Finding Hope, by Barbara McDowell

Today it’s my pleasure to host Barbara McDowell. Barbara works for a regional accounting firm by day and writes blogs and short stories by night. I’ll be posting on her blog Monday, but for today, let’s concentrate on what she has to say.

Finding Hope

We are made to persist. That’s how we find out who we are. ~ Tobias Wolfe

In early 2011, I lost a colleague to cancer. I remember marveling at the distinct embrace of hope and life spark she shared during our last conversations. Lily, as I will call her, had told me around Thanksgiving how she was feeling better and that the newest treatment was working. She baked her standard holiday cookies and made stockings for her grandkids. And she was gone before Valentine’s Day.

Whenever tragic moments hit, we hear platitudes about how lucky we all are and that “life can change in an instant” so we must “live each day as if it were the last” and “look forward never back.” If someone is hurt, cue the voices telling us that we’ll be fine in X amount of time.

We’ve all done it. Looked for words to show compassion or provide comfort at an awkward moment. We speak all these words without bad intent. They are meant to cheer people up and help them move past the pain. Yet, as individuals, we are unique and what can be a quick, blip for one might leave the other deep in a valley of despair.

In 2010, my life was changed from two separate “instants”: That May a driver crossed into my lane head-on. I swerved and my shoulder took the worst of it. Four months later, a driver speeding and (presumably) chatting it up on his phone slammed into me from behind and herniated a disc in my neck, which by 2011 launched me into a sea of chronic pain. I wondered if I would ever get back to where I’d been.

Most people said I was lucky. Told me to get back to life and that, once my car was fixed, everything would be back to normal. That I was strong and that this was nothing in scale compared to what it could have been. I did not feel lucky. I was trapped behind my smiling face. There was sadness for things I’d no longer be able to do like my Pilates classes or carrying a favorite purse up on my shoulder. A new anxiety while driving that I’d never felt before. And there was guilt for feeling any of that because I had life.

It was in those dark moments that I flashed back on Lily. Had she believed the words she said? Was it a blanket of denial she’d cast to protect us from the truth? Or had she somehow freed herself to live through all of her diseases’ moments—the physical pain, financial struggles and fears of death—while not losing sight of her wish to survive?

To hope is to want or wish for with a feeling of confident expectation (Webster’s II New Riverside Dictionary, Revised Edition). There is a positive expectation that the wish will be fulfilled. Slowly I fell back on the craft I love and writing is what led me out of the darkness. When the words were blocked, it started with a word of truth written on a corner of the page—“hurt.” It then bridged into a silent sentence—“I am not happy today.” When I couldn’t write long journal entries, I scribbled notes anywhere, including on napkins or keying them into my phone. When no words would come, I read the expressions of others. There is a peace in acknowledging something is wrong. A way as such to give ourselves permission to not be “okay,” but to wish to be in the future. From Lily, I found hope.

How have you climbed back out of a valley in your life? What tools or strengths do you tap into?

clip_image002By day, Barbara McDowell works in training and development, managing the educational needs and course development for the staff of a regional accounting firm. In the depths of the night, she is a crafter short stories birthed with dark, human themes. Suspense at each corner turned. Horror sometimes waiting at the end. Primarily a short story writer, Barbara has recently started her first novel. A lover of coffee, cats, crime dramas, crochet, conspiracy theories and chocolate, Barbara can be found blogging at http://writenowlife.wordpress.com/ or tweeting at @BMcDowellOH.

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About David N. Walker

David N. Walker is a Christian husband, father and grandfather, a grounded pilot and a near-scratch golfer who had to give up the game because of shoulder problems. A graduate of Duke University, he spent 42 years in the health insurance industry, during which time he traveled much of the United States. He started writing about 20 years ago and has been a member and leader in several writers' groups. Christianity 101: The Simplified Christian Life, the devotional Heaven Sent and the novella series, Fancy, are now available in paperback and in Kindle and Nook formats, as well as through Smashwords and Kobo. See information about both of these by clicking "Books" above.
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34 Responses to Finding Hope, by Barbara McDowell

  1. hawleywood40 says:

    What a wonderful post, Barbara. I love the reminder that although life’s harder experiences may have a common thread, we all feel and plow through them differently and sometimes the comforting platitudes just don’t come close to covering what’s really going on inside. Like you, writing is the ladder I use to climb out of the rough pits. My love of it gives me something to look forward to when everything else feels too hard to handle. Doing it helps me wrestle with my emotions even when that’s not what I set out to do when I sat down at the computer. And my dream of improving my circumstances by actually succeeding as a published writer is like a lightouthouse out there on a stormy sea.

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    • Love this, Pam! Thanks for your comment. Writing is my truth teller and being able to put those first simple words to what I felt was a huge turning point. So glad writing is a ladder for you as well.

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  2. Thanks for your honesty, Barb and for admitting one of the deep dark secrets many carry around. I had chronic back trouble for years. and sometimes all i wanted to do was crawl into bed and stay there – for days at a time. But I pretended and got up and got on with my life. often in agony.

    for me that pain came to an end eventually (coincidentally when I ended my marriage…hmmmm) but I know that’s not true for many others. take care of yourself and know you are not alone.

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    • I’m so glad your back pain has passed, Louise! Boy can I relate to the getting on with life “in agony.” At one point, it felt like 25% of my brain capacity was going to managing the pain. It is so good to not feel alone anymore.

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  3. Wow. Utterly beautiful story told from the heart. “There is a peace in acknowledging something’s wrong.”- Love that. Left me breathless.

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  4. Dear Barbara, I had a similar experience in college. One of my best girlfriends, a beautiful, fun, full-of-life, Magda, has lost her fight with cancer. It was an extremely vicious cancer and she simply had no chances to survive. She just got married to our mutual friend, and they were sooo happy together. But the happiness didn’t last long. She was gone very quick. After all these years I still keep her in my prayers and wish she was still with us. It hurts thinking how much she has missed from life, dying that young… but the life must go one. And we need to remember those who have meant so much to us.

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    • My thoughts are with you for your friend, Angela. Prior to Lily, I’d known people with cancer, but wasn’t a witness to it. It wasn’t until being close with someone and watching daily how much it ravages and takes, that I even understood a smidgen of that pain. At her funeral, the priest mentioned the extended circle cancer touches as the family and friends left behind. Such true words.

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  5. At my age, I normally have some level of pain somewhere in my body, but after reading your story and Tameri’s and Karlene’s comments, I feel like a wuss even thinking about mine. Thank God you’ve all managed to cope.

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    • Acknowledging your pain is good, David. You can then work around it as needed for the day. Getting to acknowledgement was huge for me. And how pain affects us is relative to what we are used to. A mild sinus headache to me is nothing because I’m used to getting migraines. For someone else, it could have them gulping aspirin and being down for the rest of the day.

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  6. For some reason, my first comment didn’t go through so I will try again.Excellent post, Barbara. There are times in life when lessons are learned through very difficult experiences. Words expressed by others during those times are always their way of searching for hope. It’s all they can do. Grief is a fierce experience. Stories of people becoming stronger and discovering new, positive ways to approach life having battled the foe, are so empowering. What a gift that you found your way back to writing and, as a result, into our lives.
    Thanks for inviting Barb to her first guest post, David. *happy dances all around*

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    • “Grief is a fierce experience.” It really is, Patricia. And I’ve learned there are so many shades of it. I also get that many viewing from outside didn’t know what to say or have a grasp of what was going on. Aside from the person who compared (and downplayed) my accident issues to those of her own or her friends’ experiences, no one was malicious. As Angela said, some things are hard for others to relate to if they haven’t been down that road.

      I worked closely with Lily and she’d ask me each day how my neck was. She’d also make comments when she saw me struggling to do something that hurts now, like lifting manual boxes or maneuvering my work bags. I realized after she was gone that she was able to acknowledge, honor and accept my injury and pain more than me, perhaps because of what she herself had been through. It was a “new normal” and she treated it accordingly. I am blessed to now understand the lesson.

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  7. Barb Estinson says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, Barbara and for you making it your guest blog of the day, David. I really relate to how you see the challenge of finding hope, Barbara. Sometimes it’s been all can do to get through the days and hope it will be better again … and so far, it has been. Your writing skills are obvious.

    Barb Estinson

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  8. When I was struggling with depression, well-intentioned people would tell me “It’ll be okay,” “Get up and do something,” and my least favorite “Pray about it and it will go away.” No one can understand what you’re going through unless they’ve been down that road before. They want to be helpful and encouraging, but it often doesn’t come across that way. I’m really glad you found hope, Barbara, and the courage to keep going. Wana is so blessed to have you!

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    • Thanks for sharing, Angela. It is so good to not be alone. I feel lucky to have WANA. The turning point came for me when I dug deeper into my writing and the WANA and blogging community are a huge part of that.

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  9. Marcia says:

    Oh, Barbara, I’m so sorry you have to live with that pain. Same to Tameri and Karlene’s daughter.I agree with them. Accept today for what it is and move forward with that. I can’t imagine that attitude would be easy to adopt, but for a full and happy life, i think it’s necessary. Good lessons in these stories for all of us! Thanks for sharing yours.

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    • For me it was hard, Marcia. I sold myself on the idea that I could just work hard and fix it all. I was past and future focused, not present. Living a full life is more than that.

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  10. Yes, Amber! Having no one able to “see” both the physical and emotional hurt played tricks on my thinking. Like feeing I was crazy to not be the same as prior to the neck injury. And letting others put a timeline on when they thought I should be “done with it all.” People ask me questions like “you mean it STILL hurts?” I needed to step back and grieve a bit for the changes to be able to get to the self-acceptance of how my life is now and see that it isn’t bad. Just a bit different.

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  11. Barbara, you are such a rock star to me and to know that you’ve been in pain and suffering the whole time we’ve been getting to know you, well, it makes me want to give you a ginormous hug. I won’t tell you everything will be fine because it won’t. You have to create a new normal and that’s not always so easy. We want our old normal. When I had my foot surgery, I guess because it wasn’t from a life threatening accident or anything tragic, people assumed it was no big deal. It changed everything. Sure, I can walk now, but it took me months of physical therapy to get there. I’ll never be able to run or ski or even dance, and even sleeping is affected by it. Yep, I have my health and I didn’t die from the surgery, but it’s still hard. There are days when the pain is so severe I just want to cry, but I keep a smile on my face so others won’t know I’m hurting because I feel like I’ve used up all my whining points.

    Go ahead and feel the pain, my friend. Let it out either verbally or in your writing. No one but you will understand how difficult it is, but that doesn’t mean you have to suffer alone. Your wish to be okay in the future? Start today. Whatever you can do today, make that your new normal and don’t look back to what you could do before the accidents. And keep dancing.

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    • Tameri, so sorry for the pain and PT from your foot surgery. I felt the same way—that people didn’t think my injuries were a big deal because I walked away and looked fine (though I was carted out of the first on a backboard). Because of that I did the super strong, super woman stance and didn’t verbalize it at all. My standard response was “I’m good.” If someone asked if I was sad or why I had a heat pad on, I’d say I was in pain and then feel guilty for not being better. There was also guilt from feeling so blessed that it wasn’t worse. Like I didn’t want to not acknowledge that, yet at the same time I was hurting, not sleeping and on edge. And then there was comparing my lot in life to that of others. Logical? Maybe not so much, but that is where the mind sometimes goes. It was such a relief when I finally let myself cry.

      So yes, I’m still in pain and it is a new normal. I work around it and slow down when needed. A good night’s sleep is a gift sometimes and I accept it with joy when it comes. Now I face my days not based on what I can’t do, but rather what I can do with modifications (like yoga now yeah!). And there will always be dancing. 🙂

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  12. susielindau says:

    First of all I would like to say that I am sorry for the pain you are going through.

    I think the challenges we face in life and how we get through them are what shapes our character. We have to give ourselves time to heal as well.
    Great post!

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  13. Excellent post, Barbara. There are times in life when lessons are learned through very difficult experiences. Words expressed by others during those times are always their way of searching for hope. It’s all they can do. Grief is a fierce experience. Stories of people becoming stronger and discovering new, positive ways to approach life having battled the foe, are so empowering. What a gift that you found your way back to writing and, as a result, into our lives.
    Thanks for inviting Barb to her first guest post, David. *happy dances all around*

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  14. Good morning Barbara and David. Sending hugs to you for hope.

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  15. Thanks, Barbara. I needed this post this morning.

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  16. Karlene says:

    Thanks Dave. While sitting in the hospital for a month after my 21-yr-old daughter was paralyzed, I held it together because I knew that she would be alright. But my definition of alright was different from others.

    She was on the track team, skied, danced, surfed, high jumped, ran, climbed, dove,… you name it, she did it. Then a surgery took it all away. People would cry to me saying, “Kayla will be okay!” Meaning… she would walk again. I think I held it together because I didn’t place hope on her walking.

    Her walking wasn’t what was going to make her alright. Her embracing the life that she was about to live, would make her alright. And she had the attitude that I knew she would be okay. Her life would be fine…. just different from what she’d expected.

    Tools of strength:

    Lose expectations. Embrace the Now.

    If we detach from our expectations, of what we think life should be, and use what we have to make it the best we can be… we can have a joyous life with whatever is thrown our way.

    The story continues… but attitude is everything. This is a great story to read. “If I can’t walk, I will fly!” http://tinyurl.com/25l27h8

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    • Karlene, I am so touched by your story and the strength of your daughter! It is a story of faith and hope beyond the tragedy of the event that happened to her. It took me a year to get that…that life would be fine just different. I held so tight to the expectation that someone would swoop in and make me whole. Make me back to exactly the way I was. And when the insurance system and red tape started to fail me, I sunk down deeper when looking up at what I couldn’t do. Your daughter is blessed that she could more quickly “embrace the now.”

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      • Karlene says:

        Thank you for your comment Barbara. Everything comes to us when we’re ready. In hindsight, she didn’t think she wouldn’t walk. For me, I was grateful she was alive and knew we could deal with anything. The psychiatrist put the doubt in her of walking. But then… the thought of the Special Olympics gave her motivation of something to look forward to. Sometimes there are things that happen and we ask… what in the heck do I have to look forward to with this?!? But maybe it’s just looking at the strength you’ll gain. The help you’ll make fighting insurance for someone else one day. Not sure. For each it’s different. You are a strong beautiful woman who survived. Perhaps when we’re writers, these things give us more depth to our writing by knowing pain, despair, darkness, drama…etc.,
        I smile at your story of strength. You give hope to many.
        Have a beautiful day!

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  17. Wonderful guest post Barbara – thanks for hosting her David. An amazing story of hope and inspiration. I love how you used your writing to pull yourself out of the darkness and back into life again. I can’t begin to imagine the toll chronic pain like that takes on a person. Your strength of character is amazing!
    I would have to say that to pull myself out of different valleys throughout my life, I’ve relied on reading, writing and counseling. Combined, they make for powerful healing. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

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  18. Thanks, David! I’m honored to be able to share it as a guest on your blog.

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  19. What a courageous story, Barbara. Thanks for sharing it with us.

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