Take it or leave it.

Sunday, May 1, 2016


A lot of headway is being made in an area of psychology which has come to be known as "rewriting your life." Writing down your experiences and reframing your perspective can help you transcend painful setbacks and reshape your own story. Because, as one expert notes, your life story is not a reflection of your personality. It is your personality. And how you interpret events in your life does more than just say something about you. It molds the person staring back at you in the mirror.

As Psychology Today reports, a University of Texas study researched the effects of rewriting your present to make better sense of the past. Half a group of students wrote about a traumatic experience and half wrote about a neutral topic. Months later, those who had treated a difficult personal topic reported better psychological health and had fewer visits to the student health center. And after just an hour of writing! Each of us truly is his best psychotherapist. Some prompts that psychologists use include experiences you are thankful for, lessons you have learned, upsetting experiences that still haunt you, and those which caused you wonder. By revisiting the past and as you write about the wrongs and the wonders you can right them, reshaping experiences and gaining a greater appreciation for the marvel of your individual existence. This allows even those who were bullied or victimized to gain power over their past. By widening your perspective you can enable yourself to see that though it may not always seem you've made the best decision, you did the best you could with the limited information available to you at the time. Hindsight is often 20-20, as they say. And using the lessons learned can carry forward into future success. 

I saw an instance of this recently in the doctor's management of my mother's medical condition. My mother has had metastatic breast cancer now for many years. A few months ago she was in terrible pain after an unsuccessful medical procedure left her with a ruptured colon. This could have led to sepsis and death in a few hours had she not gone to the hospital for emergency surgery. But a long procedure that given her age and medical condition she may not recover from or if she did recover from would require months in bed and a lifetime wearing a colostomy bag wasn't necessarily what my mother wanted. So she called her primary care physician, who asked her what she wanted to do. My mother said her first priority was not to be in any more pain. And she was aware that additional surgery would be excruciating. I understood and supported my mother's wishes and so steps were taken to supply my mom with pain medication that would make the end quick and relatively comfortable. 

No sooner had the prescription been ordered but my family members swooped in and insisted my mother go to the emergency, which she did. And the next day her abdomen was cut open and the diseased colon removed. She barely survived her hospital stay, but two weeks later she was back in her own bed resting peacefully. When Dr. Ma learned about all that happened, she said she felt so guilty that she had suggested my mother prepare herself for the end. Especially now. It has been six months and my mom is back to being her usual perky self. I could understand the guilt Dr. Ma felt because I also had suggested the pain medication to smooth my mother's imminent transition to the end of life. Given her condition, this seemed inevitable. And I felt guilty and ashamed myself. But that was before I did a little rewriting of our shared past. 

It is not the doctor's place to encourage a patient to live longer than the patient desires. Nor is it a son's. We were just trying to honor my mother's wishes at the time, to see she got the care she wanted and to ensure her comfort rather than influence her decision. When the family arrived and "showered her with love" my mother gave in to their desire to "fight the good fight." And I think it's a good thing that she felt love and support from both sides, confident that she could pursue the treatment that was right for her. 

Dr. Ma should be commended for resisting her own impulses to prolong my mother's life against her will. And I shouldn't feel guilty either. Of course I wanted my mother to live. I would miss her terribly had she passed away in October, and my life would be very shaken up by her demise. We live together and have our own symbiosis. Her death would be a death of my own and keeping her around because I needed her or because I wanted to resist the trouble of life without her would have been selfish of me. Instead, by respecting her wishes to die I took the selfless approach, putting my own opinion and interests aside to allow my mother to make her own choice. 

Nevertheless, after seeing how easily she was influenced by other family members, it was easy to beat myself up about not being the one to yell fight, fight, fight, or at least join in. But each of us plays a part in the drama that is life (though we may not know our lines all the time) and begging my mother to stay alive was not my role for that time. I had to let her know it was okay for her to exit this life if she chose. The death of a loved one is never easy, and I don't know that it's made any easier by delaying the inevitable. Although my mother's continued presence is definitely a pleasure I hold dear. And so I cherish each day we get to spend together, even if it seems like borrowed time. Perhaps even more because if feels like borrowed time.

So you see, by stepping back and analyzing what you've done, seeing your actions and feelings in the clearer light that distance and reflection shed, you can replace guilt with the self-respect and the dignity which come with knowing you pursued the appropriate course of action, even though it once seemed otherwise, and even to you. I hope Dr. Ma has seen the light, too.

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