So I was reading Dr. Robert Anthony 's book, "Beyond Positive Thinking," this week, on a particularly gray day. I guess in wanting to kick the end of the winter out of my life right now, I needed some soul reprisal of some sort. In it, he discusses living in the moment and your "wants." As he explains, when most people are asked what their goals are, they mostly answer in ways such as, "Well, I don't want to be unemployed, or unhappy." In looking at our future, we seem to be constrained by our past and look forward to not repeating mistakes instead of living in a way that makes us truly happy. Fear seems to have a common and steady thread in our society and lives. Fear of losing our jobs, fear of losing a loved one, fear of the end of a relationship, or fear that a new one will mimic an old, dysfunctional one, all are understandable, but the most puzzling one always seems to be the ultimate fear of success in anything.
Having suffered from post traumatic stress disorder after I sustained my spinal cord injury gave me a brutal, rude awakening to what fear can do to you. As I awoke one afternoon in my hospital room in Stony Brook, all of a sudden this overwhelming sensation squeezed my chest and made my brain race in a way that I'd have to learn to quelch eventually. I could feel my pupils dilate, my heart race, and a sudden sweating of my forehead, all the while just wanting to run away and scream. This was all within four days of my becoming paralyzed, and my body simply hadn't come to terms with what had just happened to me. My brain couldn't register that I could no longer move my legs, so it would ask itself, then me in my sleep, "Do you have legs? Are you alive?" And I'd awake in a fervor, thinking I was about to die and feeling, really feeling like I was about to. I'd gasp for air, but there was enough oxygen in the room to calm me down, and the tears rolling down my face didn't even register what was going on. It was a brutal, carnal experience. Despite my family being by my side the entire time, PTSD can make you feel completely alone. You start to learn what triggers this reaction very quickly, and when it starts, you just want to make it stop and try to calm down and prevent it, but sometimes that makes it worse. At the onset, I'd think, "Oh God..." feeling like I was on the tallest roller coaster, slowly rolling toward the highest cliff of the Grand Canyon, realizing with complete fear that the tracks holding the wheels were ending at the edge of the cliff, but the coaster would ultimately jump off the edge, and you could do nothing to stop it. That's what it feels like. It feels like you don't want to feel this or go through this experience, but it will happen because it is carrying you through it, as much as you want to fight it. The doctors had prescribed a medication for a short term to alleviate those symptoms, when I was in the ICU, but it would make me feel like I was in a fog, and I decided against continuing that course of action.
Today, about 10 years after my injury and that first experience, I am much more in control of my PTSD. It does not control any aspect of my life any longer, though it does rear its head every year, at about the same time. Certain environmental cues move me toward it: the first warm day of spring, Memorial Day weekend looming, and even a friend's casual mention they are going to their beach house for the first time in a year immediately transport me back to this time, 10 years ago, a lifetime ago, in the blink of an eye. I remember exactly what I was wearing, the weather, temperature, every exact thing that I sometimes wish I'd forget, and my heart starts to race, and I go completely silent. I stop talking, laughing, writing, everything. I have been working through this year after year, and while the first couple of years it was too hard to bear, I now look at it in a different way. I am learning to let go of the fear of falling into that abyss of despair and actually see that my life is so much better than it was. And I have things to look forward to, and working on Clark's Botanicals, formulating new products and meeting with customers actually helps me cope and takes me out of my shell in the most gentle way.
Last summer, my grandmother had a quadruple heart bypass surgery; she was 90 years old. It felt as if all at once she couldn't walk up the stairs, and then get up out of her chair, and then one day her face just turned pale. She felt dizzy and constantly out of breath. I had been taking her with me every time I had meetings in Manhattan, much to her delight, but more so because I wanted to keep an eye on her and make sure she was eating and drinking, but it was getting worse. My father brought her to Columbia Presbyterian and the doctor told us she had a 98 percent blockage in her... it went all blank. My overdrive kicked in, as well as that of my entire family, and we all connected and took control and brought her immediately to the hospital. "If she had walked up one more flight of stairs, she would have died." This is a woman who survived stomach cancer and skin cancer, whose two sisters had succumbed to cancer. She was the epitome of a tough woman. And the day that my brother and I were in her room when the surgeon explained he'd be performing open heart surgery on her felt like an unfair deal of cards after so many battles she had endured.
When my brother translated that she'd need surgery, she gave the surgeon this look, "How could you dare do this to me..." and while my brother and sister and I were trying to explain it was necessary, I was trying to make it easier in any way I could. We brought family photos and put them everywhere in her room, flowers, played cards with her, and I played some music as she lay in the uncomfortable hospital bed, trying to distract her from the thought of waiting for her chest to be cracked open to have the main organ of her body manipulated and hopefully fixed. But her main concern was who was going to be cooking the Thursday and Sunday family dinners while she was at the hospital. She wanted to make sure everyone else was okay, except for herself. We'd bring food to her and eat with her, so the family meal was with her, calming her.
The surgery was a success, thankfully. And now she is much better than she was before, but the experience put a perspective on what stress and fear can do to a person. I was fearful for her death, as it was a big possibility and it put me in a state of shock, remembering how integral she has been in our lives as a constant spitfire. Thinking she could die just didn't make sense. So when she recovered, it crystallized this feeling of togetherness. Not a togetherness that excluded other people, but more realizing who and what are important to you, and seeing what your core was made of and appreciating that.
Life and death are there for all of us, and fear only seems to make life harder to navigate through. Waiting for a job promotion, or moving to a different city in a couple months, or having a baby, almost impose this overwhelming pressure that sets you up for a blunt, "And now what?" feeling once you've achieved those goals. And maybe that's easier said than done, but one thing I've learned for sure is this: Your life is made up of what you have right now, not what you have in a year from now, or even tomorrow, because those are factors completely out of your control and unknown. Right now, I'm excited to be able to feel my abs and part of my back, and be able to type this with my hands. This, I could not do five years ago, so fear can take a back seat and I'll let myself be happy for the many things I have to be happy about.
For more by Francesco Clark, click here.
For more on mindfulness, click here.