April 16, 2014

How to Get Through Anything: A Survival Kit for Hard Times.


This is a tough journey, helping my father end his life with comfort and dignity.

I am sometimes so exhausted and sad that I want everything to stop for a day or two so I can catch my emotional breath.

I am finding ways to keep myself strong, healthy and resilient. I think of these things as tools, parts of a survival kit that fuels and maintains my mind, body and spirit, and I’m pretty sure that they would be useful for surviving other rugged and uncharted terrain—from the end of a relationship to the loss of a job. Your kit would undoubtedly look different than mine, and I encourage you to experiment to see what truly sustains you.

Here are some of the things I include in my survival kit:

Accept Love and Help.

I struggled with this one for the longest time. I wanted to do everything myself, to be a martyr, to have people look at me and think “poor Annie.” I also identify myself as a “helper” and it is bizarrely, ridiculously hard for me to ask for, or even accept, help.

Now I try to say “yes” to things. Yes you can put in a load of laundry. “Yes” we will come to dinner and be taken care of for a few hours. “Yes” it would be awesome if you came over and hung out with my dad so I can have a few hours to wander the import store and sniff scented candles. Yes. Yes, because you care about us, and you are freely offering, and we will both feel better if I accept graciously.

Eat Right for Your Body.

When I was in the initial, painful haze of figuring out what life would be like for the next few months, I entered a “screw it, I deserve whatever I want” phase. I ate things I don’t usually eat, and within a week or so I felt not only sad but really tired, and cranky and brittle. I was putting my body under an additional and unnecessary strain by giving it lousy fuel and asking it to run the Indy 500 on a daily basis.

I learned out that my usual pattern of planning and cooking healthy meals was going to be difficult, if not impossible, so I adapted. I started making healthy smoothies in my blender, and now at least one of my meals is a riot of kale, spinach, beets, cucumbers, avocados and maybe a green apple or a handful of strawberries.

I bought protein bars so that I have a healthy “grab and go” meal when I realize it’s 2:00 and I haven’t even thought about lunch. I keep my house stocked with hummus, cut veggies and nut butters so I can always find a snack that’s easy on my body.

It all tastes good, I don’t have to do a lot of prep or planning, and I feel strong.

Move Your Body.

I burn calories doing the things I need to do, but stress hits me in the root chakra every time, with lower back spasms and the feeling that I’m a severely crippled old lady. (I actually hobble.) I am also an anxious person, and at times like this I often feel that I may go into orbit if I can’t find a way to burn off some of that frantic tension that tightens my neck and shoulders and keeps me up at night.

Yoga helps, a lot. I shoot for a daily practice, although I’m realistically at about 50%; I do yin yoga, restorative yoga, or routines aimed at people experiencing stress or grief. I open when I practice, sometimes I cry, usually I don’t, but I always I feel restored and whole.

I also try to walk outside for as long as I can—sometimes it’s not very long, but the point is not burning calories or “exercising” per se, but spending time in nature, to connect my body with the wind, the solidity of the earth and the daily changes as spring brings vibrant greens and fragrant blossoms.

Feed Your Soul.

Around the same time I decided I could really just live on chocolate and pizza, I also figured that “zoning out” would ease my suffering. I watched TV just to watch TV, and kind of avoided anything deep in the way of reading material. There’s a place for “Pretty Little Liars” and cozy mysteries, but I found after a while that I was feeling empty and restless.

These days, I am avoiding “junk media.” Different things help different people, and your mileage will vary, but I feel best reading a mix of quality fiction and books about spirituality, watching a lot of PBS and documentaries, and listening to kirtan as I drive back and forth to my father’s house. I have long talks with dear friends. I hang out with adorable children and take naps with my dogs.


I can almost always get in 15 minutes on my cushion at some point during the day. When I can’t, I meditate while I’m walking, cooking, doing dishes, showering or folding laundry.  Again and again I come back to my breath, my steps, or the work at hand, abandoning thoughts and worries that creep in constantly.

It’s exercise for my brain, truly a “practice” for staying present through the hardest moments.

Letting Stuff Go.

I have to take care of my dad, do my job and be a decent human being. I don’t have to “spring clean” my house right now, have a hostess gift for every dinner invitation or spend time with people who drain my energy.

So I don’t. Well, mostly I don’t. I’m still working on that one.

I’m still working on everything, actually, but I offer this to you from this place on this journey that has no schedule and no map.

If I’ve helped to blaze a trail for the next traveler, we’ll call it good.


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Editor: Travis May

Photo: Temari o9 on Flickr

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