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How to Cope and Keep Going When Times Get Tough
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” ~Winston Churchill
The day started out beautifully. My friends Shaun, Tina, and I decided to take advantage of a sunny Saturday afternoon with a hike along Ontario’s Bruce Trail. We parked our cars at the trail access, laced up our boots, and headed out for a day of wandering through sun-dappled fields and forests.
A couple hours later, we agreed we had probably gone far enough and turned around to head back.
That’s when the weather changed. Fast. Ominous clouds rolled in, blotting out the blue skies we had been enjoying. The trees started to creak and sway as the wind whipped up. We picked up our pace, but even before the first thunderclap, we knew we wouldn’t be outrunning this storm.
It was a doozey.
We felt the first drops of rain as the trail ran along the grassy edge of a farmer’s field. A moment later, we were drenched as the sky opened up and the torrential downpour began.
Soaked to the bone, miles from our vehicles, we pressed on through the howling wind. There was no sanctuary from the storm—nowhere to hide and no sense trying to wait it out, sopping wet as we already were.
The only option was to keep going. To put one squelchy foot in front of the other and hope the lightning bolts around us didn’t get any closer. As we made our way in single file along the now-muddied trail, my mind flashed back to a few years earlier, when I was navigating a much different kind of storm.
It was October 2008, and I was in isolation at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto after the bone marrow transplant I received to treat my leukemia.
The incredibly complex medical procedure boiled down to the doctors decimating my defective blood-producing cells with heavy-duty chemo and radiation. Once the crappy stuff was destroyed, they transplanted new stem cells from a healthy donor.
There were some risky and unpleasant consequences of the transplant. Until my new transplanted stem cells engrafted, I was left with virtually no immune system and prone to all manner of infection. Hence the isolation. A simple sneeze from someone in the room could spell disaster.
With no immune system, the usually harmless bacteria in my mouth were able to take hold and do some damage.
Large sores formed on my tongue that filled me with excruciating pain with every breath I took. I couldn’t eat. I had a hard time talking. The nurses made me sleep with the head of the bed raised up so I wouldn’t choke on my massively swollen tongue.
When I saw Dr. Galal the next day, I begged him to do something about the mouth sores. He was, of course. I was being treated with antibiotics and a mouth rinse to speed recovery along, and they had my morphine jacked as high as they safely could.
A warm and compassionate man, Dr. Galal looked at me and assured me that they were doing everything humanly possible. “The only thing I can do,” he said, “is promise you that you’ll be feeling much better when I see you again next week.”
In the midst of the hurt the pain meds barely seemed to touch, “tough it out” wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear. But sure enough, in a few days time, the swelling went down and the sores started to shrink in response to the treatment. Slowly but surely, day by day, I eased off the morphine.
And when I saw Dr. Galal the next week during his rotation, I smiled at him and thanked him for keeping his promise.
Like our walk through the woods or my mangled mouth, there are times in life when the only thing we can do is keep going.
Caught in that thunderstorm with our cars still miles away, we just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Stuck in the hospital with a mouth full of sores, I just had to endure and wait for the medications to work their magic.
But I’ve found that there are always things we can do to help us along as we attempt to get through the storms in our lives. Here are some that have helped me.
1. Lean on your friends.
No one is an island. There is strength in numbers. Two heads are better than one.
Whatever your preferred cliché, having the right people by your side makes a world of difference. No matter who you are, there will be times when your motivation flags, when everything that needs doing overwhelms you or when a way out seems impossible.
At those times, you’ll need to lean on the strengths and support of others. Who do you know who can provide you with motivation? Expertise? Distraction? A listening ear? On the flip side, who’s getting in your way of achieving your goals? Be mindful of negative people who might be draining your mojo.
2. Surround yourself with the good stuff.
Related to the point above, using little techniques to keep your spirits up can help a lot. Whether it’s a silly song you’re belting out while hiking through a rainstorm, a copy of Robert Service’s inspirational poem “The Quitter” taped to your hospital room wall or a list you’ve made of all the awesome things life has to offer, find ways to keep yourself motivated.
3. Break it down and celebrate the little milestones.
My journey from cancer diagnosis to recovery seemed to stretch on forever, with no end in sight. When you’re faced with an absurdly large problem, breaking it down into manageable chunks can keep it from overwhelming you.
Set milestones for yourself along the way and celebrate your successes. Making a point to acknowledge the little achievements along the way—getting through the first phase of chemo, remission, finding a donor, being able to do a push up or walk up a flight of stairs—helped me see that I really was making progress.
4. Be flexible.
Also, be flexible. Plans change, things happen, projects get derailed. Acknowledge that setbacks are inevitable so you won’t be too discouraged when they do happen.
Sometimes whatever storm you’re traveling through can put you on an entirely different course. Adapting to a new reality means letting go of the past. There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of nostalgia and reminiscing about “the good old days.” But when that devolves into whining and fixating on how things used to be, then you probably need to refocus and get back to the business at hand.
5. Come up for air.
At one point, Shaun, Tina, and I found a good spot to take cover from the driving rains for a few minutes. Breaks allow you to regroup and recharge your mental, emotional and physical batteries. They’re an opportunity to check the map and think strategically. Stepping back lets you take stock of the bigger picture and remind yourself that you will get through this.
Where possible, take breaks. Whether it’s meditating, taking a little vacation or just turning off your brain for a couple hours to watch a mindless movie, balancing the “one-foot-in-front-of-the-other” grind with beneficial pause is crucial.
Life is full of unexpected rainstorms. But the trick isn’t to avoid or try to hide from them. There are some you simply won’t be able to outrun. No, the trick is to find ways to cope—to bring the right umbrella, so you’re equipped to deal with the storm when it inevitably rolls in.
Josh Martin is the founder and chief blogger at Badge of Awesome: a website dedicated to life’s little adventures and the lessons we can learn from them. He lives in Waterloo, Ontario and is the author of “Simple(ton) Living: Lessons in balance from life’s absurd moments” and “Going on a Bear Hunt: Five things cancer taught me about overcoming obstacles.”