After taking care of my brother as he wasted away and died from AIDs, the end of my 18-year marriage to my high school sweetheart in an ugly parting that made Divorce Court look civil, and years of wrong turns, things not working out, and being flat-out disappointed with life, I tried to kill myself in June of 2007, by swallowing handful after handful of pills. Because I was found too late for my stomach to be pumped, the pills went all the way through my body wreaking destruction.
While I did survive (obviously), I woke up after a week in a coma with an acquired brain injury to a very different world. Initially, I was seriously mentally impaired. Right after the attempt, just living an ordinary life, doing the things people normally do every day without a second thought: emptying the dishwasher, making a meal, having a conversation, paying the bills, using the computer, were frustratingly difficult challenges.
Putting thoughts into words was a painstakingly slow process that required intentional mental effort. When I did talk, it sounded like my mouth was wired shut and crammed full of marbles. Besides barely being able to speak, I couldn’t coordinate the acts of breathing and swallowing anymore. My hands shook constantly and had no fine motor control, and I couldn’t retrieve words, remember the date, my sons’ ages, or that I’d gotten divorced. My ex-husband sued me for custody of our two sons, won, and immediately moved out-of-state with them.
And I thought things were bad before?
With determination, hard work, and discipline every day, for years, accompanied by lots of reading, self-examination, doing things differently, and the miracle of neuroplasticity, I slowly emerged from the mess I’d created, like a phoenix. The old me really did cease to exist (she disappeared along with brain connections) and from the ashes, a new me emerged — stronger, happier, and mentally and physically healthier than ever.
The brain injury forced me to make the hard changes that I could have chosen to make under less duress earlier in my life. Believe me, it would have been much easier, but I was the kind that had to be hit over the head with a crisis before I changed my ways for the better. Not anymore.
With the brain injury, I had to focus on myself and put all of my energy into my physical and mental rehabilitation and improvement. I absolutely had to in order to recover. While, in retrospect, I wouldn’t choose this for myself under any circumstances, ever again, the injury and the changes it necessitated have proven to be blessings for me. I’m a much better, healthier, and happier person because of them.
Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Sure is true in this case. I’ll tell you a few things I learned along the way:
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt
At first, I was painfully embarrassed and ashamed to admit to anyone that I had tried to kill myself, had my children taken away, and had mental health issues. But during the first year, after it all happened, I began to realize that my self-inflicted shame was like a dagger I was plunging into my own heart. If I talked about these gasp-worthy events openly and refused to take on any shame associated with them, there was none for me. The shame only existed if I imposed it on myself. The same holds true in any situation. Eleanor was right.
In uncertainty lies all possibility. ~ Debbie Hampton (me)
The only thing that’s certain is uncertainty. I’ve learned not to judge anything as good or bad when it presents itself, even if it’s completely different from what I expected (and it usually is.) We can’t begin to know if circumstances are “good” or “bad” when they show up. Our thinking about any situation makes it so. The “is” is what we think it is: good or bad. A breakup is painful, but it may also lead to finding the one. Being laid off is scary as hell, but it can prompt someone to find a new career which they’re passionate about and much happier in. You just never know. Stay open to possibilities.
You may have been given a cactus, but you don’t have to sit on it. ~Joyce Meyer
OK, life handed me a whole cactus garden, but I was the one who kept plopping my behind on it. Every time I wallowed in self-pity; every time I tortured myself with painful memories; every time I knee-jerk reacted to my ex’s antics, I was taking a running jump and landing right on the cactus thorns. I was doing it to myself! I’ve learned that my experience of anything is determined not by the actual circumstances, but by my behavior and thoughts while going through the situation. Most of the pain and anguish I feel are caused by my struggle against “what is.” Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, advises us to “lean into” painful situations and see what they have to teach us.
The only difference between stumbling blocks and stepping stones is how you use them. ~ American Proverb
I’ve found that almost every situation, no matter how dismal it may seem initially, can be made instantly better by working with my perspective, and I do this by asking myself one little question. “How can I make this work for me?” This simple question changes my perspective from that of being a victim who is helplessly at the mercy of seemingly senseless, random circumstances to a conscious person who engages my power and chooses how to take what’s in front of me and work with it for my best. It’s a much better use of my energy and time to direct my actions in this way than freaking out, getting panicked, and reacting. Those patterns only led to making bigger messes and the suicide attempt.
I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become. ~ Carl Jung
Everything in your life is a reflection of the thoughts you think, the choices you make, and your actions and words. Those seemingly insignificant, small, in-the-moment decisions that you make every day about how you spend your time, the company you keep, what you put in your mouth, and what comes out of your mouth all add up to make your reality. Even though things may not be great, I can make them better or worse with my actions. The choices I make today are creating my reality and building my tomorrow.
You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength. ~ Marcus Aurelius
I can never control anything that goes on around me. That was a hard one to learn. The only thing I ever have control of is myself. (That was even harder!) But learning to respond rather than knee-jerk react, which has taken years, has made a huge positive difference in my life. I used to be highly reactive which could make a bad situation, or even a good situation, worse really quickly and lead to damaging consequences. I read an article that said that the difference between responding and reacting was about ten seconds. For me, it can be much longer and, I still don’t get it right sometimes. Learning to be nonreactive is a continual challenge, but it does get easier the more you override the reptilian brain and engage your responsive brain.
What screws us up most in life is the picture in our heads of how it’s supposed to be. ~ Anonymous
I’ve come to realize that there is no “should be.” There is only what is. I can alleviate almost all pain and suffering by getting rid of the “shoulds” and consciously being accepting and open to whatever unfolds. Many philosophies teach and I’ve found that emotional torment and suffering comes from our attachment to our thoughts about what happens, not what actually happens. Pain originates in the space between our thoughts and reality.
So many times, circumstances, which I pegged to be undesirable at first, turned out to be just fine when all was said and done. (Great even!) From experience, I’ve learned not to even begin to presume that I know what’s “best” in any situation. What we like, want, and think we need isn’t always going to provide growth or even get us to our goal, oftentimes. By trying to force a certain outcome, I limit other possibilities which could be awesome and bring what I was seeking in the first place.
Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. ~ Ekhart Tolle
It’s my job to find the good in any situation that shows up for me. Good is always present somewhere in the picture. If I look for the good, I’ll find it. By taking this attitude, things always turn out good because “good” is defined by me. Your brain is wired to automatically look for and hang onto the bad. You have to make an effort to notice and remember the good.
Good facts are around us all every moment of every day. Even “bad” things often contain seeds for good experiences. You have to intentionally look for the good in the bad. What lessons did you learn? Are you stronger for having had the experience? What did you gain?
As I was slogging through the mess I’d made of my life, my mantra was, “When you’ve hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up.” I like up!
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