Most of us, unless we’re certain personality types, don’t enjoy pushing ourselves much beyond our comfort zones – whether physical or emotional.
When it comes to being pushed, it depends on who is pushing – perhaps a good friend, coach, trainer, or partner? We do better when someone is watching or coaching us and that’s the role of trainers – they become familiar with our physiology, psychology, and willpower and know the parameters of our potential, while keeping us safe from injury, harm, or self-destruction. It’s not for the faint of heart, by either the trainer or trainee, for the latter has to respect and trust his/her mentor and the trainer has to have the knowledge, experience, and persuasiveness to effect real change in his/her mentee.
I remember training for high school track and field. I competed and placed in long jump, 100, 200, and 400-metre runs and still clearly recall my coach pushing me through sprints until I collapsed – crying, and barely able to breathe. He pushed me beyond what I had ever thought possible. The effort would have fallen flat with a best friend or a parent. “Coach” was someone who I trusted with those vulnerable parts of me – where I was weak, physically and mentally. I needed to get stronger, faster, better – in order to win – and he was the only one who could get me there. Therefore, I was willing to embrace his tough regimen, to “follow him”.
Fast forward 45 years…to a recent challenge of similar proportions. My husband, Gil, and I embarked on a unique and challenging tour through Asia, hosted by my professional organization: the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians (CAEP). In addition to a bit of medical education, the tour was primarily based on the TV series, “The Amazing Race” which, until our tour, I knew nothing about. It looked like fun and a unique way to see Asia and before we left, I had a quick watch of a trailer for the show and thought little more of it. I didn’t know what was in store and, in retrospect, it was better that way.
We had eight race days, from Bangkok, Thailand to Saigon, Vietnam and Chau Doc – down the Mekong Delta River to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We raced to temples, by foot, bike, and tuk-tuk, in 35-degree Celsius humidity; we jumped into moving boats on fast, crowded canals, we held (but didn’t eat!) fried tarantulas; we sped down bumpy highways trying to count motorcycles with pigs tied on the back or to find hidden fishermen by the roadside; we concocted stories to get monks to take a photo with me and trudged through typhoon rains in Angkor Wat. We soon became familiar with terms like checkpoint, clues, “the chase”, challenges, “fast forward”, bonus, and “the medical quiz of the day”. We became experts at haggling, chasing, competing, out-smarting, schlepping, and staying motivated. Aspects of our marriage were also challenged: I balked when Gil repeatedly refused to hail a motorized vehicle when our next site was less than a kilometer away. We both got frustrated when we spent 45 minutes looking for a checkpoint. There were some tears and swearing along the way (always on my part!) but our relationship continued unscathed, perhaps even stronger from our shared trials and experiences.
Now when I watch “The Amazing Race – Canada” I laugh and cry, both at and with the competitors. This time, I completely GET IT! I feel their fear, impatience, frustration, exasperation but also admire their tenacity, teamwork, strategy, and humour. Now I more fully appreciate not just what I saw and learned on the trip – the amazing sights, culture, and history – but also what I internalized. I had experienced similar feelings in the past, when we’d gone on some remote canoe trips – with all the potential dangers of a trek in the wilds of Northern Ontario – and had traveled by jeep, just as a couple, across the Serengeti in Kenya. I guess it was reassuring that on our recent trip, we still had it in us – that adventurous spirit! What most impressed me was that we had survived some remarkable challenges and evolved in some cool and advantageous ways.
For example, I had not a shred of worry when I stepped onto our sleek jet for the trip home. When we got home, everything was noticeably clean, safe, organized, and familiar. I didn’t give much of anything a second thought – the big challenges of a few weeks ago had made the everyday challenges so easy. I learned to say “yes” to everything, because what was there to lose? We had climbed a mountain of sorts – and had gained something called resilience.
How does all this relate to the CURE: our search for compassion, understanding, respect, and empathy in healing? To connect the dots, we must see illness and suffering – the inevitable parts of life that benefit from the CURE approach – as a mountain, a definite challenge. The lucky ones amongst us get away with general good health and whatever little things do come our way are more like hills than mountains. But there are unfortunate people, plenty of them, who have a Mount Everest of illness, disease, and suffering in front of them. We have all probably had someone close to us in this position – facing the big mountain – so what can we offer them?
The story of the “amazing race” above gives some clues. Before approaching the mountain, one needs some preparation: to strengthen ourselves so we’re ready for the challenges that are to come. In health terms, that means taking care of ourselves: eating well, exercising, getting plenty of sleep, engaging in productive and fulfilling jobs, hobbies, and pastimes, and perhaps most importantly, engaging in community. This is the ideal baseline for all of us – what makes us into health warriors!
Longevity or survival from disease is statistically tied to friendship, human relationships, community, and religion – anything that binds you to a positive, loving experience. So, in order to get up and over the mountain, one needs a coach – someone who is willing to be there with you every step of the way and who can advocate for you when another step seems impossible.
This is where the vitally important role of family, friends, community, and caregivers comes in. It’s also where a good health advocate is indispensable – whether a nurse, physician, social worker, or a whole team of specialists – they are the ones who give their expert opinions and treatment and keep you on the right path.
And finally, for a successful trip down the mountain – when we have tackled our health challenge(s) and have either beaten it or still carry it with us, now a chronic condition, we must move on. Do we carry with us resentment, injury, and a great fear of the next mountain – fear that can incapacitate us, or make us want to give up – or do we move on with a measure of optimism, faith, and trust? Do we develop resilience, and despite any physical weaknesses or pain, move forward with grace?
This is undoubtedly the greatest challenge of all three stages of the mountain. For this, one needs all possible and available strengths, supports, and resources. In the “race” analogy, this is when you pull out your “pass” card and hope it gets you to the finish line. This involves opening oneself up to all possibilities. In health terms, this means trying alternative medical approaches (but not quackery), therapeutic touch, spiritual practices, supportive practices that engage all the senses (music, art, dance therapies, for example) and anything that ENABLES AND PROMOTES ONESELF. It’s the ultimate practice of the CURE – to be pushed until it hurts, to a place of transformation, a place of new beginnings – hopefully a fresh start. And if not a fresh start, but the beginning of the end, at least it will have been a valiant effort worthy of hero status.