Paul Prather: Some survival techniques for the tough times

Stretch of wretched days has left me wanting to share the thoughts that got me through

Contributing columnistAugust 24, 2012 

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Paul Prather, Faith and Values columnist.

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I've come to divide my life into two segments: before 2000 and after 2000.

The new century brought me a new reality—and it wasn't one I'd requested.

Before then, I now realize, I inhabited some protective bubble. I had no problems. I had a joyous marriage, a marvelous son, excellent health, a growing church, secular work I loved and more money than I knew what to do with.

This sounds embarrassingly naïve, but I thought that was the norm. I thought most people's days were as happy, rewarding and stress-free as mine.

Then, without warning, my old life got blown to kingdom come.

A lot of you are familiar with the outline: in 2000 my first wife, Renee, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I spent five years as her primary, around-the-clock caregiver. My mother died. Renee died. My church almost split. I suffered financial reversals. I developed depression and diabetes. My dad was injured twice in falls.

That's the short list. Since 2000 my life has been, as the saying goes, just one (danged) thing after another.

The latest installment in my personal soap opera occurred recently when my elderly, senile father suffered a heart attack.

My sister, my niece and I spent 10 days sitting with him in a Lexington hospital as he alternately moaned, raved and sobbed. He's been released to a rehabilitation center, but he's still in bad shape.

I've reached the point over these past dozen years that I no longer wake up each morning assuming something wonderful will happen before the sun sets, but wondering what new bomb will drop.

This isn't to deny that I've also experienced blessings. I've been given three glorious grandchildren, with a fourth on the way. I remarried last year and am delighted with the relationship Liz and I share.

I've learned, though, that the world is apt to deal me as many setbacks as successes. Perhaps more setbacks.

Something else I've learned is that the blissful existence I enjoyed before was never the norm. At any moment, most people are enduring major problems. I was just very lucky for a very long time.

I'm guessing, then, that when I speak of hardships you can relate.

Maybe you've got a nut-case spouse, or cancer, or a kid addicted to drugs, or you're unemployed. It could be any one of 100 things, or maybe all 100.

For what it's worth, I feel your pain. Truly.

Having just endured a really rough couple of weeks, I thought I'd end this rumination by sharing some of the thoughts and practices that have helped me survive trying times. I'm probably reminding myself more than preaching at you:

■ Just get through today. You can drive yourself insane worrying about what the situation might look like in six months or two years. Don't go there.

■ Quit blaming yourself. We take too much credit when we succeed, but we also heap too much guilt on ourselves when we fail. You did the best you could with the information you had at the time. If you'd known a decision you made would turn out this badly, you wouldn't have made it, right? But you didn't know.

■ Quit trying to make life make sense. It doesn't make sense. Take what you're dealt, shrug, regroup—then keep walking forward.

■ Take care of yourself. When I was a caregiver to my first wife, I broke myself down physically, mentally and spiritually by trying to do too much. When I neglected myself, I became a liability to everyone else. I've learned (as in this situation with my dad) that when I start feeling utterly fried, I need to go home, watch a movie and get a full night's sleep — regardless.

■ Distract your tired brain. Find a little something that takes your mind to an alternate, happier place. By a little something, I don't mean cocaine. For me, it's working crossword puzzles. I've come to love them. I can take them anywhere. They're cheap. For you it might be a good book or a brisk walk or ABBA music.

■ If you think you need counseling or an antidepressant or police protection, get it. You know what you need. Follow your gut.

■ Find someone you can talk to honestly about your situation, who won't repeat to others what you say. It can be a friend, a spouse, a pastor or that aforementioned counselor. Vent until you feel better or the other person runs screaming from the room, whichever comes first.

■ Talk to God. Even if you can't be honest with anyone else, you can be honest with him. If you're mad at him, tell him. If you need his help, beg for it.

■ If you don't feel like talking to God, don't. Don't let your freaky-deaky, hyper-religious friends try to guilt you into praying if you don't want to. Your prayers or lack thereof are none of their business.

■ Finally, realize that countless other people are in equally tough spots. There's some comfort in knowing you're not the only one. If all those millions of other folks can muddle through today, surely you and I can, too.

Paul Prather is the pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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