“Sometimes the worst things that happen in our lives put us on the path to the best things that will ever happen to us.” ~Unknown
Until I was thirty-seven, I thought I’d led a pretty charmed life: I had a supportive family and good friends, I’d done well academically, always got the jobs I’d applied for, and met and married the perfect man for me.
In 2013, when I was thirty-five weeks pregnant with my second child, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. My baby was induced at thirty-seven weeks, and my chemo started ten days later. In a funny way I was relieved; Okay, I thought, I’ve been seriously lucky up until now that no one has been ill in my life, so if I can survive this, then this is as bad as it gets.
And that year was bad—moving home, caring for a toddler and a newborn, and going through aggressive cancer treatment was horrendous, but I hunkered down, tried not to think too much about it, and survived.
In December 2014, literally as we were clinking champagne glasses to celebrate my all-clear results, my husband had a devastating call from his mum in New Zealand. She had just been diagnosed with a rare and incurable cancer. Early the following year my dad was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer, and my mother-in-law died that spring.
It was at this point I started to feel weighed down with a heaviness. This wasn’t the deal… I’d taken the cancer hit for the team, everyone else was supposed to stay well. I started to lose my trust in the world.
My urge to control everything and everyone around me, which I now realize I have had since childhood, went into overdrive. I became fearful of change and made list upon list to organize and reorganize my life until I had anticipated everything that might go wrong and put things in place to deal with it.
My brave dad endured a variety of invasive and aggressive treatments, but his health continued to decline. I could not control what was happening or the sense of loss and grief that at times I felt were swamping me.
Something had to change: I started journaling, yoga, and meditation. Slowly I felt my anxiety and my panicked grip on my life begin to lessen. I looked inward and I started to notice familiar feelings and patterns, recognized myself responding to roles and labels that I no longer felt to be true.
There were shifts; very, very small shifts, but with two small children, a husband working long hours, and a dad with rapidly declining health, even small shifts made a difference to my capacity to cope.
Toward the middle of 2015 my husband started to get awful headaches, nausea, and dizzy spells. He was in a very stressful job, so decided to leave work at the beginning of 2016 to get his health back and decide what he really wanted to do with his life. However, in the spring of 2016 he was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor. At that stage my children were three and five.
The next couple of years were consumed by medical appointments for my dad and my husband, alongside the busyness that goes hand in hand with raising young children, but I continued my inner work. I examined my feelings. Was that really how I felt? Had I felt that way before? What helped then, what might help now? Is the story I’m telling myself about this true? What do I need right now?
In spring 2018 my dad died, in spring 2019 my husband died, and in spring 2020 the UK went into its first lockdown due to Covid-19.
Every year since 2014 I’ve said to myself, well surely the worst has happened, this year has to be better, and yet each year something else monumental and life-changing has happened. The past seven years have been relentless, and at times I have been overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for the people I love most in the world.
People used to hear my story open mouthed and ask, “How do you cope?” I would reply in a way designed to brush them off, remove their focus of attention, and minimize my pain by saying, “Oh well, you know, you just deal with what life throws at you.” I knew that this wasn’t true, but a flippant reply was easier than the truth. After years of continual inner work however, this is my honest reply:
To boost your resilience, to heal, and to ultimately thrive you have to be prepared to turn over the picture-perfect patchwork quilt of your outer life that you present to the world and take a good look at the messy stiches on the underside.
You need to be prepared to look at the messiest of those stiches and painstakingly unpick them so that you can find the knots, the tangles, and the imperfections. It’s only when you connect with your authentic self that you’re able to respond to your unique needs in times of crisis and learn what you need to do to foster your own resilience.
The way of doing this will be different for everyone, but if I could boil it down to one pithy statement it would be to always keep in awareness the 3 C’s: curiosity, compassion, and challenge.
Here are some ways I’ve applied this in the last seven years to help me, and perhaps these ideas might help you too.
Allow your feelings.
Other people are allowed to feel uncomfortable about this, but that is not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to embrace your emotions so you can process them and work through them instead of repressing, denying, or numbing them with substances and distractions.
In my life this idea of numbing or distracting has taken shape in many ways. One is the compulsion to check my phone rather than sit with feelings of restlessness, boredom, or uncertainty. Sometimes I find myself opening my fridge or cupboard, not because I’m hungry, but because I’m anxious or agitated.
Recently, I’ve needed to work on sitting with my feelings when I say “no” to someone and worry there will be painful repercussions if I don’t keep other people happy.
These are all hugely uncomfortable realizations, but offer an opportunity to spot patterns—do I always reach for food after a specific event, do I always reach for my phone when I feel a certain way in my body?
Once I’ve shown a curiosity about my choices, I can have understanding and compassion for why and challenge myself to do something else. Instead of food can I do some rounds of a breathing exercise? Instead of the phone can I practice some simple yoga poses? Can I pause before saying “yes” to something I know won’t serve me and think of the times I’ve said “no” and there haven’t been negative repercussions?
Key questions here are: What do I really need, what am I afraid of, and how can I soothe my threat system in that moment before reacting?
Put your needs first.
I learned that however much I was needed by other people (and with a dying dad, a dying husband, and two small children I was needed a lot), I had to start the day knowing that at some point I was going to make time to put my needs first.
Sometimes that was getting up early to enjoy a hot chocolate in peace, often it was taking some quiet time in nature. I joined a gym with a pool because swimming is something I find hugely supportive for my mental health, and I joined an online yoga site as I no longer had the lengthy chunks of time I needed to get to a class in person.
Embrace ritual and routine.
Decision fatigue contributes massively to how overwhelmed I can become; routines provide a secure framework for my family to feel supported and give me more energy for the unexpected things that life inevitably throws at me.
My routine includes:
- Planning my week ahead on a Sunday—I have a simple document with columns for appointments, reminders, to-do list, and well-being
- Putting out school clothes and making lunches the night before
- Having a grocery delivery booked in for the same day and time each week
- Menu planning and pre-preparing simple meals for the nights of the week that I know will be busy or I am working late
Put together a well-being toolkit.
Explore ideas and suggestions that you might find supportive, but don’t feel beholden to it. You don’t need to use all of the tools all of the time. Learning to listen to what you need in the moment (and giving yourself permission to act on it!) is really empowering.
My well-being toolkit includes…
- Breathing exercises
- Meeting friends for tea
- Trying out new recipes
- Sitting still—either meditating, focusing on my breath, or just letting my mind wander
Build a supportive team around you and know their individual strengths.
No one person can deliver everything you need. Manage your expectations about what each treasured person can bring to your life and learn who to go to for what.
Challenge the narratives, expectations, and labels in your life (my 3 C’s).
Do they still serve you or feel true; where do they come from; what do you need in order to let some of them go
There were ways I perceived myself and labels others had given me that only addressed the way I presented myself outwardly. By turning over the quilt and looking at the stiches that made up these labels with curiosity and compassion I was able to challenge them.
For example, am I really “standoffish,” or is that just my defense against crippling social anxiety? Am I really “bossy,” or am I just frightened of how unsafe the world will feel if I lose control? Am I really “capable” or just terrified of asking for help and being rejected?
I would never suggest this is a simple process, and reaching even a modicum of self-awareness is a daily and never-ending challenge for me. There are no black-and-white answers, so it’s important to become accepting of living in the grey area.
Ultimately, I believe that approaching each day, every response, every feeling with curiosity invites compassion and understanding, which helps us challenge and address underlying insecurities and outdated narratives that keep us down and stuck.
Supporting ourselves to see beyond the labels, roles, and responsibilities layered on through our lives allows for the possibility of the emergence of the authentic self.
This is a work in progress, I am a work in progress, and always will be.
Some days I am overwhelmed with sadness, a heavy heart, and a sense of loss; some days I awaken already infused with a sense of gratitude and joy. Every day, however, I wake up prepared to be curious and interested, to approach all interactions with myself and others with compassion, and to do what I can to challenge thoughts and beliefs that I don’t want to take into my future. I just know that next year will be a better year.
About Catherine Nabbs
Catherine is a counsellor in private practice in the UK and sees clients via zoom and in person at her consultancy in Kent. She loves connecting with people on Instagram and Facebook. If you are interested in developing your own emotional wellbeing toolkit you can sign up here to get 7 days of free wellness tips delivered straight to your inbox. More blog posts and information on her work can be found at www.catherine-nabbs.co.uk.