“Embrace each challenge in your life as an opportunity for self-transformation.” ~Bernie S. Siegel
I’d been having mild pain for about a week—a consistent, dull ache in the center of my chest.
I’m thirty-nine years old with no personal history of heart disease, or of anything else for that matter. Worry hadn’t yet consumed me, but I was keeping an eye on the pain to see if it got better or worse.
Once a week I drive ninety Los Angeles miles round trip for work. I say “Los Angeles” miles because I should theoretically be able to make the journey there and back in just over two hours, but it can take up to five, since I spend almost the entire commute on the perpetually traffic-ensnarled 405 freeway.
It was during this commute that the pain began to feel more intense. I thought my left hand felt tingly. My mind, always a little bit anxious when driving in LA, ratcheted up the worry ten-fold.
I envisioned having a full-on heart attack while driving in rush hour traffic. I made a mental laundry list of the ensuing consequences, such as passing out and losing control of the car or what would happen to all of my debt if I died. Whose lives would be irrevocably changed for the worse?
I managed to calm myself down enough to make it home, but once there my dutiful and pragmatic husband suggested a trip to the Emergency Room. I was in no shape to argue, and truthfully was grateful that he echoed my own escalating concern.
During my visit to the ER and the subsequent overnight hospital stay, I had lots of opportunities to overreact and feel sorry for myself. I’m sure I did quite a bit of both. But I also saw it as an opportunity to remember and to practice some of the hard-won lessons I’ve learned over the years.
1. Be patient.
It’s no surprise that the name for someone receiving medical care is the same as the word for tolerating delays without becoming annoyed or anxious.
The ER was so busy the intake nurse joked that they must be running a special she didn’t know about. After taking my vitals and determining that I was not having a heart attack at that very moment, I was sent to the lobby where I waited for over five hours to be seen.
I almost talked myself into leaving several times, convinced that if I really was experiencing something serious they would have seen me right away. But I have a family history of heart disease, and the pain wasn’t going away, so I opted to stay.
It turns out that I (thankfully) don’t have a heart problem, but that was not for me to determine.
In our modern age of instant gratification, exercising patience can be a real challenge, especially because we’ve become accustomed to getting what we want right away. But there’s a reason why people often say the most important things in life are worth waiting for—they are. Particularly when your well-being is at stake.
2. Be kind—it counts.
“Be nice to others and they will be nice to you” doesn’t always pan out, but when you’re in a busy hospital with doctors and nurses who are stretched to their limits and beyond, a little kindness goes a long way. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be firm when necessary, but remember the person you’re talking to is a human being.
Be respectful. In most cases, you’ll find that respect is reciprocated. Everyone has feelings, and most people are doing the best they can with the tools and resources they have.
3. Be aware that what works for others may not work for you.
If learned nothing else from this incident, it is that nitroglycerin is not my friend. Yes, nitro is a life-saving wonder drug that opens blood vessels so blood can continue to flow through damaged heart tissue. But if you are prone to migraine headaches as I am, taking a nitro tablet as a precaution is just plain awful.
Nitroglycerin did nothing for my chest pain, but it did give me an instant, crushing headache that lingered for three days. If nitro is going to save my life, I will certainly take it. But if I’m taking it as a precaution, I will think twice in the future.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to every problem. Sometimes knowing what doesn’t work is just as important as knowing what does. It can literally save you a headache or two down the line.
4. Be grateful for the small things—that’s where happiness lives.
I was finally admitted to a room at 2AM, with a roommate restlessly snoring in the next bed.
I felt dehydrated and a little nauseated from taking a cocktail of meds on an empty stomach. All I could think about was how much better I would feel if I could just eat a cracker, so I asked the nurse who brought me to my room if she could possibly bring me one.
A few moments later she returned with not one, but eight crackers—and two cups of apple juice! I almost cried with relief and gratitude. I think I thanked her four times, which she seemed to appreciate.
I also asked if she might have any earplugs, when I noticed a small box on the bedside table. It not only contained earplugs, but also a face mask, a book of crossword puzzles, a pencil, and—what felt like the best thing in the whole world—ChapStick! I actually squealed “OOO, CHAPSTICK!” out loud with delight.
I gave a silent “thank you!” to the genius that thought to include ChapStick in that box while I slathered the stuff on my lips and downed the crackers and juice. I popped in the earplugs and fell asleep with lubricated lips and a stomach that was no longer doing gymnastics.
It’s the small things, people. Finding joy in the seemingly insignificant moments and the small gifts is how to find happiness every day, even in the most trying circumstances. I think the choice to be happy is one of the most transformational decisions a person can ever make.
5. Be willing to laugh.
I did not sleep well that night. The earplugs didn’t really help to cancel out the various noises coming from my roommate, including the spa piano music she was playing to help her sleep.
But as I lay there listening to her snore, she suddenly blurted out in a thick Polish accent, “Wrong chef!” She then mumbled something under her breath and continued the buzz saw serenade. I laughed out loud, wondering what she could possibly be dreaming about.
Amusing things happen every day. Don’t get so caught up in the serious moments that you can’t have a laugh or two. Studies show laughter actually improves health, and will most certainly lighten your mood.
6. Be compassionate.
While it could have been easy to be seriously annoyed by my roommate, I chose instead to practice compassion. Yes, she was an obstacle preventing me from getting rest. But she was also in the hospital because she wasn’t feeling well.
Couldn’t we all use a little extra compassion from others when we aren’t feeling our best? Letting go of my irritation not only allowed her to continue doing whatever it was she felt she needed to do in order to feel better, it actually made me feel better.
One night of poor sleep isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Being compassionate is.
7. Be prepared.
There really is no feeling worse than knowing you are woefully underprepared for serious circumstances.
This isn’t to say you should be constantly worrying about the future, but having the courage to face the inevitable consequence of life (which is, of course, death), can mitigate much of that worry. I don’t want my loved ones to be left in the lurch with my passing.
It’s finally time to admit that I’m a grown-up and I need to act like one, which means obtaining life insurance so my family doesn’t find themselves saddled with financial responsibility they aren’t prepared to handle when I’m gone.
Sometimes it takes big, scary moments to remind us that the quality of our lives is not determined by what happens to us, but by how we react to those experiences.
Why wait until you’re confronted with a serious situation to adopt one or more of these behaviors? Not only will it make your daily life richer and more meaningful, but it’ll also give you the tools you need to survive and thrive when life takes an unexpected turn.
Amy Clites is a freelance writer, content creator and actor living and working in Los Angeles. She is also an avid gardener, cook, reader, traveler, and lover of soft, fuzzy things and writes regularly about these topics and more on her blog ZeitClites. Follow her on Twitter at @AmyClites, or learn more at her writer’s website