Lessons, tools and feelings gained in crisis; how do I make them last?
March 30, 2017 10:04 AM   Subscribe

My mother recently had surgery for a cancerous tumor and a long-ish hospital stay after. I'm her only daughter, and it was just me and her, battling through it, for what seemed like months but was actually only 12 days. It was scary, stressful and wonderful, an altogether strange experience. Crisis brought out the best in me, and I'm wondering how to hold onto those feelings and this new, better way of being in the world. Details inside.

When she came out of surgery fine on that first day, I was so happy and relieved - colors were brighter, I was fascinated by everything that I saw, I had immense empathy and curiosity for everyone that I encountered. I was having long, meaningful conversations with strangers. I was looking people dead in the eye. Food tasted incredible. I was hungry for details, open to beauty, able to make connections that felt profound at the time. I felt wide open to the world and almost like I was going crazy. I did a lot of crying.

In normal life I'm a very anxious person and in particular I experience varying levels of social anxiety. There's typically a loud internal voice that questions my decisions and choices, undermining, for example, my words as soon as I say them.

In the midst of this experience, though - a crisis, that I muddled through as best as I was able - that voice was replaced with one of utter support and love. Everything I was doing was the best possible thing, I just knew it. In conversations with strangers I felt that I was always picking the right word, the best way of saying whatever it was that I was trying to communicate.

Some of this mimicked what I've felt in the past in the beginning stages of falling in love, except it was much more all-encompassing, and I've never before had all of my social anxiety noise just completely disappear.

I'm back to my normal, now, back to my job and back to where I live, 800 miles from my mom (who is doing wonderfully, by the way). And i feel a little bereft, now, a little homesick. It's not just that I miss her, and miss being able to care for her - which I do, that's a huge part of it. But that intense period ended up being a space where everything was terrible and, as a result, everything was fine.

I have a few questions, I guess: have you experienced something like this? And, if so, were you able to hold on to any of these new feelings or tools for being in the world? Are there strategies for maintaining this level of openness and engagement, along with freedom from anxiety? Is it possible, long-term, to maintain that much empathy and love for others?

It honestly felt like I had unlocked a new ability in a video game - I could be this version of myself that was so much better, so much more on the level and less uncertain. I'd like to be able to keep being that person. I'm worried that it's already fading.
posted by elko256 to Human Relations (16 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
What you experienced was a profound but fleeting gap from discursive thinking; the hamster wheel of the mind that just goes on and on in habitual patterns, making you unhappy and anxious. Having an experience that cuts through the habits of mind is seeing your natural mind for maybe the first time, and it is amazing and powerful, actually experiencing the interconnected oneness of the world that is always present.

But you are right, it just fades away as the overlay of neurotic thinking patterns creep back and obscures your mind's clarity.

As a life-long spiritual seeker, the only thing that has brought me closer on a daily basis to what you experienced is becoming a buddhist and practicing meditation. Not an easy answer, I know. But that is the only thing that works for me (and that is what buddhism is intended to do, it is not just particular to me). But it is a slow process. What you experienced is a state of grace that in ordinary life takes a lot of time and effort to achieve outside of those intense live-or-die times in life.
posted by nanook at 10:32 AM on March 30, 2017 [13 favorites]

Yes I have experienced something like that, and my experience says that feelings like that are like hitting a moving target. There is something in the body (mine at least) that makes receiving those intense emotions not a simple input-output process. You have to study the liminal activites - the myriad of things that surround that experience, once or twice removed and seek to place yourself in those once again.

I am not able to hold onto those experiences, but I do not believe I was made to hold onto those experiences. I do believe almost anyone can have freedom from anxiety, but it requires making (what feel like) extreme changes to one's thoughts, actions and speech and one's environment permanently. It helps to have a guide through all this, either spiritual or a therapist - someone who can give you more objective analysis of what you do and why you do it.

Good luck!
posted by Dmenet at 10:34 AM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Meditation or other mindfulness practices.

The temptation for many is to keep themselves totally off-kilter and in perpetual crisis mode. The more life-affirming response is to find that calm internal center again, and again.
posted by lazuli at 10:36 AM on March 30, 2017 [11 favorites]

Start by just noticing the relationships between what you do and where you are, and how you are experiencing the world. Don't judge yourself, don't consider whether you are "succeeding" or "failing". Just observe. Later, you can use this information to make decisions.

This approach to non-critical observation of one's self is the main idea in the book "The Inner Game of Tennis" (it's by a tennis coach who derived the general principle, but learned it could be applied beyond tennis). This book also inspired a music-focused book: "A Soprano on Her Head".
posted by amtho at 10:55 AM on March 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

Having yes, experienced this a number of times, I think it is worth being cautious. I think of it like the adrenaline rush that makes people able to pick up cars. If it went on forever, it wouldn't be adaptive. That sort of instant bonding with strangers feels great but that kind of optimism and bouyancy can quickly, quickly sour no? For example imagine running into a con artist in that state.

But, I think what you experienced was a close encounter of the third kind with the preciousness of life. We rarely really get to FEEL how beautiful life is. That seems to be what happened to you. (It is amazing as well that your mom's surgery went well).

What about pulling a Thoreau, going out into the woods, seeking that clearheadedness and freedom from being in nature?
posted by benadryl at 10:59 AM on March 30, 2017 [11 favorites]

Gilda Radner said that cancer is a great thing, and if it weren't for the one down side, everyone would want it. I think this is precisely because of the feelings you're talking about. But hoping to maintain those feelings is kind of like hoping to stay in the ohmygodthisissowonderful stage of love forever. Humans really can't maintain that. I have an incurable cancer and while it does make me feel more grateful for the world in some ways, I don't maintain those intense feelings all of the time.

The practice of listing five things you are grateful for every day might help some though.

I am glad that your mom is doing well and that you were able to be such a help to her.
posted by FencingGal at 11:01 AM on March 30, 2017 [18 favorites]

We rarely really get to FEEL how beautiful life is.

Quoting benadryl for truth, here. As has been mentioned a few times already, I find meditation and mindfulness practice really helpful for this (i.e. if I'm walking to class and worrying about that, trying to disrupt that worry cycle by thinking about my footsteps, my breathing, the sunshine, etc.).
posted by Paper rabies at 1:12 PM on March 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Write yourself a story of yourself, during that time period. Before you go to sleep at night, with the lights out, bring the experiences up in your mind, lightly. Get up early the next morning, and see if you can write about them. Or give up your more passive entertainments for a week, and see if you can do the writing. Don't try to polish it at all: try to write quickly. You are making a first draft.

It'll be like a letter to yourself, anchored, as well as you can remember it, in what happened to you in those 12 days. Remember and record what happened, insofar as it affected you, and how you felt.

Some of it will be hard to return to, because you've absorbed and abstracted the experience already, but the act of recall can refresh it.
posted by the Real Dan at 3:50 PM on March 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

I experienced this for extended periods of time while caring for my critically ill child after her premature birth and during some episodic complications she experienced later. It profoundly changed me. I can still catch glimpses of it when I see her sleeping late at night, and particularly when I start to get stressed out or anxious in real life now, I take some deep breaths and remember the most poignant of those moments. It really helps me connect with the humanity of whatever situation I am currently facing. I can't say that it has removed all fear and anxiety now, but I literally cannot imagine anything that will ever affect me as much as those weeks, and it's much easier now to keep things in perspective. I don't think I will ever return to baseline (it has been several years now) and I feel like just knowing that I was capable of that level of empathy once helps me believe that I can do it again.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 4:52 PM on March 30, 2017 [7 favorites]

A book that might give some oblique insights into your situation is "A Paradise Built in Hell" by Rebecca Solnit. The title is a lil bit melodramatic and silly, but the book is (at the risk of sounding like a breathless newspaper reviewer) pretty freaking revelatory.

Solnit writes about disasters recent and historical (Hurricane Katrina, the Mexico City Earthquake of 1985, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, etc.), and examines the human connections and supportive communities that arose spontaneously during these disasters. And then she asks how we can capture that feeling -- "an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive" -- back in our normal lives, after the crisis has passed.

“The recovery of this purpose and closeness without crisis or pressure", she writes, "is the great contemporary task of being human.” Which sounds pretty relevant to your present situation.
posted by cnidaria at 8:43 PM on March 30, 2017 [6 favorites]

You might consider doing one of those trips where you backpack from hostel to hostel using public transportation. When I traveled in my early 20s, it did something similar for me.* I made lots of good connections with strangers. Travel brings you into the moment and into the place that you are, particularly traveling in a way that requires you to interact with your surroundings like that. Also, I was full of joy about being where I was and grateful for everything good that happened to me (e.g., feeling so lucky I ran into some people heading out to Rocky Mountain National Forest! and then feeling so blessed to be there when these mountain wildflowers are in bloom to see how beautiful they are!). Of course, I was a young white woman, so that helped, to say the least. I wouldn't recommend doing a road trip by car (too sheltered and too easy to stay detached from where you're at) or backpacking alone for days in the wilderness (that kind of solitude is a total head trip and an interesting experience but IMO not the one that you're seeking).
posted by salvia at 10:08 PM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

* I want to clarify that I don't think any travel experience could be exactly like what you went through. But, having not gone through the kind of life-and-death experience that you describe, certain times of travel have made me feel more alive, at peace, and grateful for the moment than I normally do in daily life.
posted by salvia at 10:11 PM on March 30, 2017

Exactly this happened to me in the last few hours of my father's life, when I was sitting beside him, looking at the window and experiencing such profound peace and profound sadness at the same time. I remember thinking that I never knew that peace could feel so sad, or sadness could feel so peaceful. It was a really beautiful and transcendent feeling. I guess there are neurological reasons for experiencing these feelings (extreme stress?), but I feel like it was one of those singular experiences which happen when you're close to the boundaries between this life and whatever is or isn't beyond. For me, anyway, it was really beautiful, and necessary too. I agree with previous posts that it's perhaps not a feeling to hope to hang on to, but just, everytime you feel your anxious brain whirring overtime, maybe take a step back and remember this feeling and what is really important and beautiful about life. I'm so glad your mum's doing better.
posted by Ziggy500 at 1:49 AM on March 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Have you considered a career change or volunteering? Burnout is a huge thing in frontline health and social services professions, and people in these roles have to maintain strong boundaries to maintain professionalism and to survive, vicarious traumatisation etc. are all very real issues, but a less spoken about flip side to all this is that if you can find a career and role that suits you and that is challenging without pushing you too much in terms of endless stress and within a supportive enough organisation (and broader social structure), this type of work can also be extremely life-affirming for the right kind of person. I say this as someone who works in front-line service provision for homelessness, and my best friend is an emergency nurse who loves her job and is very good at it. Lots of my other friends also work in health/social services. When I talk to my best friend and my other close friends about our jobs sure we complain about bureaucratic chaos and lack of funding etc but we also talk about having been privileged with seeing people at their worst but also at their best and engaging in a workday of (as you put it) looking people dead in the eye and talking to them about something important. I don't cry at work (well, very rarely) or feel like I'm going mad as you described but on a smaller scale every day I do come home and experience a small sense of wonder and gratefulness for the resilient people I have met at work that day and a little in awe of the fact I have a roof over my head, safety, a little bit of money in the bank, and the peace and freedom to appreciate the beauty around me. My best friend and I talk at length about how she experiences the same. Both me and my best friend's quality of life and mental health have improved since we started in our respective fields (both have been working in them for 5+ years now). One option might be to try volunteering in a front line role such as a hospital, soup kitchen, women's shelter, homelessness service, crisis line, or something else that suits your skills.
posted by hotcoroner at 4:54 AM on March 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think it's possible to incorporate some of this sense of purpose into your daily life. A big part of it is acceptance. Do not try to fight your social anxiety; instead, try to turn it in into a strength that may even help you connect to people. When the anxiety rears its head, acknowledge it and observe it. Experience it. Smother it with love, as difficult as it may seem. Tell the people you're with: "I'm feeling a bit socially anxious right now." Their reactions might surprise you in a pleasant way!
Don't hate the critical voice, don't try to resist it –– that will only make it stronger. Instead, gently try to listen to it with detached amusement and try to reword its harsh judgments into loving suggestions. For instance, rephrase "Ugh! Why am I so terrible at small talk!" into "Hmm... I can't seem to think of anything to say about the weather. Maybe I should make a list of mundane things to talk about for the next time I'm in a situation like this, or try to bring up something more profound." This takes a lot of practice; as they say, Rome wasn't built in a day. Try to enjoy the journey. As you yourself have experienced, there is great joy to be found even in extremely difficult times.
posted by tarantara at 12:32 PM on March 31, 2017

I HAVE experienced this a few times. It felt like some sort of spiritual enlightenment. I was never able to hold onto it for more than a few weeks.

Then, as I was doing some reading on Bipolar II (which I didn't think I had? I still don't know?) I realized these episodes could have been hypomanic episodes. They felt amazing and I still long for them. I'm still not sure what they were...
posted by bologna on wry at 1:10 PM on April 3, 2017

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