Resilience. You likely already know what it is and why it’s essential. You may have your own story about coming out the other side of challenging circumstances. But there are times in our life when it seems impossible.
There are times when we may feel ourselves crumbling with despair. That is how I was feeling only yesterday.
My 7-year-old son was born with a large arachnoid cyst on his brain, and when he was three years old, he had a shunt put in his brain to allow excess fluid to drain through a tube that went down his neck and to his abdomen. Since then we have learned how complicated life can become with a medical device in your head. The last three years have been a bit of a nightmare.
Just a few days ago we discovered that his shunt was broken, and there is evidence that his brain has adapted some new ways of flowing the fluid naturally, even without a functioning shunt. His new neurosurgeon devised a plan that would potentially allow him to be free of the shunt and independently drain the right amount of fluid naturally through his ventricles.
This surgery has the potential to give him a particular aspect of freedom in his life that other neurosurgeons were unwilling to attempt. So this is an excellent opportunity, and something we had been really hopeful about for a long time. But there are no guarantees of any particular outcome.
I told myself that I was merely happy that he was getting this chance, and I will accept whatever happens, even if it means a shunt has to go back in. That’s what I told myself.
So the surgery happened and as expected its a pretty emotional day for both of us. During the operation itself, I was alone in an empty waiting room, as Sunday doesn’t appear to be a standard time for scheduling surgery at this hospital.
I went through a range of emotions; 30 minutes of straight tears and emotional release, letting out all the feelings I had been managing for months, as well as everything that’s been going on this last week in the hospital.
Then the remaining 2 hours I was allowing myself to feel and to focus my thoughts on a positive outcome for my son. I have felt great about this – like all roads led to this surgery and he is going to get his big shot at a normal life.
That evening in the ICU the pressure in his head began to rise to levels that are typically very alarming. The nursing staff started to call the doctors, and soon enough they were ordering him an emergency MRI. As we were waiting for this to happen, I had to take a quick break, so I went for some water.
As I was alone with my thoughts, it occurred to me that this might be the end of this “experiment,” that his big chance was to be taken away from him within a few short hours. I was worried that they would rush to conclusions and put a shunt back in, which would then be considered permanent. I was afraid that all of this would be for nothing, and we’d be back on the shunt merry-go-round that we’ve been spinning on for the last three years.
It was only then that I discovered just how much I was dependant on MY desired outcome here. I had told myself that I would be ok whatever happens, but in the face of this dark moment, I was not ok.
I was not ok to the point that I was crumbling fast. Defeated, I sent frantic text messages to my husband and sister, jumping to wild conclusions about what was happening. It seemed simple for them to believe that all would be ok. Well, no wonder it’s easy for them – THEY aren’t HERE right now in all this emotional chaos!
As all of this was happening my mind was automatically jumping to the worst-case scenarios. I was sleep-deprived and emotionally strung out from this whole ordeal. My mind took a negative turn into self-pity and “why did I even bother if none of this is turning out ok?”
In the space of an hour, I lost my sense of trust and faith that we were in the right place, with the right medical team, and doing the right surgery. But as I kept on walking down the long hospital corridor, something in the back of my mind reminded me of the word “resilience.”
Resilience, yes I know all about that. I try to teach it to my kids, and I help my clients to incorporate it into their challenging situations.
But at this moment what I wanted to do is say “forget it! I don’t WANT to be resilient! This situation is horrible, and I deserve to feel as crappy as I do! Plus, there is nothing I can do about this, so why even bother anymore?”
The idea kept tickling me in the back of my brain. And by the time I was taking the elevator back to the 2nd floor, I had begun telling myself “I don’t know how, but I MUST have resilience. But I don’t want to have resilience! I MUST find trust once again. But trust doesn’t DO anything! I MUST allow all of this to unfold as it will. But how can I let go of something so important?! I cannot control the outcome…I can only respond to it.”
And so it was. The beginning of my slow journey back to resilience. My first attempt to get back to practicing what I preach, even when my heart is on the verge of breaking.
Even though I was fighting with my own thoughts, desperately clinging to the horrible stories in my head.
Even though everything in me wanted to steal my child away and prevent them from doing another surgery that would make him once again, shunt-dependent.
Even though I knew I still wasn’t thinking clearly.
My body was tired and starting to wear down. I was patient towards my child who was sometimes angry. But I was starting to get mad at the new nurse that was going more into “I’m in charge” mode instead of showing more empathy for a child who just had brain surgery that morning.
So what did I do?
I reminded myself that it is not only ok to be feeling all of these emotions, but that it is entirely reasonable and to be expected at a time like this. I reminded myself that many of my clients find themselves in times of crisis just like this, and it is easier to see the bigger picture when you are not the one in the thick of it. And that’s ok.
I even folded my arms and imagined I was cradling my son when he was a perfect newborn before we ever know of his congenital condition. I was allowing the sadness to exist while allowing loving feelings towards my child to come in as well. It was a bittersweet moment, feeling that love of my newborn son, and feeling the heartbreak of this situation that I can’t rescue him from, as hard as I have tried.
I was fully aware that I was out of balance. When I am out of balance in my body, and energetically, I take a few simple steps to get myself back on track. The first is to acknowledge the reality that my brain will not be thinking straight while I am feeling this way and trying to allow those thoughts to flow without giving them more credence.
I made myself get back to the basics – drinking plenty of water, taking a short walk when needed, deep breaths to let out the tension, and knowing that I would need to manage as much sleep that night as possible.
Third: Tapping Through the Emotions
I also did general tapping (EFT) on my fingers whenever I had a moment to do so. Tapping has been a helpful tool this entire week, and it works best when well-hydrated. So another reason for more water!
Sometimes it can be tempting to push away self-care tools such as tapping because on some level we want to validate our pain and the suffering we are experiencing. I often feel that way, but have learned to make myself do it anyway, even if it’s passive finger tapping.
EFT is not about avoiding or eliminating naturally occurring emotions. It is about working through them and allowing them to flow through you instead of building and becoming pent-up inside.
Fourth: Creating Fun or Levity
I got out a deck of Go Fish cards to get us started. We forgot about our worries and teased each other about who was going to win. I also recalled little things that were annoying to me, to give him a chance to laugh at me, allowing both of us to feel a bit better, even just for awhile.
Fifth: Circling Back to Self-Compassion
Once I was feeling a little more in balance, I found it was essential to go back and acknowledge that it was ok to be feeling some very overwhelming emotions. I reminded myself that this situation would be awful for any parent to endure! I also told myself that failure of this surgery is out of my hands, and would not be my fault or due to my ignorance of reality.
I reminded myself that we did all the right things, and it was this exceptional team of medical doctors that concluded that he was a good candidate for this surgery, and we needed to address the broken shunt anyway.
It was helpful for me to remember that this is not all about me, and nobody was going to blame me for a less-desirable outcome, and I shouldn’t blame myself either.
Keep on Keeping On
I am writing all of this while it is still fresh and I have no idea what the outcome will be. I do know that the doctors haven’t given up hope yet, so neither should I!
I will continue to remind myself of what it means to be resilient and keep going through the five steps outlined above. Resilience is not a “one and done” action. It is more of a “rinse and repeat” sort of thing.
So here I am, making the best of this critical time. Having hope for my son, but allowing myself to let go of my need to control. Letting go is not easy when you care so deeply about something, but it’s ultimately the healthiest way to go through life.
I am doing my best to reframe this experience as an opportunity to develop more resilience, and to appreciate whatever life brings.
I invite you to share your thoughts or experiences about finding resilience in the face of a crisis.