I'm alive! Now what?
April 29, 2011 7:17 PM   Subscribe

A medical condition that should have killed me didn't. I'm just understanding (three years later) just how lucky I was. What are some ways that I can keep this feeling of being lucky and grateful to be alive in happy, life-affirming (i.e., not morbid or overly emo) ways?

Probably more backstory than you need:

* I have always been a super-worrier, and I have worried and fretted about death (which, yes, I know is pointless) for as long as I can remember.
* My 40th birthday in a few months has been making me all thoughtful and weird.
* I have an almost-three-year-old son who is the awesomest person ever.

During my son's difficult birth I suffered an aortic dissection that wasn't identified at the time. These are very very often immediately fatal. Mine wasn't. I didn't even know that it had happened until two years later, when my doctor detected a bruit in my pulse during a routine checkup and CT scans and ultrasounds confirmed that I had an old aortic dissection and a relatively smallish (not surgery-sized) abdominal aortic aneurysm.

A follow-up ultrasound with my vascular doctor recently (a year after the initial diagnosis and almost three years after it happened) showed that the dissection has healed itself and the aneurysm is stable. Basically, my doctor says I need to keep getting an annual ultrasound to keep an eye on it, but when I asked how worried I should be, her reply was "not at all."

I didn't really realize how freaked out I've been about dropping dead any minute until I found out that my chance of doing that is now not much higher than anyone else's. I feel really really lucky and really really grateful. I kind of feel like I've gotten "extra" time, in a way.

I just got a new kitten who is totally life-affirming, and I'm going to freak both my kid and my husband out if I keep grabbing and hugging them and getting all sappy all the time.

So, my question: What are some concrete things I can do--every day, or once in awhile--to remind myself that I'm alive and that rocks and I don't want to take it for granted?

TL;DR: Please give me your most awesomely life-affirming suggestions for ways to feel and act grateful every day (or, you know, as much as reasonably possible)?
posted by devotion+doubt to Religion & Philosophy (20 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
In your situation, I would thoughtfully sit down and spend a few minutes every day just watching and loving your child. There is no better way to affirm your survival than to relish that opportunity.
posted by tomswift at 7:21 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Whenever you're enjoying something, remember that you almost never had the chance to enjoy it again. When things seem rotten, start counting all the new things you have found and loved since the time you almost died. In other words, all the awesome stuff you would have missed.

At first it helps put things into perspective. But eventually with time you realize that the difference between "the good stuff I would have missed" and "the bad stuff I would have missed" is not as great as most people think.

I am grateful even for the bad stuff in life. That sounds pretty weird to people who haven't nearly died. But we - the survivors - understand.

At a very basic level, everything is awesome.

('Specially kitties.)
posted by ErikaB at 7:23 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

About 20 years ago, my ex-wife's uncle fell off his roof and broke his neck. He nearly died, but he didn't. He slowly, slowly made a full recovery.

Every year since then, he's hosted a "Thank God I'm Alive" party, a simple backyard BBQ where people bring a dish and there's always plenty to eat and drink. The party always goes late.

Every year he has two party favors, one representing life, and the other representing death. The last one I remember, he gave out tiny potted plants, and a "deluxe" fly swatter. He's a funny guy.

Oh yeah, one more thing -- at the party, there's always a chalk outline of where he hit the pavement after his fall.

It's always one of the social events of the year. Congrats on being alive.
posted by Buffaload at 7:40 PM on April 29, 2011 [39 favorites]

I would write my thoughts on life and gratitude on note cards and put them up on the wall say in the bathroom and kitchen. Also, I say thank you out loud a lot during the day. This is a simple way to remind myself of the mystery and joy of the gift of being alive.
posted by cerebral at 7:49 PM on April 29, 2011

When I was starting treatment for cancer last year, one of the technicians who was getting me ready for a CT or a PET scan said to me: "you will be presented with a treasure every single day. Just keep your eyes open." It was a great mindset that got me through a lot of rough days, and has been a really valuable way to frame how I look at things now that I'm in remission.

Also, I came across a quote recently that resonated on exactly this level: "The truth of being human is gratitude, the secret of existence is appreciation, its significance is revealed in reciprocity. Mankind will not die for lack of information; it may perish for lack of appreciation." (Abraham Joshua Heschel)

In short: consciously cultivate gratitude. Use setbacks as illustrations of how fortunate you are (for example, I now genuinely appreciate having had cancer because it served as a reminder of how spectacularly lucky I am to have a life filled with supportive and loving friends and family). If you remind yourself to do this regularly, in very quick order it will become a habit.
posted by scody at 7:49 PM on April 29, 2011 [23 favorites]

Pay it forward. Pass on the good feeling by being positive and kind and thoughtful towards others.

My situation isnt nearly as intense as yours, but I had a rough couple of months lately and had been feeling stressed and cynical, until the past two days where my friends and colleagues totally surprised me with a massive display of support and love. I'm still completely mind blown and it's made me realize that despite all the crap in my life, I'm incredibly lucky to be where I am, surrounded by these people.

I'm still high off the good energy and found the best way to sustain that high is to pass it on. Do something nice & unexpected for someone. It doesn't have to be anything crazy or dramatic. Simple things like a compliment, a smile, (a cookie! lol) can really brighten up someone's day and you'll feel good knowing that they are feeling that same kind of happiness you're feeling. :)
posted by joyeuxamelie at 7:49 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just a start:
Walk instead of drive.
Don't use packaged/processed food.
Sit down at the table for dinner every night.
Stop and let a breeze wash over you.
Don't worry about rain.
Pick a flower and put it behind your ear.
Pop on your headphones, sit back in a chair, and blast a song you loved 10/20 years ago.
Write someone you love a letter -- doesn't have to be sappy, just true.
Have a professional photographer take some candid photographs of your family, or even better, just you.
Start a tradition and keep to it -- I do an annual dinner party for all women.
Take up a sport.
Take up a musical instrument.
Learn a language.
posted by thinkpiece at 7:52 PM on April 29, 2011 [7 favorites]

Thomas Merton said that gratitude is the foundation of faith. I love your description of the kitten's life-affirming nature. May it never cease to remind you of the wonder of embodiment, of being present to your own physical nature.
posted by Mertonian at 8:09 PM on April 29, 2011

I also nearly bought the farm about 3 years ago.

My advice: meditate.

And there's nothing wrong with being genuinely expressive of emotion, as long as you don't use it as a way of controlling people. They'll just have to get over it.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:09 PM on April 29, 2011

"I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"

Kurt Vonnegut said it well.
posted by gaspode at 8:10 PM on April 29, 2011 [28 favorites]

I was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck three times. I was blue, I scored 1 on the APGAR, and I was not breathing. I am alive today solely because there happened to be an anesthetist at the hospital who was experienced at intubating newborns.

One thing I think about often is that if I was born at any pretty much any prior time in the world's history, I would have most certainly died when I was an otherwise healthy baby. I was so lucky to be born where and when I was. In that vein, I try to live my life in such a way that I will leave the world better than I found it. For me, this means focusing on environmentally conscience living, being an informed and engaged citizen, working in the public service, and staying close with my family. I have also donated several times to the hospital that saved my life, and to other charities. I hope that in the future, other people will be able to say how lucky they were to be born in a time and place where they could survive what was in past an unsurvivable condition.

Don't pressure yourself to make every day of your life Significant; some days just suck, and that's fine. My personal feeling is that going forth and living a normal, full and happy life with your family is the best way to demonstrate your gratitude at having the chance to do just that.
posted by just_ducky at 8:22 PM on April 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

Smile your secret smile every time you think of it. This feeling is awesome— not in the trite slangy way we all say awesome these days. Enjoy every small thing, sunlight on water, the breeze in your hair, grass growing in the cracks of the sidewalk, watching your son sleep and wake up. Laugh a lot, especially on tough days. You are here!
posted by a humble nudibranch at 8:48 PM on April 29, 2011

Let yourself get really excited about things. For example, go to the zoo and look at the anteater/giraffe/myna bird and imagine you were born 100 years earlier and maybe saw them in a book once.

I have a lot more fun when I look at the world like this.
posted by birdbone at 8:51 PM on April 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

These are all "best answers" as far as I'm concerned--keep 'em coming please! :)
posted by devotion+doubt at 8:53 PM on April 29, 2011

An annual "Thank God I'm Alive" party is a good idea, if you want to commemorate it in an ongoing way!

I lived through some life-threatening abuse, and when I think about it too hard sometimes it still doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me that I am alive. (Not in a morbid or scary suicidal ideation way, just in a "now that I think about it, I'm not sure how to process this information! hm!" kind of way.) I have a mental list of things that bring me visceral joy in my own embodiment, and when I am in a reflective mood I sometimes pull an item from the list and do it. It's stuff like sex (sex is great!), hot baths with a few drops of lavender oil in there (smelling things is amazing!), going to the beach on a cold day and taking off my shoes and leaping around in the water and sand like a little kid (bracing!), going for a long walk in the rain without caring how soaked I get, and shopping for flowers (ah, the incredible variety of plants!).

I also like the last few lines of a poem by Lucille Clifton:
come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
Being alive is totally something to celebrate. Congratulations!
posted by bewilderbeast at 8:53 PM on April 29, 2011 [8 favorites]

Girl, you need to love that child and live in the moment of the sparkle of his eyes. Face it, he's east and you're west. You love and he rises. You are inescapably tied to ebb and flow, to tightness and freedom, to forward and reverse, inside and outside. Just say "thank you" and "I love you" when you mean it.

Here's some poemage:

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 9:07 PM on April 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

mary oliver!!!
posted by lakersfan1222 at 9:07 PM on April 29, 2011

I just want to join in here, despite my infamously cranky condemnation of the a-word a week or so ago, to say this thread is Awesome.

Gratitude is the finest of emotions.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 6:48 AM on April 30, 2011

I feel very strongly about this.

In the hospital after a major accident with head injuries, I saw a "nurse" who was "lit up" All the other nurses were doing their jobs well. This one was different. At the moment I saw here I said to myself, "I want her around because if she is around I am going to get well." I've aspired and have cultivated that ever since.

It will be a year this May 16th that my lover left her body from cancer. Even when I knew she wasn't going to make it I made sure I walked into her room/home bright and full.

This is what I came out with. Link is to save space. I've got to teach a class soon.

If in a yucky place tell yourself, 'In three days I'll be feeling different"

Scody's Heschel quote (for me, for today) nails it.

P.S. Smile at older people on the street.
posted by goalyeehah at 9:13 AM on April 30, 2011

I have to say more......

Write/Create for those behind you

to a artist friend who sent in a bio regarding his work. I was reading it, it was very bleak and I beginning to throw things out thinking what if his current 5 year old son reads this when his father passes away and he is looking for answers.

The movie Fearless cover similar territory. I know and have felt what the Jeff Bridges character goes through. I am always left in tears and so ecstatic that I am here and in this body
posted by goalyeehah at 10:50 AM on April 30, 2011

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