The Word That Stole My Words.. Life with Pediatric Cancer
4th of July, Hospital Parking Garage

4th of July, Hospital Parking Garage

My passion, my love, my life is words.  Learning and growing through the written word.  Working daily using spoken word.  Communicating to and with my spouse logistically, collaboratively and lovingly through words. Feeding into my kids constantly-words of affirmation, words of discipline, words of (hopefully) wisdom, words of compassion and words of love (and of course humor).


Words are what I, as a therapist, use on the daily to work, to comprehend, to teach, to heal, to process, to make sense of the world. Words…. mostly sarcasm and humor are how I survive…. Words are truly what make me feel alive, where I can go and feel… imagine, create and experience things wholely.  As a professional I use words all day, the whole “talk therapy” thing.  I have the chair, you take the  couch, we talk. 

Last year… I quit writing.  I had no words.  Professionally-no blogs, no emails.  Personally no return text or calls, I had no nothing.  Not a single word to spare.  

The side of humans that we all too often don’t want others to see is the human side.  The side where things are not easy, freaking messy, and at times what seems too impossible to shoulder.  Vulnerability.  Its a bitch.   Early last year my son started having fevers and symptoms that were peculiar- bloody noses here and there.  Random fevers.  No big deal… Until it was.

Now as an “adoptive mom” I am well versed in being a “trauma mama”.  I have read all of the books, attended all the conferences….  seen all the therapists.. But I have yet to find an experience in life that had taken my words.  Until I became the mom whose son has been diagnosed with cancer.  Stage 3… Now I am a “trauma mamma” and one of the moms on the oncology floor of the children’s hospital pacing the halls (or often walking in place in your room)  begging for their child’s life. There are really no words.

As you might be able to tell (and now that I am pointing it out to you, you will notice)  I don’t have eloquent words back.  I have choppy, short sentenced thoughts that may or may not flow.       Far more sarcasm (which I didn’t know was possible) and far more cursing, (which I am sure my momma hates).  When cancer, another diagnosis, trauma or loss touches your life, you will never be the same. Your life is changed. You will change in good, healthy ways, and in ways that don’t feel so good.  No matter if it is you, or your child, your parent, friend, co-worker or nemesis, or simply story your read on social media.. you are impacted.   Cancer, trauma, death…. it changes your life. 

Now…. being a parent of a child with a cancer diagnosis,  I (we) had to figure out a whole new life.  Life in the hospital, life with an access port surgically inserted into my son’s chest, life where no one really knows whats words to say to you, nor do you know what to say back.

People simply look at you different (understandably). I didn’t know how to view myself anymore.  How could others… ?  You get amazing food delivered, people show up, they disappear, they surprise you in good ways… and  bad.  You are encouraged by humanity,  and you are scared.  You feel loved and you feel betrayed.. you barely have time to think… you just do.. You feel weak and you feel strong.  And you (to quote Nike)… Just Do It. 

Now, as a parent of a child with cancer you not only learn more about humanity, but you see (in our case following adoption you see again) the resilience of your children, the brilliance and humanness of doctors, that you can endure more than you think you can.. until you order French fries for dinner and they arrive cold  … then you cry your eyes out because you just can’t handle anymore.  

Both our son with cancer, and our healthy children's lives changed forever.  Our entire familial vocabulary has changed.  We had/have “clinic days” and “hospital weeks”, “scanxiety” (anxiety around the results on scan days), words to gauge pain, and words to show we were scared, words my healthy kids had to find to show they needed additional attention, and words to show we, as a cancer family, needed help (often the hardest of all).  

Then the word came… the most beautiful word of all.. remission.  Oh sweet remission.  We celebrated, we took a deep breath, and then we learned what remission really means…. Remission is a word I have come to realize means, cancer is gone (for now)… but treatment continues.   More ER trips than during active cancer, more chemo… its still not over, hurts because of the permanent effect that cancer has had on my son’s precious little body.  Remission was a word I once thought meant “in the clear” and I now realize means “the next step in recovery”.  

My words are starting to come back. My PTSD is real.  My son is physically “healthy” (chemo freaking reeks havoc on your body). His PTSD is real.  Words will allow us to continue to heal emotionally, and guide his physicians with his physical health.  We try to use words of gratitude for those that carried us through, although just as with diagnosis, there are really no words to express gratitude to those who keep your family afloat when you feel like you are going to drown.  

And now… My words more intentional, more jaded, gracefully jumbled….  although jumbled flow without reservation, less concern on if I am saying the “right thing” or with care on what others think.  There is more thanking others for understanding nuances versus apologies for being who I am.  

“I kicked cancer’s butt” -Tris Sokolowski, words from my bad ass 6 year old


If you are a cancer parent…you are strong.. you can do this…. cry over the cold mozzarella sticks… use your words even if they are jumbled


If you know someone with cancer.. you are strong, use your words… even if they are jumbled


If you have cancer (or whatever you may be dealing with)… you are strong… use your words… even if they are jumbled.  


If you have any trauma, PTSD, depression, anxiety (scanxiety), fear, stress… use your words.  Reach out and let us help, we can all work towards healing and health together. 

Young Adulthood

Ages 18-35

by Margaret Mevers, M.Ed.

What makes young adulthood so hard? As a young adult, I had a hard time putting my finger on it. I could sum it up in what is our most common method of communication (the meme), but I doubt that’s what you’re here for. Here is what I found: modern young adulthood is a time of pretending you know what you’re doing, putting an extreme amount of effort into saying the right thing, trying to make a decision but not knowing where to start, feeling alone but constantly connected, pretending you know how to fold a fitted sheet, and using your peripheral vision to see if everyone else is as freaked out about adulting as you are. How did I know you ask? I did my research, or rather, Dr. Arnett did. Psychologist and researcher Dr. Arnett, explains young adulthood as a time of identity exploration, instability, self-focus and possibilities (Munsey, 2006). Let’s break that down a little bit by looking at some of the more specific challenges young adults face.

Who am I, and where am I going?

Today’s young adult has far more options than generations before. In the 1950s, most young adults went from high school to the work force and marriage. In the 1960s and 1970s, more women joined the workforce and machines started replacing assembly line workers. Jobs were moved overseas, and the job market begin to change. There aren’t a whole lot of available jobs for individuals without a degree, and the ones that exist don’t always offer a livable wage. I’m sure you’ve heard people say that a Bachelor’s today is equivalent to a high school diploma 50 years ago. That’s because the current job market often requires a secondary degree, which explains the influx of students in higher education. To put it in perspective, the population grew by 72% between 1959-2010, but the number of full time college students grew by 430%! This leads to many young adults getting married later in life, meaning that the two roles that were previously obtained right after high school, marriage and career, are now being pushed back and many are left feeling behind. (Schwartz, 2013) To compensate, we fake it ‘til we make it, and try not to do anything too embarrassing until we do.

Loneliness

It turns out, many young adults also feel lonely in this increasingly connected world. Cigna published a study in May 2018 which states that 18-37 year olds are the loneliest population in The United States, and that students scored higher on loneliness than retirees. Cigna also reported that in terms of mortality, loneliness has the same effect as smoking fifteen cigarettes each day, which means loneliness is more dangerous to our health than obesity. I know what you are thinking...I was suspicious too, so I did some more digging. It turns out, when a person is lonely, their cortisol level (a stress hormone) goes up. High cortisol levels can compromise our immune system, increase our risk for vascular issues, heart disease and inflammation, and impair our cognition. It’s all starting to make sense, right?

Then I wanted to know why we are so lonely. It has been hypothesized that social media is making people lonely, and while social media can increase feelings of insecurity, recent studies have found that there is no correlation between social media and loneliness. Studies have found that the feelings of loneliness come from a lack of meaningful interaction. We’re with people all the time, but the nature of our interactions are goal oriented. Our main sources of interaction are things like meetings, conferences and school projects, because many young adults feel that a less than packed schedule means something is wrong with them. It seems that unless our lives appear close to unmanageable, we aren’t working hard enough. (Simmons, 2018)

 The Cigna study also confirms that engaging in frequent, meaningful interactions decreases feelings of loneliness. Great news, right? Maybe, and maybe not. Many young adults find it hard to initiate meaningful interaction. So, let’s first define what it is. A meaningful interaction, is a face-to-face conversation that is deeper than pleasantries or small talk. It is an interaction where people share personal information and talk about the things that matter to them. For example, a group of friends getting coffee and chatting about life. Here are some ways to increase meaningful interaction in your life:

1. Take the time to ask your loved ones about their day, and tell them about yours.

2. Volunteer.

3. Join a group or a team. (Psst…check out our groups page.)

4. Do some of your online shopping in person, and bring a friend.

Social Media

Now that we know social media isn’t the root of ALL evil, let’s see how we can use it for good. We can use technology to increase meaningful interaction by using it as way to connect. That isn’t always realistic, though. We’re still going to be on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to see what other people are up to. That’s okay, but it is easy for that to lead to social insecurity if we are comparing ourselves to others (Simmons, 2018). Here are some ways to make our technology use healthier:

1.     Select a time of the day to allow yourself to be on social media.

2.     Unfollow people/accounts that make you feel bad about yourself or your life. For example, if you find yourself comparing your body with Kylie Jenner’s, maybe it is time to unfollow her. Remember, you control what information you fill your feed with.

3.     Talk to other’s when you find yourself with a “social media hangover”, as I like to call it. A social media hangover is that feeling you get after you’ve been down the social media rabbit hole and come up to find yourself feeling not good enough. You’ll likely find that other people have the same experience.

4.     Remember, social media is a place for people to showcase who they wish they could be, not necessarily who they are.

5.     Video chat to have some of those meaningful interactions we were talking about.

Mental Health

            This stressful life stage is also wreaking havoc on mental health. About 22% of today’s young adults have a mental illness, which is more than any other adult age group. However, only about 51% of those individuals received mental health treatment. Why are young adults struggling with mental illness more than any other adult group, and what can we do about it? (National Institute of Mental Health, 2016)

            Many mental health conditions arise in young adulthood simply due to biology, but some arise due to the emotional challenges of young adulthood. This tumultuous stage of life is comprised of finding one’s identity, which can often lead to feelings of anxiety and depression. However, young adults do not often seek treatment, and when they do, they don’t always find the right match. We provide a safe and understanding environment for clients to navigate the difficulties in life. (Good Therapy, 2017)

References

Chatterjee, R. (2018). Americans are a lonely lot, and young people bear the heaviest burden. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/health- shots/2018/05/01/606588504/americans-are-a-lonely-lot-and-young-people-bear-the- heaviest-burden

Cigna (2018). Cigna U.S. loneliness index. Retrieved from https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-             survey/docs/IndexReport_1524069371598-173525450.pdf

Good Therapy (2017). Young adult issues. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/young-adults

Munsey, C. (2006). Emerging adults: The in-between age. PsychExtra Dataset, 37.doi:10.1037/e512802006-035

National Institute of Mental Health (2016). Mental health. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml

Schwartz, S. (2013). Why are young adults so darn confused? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/proceed-your-own-risk/201308/why-are-young-adults-so-darn-confused

Simmons, R. (2018). Why are young adults the loneliest generation in America? Retrieved from:              https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2018/05/03/why-are-young-adults-the-loneliest-generation-in-america/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.17467fa64b9a

Team Family Health (2018). What happens in your body when you’re lonely? Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-happens-in-your-body-when-youre-lonely/

 

 

The College Reality

by Mary Ann Sokolowski

How many times do our expectations get squashed by reality? I'm not even talking solely our own expectations, but those created by society. Societal "normal" of what a period of time in your life will be like, or what a holiday or life event will bring. Let's look at one biggie:

"College will be the best years of your life!"

What if we didn't have this pressure, these expectations, and got to experience things for ourselves? How do they turn out? The issues I see are when our experiences don't align with what is expected, and we have to wade through the reality seemingly alone.

What if college is not ALWAYS the best time of your life? Its a time in life when we struggle to (warning: cliche) find out who we are. There are days when we fight to be an adult, days we crave childhood, want responsibility, want someone to tell us what to do, rage against someone telling us what to do, then cry when we have to make a decision on our own. One day we know what we want to do, the next day you have no clue. You change majors. You regret changing majors. You want to make money, you struggle with humanity. Someone asks you what you want to be when you grow up, you stare at them blankly and all you want to say is (to put it nicely), "How the heck am I supposed to know?"

Confusing? Absolutely. Understandable? Yes.

Now some people might have the experience where college is the best of their life, but it is not a fact. Will you and can you have a lot of fun, find your path and purpose in life and miss college when it is over? Sure. But in that you are prepping and figuring what your plan will be the rest of your life. And that is a tall order.

We as humanity crave stability. Crave relationship. Hate not being able to answer "simple" questions about ourselves like, "So what's your major?".

So what if people were real in their parting words as you move into your dorm for college. What if you were told that college can be, and will be at times, a lot of times- a blast. Fun for days (sometimes all night). College will open doors to new ideas and new people, new relationships and new opportunities that you would never imagine. You will be foolish, and irresponsible, or responsible and holed up in the library while holding down two jobs, but there will be people in same boat where ever you go. There will also be stress, and feelings of isolation and the unknown. You will be scared and overwhelmed and lost and not know your path. You might fail at things, you might get perfect scores. You will question and regret and want your mom. You will go home for your first holiday and see your family and friends and it will be great, but eventually home will feel less like home, and you will start to move forward with a new place of belonging. You will battle, and explore and fight and make your place in the world. Realistically you might not find career of a lifetime on your first try. But you can dream and pursue and are allowed the opportunity.

What if you were told a greater sense of reality about "the best years of your life"?

Recently evidence has shown how anxiety in high school and college students is sky rocketing. Suicide rates are increasing. Mental Health for college students is declining, or at least coming to light. The reality is being on your own and having to face life in a new way is hard. Life transitions of any kind are hard, and with college you are moving, making a new friends, tracking down your path in life, preparing to "be an adult" and fearful of the future. Student loans are just another overwhelming reality that complicates things even further.

Here in Nashville we have Vanderbilt, Belmont, Lipscomb, and just down the road MTSU just to name a few. The cost is hefty and the pressures are high.

If you are in college, its ok. Its complicated, it hard, its wonderful, its confusing. Its anxiety. Its stress. Take care of yourself. Seek help, go to counseling, allow yourself to be real and vulnerable.

If you are not in college, be understanding for those that are. Yes, they have a "wonderful" life, but is comes with struggles of its own. Lets be sensitive to that.

We Laugh to Survive
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by Mary Ann Sokolowski, LPC-MHSP

Why yes.....if you were an unfortunate fly that just happened upon one of the walls my office you very well might hear, "So, are you thinking about killing yourself?", "How many panic attacks this week?", "Oh, you got laid off?" or "Have you been cutting?" in the very same breath as......laughter.....me laughing.....us laughing.. together. I am not talking an uncomfortable: Oh crap I can't believe I am saying, this what in the world is happening and I hope the answer is "no" because I don't know what to do if it is a "yes" laugh.....but a roaring laugh, shared with the very people answering those very "scary" questions. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

I often feel as I need to apologize to other counselors in our office for the loud, rambunctious laughing that comes from my office spilling into the hallways......and inevitably into other offices.....whoops.....but I don't.....because maybe they won't know its me (until now I guess). So to my colleagues.. sorry... well not sorry... thanks for putting up with me.

This sarcastic, laughing, not truly light heart-ed but wanting things to be more light heart-ed is my authentic self... and I just happen to be a therapist who does a lot of crisis work, and is not generally considered light heart-ed.

I distinctly remember a time in high school when I was laughing. I was laughing hysterically and giving sarcastic answers that were knowingly wrong.....deflecting any semblance of truth. I was not happy, not jovial, not silly.....but I was scared. You see I wasn't cutting up in the lunch room or driving around listening to rap music that I wasn't supposed to with friends-I was laying flat out on the soccer field after a most unfortunate encounter as a goal keeper resulting in a concussion. "How many fingers am I holding up?" asked my coach. "7" I answered, knowing it was 2. I am sarcastic and a bit of a smart ass you may say. I had other coping mechanisms.. but humor kept me present; Sarcasm kept me real; And others kept me safe.

After over 13 years in the mental health field I have developed a firm belief that humor, laughing, and light heart-edness, even in moments of anxiety, even in remembrances of trauma, in the aftermath of rape, in the depths of depression, grief, and stress, is imperative. Just google the benefits of laughter.. I dare you! Numbers have been thrown around that children laugh an average of 300 or more times a day.. while adults... 15-20. Whilst I have not found "true" evidence supporting those numbers I will say that with three toddlers in my home I would say... some days (non whiny days that is)... they absolutely do laugh 300 or more times a day. I laugh more with them in my life. We laugh as a family more, and it is glorious, stress relieving, and fun.

Very often I parent using humor. When my kids are talking and talking and talking and I want a moment of silence... I let them spray whipped cream in their mouths (outside mind you) buying me a moment of silence and them (and in turn us) a great laugh. When my oldest is whiny and "crabby" he is asked to do the crab walk around the house until we are inevitably all laughing... especially if he has on socks on the hardwood floors.

For years I have had a painting/poster hanging up at my house by Mary Anne Radmacher simply saying "We laugh to Survive". Recently that painting has made its way to my office, as I laugh at work... all the time. Any yes I am a therapist, but not your sappy movie therapist. Yes I do trauma work, but, you see, I find no reason to not laugh. There is humor in these moments, even serious moments. Irrational thoughts circle trauma, feed stress, exacerbate depression, and when we isolate and examine those thoughts.. they can be funny. If we can find it, embrace those moments, and allow ourselves to actually breath in the time between the unimaginable conversations... unimaginable healing can occur. Laughter is healing. And that is my purpose.

-Mary Ann