Sunday, November 23, 2014

Coping with Things You Think You Can’t Handle: Twelve Tools to Get You Through




Coping with Things You Think You Can’t Handle:
Twelve Tools to Get You Through

I remember in eighth grade when the doctor told my mom, dad, and me that my baby brother Stephen had Down Syndrome. That day I had gotten out of school early and my dad took me with him to see the baby. As a result, I ended up hearing the news at the same time as my dad. It may have been the first time for my mom too. My memories of that moment are altered. Time was slow. I was watching my parents more than listening to the doctor. My mom was crying, my dad stoic. I heard things like trisomy 21 and mental retardation. Something shifted. The way my brain processed input was altered for a while. I was 13 and completely overwhelmed.

We knew nothing about Down Syndrome (read more here http://www.ndss.org)

When dad and I got home, he told my sisters and brother. I remember that we all held each other and cried. We had no idea what this meant- at all. As it turns out, my bother Stephen is an amazing human being. Everyone who knows him loves him. It was going to be okay, even better than okay.

 
Stephen Cook 

This was, however, one of my first experiences with unexpected, overwhelming, and soul-wrenching news that I honestly wasn’t sure I could handle. As life is the way it is there would be (and will be) more times like this. For example, we moved many times when I was little, before the Internet and Facebook- back then- you literally lost many of your friends when you moved. My grandparents have passed. My swim coach from middle and high school, a test pilot in the military, was suddenly killed in a plane crash. My highschool boyfriend that I thought I would marry, wasn’t ready for that (and I found out the hard way). I left my first marriage. I have lost beloved pets. When I was pregnant with Maya, the doctors told us there was the possibility that she might have Down Syndrome (days later we found out that she didn’t). My mom has been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. Life altering stuff has happened. And, this is not all of it (some things simply must be kept private and sometimes those ones are the hardest).

I am not special.

You have these moments too.

The hard part for me is that these are not discrete moments. It is not like they happen one moment and then they are gone, passed. Your life changes.  The result is prolonged periods of intense feeling and processing. I have experienced them to last many months- during which there are penetrating, stop-you-in-your-tracks waves of powerful feelings. There are also waves of remembering the way things used to be and awareness of exactly how much things have changed. This contrast hits you, yeah it hits you, as a sharp, hard reminder of how your life has changed. These hits are accompanied by images, thoughts, and breath-taking, literally breath-taking, waves of emotions.

The thoughts that run through my mind include these particularly hard ones, “I don’t know if I am ever going to feel okay again” and “I wonder if I will ever be authentically happy again.” Know that these questions do not signify reality (i.e., you are never going to feel okay or happy again). Rather, they let you know where you are. They are signposts. When you see these signposts, you are in a hard place and you need support.

Here are some tips on how to get out of your hard place. These are not make-it-better tips. They are not escape tips. They are- THE WAY OUT IS THROUGH tips.

  • Look for those who have made it and lock your eyes on them.

By the time my brother Stephen had grown a bit and was doing well in school, my mom went back to school to get her teaching degree. Sharing the writing gene, she wrote about our family experiences and the birth of Stephen. She wrote about Stephens’ birth and meeting a woman who also had a son with Down Syndrome. Her name was Eileen Hyslop. Mom reached out to her. Eileen generously talked to my mom at length and later became her dear friend. My mom described how that first day on the phone, she could barely hear what Eileen was saying because she just heard her laugh, from the belly, from the soul, an authentic, happy laugh. The sound of that laugh gave my mom hope. My mom thought for the first time, in a long time, that maybe she would, in fact, feel okay again and maybe, in fact, she would laugh, a real laugh again. Find those who have made it through and lock your eyes on them.

  • Let your friends and family be there.

The days after I told my partner of seven years that I was leaving were some of the hardest days of my life. I knew he deserved to be with someone who loved him completely and I knew I needed to leave. That did not mean that I didn’t love him very much. I did and leaving him was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I was floored by the feelings that followed. One night, I felt as if I could not bear to exist. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t know if I could handle being present in all I was feeling. My dear friend Lissa came over to my place with a novel in hand. The television was off, no music, just me curled up on the couch and Lissa sitting on the chair next to me reading. I didn’t know the story. To this day, I have no idea what she was reading. Still, the sound of her voice and knowing I was not alone, got me through one of the hardest nights of my life. I will be forever grateful. Reach out to the people in your life, your sisters and brothers, family, good friends- those that won’t mind sitting and reading to you while you work on breathing.


  • Listen to the stories and perspectives of others.

This one was my daughter Chloe’s contribution. When I asked her what she does to get through the seemingly unbearable, she said she reaches out to others to get their perspective. She said that when she is too deep in something, she loses perspective and only sees one side. When she reaches out and listens, she hears other perspectives and possibilities. It has a balancing effect. She says it gets her closer to what is really happening and out of her reaction. I guess old souls can be 16 year-old girls. With a similar intention, the year I turned 40 I re-storied my whole life in a series of journals. I interviewed my husband, my parents, my siblings, and my friends and got their stories of my life. I detailed things that made no sense to me when I was little and asked very specific questions. All the notes are in journals that I still hold precious today. This process was incredibly healing and “self”-organizing. I learned so much about my own perceptions as well as the sides of stories that perhaps I could never have known or understood as a kid. Not surprisingly, I was out-and-out wrong about more than a few things. The whole process made me stronger, deeper, more connected and integrated.

  • Routine is your friend.

When my Grandpa Cook died it hit me hard. He was the first of my grandparents to pass. He meant a lot to me. He was a teacher to me on topics ranging from how to recover from an eating disorder to maintenance of healthy daily routines. I somehow felt safe just thinking about him digging around his garden, making insane smoothies, and sitting and reading. To get through his death, I stuck to my routine. I went to school. I went to work. I ran (no yoga yet in my life at this time). My routine was my anchor. I said to myself, “Work is still here,”School is still here,” and “Daily runs are still here.”  Things had changed substantially and yet so much was going to stay the same. I found great comfort in that.

  • Use your planner, calendar, or other scheduling support technology.

In the research world, these are called cognitive prosthetics (or neuro-prosthetics). Considered a tool for improved functioning, technologies can help you “think” just as a prosthetic leg can help someone who has lost a limb walk. For example, researchers are exploring ways that technological tools can help those with Alzheimer’s function day-to-day. How does this relate? When we are completely overwhelmed, we are at high risk for flaking out. Under stress, your brain is flooded with stress hormones and there is actual risk for cognitive impairment. Use your tools and give your brain a break so that it can process what you are experiencing. You can enhance the process by adding in reminders to do deep breathing exercises or reminders of positive affirmations (e.g., an auto-reminder pops up to say, “You are stronger than you think you are. Breathe”). Technology is a powerful tool for mental health.

  • Let your feelings move through you and breathe- breathe deeply.

You can’t think your way out of some things. It is simply not possible. When someone dies, you can’t fix it, think about it differently, nothing like that. It is loss, pure loss. It can’t be fixed. You can try to think your way out of it- that path takes you into loops of rumination- because it doesn’t really work. The feelings demand to be felt. As they wave in, allow them. Put one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart. Feel. Deepen your breath and stay present. These feelings are called emotions, e-motions- packets of energy and information (i.e., /e/) that move through you (i.e., /motion/). They tell us what matters. They remind us what is important. They move us. Allowing and presence is needed for integration and processing of what has happened. It’s a necessity. That said, take breaks. Alternate sessions of being totally and completely in it with periods of support, friends, and healthy distractions. When you are ready, allow again. That old saying is true, “In order to heal, we need to feel.”

  • Stay Sober.

There is another old saying (from Alcoholics Anonymous), “Nothing is so bad a drink won’t make it worse.” You don’t need to be an alcoholic to benefit from that wisdom. Your brain and soul need to be sober to process important things in your life. If you take yourself out with alcohol or drugs during the hard times, you rob yourself of the chance too honor the tragedy, loss, or important life event with pure, sober presence. Equally important, if you drink, or use, every time you start to feel, it is difficult, if not impossible to move forward. You get stuck. It bears repeating, that old saying is true, “In order to heal, we need to feel.”

  • Write, write, write.

Writing about hard times can help you heal (read a Psychology Today Piece here http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/write-yourself-well/201208/expressive-writing). James Pennebaker, a researcher on the mental health benefits of writing, found that when individuals write about difficult events in their lives, include specific details, and integrate their emotional experiences, they experience increased physical and emotional well-being (read about James Pennebaker here http://www.utexas.edu/features/archive/2005/writing.html). For me, writing in my journal, writing a blog, or any writing at all are ways for me to move thoughts and ideas through me. I love giving seemingly free-floating emotions a home on a page- whether it be a webpage or a hand-made journal page. My emotions seem to do better with a good home. Write, write, write.

  • Seek out nature.

Nature is medicine. Researchers are confirming what we all already know: getting into nature is grounding, spiritually uplifting, and healthy. I believe so strongly in this that I run to a local waterfall on a regular basis. If I don’t get there once a week, I feel it in my body. I love hearing the water rush over the rocks. I love seeing the trees grow and shed their leaves, hearing the snow crunch under my feet in the winter, and smelling the flowers in the spring. I love the birds, squirrels, and ducks that live there. Once when we were in the midst of moving, I ran to the falls in a state of exasperation with the unpacking. Sweaty, exhausted, I walked up to see the falls, and rested my hands and chin on the safety fence. At that moment, I saw the most beautiful thing. A blue heron was standing at the base of the falls dipping his bill in the water and then looking up to the sky. Somehow, I knew in that movement that everything was going to be okay. I didn’t take a picture. I hold the image of that heron clearly in my memories embedded with feelings of calm security. Yep, nature heals.

  • The next possible thing.

When I was an undergraduate, I did not love to clean my apartment. I would be busy on swim team, school, and work and get over my head with housekeeping. One Saturday morning I woke up knowing I had to get my apartment in order. It had gone too far and something had to be done. I felt frozen by the sheer magnitude of what I had to accomplish. I asked myself, “Catherine, what is the next possible thing you can do?” I answered, “You can put your feet on the floor and get out of bed.” I answered myself, “Yes, yes that seems possible.” And so it began. I asked myself if I could get this cup, this one cup, to the kitchen sink and I answered myself that I could, in fact, do that. One little, tiny thing at a time, I got my apartment clean. This strategy has come to serve me in postpartum after a spinal headache and complicated recovery. It came to serve me for many, many days when I was terrified that I would not get tenure (I did). It served me writing my last book (e.g., “I can write this section, just this section”). In Alcoholics Anonymous they talk about one day at a time. For me, on some days, that is too big. I ask, “What is the next possible thing you can do?” That’s it. Do that.

  • Schedule pleasant events.

Since the 1980s, researchers have been documenting the benefits of scheduling pleasant events. It is important that you see the two aspects of this tool: (a) schedule, and (b) pleasant event. Each component is important. In fact, planning the pleasant event (e.g., a vacation) may have as much, or more, of a benefit than the actual pleasant event. Read the New York Times piece on the benefits of planning vacation http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/18/how-vacations-affect-your-happiness/?_r=0. Next, the pleasant event is- well- pleasant. You don’t need to earn it or deserve it. It is just healthy to do fun and nourishing things. I love to go for a run in nature or hike. I love to go in our hot tub. I love to cuddle in by the fireplace and write blogs. I love teaching yoga. I love group runs with friends. I love yoga trainings (my brother said that I need to admit this is yoga camp for grown-ups- I say training makes it sound legit). I plan “trainings” and travel. I have been saving for and planning a trip to Italy for almost 5 years. I hope to go this year, completely paid-for, no credit card debt, and learn to cook authentic Italian meals in all different regions. Just thinking about it makes me happy. (Go here for a list of pleasant events http://www.dbtselfhelp.com/html/er_handout_8.html)

  • Practice and all is coming.

When I found out my mom had Pulmonary Fibrosis, I deepened my yoga practice. I recall sobbing in savasana with Susan Fain, the yoga teacher, playing “Awaken My Soul” as she gently pressed my shoulders to the floor (thank God for towels over the eyes). Practice yoga, run, swim, or whatever physical practice centers you. The act of being in your body and moving is essential and powerful. Recall the section on emotions needing to move?  You need to move too. You move, the emotions move, and integration of even the hardest of stuff happens. Unlike substance use, a practice that allows you to feel your body and your feelings allows the impact of hard times move through you. Warning: each of these physical practices, if done with the wrong intention- can work just like alcohol or drugs. You can use your yoga, your running, your swimming to numb out the feelings- and if you do- well- re-read the section on staying sober. It’s not a step forward. So move- YES- and move with the intention of feeling and processing. Now, that will serve you.

Catherine Cook-Cottone, 2013

So there you are: the twelve tools. The way out is through and getting through can be manageable. It is not easy, but it can be simple- stay present and process- and know you and your beautiful life are worth the effort. Your ability to stay present and move through the experience is a way of honoring those involved.

It is a way of honoring the journey of your own soul.

I hope you choose the path of presence. You are stronger than you think and life is more beautiful than we can remember in the midst of the hard times.

The way out is through.

Namaste,

Catherine Cook-Cottone
The Yoga Bag




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