Reflections To Help Me Be a Better Person

How I Learned to Have Boundaries Written by: David Sutcliffe

“I used to have a hard time saying no. And being direct about what I wanted.

I often found myself accommodating others, doing things I didn’t want to do. This would lead to lingering resentment, and if it persisted, an explosion of blame and victimization.

If I finally confronted someone the response was usually, “Well, why didn’t you say something?!”

It’s a good point. People are not mind readers, nor should we expect them to be.

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Reflections To Help Me Be a Better Person

#CanadaStrong and Mighty

Media is releasing the names of the victims of a senseless attack that occurred on the streets of Toronto, ON Canada on April 23, 2018. 24 hours later and the world is learning the names of the 10 people, and 15 injured after a mid-day attack on a busy street in the heart of one of Canada’s most diverse cities.  The impact of such a tragedy is being felt around my country. These things are not the norm for us Canadians. We don’t have experience with this level of sadness and loss. Not when it was intentional, callous and with discriminatory intent.

Our instinct is to try to make sense of what can’t be rationalized. Our instinct is to point a finger and provide an explanation that fits what we are comfortable with. Because the alternative is a world that is chaotic and frightening. It’s a world where the unimaginable can happen, at any time and in any place to anyone.

Public response was immediate. Conclusions had been drawn before law enforcement could conduct a thorough investigation. And the preliminary assumptions were formulated around two theories that are predominant in our rationalizations of violence: terrorism or mental instability.

The nuanced assessments—even by seasoned professionals—about the perpetrator of any mass casualty event, cause damage to the mental health community.  When they immediately assume that the crime was motivated by a person who was mentally ill, they spark a discussion. They tout past record of instability, inability to connect with others, past history of mental break downs, history of medications, and history of violence—all in an effort to lend credibility to the theory that mental health was the mitigating factor behind a senseless tragedy. And in that context, the attempt to thwart the stigma of mental health issues in our Western culture takes a giant leap backward.

In the aftermath of such tragic events, anyone taking medications like Cymbalta or Celexa, Risperdal or Ativan, are viewed with suspicion and fear. Anyone who is brave enough to own their anxiety or depression is judged as if to suggest they are seeking attention or being lazy. The ones who suffer with the debilitating mental health diseases such as schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder are deemed unsafe for society. Anyone hospitalized or formed are stigmatized as crazy or nuts. The correlation between uncontrollable mental health disorders and violence are no longer up for debate, they are now a concrete reality in the editorializing of steadfast pundits. And every time another occurrence of violence disrupts our civilized society, the same arguments are touted over and over again until that mantra is cemented into the minds of our culture.

I spent the better part of my weekend on Twitter in a heated debate on an unrelated topic. And even when discussion broke down into insults and abusive assaults on my character, the reason mental health is still so stigmatized was staring me right in the face. We use harsh and sometimes prejudicial remarks about someone’s mental state when attempting to disparage them. Even though i attempted to remain above the fray and refrain from using insults and cursing to establish my narrative, I did at one point say “Are you off your meds?” It didn’t strike me as wrong until a day later when I watched as users on Twitter did the same thing when debating the motivation behind a young man driving a white rental van down a sidewalk filled with pedestrians. It was horrifying for multiple reasons, not the least of which was a reopening of further prejudice against anyone and everyone who has ever suffered from mild, emotional distress to a full blown psychotic breakdown. And I propagated the stigma. I contributed to the  ignorance.

Stigma and fear don’t need a propellant in order to enact their wounds. We need to begin reassessing how our culture examines tragedy without immediately casting dispersions toward an entire group of people. And mental health does not discriminate. It affects all ages, races, genders and professions. And it begins by making a conscious effort to understand all of the motivations behind premeditated violence, whether it be mass shootings, attacks using motor vehicles, or even bombings. When mental health is instantly attributed to the accused, all discussion shuts down and the truth matters little.

When these events take place in our communities and our nations, we can begin by having discussions among the people around us; families, friends, co-workers and neighbours. We need to ask ourselves if these kinds of generalizations make us sad, for more then the reasons apparent. Do the accusations thrown around so mindlessly make us stop to think? Do the discussions around mental health make us feel like we need to hide the daily struggles each of us face? Is mental health the underlying mitigating factor to senseless violence, or is there something we’re missing?

Mental health issues do not correlate to violent acts. Millions suffer with mental disorders on a daily basis and they don’t resort to committing mass murder. So we as a society need to do something. We need to change the conversation. We need to change the beliefs. And if we are successful, the stigma can end.

Reflections To Help Me Be a Better Person

Status Anxiety: Keeping up with the Joneses to the Nth Degree

One of my best friends suggested I watch Alain de Botton’s video Status Anxiety (2004), and it placed a spot light on some of the philosophical questions I have been pondering over the past few weeks and months.

In the opening few minutes of the video, Alain describes what he perceives to be the foundational reason why our culture suffers so much from anxiety, and it relates directly to the expectations we place upon ourself, or the expectation we think society places on us.

Two-hundred years ago when European settlers came across the ocean and began colonizing the Western Continent of North America, they left behind a class society or hierarchy and aristocracy. In the new land they were building, anyone could become anything. It was a clean slate. In today’s culture, where we live in a class-less society and everyone is deemed “equal” there is a pervading myth that every opportunity and every advantage is available to all of us in equal measure. Men and women are equal and are afforded the same opportunities. Blacks and Whites are equal (and every other race) and have equal value. Rich and poor are just as equally important as one another. But even reading over this list, anyone can admit that this is just simply untrue. But that is the nature of our free, democratic society. The belief that if we work hard enough, persist long enough and continually make choices to be a “better” version of ourselves, then all of the above is true for anyone. We can be the best we can be.

But the flaw in this belief is that it creates an unending cycle of striving to be something we so desperately want to be, and we are NEVER satisfied.

These are the questions I have been asking myself:

  1. What if I don’t have as many friends as my friends do, does that make me unworthy or unlovable?
  2. What if I am never recognized for my accomplishments? What if my dreams are never realized?
  3. What if my house is not the nicest or the biggest? Does that make me a failure?
  4. What if people don’t like me, does that mean that I am a failure?
  5. What if I can’t lose the weight? Does that make me unattractive?
  6. What if the things I write are never published, never read by anyone but me and never appreciated?
  7. What if I never have the latest and greatest toys and gadgets like the people I know?
  8. What if I never get to travel to the places I so desperately want to see?
  9. What if I am not as successful as the person next to me? AM I STILL VALUABLE TO SOMEONE?

The above list is only a portion of the questions I have been asking myself, and I can’t be alone. But the underlying question is Do I have value as a human being? The politically correct version of that answer is yes. But the realistic version that culture subliminally pushes on us is, no I do not have value if I am not “successful”. If I am not striving to be the next best {insert thing here} then I am failing. If I don’t adhere to the latest parenting fad then I am a failure. If I don’t make x amount of money then I am a failure. If I don’t drive the newest car, or I don’t wear the latest clothes then I am a failure. If I don’t learn the latest hobby then I am a failure, if my house doesn’t look like a Pinterest ad then I am a failure, if I don’t subscribe to the latest political ideology then I am a failure. The list goes on and on. But who gets to define success?

The problem exists when we begin to compare ourselves to our peers. The people within our closest sphere of influence are the ones we equate our identity with, and so when one or more of our “peers” advance in a stage of life we believe that we too should be advancing in the same way. A co-worker gets a promotion over us, or a friend inherits a large sum of money or has a job where they make more money than we do, a friends child receives an accolade for something they accomplished, or a friend buys a larger house–it creates a jealousy that makes us look at our own life and think, “I don’t measure up.” When we do that it creates a problem in our relationships that didn’t exist before. I nearly created a problem between a friend and myself when I admitted to my own jealousy that they were selling their house when I had been wanting to sell mine for almost as long. (When I developed cancer last year it put my life on hold and I was forced to put all of my life’s plans on the back-burner). My jealousy prevented me from being able to effectively communicate how happy I was for her (which I was) because all she heard from me was my unhappiness in my own situation. That wasn’t fair to her.

But it made me realize that her accomplishments do not diminish my own successes. It also made me realize that the things I don’t achieve are not a direct reflection of my character or my value.

If I never accomplish another thing in this life or acquire any more wealth, and simply live every day like I am now, would I be satisfied? And if the answer to that is no, then it begs the question as to why? Is it for my own satisfaction or because I am too preoccupied with a deeply ingrained cultural myth that I have to achieve certain things or do certain things in this life in order to be satisfied?

In the past few decades our culture has seen and experienced such a vast accumulation of technological advancements and wealth, has been given access to great knowledge at our finger tips, and has seen the development of a globalized economy. But in those same years we have seen a steady increase in mental illness, anxiety, depression and overall dissatisfaction. Is it because as a society we have become more adept and more open about discussing mental illness or is it because there has been such immense pressure placed on us all that we are constantly trying to attain a lifestyle ideal that is unattainable?

If you have a couple hours to kill, I highly suggest watching Alain de Botton’s video. It is long, and his voice is soothing so don’t watch it if you are tired. But his views are worth pondering, and while he doesn’t provide any answers, he allows us to consider that our happiness is derived from the things we already have and not from what we desire.

Click the link here to watch his documentary.

Cancer Battle

If You Read This After I’m Gone

It was just supposed to be a mammogram. A few weeks earlier I had gone to my doctor to inquire about an unusual hardness behind my left nipple. I thought, in part, that I was a tad irrational. My doctor validated my fears during my first appointment and sent  me for a scan. I wasn’t crazy. But it was only supposed to be a mammogram.

I arrived at the hospital where the Breast Assessment Clinic is located and I was late because I had never been there before. The woman operating the machine was irritated. I was apologetic but it seemed to fall on deaf ears.

She smashed my breasts between the flat plexiglass that comprised the tortuous experience of having a mammogram, and within only a few seconds her attitude with me completely changed. I was no longer just having a mammogram, I was being sent for an ultrasound as well.

I tried not to cry. I tried to contain my emotion. I felt silly crying. I didn’t have a diagnosis yet. This was all still conjecture, a possibility, a potential reality—this wasn’t something that was confirmed yet. But an ultrasound turned into a biopsy. Within the span of two hours my life completely, and irrevocably changed. It was also my son’s eighteenth birthday. How was I supposed to remain calm and still celebrate my son’s milestone birthday with a looming dark cloud hanging over my head and my life?

It only took four days for the results to come back. Four days is nothing. Four days is insignificant in the context of a lifetime. But these four days felt like forever.

It was confirmed on a Monday. I had been diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer.

I remember sitting in the grey examination room of my doctor’s office while medical professionals conveyed the gravity of my diagnosis. My whole body shook with raw nerve. I was completely undone.

In the four days between biopsy and diagnosis I tried in vain to stay off the internet. I “Googled” survivor stories. Did you know there are none? There are statistics. A LOT of statistics. They are grim.

But I had found a blog by a woman from 2009. She was faith filled, positive and so determined that she was going to survive. In the early days she posted a lot about her treatment, her recovery and her hopes for the future. She was honest about her struggles and about her fears, which was hard to read but I appreciated her honesty. I loved her declaration that she was going to beat this, she was going to defy the odds and survive. It was empowering to read about her defiance of this disease. But then I read the last post. It was by a family friend. They informed the readers that she had lost her battle, and she was dead.

Dead.

I threw my tablet half way across the room. I cried. No, I sobbed. I sobbed an angry, bitter, sorrowful cry that echoed through my home. This was just the beginning.

I have since survived 8 rounds of chemo therapy, a left radical mastectomy, 25 rounds of radiation, and I am now in recovery. I, like the woman I wrote about above, am optimistic, defiant and determined that I will beat this disease. When they removed the breast tissue from my body, they reported that I had no evidence of the cancer in my body. They have told me that is the best possible outcome they could have hoped for. That gives me hope.

But if you are reading this after I am gone, I don’t want you to despair. This disease is aggressive, but there are aggressive oncologists who are tirelessly researching new and improved methods for fighting this disease. This disease will knock you down and cause you to feel all kinds of emotions ranging from despair to anger, but when you encounter a new victory it will give you renewed strength and hope to continue to the next phase.

And there are others. There are others all over the world who are living with this diagnosis. Some have passed away. But others are bravely facing each day and surviving. Some have two years, five years, seven years, twenty-eight years—they are surviving. It is possible. Do not lose yourself to despair.

I won’t sugar coat this: IBC sucks. There are seemingly no good reports online, NOW. But hopefully, in the future, YOU will be that good report. Hopefully because woman like me have gone before you and endured the pain and the tragedy, oncologists will have more data to compile that will provide answers for women like you. And I hope beyond hope that because of other women who have died before me, that because of their sacrifice I too can survive, and this article is obsolete. I hope that I can continue to provide anniversary updates that announce that I am still alive. I hope beyond hope that 20 years later I can say, you have hope because I am still here.

But if I am not, I will tell you this: I fought and endured so that you could have answers and so that you WILL survive.

 

**If you have found your way here because you have just been diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer, then I encourage you to reach out to the IBC Network Foundation, it is important that you find others who have gone through what you are about to go through. There is an entire network of support. They will help guide you.

Cancer Battle

It’s Not Over, I Just Pretend All the Time

The rest of the world is more comfortable when they hear stories of rosy optimism and conquering disease. I figured that out early. I could post glowing optimistic stories of each new victory I over came and I would receive endless praise. It was great, it fed my ego, but it wasn’t always honest.

When I was first diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC), the cancer machine whirred into action and I was surrounded by well-meaning and compassionate people who offered to do almost anything. For someone like me, who is very self sufficient and independent, it was difficult for me to accept the help. But I did accept the help, I needed the help, and I am forever grateful for it.

Now that I am through the hard parts, most of the people have disappeared. (I say most because I do still have an incredible support system and I do not want to minimize their contribution to my recovery) They are more comfortable knowing that I am healing and recovering. They don’t want to hear about the days that I can barely get out of bed because I am so tired from over-exerting myself. They don’t want to hear about the difficulty I have reaching things on high shelves because my arm no longer has the range of motion it once had because of the missing lymph nodes. They don’t want to hear about the struggle for breath when I am walking a block or two. They don’t want to hear about the depression, or the anger, or the loneliness that inevitably creates a barrier between me and the rest of the world. They don’t want to hear about the insomnia or the drug addiction that develops because of the long drug use. And they really don’t want to hear about the chance of reoccurrence or worse.

When the bell has been rung, it signals the end of chemotherapy or radiation. It doesn’t signal the end. That distinction needs to be made because in the minds of loved ones, it can sometimes signal relief for them. When a cancer diagnosis is given it feels like a death sentence, and so the sound of the bell can sometimes feel like reprieve. It’s not. For the cancer patient, the sound of the bell is merely a beginning of a new battle. It signals the beginning of reclaiming everything that was lost when cancer ripped the ground out from beneath them. It signals the beginning of fear—the fear when the other shoe will drop, when or where the next lesion or tumour would appear, the fear of having to go through all of this again, the fear of everyone disappearing just when the next phase of the battle is beginning. These fears are realistic and highly probable.

Through my own experience there are 9 things I have discovered that are the most effective way of continually showing love and support for those recovering from cancer or any other major illness:

1) Endure the loneliness and depression.

Cancer survivor stories are not always depicted honestly. The positive ones that depict overcoming great odds skip over the hard parts of struggle, frustration, isolation and depression, and focus on the triumphant end result.  The most loving thing a person can do is endure the rough stuff with the ones going through it. It is a long road back.

2) Talk about what could happen in the event of death

To the cancer patient, this is a possible reality. Even after a successful treatment, there is a possibility of reoccurrence or metastasis. If the cancer patient wants or needs to talk about their final days—their wants and desires in the event of a poor prognosis, their expectations and blessings for those left behind after they do die, or their funeral—let them.

3) Don’t just say, “I’m praying for you.”

This is no way is meant to minimize the power of faith, or to imply that prayer is not warranted. But often times, this statement can be used as a means of offering comfort. But to even the most devout, this statement can mean very little in terms of comfort or substance. If you feel compelled to pray, then just pray. But as a means of offering comfort, more practical ways would be reaching out and asking how you can help.

4) Offer physical support or time. They still need to know you care.

Cancer, as with many other major illness, is incredibly isolating. The most effective means of offering support can be to spend time with the person. Even just sitting in the same room saying nothing is more powerful than all the flowery words in the world. Watching a movie together, or rubbing their feet, or bringing tea and mindless conversation is more powerful and meaningful to someone suffering the after affects.

And keep inviting them to things. There will be times when they say “no”, and it might feel like they say “no” more times than they say “yes”. But keep inviting them. Just knowing that they are wanted or needed can be unbelievably comforting.

5) Don’t focus on the disease, but don’t gloss over it either.

This one might seem like a paradox but it’s not. Cancer robs so much from the lives of those it infects, it shouldn’t rob a person of their identity either. Where someone used to be a prolific writer, or musician, or cook, or [insert interest here]—they are still that person. But to try to forget that a person’s life was irrevocably changed by such a powerful disease is to minimize their struggle.

6) Don’t expect there to be a time limit to their grief.

Telling a cancer patient to just stay positive, or to have faith, or to focus on being grateful is only meant to make the rest of the world comfortable. If the patient is angry, let them feel that anger. The stages of grief don’t have a formulaic time frame and it is unfair to expect that from anyone. Cancer robs so much, not just time. Though the obvious struggle might be over, the loss can sometimes have a rippling effect. A limb or a body part might have been removed, chemotherapy might have caused infertility or put a woman into early menopause, there could be a loss of cognitive functioning as a result of “chemo brain”, there could be significant weight loss or gain, there could be a loss of muscle function, there could be a loss of sexual intimacy or function, and there could be a loss of identity. These things continue to cause no end of anger, depression or sadness. It could cause the breakdown of a marriage due to stress and conflict. It could mean the loss of dreams and expectations for the future. Cancer patients find that sometimes they lose friends because of cancer. The most loving thing someone can do is allow the cancer patient to feel those things.

7) Continue to offer help

Cancer patients can often take up to a year or longer to recover after their final treatment. Fatigue is a huge symptom that is hard to overcome. Fatigue is more than just feeling tired. It is an absolute feeling of moving through quick sand. It is mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. Cutting the lawn, doing a load of laundry, shovelling a driveway, going grocery shopping, or cooking dinner can sometimes take every ounce of energy from a recovering cancer patient. There are good days, and that feels like a huge victory to them, but they are often short-lived. More times than not, a recovering cancer patient will skip over these basic chores that normal people would take for granted in favour of sleeping on the sofa watching re-runs of Friends.

8) Don’t minimize or ignore their fears.

No one wants to admit that a loved one could face this disease again, but those fears are realistic. It would be more productive to re-direct those fears. Help them face those fears.  Let them know that you will be with them every step of the way, and help them develop a contingency plan in the event that the cancer does return. Knowing that they have someone to face this disease with should it return is instrumental in moving beyond it and living for today.

9) Don’t disappear.

This is often the most hurtful aspect of dealing with cancer. Life does continue to move on even though the cancer patient feels like they are living in limbo. Making a conscious effort to remain present can be the single most important thing a loved one does. The cancer patient does eventually feel like they have been a drain on the ones around them. They are not oblivious to the extra effort that has been put forth by those around them to help support them during the chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. There will come a point where they will stop asking out of guilt or a feeling of becoming a burden. But they absolutely do still need their friends and family around them.

Someone fighting a life threatening illness will almost never make their loved ones feel guilty for not being there, not intentionally anyway. They already feel like they have taken too much, or that they have become a burden. This is the harsh truth of their recovery after the bell has been rung.