How Developing a Practice of Gratitude Helps us Accept Our New Normal
It was a fall day like any other in his junior year of high school when my son came through the back door. He was his normal self when he left for school that morning, but he was far from normal when he returned home later that afternoon.
Fatigued and pale, he dropped his backpack on the kitchen floor, climbed the stairs, and simply stated he needed to take a nap. When he emerged from the cocoon of his bedroom three hours later, a true metamorphosis had taken place. He emerged wearing lethargy like a heavy blanket of lead. In the days and weeks that followed, he could hardly get out of bed. As his school absences piled up like so many fallen autumn leaves, and a good day meant just a few hours at school, we watched his crucial junior year dissolve like snowflakes in the afternoon sun.
After what seemed like an eternity — but was actually only six weeks — my son was diagnosed with POTS, Postural Ortho-Static Tachycardia Syndrome, a disorder of the autonomic nervous system. This condition — in which blood pumped out of the heart can’t work against gravity to make its way back to the heart and brain, resulting in a near-constant state of tachycardia — lasted in varying intensity for close to eighteen months. Doctors were never able to say conclusively whether or not his T1D contributed to the onset of POTS, but I will always have my lingering suspicions that they were related.
When my son was diagnosed with T1D at age five, I struggled to accept our new normal. I was angry. The disease had taken the life of my brother, after all, when he was just eight years old, and it has also afflicted my older sister for almost fifty years. I understood enough of the disease to know I was afraid of it and angry that it had once again invaded our lives.
And so, I resisted accepting T1D was our new reality. When acceptance moved out, anger, fear, and control were all too willing to move right in.
However, when my son was diagnosed with POTS, I had had enough experience with managing his T1D to know that, try as I might, I was not in control. And that was actually a blessing. I didn’t seek to control POTS, so I didn’t resist acceptance.
Taking it day by day
I chose instead to notice and savor the gifts that each day offered me. And that simple practice of gratitude brought great freedom to my soul.
I began to notice the small gifts — the kindness of a friend, the understanding of a teacher or school administrator, the joy my son experienced when playing his guitar, or the blessing of a day when he felt stronger, even if only for a few hours. I practiced noticing these gifts, and then savoring them as drops of honey on the parched tongue of a starved and weary pilgrim.
When my son was diagnosed with T1D, I couldn’t savor any gifts because my eyes were so dim, I couldn’t even notice the gifts. Oh, I may have experienced kindness, compassion, and love, but I didn’t recognize them as gifts. The only gift I desired was to awaken from the nightmare and discover my son didn’t have T1D.
Acceptance and peace
As long as we refuse to accept our new normal, we won’t be able to find peace. But how do we begin to accept a condition we know is so difficult for our child and for us? If gratitude is a building block to acceptance, how can we begin to practice gratitude when our hearts are so resistant to it?
When resistance is this strong, we won’t be able to simply jump right into a practice of noticing the gifts. Days when we feel overwhelmed by the rigors of managing T1D — either our child’s or our own — we need a little help accessing thanksgiving. I have benefitted from a sensory practice of five-to-ten minutes of stillness which Anglican priest Summer Joy Gross refers to as an “on-ramp to gratitude.”
The practice is simple yet effective. Get in a quiet place, with minimal distractions around you, so you can be still. Take one minute for each of the five senses — touch, hearing, sight, smell, taste — just to notice. Without judging, or questioning, or attaching meaning, just receive what you notice. Noticing what our senses perceive deepens our ability to experience the present moment, and as long as we stay engaged in the present, we can let go of the “whys” of the past and the “what-ifs” of the future.
In this place of heightened stillness and awareness, we awaken to noticing the gifts all around us. Engaging our senses in the present opens a doorway to peace and gratitude. Walk through that doorway and take two minutes of gratitude.
Beginning a practice of intermittent stillness to notice our sensory perceptions quiets our minds from the incessant chatter that reminds us of all that is not as it should be, and moves us to a place of noticing the gifts that are ours to savor.
No matter where you are on your journey with T1D, some days are especially challenging, making it difficult to notice any gifts, let alone savor them. Even in the hardest days of living with T1D, there are still countless miracles all around us waiting to be gathered in our arms. Awakening our senses more fully to all that is right here, right now, will help us practice the spirit of Thanksgiving not just during the month of November, but all throughout the year.
Two free advance chapters of Bonnie’s forthcoming book Chronic Hope are available at http://www.bonnieoneil.com/chronic-hope-book/.