After having gone through a year's worth of unexplained symptoms and puzzled doctors, in October of 2009, I finally received a frantic call from my primary care physician, telling me to go to the hospital as soon as I possibly could. I arrived at about two o'clock in the afternoon, and was rushed through a series of interviews I can barely remember now. There seem to have been a couple of triage points, several conversations with a nurse practitioner, a lot of waiting around, and then finally a rather anti-climactic visit from an endocrine specialist.
In her Irish accent, she told me, "I don't quite know how to tell you this, but you're diabetic, and..." She trailed off briefly, probably considering whether there was anything emotionally helpful she could provide for me in that moment. Then, apparently deciding that there wasn't, she continued, "We're going to give you an insulin shot today, and--and you're going to be on insulin for the rest of your life."
"Yeah..." she told me. Then she said something that I don't remember, which somewhat conveyed empathy, but which also conveyed the urgency with which she needed to inject insulin into me.
From there, I was led into another room, where another nurse introduced me to my first insulin pen. I hadn't had time to process what was happening to me. This had all happened within about 30 minutes, and the part where I found out that I was henceforth an insulin-dependent diabetic had only happened a couple of minutes ago. These people wouldn't let me catch my breath. I was being rushed from one end of the ward to the next, from room to room, person to person, each one hurrying through a set of instructions that I don't remember; that I never had any chance of ever remembering in the first place.
The nurse who showed me the insulin pen quickly went through instructions on how to give myself an injection. The tutorial was over in less than a minute, at which point she sort of gestured toward all the paraphernalia in between us and said, "Do you want me to help you with your first shot?"
That was it.
The confusion in my mind suddenly melted away. Everything sort of melted away, everything except a sense of purpose. I said, "Well, I might as well get used to it now. I'll be doing it for the rest of my life." I took the needle and the insulin pen, pulled off the seal, screwed the needle onto the pen, dialed in my dose, jabbed it into my stomach, and pressed the button.
I've been a diabetic ever since.
* * *
While I didn't know everything there was to know about managing my diet as a type 1 diabetic, a similar shift happened to me when I got home that evening. One day, I was eating ice cream cake and jalapeno poppers, the next day I was meticulously counting my carbohydrates and denying myself anything that required an injection.
I don't know how it works for other people, but that's how it worked for me. There was no use crying about every meal I was going to eat from then on. There was no use complaining about it. There was no use comparing my new diet to the freedom and decadence I had enjoyed as a normal, healthy twenty-something only a few hours before. Once my mind had absorbed the fact that I was a type 1 diabetic, my behavior followed.
Adjusting to a new chronic condition isn't easy, especially if you really enjoyed the life you had lead up to that point. But my thinking was, what other choice do I have? It wasn't as if I could go back to living in a world in which I wasn't diabetic. The task at that point was to figure out how to thrive under my current set of conditions, not despair over what those conditions were. It did take me a long time to fully emotionally accept my condition, but that was a grieving process, not a struggle against reality.
Grief itself is a natural part of human existence. We all grieve. For most people, grief - however emotionally significant it is - does not put a halt to the other aspects of our lives. Grief makes us sad, and causes us to think carefully about the present state of our lives. It isn't a denial of reality, but rather an acknowledgement of it: the person we loved is now gone, the life we led is now impossible, the precious thing we had is now lost. Whatever the cause, grief is a transition from one set of circumstances to another. If someone fails to make the transition, that failure isn't caused by the grief, but by our own refusal to evolve.
* * *
Granted, some transitions are easier than others. When a man becomes a diabetic, he transitions from a general identity, like "I am a man," to a new identity that involves the condition: "I am a diabetic man." Seeking out that new identity and discovering what it means on a personal level is a large part of the journey itself. Strange as it may sound to some, I consider this to be an easier transition than when we lose a loved one. I can become a diabetic man, but a man who loses a father cannot become a man without a father. Once you have a father, you are always a person with a father, even after you lose him.
So, I do understand that some transitions are harder than others, that some grief is more uniquely difficult to overcome, and that one person's struggles don't always map with parity to another person's struggles.
Even so, grief is a transition. No matter how difficult, and no matter how long it takes to fully process, grief is a doorway into another room, a next chapter of life. (Luckily for us, not every new chapter of life requires that we grieve to make the transition!) What some struggle with is acknowledging that the previous chapter has already ended; that room no longer exists. Either we step through our grief, into the new room, or we try to exist in a nothing-space, an emotional nether-region.
What we can't do is go backwards.
* * *
A friend of mine recently committed to making a positive change toward better health and fitness. He made his commitment public in a bid to keep himself accountable. I congratulated him and made myself available to him; after all, I do happen to know a few things about health and fitness. He confessed that he felt a little intimidated by me, and said, "Anyone who has run 30+ miles has a different set of mental skills than me."
This is a good friend, but clearly he doesn't read my blog, ha ha...
I wanted to tell him about the power of mindset. I wanted to tell him about my firm belief, confirmed again and again in a variety of different experiences, that everyone has all the same stuff. After all, we are all human beings. While our genetics all differ slightly, none of us is so different that he has a completely different mental skill set.
I also wanted to explain to him that this very notion, the idea that something immutable between us has caused me to pursue a lifetime of fitness while causing him to pursue something else entirely, is the belief that limits his progress. The worst thing we can ever tell ourselves as we pursue a goal is that we are fundamentally incapable of being the kind of person who excels at such goals.
No, the first step toward achieving any goal is acknowledging the reality that such a goal is achievable by people like us. Why pursue something if, by definition, you're not the kind of person who can attain it? Instead, we must reach for our aspirations under the belief that, truly, we can do it. That doesn't mean for certain that we will, but isn't it nice to know that it's possible? Indeed, isn't it necessary to know that it's possible? Has anyone ever achieved the impossible?
I don't recall ever hearing an Olympian explain in an interview, "I knew all along that everyone else was faster than I am and that I didn't have the right stuff to win an Olympic gold medal, but by the end of the race - gee whiz! - I had won!"
* * *
Of course, mindset isn't merely about achieving something. The reason that sorting out your mindset has the effect of helping you achieve something is because if we fixate on our limiting beliefs or on transitions we haven't been able to make, then new things we want to do are just off the table. In a way, it's less about having a "positive mindset" than it is about not having a negative one.
pessimist realist will tell you that positive thinking isn't enough to get you where you want to be. You also have to put in all the hard work, and get a few lucky breaks along the way, and eventually serendipity happens. However, negative thinking will definitely screw you over before you even get started.
And if that's what negative thinking does to your attempts at achieving something, think about what it does for your daily life. We don't always want to get up and get ready for work in the morning, but who do you think is going to have a better day: the man who groans and grumbles and frowns and complains the whole time, or the man who focuses his attention on whatever he has to look forward to that day?
I can tell you from experience that my days pass a lot more quickly when I get to drive my daughter to her ballet class once a week. Those are simply wonderful days. We hurry to get ready, and then we drive together, just the two of us, to her class; we listen to our favorite music as we drive, or else we have a nice conversation together. Then she goes to class, and I go for a walk around the scenic neighborhoods surrounding her dance studio. When it's over, we drive home, she tells me about her class, and then we get takeout from a favorite restaurant and everybody sits upstairs eating and watching our favorite TV shows. It's become a whole ritual, one that we all look forward to, and one that we all find very satisfying.
Not every day can be that fun, but simply by virtue of the fact that my Wednesday evenings are so nice, my Wednesday work days pass by quickly and happily. That's a positive mindset for you.
You might have had a "divorced friend," a friend who went through a particularly bad break-up, and it soured his or her perspective on everything. So every time you talk with your friend about your own spouse or partner, your comments are met with derision, or sarcasm, or else steered toward a rant about your friend's ex and how bad they made everything. How much fun is it to spend time with these people?
A few days ago, I wrote about how, after going through my own break up, I decided to turn myself into the kind of person who my ideal partner would want to date; unlike other people I knew, who allowed their break-ups to make them cynical. I think the results speak for themselves.
* * *
All of these things come down to having the right mindset. Whether you're trying to overcome a bad situation, trying to achieve something remarkable, trying to lose weight, trying to find the love of your life, or just trying to make it through Wednesday, having the right mindset is the power that will carry you through.
And if it doesn't? You're still not out anything, because you will have spent most of the day thinking positive things and being happy, rather than thinking negative things and being sad. I'm not a fan of Pascal's Wager, but in this case I think it works. If you maintain a positive mindset, and things don't go your way, then you haven't really lost anything. If you maintain a negative mindset, things still might not go your way, but what you've lost is the happiness you could have felt if you had a better attitude. And in the meantime, that positive thinking really could end up paying off, and then you have both the happiness your attitude brought you, along with whatever victory you were hoping for at the end of the day.