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105. Lessons in Survival and Healing

I remember Judith de Lozier, one of the founders of NLP, talking about a friend of hers whose life had suddenly taken a nose-dive. This woman had had a charmed life until then and was deeply shaken by what had happened to her. 'These things happen to us all,' Judith had said to her kindly, 'what made you think you were any different?' This week's reflection is about the hard things that happen in life, and to see if there is anything to learn from how one person handled what happened to her. One of the basic human characteristics is to try to search for meaning" Michael Johnson, PhD, Psychologist It is natural for us to want to make sense of our lives. When psychologists in Tennessee gave randomly generated phrases to students, such as 'horse is to time as stone is to book', the students always managed to find some logic in them, however far-fetched. But sometimes the s**t that happens in life can't be made sense of. Either it is beyond us to make sense of it, or there just isn't any sense in it. It just happens. Something like this happened to Cheryl Strayed, author of the book 'Wild'. She had had a turbulent upbringing, a violent alcoholic father for the first few years, and sheer poverty for the next few, after her parents split up. Her mother and step father moved them all from a tough urban environment to a tough rural one, where they cultivated a cold inhospitable land and lived in a meagre dwelling with no electricity or running water. The saving grace for Cheryl and her two siblings was their loving, hard-working, inspirational mother. When Cheryl was 22 her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Seven weeks later she was dead. If the family hadn't known before that she was the lynch pin of their lives, they certainly knew it when she died. Cheryl's stepfather quickly found another woman, her siblings vanished, the whole family came apart. Cheryl was devastated, and ran. From place to place, job to job, man to man. She split up from her husband, took heroin, worried her friends to death; she had no idea what to do or where to go. Until one day she happened to be in one of those shops that sells outdoor gear and, while waiting in the queue, she saw a book - 'The Pacific Crest Trail, volume 1: California'. The PCT is a long-distance hiking trail along the highest portion of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, a hundred or so miles inland from the Pacific coast. Cheryl, who by then had changed her surname to 'Strayed', set off to walk 1100 miles of it. Alone. She wrote of her experiences in 'Wild'. We often hear of great feats of physical endurance, such as the people who run repeated marathons on consecutive days, the people who walk from Land's End to John O'Groats, those who sail single-handed around the world. It's nice to sit in the comfort of your home and think about how you would love to do something like that. How exciting, romantic, intriguing, satisfying. And then you read a book like 'Wild' and you get up close and personal to what it is like and you start to think that maybe that 15 mile walk in the Yorkshire moors that you've heard about would probably be sufficient. I mean, who needs to walk up and down mountains for months at a time? With a huge pack on your back. Alone, facing bears and mountain lions, and predatory men. Who needs their toe nails to drop off one by one because your boots don't fit quite right? Or to eat desiccated food for days on end? Or to find yourself with no water in the stifling heat, because the water hole you aimed for is dry and the next one is several hours walk away? The answer is not Cheryl Strayed, as you might have imagined, the answer is someone who has no idea what they're letting themselves in for. I went to see Cheryl interviewed at Conway Hall, in London, curious to know what she had learnt from her experiences. It was clear from her book that the hike helped her to heal, but not at all clear how. One thing is for sure, she said, we all suffer. We all have heartbreak. They're part of life. Most people's reaction to a bad thing happening is to run away from it. And that's what I did. 'I spent four years running,' she said, 'and felt no better. Something had to change.' Cheryl didn't really know why it was the Pacific Crest Trail that called her, she just knew, from the little voice in her head, that it was the right thing to do. That certainty carried her through several months of planning, right up until the night before her trek began, sitting in a bleak motel with her newly packed back pack, which she had never before tried to carry. Realising for the first time the full unbelievable weight of her companion - she later named it 'Monster' - it was only the thought of having to tell people she'd wimped out that kept her going. So she went, and she found that running away from reality was simply not an option on a hike such as this. It was there 24 hours a day, whether she liked it or not. And it was that raw reality, Cheryl says, that taught her the lessons she needed to heal from her grief. She found acceptance to be an unexpected friend, that if she could accept the path, the weather, the obstacles, the next mile, 'everything else sort of gave way.' She found that support was often there for her, in surprising ways and from surprising places. Alone and silent, she learnt much about how her brain worked, how in normal life it is constantly busy and being directed, but on the trail it was left to wander. She learnt exactly how tough she was, in a very tangible way. 'The hike literally forced me to out one foot in front of the other at a time when emotionally I didn't think I could do that. You have to keep walking, no matter what. If you don't it's a living death. You're just standing in one place dying. The walk gave me a map of how to survive life, to keep moving, to go far.' A woman who she met on the trail came up to her at a book signing. "For years, I always remembered you', she said, 'because of when I asked you, 'How do you go on, given the state of your feet?'" Apparently Cheryl said, "I just keep going. I have to take it one step at a time." The woman told me that every time she had a hard time in life, she would stop and repeat that phrase to herself. Try this: Think of something hard that you have had to face in your life. If you were interviewed about it, what would you tell the interviewer that you learnt from that experience? What would you do the same, what differently? What tips would you give to someone going through something similar? I lost someone very close to me recently. This is what I learnt. That things happen that you have no control over and that you can't explain That there is much support, take it with gratitude If you need something, ask, and it will often be given Focus on the practical things that you can do Talk when you need to talk, be alone when you need to be alone Tell people close to you how you feel and what you need, don't leave them to guess Allow the feelings to come, however difficult, and they will pass in their own time Be very very kind to yourself I would love to hear your thoughts. love Anita