“To dominate the impossible in your life” is a line I really like, from a song I really like (“The Rhythm of the Saints”), from an artist/songwriter I really like (Paul Simon).
I’ve used that line, many times, to describe dealing with a situation that seems unbearable.
How to bear the unbearable?
Sometimes, you just have to.
You may bear the unbearable by looking at the situation differently — by telling the story differently.
And telling the story differently is often a wonderful coping strategy.
Sometimes, though, it can involve denial — choosing not to see part of the truth.
On the other hand, how can we see all of the truth of a situation? The truth is usually open to interpretation. As I wrote way back on Day 11, in You Might as Well Be the Hero of Your Own Life , we make choices whenever we tell stories. And our lives (and we) are so complex, we always make choices when we tell our own story.
So we have to leave things out. Is that always denial?
And this makes this whole issue of “the truth” even trickier: As we do our best to make meaning of life, we will use some cognitive distortions .
I often refer to Cognitive Distortions in my posts here. Cognitive Distortions (a term used by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) are just human ways of thinking. That’s why I don’t like the word “distortion.” (Yes, I have a judgment about that.) (Yes, I have judgments about many things.) (I’m human.)
In my work as a therapist, I often choose to use the term “Automatic and Unhelpful Thoughts,” instead of the term “Cognitive Distortions.”
But whatever I call them, I think those thoughts are inevitable, at least for most humans I’ve met.
Especially “Fortune Telling.”
We don’t know the future, but — in order to feel safe enough — we will make predictions about the future, based on our past.
I have yet to meet a human being who does not use Fortune Telling.
And I have “debates” with people I work with — in individual and group therapy — who argue that cognitive distortions are useful.
Of course, they’re useful, in some way. Why else would we do them, and keep doing them?
However, it’s important to notice when trying to predict the future gets in our way. When it makes us anxious. When it holds us back from pursuing something that might help us. When we automatically go to the worst-case scenario (using a particular “distortion” called “Catastrophizing”).
So how do we figure this all out? How do we use what we know, from the past, to feel safe, without restricting ourselves with fear?
How do we dominate THAT impossible in our lives?
So far, this post (except for the reference to Paul Simon and his song) has been all about generalities.
I think people learn better from the specific, so I’m going to give you some specifics now, from my life.
Here’s something I deal with:
I was born with a very unusual heart.
The on-line article I’ve linked to, above, is a pretty good one, I think. You may not want to read it. Maybe you do.
If you do read it, I’m going to suggest something. After you read it once, read it again (maybe pretending that you just received this diagnosis) and look for the things in that article that sound reassuring. Then, read it again, looking for the things that sound scary.
Because both of those things — the reassuring and the scary — are there.
The condition is really rare, so a lot of people don’t know about it. (As a matter of fact, I once went on a date with a cardiologist, who did not know about this condition. When I told him about it, he made a very common mistake about it — confusing it with a much less rare condition. I corrected him.) (That was our first and only date, by the way.)
People with my heart condition can lead very normal lives — so normal that sometimes it’s not even known they have this condition until after they die (sometimes at a very old age).
People with my heart condition can be quite sick, or can become quite sick later in life.
Once, when I was about two months pregnant with my son, I stumbled across a Very Scary Article about my heart condition, which said that women with my condition should not become pregnant because pregnancy would seriously weaken their hearts.
When I called my cardiologist in a panic, this is what he said to me, “Ann, you have such a rare condition, that any article about it uses a sample size that is so small, that the results are suspect.” And he told me that he did not agree with the article, and he made a great case for why that was. So I stayed pregnant. And I have an amazing 15-year-old son.
Thank goodness that I believed my cardiologist. Because I could have easily decided that he did not know what he was talking about — because, after all, he was making a recommendation based on a too-small sample size, also. I might have left him for the care of a cardiologist who did believe that I should terminate my pregnancy.
But I didn’t.
But while I was pregnant, how could I make the “right” decision? I would have to have been a fortune-teller. I would have had to have been psychic.
Which I wasn’t.
So I did the best I could.
And it was the “right” decision. In retrospect.
That’s what’s so tricky. There is often no “right” decision. We just do the best we can, with the information we have, believing in the experts we trust.
And if we make a decision that turns out to be the “wrong” one — that is, the experts weren’t correct, the outcome implies that we “should” have done something different — we need to make peace with that, too.
Otherwise, we will be hindered — and sometimes tortured — by the past. The past will get in the way of us living in the moment.
Which of course, happens to all of us humans.
Here’s an “antidote” I suggest to people, about making peace with the past.
Look at the Context. Instead of automatically blaming yourself for a problem, think about the other factors that may have contributed to the situation. If you regret a previous action, consider that you might have been doing the best you could at the time.
Anyway, I was going to write in this post about a particular aspect of my condition that I’m finding difficult to bear right now.
It’s not mentioned in the article I linked, but people with my condition, if their heart valve leaks (which it often does) are prone to endocarditis.
(By the way, I’m assuming that some people who are reading this do not want to read the links here, for their own reasons. For some people, the links might be TMI — Too Much Information. That is completely okay with me. And, I hope, you can still read this post without reading the links and still get something out of it.)
Anyway, I have a leaky valve.
Therefore, I am prone to endocarditis.
It’s a potential danger, which my wonderful cardiologist communicated to me, when I was in my 20s.
That was a communication I received, despite my human wish to deny that as a possibility.
So, when I was 7 months pregnant with my son (20 years after my cardiologist communicated his concern to me), and I developed a fever, I asked to be tested for endocarditis, for the first time.
Now, we (me and my medical team) thought my request to be tested was kind of weird, because (1) I had never developed endocarditis before and (2) there was no reason to believe that I had endocarditis.
I did not have any symptoms of endocarditis, except a fever.
I had a fever because I had the flu.
But, my cardiologist, when I called him and told him, “I would like to be tested for endocarditis,” said the following:
“Well, why not? It couldn’t hurt.”
When I went to the hospital to be tested, this is what the Endocarditis Specialist said to me,” You have a fever because you have the flu. So, there is no reason for me to test you for endocarditis. You’ve never had endocarditis. However, since you’re here and your cardiologist has ordered the test, I will do the test.”
And when the results of the test came back, I got a call from the hospital as follows, “Get in here right away. You have endocarditis.”
And the test caught it so early, that I was fine. My heart had no damage.
However, the treatment was that I needed was to be on IV antibiotics for six whole weeks. And the doctors told me that the medication they needed to use might affect the hearing of my unborn child. But they needed to use that medication.
I had to dominate that impossible, and choose the treatment.
The day I got off of the six-week regimen of IV antibiotics, was the day my water broke.
My baby did not have any hearing problems.
My heart was not damaged.
Okay, here is where the story gets even weirder.
About six or seven times since that first bout of endocarditis, I have asked to be tested for endocarditis again. Each time, my symptoms have been different. Each time, the doctors could have said, “There is no real reason to test you for endocarditis.” But they didn’t say that. They tested me for endocarditis.
Two of those times, I had endocarditis.
Each time I had endocarditis, we caught it quickly enough that my heart was not damaged.
The other times, I was “wrong.” I did not have endocarditis.
Several doctors who know me, when they tell my story (sometimes in front of me, to medical students) describe me as “amazing.” They say, “It’s like she’s psychic.”
But I’m not psychic. Nobody is psychic.
I guess the way I make sense of this story is that I must be incredibly tuned in to my health and my body.
But sometimes I’m wrong. And I get anxious “for no reason.”
About two weeks ago, I started to wonder whether I had endocarditis.
There were lots of reasons why this might not be true. The symptoms were this: I have a pain in my hip.
There are lots of reasons why my hip might be sore. I walk a lot. I just turned 60. I’ve been wearing boots that don’t give great support.
Lots of people have hip pain.
I don’t have a fever. Before, when I’ve had endocarditis, I’ve had a slight fever.
After I first got the idea that I wanted to be tested, I talked myself out of it.
Which I’ve done before. Sometimes, when I get the fear of endocarditis, I decide not to get tested.
So, when this thought has come into my head over the last week or so — “I am afraid that I might have endocarditis,” I talked myself out of it.
I did not want to get tested. I wanted to believe that I was just imagining things.
Because I have, many times before.
However, after talking to several experts and friends, I decided to get tested yesterday.
But coming to that decision — weighing all the factors, trying to figure out what the truth was, trying to balance my fears about the future and my knowledge of the past, telling myself I was not psychic (which is true) after having had all these experiences where a “psychic” feeling had prevented severe heart damage, figuring out how I can live my life safely but not be paralyzed by fear — was really, really hard, dear reader.
It felt like I was trying to dominate the impossible in my life.
I made my decision — I got tested.
I feel fine about that decision.
I feel fine as I am writing this post.
My boyfriend, Michael, thinks I don’t have endocarditis. He’s been pretty psychic, himself. He predicted, in 2010, the outcome of the last presidential election, when nobody was predicting the winner.
I will find out in a few days.
Whatever the outcome, I will work hard NOT to think in terms of “right” or “wrong” decisions — that is, whether I “should” have gotten the test, or not. Whether I “should” have gotten the test earlier.
I plan to tell myself that I did the best I could, with the information I had.
I will let you know, when I get the results.
Thanks for reading, so much today!
And I wish you all the best, in dominating the impossible in your life, whatever that might be.