I was invited to speak at and presented at The National Symposium for Integrated Health at the Harvard University Faculty Club in Cambridge last week and wrote the following piece as a guideline for the presentation I delivered. I'll be posting the video of the presentation when I get my hands on it but my hope is that you will read this and start asking questions today... As always, feedback is most welcome!
On September 25, 2009 my brother Thomas and I made a decision that would drastically alter the course of both of our lives forever. You see, we had spent the better part of two years essentially lobbying the Colombian government to give us full custody of my father who at the time was suffering from severe Alzheimer’s disease and wasn’t receiving the level of care he deserved.
That Friday morning, we were granted our wish and received all the relevant paperwork. We couldn’t believe it! The day we had dreamed of for so long had come but due to some unforeseen circumstances, none of what we had planned to do once we had achieved this was on the table and we were forced to think quickly. Our conclusion? To take him with us back to the States and to figure out what to do once we were on our own turf and with more time to think. We went straight to the Embassy, got him a passport and were on the first flight back to DC, which was where we both lived at the time.
At the time, I was a relatively carefree 25 year old rising quickly in the ranks of corporate America. I was in a committed relationship, living in a spacious loft, driving a beautiful car, and contemplating a move overseas with my boyfriend. Life was good. How good? I didn’t really understand until September 26th, the day we arrived to the states… which is when the reality of what we had chosen to take on really set in.
You see, in our minds prior to assuming the responsibility of my father’s care, we understood that it was going to be the beginning of a new chapter for us as a family and that it would require some sacrifices on our part. That’s about it, to be honest… but it was enough because we were intent on making his last years as comfortable and loving as possible. To us, it had become abundantly clear that we were the best people for the job so we decided to take it on, admittedly not knowing exactly it entailed and how difficult it would be…
And difficult it was…Dad required 24hr round the clock care. That meant we had to hire a caregiver while we were at work and that we take turns every other night bathing him, changing his diapers, feeding him dinner, and putting him to bed. We would switch every other weekend too so that we could each get a break and be ‘normal’ for 48hrs.
Dad’s care quickly took a toll on us physically, psychologically, emotionally, and financially. He had no health insurance and came to us after not having seen a doctor, a dentist, or an occupational therapist in years. He was in bad shape and we needed to get him to the healthiest baseline as soon as possible to better control the inevitable decline that we knew would come regardless.
There were tears, nights of what seemed like endless frustration. Anger, sadness, fights, resentment, and plenty of days where we both felt like we couldn’t take it anymore. Though my brother took on more responsibilities than I did, in my mind it felt like it was too much. We were too young. It was too unfair. I remember sitting at home on Saturday nights alone and crying myself to sleep. I remember experiencing severe anxiety before every time I had to shower him prompted by the fear that he may fall and that I would be alone and helpless…
Though he did pass away peacefully at home during a snow storm some 2 years and 4 months later, I’m proud to say that our efforts weren’t in vain. We accomplished our goal of making him feel loved and ensuring that he had the best medical care possible for as long as he was with us. To this day, when I think of the experience I can’t help but wonder about how we pulled it off. I’m ever so grateful for having had the opportunity to care for him and in awe of just how incredibly strong my brother proved to be at the time. As for me? Well, let’s just say the experience is the reason why I stand before you today.
So now that you’ve received the cliff’s notes version of one of the most intimate/difficult/ and character defining parts of my life story, I think it’s time I introduce myself properly. Hi, my name is Jenniffer Green and I am a professional student of life. Most people refer to me by what I do for a living… life coach… but I know better.
I shared with you my story because hidden inside of that experience is a message that I feel is worth sharing and that has served as one of the pillars of my coaching practice for the last 3 1/2 years.
Knowing what you now know about my story, you can probably understand why taking care of my dad was probably the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to do. What I didn’t share though, was that it also ended up being one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. The beautiful part? That realization didn’t come AFTER the ordeal, it came DURING and it helped me begin a personal transformation that is still taking place today.
So what happened that changed my mind? Did we have a crisis within a crisis? Nah, my revelation came to be quite anti-climatically one Friday night as I was watching a movie with my dad at home and feeling annoyed that I couldn’t make it to a friend’s get together. I found myself going into a familiar thought pattern… ‘poor me’, ‘my youth being wasted’ “this is so unfair’ ‘where did my freedom go’… This time I stopped myself though. I stopped because I had repeated the same story so many times that I’d become bored of it and it had starting feeling a bit melodramatic. There’s only so much feeling sorry for yourself you can do after all.
I was desperate to make sense of it all so I turned to both western philosophy and eastern spiritual thought and began to go inward. In my quest I had my first “aha!’ Moment reading Viktor Frankl’s work. Frankl was a renowned Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and holocaust survivor and in my eyes his story served as a beautiful example of how a human being can transmute their suffering into meaning through a process that I’ve begun to call perceptual alchemy. Frankl stated: ’Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”
So yes. What I living was challenging. Yes, it was too much. Yes, we were too young. Yes, it was unfair. But could it be other things as well? Could I learn to see this situation in a way that didn’t feel like I was at the mercy of my circumstances? How could I find this freedom that Frankl described? I found that changing my attitude regarding my situation was a lot harder than I expected. How do you just magically shift your perceptions and emotions?
Unsatisfied and unconvinced, I kept digging and in my search I found Chinese philosopher and the Founder of Taoism, Lao Tsu and the following suggestion: ‘When I let go of what I am I become what I may be.’ But who was I? It had become clear that I had to let go of something… What exactly that was though, I wasn’t sure… that didn’t make me crave it any less though.
So on one hand I had Frankl telling me to accept my situation and shift my attitude and on the other I had Lao Tsu telling me to let go of the idea I had in my head about who I was so that I could embrace something new. In order to do either of those though, I needed to take a step back and figure out what the ‘what’ I needed to accept was and the ‘who’ I was being at the moment.
Well, that was way easier said than done. You see, while the power of acceptance is a key pillar in most personal development literature, there’s a key piece in the acceptance conversation that a lot of people miss when they discuss the importance of embracing it. You have to be keenly aware of what you are ‘accepting’ in order to shift it and create lasting change…. And that ‘thing’ you’re accepting is the story you are telling yourself about what you are living…. And that story, like most… is subjective.
When I took a hard look at myself, I realized that the story I was telling was one of total martyrdom. And though there was a part of me that felt righteous about my victimization because it was being done in the name of love, there was, however, a side of me that wasn’t buying it.
Was I all of a sudden a scared little girl or the fiercely independent woman that by 24 was running a marketing department at a mid size telecom firm? Was I the girl who always made others laugh or had I forgotten what being joyful felt like? This whole victim thing wasn’t a role I was used to playing and even though it made sense being in it felt uncomfortable. Why? The answer and the key to getting out of my predicament lay in the neural networks of my brain.
As the processing center of our bodies, our brains are tasked with among other tasks extracting usable information from all the data we encounter on a daily basis. Once we are introduced to a new idea, concept, person, or topic, your brain begins to create a neural network for it. Each one of the 86 billion neurons in your brain is connected to roughly 10,000 others. Each time a connection is used, a network is created.
According to Psychology Today, these networks function according to 3 principal rules:
1. The focus of your attention is the network you are in. Your attention tells you the neural network you are in. Knowing this you can practice observing your thoughts and being picky about which ones you entertain.
2. Neurons that fire together wire together. This is called Hebb’s Rule (1949), which basically says that repeated experience can strengthen or weaken neuronal bonds. The more neurons fire together, the faster and stronger they wire together, producing larger and stronger networks over time.
The more you focus on something, the more connections to that thing you make, which means that over time you begin to see the world more and more through that particular network/lens and the things that are connected to it. What you focus on, you get a lot more of. So engage with your thoughts wisely, and pay attention to which networks you spend a lot of time in!
3. Use it or lose it. Just as attending to a particular thought strengthens the neural network associated with that thought, neglecting neural networks results in a weakening of those networks over time. This is really good news, because it means that if we can promote disintegration of old, negative, unhelpful networks, we can reduce the intensity and frequency with which we produce (and experience!) the distressing thoughts associated with those networks.
Seeing it this way my dilemma was actually quite simple:
I created a ‘my life sucks and there’s nothing I can do about it’ network and because my circumstances were so difficult, it became strong pretty quickly because there were so many factors out of my control in my new reality.
That network, however, didn’t quite jive with other strong yet already pre-existing networks that I had created in my head which were the ‘everything is figureoutable’ network and the ‘I am woman hear me roar’ network among others. Because of that I found it hard to get unstuck.
This was good. Now I knew what I needed to do. I needed to create a new network! But how?
Fortunately for me, Albert Einstein another one of my favorite gurus came to save the day. “All meaningful and lasting change starts first in your imagination and then works its way out. Imagination is more important than knowledge” he said.
Ok, so my imagination… How could I use my imagination to make it easier for me to accept my situation and shift it from positive to negative? How could I enlist its help in making me feel better and not let it continue feeding my current unhappiness? …Because by then I had become an expert at imagining just how much fun all the stuff that I was missing out on was and all the things that could possibly go wrong while I had to take care of dad alone.
The answer was easy. I needed to get creative with my thinking and consciously direct those efforts in a productive way.
You see, imagination is a resource. It’s just like time, money, connections, energy, etc… Much like time, you have the choice to use it consciously but if you don’t, it will still be used regardless. Being aware of this I made the decision that I was going to tell a new, more positive story. Build new networks and work on strengthening them so that I could find more peace of mind and reconnect with my joy.
I built the ‘this doesn’t have to suck’, the ‘this can make you grow’, the ‘you are stronger than you think,’ the ‘create the joy’ and the ‘wow, you have a lot of free time at home now so use it wisely’ networks.
I was determined to adopt a growth mindset and to be more flexible with myself. I understood that in a situation like this having answers or external solutions didn’t really matter. What mattered was my internal world. So I started applying the third rule of Neural Networking and stopped entertaining thoughts that were causing me anxiety or that made it easy for me to go back in victim mode. I also stopped using the ‘but it wasn’t supposed to be like this’ network because if I was being totally honest with myself, I actually had no clue what it was supposed to look like.
Much to my surprise when I opened up to the possibility that my experience didn’t have to be terrible, life started reflecting that! I started noticing little things that brought me a lot of joy like the fact that although dad couldn’t really talk anymore, he could still sing with me. I started caring for him as an opportunity to practice self-care as well. If I gave him a mani and pedi, I would give myself one too. I started realizing that slowing down was actually a gift because it allowed me to open the door into myself. I started reading about nutrition, I reconnected with my love of performing and I would put on mini concerts for him in the living room. I started getting creative with my cooking… I started connecting with my dad in a way I never had before… the way of the soul and I got to see and feel his spirit.
Alzheimer’s is a condition that strips away your sense of self and can be rather confusing and scary for those who live with it. Because of that, it is quite common for folks with the disease to be aggressive and combative with their care takers. My pops on the other hand? Total sweetheart. So gentle.
The more I was forced to constantly and consciously choose my network/narrative/path to grace, the more I realized just how important doing so really is. The more I was forced to slow down the more I saw how much unnecessary rushing I had done before and the more honest I became with myself. The life that I ‘missed’ so much was actually not the life I truly wanted. Sure, it checked off all the boxes I’d been socialized into thinking I did but those check marks permitted me to bypass my true self’s desires and needs. In a way, my dad’s illness had caused me a tremendous amount of pain but it had also been a gift. An opportunity for me to learn some valuable lessons about acceptance, unconditional love, and the true meaning of freedom. An opportunity to open the door into myself.
My life changed and I became who I am today because my circumstances forced me to look at and change my story and the filter through which I see the world. The good news is you don’t wait for things to get to that point to start looking within and doing the work in your own world. Yes, it will require courage and you will likely find things that are difficult to confront but it will be the most satisfying journey you’ll ever make if you allow it.
You may have noticed that I called myself a professional student of life at the beginning of our time together. I hope you’ll join me in my pursuit and that we can grow together learning from the many teachers who will cross our path.
Let’s use this incredible resource that is our imagination and put it at the service of our dreams and not our fears. Let’s use it to create and play out the narratives we want to live and have the courage to treat ourselves like the beautifully imperfect works in progress we are. Let’s take ourselves seriously enough to find the freedom required to stop taking ourselves so seriously… To embody the joy that we want to feel… to relish the lemons we masterfully turn into lemonade.
The stakes are high folks. We are living in a time where we as a collective society need to shift our way of living. Truth is, we don’t need more stuff. We don’t need more technology, we don’t need more convenience, faster cars, microchips in our brains, doomsday shelters or to live forever. With the planet as is we already all have the resources we need to keep every one fed, sheltered, educated and yet that’s not what we see. Why? Because we lost our way and ourselves. Because the story we began to tell was one based on fear.
More than our way of living though, we need to define our way of BEING. We need to reconnect with our humanity and in order to do so we must first reconnect with ourselves.
So with that in mind today I ask, what story are you telling?
(*** I chose Cielito Lindo for the song to accompany this post because it was the song that dad and I sang the most together during this period. Every time I hear it, I'm immediately transported to that time. It will forever be one of my favorites for that reason.***)