Special Treasures (continued)

Lost roles are usually associated with other losses, for example, the so-called "empty nest syndrome." When our children grow up and move away, we lose our parental roles. This time of crisis is a powerful reminder that we have lost, not only our accustomed roles, but our youth. Though we can't regain our youth, we can realize the blessings of maturity--for instance, grandchildren and grandparenting roles.

Before we can enjoy our new blessings, however, we must first let go of our old views of ourselves, and accept our new positions in the stream of life. If we don't, we stand to lose even more. In response to their empty nests, some people stubbornly refuse to give up their parental roles. They push aside their children and insist on parenting their grandchildren. Their involvement may resemble active living on the surface, but trouble brews beneath this superficial appearance. Ultimately, their inappropriate resistance to maturing may alienate, not only their children, but their grandchildren as well. In this way, people who try to stymie the clock succeed only in compounding their losses.

Lost health entails a wide range of losses. The mildest losses are transient--temporary inconveniences such as the flu from which we recover fully. The most severe loss, of course, is dying--losing everything. Between these extremes are losses of abilities--disabilities. Abilities that can be lost include eyesight, hearing, physical talents, sexual pleasure, digestive capacity, and mental faculties.

Lost health usually means that we need to develop new habits: taking medications, engaging in regular exercise, adjusting hearing aids, or maintaining special diets. This, of course, provides excellent opportunities to develop new mental habits--habits that help us, not only to heal from our losses, but to add new ways of living well.

Healing our psychological wounds is sometimes a necessary preliminary step toward healing our bodies. For example, if we become preoccupied with the loss of a body function because we see it as a sign of our mortality, we may prematurely prepare to die. If we do this, we may give up on ourselves, and refuse to care for our ailing bodies. This can cut years off our lives--not from the far end, but from today forward. In other words, though we may remain alive, we aren't really living.

Seeing life from a realistic perspective is the key to rebuilding our lives after we become disabled. This requires redirecting our attention from what we can't do to what we can do. Fact is, we are all disabled in one way or another. We can't fly like birds or swim like dolphins, yet we don't dwell on these disabilities. Instead, we capitalize on our abilities. Sometimes, merely realizing this opens the way to rebuilding our lives after illnesses strike.

For example, a woman consulted me because she was despairing over gradually losing her ability to walk. Her neurologist had told her that her muscle function would continue to deteriorate, and that she had no chance of regaining it. I mentioned to her that all of us live with disabilities, and used the example of people who have no sense of smell. She suddenly brightened and said, "That's right! I've never been able to smell anything, and it hasn't interfered with my life at all." This realization quickly helped her to redirect her perspective from her lost muscle functioning, and to begin focussing on her abilities.

Self-esteem is usually lost as a result of other losses. When they lose certain body parts, for example, some people lose their self-esteem. Individuals may also lose their self-confidence or social ease after losing their jobs, their careers, their money, or their social standings.

Regardless of the kind of loss that brings it, lost self-esteem usually brings additional losses, notably relationships or opportunities for new relationships. In other words, lost self-esteem is usually one link in a chain of associated losses. Fortunately, however, associated losses can also bring associated opportunities to regain, not only self-esteem, but many other treasures.

The ease with which people can restore their self-esteem varies considerably, depending mainly on the kind of parenting they received as children. Lucky children learn to appreciate themselves early in their lives. This prepares them to enter healthy, rewarding relationships as adults. These people may not lose their self-esteem. However, if they do, they recover easily for two reasons: First, they already have a strong support system in place, and second, they merely need to reinforce what they already know about themselves: that they are loveable, unique works of art.

In contrast, unlucky children learn that the "love" they receive is conditioned on their ability to please others. In fact, these people didn't learn about love at all. They learned about earning approval. Approval is conditional; love is not. In a loving relationship, behavior is judged; people are not.

People who have not learned the difference between approval and love by the time they become adults are seriously handicapped. They are likely to find themselves in non-loving, judgmental relationships. They need support to learn self-esteem, but judgmental relationships don't provide such support.

The greatest hidden treasure in losing self-esteem is self-esteem itself--loving yourself. If you were unlucky in growing up, your most important task is to learn self-esteem. If your social life is monopolized by judging alliances, you must expand your horizons to find new sources of support, whether in groups or with individuals. Fortunately, you are not alone in your quest; others have laid paths for you to follow. Individual counselors or psychotherapists can offer decisive help in healing and growing.

Body parts
Our self-images often need repair after we lose a part of our body. Because certain body parts symbolize our identity, we may lose our sense of who we are. For example, a woman may feel less feminine if she loses a breast or her uterus, and a man may feel less masculine if he loses a limb or a testicle.

Several important lessons are involved in healing from these insults to our integrity: To begin, we are not defined by our sex; we are persons first, and male or female second. Second, we are not defined by others; we possess our own identities. Third, we are loved for who we are; our loveability is not determined by our work, by our ability to reproduce, or by what we can do for others. Finally, our love for ourselves--our self-esteem--sets the ground rules for all of our important relationships; the esteem of others follows the pattern of our esteem for ourselves.

If you don't have the social support you need for healing after losing a body part, you may find a group helpful. Groups vary considerably in their focus: Some groups are designed exclusively for women who have had mastectomies, while others center on the more general aspects of self-esteem or personal growth.

Using lost body parts as an opportunity to become acquainted with yourself in a new way will likely open doors for you. For example, you may discover new career ideas, new relationships, and new interests and hobbies--in short, a new life.

Mental functions
Our memory, reality testing, and reasoning ability may be lost to mental illness, to abusing alcohol or other drugs, or to brain damage from trauma or toxic substances. Losing our mental functions can be catastrophic, not only because we lose our ability to think well, but because we may lose our ability to heal.

For example, Alzheimer's disease is a brain disorder that slowly, but certainly, robs its victims of their abilities to remember, to reason, and to perform the most basic tasks of self-care. By the time they reach the end stages of this disease, these people have no hope of healing, either physically or psychologically. That's why people with early Alzheimer's disease need to prepare for losing their mental functions as soon as they can. That is, they must say their goodbyes while they still can recognize their loved ones, remember wonderful events, and share their love and warmth.

The brain damage from alcohol resembles Alzheimer's disease because it progresses slowly. Yet, it is different in one crucial way: The brain damage can be stopped. Unlike people with Alzheimer's disease, people who abuse alcohol can control the harmful effects of their illness. They can stop drinking the poison that destroys tens of millions of their brain cells with each ounce.

The results of brain damage from Alzheimer's disease and alcohol abuse are tragic. Yet, their victims have an advantage over those people who permanently lose consciousness after their brains are severely damaged in accidents. These people don't have the opportunity to say their goodbyes or to express their love for their loved ones. Of course, none of us knows whether we will become a victim of an accident. The only way we can prepare for this kind of loss is to consistently tell our loved ones of our feelings for them. In fact, this is a good idea anyway.

People with mental illness lose many kinds of abilities, depending on the type of illness that strikes them. Some lose their capacity to distinguish reality from fantasy, and they may lose their ability to feel close to their family and friends. Others lose their judgment, and alienate their loved ones with their behavior.

The results of treating mental illness vary widely. Occasionally, people are cured; that is, they regain what was lost, and never again experience the symptoms of the illness. More commonly, however, people undergo periodic disabilities. They endure lifelong patterns of losing, regaining, and losing again. Depending on their specific illness, some may be able to control their symptoms with medications. Others are unable to recover from their symptoms long enough to sustain rewarding lives. These victims of mental illness are disabled for the duration of their lives.

Of all the types of illnesses, mental illnesses create the saddest lives, for their victims may not even know what they have lost. Still, their loved ones know well what has been lost. They, too, must heal after someone close to them loses their mental functions. Fortunately, there are organizations that provide advice, support, and education for healing the families of the mentally ill.

Whether or not losing money is a major loss depends on the individual, not on the amount of money lost. A fortune is a fortune, whether an individual measures it in dollars or in billions of dollars. That's because money is a powerful symbol, and its cash value is usually less important than its meaning.

The people most injured by losing money are those who seem to live for it. For them, money symbolizes life, and losing their money can be tantamount to losing their life. Indeed, many suicides have followed losing money.

At the other extreme are professional gamblers, who win or lose large amounts of money with a flip of a card without batting an eye. To them, the money at stake symbolizes the importance of the game, and they live to play the game.

Money means power to many people, particularly those who don't know any other way to relate to other people. If these people lose their money, they may feel they have lost their primary means of relating to others.

The ways of healing after losing money also depend on individuals and their circumstances. Knowing that money is a symbol is the key to knowing how to heal. For example, a young entrepreneur may heal by directing his or her energy into exploring new business opportunities. An older entrepreneur, in contrast, may direct his or her creativity into finding new ways to help others.

If you have lost money and feel hopeless about it, start your healing process by understanding what money means to you. By doing this, you may find new ways to enrich your live, whether or not you can regain your money.