Archives for posts with tag: death

People, I’m going to get nerdy. I’m going to talk about a subject that strikes doom into many people’s heart. I am not joking even though I am using strong language.

I am going to talk about risk factors and what they mean from a research perspective.

When the media talks about “what causes/prevents cancer” or “what causes/prevents heart attack” or any other bad disease, they are usually referring to risk and protective factors. Example number 1. We know that smoking “causes” lung cancer. What that really means is that smoking is risk factor for lung cancer. We all know people who smoked throughout their lives and never got lung cancer. And some of us know people who got lung cancer who were never smokers.

So from a research perspective, smoking does not cause cancer. Smoking is a causal factor for lung cancer. It increases the risk of developing lung cancer by quite a bit.

“Elizabeth, that means that I can smoke, not feel guilty about it, and because George Burns smoked cigars all those years and lived to 100 years-old, I won’t get lung cancer?”

No, it means none of that. George Burns beat the odds. I mean literally just that. One, he lived much longer than average. Two, he lived much longer than average given that he was a smoker. No one reasonable ever said that there is a 100% chance of getting lung cancer if you smoke or that there is a 0% chance of getting cancer if you never use tobacco products in any way.

Okay, I promised to get nerdy but I am taking it back. Let me put this plainly. You can engage in activities or behaviors that are risk factors and end up with none of the risky outcomes. Risk is relative, not absolute. You can engage in activities or behaviors that are protective factors, you can be a teetotaler, never smoke, exercise regularly, eat well, be nice to your mother, and still end up with scary diseases. Those behaviors only reduce risk they do not eliminate any risk of disease.

And come to think of it, no matter what we do, some day, we will end up dying.

Does that mean that what you do today, tomorrow, or the next day doesn’t matter?

Thanks for understanding my need to be a a psychologist nerd. Yes, we are all about the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors but as Ph.D.’s, we are additionally, all about the research. Also, guilt is when you regret doing something that is in conflict with your beliefs and values. Sometimes I wonder when we talk about feeling “responsible” for our diseases that we are really talking about shame rather than guilt. Guilt actually can be productive and helpful. I didn’t believe that for most of my life until I understood the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt refers to behaviors that we can chose to change. Shame is the feeling, “I am bad.” That’s a lot different than guilt, “Wow, I wish I hadn’t done that.” Sometimes I do things that are at odds with my beliefs and values. I don’t think that I am alone in this. I try to treat myself with compassion. I am not always successful. I try to be compassionate and patient with myself for not living a perfect life. I am not always successful.

My proposal to myself and with all kindness, to you is, “How do you want to live your life today?”

Much love and peace to all of you,

Elizabeth

Maya Angelou died today at the age of 86. She taught me so much.

I learned the power and beauty of the spoken word. Poetry accentuates the music in language. Maya Angelou’s poetry did this to such a great degree that for me, reading her written poetry instead of listening to her read it, was like watching a brilliant jazz combo with no sound. It just wasn’t the same. Her voice was powerful, beautiful, and the words were hers.

Many of us know that Maya Angelou feared the power of her voice so much that she stopped speaking to anyone other than her brother, Bailey, for years. She had been raped as a child, told her brother, who told adults, and the man who had raped her was briefly imprisoned and then murdered after a few days after his release. The then 9 year-old Marguerite Johnson held her voice responsible for the man’s death. Over time, she recovered from her trauma enough to speak again.

Not only did Maya Angelou overcome the fear of the power of her voice but she used the power of her voice as a singer, a poet, a teacher, and as an activist. And when she read her poem, On the Pulse of Morning, for President Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, I got goosebumps that seemed to last for days.

Another lesson I learned from Maya Angelou was the power of telling one’s life story, and further, telling it in installments. I started reading her autobiographies in high school. Although her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, remains my favorite and the most memorable, I loved her life story. I burned through the three subsequent books that had already been published and then eagerly waited for the rest to be written. Her life is fascinating and she was pretty open about her imperfections. I see now that I missed her final installment published last year. How did that happen? Oh yeah, I was experiencing cancer treatment and the resulting chaos.

My blog is, in part, a memoir that unfolds in frequent, short installments. As you know, I get a great deal out of writing this blog. It’s not just the writing, it’s the sharing of my writing, the conversations that ensue, and the miraculous times when the words I write are exactly what a reader needs to think about at that time. Every once in awhile, I have a little nagging thought that my writing is self-absorbed. Maybe I am enjoying the attention I get from writing this blog, a little TOO much. I am no Maya Angelou but I have an interesting story to tell and I write well enough. Someday my daughter will read this blog and I hope it will be something that enriches her life and our relationship.

Maya Angelou also taught me the power of resilience. She was abused, repeatedly traumatized, mistreated, and oppressed. Maya Angelou’s life was a triumph of the human spirit and a testimony to the highest power of resilience. And then she used her life experience to help others. That may seem like a natural thing to do but it is not the case. Think of how many people justify their lack of compassion for others by giving examples of how they managed to be successful despite adversity so everyone else should be. These are justifications by parents for rejecting their own children and for everyday citizens for justifying policies that let children in our country and all over the world go hungry, to be poorly educated, and to live in unsafe conditions. Maya Angelou could have hurt others with her stories, beaten up others with her success, but she didn’t.

And if you have read Maya Angelou or heard her interviewed, you know that she does not take sole credit for her resilience. She talks about the support of her brother, Bailey or her close relationship with her son, Guy. She talks about her neighbor, Mrs. Flowers, who helped her speak again by having her over for tea time and time again and talking to her in the most beautiful way.

Today, I am thinking about the power of my spoken words. I have been short-tempered, as you know. Short bursts of anger and I yelled at my daughter yesterday. She was being a pain in the butt, but yelling isn’t a solution. I am thinking about the power of my written words, not just in this blog but in my work. The reports that I write for children and teens with ADHD and learning disabilities impact their lives. The care that I take in writing them can make an important difference in the kind of support they receive from their parents and from their schools. They can also give them a new, more positive way to understand themselves and in time, lead to strategies to cope with their particular patterns of strengths and weaknesses.

Today, I am going to think about how to be an adult who helps build resilience in others, people both near and far away. What can I do to honor the people who paved the path for me, who helped me along the way, by helping build a world in which children not only survive, but thrive?

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
-Maya Angelo (1928-2014)

I know that a lot of you have experienced great hardship this winter. Some of you have lost loved ones, some of you are sick or have been sick. And then there are the terrifying weather events that are getting increasingly common, most recently the impact of the polar vortex on a substantial portion of North America.

I made all of you a little film of a portion of my walk today along with some of the thoughts I have when I am in the woods. I am hoping this is an encouraging experience and if not, you get to see some very pretty trees and hear some crows having quite a conversation in the woods.

It’s funny to me because although I am surrounded by earth forms and plants so much larger than me when I am in the woods, It’s okay to be small. We don’t need to be big. We can just be.

Yesterday, I was reading through my posts for 2013 as a review. I’d had a good and productive day. I was happy all day. And then I came to my post from August when I was hit with grief over the anniversaries of my mastectomy as well as the death of my friend, Gina. I remember that day in August. I cried for hours, which is something I have done less than a handful of times in my life outside of the two times I had clinical depression.

Yesterday I cried for about 20 minutes and then I actually felt good again. I’m not one of those people who usually feels better after crying. I mean I know that it is necessary to express grief but I still usually feel exhausted and cotton headed after I cry. The grief startled me because I found instantly found myself loudly and sloppily crying. The intensity of my grief felt like the day Gina died. And my worries about my own mortality, especially the prospect of dying before my daughter is grown, only intensified it.

I’m of the opinion that life is complex and there’s usually not one reason why something happens. But I will say that viewing a series of black and white photos of a husband and wife over the course of the wife’s treatment and later death from breast cancer, likely was a catalyst for this latest crying jag. One of the photos is a head shot of the pair in bed, holding each other, each with a look of utter bliss. It’s a beautiful and happy image. And it reminds me of my husband and I. John is a very affectionate man. He hugs me in his sleep and if I awaken in the middle of the night and put my arm around him, he makes a sigh of contentment and holds my hand. And I don’t mean that he sometimes does this. He always reaches for my hand, every time over the past 23 years. So I looked at that photo and immediately inserted myself into the image. And this woman who was born in the 70’s died. And you can see the progression of her illness in the photos with each photo showing loves and losses in the most poignant way. I found myself thinking, “That could have been me. That still could be me.” I didn’t dwell on the thoughts but I had them nonetheless.

I had nightmares that night. (People, when you wonder why I am careful about watching intense, violent, and/or scary films. This is why. They have given me nightmares since I was about 6 years old.) In one, I was at a parade that included some past beauty queens, women who were now middle-aged. They were beautifully dressed but instead of being on a parade float, they were lying in open caskets on wheels! Even in the dream I thought, “What on Earth? What is this supposed to symbolize about women, beauty, and aging?” And then later in the dream, I was at the funeral of a relative. I don’t remember anything except she was a woman in my family. I remember having grief during the dream about missing my grandmother who died in 1993. In the final part of the dream, my daughter was acting completely and utterly out of control. As rebellious and angry as she could be. It was terrifying.

I am a genuinely happy person. One who has been through a lot. And lots of people have been through a lot in their lives with different impacts and different ways of coping. I am a person who feels things deeply but I am also a deep thinker. And I feel both positive and negative emotions as well as having positive and negative thoughts. I feel happy and calm most of the time. I think part of these intense moments I have of sadness and fear come from the enormity of what I have to lose, my family, my friends, my independence, my capacity to help others as a psychologist.

Today’s New Year’s Eve resolution is to remind myself of the strength of my connections, my connections to myself through my own self-awareness and the purposeful way in which I try to lead my life. My connection to my daughter who is doing so well and so happy right now. My connection to my husband who loves me so dearly that he reaches out to me even when he is fast asleep. Who trusts me so deeply that he allows me to be very open about the ups and downs of our relationship as well as our own personal shortcomings. My connection to my parents; I can’t imagine how hard it must be as older people, to worry about your child’s health and mortality. When my friend, Preben got cancer over five years ago, while still in his 30’s, I noticed that his parents started visiting him much more frequently. I told him half jokingly, “That’s what you get for getting cancer and scaring your parents.” My connections with my extended family have also strengthened. I have some wonderful cousins and sister-in-laws and my brothers have actually nudged themselves out of their comfort zone a little to be a bit more affectionate with their sister.

My friendship connections over the past year and a half have seen the most change. I have made a number of new friends who have startled me with their intense and generous kindness. I know that some of them will come and go but I think that a good number of them will be lifelong friends. I have had old friendships that have evolved into something much deeper than they were in the past. But I have also experienced some lost friendships and some that have been made weaker by my cancer. This mixture of bitter and sweet, of gains and losses, is somewhat dizzying to a person like me who craves consistency and solidity. But I have learned to cope with chaos in my life. I want to be happy and I know chaos happens no matter what I do. So what is my choice other than to try to make peace with it, live along side of it, and accept that I sometimes lose my footing.

Finally, today I remind myself of my reconnection with nature. I spend time outside every day. I have been able to travel to the mountains and to the sea. I am outdoors during good weather and in bad. Even in the most exposed and vulnerable parts of nature, there is beauty. I feel a strong spiritual connection to everything when I walk. It is both intensely personal and beautifully communal.

That is today’s resolution. Tomorrow is a new day and a new year. I wish all of you good things in 2014: moments of joy, moments of peace, and fortitude among the suffering and chaos. Thank you for your connection and support. Xoxoxoxo.

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