When someone is critically injured, or is diagnosed with a serious illness, we often say that person is “fighting for their life”. As a healthcare worker, and hospice volunteer, I’ve watched many people fight these brutal battles. Whether a heart attack, cancer diagnosis, or a serious accident, patients have some common things they do while preparing to fight for their lives.
First, they assemble their teams. Or as we say in the South, we circle our wagons. We get our crew together, because, this is not a fight we can win by ourselves. No. We need help. So, we call our insurance company and find out what we can depend on them for. We research and find the best doctors, the most renowned hospitals, the most sought after specialists. We make friends with the nurses, the pharmacist, the kind lady who delivers our meals. We gather our friends and family, and though it breaks their hearts a little bit to see us hurting and afraid, they suit up for battle. They will be our strength, our translators, and probably our sanity for as long as it takes to walk away from what are likely some of our worst days ever.
Once the team is all in place, and loved ones have gathered at ground zero, the planning begins. It’s time to make a treatment plan. We trust our doctors, the experts, to lead this process. We trust our intuition to tell us if they are on the right track. We get second opinions, third opinions whatever it takes until we feel comfortable.
We disobey our doctor and go to the internet. We Google our condition and read all the internet horror stories we can stomach. We look at the pictures. We can never un-see these awful pictures. Why did we go to Google after our doctor specifically said, “Hey, do yourself a favor and don’t consult Dr. Google.”?
Well… we can’t not go to Google. Google knows things, and what we need now is information, education, reassurance. And, we need to see those terrifying pictures. We’re preparing. Planning. We can’t take anymore surprises. It’s time to go to war. We need all the help we can get.
When our team is in place, we’ve learned all we can, and a treatment plan is complete, the battle has only just begun. Now is the time to find out what you’re made of. Maybe, you begin chemotherapy, and quickly understand what people mean when they say that the treatment is worse than the disease. Maybe, you go to surgery to have your body cut apart and stapled back together. Maybe, you learn to walk again, talk again, how to swallow and speak. This is the dirty work. The nitty-gritty, gut wrenching chore of fighting through the pain, fear, set backs and sometimes unbelievably slow process of healing.
This is when your team is your lifeline. They make sure your needs are met. They don’t let you suffer alone. They’re right there in the trenches sharing your struggles, and marveling at your strength. They hold your hand, and your hair. They remind you how utterly capable you are. And when you sleep, they lean on each other. They cry. They pray. They take turns sitting at your bedside while the others run errands, and try to get some rest before their next shift of bedside watch.
Sometimes, things go exactly as planned. Sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes your victory is swift and sweet. Sometimes, it’s hard fought and bitter ’til the end. Sometimes, we have to surrender to what is, and accept defeat. Win or lose, this fight changes us. We begin to look at our life in a new way. A line of demarcation is indelibly drawn, neatly compartmentalizing our life into the things that happened before the event that changed everything, and everything that happened after.
Before the cancer.
After the car accident.
Before the stroke.
After open heart surgery.
Somewhere along this road, something really important happens: We finally start getting our shit together.
We reprioritize everything. We get focused on what’s most important. Facing our mortality, being vulnerable and needing support, feeling weak and afraid– these are huge motivators for rethinking all of our life choices.
In the days and weeks that follow, we become masters of self-care. We are forced to listen to our bodies and examine every single thing that goes into them. We may give up our bad habits, our favorite foods, anything that stands between us and our healing. Because, we know without a doubt that we would trade anything in the world for the healthy body we probably took for granted right up until this terrible thing happened. We wouldn’t trade any number of pizzas, bottles of wine, or packs of cigarettes <insert applicable vice here> for the opportunity to have our health and wholeness restored.
Usually, we begin to focus on relationships. We find a new appreciation for our team, for all the things they sacrifice to take care of us when we need them most, for the ways they encourage us, support us, keep us laughing, and sneak us in our favorite take out, even if the nurse says, “no”. We know who our real friends are now. They are the ones who didn’t run when shit got difficult. They stayed, they loved us through it, and we cannot wait to return every single favor just as soon as life allows us the chance.
While fighting for our lives, we make amends with those we’ve wronged. We ask for forgiveness. We forgive others. We mend our fences, because we have to be ready for the unthinkable, and we can’t leave any unfinished business behind. We take a good look at our lives and take an honest inventory of the person we have become. We engage in life review- revisiting our favorite memories, our most painful moments, our regrets, and maybe even that list of things we always said we wanted to do “someday”.
You know, someday.
That day in the arbitrary future when whatever perfect world scenario we’re waiting on is supposed to come to fruition. When work calms down, when the kids are bigger, when we have more money, or time, or focus, or whatever limitation we’ve imaged is keeping us from doing that thing we want to do.
When we realize that we might not get another someday, those experiences, goals, accomplishments- whatever we were putting off- might just be our motivation to keep fighting. We start doing whatever it takes to make sure we get to see the sunset in that city we always meant to visit, write that book, stick our feet in that ocean, or hold that grandbaby we just know will be on the way just as soon as the kids are ready. Whatever it is suddenly consumes us. It gives us hope, purpose, comfort.
This thing we return to on the days when we think we can’t fight anymore is there to remind us that we’re not done living yet. It becomes our touchstone.
Sadly, in our culture of chronic busyness and distraction, sometimes it takes something dramatic like a heart attack, or a car wreck to wake us up. Sometimes unthinkable things happen to make us fight for the privilege it is to exist on this earth. To remind us what’s important, or teach us how to take care of ourselves.
Life throws us all kinds of curves- they don’t have to be health scares. They can be anything that makes us turn off our autopilots, stop coasting, wake up and really get serious about creating the lives we truly desire.
My life has lots of these lines of demarcation- and moments that changed me.
I was a different person before my first child was born.
After I left my hometown.
Before my grandmother died.
After my divorce.
Before returning to the workforce after a decade at home.
After meeting my husband-to-be.
The process for major life changes is pretty much exactly like navigating a serious illness or injury. The same gathering of important people and reprioritizing everything else needs to happen. And, holding onto our touchstone reminds us why we need to do the very important, difficult, sometimes heart breaking work of tearing down our life and rebuilding it.
While fighting for the life we most desire, we need our team. They will remind us that we are utterly capable of dealing with whatever we’re going through. They will listen, they will hold our hands, they will remind us who we are, and why it’s so important to keep on keeping on the journey. They will be right there in the trenches while we gut out the hard days, and when we rise victorious, they will celebrate with us.
We need a plan. Not just dreams or goals. Actual plans that do not begin someday.
If you want to buy a house, change jobs, lose weight- whatever the practical things are you’ve been putting off- make a plan. Consult the experts, read, learn all you can about the things you want to do. Then, do them.
Do the practical things and the fun things you’ve been putting off.
Do the things you wish you could do, but fear has kept you from them.
Do the thing you would do if you knew you couldn’t fail.
Do it all. Make a plan, and do it soon, because someday is not promised.
Our someday is today. Right now. This is when life happens. Now.
Become a master of self-care. Take all the time needed to take care of yourself, improve yourself, and make yourself the happiest, healthiest, best self you can be. Examine every single part of your life and decide what makes you better, what depletes you, what feels good, what makes you feel satisfied. Listen to your body, your intuition, your spirit. Then, adjust accordingly. Leave the job you hate. Move to that city you’ve always wanted to call home. Open the restaurant, do the open mic night, hang your art on the walls of your favorite coffee shop. That’s your touchstone. That thing- the idea of it, the feeling of accomplishment, satisfaction, fulfillment that you know will come with it- that’s your motivator for rethinking all your life choices.
You see, we don’t have to be sick or injured to fight for our lives. We can fight for them everyday, through the sea of distraction, and the mountains of excuses we make to stay stuck. We can assemble our team, learn everything we need to know, make a plan, and go to war until that impossible thing we thought we might never do becomes a line of demarcation in our life.
When we look back on the time we fought for that thing, we see our courage and strength. We see how life seems to give us everything we need, right at the time when we need it most. Most of all, we see what’s really important, what makes us feel happy and safe, and how utterly capable we are to handle any challenge.
Circle your wagons. Find your touchstone. Mend your fences. Make a plan. Get in there and fight for the life you deserve.
Photo: Wiki Commons
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