Contributing Author: Susan Broderick, Senior Attorney, NDAA
As we make our way through this current pandemic, fear is understandably at an all-time high. As a country, we are faced with uncertainty and possibly dealing with economic hardship. As prosecutors, we are problem solvers and there are certainly many problems to be solved. But we also must realize that we cannot help others if we don’t take care of ourselves.
This is not the first storm that most of us have weathered and we will get through this. I do believe in fact that we will come through this stronger and better than ever. I say this not as a Pollyanna, but as someone who has experienced quite a few storms in my life. The storms have been my teachers.
I have survived breast cancer two times (the second resulting in a double mastectomy) and I will be celebrating 19 years in recovery from alcoholism this year. While my life has also been full of wonderful experiences, it was two of the worst experiences of my life -alcoholism and breast cancer — that have been turning points. They have brought lessons that have turned my life around and I believe many of those lessons can be applied to the current crisis.
I have learned that blessings most often come in disguise and in my case the disguises were alcohol and cancer. Both devastating diseases and both potentially fatal. When I finally decided to address my drinking on July 15, 2001, I thought my life was over. Looking back, my life did end that — the drinking life at least. And what replaced it was a life in which I found a true sense of peace and faith to get me through some of the biggest challenges in my life.
I had 57 days of sobriety on 9/11 and watch the towers collapse in NYC. I was in shock most of the day and as I sat at the promenade in Brooklyn that afternoon, I questioned everything and everyone. For a moment, I lost my faith in everything. A few minutes later, I heard a friend call my name. I turned around and it was a woman from my recovery group. She told me that she had checked with the church and the meeting would be still be taking place that night. My faith returned immediately, stronger than ever.
In 2007, I discovered an unusual dimpling and went to the doctor. I was initially told that “everything was fine” and was sent home. I pushed for more tests and eventually was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. Two years later, I went back to my doctor, concerned about another lump. He told me that it was “probably” scar tissue. I told him “probably” wasn’t a diagnosis and I pushed for a biopsy. That biopsy revealed cancer and 10 days later I had a double mastectomy.
When I received the news of the second diagnosis, I was terrorized. I immediately called a trusted friend in recovery and was sobbing on the phone. She paused, and then calmly said “Once again, I think the stars are aligned for you. You pushed for these tests both times. How many people can say that they saved their life two times?”
That moment was pivotal — it was a turning point in my life. I realized how much our perspective influences everything we experience. Our ability to handle stress is very much dependent on how we look at things. Even amid uncertainty, it is always possible to find something or someone in our lives to be grateful for.
I know that alcoholism and cancer are very different from the coronavirus, but I do think that the lessons I’ve learned are applicable today. First and foremost, adversity and stress can bring out our best — in each of us and in our communities. Don’t believe me? Look at all the acts of selflessness and courage being exhibited by Americans every day. From the front-line medical personnel, to the businesses and government officials, everyone is trying to do what they can to help each other.
As noted by Stanford Professor Kelly McGonigal, “Being “good” at stress is not about being untouched by adversity. It’s about allowing stress to awaken in you these core human strengths of courage, connection, and growth. People who are good at stress allow themselves to be changed by the experience of stress. They maintain a basic sense of trust in themselves and a connection to something bigger than themselves. They also find ways to make meaning out of suffering.”
As all of you know, your communities need you right now. In order to be the most effective for those you serve, you must make sure that you are taking care of yourself. It’s like the announcement on airplanes — put your own mask on first, or you won’t be able to help others. I’d like to share some simple, yet powerful tools that I’ve learned from my lessons with overcoming alcoholism and cancer:
· Start the day with a calming practice (deep breathing, yoga, a prayer, a journal entry) to quiet down that brain that has been on full alert.
· Stay connected. It’s important to reach out to and maintain contact with friends and family, even if that must be through phone and/or the internet. Isolation can be devastating, and it has been said that the difference between illness and wellness is “I’ vs “we”. It is especially helpful to reach out to someone you know who is having a tough time, it will help both of you.
· What brings you joy? Is it music, writing, dancing, singing, art, reading? Whatever it is — do more of it. Those are the activities that will keep your spirit alive.
· Hope is the belief that things can get better and is probably the most transformative emotion that we have (well, second only to love.) In times of crisis, it is important to find hope and recognize that times like this are opportunities for us to find the good.
· Get outside in the fresh air. While social distancing may prevent you from congregating with others, there is something very refreshing about walking through the community and taking deep breath, and even smiling or waving at a distance to your neighbors.
As we start another month of uncertainty, I believe that many of us will have time and the desire to slow down a bit. To truly take stock of what is important in life and what is not. It’s time to think of those people in your life who have made a difference but you haven’t been in touch with. Reaching out and hearing those voices can be very good for the soul. Many of the things that we worried about two months ago no longer are even on our minds. While this is a time of uncertainty, it is also a chance to find meaning, purpose, and connection. This storm will have many silver linings.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, anxiety or other issues during this crisis, there is help available. Resources exist at the state and local level and the following links may also be helpful as well.