Have you ever noticed how vivid our personal stories become in our minds over time? The more we tell them to others, the more we re-play those memories, the stronger they seem to become.

We do a lot of that story-telling to heal. That is an important aspect of stories. But what happens when the stories themselves stop the healing process? When they only deepen a groove of hurt in our hearts and minds so profound that nothing new can enter?

A few years back, I happened to meet a race car driver who worked as an instructor at the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving. I asked him a question I’ve always wondered about: Are there any tips for us ordinary drivers? Something we can learn from the pros? “Yes!” he said, “I love it when people ask me that. I wish all regular drivers could take at least one class in race car driving because it would make them better drivers.”

So, what was the magical tip that had the potential to change a bad situation? It turned out to be almost too simple. The race car driver in his tight-fitting red leathers said: “In any out-of-control situation in your car, focus exactly on where you want your car to end up, and you will go there.”

Apparently, we do the right things, almost automatically, if we keep focusing—no matter what–at where we hope to land.

I needed this advice recently. Fear had a hold on me just as if I were in a car skidding out-of-control. Those same grooves of fear that I thought were smoothing out, filling in, having less and less control over my psyche.

What caused it?

In the middle of healing from breast cancer (four years out and doing well), in the middle of coping with someone incredibly dear to me who is struggling to survive her late-stage Ovarian Cancer, I attended a cancer retreat. I thought it would help heal my heart. I thought there would be others like me. Instead the triggers were overwhelming. Everyone there was in active cancer treatment or the caregiver for someone who was. Some people were in a lot of physical pain, something that scares most of us, more than we care to admit.

The snarl of cancer came rushing back in, a fear of recurrence, the fear of losing my beloved friend. And listening to the stories of all the caregivers was a double whammy: My husband has a chronic health condition and I have cared for him over many years. Studying the stricken faces of those who go through often brutal cancer treatment with the person they love most in this life reminded me that my husband has done the same for me, twice.

Only time will tell if it was a mistake to go or if alchemy turns the three retreat days into gold. Only time will tell if sharing my stories again helped me re-write them this time. Because, this time, I kept focusing on where I hoped to land.

In the middle of what the Dalai Lama calls “joyfully participating in the sorrows of the world,” quietly listening to what twenty-two other people were going through, I remembered that I had my own story, still being written.

On the last night, my roommate could see that I was troubled and tired. A retreat organizer had placed us together because we were both fun loving. The first time I saw Marilyn, my new friend, without her wig, I gasped: How beautiful you are! What lovely skin, what a beautifully shaped head! She never put that wig on again. Despite her recent treatments, treatments so severe I wondered how a human being could go through them, we did a lot of laughing.

Tonight, she lays back in her light blue p.j.s on her twin bed and gazes at me across our small room. “Do you know what the acronym F.E.A.R. stands for?” she says.

“No, I’ve never heard of it.”

“Fear: False Evidence Appearing Real,” she says. “You seem pretty darned healthy to me.”

Life. It will break your heart every time. Some evidence is achingly real of course. And then there are the stories. We all have them. They help us define who we are. Gratefully, there are people who turn up, stride into the middle of your story unbidden and, like magic, tweak the plot.

Race Car Drivers. Beautiful bald joyous women who have survived so much.

What would we do without them?

Susan Troccolo 2012

Susan Troccolo

Susan Troccolo retired from the business world and is now a community volunteer, gardener, writer, and bluegrass guitar player. She lives with Patrick, her husband of thirty-five years and Fly, the "Grace Kelly of Border Collies" in Portland, Oregon. Susan is the author of "Growing Down Stories", personal essays of living life with humor and grace. She has several essays in the "Chocolate for a Woman's Soul" series (Simon and Schuster), work in VoiceCatcher and the Portland Women's Journal. She loves blogging, especially humor pieces, at Culinate.com (First Person and Our Table) and at Lighthearted Travel.com. Susan is a survivor of cancer, once in 1992 and again in 2008, experiences which have informed her life and her work. In 1998, Susan received training to work with drug-addicted babies in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for two years and also became certified to facilitate creative writing workshops through "Write Around Portland" where she also served as a board member for four years. The Write Around Portland ten-week intensives included workshops for teens who had lost a parent, women with metastatic breast cancer and people in a burn unit. In 2010, Susan was trained to facilitate the "Chronic Disease Self-Management Program" (CDSMP), an evidence-based program developed by Stanford University. In that capacity, she works primarily with people in mid-life and with seniors. The classes assist individuals with the many challenges and ongoing difficult emotions of having a chronic condition, like diabetes, arthritis, cancer, or heart disease. Susan's happiest creative achievement was the creation of a thirty-minute documentary on the life of Anna Lea Lelli, her mentor in the study of Dante's Divine Comedy in the original Italian, while living and studying for four years in Rome. This documentary aired on public television in 1992. Throughout the losses in her life, Susan believes that making grief and loss conscious are as much a birthright as our joys. "Do not fear the darkness, for in it rests the light."

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