As I discussed in my last column, I had to put down my dog Addis after 15 years of loving companionship.
Although I write this column to you in the first-person voice, Addis was as much my wife Heidi’s dog as mine and she and I worked together for the past year caring for both Addis and ourselves. I know that we could not have made it through the year without each other’s love and support.
I’d also like to mention the love and support that Dr. Dave Bongiorno, Brittany, and Alison gave us and Addis throughout the year. Heidi and I never wavered in our faith that they were providing Addis with not only the best care possible but also with the same love that we had given her.
In my last column I discussed how I applied the material that we’ve been discussing for the past year from my Five R’s of Coping model to help me cope with the loss of Addis. In the last issue I covered the first “R,” Reorganize, your core defense against stress. I’ll go over the rest of the R’s in this column.
As discussed in previous columns, Rethink revolves around changing the way you think about potential stressors and your ability to cope with them. Rethinking begins with understanding and accepting that your mind is a 24/7 thinking and feeling machine. If you give it free reign when you are stressed it will ruminate non-stop and create and endless series of unanswerable questions and scenarios that only add to your misery.
Mindfulness training (a cornerstone of Rethink) helped me identify when my mind began to runaway with endless questions about Addis. I attribute my 30 plus years of mindful meditation practice for helping me do this. This is why I stressed the importance of mindfulness meditation training in previous columns.
Once I was aware of my runaway mind, I used my Acceptance training to accept what my mind was telling me and not judge or question it. I told myself, “There goes my runaway mind again telling me unhelpful things about Addis.” This allowed me to re-focus my attention on doing something constructive instead of just thinking about her problems. I redirected my focus to either comfort Addis or take care of what I needed to do (normal daily activities, self-care, spending quality time with Heidi etc.).
This was not easy. My Commitment training prepared me for co-existing with my pain and suffering while moving forward and doing what needed to be done. I knew from years of practice that while I did not want to hurt inside and feel sad over Addis, I could carry this with me and do what had to be done on any given day. In other words, I would not allow my grief to mesmerize me into inactivity, self-pity, or endless analysis of what could, should, or might have happened if I had done something differently regarding Addis’ care. I used a simple three step approach to do this.
Step 1: I was mindful of my troubling thoughts and painful emotions regarding Addis’ failing health (threat) and ultimate death (harm & loss).
Step 2: I accepted what my mind was telling me without question or judgment. I accepted that I could co-exist with my troubling thoughts and painful emotions while doing what I needed to do.
Step 3: I shifted my focus off of my thought and feelings and onto taking purposeful action. This ranged from doing something concrete to comfort Addis such as brushing her hair or snuggling with her to self-care, or going for a walk on the beach with Heidi.
There were more Rethink strategies I used but this model was the most helpful and easiest to apply.
I used two specific mind-based relaxation strategies almost every day during the past few months as Addis’ health deteriorated. I used Diaphragmatic Breathing several times each to calm my runaway mind whenever I noticed it. As few as five good breaths often did the trick. In addition, Meditation was my constant companion. I meditated at least four times a week (20-30 minutes each session). This instantly calmed my runaway mind and relaxed my muscles.
Because mind-based relaxation activities such as meditation were not enough to release my stress-related nervous energy and muscle tension I relied on body-based activities including Physical Activity, Exercise and Orgasm to release stress.
Since I am a very physical person, Release is my go-to line of defense against stress. I used it a lot to cope with Addis’ decline and eventual death. I exercised seven days a week. On Monday and Wednesday I went to the gym and did Cardio, Strength, and Flexibility training for at least one hour. On Friday I went for a 7- or 8-mile sunrise Kayak Paddle with my paddling friends. Sometimes I also hit the gym in the afternoon. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday I Bicycled to the beach at sunrise and then Ran three miles. I practiced Moving Meditation while I ran. I followed this up with 20 minutes of Seated Meditation on my blanket.
Massage is an excellent form of physical release. I went for a professional massage when my muscles got too tight and needed to be cleared. I used an exercise ball, tennis ball, and hard roller two to three times a day to do Self-Massage.
Crying not only releases the tension associated with stress, it can also release endorphins, those natural pain-killers produced in your brain. There were many times during the year, especially in Addis’ last couple of weeks that crying just seemed like the natural way to cope. I never tried to hold back the tears because I knew how much better I felt after a good cry.
I found Sexual Release in the arms of my wife as often as possible.
Reduce strategies work by cutting back on unnecessary and unhelpful demands on your time and energy. I know from past experience that I’d need to cut back on demands on my time and energy to be an effective caregiver for Addis and husband for Heidi.
I cut out some volunteer activities, eliminated any plans for overnight travel, and reduced the amount of time spent with family and friends in order to the things I needed to do (teach, write, take care of the property etc.) to care for Addis and Heidi. I know I disappointed some folks and made others angry by digging in like this, but I knew what I could handle and how to protect my finite time and energy.
In summary, my use of the Five R’s of Coping Model helped me cope with Addis’ declining health and ultimate death. It didn’t completely eliminate all of my stress, it just brought it down to a manageable level.
Having faith in Dr. Dave, Heidi’s love, and the goodness of Addis was my anchor. I never questioned Dr Dave’s judgment. Whenever my runaway mind got the best of me, I reminded myself that Addis was in loving hands and getting the best care possible. I never questioned Heidi’s love and support and knew that somehow we would weather our loss together. As a struggling Buddhist I was comforted by the notion of Karma. I had faith that a loving creature like Addis would suffer no longer once she passed over that rainbow bridge.
I’m sorry if the last two columns were a bit too self-indulgent. My hope was to show you that these techniques we have been discussing for the past year were not just theoretical, but could be used to help you cope with one of the toughest stressors you’ll ever face.
Until the next time remember to Stress Less and Live More.