A friend and I were having coffee yesterday and she asked me how I’ve been… the old, “So what have you been up to?” And I didn’t know how to answer. It’s not that I don’t have plenty (and I mean plenty!) of things that have happened in the last several weeks. I could have told her tales of adventure and peace, fear and pain, unexpected sadness and unplanned joys. But as soon as I started to dip into the memory well of my mind, my ladle came up empty. Why? All I could think of was that I haven’t had any time to process one event before the next one has come at break neck speed my way.
Chaos used to be my default mode. I prided myself on “thriving on chaos.” And I did. But, more so, I think it was a way of reassuring myself; of saying I choose to live this way not that life is dragging me along for the ride. I learned a lot of coping mechanisms by being able to react quickly to the ever changing landscape of my life. I think a lot of us with chronic illness in our lives (personally or with close loved ones), learn these coping skills. But when you live at such a heightened state of awareness all the time, it’s hard to ever come back to center. You get stuck in a constant “fight or flight mode.” And that’s what happened to me. I was so used to getting by, juggling multiple balls at once, that I was always on alert for the next shoe to drop. I could never relax. And, as a result, I stopped surviving and only focused on thriving.
Then, almost 3 ½ years ago, I came to a crossroads in my life. I decided to reevaluate all aspects of my life, both those within my control and those I had no control over. I couldn’t change my diagnosis or the course of my illness, but I could (and can) change the amount of stress and negative influences in my life. A major negative was the use of substances to somehow make everything feel better. I thought it made me feel more ”normal;” I thought it was a salve to the stress and pain. And perhaps it helped some, but for the most part it only added to the stress, on my mind, body and spirit. So I decided to live a sober life, but I also realized I needed a support system in doing so. I joined some amazing 12 step women’s groups, which are still a foundation of my daily living. And over the years, I’ve learned healthier coping mechanisms in those rooms and also a lot about myself, my needs, my limits, and my abilities.
That change in my life 3+ years ago, was a turning point for me: One where I took the “road less chaotic!” I now consciously make choices that will lower my exposure to chaos and increase my reserves of peace and stability. But what to do when I have no control over the chaos coming my way? How do I control a situation I am completely powerless over? The simple answer is, I don’t. The only thing I have any “power” over is my reaction to the non-stop stimuli. Do I allow it to infiltrate my every waking moment, to consume my thoughts and actions? Do I respond to this influx of unplanned events by fortifying myself for whatever may being come next?… putting up walls of defense, preparing for the other shoe to drop? No. I’ve tried that, actually beaten those ideas to death, and the result is always the same. No matter how many contingency plans I come up with, my future has never turned out the way I’ve divined it! I used to think that if I could only be better prepared, I would be able to handle the chaos. But, the best gift I ever gave myself was to sit back and just take each thing as it comes… one day… one hour… one moment at a time.
Instead of coming up with my multiple “chaos exit strategies,” I now just make sure I have a full tool box that is well-stocked for whenever I need it. Once it’s stocked, I don’t have to worry about. It’s there, just like a first aid kit; I don’t have to constantly take it out and re-check the contents. I can trust that the right tool will be at my fingertips in the right moment.
So, what’s in my tool box? The easiest one to maintain is “prayer.” It’s always there; I just have to remember to use it. It doesn’t have to be complex or a “top of the line tool,” sometimes simpler is better: “Please give me the strength to get through this next moment,” “Please help me to remember I am not alone,” “Please grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” The last mantra (from The Serenity Prayer), I will say over and over and over again when I am experiencing unremitting pain (for me this is physical, for others it could be the pain of anxiety, loss, fear…) ~ it becomes a lullaby that soothes me. I get lost in this chant and the next thing I know I’ve made it through the rough patch. And the best thing about the prayer tool? You can use it anytime and no one has to know when you are implementing it. You can silently use this technique in a crowded, over stimulating, room. How great is that?!
Other tools? I have a solid circle of friends and supporters; those people I can call anytime and I don’t have to start from scratch with my entire story, they can tell just by the sound of my voice that I need someone to listen. Going back to my life of chaos; I used to think that there was strength in “going at it alone.” I used to (foolishly) pride myself on doing things independently, and I didn’t want to drag anyone down the rabbit hole with me. Thankfully, I’ve now learned that strength lies in vulnerability, in the ability to ask for help. And that others gain energy by helping me, that it is a gift that goes both ways. The friendship tool is the Leatherman of tools… many tools in one. Not only do my friends take on many roles and provide a multitude of “services,” they also come in a variety of forms; from an acquaintance that is ready to help in a moment of distress to various support groups (12 step, spiritual, illness related) and now all of you, too, my blogging community. To feel connected is to know that each one of us is not alone… that each one of us does not have to go at this alone, if we so choose!
Another well applied tool is a mirror. I use it to take a close look at myself, an inventory of my patterns of behavior. Those born both from how I was raised and from behaviors developed in the midst of illness and pain. Many of these coping mechanisms were a necessity at the time. But then when life carried on, I forgot that I no longer needed them, that I could now choose to react differently to a situation. But with awareness, comes growth. So I have worked at defining my own individual character traits (some call them defaults) so that I can recognize them when I put them in to play. And I can ask myself, “is this the right tool right now? Is there a better/ healthier way I can deal with this situation?”
And that leads to my most often used tool: Acceptance. I accept the all of me, both my strengths and my weakness. I accept when I need help from others. And most of all I accept when I am powerless over a person, place or thing. I accept that no matter how hard I try to change the outcome, I can’t. All I can do is be accepting of what the situation looks like today. “It is not always going to be this way; I am not always going to feel this way.” All I need to do is put on foot in front of the other and focus on what’s directly in front me at any given time. I don’t have to worry about the future. I can let that go!
Today I picked up the tools of meditation, prayer, journaling, and friendship. And by using these resources, I now have peace with where I am right now. My last couple weeks have been intensely unpredictable. And I have not been able to process one event (good or bad) before the next situation is coming at me head on. So that when my friend asks me what I have been up to, my mind is too overwhelmed to come up with a clear answer. And that’s okay. It makes sense that I am overwhelmed! Instead of trying to change the facts, I need to look at what I can do in this moment to nurture myself; to recharge my body and spirit. Because I am feeling depleted.
The biggest change between my current trajectory and that past one that would have me cannon-balling directly into the path of chaos? Today, I realize that I need to pause, relax and refuel before I am sputtering on empty. Today, I don’t have to run on fumes. Today, I choose peace over chaos. Today, I choose to reach into my tool box, pray and meditate, and ask for help from my friends. Today, I don’t have to face life as an “Army of One.”