A More Positive Story

Its nothing new to hear that the stories we tell ourselves matter, but I have only recently begun to see how much they matter.

Lately, I’ve started playing with my stories, changing my internal dialogues, and the result has been remarkable… Even life changing.

But, there’s a trick.

You see I’ve tried this before and it didn’t work. I’ve always known that my internal dialog, the stories I tell myself (particularly those about myself and my life) tend towards the negative. And at times I’ve tried to change them, without much success. So, I’ve always dismissed the idea when I’ve heard it in the past.

But, it turns out I had just made a fundamental story telling mistake when I tried to change my internal dialog. I had tried to jump to where I wanted to be at the end of the story and forgotten that all story is about process. Story is all about what happens BETWEEN point A and point B. It’s the process that makes point B believable.

In the past when I tried to change my internal dialog I had tried to go from thinking point A straight to thinking point B, and it didn’t work. Point A and point B ended up both struggling for dominance of my mind and heart. I cannot will a more positive story into being when my deep conscious still believes my negative story.

A few weeks ago something happened that opened my eyes to this problem and how to solve it. I signed up for these daily parenting emails that a friend recommended and one of them said this:

“When some aspect of your life feels like a grind, you can transform it into a groove by changing the stories you tell about it.
But this only works if you *believe* your groovy new stories, so it’s best to change them *gradually*. For example, if you realize you’re running a story like…

“I always get into power struggles with my child.”

…it’s not believable to change it immediately to…

“Our relationship is perfectly harmonious.”

A more believable new story would be…

“We used to fight a lot, but I finally surrendered to Love — I decided that I’d rather feel good than be ‘right’ — and now, every day, little by little, I discover new ways to create harmony.”

Ok. I sort of laughed at this at first. But, little by little it got me thinking and in particular it got me thinking about my internal dialog related to Bryan’s melanoma diagnosis. I realized that my internal dialog about Bryan’s melanoma went something like this:

“Bryan has melanoma. There aren’t good options for treatment that we are comfortable with. Eventually this thing will probably get the best of him and I need to prepare myself for that.”

I knew this was a negative story. I knew I needed to change it. And throughout the past year I’ve struggled to think positively about the situation. I’ve struggled to change the story by telling myself,

“Bryan’s fine. Melanoma isn’t gonna get the best of him. He’s gonna grow old with me. He’s fine.”

But, it never really worked. I struggled. Wrestling, over and over again, trying to will myself into positive thinking, but not really believing the positive story I was trying to tell myself. And then I read this email and realized my mistake.

You can’t jump straight from a negative story to a positive one. You can’t jump straight from point A to point B. You need to show the process, show the change. The human heart loves a good story and in order for the human heart to believe a change in the story you need to show the process of change.

So, this is the new story I started to tell myself,

“Bryan had melanoma. But, he is fighting it. The things we are doing can help. Right now he feels good and we are doing what we can to keep him feeling that way.”

This story might not seem as positive as the middle story, but the result of it was so much more positive for me. I didn’t have to struggle to believe it. It is truthful and authentic and yet it is also positive and full of hope. It takes me from point A and moves me closer to point B.

When I shared this with Bryan he shared another story with me. My husband is not really the intuitive, touchy-feely, overly spiritual type, but he shared with me a moment in all this where he felt like he heard from God and it changed his internal dialog. He heard this simple story, “This will get the best of me… But prayer can change that.”

The thought “this will get the best of me” was his point A, but the follow up thought “prayer can change that” is the story that moves him from point A to point B.

Changing my internal dialogs into stories that include movement has been perhaps one of the biggest epiphanies I’ve ever had. It has radically reshaped my attitude and feelings about Bryan’s melanoma diagnosis.

My negative dialog promoted fear. It encouraged me to pull away, to protect myself. My attempts at creating a positive dialog just created something I didn’t, no, couldn’t, fully believe and that lack of belief created internal conflict and that conflict created deep seated guilt.

But, when I changed my dialog to a story, and more specifically to a story that showed gradual positive movement, everything changed. My new internal dialog doesn’t promote fear, it keeps me grounded in the present. It promotes positive habits in me, like encouraging Bryan to keep up the healthy things he’s been doing. It also takes my focus from an individual one (“I need to be prepared”) to a collective, actively communal one (“We need to do what we can to keep him feeling well”).

And when I combine my new story with Bryan’s story the result is incredible hope. My old story killed hope. My new story feeds it. That’s the kind of story I want. That’s the kind of internal dialogue I want to practice.

What do you think? What negative stories are bouncing around your head and heart? Could telling yourself a gradual story of change move your internal dialogue to a more positive one? I’m fascinated by this thought right now and would love to hear what others think and how you’d apply all this.

Rejoicing in the journey,
Bethany Stedman

 

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Advent: Waiting for God to Step In

A  week ago cancer came knocking again.

For the past couple months we’ve been able to live our lives and sort of ignore the whole melanoma thing. In my mind I thought it’d be something we’d deal with every four months when Bryan had his follow up checks, but other than that we could just go back to normal life. Or at least our “new normal”. But, last week I was struck with a stark reminder that cancer will never be out of the picture. For us normal will always involve melanoma. For us normal will always include that feeling of looking over our shoulders, and waiting for the ax to fall.

Last weekend my friend Jane wrote a blog post I can’t quite get out of my mind. Jane is a dear friend from Prague and her husband is currently going through chemotherapy for leukemia. In a small way we are in similar boats, but in big ways she faces a day-in-day-out reality that I can only imagine. She wrote this and I can’t stop thinking about it:

“I think I would have said a bit ago that we were ‘getting used to it (cancer)’. In my mind, that was acceptance. But now I disagree with myself. ‘Getting used to it’ could be avoiding it, minimizing it, forgetting it, hoping it would die without attention….like all the herbs I planted in May.
Tonight, acceptance means to me holding the truth in my hands, looking at it, feeling the weight of it, talking about it to God using nice and not so nice words, and trying to reach the place of honestly being able to say that with whatever circumstance I am holding, ‘ It is well with my soul’.”

I’m trying to come to that place where I can accept, where I can hold out my hands and accept whatever God chooses to put there. But, I think I have been trying to accept melanoma in my own strength, by taking my expectations into my own hands. I’ll explain, but let me start by sharing what happened this week and what led to these thoughts.

As part of the MSLT2 trial Bryan was accepted into he has to have regular ultrasounds of his lymph nodes. He had his first one on November 30th. They found that one of his lymph nodes is enlarged and did a biopsy to see if it was more melanoma. The day they did it they told us we should have the results by the following Tuesday. On Thursday they called and told us that they underestimated the time and we won’t hear anything till Friday. On Friday they called and said they needed to do some more tests on the sample and wouldn’t have an answer for us till next week.

It’s been a long week. The not knowing. The wondering. The fear. And it looks like we have longer to go in the unknown, waiting period.

In some ways I feel like my whole life has turned into a waiting period. The truth is as much as I want to stay positive, as much as I hope and pray for 50+ more years with Bryan, ever since the melanoma diagnosis I feel like I’m just waiting for the ax to fall.

Right now he’s doing well, right now our action steps are minimal, but for how long? I’ve read the statistics, I know his staging, I know that chances are good that we aren’t done with this yet. So, the question has been when? When will the ax fall? One year, five years, twenty years? Or this week?

I hate thinking that way. Living that way. But, I can’t seem to shake this foreboding feeling of waiting for something terrible to happen.

As I write this I start to think about Advent. In some ways I find myself in a season similar to that which we all find ourselves in at advent, a season of waiting for an arrival, a season of waiting in the desert, a season of waiting for a Messiah. And yet it strikes me that my waiting is completely opposite from the waiting of advent.

In advent we wait and expect the good. But as I wait, I often find myself expecting the worst.

Why is that? Why is it so hard for me to anticipate and expect good to come? Why do I spend more time worrying about and expecting potentially negative outcomes than I spend expecting God to step in and show up?

Isn’t that really what Advent is about? God stepping in and showing up?

Truth be told though, that’s not what I expect, it’s not what I anticipate, it’s not what I look for and wait on. Don’t get me wrong, I do expect God to be with us, to walk with us through whatever comes. And I do expect that whatever comes, in the end God will work it for good. But, I don’t expect God to, in power, step into my reality and alter it and make it good – not just FOR my good, but good. What would it look like to expect that?

Honestly, when I think about it I feel like it would be delusional and irrational and unrealistic for me to expect that kind of good, to expect God to step in. But, maybe that’s sort of what God asks for us in our seasons of waiting, in our seasons of Advent…?

I mean it probably wasn’t rational or realistic for the Israelites to believe and expect and trust God to step in and provide for them in the desert. And God knows that they didn’t always do a good job at overcoming their own expectations for negative outcomes. But, continually God seems to call them to just that.

And then he promises them a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey, but… a land already inhabited. He asks them again to expect and anticipate the best, the good, against completely unlikely and unrealistic odds.

Isn’t the same sort of true when it came to their waiting for a Messiah? The things God told them about the coming messiah, where not exactly all realistic.

God hasn’t stepped in and told me what to expect, told me it’s all gonna be ok, told me we are gonna live in a land flowing with milk and honey, told me Bryan’s gonna be ok. But, I’m starting to think perhaps that’s more along the lines of what he wants me to expect.

I know that my negative expectations and worry are clearly not good for my heart, soul, or body. But, I think I fear letting go of my negative expectations, because somehow I think by expecting the worst I’m preparing for the worst. But, perhaps expecting the worst isn’t really the best kind of preparation. I believe that by setting low expectations I’m protecting myself. But, perhaps it’s not my job to protect myself.

Here’s where it all ties back to the acceptance I talked about at the beginning… Sometimes I think I’m trying to work my way to acceptance of whatever comes by expecting the worst. If I can expect, picture, anticipate and accept the worst than I am accepting the situation. But, perhaps that’s not really accepting whatever comes. Perhaps that’s not really what God wants from us when desiring our acceptance. I’m beginning to think that acceptance doesn’t mean sealing our fists against the worst, nor does it mean grabbing hold of the worst, obsessing over it and saying, “I will accept this! I will! I will!”. No, acceptance is opening our hands to whatever comes, truly whatever.

I think it comes down to this, do I trust God enough to open my hands?

Do I trust God enough to let go of my worrying, let go of my projected outcomes, let go of my fear, let go of my negative expectations?

Can I trust him to protect me?

Can I trust him to prepare me for whatever comes?

Can I trust him to step out in power and come into my situation, to come and make whatever comes good?

Can I turn my advent of waiting for the terrible to come into an advent of peacefully anticipating the good? Can I leave my future, Bryan’s future, our future, in God’s hands and simply live and love in the now?

These are the thoughts I’m grappling with as we wait to hear if melanoma is back at our doorstep or not.

Rejoicing in the journey,
Bethany Stedman

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Giving Grief a Seat at the Table

For the past few years my husband has worked as a free-lance front end web developer. Before that we both worked for the same small start up. Our work lives have always been closely intertwined.

I may not be coding with him, but there hasn’t been a single project I haven’t seen and given feedback on at one point or another. We have shared three meals a day together for a vast majority of our seven years of marriage. There have only been a handful of clients that I haven’t met at one point or another. When I’ve needed help with the kids he’s been here. When he is struggling with a design I can look at it with new eyes.

We don’t want to live separate lives. We really like being together 24/7. We like working together and we make a good team (if I do say so myself).

We have been blessed with the ability to share our work and spend our days together for seven years. And I am grateful.

But, life is going to change dramatically for us soon. And I’m grieving.

This week Bryan accepted a new job. It’s a real job. A 9-5 in a down town office kind of job.

I know it’s a good decision. The salaries good. They offered more than Bryan asked for, they were ok with him taking almost a month off for the trip we had already started planning. But most of all they understood that it can be difficult to transition from working for yourself so they agreed to let Bryan start slow with just two or three days a week and work up to full time. This will also allow him to finish some of his current projects, although he also plans to keep doing a few free lance things on the side even once he’s full time.

Bryan’s first day will be next Monday. He’s really struggled with the decision and still has moments of going back and forth about it. But, I think he feels good about it over all.

For me the decision has been like a tug-o-war between my emotions and my rationale. I feel much the same way I felt when we decided to move up to Seattle. I know taking this job is a good decision, I feel like it’s literally been handed to us and it would be foolish not to accept. I know it will stretch Bryan and improve his skills. I know he will be much less frustrated working away from the distractions of house and kids. I know it’s what we need to do for this season of our lives. 

But, I deeply don’t want Bryan to do it.

I don’t want to have whole days were we barely see each other at all. I don’t want Bryan to get home at the end of a stressful day only to then have more work to do for other clients, while I have the kids by myself all day. I don’t want to lead separate lives.

And so I’m feeling sad. Deeply sad. I’m grieving the lose of the freedom we’ve had for almost all of our marriage. I’m grieving not having my husband, and best friend, near by all day. I’m grieving the loss of a dream. I’m grieving settling into a standard life. 

I’m realizing something too… Grief is an emotional cocktail. It’s not just one simple emotion, it’s a mix of many emotions. It’s sadness, yes, but it’s also anger and fear. Each emotion bubbling up at different times, mixing with the one before.

Grief. In Chinese medicine the lungs are the center for grief and doesn’t that make sense? I have felt the tightness in my chest, that inability to breathe. But, when you surrender to grief it hits more than your chest it hits your whole body.

A few nights ago I surrendered to the grief I was feeling about Bryan taking a job and allowed myself to cry. But something happened that I hadn’t expected. I didn’t just cry, I sobbed, I wailed, I labored through grief almost as a women laboring to birth a child. And I realized very quickly when you open the door to one grief, in one area of your life, that grief is quick to bring his friends and you will find that you have not just opened the door to one grief, but to many.

What started as grief over Bryan taking this job quickly turned into grief I hadn’t let myself feel over the past two years. Grief about leaving Prague and how we left. Grief about things we have and will miss out on with friends who are like family as well as family that lives far away. I felt grief for my family, and all that we’ve been through in the past two years. Grief over my sweet little girl and the life she could have had, the life she will never know now. Grief about motherhood being so different then I thought it would be. Grief mostly over Bryan’s struggle with melanoma and fear over potential grief yet to come. I grieved it all.

I had barely allowed myself to cry because I thought that if I started crying I wouldn’t be able to stop. It turns out that was a very legitimate fear. Once I started I couldn’t stop. After over an hour the tears weren’t letting up, they were getting more intense.

Eventually it was coming on so hard I thought I was going to throw up. My daughter was crying by this point and my poor husband was doing his best to comfort me in a realm he was clearly not comfortable in. So, I forced myself to find the lock and key and stop, practically mid-sob. My husband and his gift for making me laugh came in handy as distraction for keeping back the tears.

Grief. I have often felt like I don’t know how to grieve. But, as I was caught up in wave after wave of grief I learned. And I remembered. There have been two other times in my life when I have allowed grief to take over, both where small drops compared to this ocean, but they were equally heartfelt.

I also realized how deeply my body and soul need grief and how deprived I had allowed myself to become by blocking this emotion.

My journey into grief really started on my birthday with a dear friend who allowed herself to speak the word grief into my heart and gave me space to begin to play on the outskirts of feeling grief. But, this journey with grief really reached a new level this week as I, even if only for a moment, allowed myself to step into the current of grief and be carried on her painful waves but for an instant.

When I had chocked the sobs back to moderate tears, Bryan asked if it felt good to let it out. That’s when I realized something else about grief. As much as we desperately need to release grief, her sobs are not like other tears. I think we all have felt that healing relief that comes from a good cry, where even in the middle of it your body feels the refreshment coming and by the end you are clear eyed and rejuvenated. Not so, the sobs of grief. Grief’s tears are pure pain and they leave the body and soul weary instead of refreshed. But, they are still so deeply necessary. And the ultimate result of riding the waves of grief is like labor… new life.

I am not done riding Grief’s waves. In fact I feel like Grief and I are only beginning our journey. She has been for me an estranged acquaintance who I only visit rarely and briefly.

Even as I write this I feel myself pushing her away, “You have no right to feel grief, no one has died. You are fine. Suck it up. Count your blessings.” And while there is some truth to my inner-dialogue, my body and soul know, with the kind of inner-knowing which only body and soul have, that grief is a valid emotion at any time when there is a loss, no matter how small. And here’s the real clincher, Grief isn’t going anywhere – she will be there whether I acknowledge her and give her a place at the table or whether I try to hide her in the closet and only visit her on the rarest occasion. She’s there either way. Slowly I’m trying to  learn to give her a seat.

And so I say,

Come, Holy Spirit, sit with me in my grief, however great, however small – all of my grief. Ride with me these waves of grief and guide me through this labor of pain, of letting go. Embrace me as I embrace my grief. And do not let me avoid, neglect, or hide any valid feeling that may arise. Be gracious to me and those around me through the process. Amen.

Rejoicing in the journey,
Bethany Stedman

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And Life Moves Forward

It’s been a long time since I’ve written here. I used to think that writing was how I processed things, but I’ve realized recently that writing is a later step in my process of processing. I don’t write when things are too big, too deep, too raw. I don’t write when I’m depressed. I do process in writing, but not when I’m in the middle of darker days.

I think the hardest thing about sitting down to write after a period of silence is where to begin. How do I start to write about all that has been going on. I want to write about it all, I want to document it, I want to share it, but well, where to start after such a long silence?

People keep asking us how we are doing. They ask for an update on Bryan’s melanoma, they ask how Sage is doing, they ask how work is. And I don’t know how to answer. Because, these big things we’ve been dealing with – cancer, polymicrogyria, the continuous ups and downs of self-employment – these things haven’t gone away, but they aren’t the big overbearing things they were at the beginning of the summer (well, they are still big and overbearing, but it’s different) they have just become part of our lives now.

I remember a friend, who’s husband was diagnosed with lukemia just before we found out about Bryan, talking about how they came to a point where cancer, and all that went along with it, was just their new normal. I feel like that a little.

Bryan was recently accepted into the non-surgical arm of a study we applied for. So, for the time being there will be no more surgeries. We have decided to treat his melanoma more naturally, so that means that for the time being there won’t be drugs that make him feel miserable. There will be lots of supplements and vitamins, lots of acupuncture and body work, lots of healthy food and probably juicing. There will be lots of regular oncologist appointments for observation. And there may be other therapies down the line.

Life will never be “normal” again – at least not in the way it used to be. I don’t think there will ever be a day when I don’t think about melanoma and feel fear – I know the statistics, I know that even if we did get all the melanoma with his first surgery it’s likely to come back and come back on an organ. I live with that knowledge every day. Because of that life with never be normal again. But, in some ways we are entering a new normal.

There is not a day that passes by that I don’t feel fear, but there is also not a day that passes by that I don’t feel hope also. Life is moving forward and I cannot live in fear. We are helping Bryan’s body to be as holistically healthy as it possibly can be in every way we can and I cannot live in fear. I may fight with fear everyday, but I don’t deal everyday with the nitty-gritty realities of cancer. Most of my day is spent in other things and other thoughts. Life moves forward.

In some ways the same could be true of Sage and her challenges. Microcephaly, polymicrogyria, occupational therapy, these are my new normal. They are still big deals, I still struggle with fear over them almost daily, but life also moves forward. We are settling into these new realities about our daughter. They are still difficult but they are not consuming our minute-by-minute thoughts.

As life moved forward and a new normal settled over us, I have to admit that a depression and numbness also settled on us. The past month or two has been heavy not because there was some big new heavy thing or some update with the big things we already faced, but because there wasn’t. Our new reality was that these things weren’t going to just go away, we couldn’t just treat these things and be done with them. These were going to be our reality from now on. We found ourselves in the middle of a new normal that we didn’t know how to live into. We still don’t. But, we are slowly stumbling through to find our way. And the we are slowly defrosting and and beginning to breath again.

We are slowly trying to learn what our days and weeks will look like now. We are slowly trying to learn how to dream again. And life moves forward.

Rejoicing in the journey,
Bethany Stedman

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Carpe the hell out of this Diem

If you can’t tell from the past few blogs, or from the sparseness of my writing of late (I always write less when life gets complicated), life has been complicated lately.

A few weeks ago my husband had surgery to amputate the top half of his thumb and two lymph nodes removed for biopsy. Since pretty soon after his diagnosis with melanoma we have been anticipating this surgery and in many ways I think we both felt that if we could get past the surgery then everything would be fine and we could put melanoma behind us, knowing that we will just have to be on the look out for recurrence. We never really let ourselves talk or even think much about the possibility that the biopsy results wouldn’t be good.

And then we got the call from pathology. The cancer had spread in small amounts to his lymph nodes.

Suddenly we are facing the options of another surgery, this one much more extensive and invasive, with potential lifelong consequences. We talked with the oncologist this week about drug options, which honestly sound miserable. They aren’t talking chemo, but these drugs have pretty nasty side effects and seem not so far off from chemo. In some ways I think I would feel better about chemo – I know people who have gone through chemo and gone on to have long healthy lives afterwards, but these drugs don’t seem to effect life expectancy that much, or at all. One of them is still in trials. Honestly, they don’t seem all that reassuring.

In the next few weeks we’ll see another melanoma specialist and then someone from Bastyr University as well. Hopefully they will have some other options or at least some more information.

To be honest the past week has been really hard for me. The oncologist appointment was discouraging for me. I started doing some research that filled my head with numbers and statistics which I wish I didn’t know. And twice this week I had what can only be described as premonitions or visions, which were less than encouraging.

When I’m honest I’m scared.

But, Bryan keeps reminding me that decisions made from fear aren’t good decisions. Fear may be a good motivator, but it doesn’t motivate in very healthy directions.

Slowly this week I started to realize anew that I can’t live in the constant fear and anticipation of a negative future. That’s no way to live. I don’t want to live that way. My life does have a lot of unknowns right now, and a lot of those unknowns scare me. But, I don’t want that fear to paralyze me, to motivate me into unhealthy decisions, or to taint and darken the beauty that is each day of my present life.

Yesterday I got to talk to my dad. He always has such a calming influence on me. He reminded me that we actually get to have a really unique perspective, while most people our age are nose to the grind, and perhaps not valuing their daily life as they should, we have a unique perspective where we don’t know what the future holds and so we get to celebrate each day as it comes. He reminded me to fully live every moment, to embrace where we are right now, enjoying today instead of fearing tomorrow.

That’s how I want to live. I want to live grateful for each day I have with my wonderful husband instead of fearing that our time together migt be cut short. I want to live grateful for my beautiful daughter instead of fearing what disabilities she may have because of the abnormalities in her brain. I want to live grateful for the wonderful, creative, projects in design, development and programming work that Bryan has right now instead of fearing that he might not have enough projects to pay the bills in few weeks or months or years. I want to live grateful that God walks with us in the now and grateful that he will continue to walk with us as each tomorrow becomes a now.

I am grateful that each day comes at us one at a time and the only day I’m ever asked to live is this one.

So, that’s what I’m going to do. Carpe the hell out of this diem!

Rejoicing in the journey,

Bethany Stedman

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