Several months ago, as I stared out into the gray Seattle sky from my office window, I received a phone call from my mother. Her doctor had found a mass. In her abdomen. And it was big.
My initial reaction came deep from inside as I channeled my inner 10-year-old.
Of course it was nothing. How could there be anything wrong? This was my Mom – strong and beautiful and complicated, a force and a light for so many. This was not a woman who could be taken down.
But as her abdomen started to swell with fluid I had to quickly accept that magical thinking could not make this right.
The final diagnosis was a blow: Stage 3C Ovarian Cancer with not one type of cancer inside her but two.
Big-time crisis. Big-time stuff.
Back in the 70s my mom was one of the original, grassroots feminists. She wasn’t a big-time Gloria Steinem. No, she was more powerful than that in my eyes.
My mom was a feminist in the trenches, preaching over coffee with friends or in the home at the dinner table with her five kids. She fought fiercely to raise sensitive boys and for her girls to have courage to think outside the box and do something besides being housewives. She succeeded on all counts.
Since her retirement as a professor more than 10 years ago, my mother has lived largely –- scurrying up mountains with her hiking group, volunteering in Nicaragua, running large committees in her church.
So it was humbling to see this woman of strength brought to her knees with this cancer diagnosis.
Just one week before she had been bird watching in Borneo. Several days later she was fighting for her life.
None of it made sense.
So what have I done to get through the last few months without laying on the floor in the fetal position? I have self-coached. (And some days I laid on the floor and wept…it’s all part of the process.)
I spend my days teaching clients the tools I learned under the tutelage of various amazing life coaches. This situation has allowed me to use those tools on myself. What’s cool is I can vouch for their effectiveness.
Here are some of the tools that I continue to use to get me through this crisis. These are tools that can help you too.
I get to choose what I think. My family is stuck in the middle of a shitty circumstance. But the circumstance does not dictate my thoughts about this crisis. I can choose crappy thoughts about the situation or I can choose better feeling thoughts…thoughts that bring me relief and help me feel hope. Every time I think a crappy thought about this circumstance I recognize that is my choice.
Crappy thoughts generate crappy behavior. I don’t want to think, feel or behave like crap. So when I catch myself thinking cruddy thoughts I work on finding thoughts that are still true to me but feel better.
Clean Pain vs. Dirty Pain
This situation with my mom is all about clean pain. Clean pain is a response to an acute, catalytic crisis. Dirty pain is the pain that most of us live with –- painful stories we tell ourselves about the past, yucky opinions or beliefs that do not serve us. Clean pain warrants grieving and processing. Dirty pain requires making the choice to drop the stories, beliefs and opinions that only serve to hurt us.
In this situation I understood that I was experiencing clean pain. I needed and continue to need time to grieve the pain I feel over seeing my beloved mother suffer. I give myself time to cry and scream and yell at the world because that’s part of the grieving process. I let myself truly feel the pain so that I can move through it rather than stuff it down. And I have been careful to recognize when I am in the middle of dirty pain – stories that I create that only make the situation worse. When I catch myself with dirty pain thoughts I let them go.
What’s Perfect About the Situation
This is a tough one. In the coaching world we believe that everything happens as it should. We often ask clients to tell us one thing that is perfect about a difficult situation so that we can reframe our perception of reality and perhaps feel better. I protested this concept several times in the past few months. How on earth could anything be perfect about my mom finding out she had advanced cancer?!
Here is what I came up with:
She has access to some of the best medical care in the world.
The cancer was found before Stage 4.
She has a husband who loves her.
She has children who adore her.
She has grandchildren who love and ask about her everyday.
She survived the surgery.
She survived complications from the surgery.
She has made it through several rounds of chemo with few complications.
The sun has been shining for her in Seattle.
She emerged from the hospital on one of the most glorious spring days in Seattle. She saw mountains and wild flowers with new eyes on the drive home.
She has enough money to get the care she needs at home.
She has a warm bed and bedroom windows that look out onto a great body of water.
She has comfy pajamas and soft socks to wear as she heals.
As you can see – I can go on and on.
My mother -– true to her grit and strength -– is nearly done with chemo. One more round and then we wait to see if the chemo has done its job of expelling the cancer from her body.
In the meantime, I continue to be thankful for my coaching tools because waiting will be hard.
And I will use these tools every time I go to a hard place (which is likely to happen more often than not) because I love my Mom and all that she has taught me about being a strong woman.
So the next time you face a crisis and you need some relief from your suffering, try these tools to get to a better space…and feel better.
Image credit: Don’t Touch My Moleskine