Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, CSP, knows just how powerful a person’s story is. Known as “The Inspiration Nurse,” Cardillo is masterful at making the best of life’s curve balls.

For Cardillo, those insights came the hard way—through a grinding period of struggle in her own life that is the basis of her new book “Falling Together: How to Find Balance, Joy, and Meaningful Change When Your Life Seems to be Falling Apart.”

Cardillo recently spoke with Minority Nurse about how struggles can make you stronger and more compassionate, even when it seems like you’ll never get through it.

Q: How did the idea for “Falling Together” come about?

A: The idea originated a little over 20 years ago when my husband was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That was the same year I started my own business. I made the leap to self employment, and my husband was diagnosed with this devastating illness. We went through a very dark period in our lives, and it changed our lives dramatically. For 18 months we had a dark cloud hanging over us. We were shocked, stunned, confused, overwhelmed.

But after 18 months, I was looking out the window in the kitchen and realized that no matter what happened, the sun continues to rise and set. Life goes on. My family needed me and that was a turning point for me. It was like coming out of a thick fog. Even in our darkest moments, there is light at the end of the tunnel. You have to get through it and come out of it.

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Q: Did you know this topic would touch a nerve for people?

A: I met so many nurses who told me stories of their challenges. We are all faced with challenges, some of us have them bigger than others. For some, challenges become the focal point, even to the exclusion of everything else. Others navigate their way through it and make something better from it.

Big challenges tell you what’s important and what isn’t. Something devastating happens and you realize nothing else matters except the people you love and how you live your life. Some people let it devastate and consume them and others not only survive, but thrive.

Q: It must be pretty tough to sort it out when you are in the middle of it.

A: It’s hard to imagine that your darkest moments can be an opportunity for your greatest growth. This took me 20 years to be able to gain this perspective. I also needed to become a writer in the process. I had a lot of work to do and to articulate and to write that as well. My mother calls me a late bloomer. The universe has its own time schedule.

Q: Do you have to go through it to experience it and then let it settle?

A: To write about it all, there had to be some time that passed so I could look at it objectively. When you are a more substantial person in a sense. I am a different person today than I was 20 years ago. I am wiser and more compassionate with myself and other people. There’s a chapter in my book devoted to finding my voice. I didn’t have the confidence, communication skills, and the world experience then. I went through personal growth that brought me to a place to complete this book.

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Q: What are some of the biggest challenges nurses tell you about?

A: They are so diverse, but illness is a big one. If your spouse is chronically ill or your parents or when a child is sick, that’s big. Most nurses have to continue to work in spite of that. Divorce or relationships breaking apart, whether you are married or not, is devastating to many people, and especially if you are left as a single parent with financial challenges.

Q: What else did you hear about?

A: Nurses who find themselves challenged career wise. Maybe they are not happy, they don’t know what to do to get to the next step. A lack of self care is a big part of that. So many of us are constantly putting our energy out and not replenishing that energy.

Burnout is just constantly spending your physical and emotional energy. I learned this the hard way. I had the presence of mind to step back and start taking care of myself. Self care isn’t just about laying on a massage table with cucumber slices on your eyes. It’s routine maintenance for the mind, body, and spirit.

Q: You mention insecurity and self-doubt are big roadblocks for women especially.

A: That paralyzing fear and huge self-doubt that holds you back? Many of us feel that way. We feel like we don’t have anything to offer. Nurses who want to start their own business or make changes but often feel fear. If you feel fear, you are challenging yourself and on the right track. But you don’t have to make a big change. It’s making small steps out of that comfort zone rut you are in. If you’re not learning, you’re not growing. You don’t have to create a big plan. Just go online and look up three colleges or go to one meeting of a professional organization.

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Q: Real change can be small?

A: Start making small decisions and then you can make bigger decisions. You have to start somewhere – that’s the secret. I tell nurses to go get business cards made for themselves. People feel important when they have a business card. You can present it when you are out in the world. I want nurses to understand we are all sharing in the same human experience.

Everybody has a story to tell and has a challenge and has a weight they carry. Confidence and courage will come. I hope the book is an inspiration to take action. That’s huge to me. That’s the bottom line. People say to me, ‘Your experiences are so similar to mine.’ Sometimes we just need someone else to put it into words and give voice to our experience to shift us from the powerless to the empowered.

We encourage readers to leave questions for Donna Cardillo to answer. Do you have something you’d like to ask her about struggle, challenges, and growth?

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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