For the Week of September 3, 2017: Navigating the Process of Recovery

Pick yourself up…

Take a deep breath…

Dust yourself off                      

And start all over again.

Pick yourself up…

(From “Pick Yourself Up,” lyrics by Jerome Kern & Dorothy Fields)

These are the words from a song often played by my mother when I was a child, often when I suffered some youthful defeat.  I can still hear Nat King Cole’s mellow tones reminding us that we all encounter difficulties, but must find a way to go on:  “Will you remember the famous men/who had to fall to rise again/They picked themselves up/ Dust themselves off/and started all over again.”

It’s easier said than done, as we’re reminded by the devastation suffered by thousands of Texans in the path of Hurricane Harvey this past week.  Recovery, whether from natural disaster, trauma, addiction or cancer is no small feat.  A look through the dictionary defines recovery as “a return to a normal state of health, mind or strength; the process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost.”  And yet, so many aspects of our former lives, especially in the aftermath of a hurricane, tornado, fire, cancer or traumatic losses, might never be fully regained.  How then can we understand the process of recovery?

Right foot, left foot, right foot, breathe.—Anne LaMott

My heart ached as I watched the news this week and witnessed the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey.  It’s the worst hurricane to make landfall in the United States since the record-breaking 2005 hurricane season which included Katrina, Rita and Wilma (Source:  Wikipedia).  The physical destruction and economic losses are staggering, and it will take months, perhaps longer, for people to rebuild and recover.  And yet, the speed of recovery matters.  Because of the economic and emotional pain and deprivation suffered by families and communities, the effects of these natural disasters can be long-lasting.

It’s not just the physical devastation of a disaster like Harvey.  The emotional costs after a natural disaster like a hurricane, flood, tornado or earthquake are great.  People feel stunned and disoriented.  Feelings are raw and unpredictable; repeated and vivid memories of the event can create physical responses such as rapid heartbeat, sleeplessness or loss of appetite.  Interpersonal relationships can be strained.  These emotional stresses can continue long after the event.  Even in post-disaster rebuilding, people and communities do not resume “life as it was before.”  Lives are forever altered, and gradually, a “new normal” gradually emerges.

Recovery has similar challenges, whether in the emotional suffering of survivors of natural disasters or individuals experiencing cancer, trauma and sudden, tragic loss . The process of recovery doesn’t promise smooth sailing.  Whether a hurricane or cancer treatment and surgeries, physical symptoms like fatigue, weight changes, sleeplessness or change in appetite can accompany us during recovery, as New York Times writer, Dana Jennings, a prostate cancer survivor, described:

I’m recovering well from an aggressive case of prostate cancer; I haven’t had any treatment in months, and all my physical signposts of health are point in the right direction.

Still, I’m depressed.–Dana Jennings (“After Cancer, Ambushed by Depression, NY Times, Sept. 29, 2009)

He describes another aspect of recovery:  The troublesome physical symptoms during the process are often coupled with emotional responses: depression, guilt, anger, fear of recurrence, or the frustration of dealing with loved ones as you encounter a changed life or an altered body.  Whatever our new normal is going to be, it takes time, more time that we expect, and the process of getting there can be challenging.

I’m exhausted, unfocused and tap my left foot a lot in agitation.  I don’t much want to go anywhere…and some days I can’t even bear the thought of picking up the phone or changing a lightbulb…

Partly, I think, I’m grieving for the person I was before I learned I had cancer.  Mortality is no longer abstract, and a certain innocence has been lost.—Dana Jennings

Recovery is a process that, like it or not,  happens slowly.  There are days, even weeks, you may feel you’ll never make it through to a more “normal” life, yet research shows us that the majority of people are resilient and able, over time, to bounce back from tragedy.

And you come through.  It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.—Anne LaMott

How do you navigate through the process of recovery?  The American Psychological Association offers this advice, steps you can take to regain emotional well-being and a sense of control after a traumatic event like a natural disaster, sudden loss, or life threatening illness:

  • Give yourself time to adjust. It’s a difficult time in your life; allow yourself the time to mourn the losses you’ve suffered.
  • Ask for support from people who care about you and who will listen and empathize. Social support is a critical component to any recovery, whether a natural disaster or a serious illness.  Family and friends can help, so, perhaps, can a support group.
  • Communicate your experience. As Dana Jennings said in his 2009 article, “I believe in and trust in the healing power of the stories that we tell each other.”  Talking with friends, keeping a journal or expressing yourself in another creative activity can be healing.
  • Find a local support group led by professionally trained and experienced professionals. The group discussion can help you realize you are not alone in how you feel and react.
  • Engage in healthy behaviors, like eating well balanced meals and getting plenty of rest.
  • Establish (or reestablish) your routines, like eating at regular times, sleeping and waking on a regular cycle, or engaging in daily exercise, for example.
  • Avoid making major life decisions. Big and important decisions are stressful enough on their own, and they are much harder to take on when you are recovering from disaster or serious illness.

All of us experience some kind of life challenge, a tragedy, loss, serious illness or even a natural disaster in our lives.  In their wake, we may feel as if our lives will never be the same.  And it’s likely they won’t, because we will be changed by what has happened to us. Yet our lives will go on, and there may be lessons gained from the suffering.  Gail Caldwell summed up this outcome up in her memoir of friendship and loss of a dear friend: “I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures.”  (Let’s Take the Long Way Home:  A Memoir of Friendship, 2010).

We are changed by the difficult chapters in our lives, and in many ways, perhaps, for the better, as Caldwell suggessts.   I have often remarked how my encounter with cancer was so early and treatable, I felt like a “phony,” and refused the label of “survivor.”  I doubted I truly understood the emotional roller coaster so many cancer patients endured until later, after I collapsed on the pavement, and was taken to the hospital by ambulance to be diagnosed a few days later with heart failure. For weeks afterward, my emotions were not only unpredictable, but colored by a fear of early mortality –something that crept into my thoughts without warning.  I’d be in tears, lying awake with fear as my companion.  It took time and support from my doctors, family and friends to return to a “normal” way of living, but at the same time, I was learning more about emotional recovery that informed my practice with cancer patients and survivors.

During those first unsteady months, I came across a poem by Ellen Bass,  one that affected me so deeply,  I framed it and hung over my desk. It served as a daily reminder that while my life had changed by the unexpected diagnosis and treatment for a weakened heart, I could take steps to lead a long and relatively healthy life.   Here’s the poem–it’s one I often return to and read in my writing groups for cancer patients.

The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

(By Ellen Bass, From Mules of Love. © 2002)

Writing Suggestion:

Yes, I will take you/I will love you again.  Try using Ellen’s words as the prompt to describe a time when your life was devastated or turned upside down by an unexpected loss, tragedy or illness.  What helped you recover and heal from that event?  What did you learn about yourself, and your life as a result of it?

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
This entry was posted in expressive writing, reflections on life, writing from cancer and serious illness, writing from life, writing to heal. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s