When I said this to a participant at The Canadian MPN Network Conference, it got a huge laugh. One of the great aphorisms of comedy is “Its funny ’cause its true!”
In this case, the lady I was speaking to was telling me that as a result of her being sick, she said she felt more empathy for people. She could understand others’ feelings more and she could cut other people more slack. Isn’t that fascinating? You would think that after a tough time, a lot of people would become bitter or resentful.
Often we have a chunk of adversity in our lives and somehow we manage to keep on keeping on, but after getting through the stress and navigating our way through a very difficult time often we are different. You could even say we are transformed. Some of us develop more empathy, others of us (like myself) get unreasonably pissed off for a while and pray that someone will steal candy from a baby on our street so we can start a round of fisticuffs. (After a while this anger calmed down into a state of assertiveness. I am really glad because fisticuffs are inconvenient.)
But what I have found after working with healthcare professionals and people going through life altering diseases is that our most arduous experiences change us.
One of my favourite questions to ask during a keynote is “In the experience of your journey with cancer (or another issue) what learnings or insights have you made?” People always have an answer. Nobody ever says “I feel exactly the same!” I have heard people say they are more sympathetic, more adventurous, more thoughtful, less resentful, more independent, more open to new ideas, more resilient and that they eat more dessert– to name a few.
All of this is good stuff don’t you think? I do. I love all of those things (especially the one about dessert).
So, where does this come from? Well, you may heave heard of a friend of mine called Joseph Campbell. (OK, He’s not my friend, but I like to pretend he is.) He came up with the idea of The Hero’s Journey which in a very tiny nutshell, is the idea that when we go on an adventure and face challenges and adversities that we are transformed and even improved by the experience.
I really think that is what happens to us when we deal with a transformative experience with our health. Our experience changes us, it molds and shapes us until we can look at who we used to be in the past and say “Hey, I’m a better person than I used to be.”
Yes, what you have always suspected is true. That wonderful feeling you get after making love, having sex or getting lucky (depending on who you’re talking to) is good for you. Contrary to what they told us when we were 16, 17 or even 35, sex is healthy. In fact, it can increase your level of happiness quite significantly.
BTW, this is what happens when you google “Sexy pharmacists”.
You know the feeling you get right after a particularly good sexual experience? Well, there is a chemical reason for that. There is a virtual pharmacy in our body creating the chemicals and hormones that we need to get through the day.
When we have sex, the tiny pharmacists inside us look at each other in their white coats and say “Gerald! our human had sex! We need to make some dopamine!” “That’s not all Marjorie, we should give them a huge dose of serotonin as well!” “By the way Marjorie you are looking very shapely in your white lab coat.” “Why thank you….perhaps I should unbutton it a bit, because its so hot in here…” At that point its all lava lamps and sexiness inside the body…That’s right even your body gets turned on by itself after you make love!
Alright I may have stretched my metaphor (and a couple of other things) in the last bit, but the point, is when we have sexual activity, our body produces both dopamine and serotonin that floods our system. When that happens, we feel good!
Alright this is the best statistic you will hear all day…
….and this is what happens when you google “sex and money” at least the ones I can show.
Having sex once a week gives you the same boost of happiness and increased level of satisfaction as getting a raise of $50,000 a year.
Isn’t that the coolest? I can hear you now saying “Gosh that sounds great Rob, but what’s your source? Well a feature article in WebMD states
…”sex enters so strongly (and) positively in happiness equations that they estimate increasing intercourse from once a month to once a week is equivalent to the amount of happiness generated by getting an additional $50,000 in income for the average American.”
It sounds like the set up for a joke doesn’t it? But that’s what we had on June 30th. The very first Self Care Movement Summit in Toronto went off like crazy.
People came from far and wide to participate. We had folks drive in from 5 hours away just to be there for the evening.
When you see a large conference room packed tight on a Monday night, you know that there is a real need for this. Folks needed to not only learn about what they are going through and how to deal with their situation, but they also wanted to connect with each other.
Some of the things we addressed were mindfulness, dealing with chronic illness at work, sex, intimacy, and using humour as a tool to help us every day. We had a patient panel that shared stories about what it was like to deal with our different conditions and we even managed to squeeze some laughs out of it.
OK, so we may have tried to cram too much really good content into one evening, but can you blame us? That’s like complaining that a meal has too much food or that somebody gave you too much chocolate or that your birthday present is too big to fit into your car. You get my point.
After working with cancer patients and their families for years, one of the most common things that I have heard is that once we are finished our primary care, we often feel lost. That was certainly how I felt after I got over my initial cancer treatment. My physician even looked at me and said “You’re cured” I was expecting triumphant movie music to come in as we hugged in a manly way, but the hug didn’t happen. Instead I thought “Really? I don’t feel cured. Besides, the cancer might be gone but I have this chronic situation to deal with for the REST OF MY LIFE. So, how is that cured?”
That’s what the summit was for. We were all there to talk about what happens now. How do we adjust to our lives in this “new normal”. How do we not just exist but help ourselves to thrive with the capabilities that we have?
When several hundred committed, smart and passionate people stand up and start sharing ideas, you feel it. You feel the energy shift from complacency and acceptance of the status quo to hopefulness and possibility. On Monday night a group of patients who were strangers just hours before, shared their wisdom and strategies to help people just like them.
So, back to our original question: What do you get when you have 400 people dealing with chronic conditions in one room?
Answer: A huge amount of courage and hope.
Celebrity Fan Moment
Don’t you love when you meet someone famous and they’re more impressive than you thought? I was very excited to meet Margaret Trudeau and I actually got to say hello to her backstage. I am rarely at a loss for words. However, in meeting Margaret, I was virtually tongue tied. When she did her keynote, she spoke with such wit, honesty and vulnerability that I became a fan immediately. The standing ovation she got was proof that she connected with our group.
Have you ever felt like your concerns are utterly different from anyone else’s?
Sure you have! We all have different circumstances in our lives. For instance, I am wondering… Will the tires last on our car? Will the vacant lot down the street become a giant condo complex and ruin our view? Will Stephen King come to my poker game?
Stephen King considers coming to my poker game. I hope he brings chips.
(Ok, maybe I made up the one about the car).
We all think our concerns and problems are completely unique, but are they?
I am currently working on a program for people who are having a really hard time. Now, this group is facing incredible challenges that are very specific. However, I’ve noticed in my years working with different groups that a lot of the things we face can be really similar.
Some few years ago, I thought the challenges facing me as a cancer patient were unique not just to cancer patients but to me. Yup. I thought my story and my bit of hardship was incredibly important and oh so precious. And to a degree it was, as an experience with cancer should not be diminished at all. What I am saying is that if we hang around on the planet long enough, chances are, we’re going to experience some kind of hardship. It’s part of this thing called being human.
Think about the people you are closest to. Do they have their gooey, unresolved human bits? Do they have a challenge in their lives that they find really tough, be it addiction, an emotional issue or just getting through the day in this ridiculously complex world? I’m going to guess that’s a big “YES!“.
Its not like he needs my help, but Alec’s Podcast is terrific. Go ahead, click on it.
You see, it’s really easy to look at the shiny happy people (to quote REM- and why not? They rock.) and think that we are the only ones struggling to get out of bed in the morning, or working really hard to connect with our family, or dealing with a health issue. I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts by Alec Baldwin and he had Paul Simon on as a guest. Alec said he wanted to know what it was like to grow up being Paul Simon. Paul paused for a second and said “Hey, Everything happens to everybody.” I think that sums it up really well. Everything does happen to everybody. Especially over time.
You could say that this statement is trite and patently untrue. In a literal sense you would be correct. You could say to me “Hey Rob, This thing happened to me. It did not happen to you. Do not lessen the importance of my experience.” Point taken. After all, I once barfed in the train station in Hanoi at 5:30 am.
I barfed in this building once. I’m sorry Hanoi.
Has that happened to everybody? I sure hope not. Especially for the train station. However, I’m pretty sure we all go through some very basic human experiences that really seem to be the cost of the ticket to this ride called life. I think we all experience joy, love, loss, fear, connection, frustration, envy and of course a desire for a Led Zeppelin Reunion (ok maybe that’s just a few million of us).
Neil is awesome. That is all.
But in my work with cancer patients, their families, corporations, healthcare professionals, executives, and young people, I am starting to notice that the specifics of our challenges may be very different, but we are all out there, trying to find our way, trying to make a better life for ourselves and our families and trying to make sense of a world that may not make sense*. Wherever you are, to quote another great musician, keep on rockin’ in the free world.
*When Stephen King does come to my poker game, I’m sure he’ll call me on that run on sentence. Hey Stephen, read it out loud and it sounds fine! By the way, I just finished Finders Keepers and I loved it.
If you’re in one of the caring professions, you probably care a lot. I bet you wake up in the morning and care more before 9 am than most people do all day. (My apologies to the marines- for a bunch of reasons.)
Having that much concern all day long can sure take its toll on your health and you guessed it, your wellness! Well what is wellness about? Its about actually taking your own needs into account, slowing down on occasion and being kind to yourself. Let’s use the concept of a well, because heck its right in the word “wellness”. If you are caring for people all the time and not looking after yourself, then chances are you are drawing on your own resources to help them, while depleting yourself. This can leave your poor well empty and even a bit dry, as it were.
“The Wellness Well” You see what I did there? Sure you do.
When we ignore our own wellness, we tend to stress out, feel really overwhelmed and our health can suffer. The problem is, we rarely give ourselves permission to help ourselves. We feel like we should just “tough it out” and “carry on”.
However, if a friend came up to you and said “Hey I’m burned out at work, and my joints are achy do you think I should go for a massage?” Of course you’d say Yes! You’d send them off to get their body kneaded faster than you can say “CranioSacral”-which I can’t say at all.
But will we get a massage ourselves? Of course not! Why? I blame my protestant upbringing. (Feel free to blame whatever culture you’re from- I’ve found it so much easier than actually taking responsibility for myself). But seriously, we do that all the time. We can be having a really tough time and desperately need to cut ourselves some slack but we sometimes find that difficult.
Essentially wellness is, taking care of ourselves before things become horrible. We often mislabel healthy concern and care for ourselves as “Selfishness” or “self-centered-ness” or even “being like crazy Uncle Bob” but really carving out a place for wellness in our lives can be the best thing we can do for our level of contribution. Think about it, when we feel good, do we want to contribute more or less? More of course! Are we worse at our jobs or better? Better!
Damn! Don’t you want some of this? A massage I mean.
So there you go. Wellness is valuable not just to you but to the people around you and the work you do. So how do you get more of this thing called Wellness into your life? Well, that’s not actually that hard. Here are a few suggestions:
1: You could, go for a walk in nature. Simply stepping outside and walking for thirty minute has been proven to make us healthier and reduce stress
2: Get a massage! Get rid of those aches and pains and get the blood flowing by getting a massage that is either Deep Swedish or Shallow Ukrainian, (this doesn’t exist but it should.)
3: Hug three people. Because heck, hugs feel great!
So, wherever you are and whatever you are doing, I hope you give yourself two shots of wellness today.
BTW, I am currently creating a wellness program for CMHA Waterloo Wellington Dufferin called…drum roll please…
The Wellness Solution: Help Yourself Help The World