Whether you’re facing the emotional fallout of injury or PTSD, the tools you’ll need to dig out of your hole are exactly the same.
When you call for a taxi, what do you expect?
Like most people, you probably expect an individual to show up on time and safely deliver you to your chosen destination. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a pleasant conversation and be on your way.
That’s what I expected, and you know what happens when we have expectations.
He showed up 10 minutes early for a 4:00am pickup and waited patiently as I navigated two long apartment hallways dragging luggage in one hand and Nordic skis in the other. I clumsily forced the heavy gate open while it did its best to crush me.
The struggle stopped when a hand grabbed the gate and a kind voice said, “Good morning. I’m John.” I said, “I’m Heidi. Thank you so much for helping with the gate.” “No problem. I’m happy to help,” he said.
My first thought was to take a nap on the way to the airport. It was the middle of the night, after all.
But something about John intrigued me–his overwhelming warmth and positivity at 4:00am made it easy for me to keep my eyes open and have a chat.
We learned a little about each other, and when I returned from Sun Valley he picked me up at the airport, greeting me with the same warmth and love.
John and I have learned a lot about each other since early 2010. I learned he is a veteran with PTSD and he went insane (that’s what he calls it) for nearly 20 years.
He has driven Dan and me to the airport for almost all of our trips to Vail, where I’ve had 6 surgeries for a rare scarring condition in my knee called arthrofibrosis.
We’ve talked about everything you can imagine–politics, trees, relationships, peoples’ behavior, and family. Oh, and dogs, boy have we talked about dogs.
Instead of dreading traveling for another surgery, I grew to look forward to seeing John on our ride to the airport.
“Hey girl! How you doing? No crutches this time,” I’d hear him say as I walked down the sidewalk.
He became an angel to me. His hug conveyed what he probably thought: You can do this, girl. You’ve got this. You’re going to make it.
Along the way, I learned that John overcame debilitating PTSD on his own. He told me he had to force himself to think positive. He got rid of his TV. He stopped using drugs and alcohol. He started moving and meditating. Everything he did involved choosing to use parts of his brain other than the parts affected by PTSD.
Needless to say, I adopted him as one of my gurus. My friend Chris calls people like John “accidental gurus.” Someone comes out of nowhere and rearranges the furniture in your head.
John doesn’t love that I call him my guru, but I do it anyway. He’d much prefer to be an individual who is spreading love and positivity.
Every time I stand up out of his cab, I absorb more of his approach to life. “Be happy. Surround yourself with positive people. Be grateful for every day because it’s another opportunity to spread love,” he says.
On our most recent cab ride John talked about the danger of worrying. “Worrying about the future is temporary insanity, girl. Just don’t do it. You have to be positive. Think positive. Focus on what’s in front of you. Focus on how you are going to spread love and positivity today,” he said.
I left the cab astonished. Dan and I made our way to the security line when he turned to me and said, “How much did that cab ride cost?” I said, “$35.” “That was the best $35 we’ve ever spent,” Dan said.
You see, I had been in a vortex of worry and anxiety for weeks–at times, near paralyzing anxiety over the one thing we all have little control over: the future.
It seems John is a card-carrying member of Dionne Warwick’s Psychic Friends Network. He always knows exactly what I need to hear.
For years now, I’ve left the cab wondering “how.” How could a person pull himself out of such a deep, dark hole by himself? How had he turned being positive into a daily practice, and how had it become his anchor?
How had he learned to use his brain instead of his brain using him?
This conversation was going to last a lot longer than a cab ride, so we went to lunch–a really long lunch.
“I’m happy to see you, but how come you wanted to have lunch,” he asked.
“I want to learn your story. I want to know how you turned your life around. I have questions,” I said.
“OK. I have a question for you though. What’s your biggest threat?” he said.
Without hesitation I said, “My mind. My mind is my biggest threat.”
He said, “You know, that’s the best answer I’ve heard. I ask a lot of people that question and they usually tell me ISIS or terrorism is their biggest threat. ISIS isn’t your biggest threat! What’s going on in your head is. Alright, what’ve you got to ask me?” he said.
“How did you do it? How did you completely turn your life around? What was the bottom for you…your lowest point?” I asked.
I placed a notebook and pen on the table. “Why’re you taking notes, girl?” he asked.
“Because you’re wise; I want some of what you’ve got, and I want to share it.” I said.
Before he answered he told me stories, like any guru would.
He grew up in a very close-knit family, and, as it turns out, his family’s expectations of him made all the difference in his recovery.
“I was always around adults growing up. I didn’t spend time with a lot of people my age. I saw one grandmother every day and the other one on the weekends. They all expected me to act right and to be respectful. When I acted out–which I did a lot because I was the middle child–my Mom would punish me by making me write sentences and read for two hours. Then my grandma would whoop me. I got educated and whooped when I misbehaved!”
“What was your lowest point, and how did you turn it around?” I asked him again. I can listen to his stories all day, but I really wanted to know the answer to this question.
“Well, two things happened. First, my Mom died. Then, the next day I lost my job. I took an inventory of my life. I looked around me and all the veterans my age were dying–overdose, alcoholism, suicide. I made a choice that I didn’t want to end up like them. I went back to memories of my grandma,” John said.
Was there something specific about memories of his grandma that helped?
This leads me to John’s advice I’d like to share with you.
Guru John’s tip #1
John said, “Weigh a situation for the better of your brain and the association of the people from your past.”
Translation: Channel family members who were (or are) pillars in your life and do what they would do were they facing what you’re facing now.
Chances are you were (or are) very close to someone in your family. Think of everything you learned from that person and all your positive experiences together.
Now weigh those experiences with your current situation. I bet you’ll find the sum of their wisdom, their influence, and their hopes and dreams for your life weigh a heck of a lot more than your current situation. Ask yourself what that person would do in the same situation and allow your pillar’s positive influence (weight) lift you up out of your hole.
My grandma epitomizes resilience. She traveled to the United States from Sicily on a boat and she has faced challenges that make my knees tremble, yet she is still going strong at 98.
She has imparted libraries of wisdom and strength. When I face an impasse or insurmountable challenge, I channel Mommom. She provides me with comfort, strength, and a never-quit attitude.
What does my immigrant grandma tell me when I’m wallowing? “I love you, Heidi. I’m always here for you. You know, you’re too sensitive sometimes. Put on another layer of alligator skin and get on with life.”
I had a bad day recently, and John told me,
“Embrace things with RESPECT, LOVE, WISDOM, and HONOR. Have a family conversation with your grandmother. In her lie all the tools you need to love yourself.”
My grandma’s tough love approach works.
Think of someone influential in your life you can channel–someone you can hear in your head. What would they tell you right now?
Guru John’s tip #2
John said, “When you’re at your lowest, give more to you.”
Translation: You are ultimately responsible for your own mental and physical health. You must love yourself first, John told me.
“The reason I can give so much love is because I love myself. It wasn’t always that way,” John said.
We all have different ways of giving to ourselves. Might I suggest brainstorming a list of ways you can practice John’s advice?
Sitting around being angry about your injury won’t be on that list. You can’t love yourself if you’re angry and resentful.
My list includes surrounding myself with positive people, turning off the TV, turning down the Facebook scrolling, writing, knitting, swimming, beadwork, and paying attention to the present moment.
Guru John’s tip #3
John told me, “You have to learn to control now so what happened 45 years ago or what is going to happen 3 months from now doesn’t control you.”
Translation: The only thing that matters is right now. What can you find joy in right now?
Remember the best $35 we ever spent? On that cab ride John told me, “Worrying about the future is temporary insanity.” I remember his exact tone of voice, his inflection, and his emphasis on this concept’s importance.
I hear John in my head when I begin to worry about the future.
When we’re injured, we either live in the past by lamenting over what we’ve lost, or we live in the future, wondering when we will meet an arbitrary date that will determine our return to sport.
We also spend a whole lot of time obsessing…about pain; about how grumpy we are because we can’t move; about seriously considering ditching the crutches just so we can go out and feel normal again.
Want an express elevator to “now?” Then, exercise your creativity muscle. It’ll silence all the past and future voices driving you nuts.
I’ve beaten the creativity drum for years now. Creativity works. The proof is both in the data and how you’ll feel while and after you do something creative. One of my favorite creative outlets, knitting, just got a shout out in the New York Times.
One of John’s favorite creative outlets is interior decorating. What are yours? Don’t know? Go find out.
Guru John’s tip #4
One of John’s secret weapons for staying in the present is meditation.
I learned Transcendental Meditation at the end of July and it has changed the internal workings of my brain. I feel more creative and less anxious.
If you’re new to meditation, I recommend the apps Headspace and Stop, Breathe & Think as starting points. You don’t need to know anything to begin.
Guru John’s tip #5
John’s Grandma used to tell him, “When you get grown, that’s when you become a fool.”
Translation: Never, ever stop learning. When you stop learning–when you think you know it all–life will hurl you a humbling curve ball.
One of John’s life quests is to never stop learning. He’s a voracious reader, which is ironic considering reading was once a punishment.
He loves meeting new people and learning new things. I imagine he thinks a lot like I do–when you stop learning, you die.
Fortunately, injury gives you time to learn and explore. Brainstorm a list of things you’ve always wanted to learn or do but never had time because of your sport, and then go learn.
Executing Guru John’s advice
Most of my clients are quick to shun advice like John’s. They’ll spend hours a day training and exercising their bodies, no problem. But when we discuss changing mental habits, the conversation usually ends in resistance.
“Is what you’re doing now working? Are you happy,” I ask. “No,” my clients will say. “Then you need to make some changes, and that means you need to practice new ways of thinking and living.” “Sigh, OK,” They’ll say.
Make yourself a schedule including John’s advice. When you start your morning, visualize your day unfolding positively.
How powerful is the work John has done to turn around his mental state? “I was in a ground infantry unit in Vietnam–search and destroy. I saw some awful things. Today, I can sit here with you and go back to the file cabinet of horrific stories, recount one to you, put it back in the file cabinet, and go on with my day,” John said.
John recovered from TWENTY years of insanity by following very intentional daily practices, and I absolutely guarantee that if he can do it, so can you.
I hope you and all my clients capture the opportunity in injury and look back upon your injury as one of your best life teachers.
And, always remember what John always tells me: The only thing perfect in this world is love.
If you appreciate John’s wisdom as much as I do, email me at email@example.com. I’d love to hear how you’ve implemented what you’ve read here.
This was beautiful, inspiring, and true! Thank you Heidi and John!
Thank you, Lara. I feel so lucky to have met John. He is one of the wisest people I know.
This is the first article I happened to click on on your site, and I’m glad I did. It was very, very insightful. Loved it.
I’m glad you enjoyed it, Brandon. I feel so fortunate to have met John. He has turned into one of my most important life teachers. It was a joy interviewing him and passing on his experience and wisdom.