Monday, March 31, 2014

F-ing Hard Work

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of a hearing a marvelous social worker and yoga instructor teach a workshop about techniques to help young adult cancer patients and their loved ones deal with stress and anxiety. I almost didn't go to the workshop, ironically, because I was anxious. I had just delivered my own portion of the program at Dana-Farber's annual Young Adults Conference, a talk I had spent months preparing for, and although I was pleased with how it had gone, I was still recalibrating. I doubted that I would be able to sit still for a whole hour with all that energy churning inside, but I'm so glad that I did. (Plus, we didn't end up having to sit still.) 

The instructor, Claire, said several things in the workshop that resonate with me even now, days later, when I've typically forgotten most of what was presented in a similar setting. I'm sure I can't convey Claire's messages with the eloquence or accuracy that she did, but nevertheless, I have an urge to write about my take on some of what she offered to the packed room of patients and caregivers tormented by a vicious disease. 

Claire explained that human beings are wired to focus on the negative. She gave a great example of a pre-work routine. She explained that if you get up, take a shower, make a cup of coffee, and arrive at work, you don't say, "Wow, what a great morning I've had!" However, if you wake up, your shower floods, your coffee machine breaks, and you get in a fender bender on the way to work, you most certainly will remark that it had been a terrible morning.  

Admittedly, Brian and I couldn't help but look at each other and laugh at this example of a morning routine since, with two young kids, it is hilariously unrealistic. (In fact, if all of those "bad" things happened and I still managed to make it to my office on time with my kids safely at school, I would probably think it was actually a great morning.) Nevertheless, for several reasons, I loved Claire's message. 

First, I think that part of me is relieved by it. "I do that!" I wanted to yell at Claire over the rows of people in front of me. "I dwell on bad news all the time and I hate that about myself!" But I didn't yell; I just sat there and enjoyed the thought that maybe I wasn't being a negative person when I did that, but rather, just a normal one. 

Since I was diagnosed, I feel like the topic of "positive thinking" is all around me. Friends have given me books about it and almost every single day, it comes up in conversation. I am flattered when people say that I'm a positive person, although I don't fully understand why they think that. Still, I want to be at least considered positive, so I take it as a compliment. 

On Saturday, Claire spoke about positive thinking. She explained that if we have a performance review at work and receive 25 compliments along with one piece of criticism, we dwell on the one piece of criticism. Um, yep, I definitely do that, too. 

Claire explained that we would all be better off to spend more time with positive thoughts. For instance, those 25 compliments -- how long do we really spend with those? Do we just glance over them in search of something bad? (Yes, I do.) Claire says that we shouldn't do that. She also explained that it takes five compliments to erase every criticism. Interesting, because my ratio is more like 30 to 1. 

Of course, when it comes to dealing with terminal illness, the analogy doesn't always work. For instance, had my bone scan last week turned up cancer in my ribs or my sternum (thank goodness, it did not), I'm certain that no amount of positive thinking could lead me to believe, "But they didn't find it in my toe! That's great news!" No freaking way. There's some news that just plain fucking shits and people who receive that shitty news deserve time to process it without anyone's expectation of them finding something that smells nice buried deep within.

At the same time, there are people like me who (for example) have been blessed with good news, yet still find themselves fighting negative forces. Often, these forces are so much less significant than ones directly related to the disease, but still, they are repercussions that I think it helps us all to discuss. 

I have found that I go from being thankful to being greedy very quickly. For instance, last week, as I emerged slowly from the bone scan machine, I wanted more than anything in the world to have that scan come back clean. I would have given up my house, my job, and probably several limbs for a good result. Little else mattered. 

A few minutes later, quite unexpectedly, the nurse who had kindly injected me with radioactive dye, told me that my scans looked clean. She had spoken to the doctor who had reviewed them on the spot to be sure that additional pictures weren't necessary. I couldn't believe the news or that I had received it then and there. I asked the nurse if I was dreaming. I just couldn't comprehend it because I knew for certain (or so I thought) that they were going to find cancer. The relief I felt was, once again, indescribable. 

On my way out, the nurse asked me if I had young children. I said that I did. "You can hug them but you shouldn't sit next to them for an extended period of time tonight. There are still traces of the radioactive material in you." 

"Um, OK. Is that really safe then?" I inquired, thinking back to the Cold-War-ish metal container from which she took the dye before she inserted it into my vein. She assured me it was a very small dose. That didn't make me feel better, but I mentally returned to the good test result as I exited the room. I was so excited to share my great news. 

That night, Annabel begged me to snuggle during the kids' before-bed TV show. I hugged her, but told her I couldn't snuggle that night. She was mad, and so was I. That's when I got greedy, too. A few hours prior, I'd have given up all future snuggling with my daughter to be able to sit in the same room as her for years to come. But now I was pissed. Why did all of this shit have to happen? I wondered for a minute or two.

The night after my bone scan, I hadn't yet participated in Claire's workshop although I think some of her techniques may have already lived in me. I let go of the frustration I felt for having to accept radioactive material into my veins and I absorbed the fact that that dye had lead me to the answer I had waited so long to hear -- that the pain I felt in my chest was most likely not cancer. But here's my main point -- that focusing on the positive does not come naturally to most of us. In fact, for the record, I believe that positive thinking is fucking hard fucking work. (I rarely swear, but I just need to tonight...yes, even twice in one sentence.)

On a slightly different note, in the last few weeks, I have missed a lot of work time dealing with all of my tests and medical appointments. As a lawyer, I bill by the hour, so there's no way to fake it when I don't work. I either have hours and a product to show for it, or I don't. And although I had a solid start to 2014, in March, I fell far behind my target hours.

On the spectrum of lawyers that I know, I probably worry about my hours less than most. But still, I'm not someone who enjoys missing a target that has been set before me. Especially not when my house and family kind of relies on it. Of course, when I was in the throes of the MRI, CT scan, and bone scan, I couldn't have cared less about my hours. I figured those would only matter if I was even able to keep my job and since I felt so certain my cancer had returned, I wondered if that would even be possible.

Once my scans came back clean, however, I got greedy in this sense, too. I started to feel guilty about my low hours. I became frustrated that I hadn't been strong enough to suck it up and get work done on the nights after my appointments. Instead, I usually wrote and went to bed. I got down on myself, dwelling on all of the things that I hadn't done, the hours I hadn't billed, the work I hadn't produced.

This is where Claire once again had a message that I swear, sang to me. Spend time with the good things rather than taking all of your energy from the bad. I could so easily apply this to myself. In the last few weeks, despite my pathetic number of billable hours, I had done lots of good things. And Claire was right, I spent almost no time feeling good about any of them.

Claire explained that we can change our outlook and our attitude if we spend time with the positive rather than dwelling on the negative. I believe her. Because from what I've seen, if we want to find something to complain, worry, or be sad about, we sure don't need to look very far. But, at the same time, if we want to find something to be proud of, to feel good about, or to make us smile, we probably don't need to look very far, either. Claire made me better understand something that I have been feeling for quite a while; something that people don't usually talk about  that being negative comes naturally to most of us. And that being positive takes a lot of no bullshit f-ing hard work, none of which will ever have a billable hour to show for it. 

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