A few weeks ago, my life changed in an instant…again. My 78-year-old Aunt Marilyn had a massive stroke while talking to a friend on the phone and we’ve been in crisis mode ever since. Since the day I was born, Aunt Marilyn has been my biggest fan, my BFF and the consistent, empathetic voice that pulled me out of the depths after my parents’ sudden death 31 years ago. For as long as I can remember, Aunt Marilyn and I spoke on the phone nearly every day to exchange minute to minute updates of our lives and more recently to celebrate the hilarious things my daughters do and say. To quote the wise words of Shonda Rimes, “She’s my person.”
While Aunt Marilyn is now fighting this out in rehab, the road will be long and hard for her, and the recovery will never bring her back to who she was. I’ve been thrust into a world of home and long-term care logistics of medical jargon requiring every hamster in my brain to run wheels at top speeds. A world where sticking your tongue out on command is considered a huge win. And amidst the swirl of logistics, there are the moments I stand still, take a breath and realize anew the gravity of losing her. It will catch me off-guard walking down the crowded Brooklyn streets, or at a school event among strangers. It will even get me when I open my closet door and think about the countless hours we’ve spent over the years organizing every family members’ belongings. “Everyone needs an Aunt Marilyn...” I would say, opening my daughter’s closets with pride for each friend who came into our home.
As my childhood bestie put it, “Rach, this isn’t your first rodeo.” Anyone who knows me knows I’ve eaten a few shit sandwiches in my life. I know they say, it’s going to make me stronger, but I thought I was already really freaking strong! I’m strong enough, thanks! While it does help to have the hard evidence that I’ve come out the other end of these rock bottoms a stronger person—I’ve highlighted some of the ways I continue to move forward through it all in the hopes that I can help some of you who may be struggling with shit sandwiches of your very own.
1. Focus on right now:
A crisis can be paralyzing. There are a multitude of decisions to be made—decisions that you may not feel qualified to make, potentially life and death decisions…for someone else. In order to make these decisions, I focus on the information that’s in front of me right now and not the ripple effect they will have for everyone’s future. If I catch myself catastrophizing or spiraling into the many potential negative outcomes of these events before I have the information in front of me—I give myself some tough love (or bring in my people who will do that for me). Those future-focused worries are not helpful for anyone and will not bring me any closer to coming out of the crisis.
2. Write it all down:
One thing that helps me stay in the moment is to keep ongoing lists of what needs to happen and only prioritize the tasks for today or at most this week. During a crisis, you will only have room in your brain (that has dramatically downshifted in efficiency right now) for today—and that’s ok. We know this is not how you typically roll if you’re a Type A-ish person, like me. This time around, my husband and I created a Google doc and shared it with a few key family members so that we can all have access to the information we need and continue to update each other on progress. The shared document allows me to give up any hope that I will retain information as I normally would. If it’s not on the list, it doesn’t get done.
This sounds counter intuitive, but I tend to notice the funny moments in each of these overwhelming days. Like when one of my uncles decided to play department store elevator operator on the crowded hospital elevator. Doors open, my Uncle says, “Women’s wear, lingerie.” All heads turn at once. Many unimpressed, some offended. Retelling these stories to the select few who get (and even adore) the dark humor I’ve developed over the years AND laughing together at the ridiculousness of life has kept me sane. Thank you to that inner circle who understand why I’ve needed a daily laugh even more than a daily cry.
4. Make your health a top priority:
Right now, I want to eat ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but I'm not. I know I'm a critical player on this team and I must put my health first! Our tendency is to think about our own needs last given everything that’s currently at stake. This is not an approach that will get me through the long haul. I’ve been religious about my immunity boosting supplements, my mostly clean eating, my exercise (more about this in #5) and taking even a few quiet minutes to myself. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for feeling strong every morning when I wake, knowing all I must accomplish. It makes me re-double efforts (save a glass of wine or piece of chocolate here and there. I mean, I’m human!).
5. Do the things that make you feel like you:
The first four days I was in the hospital, non-stop. I was with family 24/7, talking, processing, making sure everyone else was ok and safe and had all the information they needed for the decisions in front of us. On the fifth day, I went for a 4 mile run in Prospect Park with a close friend in the morning. That run, that chat, that fresh air, that park I love—it was bliss. It was a reset button for me as is writing this piece right now. As I write, I’m getting calls from social workers and nurses and emails from home health care agencies—and after each one, I come back for more of my medicine which is writing and connecting with you. As crazy as it sounds, these things that bring me joy also give me the touchstones I need to know I'm going to be ok at the other end of this thing.
6. Get support:
I have the best people in my life. Family, friends (old and new), neighbors—EVERYONE has kept us afloat. I’m grateful beyond words. I’ve reached out to all my people to talk, laugh, cry, get referrals and information, entertain and care for our children when we need to be at the hospital. I am so lucky to have this support network to help me get through this. I’ve realized that reaching out to your people—even when it’s hard to ask for help—is an essential part to getting through a crisis in tact. I don’t have to be a one-woman army. That’s a sure-fire way to burn myself out. And if at some point I feel like I need the help of an un-biased professional, a therapist is always a good option, as well. I’ve done this after various crises in my life—starting when I lost my parents at age 11. It set the stage for me to be able to accept professional support when I needed it and internalize the strategies I learned to use on my own, as well.
7. Don’t expect perfection:
As I write this I’m squashing a voice in my head that’s telling me I’m taking too long to write this and it’s not the epic piece I wanted to write about this epic situation. I’m often catching my clients and myself in the desire for perfection. It’s unattainable on a good day, so right now, it’s out of the question! The interesting part about a crisis is that it’s quite a good time to practice dropping perfectionism in your life. It’s a time when priorities come into view and all of a sudden the stain on your five year old’s dress doesn’t seem to match up with whether or not your aunt will be able to swallow food ongoing. One of these things is not like the other. And by making the choice to not focus on the trivial details, I can create the muscle memory that I will continue to recall post-crisis.
8. Practice gratitude:
This has been a no-brainer for me, but it’s worth mentioning. At the end of a long day of watching my aunt struggle and my uncle heartbroken over seeing her this way, I’m eternally grateful for much in my life. For my husband who is my partner in all of this, for his health and his ability to put his arms around me to make me know it’s going to be ok. I savor the moment I can snuggle in bed with my five year old and watch her figure out how to read with all consuming pride. And hearing my eight year old have legitimate and interesting conversations with all of our friends and neighbors like she’s eight going on forty. These are the reminders of the joy life is capable of providing, even in the face of struggle and sickness and uncertainty.
There was once a time when I would have carried a lot of shame around the fact that I’ve been through enough crises to create a framework around managing them. But, now I know it’s one of those things that draws people to me, that makes them want to put me on their short list of people to call when they’re in it. I take those calls with a calm presence and an empathy that lets my people know—you’re going to make it through. I believe in you. And they do make it. Now they have the chance to use what they’ve learned to help me make it too—and I couldn’t be more grateful.