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 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.

Healing Self, Healing Spirit, Survivorship 0 comments on When the tidal wave comes, live from your heart

When the tidal wave comes, live from your heart

Driving in this morning, I was thinking about what to write.  What needs to be said.  This week has had me bare witness to so many feelings, so many stories of pain and regret, of joy, of confusion, of hurt and disenfranchisement, things to celebrate and reasons to grieve.  As a healer and therapist, I walk within these realms of feelings and life changing moments all the time.  It is a blessing to be invited to witness it, it is humbling to see the human spirit in the raw and in its glory.

We so regularly stuff our vulnerable self into the shadow, it takes a brave heart to hold the tension of vulnerability and the unknown.  The question often hangs in the air- is this what I need to do?  Must I lay down my defenses and feel the vulnerability?  With gentleness I say- yes.  Surprisingly, the most common reaction to that answer is relief, and my theory as to why is because if you are ready to ask it, then you are ready to do it.

Of course, when we are ready to feel our vulnerability, we are going to need to support it.  Likely you are going to need a healthy balance of authentic connection with others as well as time alone.  To determine what you need, live from your heart.  Every time I find myself in the midst of a tidal wave, I sink into that center of my body.  When I do, I find it swimming with energy, whispering to me what I need in that moment, allowing me to feel deeply what is around me without being sucked under.  It kind of feels like I am on an inner tube, bobbing along with the energy of the wave but safely keeping my head above water.

The heart chakra is said to be the wellspring of love, warmth and compassion.  It is the center of our generosity, our connection to others, our recognition that we are all interconnected.  It is not uncommon for pain and suffering to bring out a protective drive with our heart chakra- to fold in and withdraw, and if you are in an unsafe situation this is imperative.  To live from the heart, it may be necessary to make changes, to say goodbye to those who are not safe or respectful of boundaries.  Having a life threatening condition can clarify rather quickly what needs to be done.

If you are wanting to connect to or open up your heart chakra, taking an inventory of those needs is really important.  Once you are meeting those needs, there are yoga poses that can help open the heart and chest area.  When my heart was heavy with grief, I turned daily to my art journal, finding the color, shape and form that matched what I was feeling inside and then quietly free writing what I discovered.  There was this cd we played frequently when my mom was dying, Mark Kelso’s For God Alone, and thee was one particular track that I associated with the final breath she ever took.  I used to play it a lot when I was journaling, and one day I decided to look at the name of the song.  It was called, “Pain in my Heart”.  It couldn’t have been more accurate.

The tidal wave is overwhelming, I hope that these words help you today.

– 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, Survivorship 0 comments on The gift of humor

The gift of humor

Treatment had ended, I was blessed to be cancer-free, and I was slowly piecing together the battered and bruised aspects of my life.  One can only prepare so much for the ending of treatment, and for many it is a tumultuous time.  Letting go of actively addressing a life threatening condition requires us to confront a new unknown, the possibility of recurrence, and the slippery slope of interpreting whether or not one’s various body sensations (that used to feel like everyday aches and pains) are potential evidence that the cancer has come back.  Especially when you consider that the impact of aggressive treatment on one’s body seems to require about the same length of time to address through a variety of rehabilitation methods, if not longer.

It’s a delicate balance, this phase of physical, emotional, spiritual and identity healing.  It’s not linear, there is no true Step A, B, C.  If you’ve read my blog before, you know that I am a huge advocate for the practice of art and meditation to tap into our experience in a gentle way, breaking it down into manageable bites.  I am also a big fan of humor, because sometimes you just need a little levity to bring you out of a deeply emotional place and into your body again.

As I was figuring things out, I came upon Tig Notaro’s documentary, “Tig”, in which she bravely allowed herself to be filmed as she healed following the death of her mom, her battle with breast cancer and C.diff which essentially all happened at the same time.  It was so powerful to see her honest display of being incredibly vulnerable and shaken, while continuing on, speaking her truth and seeking to find herself again.  I laughed and cried throughout the entire show.  It’s a gem.

Humor was an essential tool during my treatment as well, it helped me to shake off the stress and giggle.  I have been keeping a running list of moments that could make you laugh or cry, to help with the bittersweet moments myself and my loved one’s faced.  Here’s a few of the golden ones:

  • My older son telling me, in the middle of a birthday party for his best friend, that I looked like Emperor Palpatine.  What a drag that it didn’t coincide with Halloween, as I am terribly un-creative when it comes to costumes.
  • My younger son, who was getting tired of seeing inquisitive looks from his classmates, introducing me by saying “This is my mom, she’s bald”
  • A good OMG moment was when a classmate asked my older son- “Is this your grandmother?”
  • After my first radiation treatment, allowing myself to just honor that treatment fatigue/rotten mood by laughing along with David Sedaris’ comedic outlook on life.
  • Finally, while it broke my heart to hear my older son ask my surgeon prior to the bilateral mastectomy- “Will she die?”, my youngest son followed it with “If she dies, I will kill you”.  Clearly, he was frightened too, but it was such an unexpected thing to say we couldn’t help but laughing at the same time.  And then we followed that will lots of reassurance that everything was going to be ok.

I imagine that if you are reading this, you may have your own stories of humor amidst the horror.  I would love to hear them, so feel free to share them in the comments.  And if you need a little humor TLC, I highly recommend Tig’s documentary.

In solidarity,

Stephanie

– 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 Self, Healing Spirit 0 comments on When spirit is the glue that holds us together

When spirit is the glue that holds us together

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” ~ Mary Oliver

I posted this quote on my youngest son’s first day of kindergarten, the day I had an appointment to show my new PCP the lump that I had found.  The quote struck an emotional cord, not only was I sending my little one off into the world to explore this question for himself, but as a reminder that no matter what the outcome of the doctor’s appointment, it was going to be vital that I remember that I am still here on earth, living and breathing.  And no matter how much time that I had left, my life could still have meaning and purpose.  This core belief was the foundation from which I built resiliency to constantly adapt to the ups and downs of being in treatment.

Spirituality comes in many shapes and forms, for some it is based in the structured practice of religion, for others it is deeply personal and unique to the individual.  It bears the qualities of hope, acceptance, faith, love, surrender, and peace in the face of turbulence.  It is the glue that holds us together when things fall apart.  It’s the gentle reminder that you can show up and face this incredibly terrifying place you are in.  It is the warmth that simply sits with you as a companion, rather than trying to solve or fix it.

Yet we need to nurture our spirit to keep it strong.  Facing a life threatening condition can challenge our spiritual beliefs and doubt can creep in- causing a crisis of faith as we confront beliefs that made promises of what “should” or “should not” happen.  Some of our core culture beliefs in the United States suggest that if we just try hard enough, we can accomplish anything.  As you can imagine, this is a highly simplistic view of life that suggests we are to blame if we don’t “make it”.  Confronting the reality of pain and suffering can shake our sense of trust in God, the Universe, or fairness depending upon your personal outlook.

Take some time to think about what nourishes your spirit, for me it is the act of creation and being in nature.  When I am feeling depleted, I know that it is a red flag indicating that it’s time to stop and rest up.  As an empathic person, that meant cultivating the practice of placing myself on the list of people I care for.  I am of no use to myself or someone else if my well has run dry.  It took time to value myself in this way, but the rewards have meant I am much more capable of facing life’s adversities.

If you are facing a spiritual crisis because of a life threatening circumstance, be gentle with yourself.  Pema Chödrön reminds us that life is continually falling apart and coming together; therefore, the more accepting of this process we are, the less critical we can be of our reaction to it.  Gently accepting our response to an overwhelming situation is an act of self love.  It allows us to settle in and feel our way through the doubt, fear and crisis that we are experiencing, allowing us to grow and deepen into ourselves and our spirits.

– 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: www.creative-transformations.com, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.