Healing Mind, Intimacy and Parenting, Survivorship 0 comments on Stressful conversations

Stressful conversations

Being diagnosed with a life threatening illness certainly amps up the stress levels for ourselves and our loved ones. Even the most functional humans out there are going to experience a wide variety of physical and emotional responses to this major life event.  It can set up a cascade of reactions, and in the midst of it all are conversations that need to be had- with medical providers, insurance companies, immediate and extended family, friends, coworkers and colleagues, and the various community locales where we, and our family, live and work.  For myself, some of the earliest challenges were wondering what to say to my children in the midst of facing uncertain times.

When we are under a lot of pressure, it is easy to have miscommunication and misunderstanding.  We often forget that as humans our personal response to stress is likely to be very different from our immediate loved ones, and we can quickly make assumptions that aren’t accurate.  Not to mention that while we may have pledged our fidelity and loyalty to someone, very few of us have truly tested out the “in sickness and in health” promise, and since death anxiety is a core universal fear- it can trigger the fight, flight, or freeze response at a time where our resources to stay grounded are likely depleted.

It is not uncommon to see that those whom we thought might be our biggest allies seem to disappear; whereas, others whom you might not have thought would come forward do in a significant way.  This sets up an interesting dichotomy, on one hand there is a feeling of loss and on the other hand there is a swell of faith in the power of compassion.  At some point it will be important to be able to express feelings related to the abandonment, and some relationships might end; however, it is important to give it time and to try and re-direct thoughts of wanting to take this personally- as so often it is more about that person’s fear rather than about you personally.

Our stress can leak out into a variety of conversations- not just with our loved ones.  It can impact our friendships, colleagues or capacity to relate with the medical team.  It is important to think about finding a good fit with a medical team and support system- as trust is at the core of having a solid working relationship; however, the crisis of diagnosis and treatment often forces us to confront the parts of ourselves and our relationships that need work- the parts we often avoid until we can no longer do so.

Beth Eilers, LCSW, of Healthful Counseling and myself have designed a workshop to look at the different aspects of ourselves that influence how we manage stress (for example, personality type and attachment style) and offer tools to increase our ability to observe, understand and then share with our loved ones.  If you live locally, we are offering the workshop at the Cancer Community Center in South Portland, Maine, on May 4,2017.  Click here to register.

If you don’t live locally and are struggling with this topic, it may be time to reach out to your medical team to inquire about resources they may have available to you, or search for a psychotherapist who has experience working with significant medical issues.  The individual program offered through Creative Transformations offers tools to help to slow down your reactions and gain distance from them in order to re-engage the observing self.  Contact us if you would like to explore how.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, who works as an oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. 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 our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

Healing Mind, Healing Spirit, Survivorship 0 comments on For when (not if) darkness comes

For when (not if) darkness comes

I write this post for those who are going through the dark night of the soul.  I write this post to affirm that this is a natural part of life.  I write this post to try and dispel the shame and guilt we feel for being in this place.  I write this post to offer encouragement that by allowing yourself to experience  it, with support and compassion, you will be transformed.  For the butterfly can only emerge after the caterpillar has been wrapped tightly in its cocoon.

I’ve been guilty of looking for guarantees in this life.  I’ve spent plenty of time under the belief that by being a “good girl” I was going to avoid the things that terrified me most.  I took great care of my health, and I still was diagnosed with cancer.  I’ve been a good friend, and still experienced loss.  I’ve worked hard to face adversity head on, and still experienced setbacks.  And with each of these experiences, I recognized that my beliefs and expectations were the components that caused me the most suffering, not the experience itself.  When I lifted off the shackles of beliefs and expectations, I became free to appreciate the efforts I have made in this life rather than feel like I had failed.  I became open to the spiritual and personal growth that adversity brings.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of hearing those words “You are cancer free” followed by “we found stage O DCIS in your other breast” (abnormal cells that likely would have caused another round of breast cancer).  My provider wanted to reassure me that having the bilateral mastectomy was definitely the right choice, and would have been the course of action had we discovered this beforehand.  I was in complete shock, in no way had I anticipated hearing those words.  When I was diagnosed, I had a little more preparation for hearing it… the dream I had, the lump I found, the biopsy.  I had been a “good girl”, I had taken all of those rounds of chemotherapy like a trooper, and still that sneaky bastard (ie cancer) had found a place to grow.  It still stirs feelings of anger when I think of it, and that is ok.  This anger is a natural response that validates me rather than dominates me.

I have walked with many on their journey into the dark night of the soul.  The questioning looks are always there, the anxiety of feeling their way through it.  We are wired for survival, so it can feel really counter-intuitive to say to yourself “I’m going in”.  All sorts of warning signals are going off, and the choir of the “shoulds” (ie our judgmental voices) are singing loudly.  And when the question the comes, is this the path I need to be on?, I always nod yes WITH the reminder of packing up the provisions for the journey.

So if you find yourself in a place in which you are facing the dark night of the soul, think about what you want to put in the knapsack.  My recommendation is to think about what is going to sustain you through it, there are going to be parts that you will traverse completely on your own but that doesn’t mean you can’t have company.  Creating a visual journal through art begins with sitting down each day and asking yourself “Where am I at right now” and “What do I need”.  Represent the responses you get to these questions through color, shape and form on the paper.  Let your instincts guide you, and after you have finished allow for some time to free write about what happened in this session.  This practice becomes a tool for self validation and witnessing, which are essential elements for healing.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, who works as an oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. 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 our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

Healing Mind, Healing Self, Survivorship 0 comments on My 5 favorite tools for coping with cancer

My 5 favorite tools for coping with cancer

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I knew that I was going to be challenged to step up to the plate and face things that were going to test my endurance, my fears, my spirit, my hatred with being poked by a needle.  That last one was a biggie for me, because traditionally I would come close to passing out when my blood was being drawn.  I was tremendously grateful for  my port while I had it, but I am happy to report that 2 1/2 years since I started this whole process, I have finally conquered the fear of needles.  All the rumors are true- deep breathing actually works!

Anyways, the following are my 5 favorite tools for coping with cancer:

  1. Being honest with my feelings, not wearing that “everything’s fine” mask.  In fact, the more permission I gave myself to be accepting of all of my feelings, the better and more resilient I felt.  Feelings are messengers and when they are heard rather than suppressed or avoided they will deliver the message and then fade away.
  2. Staying curious with our experience.  Each time I began to worry about how I was doing, I would turn back into myself and observe.  This kept the assumptions and expectations at bay and allowed me to truly meet myself where I was “at”. I stayed as active as I could during treatment, and each time I faced the yoga mat or the dance floor I would ask myself- can I try? Most of the time, the answer was yes, and I often did more than I could have imagined.
  3. Harnessing your “Bad Ass”, for the good.  Let’s admit it- often being stubborn is counterproductive, but when it comes to challenging those fears and what ifs by facing it head on- it’s a godsend.
  4. Write, draw, sing, embody your feelings and experiences- for this is a transformative time.  let go of the B.S. that isn’t serving you anymore and drink in your pure, authentic, resilient self.
  5. Get connected to a cancer mentor– I found my breast cancer “big sister” through friends, and there are organizations who can match you up.  Or check out the mentorship offered through Cancer Grad, created by two amazing cancer survivors, Aniela and Nora.  Their mission is to redefine the language around confronting cancer from a battle to an education, which pays homage to how transformative the experience can be.  You can be a Cancer Student (ie undergoing active treatment), Graduates (ie survivorship), and their Cheerleaders (ie support system).  As a therapist, I have often wished to create a business to match my clients with mentors, so I am thrilled to have found Cancer Grad.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, who works as an oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. 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 our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

Healing Mind, Healing Self 0 comments on For when you feel left behind

For when you feel left behind

Have you ever had that experience of hearing some exciting news from a friend or loved one, and on one hand you are thrilled and yet on the other hand you feel somehow left behind?  Or jealous? Overlooked? It can feel pretty rotten, because of course you wish to be supportive yet on the other hand you are hurting inside.

 

Having a life threatening condition often means you have to drop off of the “normal” path or trajectory that your peers are on, to address the problem.  For some, it is a significant detour, for others perhaps a less intense disruption.  Either way, the emotional impact is frequently the same.

 

Confronting an emotion that seen as negative can create a whirlpool of shame, guilt and self loathing, especially when you are bombarded with messages to stay positive or strong.  Certainly our inner chatter does have an impact on our outlook; however, the pressure to be in a constant state of positivity does more damage than good.

 

When we confront the shadow self, i.e. those aspects of ourselves that create vulnerability, it might trigger the fight/flight response.  It is a real challenge to sit with our vulnerable, tender parts and accept them for what they represent.  However, rejecting or avoiding those parts causes a greater backlash than finding a way to notice, observe, allow and accept them.

 

To practice sitting with our vulnerability, we need to tap into it.  Art can help us move in and out of a painful experience, which gives us the opportunity to break down an experience into manageable bits- especially if it causes a lot of emotional pain.

 

Try this exercise, and notice if it helps you.  Gather art supplies that feel comfortable for you to use and create a welcoming space to be in.  Play some music that feels soothing and engaging with your feelings.  If you are feeling nervous about it, perhaps set a timer for a brief period of time, to increase the sense of safety that you will be pulled back to the present moment. Get in touch with something inside of you (sensation, feeling, memory) that feels tender, and then use the art supplies to try and replicate it on the paper.  When you’ve decided you are ready to stop, spend a moment or two observing how you are feeling.

 

You may be surprised at what you find once you give yourself permission to experience these feelings without judgment.  You may feel relieved, you may feel more self compassion, you may uncover hidden dreams and the power to pursue them.  Who knows.  What I do know is that no one functions well when they are repressing emotions that just want the opportunity to be heard.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, who works as an oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. 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 our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

Healing Body, Healing Mind, Healing Self, Healing Spirit, Healing via Creativity, Survivorship 0 comments on Digging out from the aftermath of cancer

Digging out from the aftermath of cancer

Most weeks, my writing process involves me going for a run, finding my inspiration and words for the week, and then recording them as promptly as I can.  This week, however, we had a blizzard and since I was the only non-sick member of my family, I was the one who did the majority of the digging out.  As I did so, I was fantasizing about owning a snow blower but knew that since we were still “digging out” of the financial hole cancer gave us, that was not likely going to happen.  And bam- I had my inspiration for the week.  The metaphor of “digging out” from the storm cancer (or any other life threatening circumstance) can create.

Let’s face it- facing a serious medical condition often involves a lot of drain, the draining of resources, time, health, stamina, and so forth.  Many of us are blessed to have our family and community rally behind us during the period of acute crisis and active treatment, which is a blessing and helps keep the individual and their immediate family’s heads above water.  When the crisis passes, hopefully you feel like things are eventually able to stabilize.  During this phase, it is typically the immediate family that is working to keep its own head above water.  Stabilization is important, but it’s not thriving.

For full recovery- financially, physically, emotionally, etc- we need to dig in in order to dig out.  Dig into the emotions that you needed to suppress in order to make it through the health crisis.  Dig out of the financial drain that the illness caused.  And just like this recent blizzard was for myself, there are many parts of that journey that must be done on your own, because each of our experiences is unique to us- my cancer experience was different from my husband’s or my children’s or my friend’s and family’s.

It seems to be that each time I think I have dug out from a particular phase of recovery, a little reminder pops up to say- there is more work to do!  Today’s reminder was a comment from my oldest son- asking about whether or not I might get cancer again.  To honor the honesty he needs from me, I can’t promise him that I won’t, but I do take the opportunity to tell him all of the ways I am working to care for my health.

So you might ask yourself- what do I need to dig into or out of to help myself heal today?  Find that question working it’s way into your body, mind, spirit or self.  Grab a journal, a pencil or some of your favorite art supplies and let them speak to you on the paper.  Give yourself the gift of time and space to breath some fresh air into those aspects of your healing that have felt buried.  And if you find yourself stumbling, reach out for some guidance or give one of my individual sessions a try.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, who works as an oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. 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 our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

Healing Mind, Healing Self, Healing Spirit 0 comments on Revising expectations- a tool for building resiliency

Revising expectations- a tool for building resiliency

Have you ever suffered from an attack of the “shoulds”? How did you feel afterwards- heavy? Depressed? Anxious? Tense? Pissed off? Sad? Alone?  Whatever it was, even if the “should” was momentarily motivating, I would imagine the longer term impact left you feeling worse rather than better.  Especially if your “shoulds” follow you around like your shadow, never leaving your side.

Somewhere along the line, many of us developed the notion that harsh self talk was going to keep us “on track”, but psychologically speaking it actually undermines our sense of confidence that we can trust ourselves to know what we need.  Compassionate self talk can get us to the same end point, with much less turmoil and a boost to our self esteem. When we practice speaking to ourselves from a place of compassion, we are validating our present circumstances and using tender or encouraging messages to move ourselves forward.

When the “shoulds” enter into the realm of our relationships, we know that we are in for trouble.  Our expectations of self and others can deeply interfere from having a more realistic and broader perspective of the situation at hand.  We can become defensive, hurt, or critical, undermining the capacity for intimacy and connection.  If we are honest with ourselves, often the “shoulds” are connected to past experiences or relationships, perhaps triggered by something in the hear and now that reminds us of the unfinished business.  To address those unmet needs from the past, we need to be clear about what our expectations were and how we can help ourselves in this moment to grieve and heal from the hurt.

Expectations are frequently the guest of honor in our suffering.  They can bind us to our suffering, and rather than growing spiritually it can harm our body, mind, spirit and self.  If we seek liberation, learning how to revise our expectations is the path we must wander down.  Examining our expectations may involve endings, an ending of a habit which may have served us in some particular way but no longer does, an ending of a relationship or experience.  However, when we chose to end something because we have revised our expectations, typically we are not left with unfinished business.  Especially if we end through a compassionate, yet clear, voice.

So today, think about an unrealistic expectation that you have held for yourself or someone else.  Where do you think it came from?  Taking time to journal through writing or art- ie, capturing your internal experience and making it external, may help you process it.  Now, think about how you might revise that expectation, even if it is just a tiny bit, and observe how you feel inside.  If you feel a little lighter, you are likely on the right path.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, who works as an oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. 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 our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.