what if

Black and white drawing of nondescript person walking down a flight of seemingly endless spiral stairs

“How are you?”

“How’s it going?”

“What’s new?”

While I’ve often had full-blown, soul-bearing conversations result from my posing these simple prompts, the typical range of expected replies remains fairly limited:

“Good, and you?”

“Eh, you know…”

“Not much. You?”

I suppose these exchanges serve some purpose in social settings, though I tend to be aware of the ironic distance evident in these greetings. That is, I find it odd that we ask how someone is if we don’t actually want to know. Most often, unfortunately, my observation is that these exchanges are an obligatory nicety we feel compelled to offer as a prelude before getting someone to do what we want them to do (e.g., ring out my order, buy this car, stop talking to me, etc.).

But that’s all a discussion for another time (and, in fact, one I’ve talked about often in previous posts as well as in The Best Advice So Far).

That said, of all such programmed responses to “How are you?” my least favorite is the seemingly ubiquitous reply of “SSDD.” It’s not that it offends me. It’s that it makes me sad. Sad to think that people choose to keep living unfulfilling, uninteresting, monotonous—unhappy—lives, day after day, ad infinitum.

Yet recently, someone asked how I was, and I found myself thinking and responding in just about this way—not in exact choice of words, but certainly in sentiment. It surprised me. And yet it felt like the most honest expression of where I was in that moment.

Back in 2011, my first year of blogging, I wrote a post following a period of “sleep walking” which had lasted about a month. It was weird. I didn’t feel like myself. But I at least felt like I was a semblance of that self. Then I woke up.

Halfway through 2015, life upended again with a systemic mystery ailment that came with a wildly spreading rash, incessant itching night and day, extreme fatigue, loss of sleep, digestive issues and more. It lasted over a year-and-a-half before I finally self-diagnosed the issue and returned to normal living.

Six months later, by June of 2017, the rash was gone but I still couldn’t shake the fatigue. Willing to try almost anything, I took a black pill that touted promises of natural energy from rare and exotic sounding herbs—but which instead quite literally nearly ended my life.

Still, I pulled through. Got life back on track, feeling positive and focused.

In September of last year, however, I got whacked again. I alluded to this in my last post. But at that time, I couldn’t bring myself to write about the issue, since I was still very much in its thrall. I’m ready now.

In 2018, I began writing my next book in earnest; and by the end of my August vacation to Florida, I was about 70% finished. I returned refreshed, ready not only to finish the book within another 30 days, but to expand into some new ventures that had me feeling excited for the fall.

However, the very next day, all of that momentum ended.

I woke up with red, itchy, stinging eyes. At first, I thought it might have been from all the travel the day before. Or from my last dip in the hot tub or pool in Florida. Or maybe the beginning of seasonal allergies.

By the next day, I awoke to find both eyes sealed shut with goop. The itching and stinging had turned to burning and pain. My vision was blurred. This was more than allergies.

Still, I figured it was probably just conjunctivitis, maybe something I’d picked up on the plane ride home. No fun, but not the end of the world. In fact, I still had some Ofloxacin in the medicine cabinet from a short bout I’d had the year before. I started the drops, sure I’d be fine in a few days.

Three days later, however, my eyes were a painful mess. I could no longer see normally.

I went to the local pharmacy’s walk-in clinic, hoping for something stronger. Maybe I’d developed a tolerance to the Ofloxacin. I was started on a new eye drop.

Things got worse.

Within a few more days, the whole shape of my eyes had changed from the swelling.

I saw my primary doctor. He immediately referred me to an ophthalmologist. New meds, both oral and drop, were prescribed.

Within a week, the pain was so bad that I was balling up wash cloths, pressing them to both eyes and tying them in place with a belt. I have a very high pain tolerance, but it brought even me to pitiful tears and whimpering. Sometime in the night, I fell asleep. I woke with the right side of my face completely sealed to the pillow case, as if I’d lain in glue. I couldn’t open the other eye, even with help from my fingers. I felt my way to the bathroom blind, still clutching the pillow to my face, where I had to use warm water, little by little, to peel myself from the pillow and my eyelids apart. Even with that, my vision was reduced to a blur through narrow slits. And twenty four hours a day, as best I can describe, it now felt like someone had taken a handful of fiberglass filaments and blown them directly into my eyes.

I used ice packs. I lay on the bathroom floor, dousing my eyes with eye wash like you’d do for a chemical splash in a lab. Nothing made it better.

Four medications later, the ophthalmologist noticed ulcers in my eyes.

He transferred me to a corneal specialist who poked and dug and scraped. Another month, and four or five new medications later, and nothing had gotten better.

I did my best to put my own “best advice” into action:

“You always have a choice.”

“Being miserable is a choice.”

“Practice positivity.”

But even little choices were becoming increasingly more difficult to make. I could no longer read—computer or books. I couldn’t see to write. I couldn’t do graphic design projects. Driving was difficult at best and largely reserved for getting to and from the doctors. Still, from within these limitations and through the pain, I kept re-centering, looking for the ways I could still choose happiness over misery or complaining.

But then two months passed with no solution in sight.

Three months.

Four.

Medications were replaced or added. At one point near Christmas, the specialist finally said, “I know I should be going by the scientific method—trying one thing long enough to see what happens, then trying the next and so on; but at this point, if you’re up for it, I say we just give you a bunch of things at once and hope one of them works, even if we don’t know which.

Some pills made me sick to my stomach for hours every time I took them—which was three times a day.

Another, also taken three times a day, caused vivid nightmares each and every time I fell asleep. Loved ones dying. Flesh burning away on hot stoves. End of the world. All in living color.

Every. Single. Night.

The latest eye drops burned horribly, which is saying something that they could cause pain worse than what was already going on.

Then the acute stabbing pains began—so raw they’d take my breath away and have me doubled over, bawling.

If I’d been told, “You have ____________ which will resolve in six months if you stay with the medication course,” things would have been different. I can endure almost anything if I know what it is and have a clear idea of how long it will last. I mean, as a teen, I used to get my teeth drilled without Novocain—just clawing into the armrests of the dentist’s chair til it was done—because as nerve-shattering as the pain was, I knew when it would be over. But with my eyes, I still didn’t even know what it was, much less when—or even if—I could expect to be through with it. It was just one, long, dark tunnel with no light at the end.

I missed my grandmother’s 94th birthday party, not yet knowing what ailed me and not wanting to take the risk that I’d pass it on to her, given her frail state.

In February, I got the sinking call to “come see Nana so you can say goodbye.” Many of us went despite various ailments; it was clear that nothing we could give her would make things worse. So I came and got to see her. But she was in too much discomfort and on too much morphine to know I was even there, at least outwardly.

Thirty-six hours later, she was gone.

I dosed my eyes too heavily with steroids to get through the wake and funeral. But having survived off those drops for so long now ran a real risk each additional time I used them of causing glaucoma or cataracts.

Now, I was grieving and trying to support family in their loss—all while still dealing with the interminable eye mess.

*****

I trust you get the picture. Not a pretty one.

It was my mother—she herself dealing at the time not only with the loss of her mother and some complicated emotions related to that, but with severe pneumonia to boot—who asked me one night, six months into the eye thing, “How are you? Any better?”

You have to understand, I’m a strong person. Strong in general, but especially good at being strong for others. I’m able to compartmentalize in a healthy way, I think—to set aside my own stuff temporarily for the sake of others. But when my mother asked this otherwise simple question that night, she may as well have told me another loved one had died. I didn’t burst out crying. I was just… numb. Like the last embers of hope I’d been holding onto were flickering away to ash.

I replied blankly, “No change. Maybe worse. It just feels like things are never going to get better, that this is just… the best it’s going to be and then it’s all downhill from here until I die.”

Given her own burdens at the time, some very distant part of me knew that my honesty was another weight to her. And yet, it’s all I could find in myself to say. I’d gotten by on “This too shall pass” up until then. But in that moment, it didn’t feel like it would ever pass.

Of course the pain, grief, lack of sleep and constant nightmares about unthinkable things all played their part in bringing me to that place.

But it introduced a new consideration into my thinking:

What if…?

What if my eyes don’t ever get better?

What if this too does not pass?

What if…?

If that were all inescapably true, how does “You always have a choice” (Chapter 1) look then?

For many people, this is already the case. Their difficult thing isn’t going to change or get better or go back to “the way it used to be.”

“I’m leaving you.”

“I’m sorry, she didn’t make it.”

“It’s Stage 4. I’m afraid surgery isn’t an option, but we can discuss chemo…”

And for each of us—even if we live a charmed life—at a certain age, our bodies will begin to break down, leaving us less able to do the things we enjoy as time goes by.

More loved ones in the generation ahead of us will get old and sick and die. It’s just the way of things.

How does advice like “Being miserable is a choice” (Chapter 2) or “Practice positivity” (Chapter 3)—or even simply “Laugh” (Chapter 40)—apply if the temporary trial becomes the new normal?

I mentioned at the start of this post some fairly big health things that ruled my life for months to years. But they aren’t the only ones. Childhood traumas. Car accidents. A freak head injury that caused amnesia and changed my personality in frightening ways.

I was even diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and told by my doctor in somber tones that I should begin preparing for the inevitability of life in a wheelchair, as my mother, in tears, vowed that I could live with her and that she’d take care of me. And I was only thirty.

That’s all to say that I’ve had no shortage of times where things were bad with no promise of ever getting better. To date, each of them has gotten better, for which I’m grateful. Injuries healed. My personality gradually returned to someone I recognized. And the MS diagnosis was later found to be incorrect. But in the thick of each of these devastating periods, I didn’t know they would ever get better. And so I’ve had plenty of opportunity to put the advice I share into practice when it was the furthest thing from easy. Not every day was a success, right up until this last lingering eye infection. I didn’t always bear adversity with a beatific smile. But I’ve learned some things. A lot, actually. And I can say that, over time, I’ve gotten better at facing long-term hardship, often when no end was in sight.

Over the course of the next few posts, I’d like to share with you some of the most effective and practical strategies I’ve collected, as they apply not only to “bad patches” but also and especially to those what-if-it-never-changes realities in life.

Exercise Empathy

It’s been said, “Never judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” I think these words have, for the most part, lost their impact. We might say it or hear it. And we know what it means. But it no longer moves us, compelling us to change the way we live. Still, in spite of its overuse, it’s no less true than it was when first spoken.

It’s all too easy for us to glimpse through the broken windows of someone else’s life and to pontificate about how we’d handle it were we in their situation.

Or to glibly offer platitudes of the what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger variety.

Or to sigh in irritation that their bad-day blues are killing our buzz.

I’m not talking here about those perpetual Eeyores, Negative Nancies and Debby Downers in our lives who are given to griping over every missed opportunity or “mean boss” or case of the sniffles they get. I’m talking about people who find themselves in specific and genuinely hard circumstances that have become difficult for them to cope with.

Why bring this up? It’s about a mindset. If we’ve not learned empathy and put it into consistent practice with others, when our times of trial come, we’re not likely to be very gracious with ourselves either. And we’ll need to be if there’s to be any hope of our standing in the face of suffering.

At the core of everything I write, teach and speak about is the idea that “You always have a choice.” I encourage people to “practice positivity” and remind them often that “being miserable is a choice.” I’ve shared many stories of real people who’ve served as shining examples of the power of positive choice in the face of great obstacles and adversity:

My friend Carlotta who remained gracious and hospitable and wise, even as she suffered through cancer.

Another friend, Adindya, who is deaf and blind—and yet one of the happiest people I know.

Nick, who despite having been born with no arms or legs, has risen above his limitations to become a well-known motivational speaker.

Corrie, who as a war-camp prisoner in Nazi Germany, remained a beacon of hope and even kindness to her enemies.

But let’s be honest. There are no saints. They only seem so in light of their big-picture narratives. Each of the people I mentioned above stumbled along the way.

There were days and weeks where Carlotta’s pain broke through her resolve.

Frustration led Anindya to depression at times.

Nick doesn’t disguise that he was suicidal in his early years.

And Corrie was equally honest about the fact that she often struggled with giving in to bitterness, even revenge.

None of them are remarkable due to the unwavering perfection of their paths. They are remarkable only because they got back up and made the choice to move forward and try again.

I would say this of myself as well. The last thing I want is for people to walk away from one of my books or blog posts, or a conversation with me, and feel that I conveyed that I handle every difficulty with positivity and grace. I don’t. I just stay open to learning, to getting back up, to trying again.

When it’s your turn, remember to be kind and patient with yourself. You’ll stumble. You’ll give in to despair. You won’t be the stalwart example you hoped to be. And that’s OK. It’s not a defeat as long as you keep getting up and trying “one more time.”

The Best Advice So Far: It's not a defeat as long as you keep getting up and trying "one more time."

Start Now

I’ve had decades of practice using specific strategies for positive living: everything from staying present, to combating worry and regret, to banishing bitterness. Writing has helped me further encapsulate these strategies in words that are easily accessible when I need them. I say this often, and it’s absolutely true: I take my own advice more than anyone does, to the point where it’s second nature for me to think “You always have a choice” or “I am here” or “Patience is still a virtue.”

And yet, given all of that, I still found myself worn down, when facing the possibility that the pain would not end, to moments where all hope seemed lost.

For me, this realization brings me back around to empathy. I’ve no place to judge those who, without any strategies in place at all, fall hard and fall fast when hard times set in.

And yet it also illustrates an important truth: the time to learn and practice positive life strategies isn’t in the middle of crisis.

If the last time you ran a mile or rode a bike or swam a lap was in junior high, you’re not going to roll out of bed some Saturday and win the Ironman Triathalon.

That means we need to start preparing for life’s big things by practicing, consistently and often, with the little things.

You won’t endure chronic pain well if you haven’t learned to be patient with that annoying co-worker, or gotten a grip on your road rage.

You’re unlikely to save that relationship if the first time it crosses your mind to work on your communication skills is the day the divorce papers arrive.

I highly recommend you do some real work developing a sense of self-worth based on more than physical strength or beauty before you hit 50.

Counting blessings when they become harder to find will be mighty difficult if you don’t start now in curbing your complaints about restaurant servers or the outrageous price of bananas.

That is to say, if we treat every little thing as if it were a big deal—from canceled flights to car repairs, late guests to laundry—how do we suppose we’ll handle the really big things when they strike?

The Best Advice So Far: We need to start preparing for life's BIG THINGS by practicing with the little things."

One of the deepest perspective shifts I’ve had is seeing that “the glass is already broken,” rather than merely “half empty” or “half full.” That is, I try to acknowledge that each good thing in life comes with a “someday” expiration date. I’m owed nothing. Everything is on short-term loan. And that outlook is motivation to appreciate each good thing in the present, while letting go of them as graciously as possible when the time comes.

*****

A huge thank-you to each of you, near and far, who checked in on me, who wrote kind notes and cards, who provided meals, who attended the wake or offered condolences and more during the last half year. Your love and support has kept me going.

In the next post, I’ll add to the list of strategies for facing hardship when there’s no end in sight: coming to terms with unfairness and avoiding the pitfalls of comparison.

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