Fall down seven times, get up eight…

So I’m sitting here, post panic attack, snacking on a big bag of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.  This isn’t something I normally do on a Tuesday afternoon,  but since I’ve spent the past couple hours frantically seeking and finding cancerous lumps to attach my run away anxiety to, I need a good comforting distraction.  And nothing says comforting distraction like eating crispy, sugary nutrition-less kid’s cereal straight out of the bag, without milk.

I’ve been, I don’t quite know how to describe it, humbled I suppose, by some of the blogs I’ve been reading lately.  People talking openly, insightfully, humanly, about the things that have messed them up and how they’re making their way through them.   It takes a great deal of courage to stand  symbolically naked, telling your story.  I know that, because I don’t do it very often.  But when I chance upon someone brave enough to tell theirs and who braver still, is trying to make life better in spite of it – it, well, gives me hope.

Because sometimes in life, really shitty things happen.  And most of the time, we’re unprepared, or at least ill-prepared to deal with them.  No one teaches us important stuff like how to deal with grief, or trauma or death or loss or abuse before it happens.   Or how to tell when it’s messing us up afterwards.    And because of that, those shitty things make their way in and cause a whole bunch more trouble.

I know this, because back when I was pregnant with my first son,  people in my family started dying – dropping off like flies.   Within ten years, we had 17 funerals for family members, including both my parents.  It got to the point where we joked at funerals about who’d be next to go and when our next family ‘celebration‘ would be.   We  pushed away our pain and fear and questions with morbid jocularity, not knowing how to deal with the seeming unending loss. It wasn’t Rwanda or the Holocaust, I know,  but loss and death are loss and death no matter how it happens.

After those funerals,  we went back to our ordinary lives, where at least to me,  nothing seemed very ordinary anymore.  I think once we’ve been traumatized by something, it’s like we stand outside looking in at everyone else,  who just don’t seem to get what a dangerous and painful world this is.  Our experience no longer reflects our expectations of the world being good or at least as it should have been.  Suddenly death, specifically cancer, which I’d paid little attention to before,  stalked me with the relentlessness of a predator after vulnerable prey.

So for the next 20 years I tried to outmaneuver death.    Monitoring every lump, bump or potential health threat,  learning to expertly work the medical system for the fastest results,  in search of peace of mind.  If you ever need a seasoned medical system jumper, I’m your girl.   What began as responsible health care quickly escalated into hyper vigilant health care.  I had a large family, which spread the fearful possibility of loss beyond myself to my five small kids, who I loved, and still love with everything in me.

kids.jpg
circa 1997

I visited doctor after doctor at the first sign of anything wrong,  seeking assurance that things were ok.  I suspected as I regularly walked in, 5 kids in tow, the  doctor’s office would collectively sigh, ‘oh great, here comes cancer check woman again’.  However that embarrassment was worth the tentative relief.   Tentative, because as soon as one concern was resolved, another would follow immediately after.   It was as exhausting and terrifying as it was useless.

What I didn’t realize with all my medical maneuvering, was that I was literally hard wiring a dysfunctional coping system into my brain.   One that demanded a specific set of actions to manage anxiety and ambiguity; one that became more demanding and deeply ingrained over time.  Prozac couldn’t touch it.  Neither could Ativan,  religion, self-help, community or Growers Berry Cider.  And god knows I tried.

What eventually helped was a combination of  cognitive behavioral  therapy and simply talking out the difficult things that had happened in life.  For me, it was unwinding the impact of religion, relationships and loss. They say that by 40, most of us have been traumatized by one thing or another. And for some of us unfortunately, it happens a lot earlier and is far worse.   It leaves us looking about at a seemingly functioning population,  feeling like we’re the  only anomaly struggling with life, separated from the norm, because of our experience and difficulty coping.  The reality is that we all struggle, though some more than others. Struggle is an inevitable part of life.  But there are better, more functional ways to struggle that still leave room for hope, happiness and growth.

Real change takes a long time and a lot of practice.  Changing a dysfunctional coping mechanism is almost as hard as enduring one.  I envision it like learning to walk again after a stroke.  It takes way more effort and concentration to relearn a skill after damage.  However, the brain has amazing adaptive capability and with enough commitment, effort, time and support – it literally is possible to rewire and alter the physiology of the brain.  And that’s science, not opinion.

A good thing about looking at change as brain rewiring is that when inevitable ‘fall downs’ happen, I view them as a technological glitches, not a personal failures.  Of course there are always things to improve upon, but I can nearly always trace returning to old coping mechanisms back to their roots now.  Or to stress, lack of self-care, distortions or triggers.  Which makes returning to equilibrium faster and less painful.  I don’t feel as weak, stupid or dysfunctional and I can forgive myself for stumbling when I understand my personal whys and know how change direction.

But it still happens, often when I’m not expecting it.  Like this afternoon – when I didn’t consciously realize it was the anniversary of both my dad’s death and birth until I  found myself wrestling with unnamed dread and anxiety and checking for cancer.   My dad was a measured and meticulous  man, an accountant, so the beginning and ending of his life falling on the same day of year almost seemed like a cosmic joke.  I have yet to have an April 9th pass without an emotional glitch.  Or a July 1st, which marks the birthday of my first son and the death of my mom.  But it’s still a cognitive distortion to attach fear or anxiety to certain dates – one I’m determined to manage better next round.  It’s also a distortion to fear every health concern is cancer, or that death is bigger than life.

I like the Japanese proverb ‘fall down seven times, get up eight.’  Or more, if necessary.  It’s not the falling that’s important, it’s the getting up afterwards.

So here’s to everyone fighting their way back up.  I applaud you.

fall down seven

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30 thoughts on “Fall down seven times, get up eight…

  1. Nicely done.

    I’ve found the only way to feel secure again is to accept my helplessness, accept my fear, accept the horrific things people do to each other, accept evil in the world, accept unbearable grief. As if the only way to overcome life is to think, “Yes, all of that is true, and it is STILL okay.” I can drop dead at any second, lose everyone I love, lose my home, lose every semblance of safety and it is STILL okay. I am okay and life is okay.

  2. I went to a number of funerals as a child. I knew early on that my maternal grandmother died of breast cancer and my mother was her primary care taker, she died when I was two, but my mom’s depression from her death lasted 20 or so years. The true kicker though was watching my grandfather die from skin cancer at the age of 12. Fortunately my parents let me spend as much time with him as I wanted to, even when it was very close to his last days. This will always stick with me. After that I was very insistant about doing whatever I could to protect my skin from the sun as I am pale, have freckles, blue eyed, and strawberry blond- the perfect combo for skin cancer. He was only 63. He has made me want to live my life to the fullest because you really never know what is going to happen.

    1. yes, I know what you mean about things sticking with you… glad to hear you’re living your life to the fullest still. 🙂 thanks, I appreciate hearing your experience.

  3. My sister struggles with OCD and panic attacks. She’s just recently started learning about the things you’re talking about: brain wiring, triggers, etc. It’s really a tough row to hoe. I’m glad you’re writing about it.

    1. it’s great that your sister’s learning about it. I think the earlier these things are recognized and addressed, the easier they are to deal with. not that it’s easy, mind you. but what I can tell you from my experience is that there’s hope and they can be managed . 🙂 good luck to you both.

  4. A very honest, brave and insightful post. And indeed we all struggle, however calm and confident people around us appear to be.

    On a lighter note, the Cinnamon Toast Crunch sounds delicious! We do not have that cereal here. One of the things I do not like about Belgium, where I have been living for the past 16 years, is how seldom they use cinnamon than in Finland (where I come from, originally). Now I have a craving for this comforting cereal I have never tasted…

    1. thank you. i’m afraid I’ve eaten so much cinnamon toast crunch, it’ll be quite awhile before I crave it again. 🙂 interesting though about cinnamon being uncommon in Belgium. I guess they use different coping mechanisms there. 😉

  5. Lori…I came upon this post after Scott Williams reblogged it. I think we have a lot of similarities. I went through panic disorder and agoraphobia in my twenties and thirties. CBT is what helped me (finally…when I found out about it!!). I went through lots of loss (not like yours but suicides of my brother and father and then other relatives dying of cancer). I had (and still have, although it’s much better) health anxiety, especially after I survived an unsurvivable brain tumor and need MRI’s every year. I am now a psychotherapist in private practice, and I didn’t start college until I was 51-years-old and took every art course offered, because I’m a creative too. ;o).

    I have a blog called “Becoming What I Might Have Been,” where I write about my life, my failures, and how I got up all those 8th times. You can read it at http://www.lindalochridge.com. I’ll be following your blog. Take good care…as I know you will.

    1. thanks for your comment linda, yes it sounds like we have a lot of similarities. very glad you survived the unsurvivable, sorry about your losses… your experience is encouraging, I popped over and read a few posts and am heading back for more. very nice to meet you. 🙂

  6. Lovely post, Lori. I enjoy your humor ~ I think humor is a great coping mechanism; there are so many that are worse! And we can learn to allow it to co-exist with our pain, One need not cancel out the other. I remember my husband and I joking once about how it had been “a good year because no one was hospitalized or died!” Ah, but then he up and died on me … and yes, I absolutely see the irony in that, just as he would. I still laugh with him. (Please don’t tell that to the men in the white coats, though!)
    I look forward to following your journey and humor,
    Monica
    http://helptohopeblog.net/

    1. thanks monica – so nice to meet you. i’m glad you’re still laughing with your husband – I won’t tell, I promise. I just dropped over to your blog and look forward to following you too,

  7. I love this post–although it’s funny (I was laughing out loud with some turns of phrases), the seriousness of what you are discussing is not lost, if anything it’s more poignant and pronounced. Thank you for visiting my blog, and by way, introducing me to your.

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