Twenty twenty has started out pretty rough, after tearing tendons and ligaments in a spectacular ankle turn, my mother in law was hospitalized for eleven days of January (9 of that in the ICU), shortly after, my wife totaled our vehicle. We are so thankful that no one was injured – that’s not nothing! Additionally, she runs her own business and is having an issue with the primary place she contracts with that may put her out of business in the next six months. My dad came to visit on the heels of all this and from his visit we learned that 1) he’s experiencing what appears to be dementia, 2) he doesn’t acknowledge that, 3) his lack of critical thinking has forced my recently dead brother’s condo into foreclosure, and 4) his primary way of expressing his frustration while he was here was to be mean/combative. And finally, we rounded all that out with my mom’s birthday (she passed last year, this one is still hard) and my birthday a week later which due to the lack of sex and the above stressors with my wife, turned out to be a lousy day. [Oh, and now we’re in a global pandemic and my wife’s business is completely shuttered.] Whew! As I write that all down, it would be a lot for us to handle in six months much less six weeks and could buckle two healthy people – and we are not that. So, that got me thinking, how do those of us with chronic illness handle times of undue hardship and stress. As we know, when it rains it pours. So, knowing how to get wet and get through it is an important skill set. Here are some of the tools I use.
First and foremost, as they teach you on the airplane, you must put on your own oxygen mask before you assist other passengers. If you are trying to help your spouse, kid, or parent with their oxygen mask and you haven’t put on your own, you run the risk of passing out before you have even gotten theirs on. Then what use are you? Now we’ve got to still get theirs on and somehow figure out how to get an oxygen mask on your lifeless body, that’s just more work and it could have been avoided! I know it is counterintuitive but taking care of yourself first is paramount.
When we are at our worst, lowest, most depleted, this is when we must ramp up on the micro-focus attending to what it takes to keep our bodies functioning at the most basic level. What food, water, rest, do I need to make it through today? How will I prioritize that? This means body scans. I know, I know, I harp on this one, but body scans are an essential tool in knowing, in the moment, what care my body needs and how to deliver it. Am I tired, in pain, needing to go pee? What do I need to do right now? When other stressors are pulling my focus it is easy to forget about what I need and that can cause me more problems. Not attending to my basic needs in the face of more problems piling on is a great way to send myself into a flare, or worse, a relapse. More sleep, pills at the right time, healthy meals, impeccable boundaries, this kind of self-care can be the difference between making it through this difficult time intact and falling apart physically as well as emotionally.
Stephen Covey wrote a great book more than twenty-five years ago called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, in it, he coined the phrase, the “Sphere of Influence.” Essentially, it means, what is the area over which I have any influence or control. I find that often in times of crisis or high stress, there are lots of things I get worked up about that I have no control over. When those things consume me, they are quite literally wasting my time! It’s like the prayer of serenity, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” In your times of crisis, evaluate what is in your sphere of influence. Let that help guide how you decide to spend your precious energy and time. You don’t have an endless supply, so be judicious about where you put it – even your thought energy is valuable. Discernment is key, spinning your wheels in ways that will never get traction is a waste of something precious – YOU!
The last, and perhaps most difficult or advanced tip I have for you is to ask for support. Once you stop reeling from the situation you’re in, take a moment to gather your thoughts, step back, and ask for help. If this is a long-term problem like a pandemic, ask for help with things like grocery shopping from friends who may have the time and aren’t health compromised. If this is something that is short in duration, tell friends what’s happening and that it would help to get texts throughout the day. Maybe it’s a health crisis and you want people to know what’s up but you’re too overwhelmed to update them yourself, ask someone to be your point person and broadcast out to others so you only have to loop one person in. Asking for support is Jedi-knight level stuff. It is difficult to do because it requires self-worth, and trust that we matter enough to others that they’ll do what we ask. No time like the present to try it. And, hey, if you aren’t in a crisis and you’re reading this, try this out immediately. It’s awesome to try asking for support on lower-stakes things like texting, “next time you’re at the store could you also pick up x for me?” and then seeing what happens. Prepare to be pleasantly surprised.
Events will come that push and stress us to our max. Unfortunately, when we punch in with chronic illness, life doesn’t give us a pass to punch out of the other hard, heavy, unbearable things that life deals out. We still have to weather those and manage our disease states. The list above are my first line of defense against the storms. What about you? What are your go-to practices for times of crisis? What gets you though? Tell us about it so we can benefit, too!