Wrestling with Gratitude

Rude Awakening

It started off a normal week like so many others that had come before it – work, kids’ activities, chores and all the mundane things that make up our lives, until Thursday. I awoke to an urgent, “What time is it? I think we slept through the alarm!” I opened my eyes, disoriented, lifted my head off the pillow to check the time, and began screaming. I was skewered with excruciating pain in my upper back and down my entire right arm. Now, I know I am rather a wimp when it comes to pain tolerance, but this was like nothing I had ever experienced in my life. All of the nerves in my right arm were screaming with fire and I couldn’t move anything from my rib cage up.

What on earth was going on? I had gone to bed a perfectly normal functioning person and then awoke in the worst pain I had ever felt. Needless to say, I freaked out and started thrashing about while my partner tried to figure out what had just happened. I eventually managed to find a position on my left side where the pain was somewhat bearable. My mind raced with questions. Clearly I was not going to work that day.

Because we had slept in, the kids were already awake and raring to go so I figured I should try to get up and help. Bad idea. The second I got upright it was like someone brought a hammer down on the nerves in my right arm. Now what? Eventually I had to get up to go to the bathroom. Suffice to say it wasn’t pleasant.

Once I got back to bed and had recuperated enough from my trip down the hall to think a bit, I tried to assess the situation. I thought about what could be going on and who I should go see for treatment. I figured I might miss two weeks of work or so, maybe three at worst.

Helplessness

I spent the next 10 days being completely unable to be in an upright position at all without unbearable pain. My partner had to drive me to medical appointments while I sat in the passenger seat with my head between my knees as the traction this provided on my upper back was the only thing that allowed me to remain sitting. I even had to eat lying down. I had treatment pretty much every day for that first period of time, including massage therapy, osteopathy, and physiotherapy.

Eventually I got to the point where I could sit in a reclined supported position for brief periods of time with a somewhat bearable level of pain. The second week went by, then the third. By the time I got to the fourth week I realized whatever was going on was not going to go away quickly. I was still unable to sit completely upright and standing or walking was extremely painful.

I was so debilitated I couldn’t help with anything around the house. As a physiotherapist who has treated many people with disabilities, I don’t take things like walking for granted. However, I will admit that I did take sitting upright for granted. Not anymore. Believe me, one is not very functional when one cannot sit up straight for any period of time. When I say that I was unable to do anything around the house, I mean literally nothing. I couldn’t wash a dish, prepare a meal, help the kids at bath time, or drive anywhere.

Slow Recovery

I am now into week 12 and I am still not very functional. I can’t walk very far or remain standing for long. I can’t use my arms for anything other than picking up a few dishes and toys. I can’t do errands like grocery shopping. About the only things I can do are wash a limited number of dishes, cook an already pre-chopped and organized quick meal, pick up the kids from school, and do small errands (one at a time of course) that do not involve lifting anything.

The worst of it is watching my partner having to do absolutely everything while I slouch on the couch, useless. Obviously I am unable to work which means no income. I am an extrovert and I have been trapped at home by myself all day every day starving for social interaction. I have difficulty going out for coffee or a meal because sitting in a regular chair is very painful. In short, my daily life could not be more radically opposite to what it normally is.

So how to handle the situation? I went from being a very active and fit person to being essentially confined to bed and the couch. I am a physiotherapist who can’t stand up or use her arms. I am a mom who can’t play with her kids or take them on outings. I am a get it done yourself kind of person who now has to rely on others to do almost everything.

Choosing Gratitude

I could (and I don’t think anyone would blame me if I did), fall into a very negative thinking pattern. I could spend every hour being angry and bitter, cursing the universe for having done this to me. I could lie awake every night stressing about my lack of income. I could go hide in a corner and not interact with anyone. I could give up. I could be questioning who I am if not a competent physiotherapist, mom, and get ‘er done kind of person.

Of course I have experienced moments of all of the above, but overall I am doing miraculously okay. How am I managing this? One word – gratitude. I will admit that before all this happened, practicing gratitude was one of those things that I knew I should do because it’s good for me, but never really applied – kind of like cutting down on sugar or doing yoga every day. Well now, given the situation, my only other choice would be to wallow in self-pity, which I am not prepared to do.

So once I was out of the initial haze of unbearable pain and it became apparent that I was going to be in this for the long haul, I gave myself a stern talking-to. As in, you need to suck it up and be grateful darn it!  Well, maybe not quite that harsh, but I didn’t consider it optional.

To my great surprise I found so many things to be thankful for. I contemplated whether I should list them all here, but then I decided it was important because if I can point out one thing that someone else in a similar situation hasn’t thought of, then maybe that will help them in some small way. If you don’t want to read them all I won’t be offended.

I am grateful for……
  1. My partner who is tirelessly doing absolutely everything without complaint.
  2. My children who have adapted how they interact with me to accommodate my lack of mobility. The couch has become a very popular place of late.
  3. People who care about me. I have had several people check in on me on a regular basis despite their busy lives and other concerns. This includes friends, clients, and family. We have also had offers from other parents to help cart the children around to activities.
  4. Neighbours who do little things like bring in the empty garbage bins and convince their children that mowing our lawn would be a great summer job.
  5. Amazing clients who have been very understanding of my prolonged absence from work.
  6. My colleagues who have been picking up as much slack as possible.
  7. Being part of a wonderful community of small business owners who understand and support what I am going through.
  8. Having emergency funds set aside so I can survive a period of time without income.
  9. Having a partner who also has financial reserves when mine run out, and who is happily willing to share them. Believe me, that should not be taken for granted.
  10. Having a benefit plan through my partner that covers a lot of my medical expenses. My treatment thus far has cost well over $2,000.
  11. Having overhead insurance that will cover my business expenses while I am unable to work.
  12. Having disability insurance that will replace part of my income during this period.
  13. Having a good credit rating should it come to needing it.
  14. The professionals I have worked with on money mindset. This has allowed me to use my emergency funds without freaking out and worrying that I won’t be able to replenish them in the future. The scarcity mindset has been beaten down!
  15. Being a health care professional, which means that I know who the great practitioners are and who I need when, depending on what is happening in my body. I have used a veritable orchestra of different players at different times thus far.
  16. Being able to speak medical-ese, which means being capable of interpreting all the information (and misinformation) that is out there about this type of injury. This means I can assess my options and make truly informed decisions. You cannot make an informed decision when you can’t understand the gobbledygook that is supposed to be informing you.
  17. Having time to devote to things like reading, meditation, and personal growth (not to mention watching the Women’s World Cup which is admittedly a serious addiction for me).

Even with all this to be grateful for, it’s possible to just not accept it. I know for a fact that a few years ago I would not have been able to step into any sort of gratitude in this type of situation. I got to thinking about what exactly would have been the barriers in the past, and two big things came to light – being unable to unconditionally accept help when it is offered, and having a scarcity mindset.

Why is gratitude so hard?

How many of us stumble over accepting help when someone offers, let alone actually reaching out and asking for it? What is it about accepting help that we find so difficult? Brené Brown, a grounded theory researcher, says “when you cannot accept and ask for help without self-judgment, then when you offer other people help, you are always doing so with judgment.”  Ouch. That requires a good long hard look in the mirror. Even though most of us would automatically say, “Oh no, I have no issue with offering help. I just have trouble accepting it,” Brown calls BS on that. She maintains that we may be subconsciously keeping some kind of score. If you feel that when someone helps you, you are somehow indebted to them, then you must feel that when you help someone else they owe you something in return, even though you may state otherwise. It can’t just go one way.

The other hugely important factor around offering help is boundaries. We’re probably all familiar with this scenario – you accept a friend’s offer of help, but when she comes to help you she is obviously not wanting to be there. She is rushing to get through the task and her mind is elsewhere, presumably on the thousand tasks of her own that are currently not getting done. And what do we tell ourselves? We think, “I never should have asked her for help. She’s too busy. I’m a totally selfish person to have asked.”  Then for extra measure we pick up the guilt stick and beat ourselves with it. Sound familiar?

The thing is, it’s not that you shouldn’t have asked. It’s she who shouldn’t have agreed to it. By saying yes when she really didn’t have the capacity to do so, she did not maintain her own boundaries and you are in no way responsible for that. If we don’t have the means at the time to help someone then we should kindly and compassionately decline. It’s what’s best for everyone in the situation.

Allowing yourself to be vulnerable

Asking for help or declining to give it is a very vulnerable thing, and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable requires a lot of courage. In the initial stages of my injury when I couldn’t drive anywhere, I had to get to a medical appointment in the evening. My partner couldn’t take me because of the kids and I was feeling too fragile to get in a taxi with a stranger. So I picked up the phone and contacted a friend. I asked her if she could drive me to my appointment and she readily agreed. It took a lot of courage for me to do that, but when she agreed to do it I accepted unconditionally, and because I did so without the burden of guilt or shame I was able to be truly grateful for her actions. When I thanked her it truly came from my heart and really meant “I am very grateful for your help” and not “thank you but I feel really bad having asked in the first place and now that you’ve done it I’m going to go home and feel even worse about it.”  No strings attached means no guilt, no score to settle, just pure gratitude. When was the last time you really felt that and only that?

Now go back and read the list (if you skipped it the first time, you just saved yourself some time!) and see how many of these items have to do with accepting help. It sounds crazy, but even making a claim on my disability and overhead insurance in my mind amounts to asking for assistance. This one took some work to get past my mindset of how I should be able to fully financially support myself without any help from anyone – even “help” for which I have paid dearly for years!  By being able to get past this barrier of being able to accept help without feeling guilt or shame about it I figure I saved myself a whole lot of stress these past weeks!

Scarcity Mindset

The other huge barrier to gratitude for me has been a scarcity mindset. I am a saver and always have been. I had deluded myself into thinking I did this primarily because I was responsible and able to follow a financial plan, but I now realize my primary motivation for this was a constant fear of not having enough.

As a result, the last time I had to dip into my emergency funds when my business partner died and I had to move the business to a smaller location, rather than feeling grateful for the fact that I had emergency funds at my disposal I stressed about spending them. I worried that I wouldn’t be able build my funds back up in case something else happened.

Fast forward three years and here I am exhausting my emergency funds again. Despite proof that I can replenish them as I have over the last three years, part of me wanted to panic at spending them rather than be grateful that I had them. With some help from key people, I have continued to beat back the scarcity monster enough that I can be grateful for the funds I have at my disposal.

I still struggle with my current situation from time to time, but overall I am doing pretty well. By accepting help and keeping the scarcity monster at bay I can use the time I have in positive pursuits. Because of that I know that when I do get back to work I’ll be an even better therapist.