by Katarina Terzic Conrad, Ph.D.
What does it mean to be healthy?
I think that well-being and good health springs from a well of good mental and emotional states, as well as our physical condition and daily nourishment. But most importantly it springs from a good support system!
During one of my team’s basketball practice drills, the coach divided us into two groups. The first group of 10 girls had to play the role of human pillars, each located several feet from the other, lined up across the middle of the basketball court.
I was in the second group whose job was to zigzag between the “pillars” as fast as we could, each one trying to catch the runner in the front. I loved this game as I was fast as a bullet and no one could catch me, that is until that memorable moment from which I still carry the scars on my face.
The girl behind me whose job was to catch me was fast too, but not fast enough to catch me, at least not in fair play. As I zigzagged through the last two human pillars, I found my feet stuck as if cemented, and I could no longer take another step. The next thing I remember, I was falling down towards the floor with my head down and only my palms catching it just in time to tilt it to the side, hitting the floor with my left eyebrow!
The girl apparently dove at my feet, just as a volleyball player went after a ball, caught my legs, held them tight, and pulled me down. It was seconds later that there was a pool of blood over the floor, spilling down my neck and brand-new koala bear white t-shirt, given to me only a day before by an Australian couple.
Here’s how the story of the white koala bear shirt began...
The couple was knocking at our neighbor’s apartment door only a week earlier. When the neighbor did not answer, they waited for him to return. The neighbor was an uncle of this young woman who had flown all the way to Belgrade with her fiancé to surprise him.
My mom felt compassion for them and invited them in for dinner that afternoon. We did not have much: we lived in a small, broken down, moldy apartment with old wallpaper that was peeling off, exposing the mold on the walls. There were a wood stove and a small faucet with an old plastic sink that barely functioned. But the smell of homemade hot bread and warm stew that filled the air made all other signs of poverty dissipate.
The couple did not speak Serbian and we did not speak English. My brother, on the other hand, could converse, but he wasn’t there to be able to tell them that her uncle went on a vacation. Since this was during the era of dial-up phones, she had no way of leaving him a message.
For the next 5 days, the couple stayed with us, as we let them sleep in one room on the pull-out couch while we slept in the other room, some of us on the bed and some on the floor.
Each day during their stay, my brother and I would be their guides. Sharing with them the little gems of Belgrade, the bakeries, farmers market, small family restaurants, cafe shops, bookstores, museums, parks, churches, and other significant cultural spots.
We gathered every night around the small dining table, which was often converted several times throughout the day into a study table, or a kitchen countertop or an ironing board.
We even got to enjoy some beef shanks. They were prepared with roasted potatoes, cooked to a golden crust in the hot wood stove oven with the meat’s drippings to create that perfect flavor.
Fresh hot bread was served too, and Grandma’s ajvar and cheese was the perfect addition to it. And the best homemade wine was flowing out of the old barrel from my grandparents’ farm. Finally, my mom would bring this “out of this world,” and hot and fresh from the oven apple strudel, or baklava, or walnut crepes.
We were exchanging cultural experiences, gesturing and laughing more than talking, but truly enjoying each others’ company, despite the language barrier. The clearest language that was understood by all was the language of love and kindness.
On their last day, they were so sad to leave that they cried and returned for one more hug! The white koala shirt was a gift from this sweet, beautiful lady, and it symbolized not just a thoughtful gesture and my first encounter with foreigners, but how love and kindness have no cultural barriers, and how strangers can quickly be turned into friends.
So, it wasn’t my deep cut with gushing blood that I was concerned with in that moment, but my koala shirt! 10 stitches in the ER fixed my wound, but the emotional scars I carried from my bloody shirt and the mean-spirited intentions of my teammate took longer to heal.
Why am I telling about all this?
The signs of physical wounds are visible and we don’t hesitate to ask for help to fix them, but what about emotional wounds?
In this age of smart-phones, we have never been so plugged in, yet feeling so disconnected and lonely. In fact, a recent survey by AARP, shows that 1 in 3 adults over 44 years of age reported suffering from loneliness, a condition that carries similar health risks to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to former surgeon general Vivek Murthy.
And according to neuroscientist Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University, adults that feel socially isolated, have a 50% greater risk of dying from any cause within a given timeframe than those who feel socially connected. On the flip side, among people with cardiovascular diseases with good social ties had 2.5 times lower risk of dying within a fixed period than less socially connected people. Further, loneliness takes a physical toll on our cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune system.
We might feel like no one can understand what we are going through. We might feel sadness over a loss. We might feel hopeless or in denial over a gloomy diagnosis. Or, we may feel resentment from a disappointment and/or betrayal. We might harbor anger over an injustice done to us, or guilt over the past mistakes, shame over our bodies, or worry and anxiety over what is to come. We are hesitant to seek help.
It is so important for our well-being to surround ourselves with people who are supportive and encouraging. Someone who would cheer us on and believe in us even when we don’t quite believe in ourselves.
This can be one person or a dozen of them. And they don’t necessarily need to live close by, either. And sometimes, communication with them is infrequent. But, I’m comforted just knowing that I have a family like my brother and parents. I know that I could count on them for help when I am down, or even my childhood friends, who every time I see them feels like we never parted. In my home, my husband has been my supporter for over twenty years now, and my boys who believe in me and see me as their superhero. (My older son listed me as his #1 role model once on his middle school admittance essay. But not because of my martial arts skills, but because I was kind and I helped the women and children of Serbia.) Also, my KHR family, those nearby, and those far away. I still feel their love and support even miles apart.
So, I too want you to find your support system. Don’t wait until you are drowning to reach out for help. Don’t ignore your instincts or signs of depression. Identify people in your life who you can trust and take the chance of being vulnerable with them, pouring your heart out to them. Tell your story. Connect. And stay connected with family-or reach out if you feel disconnected. Join social groups with similar values to yours. Volunteer to a cause you are passionate about.
It might be hard at first, especially if you have been divorced or widowed, but the benefits such as joy, inspiration, energy, and even longevity, will outweigh any initial discomfort.
So reach out for help or lift up those around you. Your words are powerful motivators. But, sometimes just your presence can bring much comfort to a broken soul. And remember to stay connected by connecting!