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The Upside of Down Days

Is there a defining moment in your life that you feel contributed to making you who you are today? Was there a turning point that clearly set you on one path rather than on another? Was that moment a positive or a negative event? So many people I speak with clearly say that something negative defined them and changed their lives. The resulting change can be positive, however, those turning points are often remembered as dark and challenging.

Did you know that the human brain is wired to recall negative events? The psychological term for this is the “Negativity Bias”. Research has found that humans have a tendency to register negative events more easily than positive ones and to dwell in those events. We then use that information in decision-making. A study by the Harvard Business Review attempted to find the optimal ratio of praise to criticism in a work environment. It found that ratio to be 5:1. Interestingly, its results were similar to those of research done on couples in the early 2000’s. That research indicated that couples who shared a minimum of five positive comments per negative one were more likely to remain together. Psychology Today (2016) also reported that magic ratio to be 5:1. That means that it takes five distinct positive events to neutralize one negative event. I’ve seen this so often in my own life. Is it my brain’s wiring or is it because I’m a Scorpio to a “t” - an all-or-nothing gal who struggles with forgiveness? See, I can easily gloss over someone’s numerous amazing traits and recall that one time I felt slighted by them. Rationally, I know that one misstep or awkward situation should not define a person but it is almost a built-in response for me.

The Negativity Bias makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Early humans would benefit from remembering that some caves contained sabre-toothed tigers ready to pounce. The thing is though, we no longer live in a world filled with as many threats to our survival. So why do we still assign so much importance to negative events? Why do we think about them, relive them by repeating them to whomever will listen - thereby creating direct brain pathways to the negative? Much like our ancestors, it’s to prevent negative things from happening. Live and learn.

I am no psychologist or specialist in human cognition. What I am, however, is a compassionate, emphatic person who has had a rather bumpy six years or so. Whenever I share my story, I am told that I’m an inspiration or that I’m strong. Those are not really qualifiers I was gunning for. In fact, over a long period, alive would have been sufficient. Everything I write about, I believe. I am an over-thinker, a tedious thought analyst, a feeling re-framer and a challenger of knee-jerk reactions. What makes me different? Why should you read my blog? Sit back and read my story and then decide if my words can help or even simply entertain you.

Let me tell you a bit about me. In my twenties, I was your typical overachiever. I’d obtained my Master’s Degree in a record five and a half years. I lived in Ottawa and was working my way up the levels within the federal government. I enjoyed my job but was slowly becoming frustrated by the levels of red tape within the bureaucratic machine. I married a fellow public servant. We moved to the suburbs and soon had two kids. Like many dual-income households with a commute to and from work each day, we struggled with balancing work and family commitments. We wanted to provide a life rich in experiences to our kids so that they might grow to be well-rounded individuals with healthy social skills. That meant evenings and weekends were taken up by kids’ activities, grocery shopping and keeping up with the household projects.

Enter February 18, 2014 and what was for a long time, my defining moment. Ironically enough, I wasn’t even present when this event occurred. My husband was driving our girls to school on that snowy morning when a taxi minivan crashed at full speed into the driver’s door of my husband’s half-ton truck. The taxi spun around and collided a second time with the truck, sending it over a snowbank and to a stop about eight feet from a restaurant window. I was downtown at work already when the phone call came in about the accident. My kids were alright, albeit a bit shaken up and bumped about. My husband spoke to me and said he was fine. I realize that what follows is a generalization but I don’t know many men who like going to the hospital or to see a doctor. My husband pretty much has to be bleeding profusely or on fire to admit that he might need to see someone. I knew this of course but had little information about the gravity of the accident and took comfort in speaking directly to my husband. He didn’t sound like he was on fire, so I relaxed and let my guard down.

To make a very long story short, my husband was not fine. Later on that day and for the days that followed, it became apparent just how not fine he was. He had physical injuries, which he had downplayed. His speech became slurred and he was not making much sense. He lost his balance. I noticed a big blue bruise from his temple down to below his cheekbone. He had suffered a significant blow to the head - a traumatic brain injury - and we were about to learn all about the symptoms, personality changes and consequences of such an injury. What followed were years of recovery with specialists like Physiotherapists, Psychiatrists, Psychologists, Neurologists, pain management experts, Occupational Therapists, Speech Pathologists, Massage Therapists and what the heck was a Physiatrist? We saw three of those!

He could no longer work or drive or even remember that the cereal box did not go in the refrigerator or that the stove element needed to be turned off after being used. I watched my husband go from a confident, professional, borderline arrogant (but in a cute way), strategic thinking, independent man to someone who could no longer process simple information. He couldn’t stand noise and would get upset with the kids playing near him. He no longer had a social filter and just said what came to his mind no matter how hurtful. On some days, I barely recognized him. He would get upset with me if I contradicted him, believing I was exaggerating his limitations.

As much as I hate to admit it, I was selfish through it at first. I didn’t stop for too long to imagine what it felt like for him, knowing fully that he was no longer able to do what came so easily to him in the past. I didn’t stop to wonder if he worried about whether or not he’d ever get better. I couldn’t consider how demoralizing and depressing that might have been for him because I was way too busy stomping around like a petulant child. I railed against the Universe and asked what I’d done to deserve this. It was all about me and my kids. Why were we handed this challenge? I considered myself a victim of this accident. My role within the family was being completely rewritten overnight. I wasn’t used to having to nurture my husband because he was always strong and more than capable of handling anything and everything. He was my rock. I used to be the one who did the leaning - on him. I felt completely unprepared and incompetent.

For years, I told my sad story to anyone and everyone. I explained just how difficult our lives were and how changed our family unit had become. I became severely depressed, burnt out, filled with anger and anxiety and not a very happy person to be around. The way of the world perpetuated our misery with insurance claims and legal action that took years to resolve. You know what though? One day, I realized that I was tired of telling the story about my husband’s accident. It had changed our lives but I decided that it would not define me or my family any longer.

I redefined the version of myself. I tapped into my independence and became my family’s rock. I took control of my life and situation. I knew a 9 to 5 job with a commute would no longer work for us. I decided to follow my heart and became a yoga teacher. I started a jewelry business making malas (meditation necklaces) using semi-precious stones. I learned to grieve certain aspects of our life. Over time, came acceptance. I also stopped being so foolish as to think I was facing my life alone. I let my husband back in and opened up to his experience. I learned to lean on him again. It didn’t have to be all or nothing.

My husband became better at asking for help and inviting us to slow down so he could process more easily. He worked tirelessly with numerous specialists and implemented strategies to manage his energy levels and learn new ways of coping. He proved to have reserves of strength I never thought possible.

My kids showed me just how resilient they were and how compassionate they could be toward their Dad. Our relationships within the family unit knitted together into something different but just as special and stronger than before.

Just as we started to find a bit of a groove and pull ourselves out of survival mode, my younger daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. Despite our progress as a family, I’ll admit to having a few moments where I thought the Universe could use some pointers in subtlety. [I would love to pause now and say that if you’re ever on the verge of telling someone that they are only dealt what they can handle, don’t. Please. Just don’t. Take it from me, it’s never a good thing to say.] Learning how to count carbs, give insulin injections, monitor blood glucose day and night felt almost like a full-time job. I was once again plunged into desperation. I was terrified I was going to make a wrong calculation or decision that would end up being deadly. In hindsight, I know that I was being a bit dramatic but I was downright panicked when I first learned how to manage this disease. I can only hope that the minimal amount of attention I doled out to my older daughter during this learning phase isn’t one of her defining moments.

Life continues to throw curveballs at us, as it will do. In October of last year, I ended up having emergency spinal surgery, which landed me in bed recovering for a couple months. Five months later, my older daughter broke her tibia and needed surgery to re-align her knee and add some permanent hardware to her leg. I could easily have thrown my hands up and screamed “Why me? Why us? What’s next?” Instead though, I realized that it wasn’t necessarily punishment. Perhaps it was a not-so-gentle nudge in the direction we were meant to go. I began to understand that we each have the responsibility to make our lives the happiest we can. Sure, there’s a time to wallow and pump our fists at life for the challenges it delivers, but there is also a time to pull ourselves up and use the those challenges as opportunities to grow.

I may never know why things work out as they do. What I do know for sure though is that my husband and I are closer than we were before and we have a stronger appreciation for the importance of our family. I know that I’m the mom of an amazingly courageous daughter who has T1D and who thinks she might want to become a nurse so she can help Diabetic kids understand that they can do and be whatever they want regardless of the diagnosis. I’m also the mom of an extremely positive, ray of sunshine of a daughter who taught herself to crochet while she had her leg in a cast. She even started her own little business making and selling beautiful creations. My daughters both know what it means to make the best of each situation and I’m slowly beginning to follow suit. I’m learning to draw on my experience when I teach a yoga class and find I can relate in more heartfelt ways with my students because of those difficult moments.

Maybe it’s not for us to know why those challenges and tragic events occur. Sometimes they royally suck and there is no way to see anything positive behind them. But sometimes, if we can rally, we can find opportunities, friends, supports along the way to help us through. Maybe those defining moments are generally negative because they force us to change. The question becomes, will we stay in the wallowing, complaining and victim phase or will we decide to drop the negativity? That may be a difficult step to take, one that goes against our brain’s wiring, but, I can say that based on my experience, it’s a step well-worth taking.

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