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“Adversity has the effect of drawing out strength and qualities of a man that would have lain dormant in its absence.” – Herodotus, Greek philosopher
I used to think that the word adversity was reserved for those in exceptional circumstances - like Nelson Mandela. He was imprisoned for 27 years because he fought for justice, equality and democracy in his country. He served most of his adult hood in a small cell, with a floor as a bed and a bucket for a toilet, doing hard graft in a quarry with little-to-no contact from his loved ones on the outside. Yet he still came out the other side a stronger and more determined human being despite his many sufferings. That, to me, was the definition of adversity.
But more recently, I’ve seen it everywhere. Every single person will encounter adversity at one point, or several points, in their lifetime. By definition it simply means “a difficult or unpleasant situation.” Therefore the spectrum it covers goes on for miles: it’s the child whose being bullied in school, it’s the friend who has been diagnosed with cancer, it’s the girl or boy that broke your heart, it’s the loss of an income, and it’s the passing of a loved one.
These out of the ordinary circumstances aren’t easy to comprehend. They are not situations where a hug and a hot cup of tea will make everything better. You literally don’t know where to turn or what to do with yourself, and you start questioning why it is happening to you. It is very easy to get caught up in the self pitying, unfairness or ‘why me’ trap. Simple tasks like eating, sleeping and moving off the couch become a challenge, let along having to carry on like a functioning human being who works, looks after the family and walks the dog.
Although this attitude is tempting to role with, know that you have a choice. Do you fight to survive, or admit defeat?
My friend’s story
Back in August, a very dear friend of mine named Sophie Gackowski phoned me with the news that no friend, mother, sister or brother wants to ever hear. At 25 years old, she had been diagnosed with a rare form of sarcoma cancer in her right hand and wrist, with the result that both were amputated to ensure her best chance of survival. What did she do to cope? I asked her and this was her reply:
“Survival is an instinct. It’s not something we can learn. When something bad happens, our bodies and brains kick in with incredible ways of coping that are far beyond our understanding. I think people do whatever they have to do in order to overcome adversity in its initial stages. They just get on with it.
Sometimes months after trauma or tragedy however, there’s usually a resurgence of restrained pain, once we’ve registered what has actually happened - the delayed response. We must face it again from a more rational point of view, which often hurts more; I guess people deal with that in many different ways. Some start a new life, others go to counselling, some create a focus in a hobby, or find a new purpose. Often, simply going it alone isn’t enough – the most important thing is to ask for help when times get rough.”
Sophie looked for the silver lining. If taking away the cancer meant she would live for another 30, 50 or maybe 70 years then, well, there was nothing else for it really. The other silver lining being that she no longer had to live with the pain in her hand; for years she had a tumour in the palm of her hand that dominated her life more than she ever lead people to believe.
Second of all, she literally surrounded herself with positive, caring people. She put the word out that she needed support, and it came tenfold. Unfortunately, I had to observe this from a distance as she lives on the other side of the country, but every time I logged onto Facebook my newsfeed would be full of pictures of her friends and family smiling with her, encouraging her and letting her know just how special and brave she is. We are all guilty of not saying these things to each other enough; it’s always good to be reminded of how awesome a person you are!
Third of all, she sought out someone who had gone through the exact same thing. Whatever your situation, you can be guaranteed that someone, somewhere will be going through the motions as well. She found someone that had had the same type of cancer in the same place, and endured the operation ten years previously. He was living proof that she could come out the other side, albeit with one less limb!
Although the web can be a dangerous thing at times, what with all the trolls and bravado that only comes from behind a computer screen, it can also be used positively. Your friends and family will offer you their utmost support, but seeking out communities online can be a very therapeutic outlet. No-one knows you, and you can unleash all of your inner and darkest anguishes without losing face, or instilling worry onto your loved ones.
Another important thing to consider when you are talking about relationships and friendships is that you simply should not tolerate those that make you feel worse. If a person is draining you and takes away good energy and replaces with bad, it’s time to make some changes. It is very true when people say that in times of hardship it becomes very clear who your true friends are, and it becomes clear the ones that are around simply to pick at the bones of the carcass. Erase, delete, whatever it takes – let them be gone.
And forth, you need to deal with whatever is going on, in the right way. A good piece of advice I encountered recently was: “You have to steer a difficult path between being strong, and fully admitting that your feelings are justified and normal and valid. Too much denial is bad; equally, too much running amok is bad, too.” It really is a difficult balancing act. You are torn between walking around telling people cheerfully (and falsely), “I’m fine!” to completely losing your cool and throwing furniture at the window, cutting your hair and moving to another country. Until your emotions die down, don’t be making any life changing decisions until you see everything a bit clearer.
From experience, the old ‘bottling it up’ technique does more harm than good, because whether you like it or not, it’s going to come out. It might be months or even years, but if a matter hasn’t been dealt with and put to rest, it will come back to haunt you; and you can guarantee that it will be bigger and uglier than before if you let time go on. Dealing with it means it won’t define you, it will just be an unpleasant time of your life that you look back on and think, “That was then, and this is now.” A lyric I’ve been going by recently is, “Give the pain to yesterday, feel a fresher light on your face”, by Gabriele Aplin. If you feel like what you are going through is a bit of a tall order for your support network to handle, you should seek out some form of therapy such as counselling. Sometimes it’s good to talk to someone with no influence on the matter and that is completely impartial.
Another crucial piece of advice is that you need to let time pass. It will probably be the time of your life when the hand on the clock goes by painfully slow, but remember that time is the ultimate healer. When I look back on bullying, indignities I’ve faced, and having illness affect those close to me... I acknowledge that it was a horrible time, but it no longer hurts the same. You will never forget the hurt but you will learn to cope and move on - you must know that it won’t always feel like this.
But while this time is passing, do things that make you feel good and that help you escape. My favourite things are: spending time with friends, playing with my dogs, taking long baths, writing things down and reading something uplifting. You should try and avoid having too much time to think, because you can easily talk yourself into a corner that can set you further back. Keep busy, see people, do things: don’t lock yourself away.
Believe it or not, when we are tested and pushed, the old ‘fight or flight’ hormone kicks in; often giving you a clear moment of clarity about how you will overcome the situation, and actually blossom from it. Learning to deal with and overcoming adversity is what makes us who we are. I love this quote by Harriet Beecher Stowe, an anti-slavery writer (1811-1896):
“When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hold on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”
So what’s it going to be: Are you going to let unproductive, self-pitying thoughts define you and drag you into a dark place? Or are you going to accept that this is a life experience that you WILL overcome as well as learn from? And most important of all, are you going to reach within yourself to find the best version of you, and show the world what you’re really made of...