I often humorously refer to my life experiences as a cautionary tale for other people who can learn vicariously through me. When I looked up a list of life events that have been found to cause the greatest life stress, my checklist was full: death of loved ones, marriage breakdown, job loss, chronic illness of a child, physical illness, mental illness and addiction issues. A list like this might make me a prime candidate for being incapacitated or at the very least a bit bitter and twisted. But, while I do have my share of difficult days, I continue to be an optimistic person.
In the face of most challenges, I am usually able to look for the silver lining. By experiencing depression and anxiety, I have also been able to examine my life and my priorities, and I believe I know myself better as a result. When I lost my job after 26 years, I was able to explore my lifelong interest in education and the opportunity to return to school. I am not saying that I am glad that I have gone through these challenges; in truth, I would have preferred to blissfully go about my life without the pain and suffering, and I think most people would feel this way. Nor do I think that these things happened to me for a reason – there are simply too many terrible happenings in the world to believe that the trauma an individual endures is ‘meant to be’. But each time I’ve worked through these stressful life events, I have tried to gain some understanding. I don’t believe that things happen for a reason, but I do think you can create a reason, meaning and purpose from challenging situations.
Recently, I was reading Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The Myths of Happiness and learned about some of the research she had conducted regarding how participants who were happier dealt with positive and negative events. For wonderful events, they sustained the magic by merely replaying them like a video in their minds. However, the greatest adaptive strategy for traumatic situations involved dissecting and systematically analyzing these painful times in order to better understand them, gain some meaning from them, and thereby, get past them. Those participants who were the happiest were able to savour the positive times, and understand their unhappy moments. While I had lived this approach, I had never been able to articulate it without sounding a little too Pollyanna or oversimplifying the effect so that it sounded like I was suggesting that you merely needed to ‘think positively’ in the face of difficult life events. When I explained this to a good friend recently, he said it reminded him of the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Though it is known for its use as part of the Alcoholics Anonymous recovery philosophy, for me, it also serves as a tool to look for the silver lining when the black cloud envelops me. While I couldn’t change the fact that one of my dearest friends had died unexpectedly, I could reflect on the impact we had on each other’s lives at exactly the times when we needed unconditional love and support. I could not change the fact that Alzheimer’s had taken away my Dad’s ability to recognize me, but I learned that I could hold his hand and smile at him so that he felt my love even if he didn’t know my name.
Sometimes the only thing I can change is my perspective or understanding, but in doing so, I can often construct good feelings from bad situations, positive opportunities from unhappy endings, purpose and meaning from devastating loss. And by sharing my cautionary tales, my thoughts and ideas, perhaps I can provide hope and support to others like me.
Clouds may come, but clouds must go, and they have a silver lining, for beyond them all, you know, the sun or moon is shining. – Author unknown
About Susan Mifsud
Susan Mifsud is a 49 year old mother of two adult sons who has worked in university administration for the last 25 years. She is an active volunteer and advocate in support of the elimination of stigma and shame related to mental illness and addiction. Follow Susan’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds blog or additionally follow Susan on Twitter.