Healing Spirit 0 comments on Holidays and feelings

Holidays and feelings

It’s that time of year here in the US, when the holiday season descends upon us and we gather together with family and friends.  Independent of our personal circumstances, the holidays tend to stir the feelings pot- as we reflect on what our traditions have been or still are, as we take stock of our life circumstances, as we think about those who we have lost and those who we have gained.

The fact that we are marching towards the darkest day of the year tends to add to the intensity of the feelings pot, because so often darkness brings us closer to thoughts, feelings and memories that are painful.

This isn’t always a doom and gloom scenario, but so often the holidays pressure us to present only the “good” feelings, which can cause us to shut down to attending to those more vulnerable parts.  When that happens, it signals that somehow a part of ourselves is not acceptable, making those feelings go underground rather than paying them the homage they deserve in order to allow them to be released.

The line between joy and suffering is truly so thin, and we can’t quite know one without the other.  When we give ourselves permission to feel both, they can find a way to flow with more ease in and out of our lives.

This year, I am feeling a resurgence of feelings from the loss of my mom 17 years ago.  I no longer play through the experience of being with her as she died from breast cancer, as I once needed to do in order to heal.  It was the experience of losing her that lead me to become an art therapist, for which I am eternally grateful, as processing her loss through art and writing were critical components of grieving.

This year, I am feeling a tenderness towards the things I wish I could have shared with her on this earthly plane.  As I have healed emotionally from cancer, I realize that she once again she was guiding me to understand that process, because she did share with me the fears she had following her first diagnosis of cancer and how she approached her physical healing.

I am so thankful that she did, because while she could not be at my side physically to help me through cancer, the memories I had from how she handled it and what she struggled with, provided me a guidepost through the murky place that is “survivorship”.  It gave me something to work off of, to ground the groundless experience of cancer and it’s aftermath.

If you are reading this post, I wonder what you are reflecting upon as we approach this holiday season and the march towards solstice.  I hope that it finds room to breath, to express, and to circle out into the greater collective of experiences that we all share.  May our sharing with those who are willing and able to listen, bring healing to one another.

Only through our connectedness to others can we really know and enhance the self. And only through working on the self can we begin to enhance our connectedness to others ~ Harriet Goldhor Lerner

So wherever you find yourself today or during this holiday season, my thoughts are with you. Namasté.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY Individual Art Therapy program to enhance any healing work you are undertaking; 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 Spirit, Survivorship 0 comments on Finding the light within

Finding the light within

One of the things that gets many of us through cancer treatment, is finding some reason to do it in the first place.  Yes, we are wired to seek survival, but often it is the people in our lives and/or our own purpose/life path that we focus on to get us through the worst of it.

Having something external to focus on can be very useful in the height of a crisis, it helps us to look ahead and be better able to compartmentalize that which we have little control over in the present.  But what happens when what we are focusing upon begins to shift, crack or even disappear from view?  Cancer treatment takes a big toll on our support system and often impacts our capacity to function in our purpose or life path.

When we feel that fundamental shift away from our loved ones and our life path, it can be very disorienting, confusing, and isolating.  We may feel as if we are floating, unthethered from something that was secure, suddenly thrust into the deep sea of uncertainty- with no clear direction of where to find solid ground.

It’s not uncommon to feel panicky when this happens, because while cancer clearly throws a wrench into our health, we do not always anticipate the way it is going to impact other aspects of our lives.  When we start to feel this way, the goal is to find a way to support yourself through it, because as Pema Chödrön reminds us:

“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

So if you find yourself in this place, try to create some distance between yourself and the panic you feel inside, through slow, deep breaths and soothing imagery. The goal is not to avoid, repress or annihilate the panic, but rather to accept that it is there yet separate from you- giving yourself and your feelings enough space for you to co-exist.

If you feel untethered from your loved ones, it may be that they themselves feel untethered as well, for to watch someone go through cancer takes a lion’s share of  courage.

Sitting with the void, sitting with uncertainty, pushes us to learn and grow.  Find the flicker of light within, and let it be the focal point, until once again you find solid ground.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY Individual Art Therapy program to enhance any healing work you are undertaking; 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 Self, Healing Spirit, Survivorship 0 comments on Acceptance + Gratitude = Full Spectrum Living

Acceptance + Gratitude = Full Spectrum Living

“Have you noticed this bump before?” asked my oncologist at a follow up appointment.

“Hmmm… I don’t think so” I replied (surprise and confusion (have I?) step into the room).

“I don’t see it mentioned in my notes, I think we should either decide to monitor it or schedule an ultrasound.  What would you like to do?” my onc replies.

“Ummm… (anxiety stops by to say hello) not sure.”  A little time passes as I mull it over.  As I was feeling the little bump, I asked for clarification where she considered the bump to be since my foobs tend to confuse my internal body map.

“The chest wall”.  (Adrenaline starts to flow, the chest wall is scary place for breast cancer survivors)

“Ultrasound please”

In the two weeks between the appointment and the ultrasound I knew I needed to practice acceptance of the various thoughts and feelings that crossed my path.  If I were to draw it, I imagine a narrow path surrounded by whirlpools and quick sand.  To continue on, I needed to be mindful that they were there, recognizing that I was capable of walking past them without having to be sucked into them or having to will them to go away.  They exist as a natural response to potential danger as well as reminders of the healing process all survivors need to walk through in order to heal.

Our culture tends to value the power of gratitude, which many of us interpret as focusing on what is positive.  As I have written before, I am a believer in positive thinking, but not when it is taken to the extremes of causing shame, guilt, avoidance, and so forth of our “negative” thoughts and feelings.  Interpreting feelings as being good or bad lends itself to black and white, concrete, judgmental thinking that deeply impacts our capacity to embrace the gray tones of flexibility, non-judgmental openness that are the building blocks of being a resilient person.

What we don’t always anticipate is that if we rely on repressing, avoiding, or freezing out all of the negative thoughts and feelings, we also repress our ability to feel confident, joyful, peaceful, content and so forth.  If we desire the positive feelings, we must make room for all of the other feelings as well.

In fact, if we proceed down the path of repression, we ultimately lose the capacity to feel anything at all.  While the short term impact may seem attractive since it alleviates pain, the long term implications are often very detrimental to our well being and can create a lot of anxiety about how to manage when finally we reach the point of no return and they erupt.

If our feelings are messengers that carry important information to help us survive, turning them off would be like turning off the emergency warning system that helps us prepare for a disaster (like the tsunami warning system).  Will the tsunami not come simply because we turned off the warning system?

Returning back to the title of this blog, practicing acceptance of our thoughts and feelings allows for a more complete and complex view of gratitude.  Gratitude for our blessings as well as for the challenges we have faced.  By accepting them, we access new levels of resiliency, which strengthen our ability to manage adversity and increase our confidence to do so.  And with that, we gain the opportunity to live more fully, more thoughtfully, more lovingly with ourselves and others.

– 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. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY Individual Art Therapy program to enhance any healing work you are undertaking; 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 Self, Healing Spirit, Survivorship 0 comments on Dancing with life, even when cancer calls

Dancing with life, even when cancer calls

Recently I was writing an article for a magazine for breast cancer patients.  I was asked to share my story of how I faced cancer and was able to thrive, with words of inspiration for others.  I was so honored to be asked, if it is published I will include a link.

Part of the assignment was to look for photos to include with the article, and while I had a few from when I was going through treatment, I needed to reach out to my closest allies who had some of my favorite photos.  Seeing them again brought a flood of feelings, these moments of sweetness and joy while I did the dance with cancer… the Zumba fundraiser in which I was able to lead a routine even though I was in my chemo low (a testament to the energy we get from fun loving crowds- for sure!), the boys first downhill skiing adventure in which I got onto the slopes for a few runs, the “wig night out” at the wine bar with my friends, in which I wore my wig for the one time- which lasted about 30 minutes before I reverted to bald.

In these moments, I was embracing and dancing with life, even though my longevity was in question.  I couldn’t have done it without my loved ones, who encouraged me to still do what I could to walk on the wild side.  And when your blood counts are hovering above transfusion level, you really are there!  Did I rock the Kasbah the way I would have pre-cancer?  No, of course not.  I took measured risks and listened to my body about it’s limitations.  I was in the game for the long haul, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t still be among the well, here and there, when possible.

The loveliest parts of these moments was being with people who could acknowledge that life wasn’t always guaranteed, and that making the most of a moment was something to embrace rather than cower from.  We were calling attention to the veil that is always there, but not always within our consciousness.

Last week a friend from our cancer support group died, a friend whom had defied the odds in so many ways.  She lived much longer than expected with brain cancer, and while she had to accept that the surgeries and treatment had caused permanent changes, she continued to see what was still possible.  She had been a long distance runner, and while she could no longer run long distances, she did return to running.  She felt slightly embarrassed, as she shared how she had run in a 5k and that many of her long distance running buddies slowed their pace so they could run with her.  Because this is what is important in life, having close companions and celebrating what we are capable of still doing, not the finish line.

Jan was an inspiration to me, and this blog is dedicated to her.

– 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. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY Art Therapy program to enhance any healing work you are undertaking; 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 Feeling lost? Let your instinct be your guide

Feeling lost? Let your instinct be your guide

Being lost or sitting with confusion can be a very uncomfortable experience. It rubs right at that notion of being able to be in control of our destiny. Sometimes, this experience of being lost is very large and looming, like when we know we are at a fork in the road and need to chose between two paths. But more often than not, we are confronted with smaller, more ambiguous states of confusion such as “how do I feel today?”

When you are going through a life threatening condition, the rug often feels ripped out from underneath you. It can impact every aspect of our life, and finding comfort or security can feel like an impossible task.

In these moments, worry, anxiety or panic can easily settle in- or perhaps a sense of helplessness or depression. It’s an intriguing place to be- on one hand we might feel lulled into the comfort of at least feeling a concrete emotion, but if we can sit with the confusion we might just be lucky enough to make contact with our deepest wisdom- our own instinct.

Our instinct is characterized by the notion of a “gut feeling”. If we are fortunate, we were raised by parents who supported out intuitive wisdom and thus we build a healthy relationship with our gut feelings. If we weren’t, it is imperative that we begin to support ourselves through confusion in order to rebuild the lines of communication with our gut feeling.

Some of my most satisfying moments as a therapist are when I see someone reconnect with their gut feeling. There is often a look of wonderment on the person’s face, an experience of recognizing how wise they truly are.  It is an honor to witness.

In guiding a person to make contact, I often imagine myself tip-toeing into their heart to plant a seed of trust and capability. While I might have the honor of planting it, it is my client’s hard work and belief in themselves that allows it to grow.

However, since being diagnosed with a life threatening condition hits at the core of our sense of safety, it takes everyone time to rebuild trust. If this theme is pertinent to you today, take some time to dialogue with yourself about what is blocking it. And if that little voice deep inside starts to speak, honor it by listening.

– 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. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY Art Therapy program to enhance any healing work you are undertaking; 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.