And the Melody Plays On…

If individual therapy is like a duet, then group therapy is a symphony. It carries the melodies of many voices and yet, somehow it creates a sense of rhythm and harmony that nourishes the soul. I love doing one on one therapy, with the solitary focus on one person, and being present for their process. But, group therapy accomplishes things I could never hope to achieve individually. Last week’s group discussion on self-compassion was a beautiful example of that. One group member shared how she talks to herself when she is disappointed in something she has done or left undone. Another group member appeared shocked and asked,”Are you in my head?” It was a beautiful moment of validation for both of them that continued on through out the group session.

I’ve thought about that session quite a bit this week. Maybe it is because the theme of that night was replayed through individual sessions during the week. Maybe it is because I am still trying to have a presence on social media in an effort to promote my latest book. What hits home is that people in our society create an image that they portray to others and this image is based on what others expect of them. The danger comes when we compare our inside to their outside. When we see perfect family outings on FaceBook, but our family relationships are going through a hard time. When we see others speak of their accomplishments, but we spent the day on the couch watching a marathon of HGTV and eating homemade rice pudding. When we see others portraying themselves as “all together”, but we feel a sense of being emotionally broken. I believe this dynamic has long been a part of our social history. However, I also believe social media has solidified this experience of feeling alone any time we are struggling.

That was the beauty of last week’s group. I saw two people recognize that they are not alone. I saw them offer themselves and each other a moment of acceptance and grace. I saw it light up their eyes as the music of the moment swelled to a crescendo.

I’m not saying that being authentic always ends in validation or that authenticity is an easy choice. But I have made a commitment to live an authentic life, to let go of others’ expectations for me and embrace who I really am, to make the outside and inside match, and to cheer on those who strive for an authentic life as well. It won’t be done perfectly. But it will be done.

A Time for Reflection

The holidays came. And then they went. With barely a notice on my part. After enjoying a pre-Christmas celebration with my cousins, my tribe as I call them, I fell ill to a horrible stomach bug, followed by skin boils, followed by a head and chest cold. It definitely reminded me of Job. But this was not a plague from God. It was the normal consequence of taking the cancer drug I take, a compromised immune system. It challenges my normal sense of gratitude. But, I do remind myself that the latest research shows this drug is tied to better outcomes for breast cancer patients.

So, what is the upside of this period of illness beyond getting to stay alive? It gave me a chance to slow down, and as my head cleared from the fevers, I began to reflect. One of the things I reflected on was one of my recent reads, Promise Me, Dad by Joe Biden. It is the story of the Vice President’s journey as he walked with son, Beau, through cancer diagnosis, treatment, and death. It explored the inspiration Joe received from Beau, but also the heartache of holding onto hope until the very end. It detailed how Joe balanced his need to support Beau, at the same time he took care of significant matters for our country and our world.

Now, you might think reading a book about a father’s loss of his son to cancer is an interesting literary choice for a cancer patient. And I am not going to deny there were tears streaming and even a few sobs that escaped from my throat. But most of the book inspired me. It inspired me to balance heartache and struggle with gratitude. It reminded me to keep my eye on my purpose in life, not just on the mechanics of living it. It reminded me of the importance of relationship and connection and the legacy of relational memories we all will leave behind. It showed me, again, that when my body is weak, my heart can be strong.

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Sometimes It is a Struggle to Stay in the Arena

I have not written in a few weeks and this photo is one of the projects I’ve been doing in the meantime. Painting, lettering, jewelry, ink work have all been used to fill my soul. What has made my soul so empty? Once again, I have faced the possible suicide of a client. Rescued by a loved one, this attempt had a “happy ending”. But the rope was around her neck and I am facing the reality that this person could have lost her life to a deep despair that overwhelmed her in that moment.

This kind of experience shakes me to my core. Professionally, I feel like I let the person down, that I should have been able to predict this, and intervene before her hands ever touched the rope. I shared this with my wise friend, also a therapist. She reminded me that we are one influence among a myriad of others. She reminded me that we don’t really have that much control. Her words brought a sense of comfort, but they also helped me to slide down the rabbit hole.

If I embrace that I don’t have control, then I am embracing my vulnerability. Vulnerability is that word I like to talk about and throw around. But I dig my heels in when it is time to step into the arena and experience vulnerability. If I truly accept that I do not have the control over the outcome of therapy… and life… then I have to face that I could experience devastating loss. I would not have the power to stop it from arriving on my doorstep. Those that know me, know that I operate in life from a profoundly emotional and spiritual place within me. This place creates a deep well of love and compassion for my clients. The loss of one of my clients, especially at their own hands, would create grief within the same deep well. Therapy is a professional relationship, but it is also two people connecting, caring, healing. It is transformative for both of us. I have seen and experienced the power of transformation.

Brene Brown says that the antidote to this fear, this foreboding joy, is to embrace gratitude. So, I will continue to do therapy…and life… from that deep well of love and compassion. I will risk loss and grief. Because to be a part of that transformation is a gift, one I am honored to receive every day I step into my office. But when I get scared, I may retreat to creating something in my art room. And when I am filled back up, I will re-enter the arena, ready to be vulnerable, ready to love again.

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My Truth

My wise friend told me last week that she is going to make a T shirt for me that says, “Be careful what you you say to me. I might blog about you.” This conversation took place after I ranted for a few minutes about thoughtless things people say to cancer patients.

I had been on the phone last week with someone who wants to create a marketing plan for my blog to get it more exposure on the internet. He asked a few questions about my dreams for the blog (writing posts isn’t enough?). Then he launched into a conversation peppered with his view of cancer and cancer patients. He told me is 65 years old and has the body of a 40 year old, he works out for 2 hours a day, and he does ultimate mountain hikes. Then, he proceeded to tell me about his green drinks every morning, that his body that has not aged in 10 years, and his plan to live to the ripe old age of 105. This dissertation was followed up by advice on eating healthy and avoiding fast food, getting off the couch and being active, and taking the right supplements and micronutrients to overcome cancer. I could not get off the phone fast enough. As if that was not excruciating enough, he did a follow up phone call and replayed the same tape for me this week.

So, here is my truth. I ate at McDonalds last week with my debit card and it caused my bank to call me about fraud. My truth is I am as active as my body will allow me to be. I took a short mile walk before I sat down to write this. My truth is that I have been through four cancer diagnosis in seven years and my body is tired. My truth is that seven years of chemotherapy and treatment has aged my body decades. I have not slowed down the aging process. My body has kicked the aging process into overdrive and that makes me sad. But it also makes me grateful because I am still here. My truth I try not to think about how long I will live. I try to stay in a place of gratitude for this moment, this day. For it is what I have. Would I love to have a relatively healthy life to age 105? Of course! There is so much for me to do, knowledge to gain, so many ways I want to fulfill the purpose God has given me. But going there triggers a deep well of grief I would rather not revisit.

My truth is that when people talk to me about what cancer patients “should do”, it fertilizes the fear that lives inside me. Have I done enough to take care of my body? Is this something more out there that will magically give me the physical body I once so thoughtlessly took for grated? My truth is that when people talk to me about what cancer patients “should do”, it highlights the shame that lurks under it all. I become like those women who come up to me after a speech and whisper, “I have cancer too.” Their whispered confession carries shame that maybe they did something wrong or still are doing it wrong. My truth is that I am like everyone else on this planet. I try. Sometimes I fail. I try again. Sometimes my path is fairly straight and simple and sometimes it has twists that make my head spin. There may be something else I can do to overcome cancer in my body. But for this day, I will focus on overcoming the fear and shame that sometimes lives in my soul… and maybe ordering myself a new T shirt.

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We All Have the Power to Make a Difference

This morning I attended the funeral of a beloved wife, mother, and grandmother. Returning home, I changed into a pair of leggings, a rumpled comfy hoodie, and my well-worn pair of rocket dogs and I plopped down on the living room couch. I began to peruse the latest People magazine, where I found an article about 25 women who have dedicated time to making a difference. From fighting AIDS in Africa to finding a cure to helping women embrace their own beauty, these women have worked tirelessly to change the landscape of our world. It got me thinking about how each of us has the capacity to make a difference in the lives of other people. I also reflected on the women in my life who have made a difference. The first woman I thought of was my mother, Laddie Barthels. My mother was born as a delightful late-in-life surprise to my grandparents in 1927 on a farm in the Green Bay, Wisconsin area. With parents who adored her and two doting older sisters, she had a an idyllic childhood. However, she did experience a traumatic event as both a child and an adult that shaped her view of herself and the world. She often experienced crushing anxiety and that will make my story all the more poignant.

It was a warm Sunday morning in August, 1976. I was pacing back and forth in the green tiled waiting room of the hospital’s emergency room. I was due to create a trench in the floor if I did not stop sometime soon. I reached out to both of my ministers but being Sunday morning, they were unavailable. Alone, with a shaky voice, I used the pay phone to make a collect call home. “Mom, I’m all alone and I need you to come and be with me. I’m afraid Greta is going to die and I love her. I mean I’m in love with her. She is not my roommate. She is my lover.”

As far as coming out scenes went, this is never how I pictured it. I saw myself in the family room calmly telling my parents about my love for Greta. I had not gotten around to labeling it with words like homosexual or gay, even in my own head. I just knew I loved her. Loved her with a love I had never experienced in my young life. And now, this woman I loved so deeply may be dying in the ER, just beyond my reach. She had tried to kill herself in our apartment that morning, where I had found her lifeless body. She did not want to be gay, but she could not bring herself to end our relationship. She had already tried that. So that morning, while I was out running errands before church, she chose death. It was devastating.

The emergency room that I paced was located almost an hour away from where my parents lived. My mother had never driven alone outside of their city, EVER. Her fear was deep and wide. I knew that my plea was not a simple request. But that morning, she drew from a well of courage deep inside her and drove herself to the hospital. She never said anything about my coming out to her on the phone. She hugged me and held my hand. She focused on comforting me and getting information about Greta’s medical condition. She stayed with me until we were told Greta had stabilized and would be moved to the psychiatric unit for continuing care. Despite the homophobic climate of that time, I never heard a word of judgement, EVER. I only saw a mother’s worry and love in her eyes.

My mother gave me so many gifts that day. She gave me the gifts of acceptance and compassion. I knew she did not want me to be gay, but I learned that day that love supersedes all of that. I also learned that love can help us tap into a bravery we do not know we have. Through all the ups and downs of our mother-daughter relationship, that one day made such a lasting impact on my life. I will forever be grateful and I continue to miss her dearly.

My mother is gone from this world. But there are other women who have made a difference in my life that are still here. I am committing to sharing my gratitude with them more frequently. So, who are the special women in your life who have made a difference? If you make a comment, please share with all of us about that special woman. And no matter what, find a way to reach out to those who have given you life-changing gifts and say, “thank you”. And remember, that making a difference can look like a breast cancer campaign. But it can also look like leaving your safe zone on a warm Sunday morning.

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Letter to My Daughter

My dear Amber,
Our history is rich with letter writing. A letter for going off to college. A letter when conflicts between us needed the reflection inherent in letter writing. Letter writing when I thought cancer might take me from you while you still needed a mother’s wisdom. And now, I am writing a letter as you begin your next new adventure, your move one thousand miles away from everything you know.

I know that this move seems surreal to you at the same time you are excited beyond words. And I am just as excited for you. But this move will bring its own unique experiences and some will be joyful and some will be difficult. When the difficult moments come, I want you to remember something. Difficult moments do not mean you made the wrong decision or you have necessarily done something wrong. It means, my dear daughter, that you are alive. Because it is life that brings us joy and life that brings us pain. Sometimes pain is a natural consequence for a choice we have made. And sometimes pain, like cancer, comes for no reason at all.

Even if dark days come as a result of a decision you’ve made, you have the power to make that decision differently without ever having it define who you are. Every moment, every day has the potential for us to learn, grow, and do life differently. Every moment, every day has the power to move us from light to darkness to light again. Remembering that will make dark moments easier to tolerate.

I have loved you from the moment I learned you were growing inside me and that love keeps expanding as our time together marches forward. I love your sense of humor, your intelligence when you drop a logic bomb on me. I love your assertiveness when you say, “Let me tell you what I need.” I love how you hold me accountable when I step over a boundary with my “mom nagging”. I love your dramatic impressions of me as a mom when you were a teenager. That love will follow you as you begin the second act of your life. So, as you continue to experience the dark days and light days of life, remember that you have the power to learn and grow, because you are alive and you are loved.

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Just a short time ago, I received the following letter in response to my blog post. I wanted to share it with you, my readers.

Mom,
I loved your blog post. It’s funny because I just finished reading it after having one more girls night out with my friends. As I was driving home, I was thinking about all of the changes that are about to happen. In a way, it feels like right before leaving for college all over again. This is the furthest away from home I will be, I won’t know anyone, I’ll be starting a new chapter. Then I got the notification of a new blog post.. It was perfect and reminded me that while this is the farthest away from home I will have ever lived and I am starting a new chapter, I won’t be alone. I am taking all of my friends and family with me. I am taking laughter from my sister, determination from my step-monster, and bravery in the face of change from my mom. I am going with the love and support of my family and their utter belief that I will be successful in this new chapter. I am grateful for them and it reminds me to take time, even in the big changes whether good or bad, to be grateful for the experiences I’m in. The bad times make the good times better and family makes all of it survivable. So thank you to my family for the love and support and let the next adventure begin.
Love,
Amber