In April 2012, I had surgery for a brain tumor. At first my efforts were focused on managing life, not necessarily living it.
I thought maybe the reason I got sick was to give me a wake-up call to slow down and smell the roses. How, then, can life turn out to be even more complicated, scary, stressful, and time consuming? Perhaps my lesson with illness isn’t quite that simple. With most of my questions unanswered and new challenges to face, I had to find ways to cope. There are three main coping mechanisms that I used. Coping mechanisms are needed when there has been trauma, whether it is from illness or another cause. They keep us from getting overwhelmed and can be a healthy part of the healing process especially if you aware of them, allow them to evolve, and use them to help you adapt to life challenges in positive, healthy ways. Coping behaviors often start with those that help us "shut down" in order to rest, recuperate, prioritize, and re-focus and then progress toward new, positive behaviors that help us engage in life again.
Coping Mechanism 1: I narrowed my world to only include illness management. I stopped listening to the news, forgot what was happening in the world, minimized my work, and stopped marketing and creating workshops. I limited communication to email as a way of informing my friends and loved ones of my progress and had my husband handle this for the first 6 months. I realized just recently that in order to cope with the overwhelming nature of my visual processing difficulties, my subconscious mind further narrowed my field of vision to what was right in front of me. Too much stimulation overwhelmed my senses so a quiet environment became a must. I even isolated myself from others with the same illness (until recently). I didn’t want to hear about survival statistics or others stories in order to protect myself emotionally. I wanted to focus my thinking on being well and not fill my head with worries, concerns, and negative projections.
Please note that coping mechanism 1 is a temporary state. As you start to use other techniques and as you accept and get used to life changes you will not need the isolation and confined environment.
Coping Mechanism 2: Therapy, support, and more support. This includes working with a wonderful therapist who helps keep me sane and cope with the significant losses and permanent changes in my life. Daily breathing exercises give me the quiet internal peace I need and increase my energy. Hypnotherapy keeps my mind focused on taking control of what I can control . . . myself: my choices, my decisions, my communication, my actions and what I believe. This includes introspection on what changes I want to make in my life and deciding what is important. The support of loving family and friends is also important when coping with loss and change. They are like an anchor that helps keep us secure, loved, and sane in the midst of chaos and struggle.
Coping Mechanism 3: Keeping life normal and creating things to look forward to. I decided to do what I was capable of during each step of my healing process, which meant not fighting the things I couldn’t do. As I mastered what I could do or accomplish I noticed my abilities increasing. There are some things I am still not capable of doing (like driving and reading) so I have learned to compensate for these limitations by focusing on my strengths and cultivating new skills and ways of doing things. For example, I learned to memorize numbers so I could dial the phone and investigated electronic devices to help me with other tasks. I started to look at the calendar and find free time available to me within the constraints of my doctor visits and treatments. On these precious free days I plan fun outings, time with friends, and, even more bravely, vacations!
Coping mechanisms start as ways to contain and handle overwhelming feelings and situations and then evolve in creative ways to find support, adapt, and even thrive. This process is normal and there are times when some of the earlier techniques must be employed to keep balance and promote healing. With chronic or catastrophic illness, life has changed forever, but life can still have meaning, goals, pleasure, fun, and freedom.
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