How to Graduate from the College of Hard Knocks

by Cheryl O'Brien

   This essay first appeared on Cheryl's web site

   Cheryl is the founder and leading light of the wonderful writers' email list

   I have been told that I have a PhD from the College of Hard Knocks. Having experienced many of the toughest things a person can face, I have learnt much about surviving the tough stuff and moving along. Much of what I have learnt can be applied without having to experience those same things.

   When life throws curved balls your way, learn to catch or duck! Catch the balls worth catching and duck the rest.

   During my early teens I was institutionalised in a place where I did not belong. The 100 or so other residents were all adults and all had serious problems. This particular institute used abuse and neglect of its residents as a standard management technique. I knew I did not belong there but because of my youth, it took a while to work out how to extricate myself from the institution.

   In the meantime I learnt a great deal about life and people. I learned how to really look at myself and how I present to the world and also to assess my values. Along the way I learnt the 12 Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous and discovered that one does not have to be an alcoholic to find the 12 steps useful. When I finally left the institute I took with me lots of information and useful concepts on coping with life.

   In other words I kept the curved balls worth keeping, and the other balls I let wizz by. I took what applied to me and left the rest.

   When waves keep knocking you over, keep getting up, and if you don't want to be knocked over or you are sick of getting back up, get out of the ocean!

   As a tiny tot our family lived on a farm near the beach so we had the very best of both worlds: the lovely freedom that farm kids everywhere celebrate daily and the close proximity to the lovely energies of the ocean. The occasional day out on the beach was always pleasant and involved having a picnic and lots of sand castles and splashing in the water.

   During one of these days out on the beach when I was four years old, I stood chest deep in water and got knocked over time and time again by the waves. Twice my brother had reached down into the water and grabbed my drifting body and dragged me back to shallow water. Again I followed my older siblings out into the deeper water and was knocked over by a wave. This time I went under the water for what felt like a very long time and could not tell which way was up under the pounding waves. I was thrashing around and began to panic. Eventually my brother found me and this time could only grasp my little blonde locks in his fingers to drag me back to the shallow water. He swooped me up into his arms and took me high and dry on the beach.

   "Twice is too much. Three times means you're in the wrong place! Stay out of the water," he commanded in that tone only oldest brothers can muster.

   In the Karate Kid movie, Mr Miaghi tells Daniel the first rule of self defence. He says. "When punch land, don't be there!" It is the most simplistic advice and yet often it is the most effective. It is all too easy to get so involved in what is going on in a difficult situation that we forget that we can simply not be there. In many instances we can remove ourselves.

   In my early twenties I became entangled in a game of 'piggy in the middle' with two friends. They had a falling out and each kept trying to drag me into the problem. I struggled with the pros and cons of this friend and then with that one until one day I was speaking to someone else about it and they simply asked. "Why do you have to be involved at all? You could just make other friends." Months of trying to resolve the problems of these two friends ended with that one bit of advice. I did not need friends who wanted to use me as ammunition for their arguments. I could go and spend time with other people and leave these two combatants to their own private war. I did not have to be there.

   There are of course times when life throws a big curved ball our way and we can neither catch nor duck it and we can't get out of the way. It is these times that we need to remind ourselves that life is not always fair and the fairness or lack of it has absolutely nothing to do with our value as a person. Here are some facts of life to remember:

1) Sometimes bad things happen to good people for no apparent reason.

2) Sometimes good things happen to bad people for no apparent reason.

3) Facts number 1 & 2 happen at about the same frequency and intensity.

4) The things that happen to you do not determine your value as a person.

   There are times when things happen to you that are so out of your control and outside your general experience in life that you your first reaction is shock. You find yourself standing there staring into space thinking, "What happened?" Then your thinking moves at varying paces through these questions. "Why me?" "Who is responsible?" "Where did that come from?" "How do I deal with it?" "When will it be finished?"

   Shock and the questions that follow are stages of grief. Grief is not only associated with death, but also with the loss of a relationship, loss of social standing, loss of a career, moving house, loss of a loved possession and any other form of loss. People go through grief following any loss. The loss does not have to be real, as long as it is perceived as a loss. If you feel a loss it is a loss even if those around you do not see it as such.

   During times of grief, it is important to use your support network. A support network is the framework that surrounds you. The various people, pets and activities such as hobbies, exercise, and work, in your life that offer comfort, advice, a listening ear, or a distraction from your problems.

   It is just as important to understand that not everyone in your support network will see your loss the way you do. Sill, those people are still important parts of your support network.

   People and activities who offer little more than distraction can be the most useful parts of your support network at the most stressful times. This was brought home to me when lying in a hospital bed a week after my son's funeral while my infant daughter was in the intensive care unit two floors away from me. Two young men from my support network arrived at my bedside. They didn't bring flowers or sympathy cards or get well cards, they didn't do any of the 'usual' things that people do in such circumstances. Instead they spent two hours flirting openly with me and telling the most awful and disgusting jokes and basically making me laugh. This was such a change from the usual hospital visits I received that it offered me a chance to momentarily forget all the tragedy that was in my life and just be a woman having fun with her friends.

   Coping with tragedy is a bit like flying a plane when you have never flown before. You want so much to land the plane safely but you have no idea how to do it. Some parts of your support network will include people who will take care of the practical things in your life while you deal with your grief. These are the engines of your plane that keep you moving. Work, hobbies and inescapable responsibilities create a framework that holds you in a kind of holding pattern while you figure out how to land the plane. Those who offer a distraction will take your mind off how dangerous the whole process is and give you some confidence to get on with the job. Those who listen to you and offer advice are like the control tower helping you land the plane on the runway in the best way you can manage. Each part of your network plays a vital part in the process. However, none of them are any use unless you allow them into your life and let them help.

   Curl up and cry. Sometimes in the midst of tough times, there is little more you can do but wrap a blanket around you, curl up on your bed with a hot chocolate and cry. There is no point in fighting off that feeling and trying to have a stiff upper lip when what you really need is to just cry. Crying is an outlet. It is a way to let those stored feelings move through and out of your system so that you can be free to get on with life.

   Change what can be changed, accept what can not be changed and remove yourself from situations when you can.

   Alcohlics Anonymous and other 12 step programs use a small but powerful prayer:

   You do not need to be an alcoholic or drug user or suffer from a mental illness for this prayer to apply to you and you can change the word God to a word that better suits your belief system. This prayer is just as effective if you are asking the Universe, the Goddess, or Allah.

   This prayer works both ways. Serenity can bring us to a point of acceptance. Acceptance of circumstances and situations that can not be changed brings with it a serenity. Courage helps you change things that need changing, and changing things gives you courage. Knowing the difference brings you wisdom and wisdom helps you to know the difference.

   Surviving is not enough! There is a great deal of literature around that helps those who have lived through abuse to identify themselves as survivors. I would extend this to say surviving is only the first step, recognising your ability to survive is the second step, and moving on is the third step.

   It is right to stop and look back and recognise your survival skills, to see how you came through horrid situations and developed coping mechanisms to assist you along the way. It is right to celebrate your survival. It is right to know how you coped and what your survival mechanisms are but that is not as far as you can and should go. You need to go that one step further and move beyond mere survival.

   When the ugly head of past pains rises up, it may make you suddenly feel old feelings over again. Recognise these old feelings as just that, old feelings that are attached to old situations that are now gone, over, finished. Acknowledge these feelings, acknowledge your strengths and coping abilities that brought you through that, then bring your attention back to the present. Return your thoughts to the here and now.

   Spend your energy where it is going to earn interest. Placing energy in old situations, old places, and old experiences is spending it in the wrong direction. Spend forward. When you feel your energy being drained backwards, stop. Return your attention to the present and the immediate future and spend your energy forward.

   Energy follows attention. Where you place your attention is where your energy is going. So shift your attention and spend your energy forward.

   When life hits you hardest is when you know you are really alive. When you come out the other side is when you know you have graduated from the College of Hard Knocks.