Standing on Your Own Two Feet…at the bottom of the abyss

My chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma started just four weeks after I got the cancerous vertebrae removed from my lower back. They’d inserted a metal cage inserted in its place, to hold my back together. The doctor said this procedure would keep me from being in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. I had just turned 33 years old.

But there I was: back in a wheelchair.  Already. Just two chemo infusions into the long process ahead of me and I was responding so poorly that my body could no longer walk. I was feeling vulnerable, scared and scarred. I was dropping weight and popping pain pills. It was a time of extreme physical, emotional and psychological distress.  These were the perfect conditions to make me susceptible to external influences.

Problem was, those external influences seemed to be pouring in by the dump truckload. Every get-well card was full of it. Everyone I’d ever known, it seemed, had called, written or emailed with their advice. They’d all heard about some treatment in South America, Mexico or Japan…there was a new drug on the market that cured Hodgkin’s 100%…had I tried taking this supplement? Had I read that book?  There was a diet that guaranteed…

Every single one of those people was trying to help me. I knew that. Every idea, suggestion, and opinion was sent with love and hope. I knew that too.  And I knew that all of it was utterly overwhelming.

I was already in a very low point on every level.  Now I was being buried under a mound of advice.

Then, around the day of my dreaded third chemo infusion, an old high school classmate called me.  He’d heard about my predicament.  In fact, he said, he too was coping with Hodgkin’s.  He was further down his treatment path than I was, and he was doing so well on his treatment protocol, which was different than mine.  I hung on his every word, clinging to the phone like it was the harbinger of hope.

My old classmate recommended his treatment center in Florida. He told me a lot about the antioxidant vitamins he was taking, he suggested I read a few books and he insisted that I never invest even one split second thinking about the possibility of dying. 

His enthusiasm for his own process was a compelling sales pitch.   But then, he struck the coup de grace.  He told me that he knew someone who had been on the exact same chemo regimen I was on…and that she had recently passed away.

He hung up and I crashed. Not just through the floor, but through the flooring, through the ground below the house, down, down, down into the very center of the Earth.  I fell so far I lost myself in the abyss.  Hitting emotional bottom is the hardest fall.  But it also offers us something concrete to push up against. In fact, I’ve come to believe that this is just about the only way we human beings generate upward momentum and inculcate lasting change into our lives.  Especially the most hard-headed of us.

Chances are, there have been times in your life too when you’ve felt yourself sinking down, down and thought, “How much more can I hurt? How much more can I take? Will this ever end?”  That’s when you know there’s only one way left to go, and that’s up.

Lying there in my emotional abyss, I wondered how I was supposed to process all this information. How was I supposed to figure out what was right for me, when the bet I was making was with my very own life? 

Sometimes, having too many options makes us fear choosing one. What if we are wrong? What if taking it means cutting off something else? What if it is irreversible, like the one I was facing right that moment?

That’s just about the minute I had my breakthrough. I realized that I had succumbed to so many other people’s fears. There was no way to find my own truth while I was drowning in so many other people’s ideas, emotions and projections.  Feeling frantic for the one right answer had left me…frantic.

I couldn’t handle it all. It was literally impossible.  I felt too fragile. I realized that I had put my mind in charge of the situation. My mind, like yours and everyone else’s, always wants more and more information and options. That’s what minds are designed to do: gather up every single tiny sliver of everything and then assess it, sort it, evaluate it, finally make the One Perfect Decision and then, voila! Everything will be perfect after that. Our minds really do believe there is One Perfect Decision for every situation, and if they could just find it, all problems would melt away, birds will sing from the treetops and the clouds will part.

But it doesn’t really work that way, does it? 

I knew it didn’t.  I knew that the feelings of panic and chaos I was feeling were the big, blaring warning signal that I had lost my connection to my internal guidance system.  Whenever we try to make good decisions without first being centered in our hearts, and then checking the potential decisions against our intuition, we make errors.  I had lost my balance altogether.  There was nothing I needed now more than my own instincts and clarity.

This meant seeking deeper and more consistent ways of attuning and listening to my inner guidance system. We all have one. We’re born with it.  It meant establishing healthy boundaries with all these “helpful” others. This was my soul calling out to me to come to own my journey, even through this scary time in my life, and even if it meant it would result in the end of my life.

The only way through it would come from standing firmly on my own two feet and trusting in my own inner knowing.  It was clear that any effective way forward was going to depend on my ability to source, cultivate and trust my own inner wisdom.

I began at once to focus on reestablishing that connection, to listen to that still, small voice within me.  Obviously, it all worked out in the end. I’m well today, and even more committed to the belief that choosing to trust in our own inner guidance is essential, no matter where you believe that voice originates. This is the growth step that allows us to build confidence and clarity in the midst of any crisis, and that will guide us through the tough times and into greener pastures.

By Kristi Nelson, author of the new book “Wake Up Grateful”, speaker, teacher and director of the international nonprofit


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

26 Responses to Standing on Your Own Two Feet…at the bottom of the abyss

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