In the past 10 days, I have had a series of dreams that relate with one another. This wave comes as I prepare to be an exhibitor at the Young Survival Coalition annual summit this week in Orlando. I am so excited to be able to connect with my fellow breast cancer survivors and share what I am doing with Creative Transformations. When I finished with treatment I knew I wanted to heal myself and to support others in their healing; therefore, being an exhibitor feels like a tremendous honor and opportunity to make that dream a reality.
AND it is making me nervous… stirring up my shadow self as we often do in new social situations when we want to make a good first impression. All of those questions, concerns, fears, old stories that are running through my mind…
Even though I know that every time I have had the chance to connect with other cancer survivors it has been so rewarding and special, I am human so as I move towards what I want, the things that need to be healed resurface for that chance. I imagine that I am not alone in this, and in many ways I am grateful for the opportunity to actively address what needs to be healed.
So after my first anxiety dream about traveling, I began to carve out some extra time for self care, and as a result, my dreams are reflecting that it is working. Last night I had my fourth dream, and while there was still uncertainty present, in it I had arrived at the conference and I had made a connection. Phew!
However, as I reflected about the progressions of these dreams, it made me take stock in how lucky I am to be dreaming in the first place. For a lot of us going through treatment, sleep can be a real issue, and we often need medication to make it happen. While this serves a huge purpose for us from a survival standpoint, it does interfere with our ability to have lucid dreams. Lucid dreams are an important way for our psyche to process what we are going through, so reclaiming the ability to fall and stay asleep without medication is a goal that many cancer survivors share.
After treatment had ended and I was no longer feeling as pressured to get sleep so I don’t fall apart, it felt so daunting to try and reclaim my natural ability to sleep. Prior to cancer, I used to have periodic bouts of sleeping trouble, but nothing too serious. Nighttime can bring a lot of anxiety to begin with, and when I was facing an aggressive, stage 3a cancer, I was open to whatever I could use to help make sleep happen- needing help to counteract the steroids, nausea and pain that comes with chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.
Treatment ends and often side effects carry on, so I didn’t push myself to get off all sleep aids immediately. It was really surprising to see how emotional it can be to step away from them. My PCP recommended that I might even scrape away at the Ativan pills, saying that she found many of her patients did better by feeling more in control of lowering their dose bit by bit, scrape by scrape. I never needed to actually scrape the pills, but I found that to be a comforting metaphor and it helped my physical and emotional self believe that I could do it on my own.
My friend and colleague referred me to “The Sleep book” by Guy Meadows, who uses Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to treat insomnia. The premise of that book, in a nutshell, is that one of the reasons why we struggle to sleep normally is the awful cycle of resistance we get ourselves into. It is understandable that we wish to sleep better, but if we spend our time fighting the fact that we aren’t, or trying to control the things that interfere with it, we end up in a power struggle. The core of his work is an exercise called “Welcoming the Unwelcome” in which you work to accept what is, without trying to engage with it, change it or avoid it. When we become proficient with welcoming the unwelcome, we decrease our adrenaline response to what is, and more easy drift off into sleep.
The exercise of Welcoming the Unwelcome is also helpful as you unpack the PTSD that often accompanies cancer. We need to find ways to feel our way through it, in order to heal from it. If you need some support around that, consider setting up a free consultation call with me to see if working together makes sense.
In the meantime, I hope you have sweet dreams and if you are going to the YSC conference in Orlando this week- please stop by and say hello!
– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. I began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, I work with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, an Art as Therapy program, workshops, and this weekly blog. Check out the individual packages I offer. Sign up today so you never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.