Moving From “I can’t” to “I don’t know how”and Other Panic-Inducing Topics

Four years ago this month, I was halfway through grad school, approaching a bittersweet end of an 8-year job, and had just moved my family into a new neighborhood and home (at Christmastime) to afford us enough extra space to be able to relocate my 89-year old, ailing father and all of his and my deceased mom’s remaining possessions halfway across the country to live with me. The very next month, my father’s physical health suddenly deteriorated and I quickly became aware during the course of the following months that most days, I could barely breathe. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t make decisions or put one foot in front of the other.

When mom died in 2007, I discovered that the shower was the place I could let myself cry and think and process my emotions, so that I could be strong for dad while he learned to navigate life without her; but now, faced with what seemed like impossible choices and no alternatives, my shower became the place I would go to have full-out panic attacks.

I had no reference points or tools to cope with the transitions I was experiencing so I put my trust in my partner’s advice and went to see a therapist. I was convinced that my brain and heart were pre-grieving my father’s last breaths, and that my impatience was demanding to know what was next for me in terms of my career, and that I was afraid. Afraid that I was about to be parentless, without the trusted advice I’d always had. I was terrified I would make a bad decision with one of the inevitable choices ahead and that it would have a devastating consequence to those I cared for deeply, including myself.

In addition to learning that therapy is indeed very good advice, I learned that I truly didn’t know what I don’t know. I assumed that as a 40-something, intelligent, educated, informed American that I should have within me or within my immediate grasp the resources to move through any roadblock, as long as I had enough will and determination. Everyone else seemed to. Only, I couldn’t.

As I attempted to articulate overwhelming feelings which I had no words for, I told my therapist how I couldn’t get through all that I faced. I can’t complete my studies, can’t continue working full-time, can’t provide optimal care for dad, can’t make end-of-life decisions for dad, and on and on. The therapist gently interrupted me to say,

“It’s not that you can’t do these things. It’s that you don’t know how.”

With patience, he helped me move my vantage point from the impossible to the discoverable. I learned to quit saying that I can’t figure out a solution, I can’t reach this goal, or I can’t see my way through this struggle, and begin by saying,

I don’t know how to… 

I have a point in sharing all of this. Lately, I have realized that there are a lot of people around me who seem to be experiencing intense grief, fear, and not knowing what to do or what to expect around the corner. Right now, there are many of us who can’t believe what’s happening in our world politically. We can’t see a solution. We can’t overcome our fear. We can’t figure out the steps required to build a better world for ourselves, our children, or the rest of our planet’s inhabitants. I feel some comfort when I remember,

“It’s not that you can’t do these things. It’s that you don’t know how.”

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s okay to panic – for a minute or two – but the time comes when we have to literally pull ourselves together and move forward or trust someone else to do it for us. If you’re a friend of mine, the chances are high that you will pull it together.

But do you know what I think was the best advice I received through all of this?

“Talk to someone.”

So here’s the actionable advice. Talk to your neighbor. Talk to your coworker. Talk to your husband, wife, friend, pastor, doctor, nurse, therapist, barber, stylist, postman/woman, I don’t care who, but talk to someone. And then, once you have talked to them (and listened to them), it doesn’t matter their political preference or their views. What matters is that you’ve gotten to know them, and they’ve gotten to know you. You may even find that you are comfortable enough to express your fears and your grief. After all, they are universal emotions that we all share at some points in life. And you are both strengthened.


2 thoughts on “Moving From “I can’t” to “I don’t know how”and Other Panic-Inducing Topics

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