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A New Life Stage

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News September 2013

Fear and anxiety are part of the human condition.

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The radio was airing a Stephen King interview discussing what scared the spooky novel icon.

“I’m afraid of Alzheimer’s (disease), of losing my mind, my identity and sense of self,” the author says.

I thought that somewhat profound, certainly in comparison to the unnerving thoughts that often occupy the lives of a few friends
and myself.

A quick very unscientific fears survey revealed, in no particular order: “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up;” “What body part’s gonna fall off today?” “How much for that shoulder replacement?” “Got the time and some money, but too buggered up to go anywhere;” “How will I maintain this lavish lifestyle on Social Security?” “Now that’s a nice-lookin’ nursing home!”

Or, as a friend with 45 years on wheels puts it, “I’m kind of scared of dying, but I might be more scared of livin’ too long, by golly.”


Part of The Condition

Life seems to get more difficult and challenging almost daily: new pains, flagging energy and strength, declining physical and emotional resilience, the challenges of maintaining purpose and meaning as well as keeping all the physical, financial and emotional fears at bay.

Such are the basic existential dilemmas of life. Sometimes it sounds like Alzheimer’s might be an OK transition to the “long nap.”

But fear and anxiety are part of the human condition. With deference to noted psychiatrist Fritz Pearls, our task is not to eliminate anxiety from our lives, it’s to learn to live with it.

Somehow all these fears and boogeymen in the closet sounded very familiar until I realized how similar they are to the ones we faced in those first few years of sitting: major physical changes, threatened independence, financial fears, general uncertainty.

Well-known philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche offered the following about recurrent fears, “When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas and fears we conquered long ago.”

While a regression to old fears is human, we also often become stronger in broken places knowing that what hasn’t killed us has served to make us stronger.

A Strong Elixir

So I take solace in the fact I’ve done most of this before and have decades of experience to draw on. I’ve faced many of these fears, or similar ones, before. To paraphrase a friend, “I know how to ride the white water.”

In those early days I quickly learned the value of not dwelling on what might happen and focusing on what is happening. Looking back, most of those fears never actually came to be. For those that did, the mental rehearsals of how to respond served me well.

A good deal of the ride we’re on has nothing to do with disability but rather a new life stage, as unique as adolescence or early adulthood.

I’m often too quick to assume or assign all obstacles as being due to the wheelchair while my broader social system goes untapped. I constantly remind myself I don’t need to do this alone and would be a fool to think of trying. I’ve found the power of social support a strong elixir.

Help Isn’t All Bad

Being able to compartmentalize negative situations and fear is one road to maintaining sanity and emotional balance.

The theory strikes me as a combination of prioritizing and exercising the ability of ignoring negative situations and events that are here and cannot be changed.

In the grand scheme of things, my problems and fears are infinitesimal when seen from the perspective of Moore, Okla., or Sandy Hook, Conn. Therein lies the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer and the charge to change what can be changed … or, to prepare for and ultimately accept and deal with the negative.

I’ve known for some time that the day will come when I rely on someone coming into my house to assist me with getting up, onto the commode, into the shower and getting dressed. On those mornings now, I’m finding myself nearly in need of a nap by the time I get to the table to eat breakfast.

After recently finding myself in need of such help, I was quite surprised at just how welcome such help is, how easy surrender came, how close it is to becoming permanent. Accepting help isn’t all bad.

Small Things Add Up

Perhaps the best tool I have in my box is gratitude for all the positive things in my life.

I’ve made a habit of finding at least three good things that happen each day and writing them down. Positives can be as simple as eating Cheerios or as impactful as finding a great job.

Some of my recent ones have included adjusting the brakes on my chair, reaching out to friends, successfully finding time to meditate, taking time to have a real conversation with my wife, working out, actually working, dinner with friends and successfully ignoring such unchangeables as traffic, weather or unpleasant people. I believe this practice has changed my life, enabling me to not only consistently find the flower in the manure pile, but also — more important — remain content, happy and optimistic.

While I have no intention of challenging fate to bring it on, I do believe I’ve got some good tools to employ should the fickle finger point my way.

 

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A New Life Stage

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