Your Most Valuable Coping Skills When Life Throws You a Curve Ball

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A guest post by David Singer of Six Simple Rules

Late last year we went through a challenging few weeks at home when our teenage daughter battled a significant, but fortunately temporary, illness. It was an experience that was extremely unnerving, to say the least.

Just before this past Thanksgiving, my daughter Julie, age 17, came home from school complaining that she felt sick. She had a fever and so she took some Tylenol, went to bed early, and skipped school the next day, the day before Thanksgiving.

She then spent all Thanksgiving day in bed, suffering from headaches, fever, lack of appetite, and complete exhaustion. We brought her to the pediatrician on Friday and the doctor said it appeared that Julie had a bad virus.

From Bad to Worse

That weekend, Julie’s symptoms continued to increase in severity (excruciating headaches, fever, no appetite, and barely able to get out of bed) and she began to suffer from additional symptoms (nausea, vomiting, and a sensitivity to light).

On Sunday, we took her to the ER where they examined her thoroughly, took blood to look for infections or mono, and did a chest x-ray to look for pneumonia. All tests were negative and the doctors continued to say this was likely a virus. We kept giving her Tylenol and Advil and making sure that she stayed hydrated.

The following Tuesday, with Julie growing weaker because she hadn’t eaten anything in a week, we spent the day in the hospital where they ran more tests. At the end of the day, the doctors told us that the only test they hadn’t yet done, but wanted to hold off on, was a spinal tap to check for spinal meningitis.

They explained that the bacterial form of meningitis was deadly, but that it was so debilitating, we would know she had it by the way she would look and act and feel. Other than the peace of mind we would get with a confirmed diagnosis of viral meningitis, as long as she wasn’t getting worse, there was no reason for the invasive test because the treatment would be to simply wait it out.

On Thursday, with Julie making no progress (though also not worse), we saw an infectious disease specialist. He concurred with the likely diagnosis of viral meningitis. While Julie and my wife, Marcie, and I were very frustrated with the lack of progress, the doctor assured us that he felt confident with the diagnosis—in fact, he felt that Julie didn’t look that bad.

On Saturday (day 12 of Julie’s illness), I got Marcie to leave the house for a few hours. When Marcie left the house she was upset because Julie hadn’t gotten out of bed yet, deflating Marcie’s positive feelings about Julie having come downstairs the prior day.

Coping with Uncertainty

While Marcie was out, I got Julie downstairs and fed her a sliced apple, by far the most she had eaten in nearly two weeks. When Marcie texted me from a store to ask for an update, I wrote, “Happy to report that Julie is downstairs. Ecstatic to report that she ate an apple!”

Unfortunately, my text message gave Marcie a false sense of what she would see when she came home, because when Marcie saw Julie looking the same way as when she left, Marcie burst into tears.

Marcie is normally the rock in our family, but she was having a lot of trouble dealing with the uncertainty of the situation—the diagnosis of “most likely” viral meningitis and a prescription of “wait and see” kept Marcie worrying, “What if it’s something worse and we’re losing valuable time by not treating it?”

It was an understandable concern, and while it’s important to be your daughter’s advocate, leaving no stone unturned as you seek to help her recover from illness, I told Marcie that we needed to put negative thinking out of our minds for our sanity.

I tried to console Marcie and to reason with her. I reminded her what all the doctors had said, that the critical thing all along had been that Julie wasn’t getting worse, and now the key was that she was getting better, even if the progress was excruciatingly slow.

Progress Over Perfection

I showed her the charts that my physician brother-in-law had suggested I construct: graphs that showed her fever coming down, the severity of the headaches coming down, the frequency of her requests for Tylenol coming down, and now, finally, the amount of food she was eating on the rise.

Marcie calmed down. Then, late that evening, Marcie’s imagination took over once again. She shared with me her dire concerns and we had a bit of a fight when I got upset at her for bringing me down with her negativity.

I urged her to adopt the coping skill of optimism—easier said than done for someone for whom it doesn’t come naturally. I reminded her that feeling that everything is going to work out will help to keep her sane and that it’s critical to see the glass as half full—for example, the apple Julie ate being huge progress worthy of celebrating.

Julie’s recovery continued at an extraordinarily slow pace and fast-forwarding the story, she finally went back to school after missing nearly four weeks, just in time to get in a few days before Christmas break.

The Power of Optimism

We were thrilled that Julie was feeling much better, and in another bit of positive thinking, we were happy to have the Christmas break come just in time for Julie to get additional recovery time, as well as catch-up time for her school work (she wasn’t able to get any school work done when she was home sick because even when she wasn’t nauseous or headachy, she was too exhausted to concentrate.)

As she recovered, Julie and I talked about the fact that while the ordeal had been frustrating and disrupting for her, in the not-too-distant-future the painfulness of this memory would fade and it would become an interesting story that Julie would find herself telling to her new college friends the following year.

I also couldn’t help but think, and point out to Julie and Marcie, how much more disruptive this would have been had Julie gotten sick the prior year, when she was a high school junior, taking SATs and working on her GPA. Or worse, if she had gotten sick the following year as a college freshman she almost certainly would have had to repeat a semester.

That’s the way my mind works, and I’m grateful for it. I think about the ways we are lucky that things work out, even in situations that are pretty much 100% negative (the same way you hear someone saying, “He’s lucky to be alive,” when a person is in intensive care after a near-fatal car accident.)

Optimism and positive thinking are all pieces of being happy and having a better life. The importance of our focus on measuring Julie’s progress is a microcosm of the importance of measuring progress instead of perfection in all aspects of life. And there were plenty of opportunities to practice focusing on progress during this experience.

What have you been through lately that was traumatic at the time, but yielded many opportunities to look for the positive? Join the conversation with your stories…

David J. Singer is the author of Six Simple Rules for a Better Life and blogs at Six Simple Rules

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Comments

  1. Sooo…your wife was upset because you had a diagnosis unconfirmed by any lab or other test…and she was supposed to just “think positive”??

    • Hi Kiki:

      There is a school of thinking regarding “learned optimism,” that with practice we may be able to become more optimistic. I don’t mean we learn the skills while in the heat of a bad moment, but perhaps some of us can learn some of these habits over time. That’s the reason for sharing some of these things in the post. 

      You are right. Nothing was going to make my wife feel totally better until she was convinced our daughter was out of the woods. Each time we spoke with the doctors we would feel better for a while and then in between doctor chats I did what I could to try to help my wife, as did other friends and family my wife spoke with. It was terrible and would be just as scary if it happened again, even with us having gone through it already. 

      Thanks for the note. 

      David 

      • David — thanks for this thoughtful, honest post, and I’m glad your daughter’s doing better. It made me think of Barbara Fredrickson’s groundbreaking work in positive psychology. If you’re not familiar with it already, I’m sure you’d find it compelling. Her research suggests, similar to your perspective above, that optimism and positivity really are habits that can be built over time. Some people might be more naturally positive, but we can all become more positive with practice.

        • David J. Singer says:

          Stephen:
          Thank you so much for the kind words. Not long ago I used the word “positivity” at a meeting. After the meeting, someone I didn’t know showed me Fredrickson’s book of the same name and suggested I read it. That makes two of you. I will most definitely do so.
          Thanks again for the note and for the recommendation. :)
          Best regards,
          David

        • My pleasure, David. I interviewed Fredrickson for an article a year or two ago and she’s a very thoughtful person. Just recently started following your blog and really like what you’re doing with it!

        • David J. Singer says:

          Thank you Stephen. I appreciate it.

  2. David- I am one of those parents who answered the phone in the middle of the night and heard the police say that my 18 year old only-child was killed in an auto accident. My sense of your message is the benefit of perspective. Events in life cause psychological – and powerful physical – responses in our bodies. If we choose to focus on those things we can’t control, we leverage the negative feelings caused by our sense of helplessness. Or we can choose to find some degree of comfort in the fact that no matter how much a person may prepare for tomorrow, the phone may ring tonight. Sick or well, sad or happy, defeated or victorious, every minute with a loved one is a treasure. You message said to me, “Appreciate your treasure!”

    • David J. Singer says:

      Bill:
      I accidentally replied to you as a new comment rather than as a reply. You can see it below. Thanks you again for your very moving and important words.
      Best regards,
      David

  3. David J. Singer says:

    Bill:
    I was with a friend yesterday. She was telling me about a difficult period in her life. She said that friends would say to her, “You are amazing. How can you be happy?” She would answer, “I’m not happy about this situation, but I am happy about the many other things I am blessed with in my life.”
    Thank you for sharing you amazing, inspiring perspective.
    David

  4. Love this piece. I can so relate to it as my daughter suffered and miraculously came througha near fatal medical crisis.
    Love your line, ‘measuring progress instead of perfection’. When things are bad, that’s how we have to view and measure things, through small bits of improvement, and focus on that. Otherwise the awfulness of the situation can pull us under and then we’re no good at all at being a support to the one in dire need.
    I totally relate to your way of coping. But everyone copes differently. It’s hard to handle everyone’s different coping styles when one needs the patience and energy to handle the one in crisis.
    Thank you for this great post!

    • David J. Singer says:

      Harriet:

      Thank you so much for your supportive words. You make fantastic points.

      “Otherwise the awfulness of the situation can pull us under and then we’re no good at all at being a support to the one in dire need.” — friends were counseling us about this as we went through the situation, urging us not to sit vigil.

      “everyone copes differently. It’s hard to handle everyone’s different coping styles when one needs the patience and energy to handle the one in crisis.” — Absolutely.

      Thank you again for your note and thank goodness about your daughter’s recovery.

  5. Shirley says:

    Hi, I totally agree with you here. This story is one of many that are not shared or heard outside the home. Optimism is very powerful especially when your children are small and as they grow through their teenage years, they need you to be strong and always look for the positive learnings in everything. As they role model parents, they need to have the stability and a safe place to fall. Thank you for sharing, Warmest Regards Shirley

  6. Thank you, David, for making such a strong case for optimism and the power of positive thinking by sharing the case of your daughter’s debilitating illnes and your angst during that time. I agree completely with those who have commented about the necessity of practicing and learning optimism over time. Let us patiently practice, okay?

    • David J. Singer says:

      Rose:
      Beautifully said. At the risk of self-promotion, if you check out my blog and my web site’s description of my book, you will find that I preach slowing down to make changes. “Let us patiently practice” — I love it. Thank you so much for the note. 
      Best regards, 
      David 

  7. This kind of attitude is a very good thing to have inside you, but unfortunately when those situations arise to you, not many people can remain positive and strong. Only people with a great mental strength can do what you did at those times. I look forward to reading your other posts, I read a few and I learnt so much!

    • David J. Singer says:

      Andrew:
      You are right. It’s not easy. It is however possible to improve our ability with practice. But it takes time. As Rose said above, it requires that we patiently practice. It can’t hurt to try!

      And to your excellent point, it’s also important not to beat yourself up over it if you can’t summon that strength at a super tough time.

      Thank you for your note and thank you so much for your kind words.

      Best regards,

      David

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