THE POWER OF EMOTIONAL GRIT
In the spring of 2016, I had my annual eye exam to get my contact prescription renewed. My eye doctor then recommended that I see a specialist, because I didn’t do as well on one of the tests for a second year in a row. The specialist in turn ran additional tests and took pictures of the backs of my eyes. In doing so, he discovered that something was pushing on my optic nerve. I was completely surprised because I had no symptoms; no headaches, no noticeable vision issues, no motor skill or speech problems. His tests were limited though, so he asked that I have an MRI. I did so the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. The next day at 7:45 a.m., I got a phone call that I never saw coming. It was the eye specialist with the results of the MRI. He said, “Jennifer, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. It appears as though you have a brain tumor.” I was in shock. Disbelief. It was almost as though we were talking about a third party, because I didn’t have any symptoms. So I got out a pad of paper and a pen, asked lots of questions, took copious notes. But within seconds of hanging up the phone, I dropped to my knees and sobbed. My mind went from 0-60 as I thought, “Am I going to go blind?” “Am I never going to get married again?” “Am I going to die?” I was drowning in a sea of doubt as I succumbed to this visceral response. After about ten minutes though, I thought, “I can’t let this consume me.” “Actually, I won’t let it consume me.” So I got out my pad of paper and a pen again and made a list of reasons why it’s positive to have a brain tumor. My list starts with, “Maybe I’ll lose some weight.” “Maybe I’ll meet a hot single doctor.” Then it got a little more somber as I wrote such things as, “Great reminder to count blessings.” “Good excuse to reach out to people I haven’t seen in awhile.” I wasn’t in denial of my circumstance. I just wanted to have a voice. I later learned that gratitude can influence the reward center of the brain, by increasing “feel good” or neurochemical activity, such as dopamine. I’m not trying to imply that expressing emotion is bad, we all know that a good cry can be cathartic once in awhile, but what I am trying to show is that it’s possible to keep a situation from consuming you, if you’re open to the idea of being positive. I was diagnosed as having a meningioma brain tumor. It was the size of a golf ball and was situated between the outer lining of my brain, the optic nerve and carotid artery. The thought was that it grew slowly for years – Possibly decades. It’s the same type of tumor that Elizabeth Taylor, Mary Tyler Moore and Sheryl Crowe we’re diagnosed with as well. There’s uncertainty as to what causes them, but the numbers show they’re more prevalent in females. I was warned that during surgery, I could have a blood clot, stroke, onset of blindness or even die. The risks were fairly small, but they weighed on my mind the night before surgery. In an effort to make myself feel better, I made a list of upbeat music on my phone. The thought was that If upbeat music can motivate people training for a marathon or lifting weights, then why not someone facing surgery? As I showered the night before and morning of surgery, the sounds of reggae, dance music and old school hip hop took the edge off my experience and put a spring in my step. Again, I wasn’t in denial of my experience, quite the contrary. I just knew that if it was sink or swim, I was going to keep my head above water. I later learned that just like gratitude, music can increase the “feel good” chemicals of the brain. That’s why stadiums play music during sporting events. All it takes is a little “We Will Rock You” by Queen or the opening guitar riff from “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns and Roses to get people on their feet, clap their hands and dance. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. Music can be your friend. My surgery would last for nearly six hours. After that I spent time in a recovery room and intensive care, before my own room for eight days. By the time my family could see me, they could see my face was swollen and bruised. My head was partially shaved and I had ten inches of stitches from the top of my head to my left ear. As they approached my bedside, they could tell I was laying in a drug induced slumber, so they weren’t sure what to expect from me in terms of cognitive abilities. So with that in mind, my mom began to lightly rub my arm. As she did so, she said, “Honey, it’s mom,” and I smiled. So they knew the wheels in my head were still turning. Rather than fear what may lie ahead, they began to reflect on how far I had come. The surgeon was able to remove half the tumor and radiation sessions over the following six weeks addressed the rest of the mass. Music also helped during the radiation sessions. The radiation techs allowed me to make another upbeat song list on my phone. It played from a docking station in the lab as I received each of the treatments. Each session would last roughly three minutes and I would “dance on the inside” as I distracted myself with the lyrics, rather than concentrate on the radiation going into my head. One time I was actually disappointed when the radiation stopped, because I wanted to finish a song. How crazy is that?! There were also other things that helped me feel better during the healing process and my six weeks of radiation. Random acts of kindness, the love of pets, facing fears and laughter all played important roles in my recovery. Just like gratitude and music, they can increase the feel good chemicals in our brains. The important thing is to be open to them. Perspective is key. Pets are used in places like nursing homes for people who are lonely, VA hospitals for people with PTSD and courthouses in Montana for kids who are afraid to testify on the witness stand. They can lower stress hormones such as cortisol and increase feel good chemicals such as dopamine. Laughter is used in hospice care centers to help people smile. I know it also worked for me. I’m happy to say that I’m a better person for the fears I faced and overcame. I’m also happy to note that my life is back to normal and that I have an enhanced sense of gratitude. While there are no guarantees that the tumor won’t some day return, I’ve chosen to concentrate on what I know, rather than what I could fear. Even though we can’t control the quantity of our lives, it’s empowering to know we can influence the quality of them. Courage isn’t necessarily the absence of fear. It can be feeling afraid and choosing to persevere anyway. The best things in life are free. That’s the power of Emotional Grit.