How well do you receive support?
Writer and psychotherapist Dr Stephanie Dowrick describes what best supports us after a diagnosis of serious illness
There is never a “right time” to discover that you have been diagnosed with a serious or life-changing illness. And there is certainly no one “right way” to respond. Almost all of us have a picture of the ideal patient in our minds. Which means that in the midst of all that we are already dealing with, it is extremely tempting to test ourselves against that imagined ideal – and to fail.
Our imagined patient is not just brave. He or she is heroic (of course!). She doesn’t complain, even when her treatments feel like torture. She doesn’t weep (or throw up) at the wrong time. She certainly doesn’t shout “why me?”. However serious the news, she continues to be calm, trusting, infinitely stoic and good to be around. In fact, she is lovelier in every way than she has ever been! What’s more, she (or he) has tireless circles of friends and family whose care and affection is invariably welcome.
Are you laughing as you read this list? I hope so! Because the reality for most or all of us is, of course, quite different.
We are not idealized, one-dimensional people. We are complex human beings and none of us can know in advance how we will deal with the stresses of a serious illness. In fact, it is immensely helpful to remember that illness happens in lives that are already complicated. Serious illness brings new complications and it is likely to need a period of adjustment that may move through different stages, not unlike grief.
Telling ourselves we should not be feeling what we are feeling is never helpful. Even as we learn new and more effective ways to support ourselves – and we can do that – we will still be dealing with old emotional habits, as well as facing the new and sometimes frightening realities of life-changing illness.
Helping ourselves effectively involves discovering new strengths, and regarding our fears and “weaknesses” with genuine compassion – an attitude that is quite different and much more healing than self-pity, shame or denial. But that takes time, good will and perhaps a new openness to ourselves and acceptance of others.
It is realistic to know that illness will create real stress also for the people around us. A more generous view of ourselves can extend to a more generous view of the people on whom we depend. It is not helpful or realistic to expect ourselves to be “ideal” patients. Nor to expect our loved ones to be “ideal” support people.
A more generous view of ourselves can extend to a more generous view of the people on whom we depend.
Illness can drive people apart rather than bringing them closer. But that is much more likely to happen when expectations are unrealistic or when people are not allowed to live their new roles in the highly individual ways that reflect their inner truth. We won’t ever all be the same kind of patient. We won’t ever all be the same kind of support person.
In the real world, most of us discover day by day and bit by bit how best to meet a situation we would never have chosen, one that brings all kinds of fears and sorrows but also some quite unexpected opportunities.
These ideas may be helpful.
• Take it for granted that you can’t predict your response to a serious diagnosis or treatment – and nor can your nearest and dearest. Don’t judge yourself or others against ideals that belong only on television or in your imagination.
• Take advice – including this – with a pinch of salt. Illness brings many opinions out of the woodwork. Accept only what “feels right”. Trust your instincts. For the rest? Smile and say, “How interesting!”
• If you are the support person, keep “advice” and opinions to a minimum.
• Give yourself and others the gifts of time: no sense of hurry; a spaciousness that allows for listening and being.
• Trivialising your own or someone else’s suffering is a defence mechanism that isn’t helpful. Catastrophizing is also unhelpful. The old cliche of one day at a time, dealing with what’s right in front of you, works well for many people.
• Step up your communication skills. Whether you are the support person or the person being supported, share what you are feeling and what you want. When things are not “said” it is far more likely that at least one of you will “act out” your fears or resentments through withdrawing, argument, belittlement, bitterness, criticism, getting drunk, never leaving the office…
• Asking for what you want and need doesn’t mean you will always get it. Acknowledge that.
• Appreciate and affirm what you ARE getting! Gratitude is a wonderful way to encourage others, no matter how helpless we feel.
• Many people find it difficult to receive. If you are one of them, take a deep breath, open your heart a little wider, and practise! Use your journal to write down what stands in your way of “easy receiving”, especially old attitudes, and also to note how good it feels when others receive gracefully what you yourself are willing to do or give.
• No matter how close you and your partner or support person are, recognize that you both need other people in your life to listen, encourage and care. Support people also need support.
• Know that fear and stress sometimes mean that the best-intentioned people will behave badly. Intelligent professional help can work wonders, especially when old fears are newly triggered (for example, you or your support person may have lost a sibling or parent as a child, and may be coping with a reawakening of that, as well as the present situation.).
• Banish criticism, resentment and “blaming”. All are toxic and will seriously undermine your relationships and sense of self when you need them most.
• Recognize you are likely to feel globally vulnerable – not just about your illness. This is not the time to fix other people’s problems or to put up with behaviour that is abusive, violent or confusing. You literally cannot afford to do so. Again, professional help can work wonders. So can clarifying your needs through journal writing.
• Make it a top priority to spend time that is not about “managing” your life or illness but experiencing what’s most uplifting and delightful. Know what gives your life its special sweetness. Bring those moments to the forefront of your life.
On 11 April Dr Stephanie Dowrick will begin the first of six evening workshops in the “Support for Life” Sydney series. Although this is Stephanie’s first group with Quest, she has been running groups for many years and also working with Breast Cancer Network..
For further details and bookings for Stephanie’s “Support for Life” visit the Quest for Life website. You are invited to join Stephanie on her Facebook page or visit her website.
You might like to read Stephanie’s other post After the Diagnosis
Reverend Stephanie Dowrick, PhD is best known as the author of life-changing, accessible books that are encouraging and inclusive. They include Intimacy and Solitude, Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love, The Universal Heart and Choosing Happiness: Life & Soul Essentials. Her newest book (2010) is Seeking the Sacred: Transforming Our View of Ourselves and One Another.
She is a qualified psychotherapist and an ordained interfaith minister and has been leading and teaching groups of many kinds for more than two decades, including spiritual retreats and well being groups. She is in constant demand as a speaker both nationally and internationally.
Stephanie was born in New Zealand and lived in Europe for many years. She was founder and first Managing Director of the London publishing house, The Women’s Press. She came to Australia in 1983 and has lived in Sydney ever since. She was the “Inner Life” columnist for Good Weekend Magazine from 2001-2010 (Sydney Morning Herald and The Age), and for many years has been a regular guest on ABC Radio. Stephanie is currently an Adjunct Fellow with the Writing & Society Research Group at the University of Western Sydney where she completed her doctorate in 2008. She works regularly with Breast Cancer Network Australia and is also an active ambassador with the International Women’s Development Agency. She gives regular interfaith service at Pitt Street Uniting Church in Sydney, is the mother of two adult children and lives in Sydney.
Read Full Post »