Undergoing care for a life threatening condition is a beast.  For most of us, we go into survival mode to simply make it through.  There is a lot of information to process and important decisions to make.  It’s not uncommon to feel like a human pin cushion as your situation is analyzed and treated.  Your body can feel like public property as your medical team works hard to find a solution.  Your mind has to process the information while simultaneously handling the onslaught of thoughts and feelings about what is happening to you.  Your spirit may be the glue that is holding you together, yet so often these moments of crisis can really challenge our beliefs- putting them to the test.

And then the shift happens, treatment/intervention ends or shifts into a maintenance mode, and you are left standing, stripped bare of anything familiar, of who you used to be.  You are in the process of rebuilding a foundation of trust and resiliency from a very vulnerable place.

Unlike active intervention, this is a less predictable place.  You’ve met the guidelines for the plan of attack, and your treatment team has to focus on the next afflicted individual.  While I understood personally on some level that recovery would take time, I hadn’t quite planned for how much aftercare I would need to heal physically.  The weekly medical appointments with physical therapy, acupuncture, chiropractor, etc seemed to take up almost as much time as treatment did.  Emotionally, I found I had to quiet down and turn in to understand what needed to heal.

Dr. Richard Schwartz, PhD, developed a therapeutic model called Internal Family Systems, or IFS for short.  This model came from listening to how his clients would refer to different components of their identity as parts- which when under duress often conflicted with one another.  Who hasn’t said along the lines of “well, a part of me wants to do xyz, but on the other hand this part of myself thinks…”.  This model can become very handy when you are trying to process a critical life incident.  IFS breaks our internal system into 4 main parts:

  • The Managers- our protective parts that wish to stay in control of situations and relationships, showing up in a variety of ways, such as- planner, care taker, controller, striver, judge/critic, the pessimist.
  • The Exiles-  the thoughts and feelings that often get set aside to be dealt with “later on”, when we are trying to focus on just keeping our heads above water.
  • The Firefighters- these parts take over when our exiles want to come back in before we are ready- often the things we do to distract or numb from processing something painful.
  • Self- this is our core or center.  When we have a clear connection to our “Self”, we have access to many qualities that can help us lead and negotiate our system as a whole. These qualities include perspective, curiosity, compassion, interconnection, confidence, creativity, courage and clarity.

So when we think about healing, it may lead to greater self compassion, patience and acceptance of the process if we use a framework, such as IFS, to understand our needs from one moment to the next.  When we put our experience into a context, we can begin to step back and become an observer of ourselves.  This is a crucial component of the rebuilding process, and a wonderful time to engage in psychotherapy as well as introspective activities such as writing, meditation, process art and yoga.  A balance of verbal and non verbal engagement with self attends to the complexity of a traumatic experience that isn’t necessarily pragmatic, rational, linear or predictable.

An open heart and willingness to embrace the darkness with the light will ease the transition from surviving to thriving.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Creative Transformations offers individual sessions, in person or via Skype, workshops, and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting: www.creative-transformations.com.