A backpack filled with stones

IMG_1486

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Had a conversation this week with a friend facing some serious health stuff. She’s not getting the support she needs and someone who should be there for her is instead adding to her very considerable stress by not being useful and making needed changes.

No one wants a backpack filled with stones.

I won’t be more specific but it was clear to me — as someone who’s had health issues (that oh-so-American euphemism for cancer) since June 2018 — that the minute you get a shitty diagnosis (or lose your job or face the loss of a loved one), your life is now weighted down in ways that may appear invisible to others but are very, very heavy and something you (mostly) alone are carrying.

Shame — especially in the U.S. where being “unproductive”, ill and needy is somehow taboo — adds yet another damn boulder.

Unless you can drop the backpack — and ask for help and count on getting it — having to listen to anything stupid, thoughtless or callous (and there’s plenty of it out there, from friends, family and medical staff) only adds another few stones.

No one wants that pack.

No one wants to carry it, sometimes for months or even years.

In tough times, their pack is already filled with grief and fear and physical pain and exhaustion and guilt and anxiety.

Carrying it isn’t much of a choice, even as others call you “brave” and “tough” and call out “you can fight this.”

If you know someone facing tough times, please do anything you possibly can to lighten their load.

Diminish that pack.

 

Do not add one more stone.

 

“You’re normal”

IMG_2217

Fragility is humbling and frightening

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been a rough week, slowly recovering from my last radiation treatment — October 15 — and still fighting its cumulative fatigue and insane itchiness on my left breast. I was at my wits’ end, crying in public, (I almost never cry anywhere), just done.

I had a follow-up meeting with the radiation doctor, to be told I’d gained (!?) 10 pounds in six weeks and now needed blood tests to see why. This despite seeing my clothes fit more loosely and gaining compliments on my apparent weight loss.

Our GP, thankfully, saw us an hour later and did the tests; (I’m fine.)

But I started crying in his office, weary of all of it.

I apologized for being a big blubbering baby, ashamed and embarrassed by my inability to control my emotions.

“You’re normal,” he said, calmly and compassionately.

Jose, my husband, sat in the room with us, listening as I absorbed this pretty basic fact.

What, I’m not made of steel?

I’m…vulnerable?

Human?!

Kelly’s tend to be (cough) ambitious and driven; three of us won major national awards in the same month, when I was 41, my younger half-brothers then 31 and 18; I for my writing, they for business skills and for a key scientific discovery, (yes, the youngest!)

We tend to aim high, compete ferociously for as long as it takes, (each of my books, later published by major NYC houses, were rejected 25 times), and usually win, dammit!

We keep our emotions very close to the vest and keep small, tight circles of intimates. I don’t really do acquaintance.

 

Being weak, scared, in pain, exhausted and, even worse, letting others see us in this condition?

 

Terrifying.

I’m slowly getting used to it.

Compassion for my fragility is my new oxygen, as much for myself as the gratitude I feel for that shown to me.

 

 

The having (or not) of faith

By Caitlin Kelly

The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Faith in action -- that collective community response still matters
The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Faith in action — that collective community response still matters

I married a PK, a preacher’s kid.

Jose’s father was a Baptist minister in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His parish numbered about 30 — with a church large enough to hold 200. He faced many empty pews, yet kept on going.

His mother was a kindergarten teacher.

She was, he says, the epitome of faith.

Money was often tight and Jose, the sensitive, often worried baby of the family, sometimes wondered if everything would be OK.

“Have faith,” his mother told him.

We tend to talk about faith in narrow religious terms, as faith in a deity or a set of guidelines.

I’m interested, here, in the faith we place in ourselves, in one another and in the world around us.

Without it, without even a shred of it, we’re paralyzed. Too scared to move.

I started selling my creative work to strangers when I was 12. I sat on a Toronto street corner and sold bead necklaces. At 15, I sold my home-made stationery and at 18, my photos — and was gratefully stunned when one of the city’s top fashion photographers bought one.

Maybe that flickering flame of faith in myself, in my nascent skills, in my ability to connect with others who found value in my work danced a little higher then.

Yes, this machine will work. If we feared it wouldn't, then what?
Yes, this machine will work. If we feared it wouldn’t, then what?

Without faith in ourselves we’re lost.

Without faith in our parents — to guide, teach, protect us — we feel un-moored and unsafe.

Without faith in our intelligence and stamina, we can’t accept that learning can be exhausting and difficult.

Without faith in our elected and appointed officials, we can’t function — imagine the rage and distrust so many African-Americans are feeling in the face of the five unarmed black men recently shot in the United States by police.

It takes tremendous faith to forge ahead in the face of despair, illness, fear and anxiety.

To wake up with pennies in your pocket and to find the faith that, somehow, things are going to get better.

To face a diagnosis that terrifies you, and keep putting one foot in front of the other.

To inhabit a home that once welcomed  your husband or wife, now fled to the arms of someone else, wondering if anyone, anywhere, will ever love you again.

I think faith is forged in the fire of fear.

Phoenix-like, we have to rise from the smoking embers of what-we-thought-would-happen, while we figure out what happens next instead.

Without some solid skills we know we can trust, without friends and family who know and believe in the best of us, without some notion it will all be OK, we’re toast.

Having survived some horrendous episodes in my own past — a mentally-ill parent, family alcoholism, divorce, job loss, criminal attack — I know I’ll make it through. Somehow.

Faith + I’ll-get-through-this-somehow = resilience.

The past few weeks, for a variety of reasons, have demanded I stolidly move forward, in spite of sometimes paralyzing doubt in a few outcomes. Without the faith I’ll survive them, emotionally and physically, I’d consider staying in bed in the fetal position.

IMG_1529

Instead, I went out this weekend to play softball with my co-ed pickup team, a posse of people, some 50 years apart in age, that I’ve known, loved and shared post-game, beneath-the-trees lunches with for a decade.

I stepped up to the plate, picked up the bat, wondered, in my first game of the season what would happen next — and hit a single.

Do you have faith in yourself?

In others?

29 Days Of Giving Can Change Your Life, Says Author With MS

A Clock - and a Remembrance of Love
Your time is a gift...Image by Tony the Misfit via Flickr

Altruism can, quite literally, make you feel better, reports The New York Times. A new book, “29 Gifts: How A Month of Giving Can Change Your Life” chronicles the decision by 36-year-old Cami Walker, an L.A. woman diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, to focus her energy every day on others. The result? Reduced pain and a slowing in the progression of her disease.

Ms. Walker gave a gift a day for 29 days — things like making supportive phone calls or saving a piece of chocolate cake for her husband. The giving didn’t cure her multiple sclerosis, of course. But it seems to have had a startling effect on her ability to cope with it. She is more mobile and less dependent on pain medication. The flare-ups that routinely sent her to the emergency room have stopped, and scans show that her disease has stopped progressing.

“My first reaction was that I thought it was an insane idea,” Ms. Walker said. “But it has given me a more positive outlook on life. It’s about stepping outside of your own story long enough to make a connection with someone else.”

And science appears to back her up. “There’s no question that it gives life a greater meaning when we make this kind of shift in the direction of others and get away from our own self-preoccupation and problems,” said Stephen G. Post, director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University on Long Island and a co-author of “Why Good Things Happen to Good People” (Broadway, 2007). “But it also seems to be the case that there is an underlying biology involved in all this.”

An array of studies have documented this effect. In one, a 2002 Boston College study, researchers found that patients with chronic pain fared better when they counseled other pain patients, experiencing less depression, intense pain and disability.

Do you make it a point to give to others every day? Is it a gift of your time, money, attention? How, if at all, has it changed your life?