Coming Back

At some point we all find ourselves in a place that forces us to change our perspectives and view life through a new lens.  Sometimes this transformation is sudden, as in the case of an accident, illness or loss of something or someone important to us.  In other examples the change is more gradual, such as the process of aging or accepting chronic conditions that may never completely disappear.  We find ourselves faced with “the new normal”.  Despite the fact that everything in life is always changing, most of us are wary or even downright afraid of what is unknown.  This causes us to cling to the familiar even if we are not completely happy with it.  We’ve all heard the expression, “the devil you know . . .” which is often used as a rationale for avoiding change.

We each have different ways of handling change.  Some of us resist the reality of change by resorting to denial.  We might think, “This isn’t really happening.  I will just keep on moving through life in the same way that I always have.” Others get angry and look for someone or something external to blame, as in “if it wasn’t for _____  (fill in the blank) everything would still be the same as it used to be.”  That may or may not be true, but unfortunately, it doesn’t change the reality of the situation.  Others despair, focusing on the loss rather than anything positive that remains and sometimes find themselves dissolving into depression.  Some consider themselves victims and wonder “why me?” Still others will accept the new normal and try to make the best of it.

It has long been a question among social scientists as to why some people can move through changes with relative equanimity, while others resist sometimes to the point of sacrificing their own health and well-being.  Most agree that the quality that sets the victims apart from the survivors is resilience.  The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.  .  . It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.”  Furthermore, “Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.” So this is not some innate quality that is part of our DNA, it is something that we can all develop.  It just takes practice.

No one escapes hardship in life.  We may think there are people who have it all together.  But deeper inspection often reveals hidden truths. Many years ago when I was dealing with a  particular set of changes in my life I met a woman who captured my admiration.  I thought, “If I could only be like her all my problems would be solved.”  Later I learned that beneath the appearance of perfection there was a deeply troubled sole who had a host of characteristics I was so grateful I didn’t have.  It was a simple but major lesson for me – nobody’s perfect.   Whatever someone else has that you think you want often accompanies many things that you’re better off without.

Getting back to resilience, I used to teach a class to prospective entrepreneurs about how to build a viable business.  It turns out resilience is also a key to successful entrepreneurship.  One might think that having lots of money is an important factor.  And, yes, having sufficient resources to survive good and bad times is necessary, especially during the start-up phase which often lasts several years.  Also important is a complete understanding of market conditions.  But being able make it through tough times and respond to changes as they become evident without clinging to some ideal image of the way things “should” be is right up there at the top of the list.  Followers of this blog might recognize this characteristic as something we cultivate in yoga and Pilates – namely, flexibility – being able to go with the flow without breaking.

So what does all this have to do with coming back?   That title could refer to many things, but, as you might have guessed, I am referring in particular to coming back from illness, injury or other forms of loss.  By loss I mean those related to changes in our ability to do the same things we’ve always done in the way we used to do them.  It also might mean loss of the illusion that we will ever be able to be like that other person who looks a certain way or who can do certain things that are unavailable to us in this moment.  In particular, each physical set-back I have reminds me of my limitations.  Regardless of how I feel or how I view myself, I am not the same person physically that I was 20 years ago.  This is not bad or good.  It just is what it is.  Knowing that, I can choose to lament the fact that I will probably never again run a marathon, or I can find joy in the fact that I can still hike in our beautiful outdoors on legs that not only work but are mostly pain-free.  So certain human frailties may be revealed, but also amazing strength.  I’ve had set-backs, but I’m still here and still moving.  How incredible is that!  Some days may be slower than others but that’s OK.  It is wonderfully liberating not to have to live up to anyone else’s standards.  Also I can still practice yoga and Pilates, both of which have contributed greatly to my physical capacity.  These are all disciplines that can be modified to meet my needs.  Some days I can do poses that are difficult on other days.  There is no rule that says I have to power through the difficult moves when they are not working for me.  I can modify or even skip them altogether and try again tomorrow.

Change may be constant, but sometimes it can’t be forced.  When you can’t change a situation, you can always change your attitude.  Here is a link to another article on “How to Build Resilience”.  The suggestion is given to “Reframe Your Interpretation”.  This is another way of saying find a different point of view.  Remember the old song that advised “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative”?  You could almost use that for a mantra.  No matter how bad things seem, there is always something positive that is still available if you look for it. Even if it’s something really small, it’s worth focusing on until something better becomes visible. This isn’t necessarily easy and it won’t change reality, but it might help you get through it.  You may be losing something precious, but I would venture a guess that meaningful things in your life still exist.  Just like physical activity, this requires practice.  It may take many reminders throughout the day, but as neuroscientists are increasingly learning, we can create new pathways in our brains at any age.

So even if you think you have always been a certain way and can’t possibly change, train yourself to think as my favorite astrologer/philosopher Caroline Casey advises and add the words “until now!”.  You can change.  You just need to practice.  Accept what is and focus on what you can do right now. If it gets better, great!  If not, it’s still worthy of celebration.

Lessons Learned

If you read my last blog post, you will have learned that I was headed for spine surgery.  As it turned out, my surgery happened a week earlier than originally planned.  This was fine with me since by then I had reconciled myself to the need for the surgery and had also come to my wit’s end with the pain I was enduring.  It was not an easy decision to have the surgery.  Any time one is subjected to the vagaries of anesthesia and the dangers inherent in opening parts of the body that are otherwise not meant to open anything can happen.  These cautions become even more pronounced when working with the spine and the nervous system it is designed to protect.  Arriving at the decision to undergo surgery meant I had to surrender to the unknown and be willing to accept whatever consequences might ensue.  I have since spoken with many people who are daily enduring problems that surgery might fix but the fear of those consequences outweighs the problem.  For me it was the other way around: the prospect of a solution won me over.  As I said in my most recent post, I felt that the fact that a solution exists at all – and that I had access to it – put me in a far better category than those for whom a solution is not available.

At this point I am delighted to report that my surgery went exactly as planned and did, in fact, solve the problem for which it was intended.  I am beyond amazed at the miracle of it.  Despite our resilience, human beings are subject to a myriad of health problems.  Even as medical advances are made, new problems seem to crop up daily.  Yet there are also marvelous techniques now available that even a few years ago would have seemed impossible.  Here I am, not quite 5 weeks from my surgery and already I can walk a couple of miles pain-free and even do some yoga.  Nothing short of miraculous in my mind.

So what have I learned in this latest journey?  First of all, it really helps to be in good shape to begin with.  All my years spent touting the benefits of movement and working to motivate others has not been for naught.  The strength, flexibility and balance I have worked to maintain has definitely helped pull me through this.  The first week after the surgery was very difficult.  It is easy to understand how some people might succumb to that difficulty, stretching out or even hindering the recovery process.  Pain can create a vicious cycle – the more you hurt, the less you want to move, but the less you move the harder it is to get moving. Yet even while I was still in the hospital I was encouraged to move.  This is another change in the thinking of the medical community.  It used to be that after surgery people were told not to move.  Today, just the opposite is promoted.  Our bodies are meaning to move and the sooner one gets moving, the better for the body. It’s tough, though, to move when everything hurts.  So it became another opportunity for practice.  All of the lessons I’ve been writing about in this blog had to be re-activated.  Examples:  keep trying!  If you have to stop, then stop.  But try again later.  My doc gave me a simple rule of thumb, “If it hurts, stop.  If you think it’s going to hurt, don’t do it.”  That last part could be interpreted as license to stop trying, but that marker moves as the healing process progresses.  So what hurts today might hurt less tomorrow or the next day.  Each day brings another opportunity to try again.

Which brings me to Lesson #2 – the danger zone.  That first week was miserable, but by the second week I could already tell the difference. There was a spark of light at the end of the tunnel.  Healing was hardly complete but I could tell that I was getting better.  By the third week, I was actually feeling good much of the time.  That’s when the danger zone arrives.  I started to feel good enough to believe that I could do more than I should.  After a couple of episodes of over-doing (thankfully minor) I realized that I had to pull back.  This is when the full realization of aging starts to set in.  Although it is truly amazing that a person my age can go through a trauma like this and not only survive but thrive afterwards, I still had to respect the fact that healing is slower as we age.   It is so important to me to keep moving as much as I can for as long as I can.  Rather than invite set-backs that could be avoidable, I had to remind myself that I am in this for the long haul.  Feeling good will only get better if I have some patience and let it happen in its own time.  A fellow Pilates teacher said, “You’ll be that much stronger if you just wait until the time is right.”  Good advice.

And that’s Lesson #3 – I am continuing to get better on a daily basis and it was worth the wait.  Every day I feel stronger and more like my old self again.  It may take a little longer to get my fitness levels back, but come back they will if I just take it slow but keep moving forward.  Still I am changed by this as I am by every new experience.  I heard a great quote the other day:  an elderly woman was asked what it is like to be 89 or whatever age she was at that time.  Her answer, “I don’t know.  I’ve never been 89 before!”  A great reminder that as long as we’re on the planet, moving and breathing, life continues to be an adventure.  Each day is one you have never before experienced.  Stepping into the unknown can be as simple as getting out of bed in the morning.  It can be scary, but we all have the capacity to be brave and do the best we can with whatever we have to work with on an given day.  Everything is changing all the time. So whatever you felt yesterday might be different today.  Treat every moment like the remarkable gift it is.