“You know, I’ve had cancer. But I’m fine. This is my real hair finally.”
She has always had a gorgeous smile, which she flashed at me again.
I hadn’t heard a word about it. Told her how sorry I was. How I was so happy she was better. All the while knowing there must be a huge back story.
We said our goodbyes and left.
I’ve been thinking about her a lot.
I hear every day how one word, one event changes someone’s life. Changes someone’s perspective. Whether that event is cancer or rape or affair.
I would have loved to have sat down and talked with her about how she had changed. About how her view on life had been transformed by having cancer.
How do we cope with things getting out of control? How do we not live the rest of our lives in fear?
1) If the trauma is in the present.
If you (or someone you love) have suffered some kind of trauma, you have to rebuild a wall of certainty around yourself. Brick by brick. You have to come to believe that you can feel safe again, whether it’s from illness or nature or from the actions of others.
All of this may happen in the context of having symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Nightmares. Flashbacks. You have to trust again that there is order in the world. That you are fairly sure of what’s going to happen in the next moment.
It happens slowly. Sometimes very slowly.
2) If the trauma is in the past.
Some people come into therapy suffering panic attacks. “I don’t know what’s happening – it makes no sense. All of a sudden, I can’t drive on the Interstate.” Or, “I’m terrified something is going to happen to my child.”
After we talk about it, there is a link. To something from the past. They have never really healed from sexual abuse as a child, a tornado ripping through their hometown, or seeing their buddy killed in a car accident. Somehow, they have managed to stuff their anxiety into a closet of their mind.
[tweetthis]Panic emerges like lava from a volcano under the right circumstances.[/tweetthis]
Maybe you have been aware all along of what happened that is causing you anxiety.
When we treat panic, we talk a lot about what’s rational. What’s likely to happen. We look at how past trauma may be affecting the perception of true danger in the present. Work through the feelings from the trauma itself. How you stop obsessing and thinking negatively. How you handle a worst case scenario. How you remind yourself of your strengths. Use hypnosis or other techniques.
While all the time, managing the ambiguity of not being totally in control.
I had a female patient come into my office one time. Mid-40’s. Was telling me all about a super life. Great job. Great marriage. Great kids. No problems.
“So, I am little confused. Why you are here?”
Her eyes filled with tears.
“I have never had to grieve anything – and I am terrified of living the rest of my life.”
Aging innately assumes loss. If things go “normally,” whatever that means. We will eventually lose our parents. We may lose our partners or get sick ourselves. Children leave. We may stop working at jobs that have been meant a great deal or have been a familiar structure. We will watch siblings and friends go through the same.
There is more ambiguity in living.
Doesn’t mean positive things can’t or won’t happen.
That’s why perspective is so important. The patient above had actually handled more loss than she recognized. She had to be reminded of that.
She needed to find her courage.
“Courage is managing fear to accomplish what you want to accomplish.” That’s what Rudy Giuiliani said after 9/11.
Courage not being the lack of fear but the management of it. Being afraid and still getting on with life.
Managing not knowing what’s going to happen.
Maybe my friend found her courage. She is still smiling that Broadway smile. Her hair is back. She’s watching ball.
We can all go on. Accomplishing what we need and want to accomplish. With courage.
You don’t have to live in panic.
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