Monday, March 26, 2012

Just a Dog

From time to time people tell me, “Lighten up, it’s just a dog,” or, “That’s a lot of money for just a dog.” They don’t understand the distance traveled, time spent, or costs involved for “Just a dog.” Some of my proudest moments have come about with “Just a dog.” Many hours have passed with my only company being “Just a dog,” and not once have I felt slighted. Some of my saddest moments were brought about by “Just a dog.” In those days of darkness, the gentle touch of “Just a dog” provided comfort and purpose to overcome the day.

If you, too, think it's “Just a dog,” you will probably understand phrases like “Just a friend,” “Just a sunrise,” or “Just a promise.” “Just a dog” brings into my life the very essence of friendship, trust, and pure unbridled joy. “Just a dog” brings out the compassion and patience that makes me a better person. Because of “Just a dog” I will rise early, take long walks and look longingly to the future.

For me and folks like me, it’s not “Just a dog.” It’s an embodiment of all the hopes and dreams of the future, the fond memories of the past, and the pure joy of the moment. “Just a dog” brings out what’s good in me and diverts my thoughts away from myself and the worries of the day.

I hope that someday people can understand it’s not “Just a dog.” It’s the thing that gives me humanity and keeps me from being “Just a man or woman.”

So the next time you hear “Just a dog,” smile, because they “Just don’t understand.”

~ Author unknown

Monday, March 19, 2012

Eat Pray Love

You’d think by now I wouldn’t get so surprised when things in my life parallel … but I am still astonished by life’s ability to make connections and my openness to seeing them.

This weekend Matt was in Pennsylvania visiting his family, so I took the opportunity to go to bed early, cuddle up with Jasper and watch a movie. When I turned on the TV it just happened to be the movie, ‘Eat Pray Love.’ A film I had missed seeing when it was in theaters. I got my box of tissues and prepped myself for a good cry. It may seem a bit weird, but I look forward to a good cry once in awhile and there are two women that make this task very easy for me, Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan. So, I knew what I was in for.

I’m sure most of you know the story, so I will not bore you with reciting the plot; instead I want to share some moments in the movie that stuck with me.

Liz Gilbert:  “In the end, I've come to believe in something I call "The Physics of the Quest." A force in nature governed by laws as real as the laws of gravity. The rule of Quest Physics goes something like this: If you're brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting, which can be anything from your house to bitter, old resentments, and set out on a truth-seeking journey, either externally or internally, and if you are truly willing to regard everything that happens to you on that journey as a clue and if you accept everyone you meet along the way as a teacher and if you are prepared, most of all, to face and forgive some very difficult realities about yourself, then the truth will not be withheld from you.”

Wow. Beautiful writing. I believe so deeply in the power of this and feel as though this is what I am currently doing in my life. I refer to it as “self work” but “The Physics of the Quest” certainly sounds more intriguing. For me, I look at the idea of ego vs. meaning … stripping away the superficial and insignificant ideologies and truly finding understanding, meaning, enlightenment and forgiveness. The concept of “a clue” is what I refer to as “connections” – being spiritually aware in order to make connections and find parallels in your life. You don’t have to fully understand the meaning of it, just that puzzle pieces are presenting themselves – the analysis may not come until later.

The way in which love is depicted through the writing in this movie is brilliant. There is one scene that captures the essence of love. Javier Bardem sobs as he says goodbye to his nineteen-year-old son who was visiting from Australia. The interaction between father and son is moving, but Julia Robert’s character takes on a different emotion witnessing this embrace. She has empathy for the first time in the movie—true, honest empathy. She actually feels something for someone else’s feelings. The writing and acting connected well and I used my tissues accordingly.

On Sunday sixteen breast cancer survivors gathered for the first Pink Sister Brunch, hopefully the first of many. We are all at different stages of life, treatment, recovery and healing. This gathering was a long time coming and for some reason it felt right to do it now. It’s hard to put into words what it felt like for me to be a part of organizing the get together. My heart was beyond fulfilled and bursting with excitement that these women were organically making connections and I left feeling inspired from the stories of hope, perseverance and support.

The concept of Ego vs. Meaning was quite evident. When you go through something traumatic in your life, like breast cancer, ego goes out the door. You gain weight on the steroids, you lose your hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, your skin grays, your nails bruise and fall off and, most likely, you lose your breasts. There is no vanity to hide behind. There is nothing gradual or kind about the process – you are stripped to the most raw, vulnerable and pure version of yourself and you grasp desperately for the meaning in it all. For some it takes a little while, but inevitably food starts to taste a lot richer, the grass and flowers smell more beautiful, you hug your friends and family a little longer – meaning surfaces when you are stripped to the most honest and, quite frankly, best version of yourself. It’s no longer about how you look in the photo, but that you were in it at all. Life changes for the caterpillar and the best version of her emerges from the cocoon. Empathy. Compassion. Resilience. Patience.

Being in a room with these sixteen women, I could honestly be the most honest version of myself. We didn’t chit chat about the weather and put fake smiles on our faces and give the most generic answer when asked, "How are you doing?" I have never experienced anything like it before. You might think from my description that it was a sad reunion, but it was as far from that as it could possibly be. We simply had honest and thoughtful conversations that involved topics of wellness, fertility, adoption, reconstruction, the Susan G. Komen controversy, nutrition, weddings, side effects, depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, other Pink Sisters we have lost, scar tissue, fitness, our hair and so on. These were understanding conversations that lacked pity and judgment – they were pure and honest.

This group of women has been pushed into a truth-seeking quest without asking for it, yet almost every one of them will say that cancer is the best thing that’s happened to her. I’m honored to be in an elite group with these remarkable women and love them for the truest most exposed and beautiful versions of themselves that have hatched from their cocoons.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

My Jigsaw Puzzle

I am continuing to work on this jigsaw puzzle I call my life. I have the whole set laid before me on the floor and I have begun work on identifying the pieces that frame the outside border. It’s a strange feeling to take a step back from the everyday hustle and bustle, evaluate the situations, traumas and emotions in your life, and attempt to piece them together in a way that makes sense. Although this work is exhausting, I think it might be the greatest thing I have ever done in my lifetime.

I have been a nervous Nelly for as long as I can remember, but I don’t think I have ever fully understood the intricacies of anxiety. It is not a one size fits all diagnosis. Instead it is a blanket term for a number of disorders that are classified into two groups: continuous symptoms and episodic symptoms. Anxiety disorder is divided into generalized anxiety disorder, phobic disorder and panic disorder; each has its own characteristics and symptoms.

My therapist Nancy Whiteley, LCP explained to me that anxiety is when the mind and body are completely in sync with one another. Your body creates a physical reaction for an emotion you are feeling, which can be both good and bad. Having a base diagnosis of anxiety and then experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on top of it, is where I am currently.

Here are the different forms of anxiety I am now experiencing with PTSD:

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder which results in from a traumatic experience. Post-traumatic stress can result from an extreme situation, such as combat, natural disaster, rape, hostage situations, child abuse, bullying or even a serious accident. It can also result from long term (chronic) exposure to a severe stressor, for example soldiers who endure individual battles but cannot cope with continuous combat. Common symptoms include hypervigilance, flashbacks, avoidant behaviors, anxiety, anger and depression. There are a number of treatments which form the basis of the care plan for those suffering with PTSD. Such treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychotherapy and support from family and friends. These are all examples of treatments used to help people suffering from PTSD. —Wikipedia

I am now processing the emotions that I previously just coped through from my battle with stage-III breast cancer four years ago. Jenn has brought me the “gift of grief” and is allowing me to move through my emotions while supporting her in her battle against breast cancer.

Agoraphobia is the specific anxiety about being in a place or situation where escape is difficult or embarrassing or where help may be unavailable. Agoraphobia is strongly linked with panic disorder and is often precipitated by the fear of having a panic attack. A common manifestation involves needing to be in constant view of a door or other escape route. In addition to the fears themselves, the term agoraphobia is often used to refer to avoidance behaviors that sufferers often develop. For example, following a panic attack while driving, someone suffering from agoraphobia may develop anxiety over driving and will therefore avoid driving. These avoidance behaviors can often have serious consequences; in severe cases, one can be confined to one's home. —Wikipedia

It took two years before I would let Matt drive with me in the passenger seat. I always have to be the one driving. I often play the “what if” game and work myself into a frenzy. What if I get sick? What if we’re at the restaurant and I have a panic attack? My friends will get mad at me and blame me for ruining their evening. I often will come up with excuses to get out of going completely, or to drive separately. I have an errand to run beforehand, so I’ll meet you all there. And the worst part is, I then feel guilty about lying and nothing bad happens anyway. I don’t get sick and no one blames me for a bad time. It’s all just silly and I hate it. I always have to know where a bathroom is, too. Once I know where it is, I typically relax. Going to a new place I haven’t been before causes some anxiety until I scope it out and know all of my “plan b” options. I’m that thorough. CONFESSION: I have, at times, gone to a place prior to the actual day of the event just to scope it out and find where the exits and bathrooms are located.

Separation anxiety disorder (SepAD) is the feeling of excessive and inappropriate levels of anxiety over being separated from a person or place. Separation anxiety is a normal part of development in babies or children, and it is only when this feeling is excessive or inappropriate that it can be considered a disorder. Separation anxiety disorder affects roughly 7% of adults and 4% of children, but the childhood cases tend to be more severe; in some instances even a brief separation can produce panic.—Wikipedia

I get anxious when I think about going off of the Tamoxifen in two years. In my head I associate the Tamoxifen with keeping the cancer away. My therapist said that this is onset now because Jenn is receiving chemotherapy, which parallels my cancer treatment.

In panic disorder, a person suffers from brief attacks of intense terror and apprehension, often marked by trembling, shaking, confusion, dizziness, nausea, difficulty breathing. These panic attacks, defined by the APA as fear or discomfort that abruptly arises and peaks in less than ten minutes, can last for several hours and can be triggered by stress, fear, or even exercise; the specific cause is not always apparent.

In addition to recurrent unexpected panic attacks, a diagnosis of panic disorder requires that said attacks have chronic consequences: either worry over the attacks' potential implications, persistent fear of future attacks, or significant changes in behavior related to the attacks. Accordingly, those suffering from panic disorder experience symptoms even outside specific panic episodes. Often, normal changes in heartbeat are noticed by a panic sufferer, leading them to think something is wrong with their heart or they are about to have another panic attack. In some cases, a heightened awareness (hypervigilance) of body functioning occurs during panic attacks, wherein any perceived physiological change is interpreted as a possible life-threatening illness (i.e., extreme hypochondriasis). —Wikipedia

The agoraphobia typically leads to panic disorder. I have maybe had 50 in my lifetime. It always starts with my jaw tightening and then I began panicking knowing what is about to happen. I shake, tremble, get dizzy, my heart beats out of my chest, I go to the bathroom or vomit, I sweat profusely and my stomach will spasm and convulse. I cannot focus on anything—it completely consumes me. Once it passes I am literally exhausted and fall asleep.

Obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) is a type of anxiety disorder primarily characterized by repetitive obsessions (distressing, persistent, and intrusive thoughts or images) and compulsions (urges to perform specific acts or rituals). It affects roughly around 3% of the population worldwide. The OCD thought pattern may be likened to superstitions insofar as it involves a belief in a causative relationship where, in reality, one does not exist. Often the process is entirely illogical; for example, the compulsion of walking in a certain pattern may be employed to alleviate the obsession of impending harm. And in many cases, the compulsion is entirely inexplicable, simply an urge to complete a ritual triggered by nervousness.

In a slight minority of cases, sufferers of OCD may only experience obsessions, with no overt compulsions; a much smaller number of sufferers experience only compulsions. —Wikipedia

If I feel like other things in my life are out of control, or beyond my control, I will get transfixed and obsessive about my house being clean. I do this, according to my therapist, because it is something I can control. I kept a calendar for which days I clean what and even do things sequentially. Poor Matt just smiles and puts up with my crazy. My argument: at least I have a clean home.

There is another concept that I am not as familiar with called “self-trust.” For most of my life I have had a pretty good idea of how I feel about certain things. Typically you fall in the middle of the scale and can look at both sides and say “That doesn’t seem right” or “I agree with that,” but trauma in the form of life or death illness catches you off guard, like getting hit by a brick. It puts you in an indecisive and vulnerable state where you don’t necessarily trust your own opinion anymore, so you look to others to guide you. This also enhances all of your other anxieties, hence why I am struggling to put these jigsaw pieces together.

The good news, you ask? Most people with all of the above are off medication and complete therapy in seven months. I have to remember what my therapist told me at the beginning, “feel deeply and recover quickly.” That is what I intend to do. Am I always going to be a nervous Nelly? Yeah, probably, but I will have cognitive ways to manage my response to situations … and my home will remain clean.