Gratitude as a coping skill

It’s been nearly 2 years since I have written a post. So much has happened since then. I wasn’t ready until now to share it. A synopsis then.

I started this blog in 2008 to document what I thought was the love of a lifetime and the challenges we faced to be together. We struggled for 3 years to legally be together (immigration), finally achieving our goal. Then, 3 years into what I thought would be our committed life together, it all fell apart. He told me of an “emergency” that required him to return abruptly to India. He left and I never hear from him again. That was 2014. It took me 2 years to get divorced because I had prove through “due diligence” that he had abandoned the relationship. 

As one can imagine, this whole experience was devastating. I had publicly put my relationship out there and then it all disintegrated after I had invested years of time and thousands of dollars. My children, who considered him a father figure, were traumatized. The whole experience was horrifying.

So then what to do with the blog? I removed the posts related to him. I tried to expunge his presence as best I could. I tried to rebuild from the catastrophe of his departure. I started dating again while I was dealing with the divorce but the heart takes time and I wasn’t ready. I tried to write but nothing seemed worth saying.

Then I decided to do a poetry challenge the following year, 2017, and that gave me a way to post content but I couldn’t bring myself to share my opinions on anything. It was all too much.

In 2017 I tried reinventing myself as a wellness professional. I studied to be a certified yoga instructor, learned about essential oils, Ayurveda, and nutrition. I felt super healthy and had lost a lot of weight. I was strong and fit. 

Then, in November 2017, I found a lump.

Yes, the irony was that when I felt my healthiest, I discovered a large lump in my right breast which turned out to be cancerous. More tests followed and 2 small lumps were discovered in my left breast. It was a struggle to finish out my year of poems but I did.

In March 2018, just four days after I graduated as a yoga teacher, I went in for surgery. I had a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. It was an 8 hour surgery and a long recovery.

After I had recovered from surgery, I decided that I would file for disability. I have been disabled my whole life (I wrote about it here) but I had never wanted to be defined by my disability so I resisted applying for it. I got by more or less. I had adapted my life to my disability and was able to work from home. But after cancer, my perspective changed. I no longer could focus like before, I didn’t have the ability to push myself, so I decided to apply.

While completing my application, I remembered that I had been in NYC during 9/11 and I was told to include that in my application. I had been on the WTC Health registry for years but never thought much about it. Not knowing where my paperwork was on the registry, I googled it and found a lawyer’s site. On the home page it asked if one was in the “exposure zone”, which I knew I was. Then the site stated that “68 cancers linked to WTC” and breast cancer was #4. A lightbulb went off.

The doctors kept saying how my diagnosis was “most unusual” and it was. I had 3 tumors that developed independently but the cancer had not spread to my lymph nodes. If you know anything about cancer then you will realize that is not how cancer usually behaves. But after several genetic tests that provided no explanation, the doctors just shrugged and went about treating me. I, however, realized when I saw that lawyer site that most likely my cancer came from my exposure on and after 9/11. Mind blown.

The real zinger, however, was when I remembered why I was in NYC at that time in the first place. My father had passed earlier that year. We had a complicated relationship. I hadn’t seen him in 5 years. He had been abusive to me but I did my duty by him and that’s what placed me in NYC on September 11, 2001. Now, I not only have applied for disability but also to the victim compensation fund. I’m still in the process of it all. Lots and lots of doctor appointments.

The combination of getting cancer, realizing the connection to 9/11 and then to my father was a lot to process and make sense of. I decided to write an autobiography. I’ve written about 1/3 of the first of two books. Yes, it’s that much to say…

One of my realizations during writing finally got me unstuck and that brings me to the title of this post: Gratitude as a Coping Skill.

You know the expression “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” and that’s basically the crux of it. Let me explain. Most think that means to be positive, see the good in life, be grateful for what you can, etc. and yes, it is all that, but I realized something more than just having a sunny outlook. Gratitude can be more important than just being thankful, it is a skill, a protective power that you can actively develop and that gratitude can then protect you when life whacks you on the side of the head.

So what does it mean to be actively grateful? It means that you practice daily, doing a mental inventory of all the good in your life. Soak in the good like it’s the last sip of water in a blistering hot desert. Savor the good, make your gratitude into a shield. Think of it like putting on 3D glasses. You need to train yourself to see the positive wherever possible. You must look for it. Sometimes it is not obvious but if you can’t find the positive then just wait and be open for it to appear.

That’s what I did with my cancer. At first I was so angry. I felt I had left my medical drama behind in my childhood. I felt like I deserved to be healthy after all I had been through. But I remained open to allow the positive to emerge and it did. 

One rule: Seeing the positive in a situation does not negate the negativity of it. Cancer can still suck. You can still feel pain from trauma. Training yourself to see the positive just buffers the pain, makes it less potent.

Now, 2 years after my diagnosis, I teach 6 yoga classes each week. I focus my classes on working with people dealing with injuries, illness, and trauma. My classes heal others but their happiness also heals me back. Win win.

So I move on from here but after so long being silent, I finally have been ready to share my voice again. Just remember that we have far more power than we realize to control our outlook on life.

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Eliza Alys Young, aka CreativEliza, is a free spirit, world traveler, creative expert, and part of multicultural family… Eliza shares her time between the US, Dominican Republic and beyond. When she is not caring for her high-energy kids, writing her poetry or for her blog, creating art or cooking up a storm, she is designing for her own company, Design Intense.

3 Comments on “Gratitude as a coping skill”

  1. Oh wow! So glaaaaaad you are back and writing. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself with us. You have been on such a journey and back. Cannot wait to read more 🙂

  2. Ah Eliza – I am (once again) quite stunned by the difficult path that you are on and full of admiration for your ability to surmount the obstacle. I certainly hope that the road starts to rise up to meet you and the winds fill your sails… Your lovely tapestry that you made me is now hanging in my place here in Lake Worth so I think of you often. So glad to see that you are writing again. hugs and love – Elizabeth

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