“Surrender to what is. Let go of what was. Have faith in what will be.” ~Sonia Ricotti
The scent of sanitizer once again pervades my home. And as much as I am grateful for it, every time I use it, that astringent, alcoholic smell takes me straight back to the out-patient chemo ward at the hospital.
It’s been nearly seven years since I was a fortnightly visitor there, but the sanitizer and masks make me feel like I’m in a weird flashback.
It’s surreal to see the whole world now facing what was one of the hardest parts of my treatment regimen.
I was in quarantine for almost ten months.
Risk of infection, and hence, delay in treatment, is one of the biggest fears faced by anyone who has ever had any kind of chemotherapy. I only left the house to go to the hospital, and when I did, I wore a mask.
We discouraged visitors, and the few people who did come over also wore masks and sat a good six feet away from me. For an inveterate hugger, this was incredibly isolating.
And now, this is the new normal for everyone.
I find myself thinking a lot about that time in my life, and I realize that I had hit upon a coping strategy that worked excellently then, and is still something I lean on.
In a word, that strategy was surrender.
Surrender is an odd word to hear from someone who had to “fight cancer.” But when I say surrender, I mean to accept what is. To be fully aware of what is. To stop wasting your precious resources on things you cannot change.
Here are three practical steps that can help you translate this nebulous concept into reality.
Step 1: Make a list of every single thing you cannot change about the situation.
The moment I got home after getting my diagnosis, I went to my room, sat facing my window, and went through all the things I knew had to happen. I had to have chemo. That meant I might have pain. I would have to stay at home. I would likely lose my hair. And so on.
What does being in lockdown or quarantine or self-isolation mean for you? What are the everyday aspects of it that you’re going to bump up against? What are the little pin pricks of annoyance that could balloon into giant stabs with a blunt sword? Think of every possible thing and write it down, no matter how small.
Step 2: Go through your list, one by one, and vent about each point.
When I was undergoing my treatment, I wrote nearly every day. I wrote about what it felt like to lose my eyebrows, to spend New Year’s Day at the hospital, to only be able to keep down boiled mashed potatoes.
Everything on your list is real, and worth your attention. Take the time to journal, to vent and really work through how you feel about all of it. Let yourself express all the little things that you may think are silly, or overreactions, and especially the ones you feel ashamed of, or guilty for, having on your list in the first place.
If you have trusted friends, this is a great time to set up a support call system, where you take turns venting. The other person’s only job is to say, “Thank you. What else?” You can set a pre-determined amount of time to go one way, and then switch. At the end of both (or all) participants’ venting, you could include a judgement-free discussion.
Yes, this is a time to be grateful for our blessings, but that doesn’t mean we hide from our truths. Leaving feelings unacknowledged means leaving them to fester. You deserve better.
Step 3: Find your silver lining.
For the first six months, I had alternating “tough weeks” and “good weeks.” In the tough weeks, all I could do was sleep. In the good weeks, however, I studied everything from logic to science fiction on Coursera, I played board and card games with my family, and I ate like a horse!
Whatever your situation, and no matter how difficult, where is your silver lining? What can you do for yourself, even if it’s for five minutes a day?
Please don’t think I am urging you to use this time to be the most productive you’ve ever been, or finish a dream project that you’ve never had time for. We’re in lockdown, not on sabbatical, and no one expects you to scale new heights in this time. Even if you make it through the day, more or less intact, that’s good enough, and you’re doing enough.
I’m just asking you to look a little further. See what you can find, in spite of, or maybe inspired by, the items on your list, that can bring you some joy.
I have an amazing friend who dressed up in a unicorn costume and surprised her husband when he was working from home. My talented sister is coming up with fabulous ways to take everyday household items and make toys and sensory experiences for my one-year-old. Another friend is baking. People are putting daffodils in bunches on their driveway for others to help themselves to.
All over the world, people are finding ways to grow into better versions of themselves, and these versions are as varied and beautiful as wildflowers.
Taking it further
I always knew I would need six months of chemo, so I was mentally prepared for six months of isolation. However, after my six-month scan, my oncologist said I needed radiation therapy, just to be on the safe side. And my heart sank. And after the radiation was done, she told me I needed to stay home for another couple of months, to give my immune system time to recover, just to be on the safe side.
Those seven words began to seriously grate on me.
But that last extension was sheer torture. I felt fine, wasn’t going to the hospital for any kind of treatment, and still had to stay at home. Those two months felt longer than the eight months I’d already endured and pushed me to my limit.
And that was when I learned another huge lesson. When things are tough, trying to get through it by counting on it all getting better soon isn’t the best way to deal with things. If there’s any change or delay, you’re going to have to deal with a backlash that stings like a rubber band rebounding onto your cheek.
Focussing on when it will all be better or over is just setting yourself up for disappointment. None of that is ever under your control, so you’re better off working on the one thing that is always in your control: how you respond to situations.
When you do a thorough job of anticipating most things that might come up, you tend to also automatically think of how you will deal with them. And if you’ve also released the emotional charge that might be associated with these issues, your response is filled with grace and peace.
As for me, my first outing was a spontaneous visit to a bookstore opposite the hospital. I had just got the all-clear from my doctor, and my mum and I decided to hop across the road and spend some time around books. Which, I have to add, is one of my favourite places to be! We had a fabulous time, and my first outing was so much better than anything I could have planned. I still have the book I bought that day.
So, what potentially amazing experiences for you are hiding in plain sight in the present moment? Try these three steps and notice how your awareness expands and your appreciation blooms.
Things outside will continue to be unpredictable, and you may have to go through the steps more than once. But each time you do, you will learn more about yourself, develop better response strategies, and be more grounded in the present.
Surrender, and like Confucius said, be the green reed that bends in the wind, instead of the mighty oak that breaks in a storm.