by JoDee Christianson
Have you ever heard someone say, “I feel like I am caught somewhere between a rock and a hard place?” Growing up on dairy farm in central MN I learned this statement in the physical sense and in the hypothetical. The physical example being when you are out disking the fields and you get a rock stuck between the disk blades you have to pry it loose. If left alone the rock can be damaging to the equipment and ineffective in getting the job done. The hypothetical sense is when you’re faced with making a difficult decision as a result of change in your life made by an outside source (deployments, employers, health diagnosis). The irony in this statement is that I haven’t thought about it in years, but it couldn’t explain my current situation better. In reflection, I owe this trip down memory lane to my recent participation in a four day online conference hosted by the Military Families Learning Network, September 24-27, 2017.
It’s important to bring you up to speed on what had been going on in my life in the two months prior to the conference, to fully understand how I found myself somewhere between a rock and a hard place. In July of this year, my oldest son underwent a second major airway reconstruction surgery for a congenital airway anomaly he has had since birth. During this time and the month that followed, I took intermittent family leave from work.
We had been through a similar surgery with my son six years prior, so we went into this surgery with confidence and much anticipation for a great outcome, knowing we had been down this path before. We would get through it, and would be back to life as usual, before we knew it. As it turns out, we were confident in the process, but overlooked all of the emotions and sacrifices that came with this life changing moment. Those memories seemed to have faded in that six-year gap between surgeries. We again faced fear versus hope and a lack of trust versus connection and vulnerability. All of those things came back in full swing. As it turned out, even after a twelve-day stay in the ICU, my son healed remarkably quickly. Our stay in Philadelphia, PA for the surgery lessoned from an anticipated 12 weeks to only 4 weeks. The separation from my other two children, ages 6 and 3, lessoned from 12 weeks to 4 weeks, and my time away from work also lessoned from 12 weeks to 4 weeks. Which is great, right? I could get right back into it, work, family, and the kids starting a new school year on time, no problem. Because external healing equates internal healing, right? Wrong! I had been back to work for just 2 weeks when we had a medical emergency with my son, and knew we would have to return to Philadelphia. This set back was paired almost simultaneously with an organizational change within my job. On August 20th we came home from Philadelphia, by August 25th I received news that my supervisor would be changing, and by September 4th my son would have a medical event that stopped my world from spinning. I was cloaked in fear and guilt, looking back at the two weeks from the time of his event to the time we heard the Dr. say, “everything is okay”, I don’t recall doing anything outside of breathing.
My son and I returned home September 16th to mountains of prayers that had been met, and the relief of those around us. Two days after our return home from Philadelphia, I was back to work. Relieved and refreshed of course, or so I thought I should have been. But really I hadn’t had time to deal with what all had happened and I was finding myself in the middle of two conflicting changes in my life, both completely out of my control. Everyone around me saw me smile, nod, and heard me say “uh-huh…yes that sounds great.” But I was absolutely paralyzed inside. I had experienced a traumatic event with my son and I was shutting down. What seemed a small shift at work, became profound and an easy target for blame and anger. I was shutting down. I was caught between a rock and a hard place.
Enter, the MFLN online conference “Learning through Change: Adapt. Grow. Thrive.” Whether you believe in divine intervention or not, someone was definitely throwing me a life vest. It was up to me to put it on and so I registered and committed to attending each session of the 4-day conference.
Now, remember when I talked about the rock in the disk blades when you’re out in the field? In order to dislodge that rock you need some tools — usually a crow bar, but you also need things like determination and persistence, and then with that, you literally have to pry and jolt that rock loose. Dr. Charles Figley’s keynote presentation “Seasons of Change: Promoting Growth during Times of Uncertainty” was my first jolt. I connected with what he had to say, I realized that caring for my son put me in the field of Compassion Fatigue. After the conclusion of his presentation, I spent the next hour clicking through every suggested resource. I reaped all that YouTube had to offer in regards to Dr. Figley’s research, applying it to my personal and professional situations.
Feeling that rock, give way just a little after day one, my gateway had been opened. My next jolt came though the presentation by Trisha Wohlfeil titled, “Rising Strong ™ When Faced with Professional Change: My Story, My Ending”. I will forever be grateful for her introduction to the work of Dr. Brene Brown. What a profound message behind sharing your story. Again, I found myself in a click storm of resources that had been shared through the conference’s group chat feature; each one offering a jolt, producing movement. The power of vulnerability; bam! Listening to Shame; bam! To do so “daring greatly”, bam!
Now, it would be wonderful to share that this conference has allowed me to completely break free from the hard places that hold on to me so tightly, but I don’t believe that was the purpose. Rather, just as no one presenter, community worker, or military family specialist can make that breakthrough for the audience they are working with. This conference provided connection to resources, tools and a place, for me to begin the work, which I need to do, to lean into, and “learn through change”!
JoDee Christianson is a SNAP-Ed Educator with the University of Minnesota, Extension. JoDee is also a spouse, a parent caring for two sons with special medical needs and their sister, amidst the hardwoods of Minnesota.