In last week’s article, you met Julie, a 45-year-old woman who, after her father, Pierre Curie died, took over his flower shop, “Le Papillon.” In addition to the incessant demands of the shop, Julie shouldered these burdens: Caretaker for her 80-year-old mother Maggie, whose health was declining, and the daily worry that her only child, Paul, could be hurt or killed while deployed in Iraq.

Making matters worse, Julie had no relationships – romantic or friends – to buffer her hardships. Rushed to the ER after she passed out at work, she learned she had not had a heart attack or stroke, but she now faced a host of stress related disorders: high blood pressure, gastritis, pre-diabetes, obesity and an anxiety disorder. With the help of her psychologist, Dr. Brown, this stress management program was built.

1. Sleep Hygiene. Fixed times for sleep, wake and “wind down,” a one-hour period prior to bedtime, which prohibited any work.

2. New Eating Habits. No skipped meals, eating in her car or in front of a television. Her caffeine intake was reduced by switching from coffee to tea.

3. New Cognitive skills. Dr. Brown taught her how to say ‘no’ to the demands of others and how to crush her self-critical, perfectionist beliefs.

4. Build a network of social support. She had re-connected with two friends.

5. Exercise program. No progress.

Dr. Brown’s office:

“Julie, nice progress. But what’s stopping you from exercising?”

Julie exhaled, “I try, I quit.”

Dr. Brown continued, “Your triggers firing off your ‘fight-or-flight’ (FF) response are fear of running out of money, not being able to care for Maggie, your son in Iraq, job pressures and a fear of ending up all alone, with no partner. Your FF fires off 20 times a day, which elevates blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar and adrenalin. This makes your body combat-ready, so you can fight and survive. When the danger arrives, your large muscles use and burn up all the stress chemicals by physical exertion. But what happens if the FF is triggered, but you remain stationary? The buildup of unused stress chemicals causes stress disorders.”

Julie asked, “What can I do?”

Dr. Brown replied, “You need to reduce the intensity of your FF response. To do that, you must simulate the FF response but, without the presence of danger. This process is called exercise.”

One month later:

Sitting on the deck facing Rainey Lake, Maggie handed Julie a sealed envelope. “This is a letter from your father.”

“Mom,” Julie bellowed, “why did you wait six years to give me this?”

Choked with tears, Maggie was speechless. Julie opened the letter and gasped. “Dad wrote this on the last day of his life:”

“Dear Julie, on the day I was told I only had a few months left to live, something incredible happened: I felt free. Why? I realized I’d been held captive in a prison built by my very own hands. I constructed my prison using bricks of fear, where each brick bore the same two words: ‘What if?’ ‘What if I lost the shop? What if Maggie left me? What if, what if….?’ On that day, I changed ‘what if’ to ‘so what’. So, what if I lost every dime? When I realized that my family would always be there for me, my fears vanished. So, here is my last wish: sell the shop, take the money and find a new place where there is more room for living. Love, Dad.”

8 a.m., 6 months later:

Maggie woke Julie up: “Julie, why are there bulldozers outside?”

Julie smiled, “After I sold the shop, I hired a crew to build something special.”

A drawing revealed three interconnected homes. “This cabin is mine and you and Paul will have a new home built on each side of me.”

Summary: Shower your loved ones with kindness, for they will shelter you from the pain of living or dying alone. Cherish each moment, savor every breath, for only the living possess such rare gifts. If illness should strike you down, do not open the door to fear. For your spirit will spark a recovery or lift you up and release you into the sapphire light, so you can soar through the gilded gates of eternity.

(The content of this article is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for treatment by a professional. The characters in this story are not real. Names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.)

Dr. Richard Elghammer is a clinical psychologist in Danville and practices at the Elghammer Family Center. He received specialty training in child, adolescent and family psychology at Riley’s Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, and completed his clinical internship at Indiana University School of Medicine.

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