All through this journey I have been focused on the idea of metamorphosis. At first all I knew was that I wanted to change, and focused on changing into a new self that was no longer “compatible with cancer.” I started out looking for clues on what I needed to do differently and then worked on finding information on how to support those changes. In permaculture speak, to trellis. I researched every aspect of my treatments, and everything I could find about people who got better from advanced cases of dis-ease. Little did I know that my biggest challenges would come from within. Or that those challenges would persist far after my active treatments were over and done with.
Taking a year off from work during my intense year of treatments still seems like a good idea, even with the debt that it entailed. While I had a full time job of self care and doctors appointments, I was able to slow down enough to be very present. I imagined that by reducing my stress enough I would place myself into some sort of parasympathetic super thrive state. Basically a Zen Princess. And in fact it kinda worked. I am very grateful to have had that experience.
It is a very good thing being where I am now, on the far side of treatments, nearly two years out in fact. There are far fewer doctors appointments for one thing. However, I am finding that creating a life rhythm that is “incompatible with cancer” is somewhat incompatible with the norms of the society around me. In practice I am finding that doing the things that trellis me growing as a person, that increase health, strength, happiness, and my capacity to give, to be somewhat challenging to juggle while back in “Real” life.
Particularly when anything stressful arrives in my life, my old auto pilot sub routines come to the surface, many of which are in pretty direct opposition to my wellness habits. Earlier this summer I was managing a lot of anxiety, and soothing myself with “healthy” things like binge watching Star Trek on Netflix. I had Sam go to the store twice to get icecream in June. (Something which ordinarily only enters our house for birthdays.) My baby meditation practice flew out the window, and my teeth started to hurt because I was clenching my jaw at night.
As summer slipped into autumn this year I identified some inner puppet shows that shifts my self care into self sabotage when activated by stress. These puppets act as though someone else will step in and be responsible for me. That someone else will step in and make sure I eat well and go for walks, and meditate. Of course there is no one who can do these things for me, other than myself. At a certain point these puppets start to rationalize all kinds of unhelpful, and unhealthful choices. After a certain tipping point I am no longer functioning.
If things go on long enough breathing normally becomes a goal state rather than reality. I think that actually qualifies as panic. Which is where I was a few weeks ago. But what is going on in the lead up to that? Are there warning signs along the way? Yes, things that we refer to as dash board lights at our house. (Which is pretty funny since we bike more than drive…) These might be physical signs like; insomnia, coughing, sighing a lot, sore throat, upset belly, or feeling extra tired. Or they could be more emotional/mental like; grumpy, weepy, negative or just generally out of sorts.
How can I bring my attention to these ‘warning lights’ before I am on my way down the slippery slope? Bringing more awareness – i.e. more time training my brain with meditation to be better able to notice – is a key missing piece here. But understanding the role of rationalization to sidestep taking time to notice is another.
What I am determining is that there is a pattern of sorts, when my self care starts to feel out of reach. I have been playing with the equation below in an attempt to gage the tipping point for this self care opt out. At what level of stress or anxiety do I give myself permission to stop caring for myself? Because to be honest TV and homemade milk shakes do not actually reduce my stress. These sorts of behaviors are out of step with my goal to take complete responsibility for my life. These choices do not help me metamorphosis into a healthy thriving person. What are these sorts of behaviors? Warning lights.
The Self Sabotage Equation:
Fill in the blanks:
I feel _______, which makes it okay to________.
Choose your own Stress Adventure by:
Identify possible feeling options: busy, stressed, pressure, anxiety, angry, sad, depressed, sick…
Making it is okay for me to: eat sugar, not take walks, stay up late, watch Netflix, stop writing, complain, blame other people, hate on myself, not fold the laundry, not make art, not ask for help, expect magical help to solve everything, not drink enough water, not meditate, be grumpy, check out emotionally, wallow in my victim ideation, not clean the litter box, not do the dishes, obsess, …..
Thinking about it as an equation I see that emotional stress is clearly a huge get out of jail free card for endless behaviors by my inner puppets. A gateway towards substituting self sabotage for self care. And that does not end well.
What do I actually think is okay? Clearly I don’t consciously believe that: “I feel Stressed, therefore it makes it okay to eat really bad and stay up late.” Clearly those are not good strategies for thriving. But how to substitute my ill conceived strategies for dealing with pressure with healthful ones like breathing deeply, drinking water, or going for a walk in response?
What is the dividing line? When do I stop doing the “right” thing and start doing the “wrong” things? The dance of the puppets is so smooth at moving to the forefront, just add pressure and they will be there in a heartbeat. For now I think my only hope is to take action when I start to notice any clues that my stress levels are rising. And if things get out of control, recommit to wellness after thing slow back down. This is where the rubber meets the road in metamorphosis land. The moment for me to take action to bring myself back into alignment with myself is the moment I do it. What is important is not so much that I will never descend into the swampy depths, it is how I pull myself back out.
The metamorphosis process is much slower than it seemed when I was first immersed in this work during my year of treatments. I am realizing that it has a timeline that is uncertain to me, even though I am definitely making progress. Perhaps sashaying into high stress land is just a means of gaging how far I have come. The hope is that the self awareness that is slowly emerging will lead to some ideas on how to support healthier choices in real time, so that I might not go quite so easily into the dark night of stress.
Sometimes the decent is very rapid, and seems like a surprise. But even then I think I have cruised past many signals. My anxiety was ramping up for over a week prior to my realizing it was about my upcoming scan. Planing ahead for known stress points needs to be a thing. I suspect that if I work on my meditation practice more, that I will be less likely to fall prey to such “surprise” attacks from the puppets.
If I start noticing that I am opting out of taking good care of myself, I hope that I can remember the equation before becoming wedged into some sort of mental victim corner. As I muddle through I will just need to trust that my current frog self is as “incompatible with cancer” as my idealized future Zen Princess self, lest fear creates stress that will act as the just the excuse my puppets are looking for to come forward and wreck havoc. Kindness and patience with myself are truly necessary things to practice. There is no way to hate yourself calm, balanced, centered and happy.
A small part of me wants to believe that perhaps I only need to figure out who I need to kiss in order to activate that Zen Princess transformation… My Man? Chickens? Kitties??? I suspect that there are no such shortcuts though.