This time almost exactly a year ago I was getting my first of what would become a dozen EKG’s. After a month and a half of denial, I was taking the first steps to acknowledge something was seriously wrong with my health.
It’s hard to think back and identify the point I knew I was sick. Winter of last year people were fighting colds constantly. The entire clinic was sick.
It might have been the time I had to pull over to a gas station because I was too dizzy to drive.
It might have been after I started setting my alarm clock as soon as I got home, because I knew there was a good chance I would fall asleep as soon as I sat down.
It might have been when I fell asleep while talking to someone at work (a few seconds, but enough for me to notice).
It might have been when I changed where I bought groceries after nearly passing out walking across the Target superstore.
It’s hard to pin point. I know sometime in February I wondered. In March I went to the doctor. By May I was down to 2-3 productive days in a week and burning through vacation days as I tried to shorten my work week to something manageable.
May was definitely when I started to wonder when I would lose my job. August was when I started to wonder if I would have to get a wheelchair. October was when a wheelchair sounded like a relief because standing made me so sick.
There was no clear line to the illness and no predictability. Every week I would have at least 2-3 days when I would feel 100% normal. It made me doubt the severity of my sick days. Once I got a diagnosis, I soaked up everything I could on what helped people and on expected outcomes—but no one had a clear answer. No one had a predictable course. And it continued in my life: feeling perfectly healthy one day, deciding if I needed to go to the ER the next.
I didn’t start real treatment until November and didn’t really see improvement until December. Even then, the question of my employability lingered. I work a job with long hours, high stress, and a need for dependable providers. I started to feel healthier, but at least 1-2 times a month my symptoms would flare up.
As soon as I thought, “I’m going to recover 100% and be back to normal,” my body destroyed that confidence.
To this day, my health is like being on a rollercoaster blindfolded. I never know when I reach a peak, when I face a drop, all I know is I can’t predict anything.
I am trained in building mental resilience. I tried to apply those lessons to my own life. The performance pyramid provides a road map to peak mental performance. The foundation requires four skills: attitude, motivation, goals and commitment, and social skills.
I decided to start with attitude. And it turned out, that was the first major obstacle.
I’ve come to see attitude with chronic illness as walking on a tight rope across a huge chasm.
If I tried to be optimistic, I would tumble to the left. Optimism pushed me to focus on the positive, to hope for the best, and to keep trying. But optimism can be destructive. Focusing on the positive invalidated the fear and pain of losing hugely important parts of my life. Optimism encouraged me to “keep trying”, even when most factors for my health and functioning were out of my control. Optimism let me hope that the doctors I saw would improve things, though for six months each visit ranged between gas-lighting and plain ineffectiveness. Optimism encourages us to think about the future. When you have no idea what your future is going to be, that requires a level of denial. And that denial can quickly set you up. I would think, “I can do this,” and when I couldn’t, my confidence plummeted.
If I tried to be “realistic” or acknowledge the negative, I would tumble off the tightrope to the right. I could analyze my symptoms, my treatment, my expected outcomes…but no one could really tell me what would happen. I could focus on my new limitations as an effort to adapt, but that highlighted everything I had lost. I acknowledged a future shaped by my limitations, but the physical, occupational, and financial deficits quickly led to despair.
It seemed an attitude of optimism and an attitude of “rational” analysis posed equal threats. If I tried for either one, I would tumble off the tightrope and into a chasm too dark and too deep to see the bottom.
I needed a new kind of attitude.
I don’t remember why I thought about gratitude. I think I was walking my dog in the woods. I think I noticed the sunlight hitting the leaves and thinking, “This is beautiful.” I think I felt a sense of peace.
However it came about, I decided to give up on optimism and “evidence.” Instead, I decided that every day I would make a mental list of gratitudes.
I made rules for myself: they had to connect to that day, they had to be detail oriented, and I needed to find different things each day.
So instead of thinking, “I’m grateful for my family,” I would think, “I appreciate how excited my mom’s voice gets when I call.”
Instead of “nature is beautiful” I would think, “the different shades of green in that want tree are so complex and dynamic.”
Every day, at least once a day, I challenged myself to notice the current details that I appreciated.
At first there were themes: my dog’s hyper expression before dinner; my dog’s wagging tail; the green of the forest; the sound of the waterfall near my home; really it was all animal and nature focused.
But the more I practiced, the more the gratitude details expanded. The gliding feel of a watercolor marker against the paper as you paint with it. The movie-trivia arguments of some staff which led to a Wikipedia deep dive into echolocation. (How did we get there? Who knows.) The steady rhythm of the clock in my office. The feel of warm tea between my hands early in the morning. The scratchiness of a crocheted blanket my grandmother made decades ago as I wrapped it around my shoulders late at night.
After about three weeks an odd thing began to happen. Positive memories from my past started popping up in my mind. Like the detailed gratitudes, they were snapshots of a moment rather than a narrative. The smell of fresh cut grass and sun on my face as I lay in the front yard of my childhood home. The clinking sound of dice in a cup when we played Yahtzee on a family holiday. My cat licking her paws after stealing a barbecue chicken leg.
By the end of a month, when I let my mind rest, it filled the space with past moments of wonder and beauty that transported me away from that tense tightrope.
The tightrope never went away. In fact, it became almost tangible in my daily thoughts. I could see forced optimism leaning me one way, despair leaning me another, and the weighted pole of gratitude helping me stay balanced in the middle.
Gratitude forced me to see a situation as it really was. It is impossible to appreciate a moment without recognizing the moments it contrasts against. Noticing my gratitude towards an ER doctor who took extra time to answer my every last question and reinforce I made the right decision seeking medical help could only be appreciated in the context of needing to go to the ER. Loving the feel of afternoon sun on my face and sound of cicadas had to connect to the realization it had been 2 weeks since I could walk far enough to reach the woods. My gratitude at seeing sunset right as I finished work, and the watery blend of purples, red, and blues on the ocean waters, was poignant because it came at the end of a 12-hour work day that left me bone-deep exhausted.
Gratitude is not about “focusing on the positive”, but about acknowledging the beauty of light against darkness. Gratitude requires we notice the contrasts within reality.
Gratitude focuses on the present and the past. Gratitude made me focus on things that are certain. It made me noticed what it happening now. It made me appreciate what had come before. It had nothing to say about the uncertain future . . . except as my habit built, it reassured me I would find things to be grateful in the future. Likely I could not predict those things, likely they would have nothing to do with my expectations or goals, but they would be there.
With a foundation of a grateful attitude, it seems natural to continue the climb up the performance pyramid. I should, naturally, focus on motivation next.
The very thought is exhausting. Motivate? With what energy?
But then I re-read the definition of resilient motivation:
Gratitude has already carried me through these steps. Motivation is the desire to keep walking on the tightrope. And that motivation is easier to find when I am enjoying the walk. It is a game now, not leaning too far into optimism, not bending towards despair.
One gratitude at a time, I step forward.
Read more about performance psychology here: https://www.sportpsych.org/nine-mental-skills-overview