I had a plan to take a month long road trip out West. I would spend my time driving country roads, taking memorable photographs, and soaking in the mountain scenery of Colorado. The trip began with long roads and mountain vistas, but it turns out that I ended up in a very different place—while still remaining in Colorado.
About a week into photographs and mountain roads, my son, who lives in Colorado, was diagnosed with a devastating and life-altering illness. He was really sick, and fortunately I was nearby. I spent the next month sitting with him in the hospital, visiting doctors, managing medications, and quietly falling apart.
My Chinese medicine brain knew that my liver was stagnating—there was no flow in me and it felt like my insides were frozen. From there, my spleen system pretty much shut down—on many days I had no appetite, and when I did eat, it felt like a mistake. But beyond my liver and spleen systems, I knew at the core that this was a heart issue.
In Chinese medicine, your heart system holds something called your shen, which is like your spirit, thought, memories, and feelings all rolled into one. All I knew is that my heart hurt, and it still does.
Coping With Disaster
How do you cope with disaster? This became the lesson of my trip. How do I, or how does anyone get through something like this? I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some inklings of where to start and what has been helpful to me. I’m sharing them in the hope they may assist anyone trying to keep their life together when it all seems to be falling apart.
Live in the moment. My biggest mind maneuver is to try to stay in the moment. I tend to get way ahead of myself and go to some very dark places, but the reality is that’s not what’s happening now. Right now, I’m okay; we’re all mostly okay, and my job is to dwell on that. My favorite image when those hard thoughts bubble up is to turn them into leaves and drop them into a stream, gently letting them float away.
Share the burden. Allow people in—they’re hurting, too. My introverted instinct is to isolate myself and deal with this in a very private way. However, it actually helps me and those around me to get together for a meal or walk and just be kind to each other.
Let go of control. Control only what you can, and work on letting go of the rest. My default setting is to try to figure out how to fix or solve a situation. For me, checking things off of lists, managing appointments, and getting questions answered makes me feel like I’m in control. The challenge, however, is realizing that there’s only so much that you can control, and that trying to muscle a situation that you truly have no power over is frustrating and futile.
Stay busy. There have been many days that I have felt like doing absolutely nothing. However, I have found that working, writing, exercising, or doing almost anything actually feels better than just sitting and dwelling on the situation.
Accept help. I have found that when something bad happens people mobilize, and their first reaction is to offer help. And they mean it; they’re concerned and really want to make your life a little easier. While nobody can fix what’s going on, allow your friends, family, and neighbors to make you a meal, give you a ride to the airport, run an errand, or help in any way that makes the situation more bearable.
Take care of yourself. There have been days when self-care was the last thing I could think about. However, when things calm down, take the time to do some kindnesses for yourself—take a nap, go for a walk, get a massage, or simply sit outdoors with a cup of tea.
Remember to laugh. Do so even on some of the darkest days. Humor is like a calming and healing balm that connects you with others in a positive way. Sharing a humorous moment is comforting and relaxing. It also combats fear and boosts optimism. Use humor as often as possible.
Look for small points of light. While my son was in the hospital, there were many incredible moments. They included the amazing kindness of hospital staff, the transport driver who had survived the exact same illness, a childhood friend who flew in to visit, and the compassion of perfect strangers. I describe that time as a lot of crappy days interspersed with small miracles. My advice is to look for the small miracles—they make everything else bearable.