When You’re Going Through Hell, Keep Going

I debated a long time whether to share this post. Would I come off as weak? Too vulnerable? Incapable of handling the inconsistencies and waves that come with life?

Well, this kind of thinking is actually just rubbish. The fact is that most people deal with overwhelming life challenges, and it’s our capacity to weather and learn from these experiences that help us grow, form us into the people we want to become, and in turn allow us to help others.

I decided to post, to process my own thoughts, to express gratitude to those who have supported me, and also to support others going through similar challenges. If you’re a stranger reading this on the Internet, know that countless others go through really confusing, crappy times, and that you’re going to come out of this stronger.

In the end, I’m actually grateful for it. I’m stronger, wiser. More compassionate with myself and others.

I’m also grateful and very lucky that I’ve had a super supportive workplace and boss, a patient and loving family, and friends both near and far that have helped me through this process.

What is going on? Explain plz already.

For more than half a year, I’ve been dealing with challenging health issues that were varied and complex. Without going into extreme detail, issues ranging from throat infections, a surgery, and a stomach that refused to process anything, left me, a normally buoyant and energetic person, exhausted both physically and emotionally. It was hard for me to go out without feeling exhausted, which made me even more sad, isolated, and frustrated.

On top of this, old and new running injuries flared up, limiting the ways I could exercise and even my general mobility for a while.

In short, I was a wreck.

I’ve always seen myself as a fairly “tough, strong” person. I’m proud (possibly too proud) that I’ve been able to live and travel abroad in multiple foreign countries by myself, without family or much of a safety net. I’ve done athletic and endurance races, including a triathlon, a vertical run, and a half marathon. Even when an old employer called me tough, looking to criticize my character, I took it on as a mantle of courage and defiance. When others are down or sick, I’ve been happy and proud to be able to take care of them.

But when I’m personally feeling unwell, whatever “toughness” I have just falls apart. Being sick sucks.

This is what I felt like for several months, not completely healing after a surgery, not understanding what was going wrong with me physically, and not having the right, consistent medical support to figure it out. Would I ever heal completely? Would I ever feel “normal” again?

It’s very challenging NOT to feel like a victim when everything feels out of your control.

But, “When you’re going through Hell, keep going.”

When you're going through Hell, keep going.

When you’re going through Hell, keep going.

This Winston Churchill quote has been one of the best pieces of advice I’ve received, from a guy who’s been there, my father. A renal patient for over 12 years and now a kidney transplant recipient, my dad has been through more “Hell” than I think any person should have to deal with. But you know what? He’s one of the most compassionate, funny, mentally strong people I know, and has been an excellent support and example while I’ve been sick.

How do we “keep going” when we don’t see a way out of “Hell?”

These are a few things that have been particularly useful to me. I don’t do all of these very well all the time, but each day is a chance to improve.

1. Cultivate a “Warrior Vs. Victim” Mentality

This blog post was particularly helpful when I realized I was wallowing too much in self-pity (heyyy, we’ve all been there, ya?). Why is this happening to me? Didn’t I already live a healthy life? Aren’t I a “good” person? What have I done to “deserve” this?

Being a victim can mean feeling helpless, but a way to combat that feeling is to change your perception.

I loved the “how-to” list blogger Jenny Sansouci posted about how to strengthen your “warrior mindset:”

  • Make self-care your primary function.
  • Remember to ask for help. Find your personal team of healers – maybe it’s your friends & family, a therapist, support group, yoga instructor, spiritual practice, chiropractor, juicer, etc.
  • Find ways that working through your own situation can help others, and help someone.
  • Say to yourself, “this may be uncomfortable, but I know it’s a radical assignment for growth.”

I loved the idea that, “Things may not always be easy, but the choice we do have at each second is to be willing to see things differently.” –This is what having the warrior mentality is all about.

I also loved the idea that by working through your own pain, you could also be helping others. Be excellent to each other–each interaction is a chance to help someone else. At the same, don’t be afraid to put yourself first–it’s ok to be a little selfish to help you get better. This is your own health we’re talking about here.

2. Express Gratitude

This used to bug me whenever someone told me I needed to count my blessings or express more gratitude. Wasn’t I already a grateful enough person damnit?? …Ok, point taken.

It wasn’t until I was the phone with a good girlfriend of mine, and she suggested that I try being more grateful that I actually took it seriously. Sometimes when we’ve heard something so many times, it takes hearing it from an unexpected source to make an impact.

How can we be grateful? Instead of the generic advice, “be more grateful,” it’s been helpful for me to take a look at specific exercises, and these two things are particularly helpful:

  1. Write three things you are grateful for everyday. What I do (when I actually do it), is list in my journal at least three things that happened to me today that I was grateful for. Sometimes, it’s easier to list three people that you’re happy to have in your life, or three people that impacted your day positively.
  2. Write an email or card to someone to say thanks. This one is always fun. Take time out of your day to write an email or color a thank you card to give to a friend or someone who’s made an impact in your life. Because it’s often unexpected, both you and the recipient gain the benefit of feeling loved and grateful.

Sometimes, it’s more powerful to talk through your gratitudes–these exercises also work well with a friend in person or over the phone.

3. Recognize progress, no matter how small

When everything is going wrong, it’s hard to recognize when things are going right. When speaking with my doctor about my condition, she emphasized the importance of taking a step back. What’s the overall trend? Am I healthier today than I was last week? A month ago? Three months ago?

Some days will be better than others; some days will feel like major set backs. Recognize your own progress. Celebrate it, no matter how small.

At one point, even yoga was physically taxing for me. Each morning I started doing a yoga video, and I could feel myself getting stronger. I celebrated the strength I could feel in my legs, the flexibility returning to my body, the power in my arms to support myself.

Whatever progress you’re making, recognize and celebrate it. You’re getting there.

4. Be gentle with yourself

One of my favorite quotes is from that American movie classic, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, “Be excellent to each other.” What I needed to know at the time, is that I needed to return that favor to myself, to “be excellent”–and not so hard–on myself.

While I’ve always been proud of being able to support friends and others when they are dealing with physical and emotional challenges, sometimes, we need to turn that attention inward and channel that energy into self-care and self-love.

Maybe you missed a personal goal. Maybe today was just the pits. Maybe you see others killin’ it on social media, and you just don’t think your life adds up.

Do not compare yourself. Do not compare others. Each person’s life and situations are unique.

When you’re used to excelling, rising to the challenge, and exceeding expectations, this can admittedly be harder, as you put too much pressure on yourself to “normalize” the situation. When you’re used to “toughing it out,” it can be hard to recognize that the remedy will come with time and patience.

If you catch yourself thinking less-than-supportive thoughts about yourself, think about how you would speak to a friend. Would you say those things to them? To your younger brother or sister? What would you say to your best friend going through the same situation? You would be supportive. You would be loving. You would be forgiving.

One time, I wrote myself an email in the same way I would speak to a friend. The effect was immediate and positive. Be excellent to yourself.

5. Forgive

This one is admittedly my hardest. I know my being sick affected relationships I was in, and I was holding onto some hard feelings that didn’t do anyone any favors.

Your physical health is tied to your emotional and mental health.

Let it go. Even when you feel wronged, righteous, or justified, let it go.

I’ll leave you with a story a friend shared with me about grief. While I’m not sure where the story originally came from, when you’re going through Hell, it’s helpful to know that “Scars are a testament to life.

The two things that stuck most with me were:

  1. “Scar tissue is stronger than the original flesh ever was.”
  2. “The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don’t really want them to.”

I’m not completely out of Hell, but I’m well on my way. Life will always be filled with challenges. But it’s the way we respond, weather, and grow from these experiences that help shape our character. Be brave and be kind.