A Moment in Amsterdam: Fear Alley and Stress

Alleys are narrow. I envision them as dark, lonely places, filled with scary things and unpleasant smells. Forgotten garbage litters the ground. Feral cats and large rats compete for scraps. Alleys potentially are filled with scary people who I’d like to avoid meeting. I wouldn’t be excited about the cats or rats either. They are not safe spaces. No one hangs out in an alley because it’s relaxing.

Back in my youth, I was much more adventurous. I found myself exploring Amsterdam for a few days on my own. I loved it there. The colors of flowers from the numerous flower markets were intense. I took canal rides to tour the city. I lost myself in a VanGogh museum. I relaxed in a beer garden and wrote postcards. The Anne Frank House where Anne hid from the Nazis for two years was transformative. The tourist in me took in everything possible. I may have mentioned in an earlier post that I make an excellent tourist. I even let a stranger buy me a drink and joined his family for dinner one night.

Amsterdam is also known for its nefarious red-light district. I figured it was fine to see during the day. My plan was to turn around if I felt it wasn’t safe. It was an easy walk to that area. I felt plenty safe but was very much out of my element. Gradually, I became aware I was one of the only women in the area not “working.” Women didn’t seem to be outdoors at all. I could not imagine what the area was like in the dark of night. It was time to turn around, however, I did not relish backtracking through what I had seen.

I spied an alley to my left. At the end of the alley rose a tall church steeple. Surely, I would be in a better environment if I took this shortcut. I couldn’t see anyone lurking about there. It was a short distance. It couldn’t be too bad. Weighing my options, I decided to do it. Was it a good idea? Yes and no. I had to use my hands to shield my eyes from windows on both sides that featured more things I didn’t want to see. I walked with a determined pace that was almost a run. I emerged from the dark alley back into the open sunshine and was thrilled to discover the church steeple I had seen was now a building that sold Christmas decorations. Perfect. I found a different route back to my room.

Where am I going with this?

Sometimes walking down a narrow, dark alley may be the only way to find the light again.

From time to time, something scary has to be experienced in order to get to a better place. The scary thing can be unplanned, unavoidable, and unravel life. Fear can stop us from pursuing or reaching our goals. Fear can stop any meaningful movement forward. Fear can keep us unwell.

I have had a lot of practice with fear as someone living with cancer. There has been information to process and digest. Decisions have been made. Many appointments, tests, and results have been faced that I would rather not have had to deal with at all. The process has repeated over and over with revised information, more decisions, and so many more appointments. Life has been filled with uncertainty in the same way as not knowing what may be lurking and waiting in an alley. It seems I’m always adjusting and adapting. I face all these hurdles because not facing them is more fearful than facing them. The distance has been much longer than what I walked in the alley in Amsterdam.

Functioning well in what I call Fear Alley for the long run is too hard. Bodies in a constant state of stress do not recover. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. Living in a state of chronic stress where cortisol levels are always elevated affects health negatively. Living in fear is like being in survival mode all the time. It’s high stress. Your body, your mind, your soul can’t recover when in a constant state of fear. Those things are sacrificed so the fear can survive.

Chronic stress is the metaphorical mugger lurking in Fear Alley. Stress can contribute to health conditions such as obesity, ulcers, depression, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure, and hair loss. A negative relationship exists between stress and the immune system, affecting the way certain cells find and attack cancer cells. Our natural killer cells don’t work as well in a stressed environment. The immune system works better when unstressed. Stress is very handy to have around in fight or flight situations, but surviving in a heightened state of prolonged fight or flight for months and years is going to cause more problems in the long run that will cause a vicious cycle of ongoing stress. Those living with cancer have better outcomes when stress levels are lower. To remain in some type of warrior state where I feel like I am in a constant battle keeps me in a state of stress. I won’t do it. I can’t. It makes my heart hurt. My body physically shakes. Muscles in my gut tighten as if anticipating a punch. The fear and worry spike my anxiety levels.

What if we believed in hope instead?

What if fear and stress were left behind in the alley and images of the alley just faded away forever? You would be left standing in the sun, absorbing warmth, light, and hope into every cell of your being. Your body would have an opportunity to relax and thrive. You’d sleep more soundly and feel assured that things were going to work out. Thoughts and ideas would connect easily in your mind. You’d feel something in your soul that just felt right. This sounds really good to me! For me, less stress means I’m much calmer and more relaxed. My heart doesn’t race. I don’t shake. My stomach is happier. So am I.

Absorbing warmth and hope into every cell means leaving stress behind. How does this happen? Meditate. A few breaths make a difference. Start with inhaling fully for three or four counts and then slowly exhale for the same number. Repeat this four or five times. It’s a mini-break and gives your body an opportunity to reset. Go for a ten-minute walk if there’s time. You’ll combine deep breathing and get a few minutes of exercise. Other ways you can lower stress are to spend a few minutes writing in your gratitude journal, think of something to make you laugh, or make a quick phone call to a friend. Use affirmations to set the positive, hopeful, no stress mindset that you seek.

Hope isn’t found at the end of a dark alley. It’s found in all the little moments where a thought makes you smile, you spend time doing something that brings you joy, or you take that ten-minute walk. All those moments add up. Hope is found in the heart. Ultimately, this means hope could even be found as you walk through what is fearful. Somehow. Maybe it’s just a small molecule of hope, but it grows as you inch toward the end of the alley. Hope is always within.

Don’t let fear crush hope.

Hope makes living with cancer so much easier than trying to live with it from a place of fear. It’s like permanently living in the Amsterdam flower market or having the Van Gogh museum completely to yourself. Every part of your life feels better with hope. There may be alleys to walk through that are unavoidable. I wouldn’t recommend strolling down any just for the experience. Hope is obtainable without an alley walk. I’d like to think hope is also unavoidable.

We all need to hold on to hope and not let go.

We all deserve the sunny parts of Amsterdam.

All the time.

 

Consider responding:

  • When can fear be the only path to lead you to something better?
  • How can you approach fearful places differently and come from a place of hope?

 

Support and Friendship

I love cards. I love making cards, sending cards, and getting cards. In the age of texts, emails, and communication through social media, receiving a bona fide card in the mail is rare. A few friends and I send cards to each other regularly. Mind you this officially makes us old school (but not old). Maybe a special occasion is being marked. Quite often sending the card is what makes the occasion special. We just do it. It’s one way we celebrate our friendship and show we are there for one another.

Emily sends me cards often. We met through fate as roommates our freshman year in college. We bonded over many things, but I can’t imagine having the relationship I have with her with any of the other young women who were randomly thrown together to share a room the size of an oversized closet. I am so grateful she is still one of my closest friends today. The last card she sent me was on my survivorversary to mark seven years since my diagnosis of metastatic cancer. Somehow she always finds the perfect card. She writes words heavy in meaning and hope.

The most recent card she sent me had a photo of a robin featured on the front that splashed about in a birdbath even though it was caught in the rain. The caption on the front even referenced the bird always managed to “find a way.” The words jumped out at me since that is a personal mantra of mine as well as words of inspiration for the title of my blog. The message on the inside of the card concluded with the thought that the robin kept singing through the rain.

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Card created by Cardthartic.

Emily’s personal words were supportive and encouraging. She connected the theme in the card by writing she was proud of my “strength and song through the past seven years of rain.” I’ve tried. I’ve been the robin. I’ve walked through a lot of rain. I’ve been the rain, too. I’ve also warmed myself in long periods of sunshine.

I received the card on my actual survivorversary. It coincided with the day I saw my first robins returning from winter. Symbolism is rarely lost on me. I look for signs. There is a lengthy list of positive qualities that robins possess in the world of symbolism, too many to elaborate on here. For the sake of brevity, robins symbolize renewal and rebirth since they are a spring bird. I’ve read that their beautiful song will bring joy and happiness to a person’s life. I am ready for it. I love that more robins than I could count settled all over my yard on a day that already held significance for me. More strength and song.

Strength and song as a combined force brings beauty and softness to strength. It mixes power and muscle to song. I close my eyes and feel hope when I repeat the words over and over in my mind. Strength and song, strength and song, strength and song. Strength as hope. Song as hope. Both lift me up. They make a good team.

Kristin is another dear friend and sender of some of my favorite cards. She is not just a source of hope for me but also a source of strength and song. I can always be myself and share what’s on my mind whether I am a robin singing or drenched and cold from the rain. We value the same things like gratitude, kindness, helping others, good health, equality, and the environment. We’ve shown up for one another over years of friendship.

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A Green-Inspired card

The support she offers me through a few sentences in cards is immeasurable. She writes of joy and comfort, support and positivity, tears and fears, gratitude, friendship, and humor. Surrounding myself with like-minded individuals is important not just from a perspective of maintaining a healthy and hopeful mindset, but in achieving and sustaining happiness. I am so fortunate to have made a lifelong friend from adolescence and still have such a strong friendship almost forty years later.

I recently received a letter from the University of Wisconsin Foundation that both Emily and Kristin made tribute gifts in my name to the Stage IV Needs More Fund. Both of these friends know of one another through me, but they are not close geographically and do not communicate to my knowledge. Yet, they made a charitable donation at the same time to honor my personal milestone as a survivor. Kristin told me I made good points through my blog that more research is needed for later stage cancers. Their gifts are more than tribute gifts for a cause I often promote. It is a gift that shows two incredibly strong friendships of strength and song. Powerful forces work in mysterious ways.

Emily informed me that Rob and Mary Gooze, who established and oversee the Stage IV Needs More Fund through their work and advocacy, included a hand written thank you as part of their acknowledgement for her gift. A hand written note fits well into the theme for this post. Rob and Mary are incredibly warm people. They took the time to show they were truly grateful for a donation. Cards and hand written notes make a difference.

No one goes out to make a friend with the reasoning that it’s a healthy choice, however, there is a connection between friendships and health. Time spent with the right friends raises levels of happiness and lowers stress. We have a stronger sense of purpose and belonging with friends. Friends are there to provide support through tough times. Friends stand by one another. Studies show that having many friends as you age may even help you live longer. Friendships are pretty powerful forces themselves.

My life is wonderful in part because I have amazing friends.

I almost titled this post Strength and Song instead of Support and Friendship. In the end, I decided to keep it simple and to the point. A synonymous relationship definitely exists in equating the words strength and support. Song and friendship may be a bit more of a stretch, but they have similarities, too. The best friendships keep the beat, develop variations of the same melody, and harmonize with perfect tones. I will always think the words strength and song carry new meanings from this point forward.

Friendship is a priceless gift. My friends are family. Unfortunately, there have been friends who drifted away when I received my cancer diagnosis. They don’t have the strength or song that I need. They don’t know how to show up for me or they don’t want to show up for me. Other people (note the avoidance of the word friends) have shown up in toxic ways and I have chosen to distance myself from them. I have changed, too. I’ve made mistakes, but hope I’m a better friend today than I’ve been in the past. Positivity, support, and hope are qualities I’ve always valued in my friends. I choose to surround myself with friends who have these. My closest friends sing through the rain just like I do. We share one another’s victories and tough times.

Strong friendships that last though the years are built through support, trust, and empathy. Laughing is a must. Tears are not shunned. Having fun and common interests helps. Interests that change and evolve over time may contribute to some friendships that lose their intensity. My good friends and I have always found a way to support one another and stay connected even as our lives changed over the years. We all need friends to celebrate with, cry with, and confide in, no matter what is happening in our lives. I want to stay close to friends who feel like warm sunshine on those rainy days. My friendships that continue to grow are nurtured through connection. Connection makes room for trust, empathy, and hope through strength and song.

Thank you, all my friends, for being my strength and song.

Consider responding:

  • How are friendships important in your life?
  • Do you still send cards in the mail? What is behind your decision?
  • What does strength and song mean to you?