Adapted from 'The Michelangelo Method: Release Your Inner Masterpiece and Create an Extraordinary Life.' Used with permission.
Maggie had just turned 50. She had a good job in market research and a successful marriage with two great kids. Her 22-year-old son Josh was about to graduate from college, and her 25-year-old daughter Lisa was engaged to be married. Maggie was helping to plan the wedding.
Now some people would have just thanked their lucky stars, knocked on wood or, in Maggie’s Jewish faith kept the evil eye away by saying “pooh-pooh.” But Maggie’s eyes were on bigger things. Fifty meant middle age and Maggie had the ambition to start her own marketing company. She was nervous, though, about the risks involved. She was in many ways a conservative person who liked to play things safe. On the other hand, if she was going to do start her own business, she believed that she should start now. She came to me for help with coaching her through her work transition.
We were beginning to go over the potential risks and rewards of entrepreneurial life when Maggie’s world fell apart. We kept going with our sessions, making some progress here and there. But much of the time I just tried to support her in her efforts to get through the day.
For her son Josh had just been diagnosed with lymphoma, a potentially fatal cancer in his chest.
“I’m so scared, I’m nearly paralyzed,” she told me.
The More You Know, the Less You Have to Fear
“Perhaps educating yourself about Josh’s problem would ease your mind,” I suggested. “You can use the research skills that serve you so well at work to find out what you can do for Josh.”
Maggie brightened a little. “That’s a thought,” she said. “Usually the more I know about something the more comfortable I am. It’s when I know little or nothing that I get crazy.”
Maggie went online to learn what she could. Assuming that Josh’s diagnosis was correct, his chances were better than 50-50.
But the reality of Josh’s illness and the possibility that he might not survive were sinking in. “That was one of the worst nights of my entire life,” Maggie said. “I was in bed shaking the whole night. I just couldn’t make my mind think constructive thoughts. Fear just took over.” We discussed what strengths Maggie could use to cope with her crisis. In addition to research, Maggie’s strengths included her networking ability, resilience, sense of humor, and faith in God. She could rely on these to help her deal with this crisis.
But first she had to calm herself. I asked her if she wanted me to make a visualization tape for her. “I’d be really grateful for anything that can ease my mind,” she said. Later she told me that this tape was one of the best tools she had for coping with Josh’s problem.
On the tape I asked Maggie to think about Josh in the future. Think about him speaking to groups of people and telling them how he licked his problem and became a better person for it. And picture herself dancing with Josh at his wedding five years from now. Picture herself in the doctor’s office and the doctor saying to Josh, “You’re cured!” Also, encase Josh in a bubble and picture him with sun shining on him, sending him healing energy. And picture Josh floating with her on a lake, being calm and being healed.
Maggie also tried to find support within her community. “My husband and I have a very good relationship, but it became too painful to talk to him about some of this. It was easier to talk to people who were less connected,” she said. “After Josh got sick I couldn’t sleep,” Maggie continued. “I would wake up very early in the morning. So I went to the early morning service at my temple. The people were very warm and welcoming. In the beginning I would just sit there and cry. One man had been through cancer and survived. One had a son who had had cancer in high school and recovered. So I talked to them; that helped.”
“I’m very fatalistic,” Maggie added. “I wasn’t angry. I never said ‘why me; why Josh?’ In fact, when one of my friends said, ‘Oh, it shouldn’t have been Josh,’ I responded, ‘Oh, then it should have been someone else’s child?’ It is what it is. I did have the belief that God had the power to cure him and heal him if that was the plan.”
Maggie believed in the power of prayer. “I told everyone I knew about it and asked everyone, no matter what their religion, to pray for him. I obviously prayed for his healing,” she said. “But part of what I would pray for is for all of us to be strong so that we could get through this.”
Don’t Underestimate the Power of Your Beliefs
Josh was diagnosed in July, and fortunately things were slowing down for the summer at Maggie’s company. Her boss was very understanding and agreed to give Maggie two months leave to be with Josh and care for him. Josh started chemotherapy treatments. He mostly responded well but had a bad reaction to the prednisone he was taking and started hallucinating. “That was very scary for Josh—he thought he was going crazy,” Maggie said. “We needed to go to a psychopharmacologist, who reduced his dosage.”