When challenges occur, we often imagine getting “through” the hard times and then getting “back to normal.” Our society has hoped for this as we have lived with the pandemic, and I had imagined this with my cancer experience over the past 15 months. It has been a surprise to me that the time after my physical healing has been the hardest part of this journey.
Brené Brown describes a concept called, “the messy middle” in her book Rising Strong. It’s the time when you have gone too far to see where you came from, and you are still too far from your destination to see the other side. Pilots call this “the point of no return” because there is not enough fuel left to return from where they came, so they must continue on. It’s in this place of discomfort, unknown, and vulnerability that the learning and evolution occur that allow us to arrive at our destination changed for the better.
After treatment and surgery, I went back to work. I thought I was “doing it right” and had learned my lesson about managing stress and saying no to extra drains to my energy. I floated along for a while and then, in what felt like a rapid spiral, realized my motivation was gone, my optimism was waning and I was fighting depression. The luster had gone out of my days. I couldn’t figure it out. I’m a survivor. I’m lucky. I’m cancer-free. But, I was in “the messy middle” and was going to have to dig deep to find my new footing.
After reaching out for help, I’m learning that coming through this experience is going to take healing in a different way. I needed to tune in, be silent, and just be with whatever my body and soul needed.
When I have talked about self-care in the past, I’ve talked about actions: going to yoga, walking, reading, taking a bath. The first breakthrough for me was when my doctor assigned me to just notice what my body was feeling; she said notice and be curious, at least 10 times a day. This noticing led to my acceptance of my body sensations and my emotions as guides to help me know what I needed in that moment. I’ve become good at asking myself, “what do I most need or want right now?” The answers have not been more work. The answers have all been related to rest, creativity, and honoring my own needs. I have planted a little garden, and I sit with my coffee and gaze at my plants. I have colored page after page of beautiful drawings just for fun. I am allowing time to create beautiful meals full of phytonutrients that fuel my physical body, but also nourish my eyes and my palate. I am learning to leave my days with space so that I can breathe.
I’ve gotten good at sitting still and being quiet. In the quiet, initially I judged myself. “I’m not being productive.” “I’m wasting my time.” That internal critic has gotten quieter, but sometimes she is still there, and I just have to remind her that I am choosing a new way, a way that honors my peace more than my productivity, a way that nurtures rather than nags, a way that delights rather than drains. I’m taking baby steps.
But what I know for sure, is that I don’t want to go back to how I was before. I’m learning to thrive through the messy middle and I’m learning to enjoy the ride along the way.
Dr. Brossfield is the founder and physician of XO Health and medical director of Brain Treatment Center, both in Rancho Mirage. She can be reached at (760) 573.2761 or www.BrainTreatmentCenter.com and on Facebook @XOHealth.