How to cope when bad things happen all at once
It always seems this way doesn't it? Something bad happens and you struggle to cope. But no sooner than you are attempting to deal with the first event when another crisis hits. There can be this domino effect of one crisis causing another and before you know it you feel shell shocked. How can one cope when multiple bad things happen within the same time frame?
This has happened to me many times and I am sure many of you can relate to this experience as well. I think for many of us, we have this biological predisposition towards depression. And then we get hit by multiple stressors and "BAM!" we find ourselves drowning in emotional despair.
I have personally experienced much trauma and hardship in my life. My most recent challenge was being told that I have a lifelong disease called Multiple Sclerosis. Of course this did not happen at a convenient time. Does it ever? I received my diagnosis pretty much at the same time that my youngest son who has autism was entering a very turbulent adolescent stage. Around this same time I was also asked to come in for a repeat mammogram. They had seen something on the first scans and they needed to repeat the procedure.
I remember feeling emotionally numb as though I were sleepwalking. One day I was fine and the next I wake up to find I had an incurable disease and possibly another medical problem to boot. During this time my son's behaviors seemed to spiral out of control. He was having trouble sleeping through the night; he began to have urinary accidents, and would cry with anger and frustration at the slightest provocation. He would also burst into hyperactive energy which caused him to run and me to run after him. Sometimes I felt more like his bodyguard than his mother.
The thoughts came flooding into my head of "How am I going to do this?" How was it possible that I could cope with autism, Multiple Sclerosis, and also the threat of yet another disease?
There came this moment of clarity for me when I was sitting on my couch and just staring at the living room wall. The light from the window blinds was penetrating through and casting long shadows on the white wall. Time seemed to slow down and me with it. I watched as the shadows changed almost imperceptibly. As the wind would move the leaves outside the window the light would dance and flicker. It was a nothing moment in that nothing extraordinary was happening. But within that moment I can tell you that I changed. I felt calmness and a resolve. The light would always be there. Long after I am gone that light will shine through someone else's window. If I could survive this moment then I could survive others. In between all the crises is the awe of a single moment of clarity.
Sometimes we are pared down to our bare essentials. We become this condensed version of ourselves in order to survive. I believe that is how I coped with this crazy time in my life. I conserved my strength for when I truly needed it and I began to focus on what was most important. One philosophy which has always helped me comes from what is known as the serenity prayer. And if you are not religious, it doesn't matter. In my opinion the serenity prayer is a guide towards wisdom. If you are not familiar with it, it goes like this: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference." In times when we are overwhelmed with emotion, it can sometimes be helpful to apply logic to the situation as hard as that may be.
What things in my life were unchangeable? I knew I had Multiple Sclerosis. I knew I had a son who had autism. I could not change these things. I was being asked to come in for another mammogram. Of course I was worried about breast cancer. But I told myself that I didn't have all the facts yet. I would not allow myself to become too stressed because that would take away energy from coping with the known issues in my life.
There are times when you must be ruthless and choose to focus only on what you have before you at any given time. If you worry excessively about all the things which could come to pass, you will waste your life away in a world which does exist. I sometimes imagine myself as a horse with blinders on. I cannot possibly attend to everything in my periphery. Then I will become distracted and overwhelmed. Worry would not change the outcome of my mammogram one way or the other. In the end I got the second scan and I was able to walk away knowing that I did not have breast cancer. It made me grateful that I only had Multiple Sclerosis as my one health problem. Sometimes a little perspective is all you need to keep on going.
I did grieve about having MS. I did curse and cry. I sat in a self piteous lump and wondered how I would cope. I worried about my son, my health, and the future. There is no magic cure for not feeling sadness, worry, and grief. You will feel these things. It is good to get these feelings out and to express them. But at the same time you cannot get stuck in the emotions. You must act too.
In the end I began taking my son to the same hospital for neurology that I was going to. We both have our own neurologists. My son has been taking Prozac for some time now and this has helped his behaviors immensely. I think because of my MS I decided that I did need more help for my son and taking him to see the doctor for medication was a good start.
I try to see the trees instead of the forest nowadays. This seems to go against traditional thinking but if I look too far into the future or feel the weight of all my life circumstances I become overwhelmed. But If I break up the big things into more manageable components then I am able to survive. Instead of worrying whether or not I will be able to walk in the future I think about what I can do today. I focus on the steps I am able to take today physically and symbolically.
I have no bullet point "how to" presentation for coping with multiple life stressors. I hope you are not too disappointed but life is not that simplistic. There is no global recipe for happiness despite all the self help books you might read. All I truly have to offer is to share my personal experiences and how I survived them. That is all anyone has to truly offer.
And now I ask you to share your experiences here with us. How have you managed to cope and to survive when faced with multiple challenges? What philosophies have guided you? Your story is important as it could help someone else who is also struggling to survive.