How Daily Gratitude Helped Me Cope with A Sh**ty Hand
It broke me. The call came on a Monday afternoon as I was rolling out my yoga mat for some mid-day self-care while the kids were all at daycare. I was using a vacation day to recover and clean the house from the twins' birthday party the afternoon before. Like most people who have experienced a traumatic event, I can see the moments so clearly. I knew the caller ID on the phone was the number from the Children's Hospital. I knew it meant Elle's test results had come back, and deep down I knew exactly what they were. I paused and took a deep breath as the phone sat in my hand vibrating. I thought to myself, this is it, my last moment of innocence before we learn what is in front of us.
That was the day we officially learned about Elle's genetic disorder, the one I had known about in my heart since I was pregnant with her and her twin sister. The previously described KANSL1-Related Intellectual Disability Syndrome, which results in a wide range of cognitive, social, emotional, development, and medical disabilities, now known as Koolen-de Vries Syndrome, was slapped on her medical record and on our lives. My stomach sank and I felt like my head was spinning. Having spent my entire career in the medical field, it was surreal to now be a parent of a child with special needs. As any mom who has experienced this sh**ty phone call can understand, I spent (and honestly still spend) a lot of time beating myself up, trying to understand the moment I went wrong. I tried to understand why my daughter received this fate, why her brother and sister were punished with a life dealing with the complexities of a special needs sibling, and why our family got this journey... The answer is that there is no answer. As much as we try, we will never fully understand the way life and the universe work. The depression and anxiety that followed weren't new. I was already a very anxious person; that had been heightened since having kids. Add on this devastating news and I was now situationally depressed. In the span of 3 years, I had three kids under the age of 2, twins, a surprise miscarriage, a full-time job that I wasn't very good at for the first time ever, and a brain overloaded with specialist appointments, medications, health insurance issues, and more. As my emotional wellbeing spiraled out of control, so did my physical wellness. Soon I had stomach and mouth ulcers, couldn't talk or eat due to pain, and was losing weight and color in my face quickly.
Fast forward to me realizing I had to get my s**t under control in order to be healthy and present for my kids, my husband and I began to redesign our lifestyle. We cleaned up our diet, started making green choices, made time for exercise, started meditating more often, and the big kicker: we started journaling. I had read about the benefits of gratitude in mental health, and I made a rule for myself- I had to write down three gratitudes in my journal each day. Little did I know this small habit would transform my life.
Did it fix Elle's issues? No. Did it remove my anxiety and sadness? No. But it did change the one thing that I have control over, my mindset. Instead of looking at the sh**ty hand, we had been dealt with, we started finding the silver lining in things. I needed to work less in order to manage all of Elle's needs, which in turn meant I spent more time with all three of my kids. I am grateful for that time together. Her first defiant "No!"? We weren't frustrated, we were thrilled! That certainly went on the gratitude list because she could finally communicate with us! A long night up with the kids? At least it wasn't a night we were in the hospital. We are home. We are safe. We are grateful. Everyone has a different story in life. A traumatic childhood, loss of a job, a cancer diagnosis...you know what your own personal struggles are in life. Don't let them drag you down, let them build you up. They may define your situation, but they don't define YOU.
I didn't know at the time of starting my practice, there are actually people studying gratitude! Heck, UC Berkley even has a Greater Good Science Center! Relatable to my own personally traumatic experience, a paper published in Behaviour Research and Therapy found that gratitude practices improved overall disposition and number of pleasant days in veterans with PTSD. Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami found that people who focused on gratitude, compared to people who focused on negatives, reported more joy and also had less physical ailments (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). A study by the American Psychological Association found that patients who kept gratitude journals for eight weeks showed lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers while they wrote. Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that this benefit applies to a workplace setting as well! In their alumni fundraising department, employees who were giving a message of gratitude from their boss made 50% more fund-raising calls than those who did not. Granted, since it's a relatively new area where scientific studies have been applied, the number of studies and sample sizes are often small, so there is certainly room to go in this field. But come on, common sense tells you that people who are grateful are just happier, right? All you need in life is satisfaction with your situation.
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Talk to you soon!