote it down everywhere. "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." So I did just that - I prayed and I focused on all the beautiful, lovely things around me and my abundance of blessings. God sent me a couple signs to remind me of this verse and I consider them little miracles - he's so good like that with timing. The Sunday before a key date in my lawsuit the lesson at church just happened to be my Philippians mantra. Coincidence? I don't think so. At our YMCA they have folded up bible verses in a basket that you can take on your way out. The day of our settlement attempt mine was my verse. I kept it in my pocket as a constant reminder until it completely disintegrated from being handled so many times. God was with me then and he still is today.
- Think positive. There is scientific proof that negative beliefs harm your health - this interesting article that talks about the placebo effect and how you can think yourself sick with negative thoughts. The cognitive therapy techniques of refocusing your thoughts work great when negative beliefs bombard your mind. My therapist told me to "acknowledge the thought and then let it go." Have plenty of cute kitty YouTube videos downloaded and ready to go when you need to put a positive spin to your thinking - works every time for me.
- Embrace the serenity prayer - it always seems to be the just the right message for whatever problem I'm facing. I try hard not to dwell on things I have no control over, what's the point? Write it in you daytimer, put a laminated copy on the dash of your car, maybe a tattoo?
This isn't my back, but if I were to ever get a tattoo the Serenity Prayer would be a top contender
- Get help. Eastern and Western medicine both played a big part in my healing. Acupuncture is a life saver and would take the edge off when my anxiety got unbearable. I have no idea how it works, but I'm a firm believer and if I could go back and do it all over again I would be an Acupuncturist. This will probably sound unbelievable, but I would rather have an acupuncture session than a massage - nothing beats a chi buzz! While I try to avoid pills, I do believe there is a time and a place for anxiety medicine. They were a blessing and necessity for me during crisis mode and I safely weaned off them as soon as I was able.
- Clean eating = Clean mind. Cleaning up our diet after Ed's diagnosis not only improved my health, but helped clear my mind. Eating healthy, nutritious meals gives you the energy you need to live a balanced, happy life. Researchers have shown that there is a link between diet and mood suggesting that diets higher in nutritional value can protect against the negative effects of stress, depression and anxiety. This improvement made a huge difference in how I felt and thought - I can vouch for this 100%!
- Choose joy! Just like my Dad said, life is about choices and you can either take the high road or live a miserable life. It's certainly easier said than done, but definitely worth the effort!!